Mike Zito Feature
Blues Music Magazine
by Joseph Jordan
Mike Zito has “Blues” tattooed on his right hand, and a more truthful statement or devoted player will be hard to find.
The intrepid, innovative fifty-year old Zito, has surely arrived as a major player and Renaissance man of the recording/producing scene, and he’s a monstrous Blues-Rock artist in his own right. His home base is in Nederland, Texas by way of growing up in St. Louis, Missouri where he spent his first 32-years.
Zito’s latest release (and 16th overall,) is the spankin’ new and brilliant “Resurrection,” his fourth album in three years. It comes courtesy of Mike’s Gulf Coast Records (open for business since 2018) and Hillside Global. “Resurrection is an album of feelings, emotions, and is very personal. After the last year we’ve had, I believe we all need a rebirth. It’s given me the chance to be what I want to be musically and artistically.”
His prior recording and The Blues Foundation’s 2021 “Blues Rock” category winning, “Rock and Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry,” (self-produced) is at once rollicking, faithful and fun. “There were 21-guest guitar players on 20-songs. Berry’s music is part of everything I’ve learned to do.”
Mike’s also won and been nominated for several Blues Foundation awards in an abundance of impressive categories, and is the reigning Blues Foundation’s Blues Rock Artist of the Year, an impressive accolade.
In 2012, Mike was a founding member of the beloved Royal Southern Brotherhood, but after three-plus years left to create a solo career. His current group is The Mike Zito Big Blues Band, and many of its members have been playing with him for years.
Their musical sympatico is extraordinary because of it. His current aggregation accompanies him across the country and the world, “workin’ hard and havin’ a ball.” Zito’s a marvelous slide player, and his work with a pick is unbridled and invigorating. Mike’s more than an accomplished singing which makes for a riveting counterpoint to his remarkable chops as a slinger.
Zito’s career includes his working ten memorable years in a St. Louis mom and pop store, Tower Grove Music. But his absolute passion was and is music. The brown-eyed handsome man’s been singing and playing guitar since he was a tender eight-year- old, and he’s been producing recordings for well over twenty years.
“I am the youngest of four kids. All my siblings were much older. No one played, but my Dad loved big band music, all the crooners and all the jazz horn-bands. My dad liked to play records and I would listen and I’d dance in the living room.
“A kid I knew up the street bought a Van Halen record and I heard it in his house. I was only eight and I’d never heard anything like it. I heard this electric guitar and it sounded like a spaceship.
“I didn’t know it was an instrument. I didn’t know what it was. ‘What is that?’ My neighbor told me it was a guitar and I said man, I got to get one. I thought you turned a guitar on and it does that. That’s how dumb I remember being. So, I ran home and told them, ‘I need a guitar.’ And they were like, ‘why? We don’t play guitar; we don’t play music.’ But they bought me a guitar out of the JC Penney catalogue and we plugged it in, and it did not sound like that Van Halen record at all. And it still doesn’t.
“But I continue to beat on it. I taught myself. From that age, really young, I played it every day, but it wasn’t in tune, and I didn’t know where to put my fingers. I really had no idea how you did it. Then I got to high school and met some kids that played. They showed me how to tune it, and that ruined everything because I knew that I definitely didn’t know what to do.
“I took a couple of lessons and actually the guitar player (along with Slash) of Guns and Roses, Richard Fortus, was my first guitar teacher. I was fourteen, he was seventeen, but I learned primarily by watching my friends play.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I always sang. That was something I could do and would do and I was never afraid to get in front of people or stand up on a stage and act the fool. Right when I got into high school, kids could play their instruments better than me, but none of them could sing. I would sing and write songs for the band and practice my guitar on the side. In my senior year in high-school I told myself someway, somehow, I want to play this guitar and that’s all I’m going to do. It just got a hold of me. I loved the idea of not working.”
As a producer, Mike’s worked with a plethora of Blues artists, Samantha Fish, Albert Castiglia, Ally Venable, Jeremiah Johnson, Jimmy Carpenter, and countless others. As a player he’s enjoyed and recorded his own releases with a million well-known guest artists, to name just a few, Joe Bonamassa, Kid Andersen, Robben Ford, Sonny Landreth, Albert Castiglia, Walter Trout, Tommy Castro and Cyril Neville (“my mentor and hero.”)
On the business side, the more than impressive Gulf Coast Records was founded in by Mike, his wife Laura and British friend Guy Hale. GCR sits in a large building right outside the back door of his Texas home. In talking about the label, he states, “We wanted something small to help new artists get going. It’s got this sense of purpose that’s really fun. We’re starting to kick ass.”
The plucky and forward-looking label is based in Nederland and its roster of about twenty-artists over the past three-plus years is prestigious and growing. GCR specializes in “Regional Roots, Blues and Americana genres,” and the musicians and bands signed to the label are unique and cutting edge.
