Rick “Mr. Rick” Zolkower, a musician who has made a career out of interpreting traditional Americana – folk music, bluegrass, blues, ragtime and bluesy gospel music – learned how to play harmonica and guitar at the feet of some of the musical icons of the 1960s.
At the Chessmate club in his native Detroit, Zolkower saw Dave Van Ronk, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Reverend Gary Davis, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Doc Watson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Although Zolkower, who was in his late teens at the time, spoke to many of the performers about how they played their instruments, he never approached Wolf, a giant of a man with a reputation for violence.
“Howlin’ Wolf, I was scared of. I never talked to Howlin’ Wolf, but it turned out he was actually one of the nicer guys of all of them,” Zolkower, who will be playing in Toronto at the Winterfolk Blues and Roots Festival, said.
Even as a preteen, Zolkower had been listening to traditional Americana – or old-time roots music – on his transistor radio late at night. “I could pick up radio stations from Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio, Indiana, all over the south of where we were in the States.”
Growing up in Detroit, Zolkower attended a high school where the majority of students were African-Americans, and their parents listened to blues and R&B. “It’s a trickle-down effect. You’re inside of a culture and you just start to hear what that culture provides, what kind of music. In Detroit it was not difficult to hear African-American music of all different kinds,” he said.
Zolkower’s first instrument was harmonica – a harp as it’s called in the blues world – and in 1968, he became the singer and harp player of a band that performed original blues.
For a while, Zolkower performed at open stages at the other side of town as a solo act. “I was too scared to play guitar and sing in front of people I knew,” he said.
He began playing guitar – Zolkower is a fingerstyle guitarist – after he bought a Martin D-28 acoustic guitar in 1969. “Fingerstyle guitar, you’re playing it like a piano in the sense that you’re supplying the rhythm and the melody,” he said. “Just strumming a guitar, you’re playing chords and rhythm. Fingerstyle guitar you’re playing chords, rhythm and melody.”
He began performing in Canada when he moved here in 1972, after getting involved in a romantic relationship with a Canadian woman. The relationship didn’t work out, but Zolkower’s been living and working here ever since.
Since then, he’s recorded his interpretations of old-time roots music on three albums: Cocktails and Cornbread and Whole Grain, with his band, Mr. Rick & the Biscuits, and Mr. Rick Sings About God and Booze.
The album Mr. Rick Sings About God and Booze includes the song “Liquor Store Blues,” which was recorded by Sleepy John Estes in 1938. “A lot of those old blues, they sound pathetically simple,” Zolkower said. “Then go try to do what that the artist has done, the part that you think is weak guitar playing, or it’s sloppy, go try to do it. Then you realize how tough some of this actually is, because you’re trying to copy someone who spent a lifetime doing what they do.”
Instead of attempting to copy other artists, Zolkower reimagines their recordings. “Very often the songs that I’m playing, I’ve heard that song from two, three, up to five different people. I’m usually combining two to three elements from other artists that I blend together,” he said. “I have songs where the guitar playing is actually from one artist and then the melody and the feel of the song is from a different person and I kind of mix it together.”
Zolkower is performing in Toronto at the Winterfolk Blues and Roots Festival, Feb. 21 to 23. Visit winterfolk.com.