~Every week from the vaults… a vinyl rarity which crackles, grinds, moves, grooves, hurts, or just awfully tickles…
After a short break we continue our smasher series. This week we choose guitarist, vibraphonist and singer-songwriter James Charles (Chuck) Cuminale (1952-2001) aka Colorblind James. Not so much is known or has been written about James Cuminale, yet luckily enough there is an interview in 1988 in Sounds Magazine, in which James says:
“Colorblind James is a name I’ve used since 1975 when I was doing my solo coffee-house kind of thing. It’s a reference to Blind Willie McTell who’s probably my favourite songwriter of all time. As well as a nod in the direction of someone like Blind Lemon Jefferson. But it’s this white guy trying to do this sort of thing so it winds up being washed out. Instead of being blind, I’m just colourblind, which isn’t a whole lot of handicap.”
Cuminale’s first band is called the Whitecaps, formed in Oswego, New York State. It has very limited local success. In the early 1980s Chuck moves to San Francisco, where he assembles a new band, the Colorblind James Experience. When big success eludes them, Cuminale decides to return to New York: he settles in Rochester. With a partially new Experience backing band, he launches his own label (Earring Records) to release their debut album. “I’ve always dreamed of that little small-town orchestra sound,” says Cuminale. His music is an eccentric mixture of cocktail jazz, R&B, polka, hillbilly and singer-songwriting. “The sound of the working class ascending to heaven” according to himself.
The group has 1000 copies printed of their debut, of which 300 are sent to American and English media. One is picked up by the renowned DJ John Peel, who invites the band to come over in 1989 for a recording session in his BBC studio. The song “Considering a move to Memphis” becomes an underground hit in the UK. “We weren’t expecting a lot so it was surprising the way it happened. I think our music is pretty oddball.” Chuck, a big Elvis fan, narrates in a drooping voice his consideration to move to Memphis, over a groovy beat in a sort of Talking Heads mode: “I’m considering a move to Memphis, Memphis Tennessee. It worked for Elvis Presley. Why can’t it work for me.” His somewhat absurd and tongue in cheek approach and tragicomical lyrics do remind me a bit of another unique American singer-songwriter: Jonathan Richman! Both men know how to turn trivial daily scenes or thoughts into catchy tunes!
The newly found fame in the UK leads to several concerts in continental Europe, but a major breakthrough isn’t in the cards. Back in the USA Colorblind James continues to make records, in different line-ups and under different group names (a.o. Colorblind James & The Death Valley Boys): seven albums in total, to be precise. At the beginning of the 90s, Cuminale does actually move to Memphis, but he doesn’t succeed in getting a musical foothold in the cradle of R&R. Not much later Rochester becomes again his home base. He performs a lot locally, sometimes supported by guest artists, dedicating hours-long concerts and jams to Elvis and Bob Dylan. The repertoire of these R&R icons often gets a complete make-over in Colorblind James hands, providing his unique cocktailjazzbluesroots touch and flavour.
Tragedy strikes on July 10, 2001: Cuminale is hit by a fatal heart attack while sitting in his swimming pool. One of the good guys is gone: at least his priceless records are a small consolation. If you see them while crate digging, don’t hesitate, just buy them! Cool music!
From the 1989 Peel Session:
for more Colorblind James music surf to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2L80dbzVae4&list=PL0LQNjcm6AK_IKfICkJBaNvIjCQcDv9T4&index=8