Italian Blood In American Fingers

by Massimo D'Angelo

Every human being is a world unto themselves. And each has their own destiny. The destiny of Chuck Morrongiello (Brooklyn, New York, 19/ 05/ 1960) was, and is, tied to the six strings. A third generation Italian-American, his family roots are in Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, a village in southern Italy now sadly famous for having been almost completely destroyed by the earthquake that struck Irpinia one fateful afternoon of the 23rd November 1980.  

was 20 years old back then and already a professional guitarist playing five gigs a week with Strange Brew. That continued for four or five years until his body shook like the earthquake, from the epicentre of his soul out to his fingertips: in a period when everyone was crazy for heavy metal, he chose the elegant jazz of the Gypsy great Django Reinhardt. That's the reason they called him ‘Little Django’ at the Five Towns College music school on Long Island where he hung out.

But the blood of an Italian from the south always pulls towards the south, so the trip from Long Island, New York to Tampa, Florida was almost inevitable. With plenty of discs in his suitcase, naturally, ranging from classics of jazz to the guitarists who set the standard in the '70s and '80s, along with a ’77 BC Rich and a great desire to play. The same desire keeps him young (on the verge of turning 56, he appears much younger and we suspect there is a portrait locked away in some recording studio growing older instead, just like in Oscar Wilde's famous novel) and his ideas clear: the guitar has to go back to being that voice singing in every piece it is heard. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about a rap or one of the pop songs so popular on the Billboard charts.

understands the guitar today as it was understood before: it's no coincidence that Marty Balin, founder of the iconic '60s group Jefferson Airplane, would want to enlist his services from the moment he listened to a demo of his almost by accident in 2010.

That is how we discovered Chuck, by listening to his magnificent guitar work on The Greatest Love, Balin's latest recording. It is a surprising album, with a foundation provided by the impeccable acoustic bass of Lloyd Goldstein that allows Marty's seasoned voice to dance over the six strings of Chuck ‘Little Django’ Morrongiello, with no need to resort to drums, effects, or any extraneous nonsense.

We had the opportunity and pleasure of talking with Chuck for over an hour and with an ocean between us. We're ready for another conversation soon, this time with guitar in hand and a bottle of fine Italian limoncello to share between us.

Who is Chuck Morrongiello?
I was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1960, and moved to Long Island. I’m third generation American-Italian. Everything started in the Long Island scene, back in the late 70s, where it all started happening with classic rock music, listening to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and a whole plethora of top players. I was lucky enough to play in a group that grew really popular; the band was called Strange Brew.
I was intrigued by the guitar, I loved it. I started on one at the age of 15, repeating song after song every night as we played in clubs all over NY City and Long Island. It was pretty intense but I wanted to get better and play jazz. So my parents sent me to a school, a guitar institute in Long Island called Five Towns College. So I started getting involved with guys like Wes Montgomery, Charlie Byrd, Joe Pass, and I began listening to the history of these great guitar players. This in turn led to this one guitarist whose name was Django Reinhardt. I was very intrigued by Django’s playing and I could feel him, just literally feel him.
Around that time I was working my way up at this school to become one of the best guitar players there, and because I was so very into Django they gave me the moniker, ‘Little Django’.  

What’s your best memory from that period?
I went to Carnegie Hall in Manhattan where they were staging a tribute event for Django and here I got the chance to meet Stéphane Grappelli. At that time he was playing with a little gipsy kid called Biréli Lagrène. I was just blown away by this young 15 year old kid. This guy is amazing, a truly great guitar player. A few weeks later I was back in the city. There was a concert being held with Joe Pass and I spotted this young gipsy kid, Biréli Lagrène, in a corner smoking a cigarette. So I walked up to  him to introduce myself and he was cool and sat down and I asked him to do me a favour and come back with me to my school in Long Island and play for all these heavy metal guitar players and ‘rock-wannabees’. So, he came over to my school and played in a classroom with 60 guitarists…and no one could believe it. When he played his acoustic guitar you could only close your eyes and you would literally think it was Django Reinhardt.  

How did you end up in Florida?
This was 30 years ago. I started to get involved with the acoustic guitar, I really liked it. I planned that time to move to Tampa, Florida, so I moved there, always playing acoustic guitar and jamming. I couldn’t really find the right music scene down in Florida, there was something going on with the music scene that I couldn’t get into. They liked me but I couldn’t find myself and play what I knew from Long Island and New York and from being with my band…  

How does it start your relation with Marty Balin?
Back in 2010 I was shopping in a grocery store called Publix when I ran into Marty Balin, who was also there. I approached him and we got talking. I said to him, “you are one of my all-time heroes, you’re the one who started rock and roll in San Francisco!” I told him I was a guitar player and he asked me to send him a demo. To cut a long story short, I started playing with him over the next 5 or 6 years during which time the band underwent all sorts of changes, cutting its members down from 15 to 10 and then to 7. And then we said…why don’t we just do this ‘acoustic thing’? I had the good fortune to meet a great bass player, Lloyd Goldstein. And that’s when it all started with the trio: I started playing guitar with Marty, we started writing new songs, and started bringing back old iconic songs from Jefferson Airplane, we redid all Marty’s famous themes. We did it our own way.  

In ‘The Greatest Love’ album we can listen to different styles of guitar playing, from the delicate and harmonic ‘Always’ to the hardest ‘Stripper’. Where do you feel more comfortable, in acoustic or electric soloing?
Stripper is about being in a club, watching girls dancing and that feel, that song, had to be dirty, had to be nasty. I played the track down with acoustic first, but then came back with the electric guitar.  

