During its first cross-country tour, in 1991, Black Dog was four songs into its set in a St. Louis joint called Blueberry Hill when a guitar player named Chuck Berry walked in. Soon after, guitarist Jon Ridnell coaxed the legendary Berry into doing a few numbers. Berry took Ridnell's guitar “and tore the house up” with Johnnye B. Goode , Roll Over Beethoven , and other classics.
“He put these deep scratches in my guitar,” says Jon. “If anybody else did that I'd choke them. But I treasure those scratches.”
Black Dog was working its way from New York City to Colorado, and when the band reached its final gigs in the Rockies, Jon knew he had come home.
Certified guitarslinger Jon “Black Dog” Ridnell (the nickname is a long story, but harks back to days of teenage excess and has since stuck with the band) grew up in Bronxville, NY. By the age of 15 he was fronting homespun garage bands and playing what he calls Bronx River Delta blues and rock and roll—Clapton, Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd, whatever he could cut his chops on.
He and childhood friend Matt Baxter (Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxter's —that Baxter) launched a band called the Crucial Jive, until one day a young kid said, “What's so crucial about your jive?” The band morphed into The Jive, doing the obligatory house parties and teen dances.
Jon had taken lessons from several teachers when one day he discovered records by jazz guitarist Link Chamberlain. “I tried to imitate what he was doing, but just had no foundation for it,” says John. Chamberlain took the kid under his wing and turned his head around in terms of what he taught and what he expected of his pupil. “If you're not really going to do it, don't do it,” Link told Jon. “If you're really going to do it, you should be practicing six hours a day.”
It took Jon a little time to work up to that level of commitment, but he did. But Chamberlain died two years later, and Jon moved to Ithaca, New York, to test the college scene. He stayed seven years. “There were so many colleges there, so many frats, that it really was like Animal House.”
Now based in Colorado, Jon and a rotating roster of top musicians have released a half dozen studio CDs and several lives discs, while Jon has issued one solo CD. And as Black Dog continues to cover a lot of musical ground, Jon finds himself and the band busier than ever—over 300 gigs last year showcasing their on-your-feet, contagious blend of blues rock funk and jazz.
“We write and play as many styles as possible,” Jon says. “The rock and roll and blues are always there, of course, and we have a lot of original tunes as well. But depending on the gig we might even throw in our versions of Miles Davis or Duke Ellington. Whatever gets you moving.”
As one CD title says, it's “For the Sake of the Groove.