Harmonica player, lyricist, and singer Sugar Ray Norcia has been leading his band, the Blue Tones, around New England since the late 1970s. The band began to break nationally in the late '80s and early '90s with the release of their debut for the Rounder/Varrick label, Knockout. While leading his own band and touring on a regional basis around the New England states, Norcia spent many years in apprenticeship as a sideman. This fact is evident on his recordings, as Norcia's singing is deep and heartfelt, and his harmonica playing is that of a seasoned blues club veteran.
Norcia first began playing blues harmonica in high school in his native Rhode Island. The Blue Tones were founded after Norcia moved to Providence, and they became a house band at a small club there. They further developed their skills while backing up visiting musicians like Walter "Shakey'' Horton, Big Mama Thornton, Joe Turner, and Roosevelt Sykes in nearby Boston-area clubs. Beginning in the late '70s, the band worked exclusively with Ronnie Earl as its lead guitarist until he left to play with Roomful of Blues.
Norcia's music comes from an eclectic set of influences, and it probably shows most in his original tunes. He cites musicians like Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, Muddy Waters, and Bobby "Blue" Bland as important, but equally important to him are country music stylists like Ernest Tubb and George Jones.
With his quiet, cheerful, unassuming personality, Norcia is the kind of person people go to with their personal problems, and some of this (as well as his own life experience) provides fodder for his songs.
Norcia's recordings under his own name include the EPs Sugar Ray & the Blue Tones for Baron Records in 1979; Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters featuring the Sensational Sugar Ray in 1982 for Leopard Records, as well as his two Rounder releases, Knockout (1989), and Don't Stand in My Way (1991). Both Knockout and Don't Stand in My Way are stylistically diverse records showcasing a range of harmonica styles as well as blues styles, including urban Chicago, Texas shuffle, Memphis soul, and R&B, as in a cover of Bobby Bland's "I'm Not Ashamed'' on their debut, and Boston-area big guitar blues. The Blue Tones' Don't Stand in My Way served as the inaugural release for Rounder's then-new Bullseye Blues label. The Blue Tones also accompanied Miki Honeycutt on her debut for the Rounder label, Soul Deep.
In 1991, Sugar Ray joined the legendary jump blues-based Roomful of Blues and became their lead vocalist. Roomful released three successful records during Norcia's tenure and toured incessantly. Norcia also kept busy outside of the band: he can be heard on a Bullseye Blues release by trombonist Porky Cohen, Rhythm and Bones, (1996) and on Little Anthony & Sugar Ray's Take It from Me, (1994), for the Tone-Cool subsidiary of Rounder. Sugar Ray left Roomful of Blues in 1998 and released Sweet & Swingin', an eclectic record that featured songs by Hank Williams, Arthur Alexander, Big Walter Horton, and an appearance by the Jordanaires. 1999 found Sugar Ray contributing to the Grammy-nominated album Superharps, a project that also included James Cotton, Billy Branch, and Charlie Musselwhite. During the 2000s, he kept busy contributing harp on records by Pinetop Perkins, Doug James, and others, as well as touring with the Sugar Ray Norcia Big Band. Toward the end of the decade, he devoted himself to Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, a group that received many Blues Music Awards nominations, with 2015's Living Tear to Tear and 2016's Seeing Is Believing both making a considerable impact. ~ Richard Skelly