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The Freewheeling Ed Vadas: 1944–2016

Vast Ed Vadas, circa 1989

When Ed Vadas, a lifelong performer, songwriter, actor, philosopher, storyteller, teacher, and a musician’s musician, passed away on Feb. 18 at age 71, he left behind legions of friends, a remarkable legacy, and oh so many memories. Originally from Worcester, MA, Vadas was the youngest of five children and husband of his beloved Jane Leary.

The much-loved, celebrated, and sometimes strident elder statesman of the Western MA music scene, Vadas was born Sept. 26, 1944, on Balder Rd. in Worcester. As he tells it, “I was born at a very young age, about the size of a baby.” He attended Worcester North High School, graduating in 1963. Known for his keen sense of humor even then, he auditioned for the Senior Revue talent show and won the role of emcee, thus beginning his life as a performer, tux and all. He left the 1,100 people in that packed house calling out for more. 

While in high school, Vadas regularly visited the Worcester Public Library after school to check out American folk music discovered by Alan Lomax or recorded by the Weavers and Lead Belly. It was there he got his first introduction to the blues, in the reading room with a headset on.

He joined the Air Force shortly after graduating high school, not quite ready for college. It was during his first year in the military, stationed at McGuire Air Force base in New Jersey in fall 1963, where he seriously started playing an instrument, a banjo. His early influences included Dave Van Ronk and Reverend Gary Davis.

Ultimately Vadas spent three years, from 1963 to 1966, in New Jersey in the Air Force, doing glorified office work as a clerk-typist. After that, he was transferred to South Vietnam as a courier, hitching rides on convoys and airplanes, delivering documents and other sensitive materials throughout the war-torn country. Things changed at a talent contest on the Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. Vadas sang and played washtub, and to his surprise was dubbed “best Air Force folksinging-balladeer in Southeast Asia.”

A combo called the Upper Ten Thousand, consisting of banjo, fiddle, guitar, and Vadas on washboard also won notoriety in and around Saigon, leading to a phone call from the Army asking Vadas if he could learn to play bass within a month. He did, and with a group called the Sorties (part of the Military’s Black Patches program), became part of a handful of bands that regularly went out and entertained troops, Ed later recalled.

For three months, beginning in May 1967, Vadas was assigned to the Army as part of this traveling show, playing cover versions of such songs as “King of the Road” and “Tell Laura I Love Her.” During performances, Ed began doing a comedy routine, shades of that first emcee gig back at Worcester North.

“It was all very very weird. It was the first band I was ever in, and it was a road band in a war zone, where we got shot at,” he recently reflected while recuperating at home after a long hospital stay. “But I got to sing and play bass and harmonica. It was a very good experience.” On Aug. 20, 1967, after a year in Vietnam and four years in the service, Ed left the Armed Forces.

“It all paid off when I finally get on the plane to head back to the States,” Vadas said with a smile. “One of those guys who I played for says, ‘I know you,’ and starts screaming excitedly. As people are taking their seats on the plane, he yells out, ‘Hey you guys, this guy here, he entertained us out in the fields! He didn’t have to. And he was great!’ So I get a standing ovation from those guys in the plane. That’s when I thought, maybe this is what I should do. I’d never given that one thought.”

A couple years after leaving the service, Vadas enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1969 after two years in college, one in Worcester and one in Peru, Nebraska. Shortly afterward, Vadas by now a scorching axeman and harmonica whiz released his first record, a 45 rpm single by the gritty Ed Vadas Blues Band, featuring his blistering versions of Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years.” It was issued on Vadas’ own Cranus Records label (several future Vadas releases were also on Cranus) and sold on campus and in area record stores, and it got respectable radio airplay regionally. It’s now become a much sought-after collectible.

Vadas shifted gears dramatically in the mid-1970s, performing eclectic genre-defying sets with plenty of humor. Around that time, this writer was music editor of the Advocate Newspapers in Western MA and Connecticut, and Vadas told me, “Watching us is like listening to old-time radio drama. It requires a little imagination.” A review in the Greenfield [MA] Recorder from May 20, 1976, raves about Vadas’ “quick and penetrating verbal wit” and his band’s “carefully worked-out stage routine that leaves the audience rolling under their tables…”

Vadas then toured as a solo artist, traveling from Alaska to Bermuda to the Bornholm Festival in Denmark in 1979, with plenty of New York gigs, including ones at Tramp’s, filling his schedule. He’d regularly share billings there with blues masters including Edith Wilson and J.B. Hutto. Vadas fondly recalls playing Tramp’s with legendary blues singer Alberta Hunter in the audience. Vadas grins, remembering her saying to him after his set, “You do good up there boy, you do good up there.”

