Chuck Cuminale

Click to follow
The Independent Online

James Charles Cuminale: guitarist, vibraphonist, singer and songwriter: born Oswego, New York 1952; married Janet Marshall (three sons); died Rochester, New York 10 July 2001.

"I'm considering a move to Memphis / With my hair all aglow. / When I arrive in Memphis, / I'm bound to meet up with someone I might know." So opens the droll ditty by the quirky American act the Colorblind James Experience. With its bouncy rhythm and rambling narrative namechecking Elvis, Graceland and jug bands, the song proved a huge favourite on John Peel's Radio 1 show and even made the Festive Fifty, as voted by the listeners, in 1988. Chuck Cuminale, as Colorblind James, fronted this loose collective who, during their 20-year existence, released six studio albums and attracted a cult following in Europe and on college radio in the United States.

As Cuminale explained to Sounds magazine in 1988,

Colorblind James is a name I've used since 1975 when I was doing my solo coffee-house kind of thing. It's a reference to Blind Willie McTell who's probably my favourite songwriter of all time. As well as a nod in the direction of someone like Blind Lemon Jefferson. But it's this white guy trying to do this sort of thing so it winds up being washed out. Instead of being blind, I'm just colourblind, which isn't a whole lot of handicap.

Cuminale played guitar, vibraphone, keyboards – "all to the same level of incompetence", he would joke – and delivered his lyrics from a battered back ledger. "I've got a real limited voice. I just got plain sick of embarrassing myself trying to sing melodies and I realised I could get away with just reading the stuff," he told interviewers. A fan of Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, he thought nothing of playing three-hour sets of his two favourites on their respective birthdays.

Born in Oswego in New York State in 1952, Cuminale released a single with his first band, the Whitecaps, before moving to San Francisco in 1980. While in California, he met Phillip Marshall (guitar, banjo, dobro) and his sister Janet – whom he later married – but found little success with his peculiar brand of Americana. Three years later, they drifted back east and settled in Rochester, adding Jim McAvaney (drums, washboard), Ken Frank (acoustic bass), Dave McIntire (clarinet, saxophone) and John Ebert (trombone). Between 1984 and 1987 the group recorded a track whenever they had $400 saved up from gigs.

"I've always dreamt of that little small-town orchestra sound," Cuminale later reflected. The group pressed 1,000 copies of their début album, Colorblind James Experience, releasing it on their own Earring Records label:

We sent out 300 promotional LPs to the US media and one to Europe, to John Peel. We weren't expecting a lot so it was surprising the way it happened. I think our music is pretty oddball.

Featuring the rather morbid "Why'd the Boy Throw the Clock out of the Window?" and "Gravel Road", the album incorporated polkas, trad jazz and Yiddish music, and clicked with listeners to John Peel and Andy Kershaw, who gave "Considering a Move to Memphis" a lot of airplay. Cuminale recalled:

I just liked the phrase. I drove through Memphis once and I wasn't at all impressed. It was OK, you know. I guess I wanted to conjure up the odd feeling of a poetry reading and a parody of that. It's about some not very with-it guy who has a lot of dreams and not much else going for him. It's just a bunch of little rhymes based around a feeling of alienation and not being able to fit in.

In 1988 the Colorblind James Experience fitted right in. The Fundamental label picked up the British rights to their album which made the indie charts and the six-piece took time out from their day jobs – Cuminale worked as a teacher – and toured Europe. The following year, the group issued The Peel Sessions EP and their second LP, Why Should I Stand Up?, while developing their even more acoustic side as the Death Valley Boys. This was eventually documented on the Strange Sounds from the Basement album, released in 1990, but was received less favourably.

The group issued a further three albums – Solid behind the Times in 1992, I Could Be Your Guide, 1996, and Call of the Wild, 1999 – and carried on playing grassroots festivals but never quite recaptured the public's imagination.

Pierre Perrone