Roomful of Blues

Rick Bellaire, one of the chief organizers of the new Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, had an early feel for the state's gifts to the national culture.

His grandfather talked of playing with Bobby Hackett before the guitar, trumpet, and cornet player took his place in the jazz pantheon. His father, a musician and record collector, never failed to point out that, say, jazz pianist Dave McKenna hailed from Woonsocket.

And Bellaire still remembers reading a story, in the Providence Journal, about Elvis Presley recording a song by Rhode Island musicians Peter Andreoli and Vincent Ponci, Jr. (known as Anders & Ponci).

"It gave me hope," says Bellaire, a guitarist and piano player who had dreams of breaking into the national music scene.

He never quite made it out of the state. But he's played in local rock and folk bands for decades, now, and collected some 10,000 albums along the way — more than a few of them from Rhode Island acts.

And he has never lost his appreciation for the music of the Biggest Little. The Hall of Fame is about Bellaire and his co-conspirators spreading that appreciation.

"We've produced a lot of big stars," he says, of the state. "But not many people make that connection."

The Hall of Fame's first class of inductees includes McKenna, John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, Roomful of Blues, Eileen Farrell, Oliver Shaw, and three acts inducted into an earlier iteration of the hall: Anders & Poncia, Ken Lyon, and Gerry Granahan.

The collection speaks to the sweep of the state's influence: from Cafferty and his up-tempo classic rock, which reached its zenith with the Eddie and the Cruisers soundtrack hit "On the Dark Side," to Roomful and its Grammy-nominated R&B, to Farrell, called "one of the finest American sopranos of the 20th century" by London's Daily Telegraph.

Farrell, who was born in Willimantic, Connecticut and moved to Woonsocket as a teenager, died in 2002, after a decades-long career that included performances with the Metropolitan Opera and record sales that made her one of the most prominent classical artists of all time.

But Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band and Roomful are still playing, and they will headline a show at the induction ceremony February 26 at the Met in Pawtucket. There will also be a tribute to McKenna, the jazz pianist, featuring his sister Jean O'Donnell.

The crowd will get a look at mock-ups of what will become permanent displays for each of the eight inductees in the hallways of Hope Artiste Village, a restored mill that houses the Met and a string of artists and entrepreneurs.

There is space for 70 permanent displays at Hope Artiste. But the Hall's organizers envision more than straight-up tributes to inductees. They'd also like to create exhibits on Rhode Island's music history.

Bellaire talks of photographing memorabilia. And eventually, he says, the Hall hopes to find storage space — at Hope Artiste or elsewhere — for the trove of records, posters, and the like now scattered in the private collections of Rhode Island music fans.

Bellaire says the Hall would also like to digitize large swaths of the state's musical oeuvre, much of it only available on vinyl and tape at the moment. And there are plans, in time, for an online Hall featuring the music and stories of inductees and a wider range of Rhode Island musicians.

The organization also hopes to get younger, contemporary artists involved in its project — part of an ambitious plan to become the central repository for a colorful and often-underappreciated musical heritage.

Related: As the Pro Jo turns, The Journal gets a facelift, Elvis Presley | Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Elvis Presley, John Cafferty, Bobby Hackett,  More more >
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