Quick: Who was the first Western rock star to play the Kremlin in Moscow after the fall of the Berlin Wall? McCartney? U2? Springsteen? Prince?
None of the above. It was, in fact, Zucchero Fornaciari, the Italian blues rocker popularly known by his first name, a childhood nickname from the Italian word for sugar.
Most American rock fans have probably never heard of Zucchero, but on the international stage, he’s a superstar on par with the glittery names mentioned above. And right there beside him—over three decades of touring around the world, selling more than 60 million records, and winning countless awards—has been Morgan Hill’s Polo Jones.
For 35 years, Jones has been Zucchero’s primary bass player. He’s taken the wild ride alongside Zucchero to Moscow and countless other venues around the world. He was there with Zucchero in 2012 for the similarly historic Gran Conceirto show, the biggest concert ever by an international artist in Havana, Cuba.
“We had 80,000 people there,” said Jones, reminiscing about Cuba at his Morgan Hill home. “We filmed it for PBS, so we brought with us 36 cameras and full PA system. We brought the whole stage, this giant two-tiered thing. And the stage set was the front of an old Buick. After that, we took the whole show on the road for a world tour, which was very cool. We didn’t take the Buick, though.”
Zucchero has been Jones’s primary gig, but in his long career, he’s played alongside many of the greatest in contemporary rock from his days playing with John Lee Hooker, to working with Sting, Brian May, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Andrea Bocelli and Eric Clapton.
“I first played with Eric back in ’89 with Zucchero,” he remembered. “I didn’t know it was Eric Clapton for about 20 minutes. That was when he had that pageboy haircut. And I just thought, wait, who’s that playing guitar? That can’t be Eric Clapton.”
This fall, Jones is at home working as a recording producer at Morgan Hill’s Skyline Entertainment & Publishing, and pursuing projects in concert promotion. Then, next spring, it’s off again for another world tour with Zucchero beginning at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Judging by YouTube clips of Jones leading the crowd at the stately Arena di Verona in Italy—built in the First Century A.D.—he does a lot more than play the bass. He also holds a role as Zucchero’s resident revivalist, in this case, bringing the crowd to frenzy as an introduction to the song “The Devil in Me.”
Paul Jones Jr. grew up in Oakland in the 1960s, a musical hotbed in an era of artistic adventurousness. His parents were both jazz artists, his dad a sax player and his mom a pianist and singer. In Oakland, he was something of a fish out of water, a lover of San Francisco-style rock in an area where funk, soul and blues ruled.
“When I lived in West Oakland as a kid,” he remembered, “people were listening to Bobby Blue Bland, Marvin Gaye, James Brown. I was into the Beatles. That was hard. They didn’t get it. I mean, I liked the Dave Clark Five. It doesn’t get any more square than the Dave Clark Five. There’s no funk in that at all.”
His early inspiration for bass was Cream’s Jack Bruce. But he was drawn into the rich funk scene in the East Bay, thanks in no small part to his childhood friend David Vega, who became a well-regarded guitarist under his stage name Dave Dynamite. The two eventually met up with legendary R&B band leader Larry Graham, formerly of Sly & the Family Stone. Through Graham, Jones ended up playing in Graham Central Station, which went on to have several funk hits in the ’70s.
It was under the direction of Graham that Jones morphed from the Cream-style rock bassist to the slap style more often heard in funk and R&B. (He got the nickname “Polo” not from a love of horses or Ralph Lauren casual wear. He said the name is derived from “il polipo,” Italian for octopus, so-called for his habit of playing several instruments at once on stage.)
Jones first began to play with Zucchero in 1985.
“I was just bouncing around at the time,” he said, “playing in a fusion pop band called Go West, my hair was all Princed up.”
A producer named Corrado Rustici recruited him to join a Bay Area band called Holiday of Hands to replace Randy Jackson (later known for “American Idol” fame), and it was through Rustici that he met Zucchero.
It was Zucchero who pointed Jones to superstar bassist Lee Sklar as an inspiration.
“I was a performer,” Jones said. “I came from a rock band where I’m all whipping the bass around and it’s all, hey, look at me. But he was saying, ‘I want someone like Lee Sklar,’ and Sklar was all about locking with the drummer. So, the next night, I stayed in the pocket and just locked with the drums, and now most of the gigs I get is because of the groove factor.”
Yet, his favorite bass player remains the world’s most famous player.
“It’s gotta be Paul McCartney,” he said. “His bass lines were so musical. You don’t think of him as being some hot-shot bass player, but there’s a lot of hot-shot bass players that can’t do what Paul McCartney did. He’s the best.”
In 2020, it’s more of the same for Polo Jones, touring with Zucchero with an enormous band featuring fiddles, horns and extra percussion. A typical set list, he said, is more than 40 songs, and close to three hours of live music. On stage, Zucchero is known for his larger-than-life persona. By contrast, Jones likes to zero in on a handful of people in the audience.
“I play for maybe three people,” he said. “I’ll look into the crowd and find whoever is grooving to me, and that’s when I know, I got ’em.”