Dean Rosenthal is about as local as you can get. The roots musician and guitar player has been gigging in area clubs and other venues since 1975, when he lost a “Gong Show” talent contest to a belly dancer.
The long-gone City Dock club Papillon hired him back to play a regular gig. As for Little Sheba, the belly dancer, who knows?
“It was a time when most venues in Annapolis were looking for suit-and-tie bands or acts playing commercial stuff like Jimmy Buffet or James Taylor -- I wasn’t that,“ Rosenthal said.
He started playing at Happy Buzzard on West Street, a funky little place. “It was sort of the roots club at the time — people playing music outside the box.”
Soon he turned to the 8x10 Club in Baltimore because there weren’t many gigs available in Annapolis.
In Baltimore he met Herb Wheatley and the two played together, as Wheatley-Dean, for about eight years.
“I got a call one day from a guy in Annapolis and he asked where I was from. ‘I am from right here,’ I told him.”
After those years together, Wheatley-Dean split up as Rosenthal got deeper into the blues.
There were more bands: Completely Dean, solo for a bit. Then Voodoo Bop, followed by Son of Bop with bassist Jay Turner and drummer Timm Biery.The Resophonics were another.
Then, Rosenthal started making a real racket, or rackets: Dean Rosenthal’s Three Piece Racket, Four Piece Racket or Five Piece Racket. “It all depends on how many people are playing that night,” Rosenthal said. “The Four Piece Racket name came from a Ry Cooder song.”
On Halloween he is playing at the Eastport Democratic Club. The promotional piece for the gig with The Badger Band lists an all-new iteration -- Dean Rosenthal and his Incredible Racket. It will feature former Nighthawk Pete Ragusa on drums and guitarist Dave Chappell.
Rosenthal has been doing a Halloween party every year as long as he can remember. “I am a big fan of the old horror flicks, the Universal classics - `Frankenstein,’ ‘The Wolf Man’ -- I never grew up out of that.” His house is full of spooky knickknacks like masks in the Latino Dia de los Muertos tradition.
His musical path has also led to opening-act jobs for some of the best in the business: Leon Russell, The Fabulous Thunderbird, Junior Brown, John Hammond Jr., Southern Culture on the Skids. “I even got to open for B.B. King,” he said.
A while back, he said, he had an epiphany of sorts. Instead of occasionally adding local references to old blues and roots tunes, he decided to write fully local tunes himself.
“I made a list of all these local places: Galesville, Deale, Woodland Beach (which earned the nickname Hoodlum Beach for a period), Harwood. Then I made a list of all the nicknames of people I could think of. And, I started writing.”
The first album was called “South County Dirt,” with songs like “Left Into Galesville” and “Mayo Road Boogie.”
“You can see it in people’s faces. Recognition of those local places. Like, ‘Hey, I know that place.’”
He is in the studio now working on a follow-up, “Backwater Cat Calls.”
The Root of the Matter
After all, Rosenthal is a homeboy. Though he has lived elsewhere, he resides in the same Woodland Beach house in which he grew up.
His grandmother bought property there in the 1930s when The Washington Post sold lots for $99 as a bonus for a subscription.
“I remember dirt roads, you could go hunting in back of my house. It was country,” he said.
After turning 60 recently, he pondered on those roots.
“You know, I was sitting in literally the same place on the planet I have always been,” he said. “In fact I was literally sitting in the same chair.”
But the music Rosenthal discovered as a teen has carried him far. Though he has always lived and played in the area, the musical journey has taken him to Chicago, the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans.
And he says he did it by looking “outside.” Outside the popular music so many others were playing. Outside what club owners were at first looking for in the young player.
“I was always trying to do what no one else was doing,” he said. “Instead of competing with the guys who were doing the circuit thing, I would try to do something else.”
Those who have shared the stage with him know and respect that.
“He is just a good cat. He knows what he likes and has stayed to his thing, never doing the other stuff, maintaining his artistry,” said bassist Jay Turner, who has known Rosenthal for 40 years.
That difference might have started in junior high. “I was listening to Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull like any other 12- or 13-year old was,” Rosenthal said during an interview at his regular morning, well, early afternoon, coffee spot Joe Digs Coffee on Mayo Road, around the corner from his house.
“But then I discovered Bob Dylan.”
He got into Dylan, hard. “I caught a lot of (grief) in high school. They called me Dean Dylan.”
That brought him to the guitar, too. He had taken music in elementary and junior high, but in high school, when it was time to sign up for an instrument, it seemed everyone wanted to be a guitar player.
