The tiny town of Newton, Iowa, isn’t exactly a hotbed for blues music, but it is where Arizona Blues Hall of Famer Marty Kool became a fan.
Kool was a little kid, maybe 7 or 8, when his uncle gave him a crystal radio set. When his mom and dad would call it a night, he’d crawl under the covers and fiddle with the crystal until he tuned into a clear station from the bigger cities in southern Iowa and beyond.
“The radio stations were licensed from sunup to sundown and then they would go off the air. But there were a few high-power stations that stayed on air, and they would drift across those empty airwaves and I could pick it up in southern Iowa,” he recalled. “I would pull a blanket over my head and drag this little crystal around. I could hear hillbilly and gospel and blues and all kinds of music from the South. I’d get this great music. And it also got Edgar Allan Poe stories and the ‘Lone Ranger.’”
But it was the soulful blues that struck a chord with the Iowa farm kid and set him on a path that has taken him from sitting in the audience at blues halls and prestigious blues festivals to become one of the genre’s most fervent champions in his adopted hometown of Tucson and beyond.
On Friday, Aug. 2, Kool and his longtime blues-loving partner Jeb Schoonover will host the eighth annual House Rockin’ Blues Review with Junior Watson, Billy Watson and Taryn Donath. The “West Coast Blues Explosion” show at El Casino Ballroom also features Troy Sandow and Marty Dodson, with the Bryan Dean Trio.
“When you say blues, they think of an old man on the porch, but that’s not really what it’s about. This show we put together for El Casino is going to be a wild one,” said Kool, a 71-year-old KXCI radio host and retired long-haul truck driver. “Junior Watson leans toward older style but he still takes you places you don’t expect. And Billy Watson calls his stuff madcap blues harmonica. He’s got a very young sound. These guys are getting influences from the old guys, but they’re also doing other things that kind of take blues to a different place.”
Kool — that is is his real name — never fancied himself a blues musician even after taking some music lessons from his aunt, who played piano in church and at the Newton movie theater during the silent-movie era.
“I just never caught on or sunk in. Of course my dad said there was a lot of things that never sunk in,” said Kool, who was inducted into the Tucson Musicians Museum in 2008.
He played the drums and bought himself a harmonica and old guitar with the intention of learning to play, maybe fleetingly imagining himself on stage.
“But I know what’s coming out of them ain’t what it’s supposed to,” he recalled with a laugh.
When he started driving trucks in a 10-state area around his native Iowa, Kool would look for blues stations — “Occasionally I’d get by say Grinnell, Iowa, which had a college station and you could hear some blues now and then,” he recalled. But most of the times he’d pop in cassette tapes and eight-tracks that he had been collecting since he was a teen and he would play them over and over again to while away the miles.
At one point he ran a record store in Ottumwa, Iowa, and he would book bands for concerts. He bought a halfway decent camera and started taking pictures of the artists at those shows and festivals he attended. He recently came upon boxes of negatives that he hadn’t seen for years of long-gone artists he had photographed in their heydays.
“I get a lot more bad ones than I got good ones, to be honest with you,” he said of the photos, many of which he has gradually begun posting on Facebook. “I’ve got a mess of stuff from Buddy Guy to Koko Taylor. Floyd Dixon, who wrote ‘Hey Bartender,’ he was sitting there laughing at the piano.”
Kool decided he’d had enough of Iowa winters and moved to Tucson in 1980. He got a job at the old Hollywood Records store at Speedway and Campbell and even did a stint as security chief at Old Tucson before landing a DJ gig in 1984 at KXCI, hosting “Marty Kool’s Blues Review” 5 to 9 p.m. Saturdays.
It was at KXCI that Kool, who has a daughter and six grandchildren, met Schoonover, the station’s promotions manager, and the two formed a bond over their love of the blues.
“We used to have festivals that would draw 5,000, 6,000 people at Reid Park and get some of the all-time great blues guys to come and play,” he said.
For seven years, he and Schoonover hosted the El Casino House Rockin’ Blues shows, which were fundraisers for the community radio station, and Kool would bring in some of the biggest names in blues, including Queen IDA, Buddy Guy and John Mayall.
“There was no way I was going to do a show without Marty Kool. ... He is a walking encyclopedia of the blues and not only that, he knows all these people. He can call them up and chat,” Schoonover said.
After an interminable hiatus, the pair resurrected the El Casino series eight years ago.
On Friday, Kool will do what he has done at the almost every House Rockin’ Blues shows. He’ll be on stage introducing the artists and preaching the gospel of the music that still touches his heart and moves his soul.
“It’s honesty and authenticity. Anybody can play a blues song, but if they don’t mean it, you can tell,” he said in the comforting voice of a preacher with a soul-soothing message. “These guys have stories that are genuine stories, the kinds of things we all go through at one time or another, whether it’s a bad love affair or a good love affair or being broke or not having a job. That’s what draws me into it. What also draws me into it is the fact there’s a positive outcome. There’s hope in all of this music.”