Sunderland blues musician Art Steele remembered as ‘a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration’

  • Art Steele, a blues guitarist and sound engineer well known in the Valley, died in a car accident Thursday.

  • Art Steele. Contributed image—

  • Sunderland musician Art Steele following a car accident on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.

  • Art Steele performing at a Pioneer Valley Musicians Emergency Fund event in 2012, months after he was in a serious car accident. Contributed image—PVME


For the Gazette
Thursday, January 19, 2017

SUNDERLAND — Blues guitarist and sound engineer Art Steele, a musical fixture around the Pioneer Valley for decades, died following a rollover accident Thursday morning.

Police officials don’t know what caused the accident, or why he died.

Steele, 65, was known for playing, without using a pick, a style of blues described by rock musician and former sound engineer John “Klondike” Koehler as “loose, gutsy, raw, authentic …. just real,” in venues like South Deerfield’s Hot L Warren and the Route 63 Roadhouse Bar & Grill in Montague. “He’d really dig into his guitar. It spoke his language.”

His bands included Art Steele Blues Band and Evening Pro Blusica.

“We kind of hit the Valley around the same time in the early ’70s and had a parallel track, doing sound in the Valley and beyond. He had limitless curiosity, skill and passion for a great sound, and served audiences worldwide, onstage and off,” said Koehler.

A major part of that sound work was as the house engineer for the a capella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock for nearly 40 years.

Koehler, who owned Greenfield-based Klondike Sound Co. until last August, recalled hiring him to handle one of the sound stages at one of his first major festivals, the Kool Newport Jazz Festival in New York, where Steele did sound for the Count Basie Band at the Roseland Ballroom.

Steele’s legacy

Guitarist Tom Filiault, who met Steele about 35 years ago through Northampton musician-promoter Ed Vadas and in 2008 sold his old house next door to him and jammed with him periodically over morning coffee, said Steele used his fingers to play “big grabber notes” in a Delta-blues, Chicago blues style.

“He had great pipes,” said Filiault of Steele’s singing. “He could hit the upper deck real easy, like a Freddie King story where he’s reach way up, ‘Oh, baby!’”

Steele could also be heard next door, “banging” his grand piano “like Jerry Lee Lewis” and singing the blues, said Filiault, who last hung out with his next-door neighbor about a month ago when Steele invited him to come check out the acoustic guitar amplifier he’d just built.

Steele, with his 1937 hollow-body Epiphone and Filiault, with his acoustic, plugged into the “little box with an 8-inch speaker, and it sounded huge,” he said. “He built the coolest stuff,” like the Technomad speakers he developed as part of the sound system used at Northampton’s Iron Horse.

Dave Robinson of Belchertown and formerly of Whately, who had played blues harmonica in a separate band at many of the same venues as Steele — like a blues festival at the Three County Fairgrounds — recalls Steele as “a really great guitar player with a wonderful voice. He was very friendly and enthusiastic, always looking to learn more and more about the blues and sound equipment.”

Steele’s death, he said, is “a sad shock to a lot of people.”

Penny Burke, executive director of the Northampton Center for the Arts, remembers Steele as a personal friend and colleague of more than 14 years who was instrumental in putting together Northampton’s First Night celebration for around two decades.

“There’s nothing about spending time with Art that isn’t joyful. It’s a big personal loss,” Burke said, adding that he was an “unbelievably talented blues guitarist.”

One anecdote Burke shared happened the first or second year of her involvement with the new year’s event.

As she explained, once, as she was hurrying down the sidewalk in the middle of organizing the event, Steele pulled up beside her and “he took a subway sandwich from his seat and threw it across the street, and I caught it.”

“Working with him was a gift. Who could ever have anything bad to say about Art,” Burke added.

“Besides being a good friend, Art has long supported my mission with Rock Voices in every possible way,” said Tony Lechner, who runs the community choir. “It’s hard to imagine what life will be like for all of us now that he is gone. He was a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration.”

Jim Armenti, Steele’s friend of 30 years and a fellow musician, said he’d sometimes fill in on guitar at one of Steele’s Evening Pro Blusica gigs at Sheehan’s, a “long gone, favored club downtown across from Downtown Sounds.”

