Lowell Levinger, aka “Banana”, tells us about his musical experiences and his love for Italy

Like many others musicians from overseas, Lowell Levinger aka Banana, former member of the Youngbloods and protagonist of the music scene for over sixty years, is in love with Italy.

“I discovered this wonderful country in 2007″ –  77-year-old  musician  says –   “and, after being there for the first time, I wondered why I had waited so long to visit it”.
If you ask him what he loves most about Italy, the answer is simple: wine and good food, in the first place, then the wonderful landscape and cities of art, and of course the people, his many friends he made during his countless trips.

Before the pandemic, in fact, Lowell used to come to our country from two to four times a year. After stopping his journeys for more than a year, due to the health emergency, he has been able to return to Italy at last. In addition to his tour that has led him to perform in Barletta, Genoa, Turin, Milan and  Como, he has enjoyed a well-deserved holiday, which has lasted for a month and has just finished. Today “Banana” and his wife Jane are leaving for the States, but it’s just a goodbye, because they intend to return in Spring, maybe in April or May.

I had the privilege of meeting this extraordinary artist a few days ago, at the Strada Ferrata Distillery  in Seregno; after playing in Milan, in fact, Lowell was a special guest at Andrea Parodi’s gig there. Besides, last night, Levinger performed together with Alex Gariazzo  and  Paolo Ercoli at Officina della Musica in Como. 

He played a repertoire composed mostly of blues classics  but he also inserted some gems, such as the famous “Let’s Get Together” by the  Youngbloods, hymn of the Californian hippy movement , and  “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” by the  Beatles. So I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

Live @ Officina della Musica, Como – photo by Mary Nowhere

Lowell, you told me that Italy is a place you love very much. What are the places you have enjoyed the most during your frequent journeys?

After visiting this extraordinary country for the first time 14 years ago, I fell in love with it and I decided to study the Italian language to be able to appreciate every single moment I spent here and to visit even the smallest places where English is not spoken.

Many Americans come to Italy as tourists for about ten days and visit the most famous places: Rome, Florence, Venice, sometimes the Amalfi Coast, the Cinque Terre and so on. On the other hand, I can say that I have visited places that not even my Italian friends knew, and that we discovered together. Many of my trips are about food and wine, in search of the production areas of the best wines. One of the most extraordinary places I have been to is Sicily. I especially appreciated the west of the island: Agrigento, Palermo, Monreale,  Corleone, Trapani, Erice … Erice is a wonderful village!  I would like to return to Enna and spend at least a couple of days there and then visit the eastern part: Catania, Messina, Syracuse, Ragusa… I hope I will be able to go there soon.

Talking about music, I know that the first instrument you played was the piano, at the age of 5, and then you moved on to the guitar around the age of 12-13. The first tune you tried your hand at was “Raunchy”…

Yes, exactly… it was a very popular tune among the guys who started strumming the six strings and they felt very good at playing it, but in truth it is a quite tricky piece.

Live @ Distilleria Srada Ferrata, Seregno – photo by Mary Nowhere

One of those guys was George Harrison, who in 1958 “passed the audition” to be taken on in Lennon and McCartney’s Quarrymen, playing that piece … some say that without “Raunchy” the Beatles would never have existed! But let’s get back to you: you started playing about 65 years ago, living through the decades in which the music scene evolved, and you lived intensely during the Sixties. Do you think they can be considered the “golden age” of music?

The Sixties were an incredible decade. Bands that made the history of music were born and memorable pieces were written in those years. And the atmosphere that you breathed, the youth movements, the psychedelic feel made it an amazing period. However, for me, the golden age of music was the Forties. The greatest jazz musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, the big bands, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musicals made that period really special. They were top-class artists. Many of the sixties’ greatest musicians often composed without being able to read music. The masters of jazz were on another level, in my opinion.

As for your career, what was its most important period ?

Obviously I’m linked to the sixties and the Youngbloods, but my favorite period is when I played with Little Steven and his Disciples of Soul, from  2016 until the stop caused by the pandemic. They are all incredible musicians and I have had some great experiences with them. I shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, who is truly an exquisite person, and with Paul McCartney… I was excited to see that he was playing with us and it was really a great satisfaction for me. But my last tour in Italy has been fantastic, too. These musicians (Alex Gariazzo and Paolo Ercoli) are extraordinary.

If you had a time machine, which era would you like to go back to?

I would like to stay where I am… the best moment is the present, and I had the greatest satisfaction with Steve Van Zandt’s band. I really hope to start playing with them again.

At the end of our chat, Lowell took the stage of the Officina accompanied by Paolo Ercoli on dobro and Alex Gariazzo on acoustic guitar.

He revisited numerous blues classics, such as Married To The Blues, Corrinna Corrinna  (interpreted, among others, by Bob Dylan), Stagger Lee  (a classic murder ballad famous for Nick Cave’s version),  Bartender’s Blues, Hard Times Come Again No More  (a 1858 protest song), No Walkin’Blues, Riverboat Gambler. He also played If You Want To Make a Fool of Somebody, brought to success by Adriano Celentano in 1964 under the title Il problema più importante,  and Riding With The King, included in the eponymous album by Eric Clapton and B.B. King, plus, of course, Let’s  Get  Together, a hymn of universal love in which the audience joined in the chorus.

A great musician and a very friendly person, full of positive energy: this is Lowell “Banana” Levinger. I forgot to ask him about the origin of his funny nickname… I will keep this question in store until he returns to Italy!

live @ Officina della Musica, Como – photo by Mary Nowhere