“Twenty-years ago Laura and I were burning CDs on a computer to sell them for five-dollars in the bars I played. She’s been helping me do everything. We’re the ones who wanted to start the label with my partner Guy. It just started out as a side project… put out a couple of records, help some young starving artists and boy oh boy, in the first year it just crazy and blew up and the next thing you know we got a label. And now we’re so over our head (laughs) we don’t know what we’re doing. But it’s wonderful… I love it.
“GCR has been in existence only three or four years, and (we’re) “hangin’ in there. We’re a kind of a Blues, Blues-Rock, Roots, & American music outlet. Obviously when we started it, we didn’t realize there was going to be a pandemic, but we got in and started going and it was, O.K., let’s try to keep movin’ forward and do what we’ve been doing the best we can do.
“I can’t tell you that we’ve made a lot of money though, (laughs heartily.) As my father used to say when I was a kid and he would go to Las Vegas, and he’d call me on the phone and I’d ask him, ‘Are you winning?’ and he’d say, ‘well, I’m holdin’ my own.’ I think that Gulf Coast is holdin’ our own.“
“We now have terrific artists and the catalogue is building up quite well. We put out four records this year, and we’ve got quite a few lined up through next summer (2022.) There’s a lot of good stuff going on, it’s really a lot of fun.”
GCR artist Kevin Burt gushes “I appreciate Gulf Coast (Records.) It’s good to be around folks that give a damn. It’s so cool to hang around with folks you respect already, but then they look at you and say, ‘you’ve got to get on this bus too.’”
Another plus for the label, and with several independent records of his own out, the San Jose, CA by way of Norway, Kid (Christoffer) Andersen) has recently signed as an artist with Gulf Coast Records. A brilliant and major musician/player/producer and The Blues Foundation’s award-winning Andersen (who’s also lead guitarist with Rick Estrin and the Nightcats) is a major musical addition to GCR.
Gulf Coast Records and Hillside Global have also struck a coup in signing 67-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Tito Jackson (yes, of the world-renowned family) with a just released, star-studded Blues, Soul (and a little bit of everything) recording, “Under Your Spell” that might surprise listeners with its commanding, deeply moving repertoire.
“Tito’s very serious about this, and he wants to be taken seriously, because he has a long history with the Blues. His father and uncle were Blues musicians in Gary, Indiana, and working in Chicago when the Jacksons were all kids. Coming home, he would teach Tito about the Blues and how to play guitar. I know he’s got the celebrity part covered, along with the Blues part, and he wants to do both, and wants it to be flexible, instead of being told what he can and cannot do. He also loves the name… Zito and Tito.”
Another highly-acclaimed Blues artist added to the label is the Big Apple’s Albert Castiglia whose release "Masterpiece" won a Blues Music Award for “Blues - Rock Album of the Year” in 2020.
If this weren’t enough for Mike, as one of the industry’s truly good guys, he created a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $25,000 for distribution, at $1,000 bucks at a time, to music artists with no work, struggling, and seeing no foreseeable financial relief.
As to his role in the studio, “on some records, I’m the producer. On the Albert Castiglia recording (“Masterpiece”) I recorded it with him and produced that album initially for Ruf Records. Ruf didn’t particularly care for what we did, however, the artist (Castiglia) really liked it and wanted to keep it. So, it turned out that we said, ‘why don’t we just put it out on Gulf Coast?’
If I’m executive producer that doesn’t necessarily mean I get to change how things sound or anything like that. It’s more like, I’m just a part of the process in bringing the record to fruition, like making sure we turn everything in on time like the album, the artwork, or if something needs to be changed with the liner notes… there’s a whole other non-musical process that’s involved. And I’m just kind of involved every step of the way of making sure everything gets done correctly, and then I’ll be listed as executive producer… I’m not the final say, just the final overseer, making sure that everything needs to be done is done properly. If we (GCR) didn’t like it we could say so but we generally like everything done by whoever we’re working with.
A devoted husband and father of five, Mike Zito reflects on his passion, “I play my guitar the way I want to play my guitar, not the way anyone says I am supposed to play my guitar. I sang the way I wanted to sing - in my voice with my emotions.
“You realize, as an artist, every so often you need to move forward… you can’t stand still. I need more experience in life and music. I need to learn more and meet people who will teach me. That’s what’s fun about playing music and running a label.”
About his prodigious output as songwriter Mike reflects, “I try to make every song and word count. I have songs in me and musical ideas all of the time. For me to sing songs and feel them with real emotion, they need to be personal and part of my thinking.”
You just keep thinking, Mike. It’s just one more thing you’re very good at.
(Check out: www.mikezito.com & www.gulfcoastrecords.net along with the usual social media platforms.)