Frank Fotusky and Chuck Lambert at Lizzie Rose

By J.D. WATSON | Aug 21, 2019
Photo by: Susan Watson

Tuckerton — The full moon was on the rise, peeking in and out between the Victorian peaks of the Lizzie Rose Music Room in Tuckerton on an unseasonably cool night last Thursday. Clouds scudded across the sky, lending to the feeling that something was about to go down as dozens of music fans grabbed their seats for what they hoped would be a memorable evening.

Chuck Lambert, a blues guitar player and singer from Plainfield who’s been called the “Dean of the Jersey Shore Blues Scene,” settled into his chair on stage, gave a sly, knowing smile and said, “Yeah, we’re gonna play some blues.”

Lambert was appearing with Frank Fotusky, another blues player and singer, originally from Toms River but who now calls Portland, Maine, home. The two have known each other for years and have sat in on each other’s sets from time to time when they’ve appeared on the same bills. But they had never been able to play an extended set together, as they planned to do Thursday in an evening billed as “Alone and Together.”

Anyone who thinks the blues is just about being sad has never been to a blues joint where the music is hot and the joint is jumping. And they certainly weren’t at Lizzie Rose that night. There were songs of despair, jealousy, betrayal, longing, loss and redemption. And sex. Blues pioneers in the early 20th century were singing about rocking and rolling before Alan Freed ever thought about “Rock ’n’ Roll.”

Lambert’s musical selections reflected his uniquely varied career, ranging from early blues standards such as Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” to Motown with Holland/Dozier/Holland’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You). His style has been described as “not Delta or Piedmont or Texas or Chicago or Southern Swamp or NOLA funk or Jazz but maybe all of them put together.”

Lambert, whose career has spanned over 50 years, was first introduced to the guitar by an uncle. “There’s a picture of me when I was 3 years old, sitting on his knee, playing a ukulele,” he recalled with a grin.

His first professional gig was when he was 16, “playing in a bar I was not supposed to be in.” Since then, he has played constantly, fronting his own electric blues band, appearing with such blues luminaries as John Lee Hooker, J.B. Hutto and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. A career highlight was meeting and playing with B.B. King. “I’ve been to Canada, the Caribbean, out West, Puerto Rico.”

But Thursday’ gig in Tuckerton left him a little out of sorts. “I’m like a fish out of water,” he admitted. Fronting a band allows for lots of freedom on a musician’s part; playing solo on an acoustic guitar is a different dynamic.

Playing a gig like this “makes me focus on the song, singing the song. It’s not just about cutting a lick” and hiding behind the rest of the band, Lambert said. “Doing it acoustically is more organic, more intimate. People can hear the mistakes. I never said I’d be a maestro virtuoso.”

But even as he belittled his guitar tuning later in the evening with a thrown-off “Good enough for the blues,” both men displayed serious musicianship that comes only with decades of honing their craft. At one point during the evening, Lambert said, “I’ve been playing for about a million years. And I’m still learning.” He could have been speaking for both of them.

Fotusky described his friend as “He’s just ‘Chuck.’ His presence, his persona; he’s a genuine, giving person.”

On stage, Lambert recalled the recent passing of another friend. “In June, my guitar teacher and producer passed away. He was more than that – he was a friend. I think of him every time I play this song,” as he launched in to a beautiful version of “God Bless the Child.”

After the song, Lambert asked “Anybody here under 18? ’Cause this one is really blue. I was touring in Montreal with the Pappy Johns Band. They wrote this song. It’s got nothing to do with me, I’m just playing it,” he said with a laugh as he played “Meat on the Bone,” a song about the glories of curvaceous women (see the earlier comment about rock ’n’ roll).

Earlier in the evening, Lambert had referenced his method of playing. “I don’t know what style I play, and frankly, I don’t give a damn,” and his next selection reflected the mixed genres that Lambert, and the blues in general, combine.

“We’ve all had some hard times in our lives, I guess why they call these the blues,” he said as he began “Hard Times (Nobody Knows Better than I),” a song that combines blues, gospel and jazz like few others could better than its author, Ray Charles.

After a short break, Fotusky took the stage. Fotusky plays what is known as the Piedmont style blues, a highly syncopated style of fingerpicking that is often compared to ragtime piano playing. Early practitioners included players such as Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell.

Lambert lauded his friend. “His style is special. Guys don’t do what he does anymore. I know guys play acoustic, but not like Frank. He’s definitely carrying on a tradition.”