The real test as a performer, Vadas would say, “is to go into a room 250 to 1,000 miles from home, play a lot of songs, some originals that the audience might not know and some bluesy classics they might know, and have them cheering at the end of the night, saying, ‘Come on back! When are you guys coming back?’ That’s more of a challenge than always playing in front of your friends. And you never know who’s gonna be out there.”

The first full album that Vadas and his band, The Fabulous Heavyweights, made was Cruisin’ For a Bluesin’ in 1984, released on cassette. One of its songs, “You Turn to Me,” had been covered to considerable fanfare by folk-blues singer Josh White Jr. on Vanguard Records several years earlier. 

In those days, Vadas’ bands worked relentlessly, often leaving Western MA for months at a time to play blues fests and tour throughout the East Coast and beyond. He was also called on for acting roles, making cameo appearances in the television movie Svengali (1983, as M.C.), starring Peter O’Toole and Jodie Foster; and The Money Pit (1986), starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long. In Money Pit, Vadas appeared alongside Mountain frontman Leslie West as part of the cross-dressing band Cheap Girls. 

In March 1989, with a new lineup of Heavyweights, Vadas recorded Rock the House! East Coast Blues at Derek Recording Studio in Dalton, MA., with Greg Steele engineering and Roger Kirwood executive producing. Like Cruisin’ For a Bluesin’, the new album was packed with original Vadas compositions and covers of songs by other stellar bluesmen. Rock the House, released on cassette and vinyl, is “respectfully dedicated to the memory of Chester Burnett – Gary Chester ­– McKinley Morganfield.” And Vadas' electric East Coast blues were made to play loud! 

South Side of Fifty, released in late 1993 with the Big 5-0 on the horizon, is Ed Vadas’ Fabulous Heavyweights’ first album available on CD. The album has political undertones and contains eight Vadas originals including “Please! Mr. Bill,” aimed at President Clinton, and “Start All Over Again,” which calls out perpetrators of domestic violence in the message: “Men got to start all over again/ Demand all the violence end/ And make all women our friend.” South Side also features gritty, rousing covers of songs by Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf.

A review of the album from the November 1993 issue of the Blues Audience reads, “If blues is played right, it works like an exorcism of your soul. The number of true blues exorcists around these days are few and far between. For me Ed Vadas is one of them. I cried when I listened to ‘Start All Over Again.’ It starts out like a relaxing stroll through a rainforest and suddenly changes atmosphere to the harsh reality of a slash-and-burn plantation… Put this [album] on my list of desert-island essentials.”      

Vadas’ next album, billed as Ed Vadas and the Fabulous Heavyweights, is Bluez.com (1998). Again recorded at Derek Studios in Dalton and critically acclaimed, the album includes a reworking of an older original, the politically tinged “No Good News” which, “takes a swipe at how we as a society, elevate the banal to a place of importance, and vice versa.” The song embeds some trademark Vadas humor. Bluez.com also includes one of Vadas’ most-played radio songs, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” written out of a sense of loss, not only for a close friend but also as a nod to many recently departed blues greats. The band on the album comprises longtime bandmate Steve Toutant “Junior” on bass, Fred Hazelton on drums, and Vadas on guitars, harmonica, and lead vocals. In 2016, the song has hit home for so many who have followed and treasured Vadas' musical journey.

Toutant, bassist and longtime touring and in-studio Ed Vadas bandmate in The Fabulous Heavyweights recently told us, “Playing with Ed was affectionately known as attending the ‘Ed Vadas School of Fear and Intimidation.’ For me personally I almost quit his band at the end of every gig for the first six months. Thankfully I had enough fortitude to stick it out. The thing that kept me going was a belief that he understood something about music, a combination of syncopation and dynamics, that no one else I’d ever played with had even hinted about. Ed warned me from the beginning that once I understood his methods, I wouldn’t enjoy playing with many of my old friends, and it turned out to be true. Once I was able to play music at the level he demanded, it seemed hollow to play in any other way.”

Eatin’ Time/Acoustic Blues (2004) represents a departure for Vadas. It’s an intimate stripped-down solo album with Vadas on guitar and vocals and no overdubs. Dedicated to “a world without fear, where people can learn to love and respect themselves, and others,” it includes five Vadas originals as well as songs by Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt. In the notes, Vadas gives “special thanks to Jane Leary, the love of my life, who has been there thru thick and thin; and to Gary Coppola, who decided to believe in me and changed my life.” 

