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“If there’s one thing I want people to know about me, it’s that I’m a survivor,” says Popa Chubby. “Here’s my story: My dad died when I was seven. I was abandoned and raised myself. I moved to New York City when I was 18 and started playing music. I got a huge heroin habit and ended up strung out on the streets until I was in my early twenties. I started playing again and got away from drugs and never went back, and then I got into the New York blues scene of the early ’90s, and here I am today.”
“Here” is at the forefront of modern blues-rock, where the mix of intensity and integrity captured on Popa Chubby’s Back To New York City has made him one of the genre’s most popular figures. And he’s an imposing figure at that, weighing more than 300 pounds with a shaven head, tattooed arms, a goatee and a performing style he describes as “the Stooges meets Buddy Guy, Motörhead meets Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix meets Robert Johnson…”
You get the picture. And if you don’t, Back To New York City paints it vividly. On the disc’s 11 nasty cuts Popa Chubby has flipped the blues-rock label around, putting rock at the fore and the pedal to the metal with fat, scalding guitar sounds and stories plucked from true life. Some, like the rubber-burning title track and the pleading “A Love That Will Never Die,” are autobiographical tales that channel what’s deep in his blood as well as the fevered pulse of the city Popa Chubby has called home for 30 years. Others, like “Stand Before the Sun” and his sweet ‘n’ sizzling take on Johan Sebastian Bach’s instrumental “Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring,” chronicle his search for spiritual enlightenment, which has led Popa Chubby to practice Tai Chi and Chi Kung before his sweat-soaked concerts. And then there’s pure shots of fun like the chest-thumping “Warrior Gods,” which thunders along like a long-lost Motörhead gem, and “She Loves Everybody But Me,” a tongue-in-cheek hard-core Texas shuffle that purposefully nods to Stevie Ray Vaughan in its skyrocketing leads and solos.
For the prolific Popa Chubby, who was born Ted Horowitz, Back To New York City doesn’t simply capture the fire and energy of his live shows better than the previous 20 albums he’s made since 1994 — which is an impressive accomplishment given his history of house-rocking discs. It represents an entirely new level of his tempestuous, soulful playing.
“This is such an inspiring time to be a guitarist, because there are so many great players recording and touring now,” he says. “The bar has been raised, so I’ve had to raise the level of my own performances by necessity, and for this album I went for intensity wall to wall.” That dynamic peals from the tracks. Produced by Popa Chubby at Serpentine Sound studios in the Hudson Valley, the mixes are built from a warm, burnished bottom end laid down by bassist A.J. Pappas and drummer Dan Hickey, textured by aptly named organist and piano man Dave Keyes, and ultimately fueled by Popa Chubby’s incendiary six-string excursions and his potent singing — a street smart mix of grapeshot and gravity that unites snarl and soul.
Popa Chubby has produced all of his recordings since working with the Olympian producer Tom Dowd (Derek & the Dominos, Cream, John Coltrane, etc.) on 1995’s Booty and the Beast, which yielded the radio hit “Sweet Goddess of Love and Beer.”
“Tom believed in spontaneity and the kind of energy and focus that comes from recording guitar solos live as you play with the band,” Popa Chubby recounts. “At one point Tom said to me, ‘In case you’re wondering, yes, you are doing things right,’ and when you hear that from the greatest record producer ever, there’s no going back.”
While Popa Chubby is clearly a reflective man, he has, indeed, never gone back. His career has always been about moving forward and carving a place for himself in the imposing terrain of the music business, overcoming odds to continue growing and maturing as a creative force, building a constantly increasing base of fans across the world.
Yet, as the title of Back To New York City implies, the Big Apple has always been the True North of his artistic compass. “That’s my home; that’s where my heart is and where everything started for me,” he says, “and as much as I love to tour, when I’m on the road I miss it.”
Before he adopted the name Popa Chubby, Ted Horowitz’s first gigs were in the New York City punk scene starting when he answered an ad in The Village Voice in 1977 for a guitarist and was hired by “this crazy Japanese special effects performance artist in a kimono called Screaming Mad George who had a horror-movie inspired show. So right from the start I was taught about rock ‘n’ roll as theater, and I learned from George and the other bands who were playing CBGB’s at the time — the Ramones, the Cramps, Richard Hell, whose band, the Voidoids, I joined — that rock ‘n’ roll should be dangerous. Musicians like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols weren’t just bands. They were a threat to society.
“The blues was always the foundation of my playing style, since I’d grown up on Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin, but when I started playing blues in New York clubs I understood that the blues should be dangerous, too,” he explains. “It wasn’t just from playing in punk bands. Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were dangerous men. They’d cut or shoot you out of necessity if they had to, and Little Walter packed a gun and wouldn’t hesitate to use it. That danger is a real part of the blues and I keep it alive in my music.”
Horowitz adopted the name Popa Chubby in 1990 during a jam with Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell. “He was singing a song called ‘Popa Chubby’ and he pointed at me,” he says. Given Horowitz’s dimensions and his proclivity for getting audiences excited, the tag fit.
Following two initial albums on his own Laughing Bear label, he was signed to Sony’s briefly revived O-Keh Records, the one-time imprint of Mamie Smith, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other influential blues and jazz artists. Popa Chubby came into his own as a songwriter with 2002’s The Good, The Bad & the Chubby with the affectingly sincere post-9/11 testimonial “Somebody Let the Devil Out.” His next album, 2004’s inspired Peace, Love, and Respect upped the ante as an election year protest album with hard-cutting tunes about First Amendment rights (“Un-American Blues”) and corporate war-mongering (“Young Men”). After tipping his hat to Hendrix with the three-disc Electric Chubbyland set and tour in 2006 and 2007, Popa Chubby’s subsequent three albums including 2010’s The Fight Is On have chronicled his desire to reconnect with his rock and blues roots while pushing both genres boldly into the future — a task expertly accomplished by an extraordinary blend of song craft, musicianship and personality in Back To New York City that telegraphs the message “what you hear is what you get.”
“People look at me and expect a certain thing,” Popa Chubby reflects, “and don’t realize there’s more behind the picture. They see a big, burly guy with tattoos, and they expect to get beat over the head. And you will get beat over the head, but you’ll also get rocked to sleep, and there’ll be poetry in there too.”