When he started over 30 years ago, he was tagged Young Neal. And with the exuberance of a kid and his guitar fronting a band under his moniker, Neal Vitullo christened his first band Young Neal and the Vipers. “Who knew it was gonna last this long?” quipped Vitullo. “That’s one of those executive, genius band decisions because you don’t think the band’s gonna last more then a couple of years.”
That couple of years has stretched to over 30 years, and the band today, Neal Vitullo and the Vipers, continues to pack bars and festivals throughout New England. I guess longevity is the best compliment. We work as much as anyone. We’ve done stints in Europe and been touring as far west as Texas. People know the band and know what to expect. That means they come to the gig and turn other people onto us.”
Looking back on his career before he was dubbed “Young Neal” and there were no Vipers, Vitullo grew up in the most unlikely blues local, Rhode Island. Though he had no Delta or Chicago blues to absorb first hand, he did have first class blues at his fingertips without driving to either New York or Boston.
“I could go see Duke Robillard and Roomful of Blues on any given night. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were big friends of Roomful, so they were playing at the Knickerbocker Café. It was a natural gravitation for me. I could drive to Providence and go Lupo’s and see Son Seals on-stage. I saw Little Richard, Hubert Sumlin, Bo Diddley, and many others there.”
In the clubs, the vibrant contemporary sounds of Robillard, Jimmie Vaughan, Ronnie Earl, and many others were Vitullo’s solid foundation. At home, he was of the generation that still learned from records.
“I was playing during high school, and I would have gigs in clubs that I couldn’t go to, so my father would get me into those clubs. I loved the blues and gravitated more to that. Right out of high school, I got a gig with Chris Stovall Brown. [It was Brown who gave Vitullo the Young Neal name.] That was an unbelievable education. From there, I met Dave Howard. When I wasn’t playing with Chris, I’d bring my guitar to Dave’s gigs. We decided to do our own thing as a band. We started as Dave Howard on harmonica and myself and bass and drums, and it took off from there.
“We got a record deal with Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun, recording with Bob Greenlee’s King Snake Records, and getting to play with Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Roy Buchanan, Albert Collins, and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
That puts Vitullo into the class of blues guitarist who can claim they learned directly from the masters of the blues. “When I played with them, at first it’s a surreal experience. It doesn’t sink in until after you get back to the hotel that you realize, ‘I just was on-stage with the legend.’
“But when you’re not playing with them, you learn even more. You see what a professional they are, and how they conduct themselves. From Albert Collins, I learned how to attack an audience. He took no prisoners. Watching him taught me that when you’re on-stage, you’re on. I’ve always carried that kind of attitude with me. They played like that no matter what.
But the lessons run deeper then just how to play a guitar. “You learn the whole history. It comes to life. I’m the blues geek in my cellar with all my records. Next thing, it all comes to life. You hear all the influences and see how it all comes together. Willie Dixon told me how he wrote ‘Wang Dang Doodle.’ When he lays it all down, you know that’s the real deal. I try to hold onto that.”
And today Vitullo is the teacher passing along important lessons to his students. “I try and point the students in the right direction. I always give them records to learn where the music came from. It they are into rockabilly, I tell them they should listen to Johnny Burnett. I point them to guys like T-Bone Walker or the cool sounds of Albert Collins or to listen to the instrumental hits of Freddie King on King Records. And you better find Albert King’s double Live album. I wore out three of those.
“I have to explain to them that they can’t just learn the lick by watching on YouTube and pausing the video. It takes years of continual learning so that it comes out later. It’s not just knowing the lick; you’ve got to absorb that. One of my heroes was Roy Buchanan. I got hang with him and do gigs with Roy. He knew every guitar player. He didn’t have YouTube. He had records and big ears. He knew every guitar and the licks and could recite them.
Some have called Vitullo a blues guitarist, some refer to him as a surf rock guitarist and to some he’s an explosive working class guitarist. “I think I’m an American roots guitar player. I liken myself to Roy [Buchanan], I want to explore it all and put it into that stew. I’m absolutely a blues guitar player, but I see the similarities between blues and surf and rockabilly and country. They all come from the same place. How can you live in this country and not have those influences. When I hear some of those guitar tones, my head tilts like a dog and I have to learn them.”
When Howard left the band, Vitullo and the Vipers continued to crisscross New England as a trio with Vitullo handling the guitar and vocals. “That format definitely frees me up. That’s when I try and make everything as big and piano-like as I can on my chords.”
But five years ago, Howard rejoined the band. “Dave and I always felt that there was unfinished business between us. We decided to get back together about five years ago while we still could. Now I have Dave on the harmonica which is great. I missed that for a long time. It frees me up to go in a lot of different directions or find some interesting chord voicings on the guitar.”
And the reception? It’s been the same for 30 years. “One thing about me and my band, we play the same all the time. Whether there are five or 5,000 people, it doesn’t make a difference. You get the same. That’s the reputation we hope to have. You’ll never see us mail it in. You’re gonna get everything we have on that day.”
The only change is in the name. It’s matured to Neal Vitullo and the Vipers.