Dean Zucchero

It’s funny how things came about. Post World War II families raised their children in the burrows of New York, eventually seeking a better life in the suburbs. Their children, however, would eventually come of age seeking the artful bohemia of cities like Manhattan. In the 1980’s, the East Village became a creative epicenter where people like bassist Dean Zucchero would cut his teeth. The industry was thriving back then with hundreds of clubs for bands like his. Notable destinations for live music included The Bitter End, The Cat Club, and later on, The Mercury Lounge. These clubs were on and near Bleecker Street, a two-mile stretch filled with live music venues connecting the East and West Villages. Dean’s band, Anastazia (later, Major Domo), was gunning for success back then. Each member would spend hours a week crafting and distributing mailers and fliers by hand, cultivating a following.

For a relatively unknown, original band in a sea of the same, some venues weren’t an option. But after landing a manager who was connected, they were able to play the famed CBGB’s in the East Village. Even with a high postured manager, this was no easy feat according to Dean. Monday auditions amongst ten other bands were a challenge and the owner was particular. Times like these seemed to always hold success just around the corner. Dean recalled one such occurrence, “The President of MCA flew in from L.A. to see us because his A&R guy said ‘you gotta see this band’. And then, as the night progressed, his partner got drunk and passed out at the table. So, he left early. And then when our manager got in touch with him the next day and said ‘what did you think’? He goes, ‘eh, I liked them but it wasn’t that great’. And he passed on the band.” But they kept trying, eventually finding an indie label that would sign them and invest a considerable amount of money. With this, the band could afford tri-state and east coast tours. It was fun while it lasted. But tight sets with four-part harmonies and a history nearly a decade long wasn’t enough to keep them together.

At this point Dean began to question why he was in this. Was it for the money and the fame? Sure. Was it for the women? Sometimes. But of himself, a man now in his early 30s wanted to know what aspect of being a musician truly interested him. He wanted to know how to pursue that. So, for the immediate future he would take a step back from writing and recording trying simply to be a working bassist. In this, Dean would find happiness, humility, and a better sense of the word “success”. A departure from living a transient lifestyle and constantly contending for attention brought him comfort. And a lineage that included some of the more prominent clubs in New York brought him an abundance of gigs.

Prior to all of this, before he ever picked up a guitar, Dean fantasized about being a musician. He wanted this before he ever knew what it meant to be such. So, finding a glimmer of direction in this transitional moment was serendipitous. It could have been on account of his brother exposing him to his record collection. It contained such influential albums as Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy”, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, or Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”. He will affirm that his brother’s album “Who’s Next”, by The Who, is still his second favorite album of all time. He was a kid that wanted to rock. And he managed to do this at a level that most of us dream of. But The Beatles and Elton John, from his parents record collection, seeded in him a long-since unaddressed love for the blues. Now that Major Domo was no more, the urge to pursue this further resurfaced. His tastes were as a painter’s palette. And his shade of blues came more from Jimi Hendrix than, say, Muddy Waters. He dissected this succinctly by saying, “I think for blues, I don’t like hybrid music so much. I like blues-rock. I like blues in any music. But I don’t like jazzy rock. But I love blues-rock. And I love jazz. I love jazz infused with blues, but not really blues infused with jazz. So, I think blues is always a good ingredient to use in any style of music. It adds some color to it.” This statement stuck with me after the interview. You may need to read it a few times to get the gist. But being in the room with him at that moment, hearing him explain this, it made perfect sense. 

After some time assuming his role as a working bassist around town, he landed a high-profile gig. Suddenly, stages in small blues bars were traded for crowd-front platforms with tens-of-thousands of eyes and ears looking on. And local real estate was dispensed with for all of Europe. Sadly, this was to become a breath of fresh air that would soon sour. He found that he did not care for the person he worked under. As this became more apparent, a relationship in his personal life floundered simultaneously. These once intoxicating potions had become too much for Dean. And we’ve all felt that moment when we start to realize that we have imbibed too much. Our immediate reaction is to begin brainstorming as to how to make our exit. Our brains struggling to reason through the fog of disenchantment. The situation bore feint similarities, in part, to what became disheartening with Major Domo. Only, this time the road was thousands of miles away from home.

