Rick Serfas, 49, guitarist for blues bands in area

August 04, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Rick Serfas, a well-known Baltimore guitarist whose bands have been entertaining Mid-Atlantic blues aficionados for 30 years, died of oral cancer Sunday at his home in Herndon, Va. He was 49.

Born Richard S. Serfas in Baltimore, he was raised on Bethnal Road in Yale Heights and graduated in 1973 from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School.

"He began playing guitar as a teenager in the basement of our home, and never had any formal training," said a sister, Lori F. Erickson of Pasadena.

He held jobs in the construction industry and later worked as a maintenance supervisor at St. Joseph's Passionist Monastery Roman Catholic Church and at Carriage Hill Apartments in Randallstown during the day, but playing the blues at night came to define his life.

"In fact, he for years has been widely recognized by his peers as being a guitarist of uncommon magnitude and at the peak of his craft; so much so, that he has been accorded an almost legendary status and his playing is spoken of in reverential tones," wrote Larry Benicewicz, music writer and educator, in a 1994 article for the Baltimore Blues Society's Blues Rag.

Mr. Serfas began playing professionally in the 1970s in popular and country-and-western bands. After listening to the blues of Muddy Waters, Robert J. Lockwood and Freddy King, he told Mr. Benicewicz, he "couldn't go back to the old stuff anymore."

In 1976, he put together his first blues group, Housewreckers, and in 1991 established Soul Providers, which won the D.C. Blues Society's Battle of the Bands in 1994. That year, his band represented the society in the International Blues Talent Competition in Memphis, Tenn.

Locally, Mr. Serfas performed at the Belvedere Hotel, 8 x 10 and other venues, and regularly at the annual Columbia Wine in the Woods Festival. He also played at the Full Moon Saloon and Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point.

While continuing to play with his own band, he would occasionally perform with the Top Dogs, the Nightcrawlers or Smokin Polecats.

"I've been playing with Rick on and off for 20 years, and he was one of my favorite guitar players," said Dave Sherman, leader of the Smokin Polecats. "When he played with me and the Smokin Polecats, he'd play bass.

"He was an easygoing guy who could play any guitar style he wanted. Big influences were Duke Robillard and Jimmie Vaughn, and his music was a combination of Texas, Chicago and West Coast blues. He had great phrasing and always played with a great deal of emotion."

Fred Hillyard, a bass player with Soul Providers, described Mr. Serfas as a "remarkably talented musician and band leader."

"He was also a good friend to all the musicians he played with and was the kind of guy you wanted to hang out with at the end of the night," Mr. Hillyard said. "His death is a great loss to the blues scene."

Since 1998, Mr. Serfas had lived in Herndon and was a computer engineer for Hewlett-Packard in Reston, Va.

Mr. Serfas, who seldom drank and did not smoke, was found to have oral cancer 18 months ago. After surgery, the cancer went into remission, and he resumed performing with Soul Providers until a recurrence of the cancer.

After that, fellow musicians and band members traveled on Sundays to Mr. Serfas' home for informal jam sessions in his basement studio.

"It brought him a lot of joy because playing music, and the blues was what he lived for," Mr. Sherman said. "Having his friends over and playing made him feel good."

"This seemed to make it much easier for Rick to handle the decline in his health," his sister said. "Fortunately, he was able to play his guitar to the very end. In fact, he was playing in the early morning hours before he died."

Mr. Serfas was a communicant of St. Joseph's Passionist Monastery Church, 251 S. Morley St., where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

Also surviving are his mother, Louise M. Serfas of Baltimore; three brothers, Larry E. Serfas of Hampstead, Gregory L. Serfas of Pasadena and Justin E. Serfas of Baltimore; and another sister, Janice M. Serfas of Bradenton, Fla.

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