October 21, 2012

VIGOR FISHER (Providence, RI)

Pimped out at the Playboy Club in New Orleans, circa 1972. Vigor Fisher (center) flanked by band mates Michael Palumbo (left) and Walter Payton (right). Photo courtesy of Michael Palumbo.

Back in 1961, a guitar slingin' 17-year-old black kid from Providence landed a three-record deal on the major label Mala. So why is the name Vigor Fisher virtually unknown in his home state, some 50 years later? Well, for what little dent it will make, this injustice is about to be corrected.

Admittedly, I was ignorant of Vigor's genius output until I was invited to join DJ Bill Bruno on his Sunday afternoon radio show at WOON in Woonsocket back in April 2012. This website was recently launched, and Bill wanted me to come and spin some Rhode Island 45s with him. To open the show, he dropped the needle on the instrumental "Last Chance To Foot Stomp." Woah. This is a Rhode Island guy? I was on a mission.

Unfortunately, info is scant. "Big Al" Pavlow (R.I. sixties producer and author of The R&B Book) remembers Vigor as a talented guitar player who put on fun, energetic live shows. In fact, Pavlow recalls that he always envisioned Fisher following in a similar vein as Jimi Hendrix. The only other description comes from an online messageboard (yes, the absolute worst place to glean a source), where "Rocket Man" describes Fisher:
"By the way, the dude was about 6ft 8in, thin as a rail, poc marked face, ugly as sin, jerry curls and slicked down, shark skin jacket, pointed toe shoes, and a pimp hat at times...I saw him a couple of times at local clubs, and he was frenetic, like the white boy in back to the future. His shows were quite fun...His guitar playing was like a blend of Havens & Hendrix. [An unreleased song is discussed:] Maybe 'You Is One Ugly Chile' was never cut, and was only part of his club sets. This song is the one all the boys on the corner would sing."
Fisher kicked off his career with three Mala singles released in 1961-1962, impressively penning five of the six tracks himself. All featured Fisher's distinctive "chicken scratch" guitar style, and most likely were products of one single recording session produced by hitmaker "Bugs" Bower.

The "hit" was the frantic rocker "Al Caplone." Was the random "L" added to avert potential slander lawsuits by the deceased gangster? ("No, hey, this purely fictional character CapLONE is only based on that other cat!") Or was it an egregious typo? The tune was resurrected on the final Mala single, this time in instrumental form as "Last Chance To Foot Stomp," with an organ replacing the vocal track and some slammin' percussion added to what was formerly the chorus.

A subdued instrumental two-sider on the New York-based Angie label followed in 1963 as Vigor Fisher & The Fishermen. Five years later, Fisher's final wax appearance came out on the Dot label. A straight-up soul groover, the particularly strong a-side still features a fleeting moment of Vigor's guitar noodling as the intro. And that, without fanfare, is where the Vigor Fisher tale concludes.

Sadly, Fisher died tragically young in San Francisco in April 1976, at the age of 32.

Band members, relatives and old friends: We'd love more info and photos. Get in touch!

