A Tokyo Gathering for a Jug Mate

Susan Chaityn Lebovits
Boston Globe, April 9, 2006, p.9 Globe West

Newton's best-known musical claim to fame is Yo-Yo Ma, but a big party halfway round the world reminds us of another musical great: washtub bassist and jug player Fritz Richmond. Last week musicians, friends, and 800 fans paid tribute to Richmond, who died of lung cancer five months ago at the age of 66.

"Fritz Richmond Tribute in Tokyo A Jug Band Extravaganza" featured Richmond's former mates in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, including John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful fame, Geoff Muldaur, and Jim Kweskin himself. The band's heyday was in the 1960s, when it recorded several albums and appeared frequently on national television. The Tokyo tribute was filmed for a documentary on jug bands by Todd Kwait, an American independent film producer. The film was in the works before Richmond died; in fact, it was at Kwait's urging that the band went to Japan, where the music that ignited Appalachia in the 1920s is catching fire today.

Fritz Richmond grew up as John B. Richmond Jr. and graduated from Newton High School in 1958. Shortly afterward, he and two friends, also named John, made their first washtub bass and launched the folk band The Hoppers.

Richmond became a regular on the Cambridge-Boston folk music scene. As word of his proficiency on the washtub bass spread, he was to play with The Charles River Valley Boys, Tom Rush, and Muldaur.

"When I was asked to record for Vanguard in 1963, Fritz was on the West Coast," Kweskin recalled in an e-mail from Japan. "I called him and asked him to please come back and play his washtub and learn to play the jug."

Richmond did just that and teamed up with Muldaur, Bob Siggins, and David Simon, They played gigs for three months and then hit the studio to make the first Jim Kweskin Jug Band album, "Unblushing Brassiness."

Over the years, the band featured Bill Keith on banjo, Mel Lyman on harmonica, Richard Greene on fiddle, Maria D'Amato on vocals and kazoo, Rex Rakish on percussion and vocals, and Bruno Wolfe on vocals.

Richmond played many types of jugs, including plastic, crockery, and stove pipe.

"His washtub playing remains the gold standard on that instrument," Kweskin said. "I have never heard anyone come close to his ability to play accurate notes. Almost everyone else who plays it just thumps."

Richmond is also known for his eyewear. He has been credited with popularizing granny glasses, the wire-rimmed spectacles that took off in the '60s.

"While playing the jug, he would often get dizzy from hyperventilating," Kwait said in a phone interview. "When he looked at the microphone, his eyes would appear cross-eyed, so he decided to create spectacles with cobalt blue glass that he'd found at a friend's apartment in California. Ultimately, John Sebastian and John Lennon picked it up."

Richmond later headed back West and worked as a sound engineer for such stars as Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. He then moved up to Portland, Ore., where he taught recording classes and played with The Metropolitan Jug Band and Fritz Richmond's Barbecue Orchestra. One of his washtub basses is in the collection of The Smithsonian Institution.

In Japan, Richmond enjoys even higher status.

"My last tour of Japan was with Fritz," Muldaur said in an e-mail from Japan. "He is revered in Japan; he is now a Jug Kami... a spirit deity."

To listen to Fritz Richmond with Jim Kweskin, Tom Rush, and the Charles River Valley Boys, visit www.artistdirect.com, enter Fritz Richmond, and click links. There will be a local tribute to Richmond April 16 at Club Passim in Cambridge featuring Kweskin, Muldaur, John Sebastian, the Charles River Valley Boys, and more. For information, visit www.clubpassim.org or call 617-492-7679.

obituary by Geoff Muldaur

  Mel Lyman