This article was originally published in the July 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
It’s fitting that legendary longtime Trenton blues singer Paul Plumeri is part of the Levitt series August 3 concert.
The third son of the longtime Trenton-area politician and civil servant Sam Plumeri, Paul began playing guitar at age seven. “When we were kids, we would play any place they would listen, from my parents’ living room when my brother would bring his friends over, to church things, to battles-of-the-bands and backyard parties,” Plumeri says. “I played with a drummer back then who was like four feet tall and very flashy, and his father was the type of guy who had him playing in bars,” he recalls. “As a seventh grader, I found myself going into dark Philadelphia clubs opening for bands like the Cyrkle. I got to know the ins and outs of show business pretty early.”
While his drummer’s father would shuttle them to clubs, more than occasionally, Sam Plumeri Sr. would drive Paul and his bandmates. “My dad, as busy as he was with local politics, would make it a point to bring me around to clubs when I was a kid,” he recalls. Plumeri’s uncle was a jazz booking agent and manager who worked with saxophonist “Red” Prysock and his brother, vocalist Arthur Prysock, organist Richard “Groove” Holmes, and drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Plumeri has early memories of sitting three feet from Prysock and Grant Green in the Fantasy Lounge in Trenton on Sunday afternoons. He recalls how thrilled he was to get up and play guitar alongside organist “Groove” Holmes as a young teen.
About a year after he began playing guitar, Plumeri discovered blues on the radio. Longtime Trenton-area DJ George Bannister played a role in sparking a lifelong interest in blues and classic R&B. “His opening song would be Bill Doggett’s ‘Honky Tonk,’ and from there I was hooked. He’d play Sam & Dave, B.B. King, and he’d play all the black instrumentals. I heard it and was enamored with it.” After leading a succession of blues and rock bands through high school, he attended Mercer County Community College in the early 1970s.
At that time, the Trenton-area and New Jersey club scene was still flourishing. Plumeri studied business but dropped out. The monetary pressures were simply too great: he recalls making upwards of $1,000 a week in nightclubs in those days. Through the early and mid-1970s, Plumeri founded and led a band called Hoochie Cooch and played in that band until 1976, when he joined keyboardist Duke Williams in his band, the Extremes. The band was later signed to Capricorn Records, home of the Allman Brothers, Delaney and Bonnie, and countless other Southern roots-rock acts. With Williams and the Extremes, he toured the East Coast and Canada from 1976 until the end of 1980.
The money was good, but the band burned itself out. The first incarnation of the Paul Plumeri Blues Band made its debut on a Sunday night in 1982 at a nightclub in Trenton, the night Plumeri’s son was born. With a new addition, a mortgage, and the need for health insurance, he changed gears. He worked as a housing inspector for the city of Trenton. He still played blues at night and on weekends, as he does today.
For guitar players everything is about tone, and Plumeri figures he started developing his own tone and style, when he was still in high school. “Somebody dug out tapes of me from the late 1960s. This guy said, ‘You know Paul, you can listen to that now and you can still tell it’s you.’ But my whole style developed because I was not a note-for-note copier. At the time, it was very frustrating, ‘cause I wanted to play the whole solo on ‘Crossroads’ exactly as it was played. I would stylize it, I could sound like the player somewhat, but just couldn’t do the note-for-note thing. That turned out to be my biggest asset, ‘cause I didn’t rely on that to be my vocabulary. I absorbed these people,” he says, referring to guitar “gods” like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, “but I would not mimic them to the T,” he adds.
Plumeri has been associated with the blues in the Garden State and greater Philadelphia for more than three decades, and it’s an affiliation he’s not willing to let go of. He never compromised his artistry for the sake of commerce, when in the late 1970s and early 1980s, blues fell out of fashion — until Stevie Ray Vaughan came along and brought everyone back to their roots.
“I wasn’t willing to leave my association of being a blues musician. I never became associated with some other trendy thing, I did not play top 40 music,” Plumeri says Now, nearly two decades after the formation of the Paul Plumeri Blues Band, he presses on, and like any good bluesman, he’s ready to seize the right opportunity, but not necessarily the first opportunity.
“You’re not going to become a multi-millionaire,” he says, “but you’ll be doing your thing. As long as you’re alive, there’s hope, and it all comes down to that.”