In 2007, with musical collaborator and close friend Sue Burkhart, Vadas released Ameri-MF-Cana, containing traditional material and songs by Duke Ellington, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and others. Listening to this album is like listening to two stellar and telepathic musical forces performing heartfelt material in your own living room.   

Over the years, Vadas’ reputation as an A-list player and blues scholar made him an in-demand concert sideman, having played with or sat in with dozens of legendary blues musicians including Bo Diddley, James Cotton, and Otis Rush. And Vadas, so accustomed to being the frontman, was like a rock, guitar in hand, as he stepped back and supported these musical icons. 

In 2012, Vadas returned to acting, playing Crazy Jake, the cowboy in the film The Cowboy and the Tavern. Jake is a musician, like Vadas, and his down-home honesty and big heart comes through every time he appears on screen. Vadas’ performance alone makes this film worth watching. Directed by Geno McGahee and written by Brent Northup, the film also stars the late David Sauriol, who plays Jake’s buddy Bradley. The Cowboy and the Tavern premiered at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA in March 2015.

Geno McGahee, X Posse Productions filmmaker, tells us, “In 2012, I had the opportunity to direct a film called The Cowboy and the Tavern, which stars Ed Vadas, a musician with a great deal of personality.  What started out as a bumpy ride, turned into a great experience, and Ed proved that he had the talent to transcend from one medium to the other. His outgoing nature and wanting to succeed on the set was no different than his approach to his music.  The charisma he brought made The Cowboy and the Tavern that much better and made my experience as the director, a great one. On the premiere night for the film, Ed could not make the show due to his medical condition, but he was there in spirit and his performance was given a rightful standing ovation. He is gone but not forgotten.”

Vast Ed Vadas was a towering force and powerful influence on countless musicians, friends, and fans throughout New England, the United States, and beyond. His smile, his laugh, and his presence will be sorely missed. But thankfully, his music and the countless memories he left behind will endure always. 

What matters, Vadas concluded, is that “You’re honest, you’re true, and the audience is picking up on you. You can do ‘Wild Thing’ at the end, and they’ll still go crazy, as long as you’re honest and true.” But, he concludes in retrospect, “Eventually nothing matters, and everything is everything.”

Speaking of Ed…

Ed Vadas’ friends and colleagues reflect on the man known as The Vast One

•• Any retrospective of the Vast One would not be complete and honest without mention of his famous temper and periodic heated outbursts. I have been at the receiving end of his ire several times, and it was something I came to accept once I knew the man and understood the nature of his rants.

Ed was a bluesman, complete in every sense of the word. If you had the privilege of hearing him sing Howlin’ Wolf’s “Goin’ Down Slow” at his fundraiser a couple months ago, you know what I mean. Almost all of his tirades that I have witnessed or been the target of have been about the music. “You ain’t feelin’ it...” “You’re not in the pocket…” “You don’t know the history…”

To Ed, the blues was a commitment, a lifestyle, an attitude and a singular musical approach. He didn’t have much patience for dabblers. Now I’m not one for having people yell at me… but when it came to the blues, I gave Ed license. He lived it.

—Peter J. Newland, longtime recording artist and frontman for Fat and Radio Exile

•• We were playing some outdoor concert in Maine. We are rocking the set, and Eddie is playing his slide guitar. His tone and attack was dead-on Chicago Elmore James. He could quote all the greats but through his own voice. We are rocking this tune and a guy is walking by the stage eating a hot dog. Eddie motions to him to come near, and the guy offers Eddie the hot dog. Well, Eddie takes the hot dog and starts playing slide with it. The hot dog is falling to pieces and he is sliding it up and down the neck of his guitar. It was a moment when I looked over at Chris Tuttle and Chick Thompson and we are dying laughing.

It was one of thousands times that Eddie would just do anything to make us and the crowd laugh and have fun. It was about the Moment! Eddie was about Now! Hardly ever about then or what’s coming.

—Tommy Filiault, guitarist, recording artist, and former touring and in-studio Ed Vadas bandmate in The Fabulous Heavyweights

•• I met Ed Vadas in 2011 after putting out a casting call on Facebook for an old cowboy who’s been rode hard and put away wet. I got this message from Ed, whom I’d never met: “I can play anything old.” He was perfect for the role of Crazy Jake Crazinski in The Cowboy and the Tavern. The film comes alive when he’s onscreen, and includes a blues performance by Ed as Crazy Jake. I didn’t expect to love Ed, but we grew close during filming. I also grew to appreciate his esteemed place in the Valley music scene.

