With almost 16 years sober, blues guitar ace Mike Zito’s gratitude knows no bounds

Mike Zito musician in recovery
Courtesy of Norma Hinojosa

This month, guitarist, singer, producer and bandleader Mike Zito will celebrate 16 years clean and sober, but he’s never lost sight of how broken he was in late October, 2003.

By that point, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, he had long since accepted that he was an addict. He’d even dabbled here and there with sobriety. Living in Texas, he had put together a month clean when an old using buddy called him up and said he’d gotten hold of a batch of meth, and would Mike like to help him smoke it?

“I had never really done meth, so I thought, ‘Maybe that’ll be the drug I get to do! That’s the one that’ll work!’ I really thought that,” he said with a chuckle. “I told my girlfriend I was going to go to this guy’s house, play music and be home later, and she said, ‘OK. Have fun.’ I really thought I was going to drink a beer with this guy, smoke some meth, maybe play a little music, come home that night and be at work the next day.

“I didn’t get back until five days later, and in that time, I had come back and broken into her apartment twice, stole all of the money she’d saved up, even stole a guitar she had bought me and pawned it. I got kicked out of the meth guy’s house, but I went and found a bunch of coke. It was just one of those crazy benders, and at the end of it, when I didn’t have any more money, I got home, and she had changed the locks.”

She answered the door when he knocked, and in his insomniac, drug-induced psychosis, he found the Basic Text of a 12 Step recovery program. Despite the fact that he hadn’t slept in five days and was seeing things that weren’t there, he managed to tell her one thing before he passed out:

“I think there’s something wrong with me.”

“Yes, there is,” she said as the lights faded. When he returned to consciousness, he had the book in his hand and read a passage that’s something of a mantra in recovery meetings: “One is too many, and a thousand never enough.” It hit home with the ferocity of a meteor slamming into the addled ocean of his mind, and he set out on his bicycle to attend a nearby meeting at noon.

“I ran in and grabbed the first old man I could find and said, ‘I need you to help me now, because I think I’m losing my mind. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’” Zito said. “I remember him saying, ‘How’s your life?’ I told him, ‘It’s terrible! I don’t have a job, a car, I can’t see my kids, this girl’s going to kick me out, and apparently if I sit around too long, my mind is going to trick me into doing this again!’

“And he said, ‘Soak it up, because if you keep doing what you’re doing, this will be the highlight of your life. It will only get worse from here, and you’ll eventually look back at this time and wish it were only this bad.’”

A rough and tumble upbringing

Mike Zito performs at the Western Maryland Blues Festival in 2015.

And so began Zito’s long walk back into the light of sanity. However, he pointed out, he didn’t stop there. What might have once been considered the “sane” era of his life turned out to be simple complacence, he said — the idea that his internal turmoil was something he had to learn to live with. That turmoil goes back to his childhood, but it took a long, hard trip down addiction’s backroads and into the new territory of recovery before he began to see just how wounded his spirit truly was.

After all, it wasn’t like Zito was born with a bottle in his right hand and a coke straw in his left. He didn’t even start drinking, he said, until he was 21 and married, and his childhood in St. Louis was, on the surface, a Middle American blue-collar upbringing.

“I come from kind of a lower-middle class family; we lived in an apartment for 15 years, and my dad worked for 40 years at Anheuser-Busch,” he said. “There was always alcohol around, because up until 1982, those guys could drink on the job, and they drank every day, but my dad didn’t drink beer. He drank whiskey. I don’t ever remember thinking that my dad was an alcoholic, because he would go out with friends and have drinks, but he was always there.

“He always paid the rent and the bills, he never beat anybody, and when the doctors told him, later on in his 60s, that he should stop smoking and drinking, he just stopped. I remember he was like, ‘Alright, I’ve had enough.’ And he could never quite understand later why I couldn’t just stop like that.”

Zito grew up going to Catholic school, and for all practical purposes, it seemed like a normal childhood. But his father was a first-generation American-Sicilian of darker skin, and for his first five or six years with Anheuser-Busch in the days of segregation, he wasn’t allowed to eat lunch with the white Germans and had to use separate restrooms.

“He always had this mentality of, ‘You’ve just gotta go take what’s yours,’ because he grew up in this rough neighborhood during the Great Depression,” Zito said. “I remember we would go to the store, and they wouldn’t wait on him for whatever reason, and he would just say, ‘To hell with it.’ He would steal right in front of me and say, ‘Come on. Let’s go.’

“I remember thinking, ‘That’s not good,’ and later on, I always remembered thinking, ‘I never want to be like my dad.’ He was always loud and, I thought, obnoxious. He was the center of attention and the life of the party, but ironically, I turned out a lot like that. I just held it all in until I started drinking.”

A star is born

Mike Zito musician in recovery

Courtesy of Norma Hinojosa

Put him on stage, however, and Zito was born to be in the spotlight, it seemed. His older parents listened to Big Band music around the house, and by the time he was 4, he was taking part in area talent shows, inspired by the “Rat Pack” era entertainment extravaganzas of guys like Frank Sinatra. Singing, dancing, comedy — his father loved it, and young Zito loved making folks smile. When he was 8 years old, however, he discovered Van Halen. His brother turned him on to Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and St. Louis’ own Chuck Berry, and shortly thereafter, he got his first guitar.