He resolved to leave it all behind, returning home and once again shifting focus. He went back to NYU to pursue a career in entertainment law, taking a job at a law firm. His hope was that he could get into NYU law school. But the radical lifestyle change rubbed him the wrong way. Dean recalls, “I was playing while I was in school. But when I got the job at the law firm, I wasn’t playing so much. I was pretty busy and you’d have to work late hours. You had to be on call all the time. So, I said I’m going to put that (performing) aside for a little while.  And then, slowly but surely after about eight months to a year, I started peeking in at some of the jams, seeing my friends playing. I started showing up with my bass. I just kinda got back into it. And then I just decided that’s it, I’m a lifer.” This was not at all time wasted. Through these times he was able to gain useful knowledge of the entertainment industry, as well as find his voice due to the demanding requirements of writing. It might seem hard to believe, but some of this writing he viewed in a creative light. In any argument, you must choose a perspective, then paint a picture to which your audience will be compelled to relate.

Returning to playing locally once again furnished Dean with that sense of familiarity and comfort. He placed much of the ill-fitting experiences in Europe on touring in general, dismissing the singular causations of an at-odds band leader and/or a withering love interest. Both of which are the very definition of resolve. While this might have spelled relief in some ways, restlessness would soon creep in. In 2004, while on break one evening from a gig, he ran into an old guitar player friend on Bleecker Street. The guy mentioned that he was about to go on the road with another musician. Piquing his interest, Dean told the friend to relay the message that if a bassist was needed, he would be interested. The next morning, the phone rang and it was his friend asking if he would be interested in going to Shanghai. Dean responded with “gimmie one hour”, and he was off across the water once again. He played in a band out there for three months, and Zurich, Switzerland would follow. He would spend roughly four years playing out there, even bringing Thomas Bucknasty over, whom he played with during his time in The Healers back in New York.

Dean then travelled to and lived in Italy for the next three years. The bands he played in during those times included one formed by American ex-patriots and a couple of European jazz bands. Dean cited a point of interest here which was, in all of Europe, the atmosphere differed in that people attended to see a show. He said this to illustrate that patrons would sit and pay attention. There was no background chatter or distraction. His success was, in part, due to his ability to deliver authentic American blues. He ultimately landed a gig with pop-jazz band Sugarpie and the Candy Men, playing with them for some time. The plan was to return to the U.S., finish recording their album, then go back to Europe for their tour. But as the album was completed, the tour began to fall through. By now, he’d spent so much time abroad that he no longer had a residence in New York. So, after three months of living in his brother’s basement, he decided to come down to New Orleans and see what it was all about. And this is how we have been honored with his talent and presence.

He’s seen Europe again since then, touring with Ghalia Volt and Mama’s Boys, as well as Cyril Neville. He’s played Jazz Fest with Cyril four times and went on tour to Africa with him. He even touched down in Australia with guitarist Sean Riley playing and touring. Back in ’89, Dean came to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. One of the records he purchased while in town was Uptown Rulers: The Meters Live on the Queen Mary. Imagine a world where, two decades later, he’s playing on stage at the Jazz Fest with Cyril Neville. This guy just hasn’t stopped. While acting as program director, promoter and house bassist at Bratz Y’all in the Bywater, he’s released an album, “Electric Church for the Spiritually Misguided”. He also produced, co-wrote, and performed on several tracks for Ghalia Volt. These works have landed him on the Billboard Blues Charts several times over. He released his album on his new label, Pugnacious Records. He then acted as producer and bassist to Sean Riley & the Water’s “Stone Cold Hands”, which also debuted on the Billboard Blues Charts. We went on to speak about his producing techniques and the musicians he has worked with since residing in New Orleans. My time with him was insightful and candid. So, I do hope you tune into the podcast to hear what it was like to walk in his shoes across continents. Famed bass player Charlie Haden once said, “The bass, no matter what kind of music you’re playing, it just enhances the sound and makes everything sound more beautiful and full.” Without a doubt, for the lives of so many around the world, Dean Zucchero has done just that.

Author: David Trahan