Bricks & Murals kicks off with a panel discussion, starring Roomful of Blues’ Al Copley

Bricks & Murals kicks off with a panel discussion, starring Roomful of Blues’ Al Copley


WESTERLY — Audience members who showed up to listen to “Arts Town: A History of the Arts in Westerly” Wednesday night at the United Theatre — the panel discussion that was serving as the official kick-off for the five-day Bricks and Murals festival taking place throughout Westerly-Pawcatuck this weekend — got a surprise visit from a local legend and a true taste of the blues.

Al Copley, the legendary co-founder of Roomful of Blues, who has played his unique brand of soulful blues-jazz piano around the world, stepped up on the stage to the delight of the panel and the people sitting before him, and talked about the early days at the Knickerbocker Café, the importance of arts education for children, the blues, the rich history of Westerly’s music traditions, and most of all, the transformative power of the arts.

Playing piano and learning about the blues, he told the captivated crowd, helped him through the rough patches of adolescence. Forming Roomful and playing music with Duke Robillard and Franny Christina was just what he needed to get him through.

The blues taught him that sadness and heartache was part of life, he said, and “no matter how bad your life seems,” you could sing about it.

“We used to play at a place called The George in Misquamicut,” he said, “and sometimes at the COMO in Stonington. They let the younger kids play then.”

“We were a funny band,” said Copley, whose words and presence filled the room.

When Roomful first started playing their blend of boogie-woogie, blues and swing, people didn’t know what to think, he said. Generally, they weren’t too keen on the music.

The Westerly High Schoolers would practice in Franny Christina’s mother’s house, or the Copleys’ basement on Browning Road, and play wherever they could. For a while they traveled to the coffeehouses of New London. People would ask them why they wouldn’t play the popular music of the day.

“Then Greg Piccolo found us at this place on Railroad Avenue,” Copley recalled, and “suddenly, out of the blue,” things changed.

People could dance at the Knickerbocker Cafe, he said, and it could hold a lot of people.

The first week they played, they charged a dollar admission and they got 300 people. The next week they charged $3 and got 500.

They were off and running. Before long they were bringing blues legends like Big Joe Turner, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and Stevie Ray Vaughan to play at the club.

“We followed our own hearts,” he said. “We were true to ourselves and we came out of Westerly.”

Copley, who paid homage to his piano teacher, Florence Soloveitzik, said he knew early on what his instrument would be.

“A piano looked at me and she winked,” he said.

Copley spoke after Mark Connolly, the executive director for the Knickerbocker Music Center, shared the story of the Vitterito brothers — Paul and Albert — who changed their ice cream parlor into a music club soon after the end of Prohibition.

Connolly was a member of the panel, which included speakers from six Westerly-based arts organizations who spoke about their organizations and the past, present and future of the arts in Westerly.

The Westerly Regional Arts Partnership-sponsored event opened with remarks from board member Elissa Englund and included remarks from Dan Marantz and Laurie Gavitt from The Artists’ Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, Ryan Saunders from the Chorus of Westerly, David Jepson from the Granite Theatre, Tony Nunes from the United Theatre, and Bill Lancelotta from the Westerly Library and Wilcox Park.

* Editor’s note: this story was updated to replace the name of Leon Russell with that of Stevie Ray Vaughan. While Russell played at the Knickerbocker Cafe, it was in recent years. Vaughan was the musician who joined Roomful on stage in the early days.

Five things to know from “Arts Town: A History of the Arts in Westerly.”

1. The Knickerbocker Café was named after the express train that whistled through Westerly between Boston and New York

2. The original drawings for the Bricks and Murals murals are on display at the Artist’s Cooperative Gallery of Westerly.

3. More than 2,400 children have sung with the Chorus of Westerly since its founding.

4. Helen Humes,who took over for Billie Holiday when Holliday left the Basie Band once played at the Knick.

5. Both Mario Lanza and Sammy Davis, Jr. performed in the United Theatre.

*Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the correct last name of Helen Humes, the artist who eventually replaced Billie Holiday in the Basie band and who once played at the Knick with Roomful.

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