Danny Kalb is not a musician known by the masses, but he is considered by many acclaimed critics and music buffs to be one of America’s most defining guitar players of his generation. When I went to interview Kalb in his tiny apartment in Park Slope, I expected a larger-than-life character to greet me at the door. But it turned out that as a nearly 70-year-old man from Mount Vernon, New York, Danny Kalb could not have been more relatable to me. He grew up with one sibling in a middle-class, reformed, Jewish household, just like me. However, when I began to delve into his upbringing and the progression of his life with him, I learned that our stories are very different.
Kalb was raised in a radical communist household, establishing an extremely abnormal upbringing. As a result of the strong connection between the communist party and the genre of music in the 1950s, primarily known throughout the African-American community as the blues, Danny’s life quickly became centered around music.
At age 13, Kalb started playing the guitar and, as he recalled, during high school, he first became interested in rock and roll when Elvis Presley “made it happen.” However, though Kalb appreciated and enjoyed the newborn rock and roll, he always believed himself to be a blues and folk musician. During his high school years, Kalb started to realize that music was not just a hobby, but also a dream. He fell in love with the notion of expressing himself through rock and roll, folk, and blues music the way Elvis had.
Kalb attended one-and-a-half years of college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Throughout college, Kalb played small venues there to keep himself involved in his music and pursue his dream the best he could. Danny recalled to me that one night, a young man approached him and complimented him on his performance. This young man introduced himself as Robert Zimmerman, but would later come to be known as Bob Dylan. Bob, as Danny called him, stayed the night at Danny’s dorm and told him that he should go back east and pursue his dream.
Heavily influenced by his new friend and by his desire to play music for large audiences, Kalb left the University of Wisconsin early and returned to the east coast, where he formed the band that would come to define him in years to come, The Blues Project. The peak of Kalb’s musical career would be with this band, selling 400,000 copies of the first and most successful of their three studio albums, “Projections.” Having listened to “Projections” beginning to end several times, I have heard tracks whose style is reminiscent of The Doors and Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others. But when I asked Danny if these artists influenced the album, he told me that those songs had been written before anybody knew who The Doors and Creedence Clearwater Revival were. Danny, through his guitar, had fused blues, folk, and rock-and-roll styles and contributed to the creation of a new sound that was just beginning to form at the time.
During this period of musical success, Kalb had some experiences of which most can only dream. One of the most incredible memories that Danny recalled was playing a show with famous blues legends, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, along with folk legend and future Woodstock headliner, Richie Havens. On another occasion, Kalb spent 30 minutes on stage, playing alongside Jimi Hendrix. Kalb described Hendrix as “nothing short of godly.”
However, Danny’s musical career took a turn for the worst when he suffered the first of four nervous breakdowns that he would have over the course of his life. Because of his constant struggles with depression and severe anxiety, he lost The Blues Project and struggled to support himself off of his music.
Kalb never achieved the success of his friends Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix. He suffered for many years and was often unable to follow through on his dreams. Kalb would admit that he has made mistakes and often times been the victim of horrible circumstances, but he is a man who is proud of his accomplishments and contributions to the music industry.
As the interview came to a conclusion after several hours, I realized that it had been an enlightening experience for me as a music fan and writer. I had always believed that the “rock gods” such as Hendrix and Dylan were the ones who “made it happen,” but after my time with Danny, my mindset changed. I came to understand that he is just one of many talented, dedicated musicians who contributed to the rock-and-roll movement and then slipped through the cracks.
Danny had a stroke two months prior to our interview and had difficulty moving around when I met him. However, he insisted that he take out his guitar and play for me. He played me a song that conveyed the simplicity and the smoothness that had made his talent so obvious to those around him. When he finished playing I was in awe. I asked him who wrote that, thinking it must have been John Lee Hooker or some blues legend like that, but he just smiled at me and said, “That one’s all mine.” As the interview concluded, I asked him to sum his life up; all the success mixed with all the failure. He simply said, “God has been in my corner.”