Rose of the Roadhouse: Al Cocorochio has nurtured local roots rock for decades

Excerpt From:
The Boston Globe
Friday, June 23, 2000

Rose of the Roadhouse
Al Cocorochio has nurtured local roots rock for decades
Black Rose party fetes rock of ages
By Elijah Wald, Globe Correspondent

SAUGUS – “Route 1: Main Street of the Blues.” “Revere Beach: Home of Rockabilly.” If those are not the tried-and-true clichés of American music, it is not Al Cocorochio’s fault. “The Sam Phillips of the North Shore,” as some have called him, has does as much as anyone in New England to keep the classic roots roadhouse sound alive with his Black Rose label, which celebrates its 20th anniversary with a multigroup show Wednesday at Johnny D’s.

Cocorochio is a compact package of Italian-American energy, and his eyes sparkle when he talks about music.  The workroom in his Saugus home is lined with records and recording equipment, and on the wall is a framed display of original Sun Records 78s autographed by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison.  They are trophies of a passion that began in 1956, when Cocorochio was 14 and saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show.

“I said, ‘Boy, this guy’s great! I love this stuff!” Cocorochio almost shouts. “And the first record I bought was an Elvis Presley EP, which still have.  Before that, I had listened to a lot of Italian music because my mother and father both came from Italy.  I wasn’t used to listening to rock “n” roll – my mother and father said ‘That’s garbage!’ and used to turn it off on me. Then, when I started wearing sideburns had having a little Bill Haley curl coming down the front and a DA in the back, they thought I was a juvenile delinquent and they were going to have me thrown out of the house.”

By then, Cocorochio was going around to record hops, dancing, and getting to know a few musicians.  The first was a wild piano player named John Lincoln Coughlin, who would later record several albums as Preacher Jack.  “I was a junior in high school, and Bobbie Barrett was a senior.  Her brother Eddie Barrett was playing drums at the time – now he’s an editor at the Boston Herald – and she knew I liked Jerry Lee Lewis, and she said, ‘You have to come to my house and see this guy that thinks he’s Jerry Lee Lewis,’ and that’s how I met Jack.”

Soon Cocorochio was going around to Coughlin’s shows, helping to carry equipment and lining up a few gigs for the band.  He took off four years to go into the Marine Corps, then got right back into the musical world, only quitting when he got married in 1968.  He was divorced a few years later, and by 1979 he was ready to get into the music business more seriously.

“I had my house in Malden, and most of the people that lived there were musicians. [Chicago bluesman] J. B. Hutto lived in my house, and that’s how I met the New Hawks.  And Preacher Jack used to crash on my living room floor.  I decided, ‘I’m going to get more involved in this. I can’t do it full time because there’s no money in it, but I’m going to start doing some booking and stuff,’ and then I started my label in 1980.”

The Black Rose roster is made up of the kind of hard-working bands that do most of their work on Route 1 or in suburban blues bars: Aside from Preacher Jack, it includes B.R.M.C. (Boston Rockabilly Music Conspiracy), The New Hawks (in various incarnations), T.H. and the Wreckage, Bobby Fosmire, Maynard Silva, Big Bill’s Band, Alabama Frank, Brewer Phillips, and the Liz Lannon Band.  The play blues and old-time rock ‘n’ roll, usually on weekends after they finish their day jobs.

“No one is getting rich doing this,” Cocorochio says. “But we have fun doing it. For the musicians, I think it’s the excitement, the enjoyment of playing out. It’s not like just sitting behind a desk or being a mechanic.  It’s the same for me, when I was a disc jockey;  I enjoy seeing people happy, seeing them having a good time out there.”

Cocorochio certainly has not gotten rick off Black Rose. “A made a little on some the groups, but in the long run I’ve lost a lot of money.  When I first started out in the music business I only had $9,000 to play with, and it all went fast.  Then I just more or less borrowed, did this, did that. The bands also helped me … and we just kept putting stuff out.

“I mean, I’d like to make some money, we’d all like to have a million-seller – I’d also like to be nominated for a Grammy someday, or for a Handy Award.  I would love something like that. But I made a lot of friends, and that means more to me than anything else.  The musicians and I, we all do things on a handshake, we’re honest with each other.  There’s no contracts, so if they can get a better deal, there’s nothing holding them back.  And we all get along great.”

A lot of record-company owners might make a similar spiel, but Cocorochio’s remarks are echoed by his artists.  Vic Layne of B.R.M.C. describes him first off as “a gentleman. He’s a low-keyed local guy, and very sincere about the music. He did this because he loved to get guys that were interested in doing the kind of music that he liked and records with them.  And we’ll hand with him as long as he’s willing and able to go along with it. Because it’s like a family-type thing.”

Wednesday’s show should be the ultimate Cocorochio evening.  He has a 20th-anniversary CD prepared for release at the show, and expects a mix of musicians from throughout the Black Rose catalog to show up, do their acts, or just jam together.  When things get jumping, he may even get up and sing a coupel of songs himself.

“I know I can’t sing,” he says cheerfully.  “I don’t get up there and say, ‘Boy, I have a great voice and I want to become a superstar.’ But I like to get up onstage and shake and have fun.  I’ll do ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ or ‘Tear It Up,” stuff like that. I don’t know all the words, but I improvise sometimes and we all have fun.  I just do it to make people laugh and have a good time – that’s the name of the game.”