Soul Man

Dan Rabinovitz performs in court by day and with rock ’n’ soul legends by night

Published in 2005 Massachusetts Rising Stars — May 2005

At the tender age of 40, Dan Rabinovitz, a business and commercial litigator at Menard, Murphy & Walsh, can already look back on an amazing career as a professional musician. He’s played trumpet for such legendary blues and soul pioneers as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Solomon Burke; the late, great Son Seals; and former Muddy Waters guitarist Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson.

Not bad for someone whose first instrument was a dusty old English hunting horn.

When Rabinovitz was 5, he discovered the horn hanging on a wall in his great-aunt’s house as decoration. It certainly wasn’t used for music since no one in the family had ever been able to get a sound out of the thing. The young Rabinovitz managed to crawl up and retrieve the horn without anyone noticing and managed to blow one note. “I had a natural lip,” Rabinovitz says. “When my greataunt passed, that was one of the things I got from her, that horn.”

Rabinovitz promptly signed up for the school band program, where his blossoming trumpet skills got him bumped up to the orchestra a year before anyone else in his class. In high school, he became more involved with baseball, football and hockey than music, so the trumpet was put away. But not for long.

In the summers, he worked as a baseball instructor at Camp Alton in Wolfeboro, N.H., which also had a strong music program, giving him a chance to pick up the horn again at least a few months out of the year. While at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., he began listening to blues music, and then playing trumpet along with the horn sections on Junior Wells, B.B. King, James Brown and Solomon Burke albums.

Taking a year off in 1987 between college and law school, Rabinovitz worked as a doorman at the now-defunct jazz and blues club Nightstage in Cambridge, bringing along his horn every night. Often, he’d get the chance to sit in with greats like Son Seals, Albert King, Junior Wells and James Cotton. It was one Sleepy LaBeef, the legendary rockabilly pioneer, who gave him his real education.

“[Sleepy LaBeef] took me out on the road and gave me my start, really,” says Rabinovitz, who spent four months playing with LaBeef in the spring of 1987. “And that kind of grew into a more serious interest.”

When he graduated from Boston University Law School in 1990, the tough financial times in Massachusetts meant hiring freezes in district attorney offices across the state. “Coming out of law school, I really wanted to get trial experience and I was much more philosophically slanted to the prosecution side of things.” So he sent applications around the country and got offers from offices in Dade County, the Bronx and Cook County in Chicago.

With its vibrant blues and soul scene, Chicago was the natural choice for Rabinovitz. It turned out to be a timely move when he learned that Son Seals, who later passed away in 2004, had recently fired a musician from his horn section. Two days after he moved, Rabinovitz began playing with Seals every Friday and Saturday night, a gig that lasted from 1990 to 1997. His “day” job was no less exciting, roaming through high-rise housing projects like Cabrini Green at 2 a.m. with a police escort, looking for gang members to serve as witnesses to crimes.

In 1994, Rabinovitz made a trip down south for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he managed to get backstage to meet Solomon Burke. “I basically said that I was a trumpet player, I love his music and it would be a thrill to sit in with him sometime,” Rabinovitz says. “And he says, ‘Bring your horn tomorrow night to the House of Blues. We’re recording a live album.’”

Rabinovitz had packed for a vacation, not a nightclub gig, so he had to buy a suit before he and his wife, Holly, arrived at the venue. The opening act was playing and the Rabinovitzes were ushered over to Aretha Franklin’s reserved but unoccupied seats. After a few songs, Rabinovitz went backstage to wait for his cue.

In the second set, Burke brought Rabinovitz on stage and “Proud Mary” was called out. Rabinovitz lit up. “Proud Mary” was on the Solomon Burke live CD he used to practice playing music by ear and they were playing in G, same as the album.

“Just about that time, I heard the drummer’s count and what do you do the first time you’re sitting in with your hero? You go for it. So I did and I was right there with the opening horn line — screaming, up an octave — and I was right on,” Rabinovitz says. “Solomon turned and he had this look of astonishment on his face. And from that moment on, every song he called out was a song off that album and I knew every tune. When I came off stage at the end of that set, he was waiting in the wings. He grabbed my hand and he said, ‘Who are you? How do know my music and do you want a gig?’”

“He played like he had been with the band a lifetime, cooking with the band,” Burke says. “He’s a great musician, and he’s a beautiful person.”

Later, back in Chicago, Rabinovitz got a call from Burke telling him he was getting a credit on the live album, “Solomon Burke: Live at the House of Blues,” and a chance to play, now as a hired band member, at another blues festival in the Midwest. It was on this day, Rabinovitz’s 30th birthday and his first paying gig with Burke, that he’d get a chance to show off more than just his horn chops.

At the festival, Burke was supposed to receive the balance of his contract — “thousands and thousands of dollars,” Rabinovitz says — in cash before he went onstage. But the promoters began making excuses. There wasn’t enough money backstage. They’d have to collect from the food booths in the front. The money would be there after the set.

The band played through their set and walked offstage, and Burke went to get the band’s wages. Soon, he was calling for Rabinovitz. The promoters finally revealed what they’d been hiding. They had been served with a garnishment order for Burke’s money three days before, something they kept hidden until after his set was over.