“In order to replace Art for an evening, it was me and a pianist,” Armenti said. “Art covered a lot of ground.”

Under investigation

“He unfortunately passed away,” Sunderland Police Chief Erik Demetropoulos confirmed Friday morning, adding, “He was a great resident of the town; a lot of people spoke highly of him.”

Demetropoulos said it isn’t clear why Steele died.

On Thursday around 10:30 a.m., Steele was taken to the hospital following a rollover accident on Old Amherst Road. Demetropoulos said the van that Steele was driving was traveling about 20 mph toward North Main Street when it crossed lanes and went off the roadway, striking objects and shrubbery in front of an apartment building until it overturned.

Currently, investigators are trying to figure out why Steele died. In some accidents victims are stricken, which then causes them to lose control of a vehicle, but die of underlying medical causes. In other cases they die from injuries in the crash.

Following the crash, police shut down the road for a few hours to allow investigators a chance to work.

A local legend

According to a 1996 interview in Blueswire magazine, Steele’s very first guitar when he was 12 was a Montgomery Ward Jumbo Western flat Top Acoustic.

“I decided that I wanted it to be an electric so I went to the music store and put a pick-up on layaway,” he said. “The pick-up cost $32.50 and it took me an entire summer to pay for it.”

Steele, who began working with Sweet Honey in 1978 contributed a chapter to the group’s just released biography “We Who Believe In Freedom.”

Steele, who immersed himself in the blues in the 1960s after listening to Savoy Brown and John Mayall, following through to become enraptured with the music of Albert King and Earl Hooker.

“Playing guitar is as close as I get to religion, spiritualism, and magic,” Steele said in an interview on his website.

Steele spent two years as an archivist for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., recording seminars on blues music and hanging out with the likes of Memphis Slim and B.B. King. He also frequently performed pro-bono at the Amherst Survival Center.

In a 2004 Valley Advocate interview, Steele called the blues “a music of cracks. It really can’t be written down precisely. Someone has to show you or you have to listen to it. If you wrote it down and gave it to 25 people you’d get 25 different things. You’re working syncopated rhythms and fractions of beats and fractions of pitches, working in quarter-tones and less, and bending notes. What the music expects is that you’ll bring to it how you feel that day. It’ll be different every time, and you’re making a personal statement each time.”

He called the blues “a very virile form, adding, “Blues is metaphor. It’s metaphor, metaphor, metaphor, and a lot of times sexual innuendo. It uses all the functions of very articulate knowledge of the English language and application and then delivers it at Cruise missile rhythm. A lot of people complain that blues musicians mumble, but the diction is very advanced. The rhythms cause the words to break, and if you listen to what they’re doing, it’s not mumbling, it’s that the diction is dictated by the rhythm. … The poetry is extraordinary.”

Musicians Emergency Fund

In Summer 2012, local musicians rallied around Steele after he was involved in a bad car accident.

“Art’s accident was devastating to him physically,” T. James Hanaburgh, a close friend, said about that accident almost five years ago. “I’m not aware of all of the details, but he had a neck and spinal damage, and spent a while in the ICU. Over the last few years he recovered, or at least he acted like it. He not only re-learned guitar, but taught himself how to sing again. We couldn’t stop him from working and doing heavy lifting once he was back on his feet.”

In December of that same year, the Art Steele Musicians Emergency Fund was born – an organization that raises money to support musicians in need.

A few years later, the name was changed to the Pioneer Valley Musicians Emergency Fund.

Hanaburgh noted that the organization might put together a benefit concert or event in Steele’s honor.

“He wasn’t just a blues musician and a sound guy – he was an inventor – some would say, ‘mad scientist’ – a philosopher, a science fiction enthusiast, reading hundreds of books a year, a charitable man, a mechanical savant, and he was the kind of guy you’d want standing next to you if the world fell apart,” Hanaburgh said.

“Rest in power, rest in peace, and set up one more great gig in the sky for the other wizards and warriors we have lost before. Thank you, Art Steele. I love you, man.”