While most people are trying to find a place to listen to music in their twenties, Lancaster Roots and Blues director and founder of the Chameleon Club Rich Ruoff was trying to make a home for music in Lancaster. From starting a music venue/club, to having a brief record label, to bringing music history into Amish Country, Ruoff has become a name everyone in the region knows as being in-the-know on the music scene.
“I get people pulling me aside, saying, ‘Thank you for introducing me to this band,’” he says.
But you wouldn’t know it, if you happened to randomly bumped into him around town. Thirty years later, Ruoff has three young boys, a wife and two dogs. He says his children used to roll their eyes when they’d hear a song on TV, and he’d say, “Hey, I had them play at the club.” Now, though, he says it seems to be sinking in that he’s had a bigger impact in Lancaster.
Ruoff saw the grunge scene in the Chameleon Club, and narrowly missed the opportunity to host arguably the defining band of the genre, Nirvana, just two months before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an international hit.
“They were a pretty small band from Seattle, and I got a call from the agent,” Ruoff says. “So, I did a little market research and I called some of the local record stores. And one of the record stores said, ‘Yeah, they’d be good, you wouldn’t have to pay them too much.’ So, I thought, ‘OK,’ and I didn’t back to the agent right away, I called him the next day. But by then he’d put them up at JC Dobbs in Philadelphia.”
After selling the Chameleon in 2002, Ruoff had some time to miss the music scene, and wanted to come back with one of his passions – blues. He said the moment he wanted to kick off the festival, there was near instantaneous support, and bands didn’t hesitate to participate.
He was happy to chat about his experience, both as a young club owner and as the man behind Lancaster’s biggest music attraction.
Blayne Waterloo: What was the music scene in Lancaster like before you started the Chameleon Club?
Rich Ruoff: I was just a young guy going out. Finding a few bands where I could. But, having traveled, I thought there could be more going on in this town, so that was my motivation.
BW: What music did you want to see more of?
RR: Something original, you know. Bring in some blues and jazz, and some reggae music.
BW: Chameleon Club had a record label in the mid-nineties. Can you tell me one of the bands you recorded on that label?
RR: A band called Mighty Head.
BW: Where was the place to be before you brought the Chameleon Club to town?
RR: Well, I hung out at the Lancaster Dispensing Company. They had more live music then – of course, now they have almost none.
BW: What music could you hear there?
RR: They’d mix it up with rock ‘n’ roll and blues.
BW: So, you’ve always been a fan of blues and “roots,” which is where your inspiration for the Lancaster Roots and Blues festival comes from, right?
RR: I would say, yeah, certainly the blues was always a passion of mine. And then, because we were going to expand it and do it throughout the whole city, I wanted to broaden the scope and call it Roots and Blues. I have a pretty broad definition of “roots.”
BW: Can you give me a little more explanation as to what roots entails?
RR: It’s Americana, jazz, folk, bluegrass, country, the history of American roots, essentially.
BW: How jazzed are you – no pun intended – to have Maceo Parker at Roots and Blues this year?
RR: Oh, I’m very excited. He’s an A-list player. Just an amazing talent, and an amazing history with music. You know, he played with James Brown, he played with Prince, he has his own career. Very exciting.
BW: How big are you hoping to make Roots and Blues?
RR: Over the next five years, we’re hoping to bring about 20,000 people to the festival. And I think that’s all the bigger I’d like it to get. Right now, the locals love having this attraction in their hometown, and I don’t want it to become a hassle.
BW: One last, random question: Bowie or Jagger, and why?
RR: Wow, that’s a tough question. I didn’t realize how much David Bowie was intertwined in my life until he died. He had a long career and his hits coincided with important times in my life. But, that said… Jagger. He is a Rolling Stone.