The order came from a different promoter in the same city (a city Rabinovitz declines to name) who had sued Burke for breach of contract for not playing at his club 10 years before. Burke has a different memory of the incident. The promoter had refused to let him go onstage with his band because he wasn’t using union musicians. After an argument, the promoter pulled a gun and ordered him out of the club. Since then, a default judgment had been made against Burke, which Rabinovitz says Burke knew nothing about.

Rabinovitz got right into the negotiations. “I said, ‘I live in Chicago, I’m from Boston and Solomon lives in Los Angeles. Between the two of us, we know blues musicians coast-to-coast. You have a very nice festival being built up here, but by the time we’re done telling everybody what you pulled, you won’t get a banjo player for next year’s concert.’ At which point a lawyer stepped out and said, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we can work this out.’”

Rabinovitz and the promoters drafted a promissory note that said if they weren’t successful in getting the garnishment order thrown out (they were), Burke would pay them back the money.

“Those guys were clowning me all day,” Burke says. “But before the night was over, Dan had the money. I was like, ‘You are my lawyer. You are the man.’”

Not long after, Rabinovitz got another call from Burke. The singer was playing a 10-day gig in Paris over New Year’s and could only bring nine musicians. Burke told Rabinovitz that he was one of them and his wife should come along too.

“So, literally, my second gig [with Burke] was 10 nights in a row in Paris,” says Rabinovitz, who explored the city with his wife by day and played the ultra-swank Le Meridien Hotel off the Champs-Elysées at night. “It was like our second honeymoon.”

Rabinovitz began appearing with Burke across the country and the world. At the same time he was keeping his weekly gigs with Son Seals and joining him on his U.S. and European tours.

In 1997, Rabinovitz decided to move back to Boston and focus on playing primarily with Burke. The good neighborhoods in Chicago meant too much time spent commuting and they wanted to raise their two boys, Louis, 8, and Peter, 5, in a city that didn’t have 700 homicides a year.

In 2001, Burke, along with Michael Jackson, Paul Simon and Aerosmith, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rabinovitz was right there with all of them, playing with Burke for the induction ceremony. The event was shown on VH1 and ended with an all-star jam session on Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” featuring Keith Richards, half of Aerosmith, Johnny Johnson (Chuck Berry’s piano player), James Burton (Elvis Presley’s guitarist) and Kid Rock joining Burke on vocals.

He recently had another chance to perform in front of a nationwide audience. In February, Burke brought Rabinovitz to his appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” where he played with Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra.

After returning to his hometown, Rabinovitz soon found himself working for his mentor, Frank Levy, at Abrams, Roberts & Klickstein. The two have known each other since Rabinovitz was Levy’s son’s camp counselor at Camp Alton. The two kept in touch and Rabinovitz later spent a summer clerking at the firm. “He has tremendous drive coupled with a concern for his clients. It’s a tremendous combination,” says Levy. “I’d have him represent me in court or play at my wedding.”

Levy and Rabinovitz both eventually left Abrams, Roberts & Klickstein to work at Dwyer & Collora, where they stayed until January 2004. Levy went to Duane Morris, and Rabinovitz moved to his current firm, Menard Murphy Walsh.

Lately Rabinovitz has been taking on areas such as securities litigation, something he says is a growing part of his practice. “The whole legal world of securities litigation is very different,” Rabinovitz says. “Financial advisers or brokers live in a completely different world, and a broker could have the support of his management and compliance department but then the rules change and they’re applied retroactively and that person finds himself out in the cold.”

And, naturally, he does some work in entertainment law, collecting back royalties for artists through a company called Records on the Wall, which has served clients such as the estate of blues pioneer Robert Johnson.

Although he’s come a long way from a toddler playing with a hunting horn, mistakes can still happen onstage, and even seasoned professionals can get embarrassed — especially when you goof in front of the Rolling Stones.

In November 2002, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas, Rabinovitz had been told to be onstage in 10 minutes for sound check but got wrapped up in a conversation. Thinking he was late, he grabbed his trumpet and ran toward the sounds of musicians warming up.

“So I went running out onstage,” Rabinovitz says. “As I turned the corner, I see Ron Wood with a guitar on his back and I think, ‘Why is Ron Wood at our sound check?’ But does that stop my feet from carrying me into the center of the stage? No. So I’m standing in the middle of the stage, holding my trumpet and it’s the entire, full Rolling Stones about 30 seconds away from starting their sound check.

“Mick Jagger looks at me and says, ‘What’s up, mate?’ I was a deer caught in the headlights. I’m pretty quick on my feet. I have good comebacks for a lot of things. But I had no idea what to do or say. Keith Richards turns around, and I had met him for maybe 10 minutes two years before, and he says, ‘Hey, man! How are you?’ and gives me a huge bear hug. All the rest of the Stones shrug their shoulders and go, ‘Oh, he’s a friend of Keith’s,’ and go back to doing what they’re doing. I played it off and I got to stand in the wings while the Stones did five songs for sound check. It was great.”

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