When the rockabilly quartet Rocky Velvet drives to gigs, they play “Name That Tune,” and guitarist Graham Tichy usually loses.
“I’m by far the worst at it,” he admitted on Sunday as the band drove across the Berkshires to a gig in Boston.
“I really only know songs from the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s,” said the 30-year-old Troy native. “I’m really a product of what my father forced upon me.”
His father is John Tichy, award-winning RPI professor of mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering and former guitarist, singer and songwriter with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the rollicking future-primitive 1960s and 1970s rock band. Graham Tichy’s growth from prodigy to prodigious began at home, and it includes playing with Cody himself, Wanda Jackson, Robert Gordon and other stars of his father’s vintage, as well as leading the virtuoso Rocky Velvet.
“There was lots of music everywhere [at home] and that’s the part I latched onto,” he said. “If I had decided I wanted to be an engineer, there was probably enough material there for that, too.”
He first picked up a guitar at age 10 — “a total piece of junk,” he laughs — and felt his parents were disappointed in his progress until his breakthrough during a summer-long family sojourn in France. “I had nothing to do, except I had an acoustic guitar and a book with all the Beatles songs,” he said.
By 11, he could play them all. “I’m a guitar player now because I got bored when I was a little kid,” he said.
John Tichy quit Commander Cody’s band in 1976 to begin teaching full time, but he still plays to this day and touring musicians have dropped in for years, becoming mentors to Graham.
“Johnny Rabb, Eddie Angel and Bill Kirchen [also a graduate of Commander Cody’s band], those were the first wave of musicians playing the style of music that I liked, that I got to see regularly,” said Graham. “Guitar players would stay at my parents’ house and show me licks as I was developing, and I could see what they were doing.”
The junior Tichy also studied with Mike Novakowski and later with Jim Wilson, up to age 18, and learned from records featuring 1950s session players such as Jimmy Bryant, Hank Garland and Greg Martin. “I like the stuff from the ’50s best, for sure,” he said, but he also respects such contemporary rockabilly bands as Big Sandy (who guested with Eddie Angel’s current band Los Straitjackets at Alive at Five last summer, opening for Los Lobos) and the Fly-Rite Boys, Deke Dickerson, Marti Brom, and High Noon. “Those bands are much, much better than the [rockabilly] bands in the ’70s and ’80s,” he maintained.
Graham developed his skills by following his taste, deep into the 1950s-style early rock dubbed rockabilly.
“No matter what kind of music I try to play, it just sounds like rockabilly,” he said; and it sounds so muscular and fresh that he has become both an in-demand sideman and a bandleader with a clear and compelling vision.
Graham and singer/guitarist Ian Carlton formed Rocky Velvet soon after both graduated from Doane Stuart (they also attended The College of Saint Rose), and they tried to remember what they earned for Rocky Velvet’s first paid gig. Graham guessed $17 before Carlton suggested they might have received another kind of payment.
“More than likely, it was beer,” Graham agreed, “because we were young enough that that was worth more than money.”
He said: “I think it was at QE2 [now the Fuzebox] with the Erotics and the Miserables, and the Erotics are still around.”
So are some of the rockabilly giants who inspired Graham, and some have hired him. “When I look at Wanda Jackson, that’s basically it, and for me it doesn’t get any bigger unless Elvis came back to life,” said Graham. “I put her in a very small group of the greatest rock ’n’ roll artists of all time, so playing with her was beyond exciting for me. I was star-struck for probably about the first 10 gigs, then I was able to calm down and hang out and have fun.” He said, “You can’t beat the band I’m playing in now. When I get a sideman gig, I always try to get them on it.”
Rocky Velvet started writing original songs when they formed in 1996, but concentrated on live shows loaded with rockabilly classics. “We didn’t record a Rocky Velvet CD until 10 years after we started,” Tichy said.
The CD, “It Came from Cropseyville,” has earned enough attention to enable them to play beyond their original orbit of local clubs.
Listeners no longer address Carlton, or anyone else in the band, as “Rocky.”
“As soon as it came out,” Tichy said, “we started planning the next one.”
While “Cropseyville” is half originals and half covers, the new one — they’ve recorded 10 songs already — will be all originals. Graham credited new bassist Jim Haggerty for the band’s expanding songwriting ambitions. “He’s a really accomplished songwriter, the primary songwriter in the band now, and he’s pushed everybody else to chime in with our stuff.”
Drummer Jeff Michael completes the lineup, and the band expects a busy summer, playing Seattle’s Shake the Shack Rockabilly Ball and hitting another festival in Springfield, Ill., in addition to a steady diet — 10-12 shows monthly — in local and regional clubs.
“We thrive in dimly lit rooms,” said Graham, noting that Rocky Velvet plays on Saturday at Tess’ Lark Tavern, with the compatibly 1950s-crazed Greyhounds from Poughkeepsie opening. “It’s our new favorite place to play and a great place to see the band,” he said. “It’s big enough to dance, it sounds great and the people get rocking.”
WHERE: Tess’ Lark Tavern (453 Madison Ave., Albany)
WHEN: 10 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $10
MORE INFO: 463-9779, www.larktavern.com, www.rockyvelvet.com, www.myspace.com/rockyvelvet
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Categories: Life and Arts