“There was like 30 guys in the guitar class. So I asked if there was a bass guitar, and me an one other guy practiced in one room, while there were 30 others on guitar in the other room,” he recalled.
He wanted to learn Dylan and dropped the bass. “I got the Dylan songbook and started to learn the songs.”
By then he had also begun listening to the blues.
Like many, Rosenthal came into the blues through the British. “I was listening to the white guys: Clapton. John Mayall and all the players that came through his band. Peter Green.”
Those Brits were learning the blues by buying the records and learning, just as most teens did at the time. Blues musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon were not appreciated in the states outside Chicago or Memphis, but found strong audiences in England and Europe
When British bands like Cream, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and Led Zeppelin had hits in the U.S., they were importing their appreciation of the American blues idiom. Perhaps re-importing is the better term.
From there, many fans started to dig deeper into the original blues artists, creating a wave of appreciation in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s for the music rooted in the Delta and the African American experience.
The blues were folk music and some of the earliest exposure of the original blues masters came during the folk music boom in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Early albums in wide distribution were labeled folk blues.
“It’s all folk. In Jamaica folk music is reggae, in Cuba it’s salsa … Bluegrass is like folk blues for white guys,” he said.
But digging into Dylan and the blues brought him to a deeper appreciation of what came before.
“In school they’d say, “Are you Beatles or Rolling Stones?’ I said Dylan. The Beatles and Stones were trying as hard as they could trying play American music. Dylan was American. ‘Merkan, man.”
Soon his contemporaries were getting into New Wave or Punk,. “I was going backwards. Buying blues records,” he said. “Digging deeper for more roots.”
Though sometimes hard to find, blues were often cheaper at the record store. “You’d find them in the cut-out bin. The first Muddy Waters album I bought was $2. An double-record Italian import called, “Greatest Hits.” Best $2 I ever spent.”
Now, although the internet and digitalization have changed -- some say ruined -- the music business, Rosenthal says it’s great for learning the old music.
“If you wanted to know what Sleepy John Estes sounded like, you used to go have to find, then buy, a record. Now you can punch up YouTube, and there he is.”
His depth of knowledge of the roots and blues songbook has earned him credibility among his peers.
Jim Jacobs, who has played keyboard with Rosenthal for years, said that respect and knowledge of the old blues guys is a big part of the bond they formed.
“He was into Otis Spann, Little Walter, Muddy, and that really developed into a kinship that way,” he said. “That knowledge has really developed over the years. He really is one of the real treasures around here,” Jacobs said.
Roy Dunshee, who once owned Acme Bar and Grill, has known Rosenthal since the early ’90s.
“When we first met at MIddleton’s, it was loud in there. I introduced myself, and Dean thought I said Floyd. He has been calling me that ever since.”
Dunshee and Rosenthal set up a Sunday night blues jam that grew in reputation during its run. Aside from a list of the best local and regional players, some big names dropped by on occasion. Rosenthal remembered Carey Bell, a harmonica master, stopping by.
Dunshee dusted off old drumming skills at the jam. “I rediscovered my drumming. Then Dean started calling me for gigs. In the process he became one of my best friends.”
“A lot of people owe a debt to Dean for advocating for a style of music. He influenced a lot of people,” Dunshee said.
He recalled a conversation about 20 years ago in which Rosenthal said his kind of music will age well. “’Pop music does not age well. Not as well as blues.The more real your music is, the more authentic.’ As he’s gotten older he’s gained more respect.”
Rosenthal also is respected for giving back. “You rarely see a charity event, or any benefit, where he is not willing to pitch in. He’s done so much for other people,” Dunshee said.
For years he has been involved in Annapolis Musicians For Musicians, which helps performers and artists who lose work due to accident or illness.
And, AMFM, along with others, has returned the favor.
When Rosenthal was out of work following a heart attack and stent surgery, AMFM and others responded and a benefit show helped Rosenthal absorb some of his financial losses.
“I was against it at first, but then my mom, before she died, told me, ‘These are your friends and they want to help you. Let them.’”
Scores of people and performers turned out. “I never knew I had so many friends. It was very humbling.”
And he is still at it, raising a racket and giving back.
He has slowed down a bit. “I took every gig that came down the pike. Working seven nights a week. But I decided I didn’t need to be in a club until 2 in the morning any more.”
“I’ll come in and open for somebody. For the first half-hour, I can be really entertaining,” he said, laughing.