Johnny Hoy & the Bluefish: Devoted to the Classics


“I was burning through personnel because it’s a small island, and I wasn’t easy to get along with,” Hoy said of forming a band on Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1970s.

(Photo: Dan Busler)

It’s a typical Wednesday night in January at The Ritz Café in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, seven miles offshore from Cape Cod.

During the busy summer tourist season, the town is the unofficial nightlife capital of the island, the first stop for most day-trippers stepping off the ferry from the Cape, with bars and restaurants that cater to them. The winter is another story, however. On this night, the few joints on Circuit Avenue that are not closed for the season are serving a mere handful of customers.

But the Ritz, a self-described “historic dive bar,” is mobbed with locals, all come to drink and dance to Johnny Hoy & the Bluefish, a quartet of blues classicists that for decades has been the island’s most popular band. Their fans on this winter night are mainly the working people who keep the island’s flame lit all winter; the dancers include some uninhibited ex-hippies with shaggy white hair who look like they boogied out of an Edward Koren cartoon.

Hoy, 64, is a rough-and-tumble character who has lived on the Vineyard for decades, a working man in a flannel shirt with a gruff exterior. He does not suffer fools. Hoy has been a mason and a commercial fisherman and still works at both. But for 30 years he has mainly been a gravelly voiced singer and a passionate, melodically inventive blues harpist, leading a band whose devotion to the classics of the genre has made them known far beyond their Martha’s Vineyard home. In a raspy but musical baritone that at times recalls The Big Bopper and his idol Muddy Waters, he puts the lyrics first, delivering his stories with authenticity. During his shows, he draws a collection of blues harps (C, D, E, F, G and A, among others) out from what looks like an oversized, beat-up steel tackle box.

The group is a legend throughout New England, where they regularly sell out clubs. But, if anything, they are even better known overseas, having ventured to Norway more than a dozen times, including headlining four times at the International Blues Festival in Hell (yes, that’s the town’s name), as well as in Switzerland, South Africa and the Caribbean.

The Bluefish include Jeremy Berlin, a jazz and blues pianist who has been with Hoy almost since the beginning in 1991; their young, blistering female blues singer/guitarist, Delanie Pickering; and the band’s drummer, Cameron Igo, 19, the newest addition, who appears with the group when he’s not studying at the Berklee School in Boston, about 70 miles to the north.

At the Ritz, and again a few weeks later at a sold-out, sit-down concert at a club called the Fallout Shelter in Norwood, Massachusetts, Hoy mesmerized the crowd with his gritty delivery. He is fully invested in his repertoire of blues classics like Waters’ “What’s The Matter With The Mill? (It Done Broke Down)” and Magic Sam’s “She Belongs To Me,” and in originals like his “Big Stacka Darlin’” and “Can’t Stand To Sleep Alone.” A new live album, Live From The Fallout Shelter, is scheduled for release this summer.

Hoy was born in Middletown, Connecticut. “I went to six different schools all over the country. I dropped out of high school in my senior year. My dad was upwardly mobile and a curious guy, wondering what it would be like to do this and that, and he dragged us around.” After his parents divorced at the age of 10, Hoy hitchhiked across country to visit them on each coast, then graduated to hopping freight trains accompanied by his blues harp, a constant companion. It was years before he got up the courage to sing in public.

He moved to Martha’s Vineyard in the late 1970s. “I hadn’t played for about seven years, then my daughter was born. That was a big inspiration for me to do something in music. When you have a kid, you want to be somebody for them, someone they can look up to. I was doing construction and commercial fishing … but I didn’t think I was much of an example for a kid. So I started the band with my ex-wife. It had been my dream. It all happened pretty fast — it kind of exploded. Within three years I had a record deal,” with Boston blues label Tone-Cool Records.

“But I was burning through personnel because it’s a small island, and I wasn’t easy to get along with,” he acknowledged. “I was a mason, you know? If I didn’t like somebody’s job performance, I’d fire ’em and get someone else; and that was my attitude about musicians, too. But I quickly realized that there weren’t enough musicians around [laughs].”

One musician who survived Hoy’s volatility was pianist/organist Berlin, a Boston native who has lived on the island for more than 30 years. An articulate and nuanced jazz pianist who often performs solo and in duos, for Hoy he transformed himself into a killer blues-and-barrelhouse pianist influenced by New Orleans piano masters and classic players like Otis Spann and John Johnson. He also provides rock-solid left-handed bass, which gives the band its distinctive sound. Whether he’s playing jazz or blues, “It all comes from the same place,” he observes.

In her fisherman’s cap, bandana and leather jacket, guitarist/singer Delanie Pickering, a 26-year-old transplant from Concord, New Hampshire, the band’s not-so-secret weapon, is a distinctive presence onstage. She describes a childhood trip to New York with her mother to see B.B. King as “the best day of my life.” After graduating high school she lived in a van for seven years. The band often features her autobiographical song “I Don’t Mind Sleeping Outside By Myself,” which includes the line, “It’s easier than sleeping someplace that I don’t own.” In March 2024, Pickering was invited to perform with her own group at the Terri’Thouars Blues Festival in Thouars, France.

The band members discussed their audience, what has changed and what has stayed the same.

“I like the old people coming to the shows,” Delanie said. “They dance more than the young people tend to, and there are some young people who really like this stuff. I never understood the idea that kids want to see other kids playing music, because I always preferred to see an old guy. If the choice was to see an old guy sing blues or see a kid do something stupid, I would see the old guy.”

Jeremy added: “We get young people who don’t know much about this kind of music, and they’re often like, ‘Holy shit, you guys are killing it,’ because there’s a groove and an energy. It’s exciting to see them getting into it.” DB

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