A Grammy Proves Elusive for an East Hampton Guitarist

Zach Zunis, a guitarist who lives in East Hampton, watched the 59th annual Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday with particular interest
Zach Zunis, performing on guitar with Janiva Magness, is featured on the singer’s latest album, “Love Wins Again,” which has been nominated for a Grammy Award. Chuck Ryan

Update, Feb. 15

A surprise Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album did not translate into an award for Janiva Magness and her band, which includes Zach Zunis, a guitarist who lives in East Hampton.

The South Fork is no stranger to world-class musicians and recording artists, be they summer visitors, second-home owners, or year-round residents. One in the latter category may not be a household name like Paul McCartney, Madonna, or G.E. Smith. Mr. Zunis, who is also an advertising salesman at The Star, plays with the Los Angeles-based singer Ms. Magness, whose album, “Love Wins Again,” was nominated. The Grammy instead went to "The Last Days Of Oakland" by Fantastic Negrito.

Originally, Feb. 9

“Love Wins Again” is the sixth album he has recorded with the singer, Mr. Zunis said recently, but “she’s been singing her ass off for years, a huge part of the Los Angeles music scene.”

The album faces formidable competition from artists including the Record Company, Joe Louis Walker, and Kenny Neal. Nonetheless, the nomination is a lesson in determination. “Through thick and thin, she has persevered,” said Mr. Zunis, who met the singer in the late 1980s after moving to California from his native Dayton, Ohio. “I admire her in so many ways.” 

The Grammy nomination is a first for both Ms. Magness and Mr. Zunis, whose career is also a study in perseverance. When he was a youth in Dayton (“the funk capital of the world,” he informed a colleague), his first band, the Slugs, attracted the attention of members of the Ohio Players, including Marvin Pierce, who produced and shopped a demo for the band. 

Mr. Zunis and a girlfriend later moved to San Diego, where he played with several bands. They subsequently moved to Los Angeles, where he held a succession of daytime jobs until, inspired by a favorite guitarist, Ronnie Earl, he quit a sales job to focus on music. “The girlfriend freaked out,” he remembered, “but I said, ‘I have to do this.’ ”

After sitting in just a few times with the late William Clarke, a top harmonica player and singer, he was asked to join Mr. Clarke’s band and go on tour. “He took me under his wing,” Mr. Zunis said. “I’d go to his house and he would give me a pile of cassettes and a jar of gumbo to take home.” 

“I played with him solidly for about three years,” Mr. Zunis said, recording several albums with Mr. Clarke for the Alligator Records label, “Blowin’ Like Hell” and “Serious Intentions” among them. “I learned so much from him — he was quite a musician, and a real individual.”

The late Lester Butler, another harmonica player and singer, was often in the audience at Mr. Clarke’s concerts — “Clarke was the man to see,” Mr. Zunis said. Mr. Butler signed with Def American Recordings, the label founded by the producer and music executive Rick Rubin, and asked Mr. Zunis to join his band, the Red Devils. 

The group recorded at the famed Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood, the former United Recording, where  legends including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and Michael Jackson had cut classic tracks before them. “As we were walking through the door, I heard this ominous sound,” Mr. Zunis said. The sound was the inimitable voice of Johnny Cash. “We walked in the control room, and there was Rick Rubin recording Johnny Cash,” he said. “They finished their session, and we started ours. We got to meet him — it was so cool.” 

He played with other groups, and recorded another Alligator Records release, “Back Where I Belong,” with William (Billy Boy) Arnold, who had played harmonica on Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” in 1955. He also played on “King of Hearts” by the late blues and soul singer “King” Ernest Baker. More recently, Mr. Earl, who had inspired the young Mr. Zunis in Dayton years earlier, saw him perform with Ms. Magness in the Boston area and asked him to play on his 2014 release, “Good News.” 

Ms. Magness had discovered Mr. Zunis playing with Clarke at Music Machine, a Los Angeles venue, and asked him to join her group. “We went on the road several times,” he said. “We’ve been together ever since. We’ve made some good music together.” 

The guitarist, who counts B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Albert King among his influences, also finds time to play in another group, Big Apple Blues, and appears on its recordings “Energy,” “Live at O’Flaherty’s,” and “Brooklyn Blues.” 

Behind every successful man is a woman, of course — and perhaps a child as well. “My wife, Nitchie, has stuck by me through it all,” Mr. Zunis said. “She is such a big part of enabling me to do this kind of stuff.” Bronte, their daughter, has inherited her father’s passion for the guitar. “I showed her a few things,” he said, “and she’s totally into it.”