He was not prepared at first. Lines were not learned, and he made some vulgar jokes in front of our teen actors. Most of the company wanted him replaced, but I knew he was Jake, a troubled and soulful man. I came to understand that his problem with lines was word retrieval due to his earlier stroke, and the vulgarity was from 45 years in honky-tonk bars. Maybe the friendship began when he told me he realized he was now the rookie, he was now that bass player he dispatched and told “come back when you learn your instrument.”

Then he went to work. We spent every Thursday evening going over his lines, and I got to know the heart under the gruff. The day we shot one of his last scenes, his little speech to Bradley about loyalty to family, the director yelled “cut,” the whole company applauded, and Ed cried because he wanted so much to be good. As I write, the reasons I love him are more clear… the soul of the man was as tender as his exterior was rough.

—Brent Northup, The Cowboy and the Tavern writer, English teacher at Springfield Central High School, and author of The Heart of a Poet

••You might say that Eddie was a mountain of a man. But it was what was inside that truly made him shine. Even though he could be intimidating at times, Ed was a real teddy bear sweetheart! And could he play and sing or what? Ed always struck me as a great soul singer. And an even more amazing guitar player. He could play one note to everyone else’s 10 and make heads spin!

To me his solos were always off the cuff and totally unique. They constantly took you to a new place that you weren’t necessarily planning on visiting but were so glad when Ed took you on board for the ride. He really meant every note and word.

I was lucky enough to play a few gigs with Eddie over the years. Usually a fill-in situation where he would go “I’ll be right over. Get your bass and amp ready. We’re going to a college gig in New Hampshire (once during a snowstorm where Ed drove with his right hand while manually moving the wipers with his left) or a full weekend in Vermont. No rehearsal! You knew everything would be fine. Ed would make it happen.

He was my friend. We’re all gonna miss him.

—Ray Mason, longtime recording artist and member of The Ray Mason Band and The Lonesome Brothers

•• I remember very well walking into a place in Northampton where I stumbled upon Ed Vadas playing heartfelt, masterful blues with a great band. I was immediately hooked on this guy’s playing because as a youngster, I learned how to play the blues on the piano listening to Muddy Waters. So whenever I had the chance to hear Ed play, I was there. He was just so crazy good, and I always left feeling so inspired. It would be 20 years later before I’d personally meet Ed, by chance, when I sat down next to him at a party. We just started talking deeply about music, life, and performing. It was one of those “I’ve known you all my life” moments. I ran into Ed a few more times and each time it felt so good to see him. I wish I had met him years ago, and I wish we had a few hours to play some blues with each other, but that was never meant to be. So, here’s to you Ed, posthumously, with great admiration and a thank you for making me feel proud to be a musician.

—Steven Schoenberg, recording artist, songwriter, film composer, and pianist

•• Countless young guitarists of our generation fell in love with the blues during the folk boom of the 1960s. We learned the 12-bar pattern and memorized the words of the blues icons, but when one listened, it was never as interesting of vital as the original version. But with Ed, it was different. One could really tell that he had listened long and hard, and absorbed the tradition. He took that and carried it forward in his own unique way. He was often loud, crude, and obnoxious, and many people couldn't get past that. But the blues was never supposed to be a polite genre; its practitioners played in raunchy bars and sang about men and women who lived hard lives. The music and the lyrics reflected that, and Ed channeled it in his own hard driving and often hilarious way.

—Joe Blumenthal, Downtown Sounds, Northampton, MA

•• Ed Vadas is one of my all-time heroes, he just kept making amazing music no matter what the cost to him; he could not play crap commercial music if you put a gun to his head. His was a life of chasing excellence, catching it, and dragging it to the ground until it howled at the moon like a bloodhound chasing a bleeding convict in chains that just broke out of Parchman Farm. Every time I saw Eddie perform he made me cry tears of joy, and I’ve been performing for 55 years at this point so I’m no pushover for sappy tricks. He was The Vast One.

—Terry Sullivan, musician, friend, and fan

David Sokol served as the Advocate Newspapers’ (Western Massachusetts and Connecticut) music editor from 1977­ to 1993, was editor in chief at New Country magazine from 1993 to 1997, is longtime contributing editor for Stereophile, and is co-host of Sokol Heroes on WRSI – 93.9 The River.