As lore has it, John Popper, the harmonica-playing frontman for the ’90s rock band Blues Traveler, was just humming away on his blues harp in the hallways of Princeton High School when a band teacher discovered him.
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That teacher, who was also (perhaps not coincidentally) the inspiration behind the movie, Whiplash (starring J.K. Simmons), invited Popper to play his harmonica in the acclaimed big band for the school, Studio Band.
[RELATED: Top 10 Blues Traveler Songs]
With recognition, appreciation, and a growing musicality, Popper played in the band and even met some of the people who he would later jam with and continue to grow his skills.
He later moved to New York City, started playing with the musicians who would form Spin Doctors, got his own band, and the rest is history that includes Grammy nominations, platinum records, and more.
But how did the group get its name and how did it get off the ground in the Big Apple? And what does the movie Ghostbusters have to do with it?
Blues Traveler, created in Princeton and forged in New York City, got together in earnest in 1987.
The group released its self-titled, debut record in 1990, which included hits “But Anyway,” featured in the movie, Kingpin. Other standout tracks include “Alone” and “Sweet Talking Hippie.”
A year later, the group released its next acclaimed album, Travelers and Thieves, in 1991. In 1993, the band released Save His Soul, and then their breakout commercial album, Four, in 1994. Straight On Till Morning followed in 1997. Along the way, they sold millions of albums and earned a handful of Grammy nominations.
Sadly, in 1999, beloved bassist Bobby Sheehan passed away, sending a shockwave throughout the group and its fans. Today, the group’s lineup includes Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, drummer Brendan Hill, keyboardist Ben Wilson and bassist Tad Kinchla.
Along with hit singles like “Run-Around” and “Hook,” the band became known for its jams, its live shows, and extended song performances. They were instrumental in the creation of the H.O.R.D.E. music festival and even released a live album, Live From the Fall, with a 20-minute version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
In 2021, nearly two decades after leaving the A&M record label in 2002, Blues Traveler released its latest album, Traveler’s Blues, which was also nominated for Best Traditional Blues album during the 2022 Grammy Awards.
The Early Years and The Establishment
Originally, when Popper and drummer Brendan Hill formed what would become Blues Traveler, the burgeoning duo named the group The Establishment. Just a couple of high school friends were playing in a big band, led by a legendary teacher Dr. Anthony Biancosino, thinking they came up with a moniker that was hard-hitting and funny.
As with most original first passes at band names, though, that one fell by the wayside in favor of the name Blues Band. At first, Hill’s brother played bass and the group included a rotating slew of guitarists.
With those early makings, the musicians cut a few cassette tape demos, which included original songs and covers of tracks like the hit “Gloria.”
After Chan Kinchla, a prominent football player, experienced a knee injury, he joined the group. And Popper recruited bassist Bobby Sheehan, a good friend, in the late 80s.
The Black Cat Jam
With the members together and in full force, they began playing regularly, often in basement sessions that the group called The Black Cat Jam. Those led to the early grooves and movements that would appear on the band’s self-titled debut album just a few years later.
The group got the name for the jam after a black cat crossed their path nearby. Taking it as a sign, the cat became their mascot and remained so. To wit, on the group’s seminal album, Four, a black cat can be seen smoking a cigarette against a pea-green background.
Finally, after jamming together for months, the group landed on the moniker, Blues Traveler, a name that would stick for decades.
Strangely and perhaps perfectly, the second word in the name came from the main demon figure in the movie, Ghostbusters, who was named Gozer the Traveler.
That combined with the music style they played and their name, Blues Band, at the time, created the perfect nickname, especially for a group that would tour relentlessly for decades to come.
Blues Travelers Photo by Graham Felder