•    •    •

Update 4/16/16: Rhode Island drummer Dave Rossi checked in to relay his inspiring Vigor Fisher story. Dave played with The Alibi in the late 1960s and continued to play in bands through the 1990s. He is now involved in the Nashville songwriting scene. 
I grew up in the Silver Lake section of Providence in the 1950’s. I began playing music at age 9. I took lessons on trumpet at Axelrod Music in downtown Providence. I picked up drumming along the way and was playing in bands by age 12. By age 14, I began playing in local niteclubs.
Back then, live bands were playing everywhere and I was always checking them out.
It was around 1960 and I was about 14 years old. There was a grand opening for an Almacs Supermarket in Cranston. They had a band set up on a flat-bed truck. I didn’t know who they were, nor did I know that my life was about to change. 
I got right up front. It was a 3-piece rock band. Guitar, bass and drums. The guitarist sang. He was Vigor Fisher. 
He started the show with a single guitar chord. No band. No time. And he began to sing a slow, drawn-out intro: 
“Put on the skillet. Put on the lead. Momma’s little baby wants – – – – – shortnin’ bread.” Pause … Pause … 
What happened next was the most exciting thing I had ever heard come from a band!
Vigor BLASTED into an incredible rockin’ version of Shortnin’ Bread. His guitar playing was from another planet. His vocals were electrifying. You could feel his raw musical talent in your bones!!! 
My heart pounded and my mouth dropped open. Vigor played, sang and clapped his hands in a style that was all his. I didn’t know it at the time, but Vigor’s playing would influence my drumming for a lifetime. 
I went on to play with dozens of bands and hundreds of great musicians. I am a Berklee alum and studied in New York City. I’ve played over 4,000 gigs. AND thru it all – Vigor Fisher remains the most exciting entertainer I ever saw. He had Buddy Holly energy. Elvis energy. Mavin Gaye. But never an imitation. Vigor was 100% original. 
During my playing years (1960-1990’s), I played many R&B gigs (along with jazz, rock, latin, etc.) – and when I played up-tempo, high-energy tunes, I found it quite easy to lay down some pretty hip drum beats. I never knew where they came from. They were just “there.” 
Then one day it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was drawing on Vigor’s guitar rhythms – what I had heard as a young boy! And I thought: “Man – is that kool or what!!” Vigor Fisher was a monster. A natural raw talent. He deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest musical talents ever to come out of Rhode Island. I would support any efforts in that regard. 
Thank you Vigor …
Dave Rossi
•    •    •

Update 2/12/15: Former band mate Michael Palumbo checked in to tell us that our man Vigor headed south to New Orleans for a spell in the early 1970s.
"Around 1972 I played in a band with him in New Orleans. It was a trio of Walter Payton on bass, myself on drums and of course Vigor playing guitar and singing. We played for several months at the Playboy Club and after that did some other gigs around town as long as we could. At some point it just seemed everyone went separate ways and I lost track of him. Someone told me he had died a few years later and for some reason I doubted it was true. Vigor was the type of person who lived close to the edge and I thought that losing contact with him would make most people just assume he died. According to your bio it was indeed true. 
By the way, I gave up playing music in the late 80’s, but I have some of my most fond memories working with him. The three of us had a lot of fun being spontaneous and Vigor could wing it for quite a long time and we just hung on for the ride. It was almost like he would write songs as he performed them and I recall times where it was so much fun that I would just about laugh while it was happening. 
This unlikely trio happened because Walter and I were working at the Playboy Club with a jazz pianist in the downstairs bar area. Typical jazzy cocktail music that you would expect of the Playboy Club. Times were changing though and I think they wanted to put something different in there. There was a dance floor that was seldom if ever used. Walter and I thought we were going to be gone when Vigor came in, but he did not really have a band so we just stayed on with him. He let us know that he would be putting together his own band as soon as he could. A couple of weeks went by and I think we must have clicked because we stayed with him until he left town. 
Something very much out of character was that we were once asked to play for a local high school band banquet. It was an all boys catholic school and even though Vigor was totally out of his element (and probably stoned out of his head), he did a really good performance for them and they really liked it. I can remember we did One Note Samba at a break-neck tempo and Vigor was amazing to hear sing it. He did it something like Al Jarreau, but long before Al Jarreau."
Photos courtesy of Michael Palumbo.
•    •    •

Update 5/6/13: Former band member Bob Cary checked in and relayed some humorous Vigor Fisher memories. Bob played with Vigor circa 1965-66 and the lineup consisted of Vigor Fisher on guitar and vocals, Herman Pittman (Providence) on bass guitar, Al Kaufman (Warwick) on drums, and Bob Cary (North Kingstown) on trumpet.
"This was the average night working with Vigor:

I lived in North Kingstown near East Greenwich, and every night I would pick up Al Kaufman in Warwick in my 1955 pink and white DeSoto. Drive to the Plaza Hotel in Providence. Herman Pittman would be waiting for us there but no Vigor.

So we waited. The gig was in Newport at The Paradise from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. So Vigor shows up around 8:45. We always were late. We got as far as East Providence and Vigor would say, "Hey man. Take a right." We're late now and he wants to take a right to a store for some booze.

Arriving around 9:30 or 9:45, we would rush in the front of the club which was the bar. The back room was where we played and a large dance hall. To this day, I can still hear the manager or club owner's voice coming from behind the bar yelling at Vigor for being late, all the time. Vigor would ignore him and we went to stage and gave them one hell of a show. All was forgiven, night after night.

