Jerry Ricks Blues Festival in Kvarner, Croatia – a tribute to the legend
As the bura whistles its music through our village, I imagine the faint sounds of a blues band warming up. In July, the Jerry Ricks Blues Festival begins in the Opatija Riviera. That means balmy summer nights, lights twinkling on the glittering sea, and crowds swaying as bluesy notes float across Kvarner bay just like the bura is now.
Each July, top local and international blues musicians play in Matulji, Kastav, Mosćenička Draga, Opatija, Klana, and Lovran. The Jerry Ricks Festival is Croatia’s most impressive blues festival. But I must say, I never associated Croatia with the blues. Did you?
And yet, Croatia has a vibrant blues scene. So much so that in 2019, the non-governmental organization Hrvatske Blues Snage (Croatian Blues Forces) won the prestigious Keeping the Blues Alive award from the USA Blues Foundation. It was one of only four organizations outside of the US to win this award.
Jerry Ricks, a USA country blues guitarist and singer, has a lot to do with the vibrant blues scene here. He spent the end of his life in Kastav, where he died in 2007, but not before setting in motion a wave of inspiration for local players.
The Jerry Ricks Festival was born out of a memorial service to this great bluesman. And soon, his statue will be erected in the main square of Kastav, a historical center just outside Rijeka.
Learn about how Jerry Ricks inspired the Jerry Ricks Blues Festival and how the Hrvatske Blues Snage keeps the blues alive in Croatia.
In this article, we cover:
- Jerry’s connection to Croatia
- Jerry Ricks Blues Festival’s birth
- Festival settings and songbirds
- Jerry Ricks Blues Festival 2023
- Croatian Blues Forces
- Jerry Ricks film and statue
The facts are these…
Singing the blues in Kvarner, Croatia: a tribute to Jerry Ricks
Jerry Ricks (1940 – 2007), also known as Philadelphia Jerry Ricks, was an American country blues guitarist and singer. In the early 1960s, he worked as a booking manager in the famous Philadelphia folk club, the 2nd Fret, where some of the greatest players in jazz, folk, and blues started out, including Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. He also got to know key blues players in the blues revival scene, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, one of the greatest guitarists ever.
In 1964, Ricks recorded with Mississippi John Hurt, another American country blues singer and guitarist, whose songs were later recorded by greats such as Bob Dylan, Bill Morrissey, and Taj Mahal. In 1969, he toured East Africa with Buddy Chicago blues man Buddy Guy, who has influenced generations of guitarists, including Eric Clapton and Jimmy Hendrix. In the 1970s and 1980s, he lived in Europe, returning to the US in 1972 and 1973 to record with Hall & Oates on their albums Whole Oats and Abandoned Luncheonette.
An interesting part of the story is that Ricks recorded his first solo album in Zagreb in 1984. He also recorded albums in Hungary, Austria, and Switzerland, returning to live in the US in the early 1990s. His first US release (1998), Deep in the Well, was nominated for three W.C. Handy Awards.
In 2007, Ricks and his wife moved to Kastav, a town near Rijeka, Croatia. Sadly, he suffered a stroke that year. A benefit concert featuring Shemekia Copeland and David Bromberg was held in the US to help pay his medical bills. He died on December 10, 2007, aged 67, in a hospital in Rijeka and was buried in Kastav.
When Jerry Ricks moved to Kastav, he brought a wave of inspiration to local blues players, who arranged for him to have concerts in Croatia. When he died, a blues memorial concert was held in his honor in 2008.
That concert was the birth of the Kastav Blues Festival, which later merged with the Opatija Riviera Blues Festival to become the Jerry Ricks Blues Festival. Since then, as the festival website so lyrically puts it, the festival has “continued from year to year, growing ever louder… the notes of the blues blowing along the roads leading across… Rijeka.”
Jerry Ricks Blues Festival is now the biggest and most important blues festival in Croatia.
Two musical mayors helped to sew the seeds of the first Jerry Ricks Blues festival. The first one is Kastav’s mayor Matej Mostarac born in 1987, one of Croatia’s youngest mayors and a rock musician. The second is the mayor of the Mošćenička Draga municipality, Riccardo Staraj, a well-known blues musician. They are just two of the drivers in the vibrant Croatian blues scene and collaborate with other local councils not just on music but also on other cultural initiatives.
As of 2008, the overall blues scene in Croatia really took off. The Croatian Blues Forces were formed and now keep the blues in Croatia alive.
