Danny Kalb, Lead Guitarist of NYC’s Influential Blues Project, Dies at 80

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Danny Kalb in the mid-’60s (Photo from Steve Katz’s Facebook page)

Danny Kalb, whose innovative and soulful lead guitar work was crucial to the sound of the groundbreaking New York City-based ’60s band the Blues Project, died of cancer on Nov. 19, 2022, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Kalb’s death, at age 80, follows a long illness and was confirmed on Facebook by Steve Katz, a fellow member of the Blues Project.

Along with Michael Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Kalb emerged as an early American guitar hero as the hybrid genre of blues-rock came into its own in the mid-’60s. His lead lines, whether high-velocity and stinging or slow and measured, were never less than dazzling, and always packed with emotion; he never sacrificed tastefulness for flash. He learned his craft from the master bluesmen of the era and applied it to the new breed of blues music that was infiltrating rock on both sides of the Atlantic. His work was highly influential, and he was admired by many guitar slingers who rose to greater prominence in his wake.

The Blues Project, 1966 (l. to r.): Andy Kulberg, Al Kooper, Danny Kalb, Steve Katz, Roy Blumenfeld

Kalb also sang, and while his voice was not his strongest suit, he poured just as much heart into his vocal work as he did into his guitar. His lead singing on Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” and Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running” on the Blues Project’s standout album, 1966’s Projections, were highlights of that landmark release.

Daniel Ira Kalb was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 9, 1942, and grew up in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. He began his professional career as a solo artist and session guitarist, working with folk artists such as Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan on recordings and in live concert settings. In 1963, the joined the band of Greenwich Village folk great Dave Van Ronk while continuing to play with other folk and blues artists.

In 1965, as the fusion of electric rock music and blues began to increase in popularity, Kalb formed the Blues Project—borrowing the name from a compilation album on which Kalb appeared—with fellow guitarist/vocalist Katz, bassist/flutist Andy Kulberg, drummer Roy Blumenfeld and singer Tommy Flanders. The latter alternated lead vocals with Kalb on the group’s debut album for Verve/Folkways, Live at the Café Au Go Go, and keyboardist Al Kooper, who joined the band in time to make it onto that album, sang one lead, Berry’s “I Want to Be Your Driver.” The album, recorded at a New York City club where the Blues Project often performed, showcased the group’s diversity, featuring songs by folk singers Donovan and Eric Andersen as well as Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley.

By the time they were ready to cut their second album, Projections, the band had found its footing and begun expanding beyond traditional blues into more experimental areas. Flanders had exited, leaving the Blues Project as a quintet, and they blossomed in the studio. In addition to the numbers spotlighting Kalb, the album featured raging, exciting post-blues-rock numbers like “Wake Me, Shake Me” and “I Can’t Keep From Crying,” arranged and sung by Kooper; Katz’s folk-rock “Steve’s Song” and the Kooper-written “Flute Thing,” which served as a showcase for Kulberg’s stunning flute playing and took the group into the area of spacey, jazz-informed/psychedelic rock, then beginning to dominate the rock scene.

Related: Our Album Rewind of Projections

The band’s third album, and last with the classic lineup, Live at Town Hall, was—its title aside—mostly a studio effort. It reprised a couple of songs from Projections and included “No Time Like the Right Time,” a psychedelic rocker written and sung by Kooper. Released as a single, it gave the group its only placement on the singles chart, although it reached no higher than #96. It was re-discovered in 1972 and used on the seminal garage-rock compilation Nuggets, exposing the band to a new audience, although by that time the Blues Project had largely disbanded.

A latter-day Kalb album

After leaving the group, Kalb recorded the album Crosscurrents with guitarist Stefan Grossman (1969), and formed a new version of the Blues Project that year that made a pair of albums in 1971 and ’72. After its dissolution, Kalb remained largely off the grid for the rest of his career, resurfacing for the occasional Blues Project reunion and releasing solo projects that appealed primarily to guitar aficionados and fans of his early work. He later taught guitar, performed with his own Danny Kalb Trio and released several albums with various accompanists, including some live recordings, into the 21st century.

Listen to “Two Trains Running” from Projections

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Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Marty
    #1 Marty 19 November, 2022, 20:37

    Thank you for remembering these oft forgotten trailblazers. The music reminds me early Country Joe and the Fish. Mr. Kalb hung out with Dave Van Ronk and Al Kooper so he must have been cool. Keep UP the great work.

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  2. Rollbert
    #2 Rollbert 20 November, 2022, 08:35

    So many are passing. Saw Blues Project in 1967 at a Murray the K show in Manhattan. Also on the bill the who and cream among others.. Some 20 years later went to Great American Music hall in SanFran to again see the Blues Project, got to talk to Mr Kalb on break about 1967 show. I’m gonna dig out Wake me Shake me today

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  3. mak
    #3 mak 20 November, 2022, 08:47

    Thanks for this. I’m embarrassed to say that I sort of for got about haw important the were back in the 60s. When I was in high school it was the Blues Project, Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Jim Kweskin. Danny sure was the hot guitar player. Rumor was that later on he got in some trouble with some bad acid. Not sure how true that was but he sure feel off the map. Too bad. RIP

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    • Eyatt
      Eyatt 25 November, 2022, 16:39

      I heard the same story about the bad acid . The way I heard it he was an acid head and got a bad batch ending up needing psychatric care and being primary cause for the break up of the original Blues Project .

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  4. Safari Bob Grilli
    #4 Safari Bob Grilli 20 November, 2022, 09:06

    Currently, I have been reading Al Kooper’s (updated) auto-biography, “Backstage passes and backstabbing bastards”

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  5. David Harp
    #5 David Harp 20 November, 2022, 10:32

    Rest In Peace, Danny. In the early 80s he did the background guitar on one of my harmonica instructional methods. He was an extremely intelligent And interesting man. I wish that his Levels of happiness and personal fulfillment had been on a level With his musical virtuosity… Rest in peace, Danny… http://www.davidharp.com

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  6. Mojo Mark
    #6 Mojo Mark 20 November, 2022, 18:36

    RIP Danny.

    I studied guitar with Danny in high school in the mid 1960s. I had seen him perform with the electrifying Danny Kalb Trio, which morphed into the Blues Project. He definitely was the coolest guy I ever met, given that I was a naive kid from Brooklyn. Visiting his apartment in E. 6th Street was a visit to a foreign, and very attractive world. What a musician.

    I also went to that Murray the K show and met up with him afterwards. I saw the Blues Project at the Cafe Au Go Go many times, often with Danny sneaking us in. To this day, the main thing many of my high school friends remember about me was that I took lessons from him.

    It was a little pitiful when Bloomfield and Clapton came along (not to mention Jimi, who I also saw at the Cafe Au Go Go), cause they clearly rivaled or exceeded him. He was off the pedestal. I remember playing an album of the Yardbirds (with Clapton) and Sonny Boy Williamson for him, and he shrugged and said, “There’s nothing going on there”, but I think he was intimidated. Granted, it’s not really that great an album.

    Last time I saw him was maybe 10-15 years ago, when he and Steve Katz played together as “What’s Left of The Blues Project”. He remembered me, which was kind of amazing, but he had turned into a cranky curmudgeon, lecturing and talking down to the audience. Again, it was really sad to see what had happened to my hero.

    Altogether, I still love Danny, and all that he represented and stood for (politics included). I’m truly sad to hear that he’s gone.

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