July 13 2011 12:00 AM

Duke Tumatoe remains true to his bluesy roots


Born and raised on the south side of
Chicago, veteran bluesman Duke Tumatoe, picked up a guitar after hearing
blues legends like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon — 50 years later, he’s
still rocking.

When he’s not appearing on the Bob &
Tom radio show, Tumatoe is out playing live shows across the Midwest.
His style of electric blues, often filled with humor and funky riffs,
still mirrors his childhood heroes. 

“I take inspiration from a lot of the
stuff I grew up listening to: I grew on the south side of Chicago in the
’50s and ’60s — I was exposed to it as a kid,” Tumatoe said. “They
played it on the radio. It’s what we listened to. I got to hear some of
the best electric blues players in Chicago: Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon,
Howlin’ Wolf. I even played with Bo Diddley for a while.”

While Tumatoe does have some serious,
heartfelt tunes, he also has a vast catalog of witty blues numbers,
something he feels is embedded in blues culture. Even so, he’s also
quick to point out, “the music is always serious — the lyrics may not

“If you listen to old blues, like Willie
Dixon, one of the most prolific and successful blues writers ever, he
wrote 600 songs. Out of those, about 596 are humorous,” Tumatoe said.

“If I’m given a topic to write about and
it’s supposed to be clever, I can approach it that way. But I mostly
write what I think, what I hear, what I feel about things. But I do tend
to naturally do a lot of tongue-in-cheek writing.”

As for his personal style, Tumatoe said his licks tend to be a hybrid of genres, and are not necessarily “by the book.”

“I’m kind of a mix between blues and
jazz. That’s the way I play and approach the instrument,” he said. “It’s
not a science, it’s an art. Some of the greatest players, like Muddy
and Jimmy Reed, didn’t know jack about music. They knew what they heard,
but they didn’t know pentatonic scales, or any of that stuff. It’s all
about playing with your ear.” 

Now living in Indianapolis, Tumatoe
(a.k.a. Bill Fiorio) formed his first band, Jimbo & the Cutaways,
when he was a 14-year-old in 1961, and he never looked back. In January
1968 he joined the group that would later become REO Speedwagon. After
his blues-guitar style didn’t mesh well with REO, he left the band in
late 1969 and formed The All-Star Frogs, which has toured non-stop for
over a decade. 

Since 1983 he’s remained focused on Dr.
Duke Tumatoe & the Power Trio, his electric blues band that will
perform Thursday at Common Ground. In his long career, he’s opened shows
for guitar legends like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, George Thorogood and
John Fogerty. Fogerty even produced a live album for Tumatoe in 1988. 

Tumatoe said he’s always been drawn to
the blues — even back in 1964, when Beatlemania hit the United States.
Tumatoe’s desire to play music had nothing to do with the Fab Four.

“That’s the funny thing: A lot of guys
didn’t start playing until The Beatles came out,” Tumatoe recalled. “I
started playing before that — and found The Beatles kind of annoying.
It’s a different style, and I just never quite got them. They always
sounded like happy circus music, something for a trapeze artist, or

Perhaps that’s why his gig with REO
didn’t work out. Tumatoe said he was born to play the blues; anything
else just won’t cut it.

“When I was playing with them, we were
basically an R&B band — we had horns and everything,” he said. “We
did Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, that kind of stuff. When I left, I
knew the place they were headed was not for me. I knew I wasn’t hearing
stuff the way they were. They were great, hard-working guys; it was just
a bad musical mix.”

Out of his 12 risqué studio albums, his
latest, “I Just Want to Be Rich,” happens to be his most PG-rated album
to date, and one he is most proud of. 

“There’s no bad language or dirty talk,”
he said, with a laugh. “I was very surprised when I got to the end of it
and there wasn’t anything I was worried about playing in front of
children. It’s the first album I’ve made with nothing too suggestive on
it. I guess it was by accident.

"I just put together a collection of songs. I am really happy with the album. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done.”

Duke Tumatoe
Thursday, July 14
Common Ground Music Festival Pavilion Stage
Adado Riverfront Park, Lansing
Gates open at 5:30 p.m.
Single-day ticket $35;
available at Star Tickets outlets, or at the Common Ground office, 901 N. Washington Ave., Lansing
(800) 585-3737