The Jerry Rick Blues Festival directors ensure the concert settings add to the magic. In 2023, the festival opens in the Open Air Theater in Opatija’s famous Angiolina botanical park.
Each year, the blues “caravan” moves between the church without a roof in Kastav, the Kaštel Gradina historical ruins, high on a rocky hill above the hillfort town of Klana, the Štacion in Matulji, the Mošćenička Draga waterfront and the pier parking in Lovran. If it rains, then the Lovran concert moves to the historical Lovran cinema.
“One of the criteria that we apply when choosing musicians is that each must have a recorded musical career behind them, that they have released several sound records, and that they have recorded some number of performances at other blues festivals – not only in Croatia but also further,” says Riccardo Staraj, who hopes that the festival will one day “break through the borders of Europe to impact other continents”.
The Jerry Ricks Festival 2023 begins with two introductory concerts on 14 and 16 July featuring: Jed Becker’s Group; Jure Černeha; Riccardo Staraj & The Midnight Blues Band; and Tomislav Goluban (who, together with Mauro Staraj, will also play with the Midnight Blues Band). Tomislav, from Zabok, is one of the most successful Croatian blues players and was a friend of Jerry. Ricks played his last concert with Goluban, and they planned to record a joint album, but Ricks died. Inspired by their friendship, Tomislav dedicated a song to him.
Ana Popović and singer-songwriter Dik Banković will officially open the festival in Opatija on July 19; Other players include: Trio 99th, led by Siniša Katalinić and the Highlanders band from Serbia, who bring a touch of the 1960s and 1970s British and US blues-rock scene; the USA blues musician Katie Henry, who The Guardian newspaper called “a runaway talent you need to keep up with”.
Also playing are Croatia’s celebrated jazz-blues-soul singer Zdenka Kovačiček accompanied by her ten-member band, the Greenhouse blues band.
Adding an African note is Baba Sissoko, who comes from Mali. Sissoko is not only a band leader and singer but also a virtuoso on traditional African instruments. His band has performed the opening acts of greats such as Carlos Santana and Sting. In Croatia, they have given the opportunity to local forces: the Delta Blues Train from Rijeka.
The final day of the festival is reserved for the multi-award-winning British blues-rock band King King. Their concert will be opened by the Nicolas Kurelić Band from Rijeka.
View the full 2023 festival program here.
Memphis, Tennessee is the home of the blues, and in 1980, the Blues Foundation was founded there. Its mission is to preserve its heritage, celebrate blues recording and performance, expand worldwide awareness of the blues, and ensure the future of the uniquely American blues art form. It also honors members of the blues community who have spent a lifetime celebrating and promoting blues music with the Keeping the Blues Alive Awards.
The udruga Croatian Blues Forces is a member of the Blues Foundation. In 2019, it won the Keeping the Blues Alive Award, one of only four non-USA members to do so.
The Hrvatske Blues Snage – HBS (Croatian Blues Forces) took off in 2008. It was a founding member of the European Blues Union, which held its first European Blues Conference in 2008 in Parma, Italy.
The following year, HBS sent its first musician to compete in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Later that year, it held its first Croatian Blues Challenge following the rules of the International Blues Challenge (IBC), a Blues Foundation initiative. The winners were sent to the 2010 IBC in Memphis. Every year since, HBS has conducted a Croatian Blues Challenge and sends representatives to the IBC.
Keeping the blues alive among the youth is a big part of the international blues agenda. Croatia has sent representatives to the Memphis Youth Showcase three times, in 2013, 2014, and 2017.
In cooperation with record labels Spona and Croatia Records, CBF has produced several blues releases.
CBF continues to support blues in the school programs, both locally and internationally, produces local blues concerts throughout the year, and has either started or helped produce a number of blues festivals across Croatia.
View more on HBS events, the Croatian Blues Challenge, the International Blues Challenge, the European Blues Challenge, and Keeping the Blues Young at HBS’ official pages.
At the initiative of HBS, the city of Kastav and the Kastav Tourist Board produced a film dedicated to Jerry Ricks. And soon, a statue of the blues legend will stand proudly in Kastav’s central square.
At the same time, HBS is currently working on resolving copyright licenses to release a live album of the last concert by Jerry Ricks.
That same bura wind will soon whistle round Jerry Rick’s statue in Kastav, sometimes gently, sometimes with full gusto – in a rather bluesy way.
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