“Nobody knew how to play it, though, and I didn’t even know how to tune it!” he said. “When I got into high school, I took some lessons and just played in some high school bands, and by the time I was 18, I was working in a guitar shop in my neighborhood.”

Working around and serving other musicians helped improve his own chops, and before long, he was gigging steadily on Friday and Saturday nights and working in the store during the week. That he could play rock ‘n’ roll and earn money without being famous for it came as a pleasant surprise. He never aspired to stardom, he added, and if anything, making his bones in St. Louis clubs helped him figure out the template on which he would base the rest of his career.

“My dad listened to Big Band music, and that’s all — the crooners, guys like Frank and Dean, or Dizzy Gillespie and all the horn and swing stuff, so when you’re a little kid, all the music you heard was music your dad played,” he said. “I got turned onto rock ‘n’ roll in the later ’70s — the guitar, especially, and what I found was, looking back through high school, was Eddie Van Halen was about as hard rock as I liked.

“I liked pop and dance music, guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix and Clapton and the bluesy rock like Zeppelin. And when I started working at the music store and a guy asked me what kind of music I listened to and I named them, he said, ‘Oh! So you kind of like blues rock!’ And I said, ‘I don’t know; I guess I do.’ And that’s when he put on B.B. King, and I thought, ‘Wow! That’s awesome! Yeah, I think I like blues!’”

Discovering the blues foundation at the bottom of the rock ‘n’ roll pyramid was a journey of self-discovery guided by his music store co-workers. Seeking out who influenced Clapton led him to John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Freddie King and more. The blues, he said, struck a chord — no pun intended — somewhere deep in his musical soul.

“When I listened to blues, it sounded like the guitar players were playing what they felt, like it was never rehearsed,” he said. “I could never just learn the guitar parts on records. When I listened to the blues and how they played, it was like they were accompanying their vocals. It was more improv, and I felt like I could do that.”

The man takes a drink

By 21, he was married, working in the music store and playing gigs on the weekends. Drinking, he said, was never on his radar, until someone gave him a bottle of strong liqueur — Goldschläger, he thinks — for his birthday. With no previous experience and no idea of his own limits, he killed the bottle in an hour.

“And then I got horribly sick — puking and passing out and all of that stuff,” he said. “But then I remember distinctly, the next day after all of that drama and turmoil, that everybody thought I was funny. I had never behaved like that before, and I remember thinking, ‘That was fun. I should do it again.’”

A month later, at another party, he pulled another drunk, and his friends and wife again found it amusing. Although he didn’t touch it when he played — and by that point, he was gigging three or four nights a week — he threw himself into intoxication with gusto, approaching every gathering with the intention of becoming the center of attention after quaffing a bottle of booze. Then, he said, a former high school classmate wanted to join his band.

“He was a senior in college and getting ready to graduate and go get a law degree, and he wanted to join a band, party and get chicks,” Zito said. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s weird. Why would you want to join a band for that?’ I was real shy and quiet, unless I had these outbursts when I drank, so when we played, I was just trying to play the best I could.

“But at our first gig, this guy brought shots to the stage. I was probably 24, and I had already had a beer, and I remember thinking, ‘This is a lot of fun!’ We started laughing, and the audience was really having fun, and the next night, we did it again. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve been missing out.’”

And so booze became a rock ‘n’ roll accessory. Looking back, he sees that because he got married at 20, he never went through a period of sowing his oats that so many young men did. By the time he discovered what he thought he’d been missing, he had responsibilities on the home front, but turning every gig into a party became paramount.

“Within a year or so, I was drinking so much that I couldn’t drive my car home, so I’d leave my car downtown, and I’d wake up on a Saturday to go to work, but I didn’t have my car, or I’d driven it through the exit sign trying to get home,” he said. “Plus, girls started to pay attention to me, and they had never done that before, so I started flirting back.

“I just really started having enormous amounts of fun, and I just wanted to play all the time, every day of the week. But I had a wife and a kid at home, and she was like, ‘I didn’t sign up for this. Plus, you come home drunk all the time, and you don’t bring any money home.’ And that’s when I got divorced.”

The drink takes a man

While his personal life crumbled, his music career was taking off. His late 20s became one big party — gigs every night, living in a single house with his bandmates, good times and lots of women. He paid his bills, and he developed a reputation as a hardcore boozer who welcomed a challenge: Could fans and friends buy him so many drinks that he wouldn’t be able to play?

Given the proliferation of his performances, there was always someone willing to try.

“I remember one time, we played 42 nights in a row around St. Louis, just as a trio, playing rock and blues,” he said. “I would black out constantly, and they loved it. I remember people bringing up a dozen shots; I remember passing out under the pool table at 6 a.m. one time in the bar, woke up, got naked and ran around, playing guitar.”

