Delaware’s Mr. BluesApr 09, 2021 11:15AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Delaware’s most important blues fan is undoubtedly Middletown resident Gene Fontana.
He’s “a central part of the blues scene in Delaware. You can’t mention the scene without him,” said Garry Cogdell, a blues performer for 56 years. “He’s taken us to the next level.”
For more than 20 years, Fontana has created blues festivals in locations across New Castle County.
A riff on “Mr. Blues” helps form his email address.
And then there’s his blues collection. “Boxes and boxes of albums. Lots of CDs – I couldn’t tell you how many. And cassettes that I recorded live off the radio,” he said.
“I’m just a promoter. I don’t play,” he said. “but I have always loved the blues. It’s the roots of all music. I like it all: West Coast blues, Chicago blues, Piedmont blues, Mississippi blues, Memphis blues.” And, of course, blues performed in Delaware.
Blues here, there and everywhere
Fontana, who’s 62, is a Delaware native. He had a career in auto body collision, repair and paint, working for Diver Chevrolet for 27 years, Auto Collision for 12 years and Executive Auto Body for a 1½ years before moving into the restaurant business. He bought the St. Georges Country Store in 2015.
His blues memories go back to attending performances the 1970s. By 1997, his interest had strengthened enough to create the Diamond State Blues Society, formed with his wife, Elenore, and based on advice from the Bucks County Blues Society in Pennsylvania.
The Diamond State Blues Society is “one of the premier blues organizations on the East Coast,” Tom Cullen, co-founder of the Bucks County Blues Society, said in the 2020 obituary for Elenore. “We were kindred spirits in that we both understood that the blues is a big tent.”
Fontana offered several examples of that big tent by noting that a lot of famous rock bands started out with the blues, including Fleetwood Mac, the Steve Miller Band, the Allman Brothers Band and the Rolling Stones. Some returned to it as well.
He booked his first big blues event, with The Nighthawks, in 1998.
The events and interactions with the artists flowed. The House Rocking Parties, with the blues tinged with rock. The Harvest Festivals in the fall. The Riverfront Blues Festivals in Wilmington, plus the after-parties. The St. Georges Blues Festivals. And performances in the St. Georges Country Store.
‘The love of the music’
Blue Horizon was conceived by Fontana, Ben Rizzo of Diamond State Masonry and Joe Michini (former owner of the St. Georges Country Store) to “to help restore and keep alive the rich musical heritage” of St. Georges.
“We started doing it just for the love of the music,” said blues fan Sonny Dill, who helped the Gene and Elenore Fontana early on. “Great festivals, great people (I know their wives!). We just wanted to educate people. It wasn’t about making money, just to have enough for the next round.”
The venues for these shows moved around (the St. Georges Blues Festival is now in Delaware City, for example) and so did Fontana’s involvement. “Things change,” he said.
Then came the pandemic, which stopped national acts from touring, generated capacity restrictions on indoor events and spurred cautious governments to deny permits for outdoor events.
The latest bad news: The 2021 St. Georges Blues Festival has been canceled.
Plans for St. Georges Country Store
The latest good news: The St. Georges Country Store has been remodeled and is being readied for reopening this spring.
The store traces its history back 300 years, judging by the foundation, Fontana said. For decades, it was a country store, selling all sorts of stuff. Michini around 2005 converted it into a place that also books music, Cogdell recalled.
On one hand, that’s an odd choice, since ticket revenue is very limited, because the audience capacity is so low. On the other, it’s a great choice. “It’s priceless to see a show in this room,” Fontana said. “I sell only 45 tickets, and those tickets are like a backstage pass, and you can have a drink and talk with the performers.”
The acoustics are good enough to have served as a site to make recordings. “It’s an incredibly cool room,” Cogdell said. “Old-school sound. Really good sound,”
He should know: he has a recurring gig in the room, and his musicianship dates back to 1964 and includes Mississippi Earl Brown, a trio with Mike “Pup” Williams and bluesman George Thorogood.
The store sits on land owned by Fontana and Rizzo; Fontana owns the store itself.
Ice cream and Trudy Lynn
For the reopening, Fontana is planning on shortening the menu, which showcases Cajun recipes and comfort food from his wife. While that menu is shrinking, he’s adding an ice cream shop, called the Creamery at St. Georges. It’ll also have casual fare like hot dogs.
He’s aiming to appeal to people enjoying the Mike Castle Trail, and a trailhead is just steps away. “Wow,” he said, after briefly counting potential customers on a winter day. “There goes eight ice cream cones.”
In several years he also hopes to create a beer garden, with music, of course.
For now, he’s weighing how to accommodate capacity restrictions. Two shows in one day? Three?
The first national act will be Trudy Lynn in June. He plans to otherwise emphasize local performers.
The store and the festivals are able to draw boldface names for two reasons. One is that they’re close enough to other festivals and venues that performers can easily swing by on tours. Another is that the performers – and their spouses, their agents their managers – know Fontana.
Often, that’s from his attendance on blues cruises. “You’re on the ship with all these great characters, said Dill, also a cruise regular. “Give me a name, and I’ll give you a story.”