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12:00 AM Monday, 10/28/02 |   |

Just because blues guitar slinger Joe Bonamassa cut his show biz teeth on national television playing for Jane Pauley when he was 12, don't call him a "child prodigy."

He's a fourth-generation musician whose dad deals in vintage guitars, and decided he'd better get little Joe a scaled-down model to play with when he was just 4 years old so he wouldn't bang around on the merchandise.

"I was taking real expensive guitars that he had and messing around with them and kind of clawing at them, so [my parents] decided, 'Maybe we should get the boy his own guitar,'" Bonamassa told POLLSTAR.

The guitar is just something he grew up with in Utica, N.Y., he said, but it's obviously something he has spent a tremendous amount of time with. He got his first big break when he was the focus of a 25-minute segment on news magazine "Real Life with Jane Pauley." But he's grown up to be more than just "the kid that plays the Telecaster," as he explained.

That appearance brought the would-be record labels, lawyers and managers calling.

"Columbia was on the phone within 20 minutes of the end of the program," Bonamassa recalled.

Since then, he's had deals with EMI and Epic Records, but has settled into a groove with grassroots-friendly Medalist Entertainment.

After the national exposure, "I'd come home from school to do homework and it's like, 'Oh, I've got to talk to some dude from Gannett news service,' or something. It was a cool time of my life, but you really do have to kind of grow up after that."

According to manager Roy Weisman, who's been with him from the start, Bonamassa has managed to endure to the ripe old age of 25 with his head screwed securely in place.

"If Joe has any flaws, it's that he doesn't ruin hotels or throw TVs out the window and he doesn't do drugs. From a rock 'n' roll standard point of view, he doesn't hit some of the very important checklist items," Weisman laughingly told POLLSTAR.

Bonamassa has certainly had ample opportunity to learn such various, uh, rock star behaviors, having first opened a show for blues icon B.B. King at age 8 and spending most of his teen years touring with Bloodline, a band made up primarily of scions of rock royalty.

"We were really a decent blues rock band ... but when you play with people like Miles Davis' son (drummer Erin), people have different expectations," Bonamassa explained.

Other band members included Waylon Krieger (Robby Krieger's son) and Berry Oakley Jr. (son of The Allman Brothers Band's bassist).

"So when the record came out, people expected the Doors, Allman Brothers and Miles all at once!" Bonamassa explained. The experience introduced the maturing guitar virtuoso to singing and songwriting, opportunities he wisely took advantage of.

Bloodline split when Bonamassa was 19 and he struck out on his own. He released his second solo album, So, It's Like That, in August and he'll be out on the road well into next year, save for a break in January.

Not coincidentally, Bonamassa is currently on the road with Gregg Allman & Friends before going it solo.

"It's a very loyal fan base because they've grown with me through a couple of different bands and three or four different records, which is really good for somebody like me in transition between childhood and adulthood," he explained.

Weisman has stayed with him, too.

"It's a labor of love for me," the manager said. "Joe is an artist that, when he breaks, he will break big and bring back a category like Eric Clapton's or Stevie Ray Vaughan's back into the mainstream.

"But since Stevie Ray, there's really been nobody, except Jonny Lang, who's touched in this area. I think Joe's much more mainstream and has much more crossover potential, even though he's labeled as a blues player," Weisman said. "I call him my stealth bomber because I can put Joe out in front of any audience and he'll get a standing ovation.

"I felt if we ... married the vocals with good writing and stellar live performance, we would have a career artist. Joe's one hit away from being an arena act and he has plenty of time to figure that out."

Bonamassa has learned more than just the technical tricks of the trade; he's making the most of life on the road, too.

"I've traveled a lot of miles and I try to learn something new every day, something that helps my playing and singing, touring-wise," he said. "When I go out on the road ... I'll get out and walk around, see what each city has to offer. I absorb a lot that way.

"For a while, I wasn't taking advantage of that, and now I get the snow globes, the postcards, the whole thing," Bonamassa said, laughing.

But on a more serious note, he knows his brand of blues-based roots rock is making a comeback, given the re-emergence of rock after a few years of glitzy pop dominance.

"I live in New York City and I just know that town is kind of longing for something that connects with their soul, like if you listen to Otis Redding. There's a soulfulness and a musicality there. It hasn't been around for so many years," Bonamassa explained.

"There's things that are unprecedented happening right now and I think the music kind of reflects that. It's a little bit darker, it's a little bit more soulful. It's the blues, frankly! It's music based on inner turmoil and social turmoil, ya know?"

And it's based on the kind of Real Life you can't get from Jane Pauley.


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