Fotusky is appreciative of the recognition but has never wanted to be considered as a museum piece or a novelty act. But the style is what has always spoken to him. Even his guitar case, painted by his sister Peggy, who is a scenic artist, features a famous combative sailor with a paraphrased “I play what I play and that’s all that I play.”

Fotusky started the evening playing his custom made Fraulini 12 string. “This is a Blind Willie McTell song. I’d like to think of it as a love song,” he said as he began “Coolin’ Board Blues.” We certainly weren’t in “Moon, June, Spoon” territory.

Undertaker, Undertaker please drive slow
Taking the woman I love ain’t gonna bring her back no more
Don’t a man feel bad when his baby’s on a cooling board
Don’t a man feel weary when that hearse drives up to his door

After that, he switched to his old standby Gibson J-45, a workhorse of acoustic blues musicians (indeed, Lambert would switch from his Taylor to his own J-45 when he joined Fotusky later in the evening).

About returning to New Jersey, Fotusky joked, “I get gigs easier now that I don’t live here,” to which some wag in the audience replied, “Now you’re exotic.”

He then launched into “Franklynn Mint,” an original instrumental with Fotusky’s left leg keeping a steady beat. After that, when someone requested “Hesitation Blues,” Fotusky replied, “I don’t do it too much anymore, but I’ll play it for ya.” “Hesitation Blues” is a traditional song with lyrics that come and go, and Fotusky filled much of the song with lyrics that veered to the risque (again, see that earlier comment).

Fotusky then switched gears with another original instrumental, the tender “39 9th St.” “That was my grandmother’s address. She was in vaudeville, in the Helen Hayes Troupe. And she played the piano. And she instilled a love of music in me. But she was equidistant for all us grandkids, so she was always the hub. And the piano was the hub in her house. I tried to learn the piano, but it was too logical for me, I guess. But I always liked that piano sound. And I shared a room with my brother, and he started exposing me to these guitar players, this fingerpicking. So this goes back to all that. I was trying to write those sounds.”

After that, Fotusky said, “I’ll do one more and then get Chuck up here and we’ll step on the gas and go.”

Before the show, Lambert said the two have known each other for years, but it would be a rare opportunity to play together. Now that Fotusky lives in Maine, it’s even more of a rarity. He said when Fotusky is in town, he’ll sometimes go and catch his act, sometimes sitting in for a song or two. But the desire to play together had always been there.

He described a trip he and Fotusky had taken years ago. “In 2013, we went to Memphis together. We’ve had a closer relationship since then.” And when Fotusky started planning the gig at Lizzie Rose, he called Lambert to share the bill with him.

“I talked to Lou (Reichert, the Lizzie Rose music coordinator) earlier in the year as things were unfolding.” Fotusky said. “I’m happy to be down here,” Lambert said.

As the two started playing together, it was clear something special was happening. One would start a riff and the other would be quick to join in. Fotusky would say, “It’s a Robert Johnson tune in E.” Lambert would take a moment to orient himself on the fretboard and join right in.

And as the song would end, Fotusky would say with a satisfied grin, “All right, your turn.”

The two would trade on and off like that for the better part of an hour, a master class in improvisation, each taking the lead on a song, then supporting the other.

At one point, Lambert introduced a song by saying, “I just learned this one,” to which Fotusky replied, “That’s OK, I’m just learning it, too.”

And back and forth they went, two masters doing what they do best, pulling out all their tricks in a spirited game of one-upmanship – harmonics, octaves, bent notes, hammer-ons and pull-offs, with a sufficient amount of showmanship.

And after each song, a knowing smile. “Oh, it’s gonna be like that, is it?” Fotusky asked, ready for the challenge.

Or Lambert introducing a song “To my ex, wherever she is.” Or his decrying, “I’m gonna throw him a curveball.” But each time, the players would end each song with a satisfied smile. As would the audience.

Fotusky later described the night as “a solo set each and one together. No rehearsals. Chuck and I just conversed with our guitars, and the conversation got pretty deep.”

At the end of the night, the two players went their separate ways, Lambert to lead his band playing small bars up and down the coast and hosting a weekly blues jam in South Amboy, Fotusky to before and after parties Friday night in support of the David Bromberg Quintet and Hot Tuna in Asbury Park before returning to Maine. One can only hope the paths of these two stellar players cross again sometime soon.

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