Do you feel more an electric or acoustic guitar player?
I’m more of an electric guitar player but I’ve been playing acoustic guitar since I was fifteen. They are both very important to me. I always ride on the acoustic guitar: it comes to Always, to Scheherazade or The Greatest Love…I feel like The Greatest Love should be more of a Spanish kind of thing but if you go to Crazy Over You, I’m playing the slide guitar on it, to make it scream, because Marty is crying ‘I’m crazy for you, crazy for you’ so the guitar should be screaming back at him, it’s a voice. I spent hundreds of hours on that album, trying to get different sounds.  

Do you think lead guitar playing is coming back in fashion or that anyone can play guitar in the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll circle’?
My friends and I always talked about how far the music scene has come since I first started out as a kid, especially for guitarists. The guitar isn’t a voice anymore, you won’t really hear it. I think a killer guitar solo, a killer break, meaning a guitar coming out, in a rap would make a song sound so much better. Katy Perry or any of the other female pop artists in America, they use a guitar player, you can hear it, but it’s not like what we grew up with, where it was a lead instrument. I know what I could do to their songs if they gave me half a chance to put my guitar playing on these rap songs or some of these Katy Perry songs or Beyoncé or whatever. I think there should be some really cool guitar playing on that stuff and sometimes it really isn’t up to scratch. So, the guitar seems to be in the mix…but not with the voice I think it should have.  

So, there are a lot of ‘impostors’ on the stage…
I think everybody wants to be like Eddie Van Halen
I like the old rock guitar, Rick Darringer, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Robin Trower, Hendrix… The shredding stuff, the real ‘lightning fast’, mechanical stuff…it doesn’t impress me because there is no feel. I think it’s all about feel, like…Slash. I think Slash is a great guitarist. I’m more in the late 70s, early 80s rock genre but I have a feel of the 60s, because I’m playing with Marty! And I love Jorma Kaukonen, he is great. We made shows with Hot Tuna.  

Talking about your gear, how many guitars do you have and which one’s your favourite?
I have probably between 15 and 20 different guitars. I’m always playing my BC Rich Mockingbird from 1977. I like that guitar because it has the frets you can’t get from a Les Paul or a Stratocaster. But on the album I used a lot of the Stratocaster, my 1970 Les Paul Custom, my custom-made Martin guitar, my BC Rich.  

What’s your dream guitar?
It would have to be one of those vintage guitars. Probably a Les Paul sunburst…one of the original Les Paul makes. Just to feel the first prototype and its sound plugged into an amp and record with it on a song, which would be great, to hear how it sounds. I like the old, vintage guitars…the new ones don’t really excite me.  

Your house is burning down, which guitar would you save from the flames?
I’d try to run in and grab the lot! Probably the Martin guitar: it was custom made by Martin…the guy that made my guitar, he made 10 for Eric Clapton. It’s a great instrument, one-of-a-kind. …And the BC Rich has a lot of memories since I was seventeen. My first guitar was a brand new Les Paul sunburst my father bought me in Manny’s Store in Manhattan, but it wouldn’t stay in tune, especially for the way I was playing it. So I traded it in for the BC Rich. I had seen a band called Zebra where a guy was playing it. I saw him playing and it would never be out of tune… Joe Perry and Rick Darringer used to play that guitar when they first came over. I’ve been playing it since 1977/78, it’s one of the first ever made. Berny Rico (Bernardo Chavez Rico, BC Rich founder) probably made it for me. It’s a great guitar, very versatile, it screams through the Marshall or Blackstone amplifier.  

Talking about pedals, effects, technology, and distortion…what’s your secret?
I don’t really like using distortion boxes to cover and mask the originality of that piece of wood that makes the guitar. So I just plug it into the amp and try to work with the amp to get the great sound I’m looking for. I do like to use a chorus, it has to be tasty. I use wah-wah and tremolo and a little delay but mainly I just plug in and play: I love all that gritty originality coming out the amplifier.  

Let’s play a game…5 names, 5 different guitarists. Tell us what you think about them: Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban…
Steve Vai is from my hometown. He used to come and watch me playing before he was famous. I like Steve Vai. I like Joe Bonamassa too, I listen to him a lot. He’s always on Facebook. His influences are the same as mine. I watched him on a Crossroads with Eric Clapton. I like his playing. John Mayer is more of a singer. When he first came on the scene he was more of a guitar player then he is now…playing with Grateful Dead and stuff like that. He’s cool but not one of my favourites. I like Brad Paisley, he’s great. He shreds on the acoustic guitar, he plays the Telecaster and Stratocaster…he plays great. He has a great country style. Keith Urban is another singer. I saw him playing the other night…to me he’s not really a guitarist. I don’t listen to his music but I saw him performing a few times. He just plays.  

If you could play one night with a big star, dead or alive, who would you like to jam with?
That’s a very hard question…It would be with Django Reinhardt. Or Jeff Beck: I love his playing, his attitude…he is a real rocker. My style of playing is a mixture of Django Reinhardt, Carlos Santana, Clapton, Beck…from my rock days. They are all giants. I’d like to sit in a room and play with them all. Hendrix is another favourite of mine.  

Have you a solo album in mind?
Actually I’ve been working on a solo album. Just a few songs we have been playing all around the place with my friends. Just 5 or 6 or 7 songs, not a lot of them. But we are still working with Marty, there’s a lot of stuff on the plate. I love Marty’s music, he is one of the best singers in the business.  

Which LP would you take with you on a trip to the moon?
That’s a tough one. There are so many…It would have to be the live album from The Allman Brothers, At Fillmore East.

Listen now Marty Balin's The Greatest Love on Spotify!