But wait! After the gig was over, he had to have a bone dinner. Chicken. So we spent some time waiting while he had his bone dinner. Night after night, the same routine. Drive back to Providence, drop Herman and Vigor off, then Al in Warwick and I'd get home around 4:00 a.m.

Same thing but what a show we put on. He was a trip.

*  *  *

The band, Vigor Fisher and The Vatilities, went to New York City one day in my DeSoto. It was a big car. I don't know how he does it, but we have a recording date or audition at "Bugs" Bowers' Gotham Studios. On the way to New York he was composing songs from the back seat. We had no idea what we would play so, at the studio, we just tried stuff. Nothing any good. All off the top of his head. Not over yet. This is our Vigor New York adventure.

At night we found ourselves on stage at The Apollo Theater in Harlem performing with Mary Wells. That night we slept in my car in Brooklyn on a side street. I had no idea what was next. But it always was a trip with him.

Now figure this one out. At The Ebony Lounge in New London, Conn., we backed up Faye Adams. After the gig, it was always finding an after hours spot/club or someplace where he could have a bone dinner in usually a house. Never go straight home.

Now I'm sitting in my car on a side street in New London. I can see all the way down the street and on each side were big tenement houses. Vigor gets out of the car, walks down a half a block and goes into a house on the right side. 45 minutes later, he comes out of a house on the left side. And I'm looking straight down the street. What the…?

*  *  *

At the Plaza Hotel downtown in the club in the back, we were playing a 12 bar blues. No vocal, just instrumental. At every 4 bars he would play a quarter-note, hit them and I'd improvise the rest. Sort-of fill in the holes. Second chorus he'd play 2 hits, and I filled in the rest. Third chorus, add another one until the last chorus was all hits. So I asked him, what the hell was that? He said he just wanted to see how long I could play. He got tired before I did. Funny but I wrote a big band chart on that very idea. Called it, "You're Putting Me On Blues."

Vigor had a special talent. A diamond in the rough.

Thanks on behalf of Vigor. Didn't know he was gone, 1976."
Bob Cary moved to Toronto and his successful career as a trumpet player is chronicled on his website. Herman Pittman played in Montreal-based Duke Edwards Cycle in the late 1960s and went on to work with John Hammond. Both he and Al Kaufman passed away in the late-2000s.

•    •    •

Vigor F. Fisher (February 1944 - April 1976)

Vigor Fisher's obituary notice in The Providence Journal, April 13-14, 1976.

Your host and DJ Bill Bruno at WOON studios in Woonsocket, April 2012. Bill's seemingly innocent act of spinning "Last Chance To Foot Stomp" caused the brain stomping which directly led to this endeavor.

Teenagers' Blues / Al Caplone

Padiddle / Think Of Happiness

Last Chance To Foot Stomp / The Way You Love Only Me

Batter Up / Telstar II

What I Got / Courage Ain't Strength


  1. DJ Chuck Stevens always played Vigor Fisher. He claims Vigor used to cut his grass.

  2. I recall my dad speaking of Vigor back in the early 60s. My father was principal at Roger Williams Jr. HS. I believe he had Vigor as a student at some point. I also seem to remember a song called "Padiddle, A Little". although I don't see it referenced here.

    1. Oops, just saw the label. Sorry.

    2. saw Vigor will Al Kalfman back in 62 at Whyy Studio laying down tacks

  3. I played drums with Vigor on the tracks Batter Up and Tellstar in 1963 at Gotham studios for Bugs Bower. Vigor was a stranger but nice dude and was n incredible musician. My name sis David Lindsay and I worked with him on the road for a few months.

    1. Hello David, I'm trying to get some liner notes together for a Vigor Fisher compilation and was hoping for a bit more information on him, anecdotal or otherwise. Would you be able to assist?
      Many Thanks.

    2. Hey there, please keep me posted on the compilation, long overdue. Feel free to use info and photos here, I only ask that you just credit the website (RipItUpRI.com / Jason Litchfield). I can also put you in touch with the guys who supplied recollections for this article, if you'd like. I can be reached at JayLitch@gmail.com. Thanks.

  4. I grew up in South Providence! Vigor was the first black man that I ever met! He was friends with my brother and he would bring his guitar to my house and sing and play music! He was always a star to me’