He made a few records and got his name out there, but one night, after a regular gig at an open-all-night joint that closed at 6 a.m., the bartender expressed concern for his safety. Zito was in no shape to drive, the bartender pointed out, but he had something that would help him sober up. And so Zito did his first bump of cocaine.

It did not start off well: He had a seizure, the ambulance was called, and he woke up later that evening with his entire body aching. “Why would anybody ever do this stuff?” he wondered. Then, a few months later, after a long night of drinking and playing, he reconsidered.

“I said, ‘Man, I’d better get some of that from you,’ and this time, it took,” he said.

It had been around, but in his naivete, Zito never really noticed it. After that second time, however, it was added to his rotation of chemical consumption. For several months, it was an afterthought, but after a weekend-long bender on it around 2000, it became a focal point. By then, he had gotten married again, become a father again and was a respectable name in the St. Louis music scene.

Cocaine, though, robbed him of all of it relatively quickly, he said.

“I couldn’t keep a job; I couldn’t pay the bills; and somewhere in there, I didn’t really care about playing music anymore,” he said. “I skipped gigs, I didn’t show up, I couldn’t pay the band, so everything dried up, but I still wanted to party — so I started stealing, and that didn’t last long. By maybe 2001, I was a full-blown junkie, smoking crack, doing coke, snorting heroin and all this stuff. I had these periods where I’d get a job and work three or four months and hold it together a little bit, maybe even move to another town, but then I’d have a big long bender, and I’d lose everything.”

Down and out

Mike Zito musician in recovery

Courtesy of Frank Zerbst

The more he used, the shorter those periods of relative normalcy kept getting. Within a couple of years, he was twice divorced and faced with slamming doors wherever he went because of his reputation. In the summer of 2002, filled with guilt, shame and remorse, he stole his father’s credit card, filched a guitar from a friend and bought a one-way Greyhound ticket to Key West, Florida, where he lived on the streets for almost six months.

And still, he said, it was nearly impossible for him to assign blame for his troubles to the one person to whom it rightly belonged.

“I remember several times people telling me before I got into drugs that they thought I had a drinking problem, and that I should get help, but it was never my fault,” he said. “It was always this chick’s fault or that guy’s fault or whatever. I did go to a couple of meetings one time during my second marriage, and during one of his stints at gainful employment, a sympathetic boss suggested he take advantage of the company’s health insurance plan and went to drug and alcohol treatment.

“But I didn’t go thinking there was something wrong with me. I went because I got a break, and it was down in Georgia, on the coast or something. None of it took, but I do remember hearing a guy there share his story. He talked about being clean for five years, but he also told these stories about how once he started doing cocaine, he couldn’t stop.

“And I remember thinking, ‘That sounds about right. That guy probably knows what he’s talking about,’” he added. “But it still didn’t occur to me that I was in the same boat. I was obviously severely mentally ill with no clue whatsoever.”

After leaving Key West, he returned to Texas, where he landed a job with Fender Guitars, making good money. He also found cheap cocaine, and he fell back into the ping-pong lifestyle of binge use and putting his life back together. He started talking to his children and started dating a St. Louis girl, a “nice, sweet teacher in Southeast Texas” who’s now his wife. They moved in together, but she caught on quickly to his problem.

“She went to a meeting in the summer of 2003, came home and said, ‘Look, you can’t stay here anymore. I can’t let you, unless you go to this meeting, but if you don’t go to meetings, you’ve got to leave,’” he said. “Even then, it never, ever occurred to me that something was wrong. Here I was living in Southeast Texas, and a year before I had been homeless, and I didn’t want to sleep outside again, so I figured out a way to get around it — I went to meetings once or twice a week.”

Recovery becomes a lifeline

Although he never did any work, he credits the introduction of recovery knowledge for his panicked flight back to the rooms of recovery after his meth bender in October, 2003. The older predecessor’s words hit home, and Zito finally realized what most addicts and alcoholics eventually do: There is no bottom, except the cemetery.

“I had already lost my kids, and I had come to terms with the fact that I was never going to see them, that I would never be a father, that I was a horrible person,” he said. “That really scared the shit out of me, and I just started going twice a day, at noon and 8 p.m. For six months, I went to (recovery) school, I did all the service work on the weekends, I went up there early and cleaned the meeting hall every day.

“I did everything they told me to do. I got a sponsor, and I worked the Steps honestly and fervently. What I tell people is, that’s the very first success in my life, was at the age of 33 — working the Steps and joining the program. I had never really finished anything else, because I was always lazy and self-centered.”

Perhaps the biggest measure of acceptance came around the part of his life that had, in the past, brought him the most joy: music. But once Zito bought into the idea that he was powerless over drugs and alcohol, that one is too many and a thousand never enough, he found peace, he said.

“I was willing to forego the thing I love the most, and I figured I wouldn’t ever get to be in a bar or around alcohol again, but I didn’t care, because I was so afraid for my life,” he said.

After his first six months, he got a job in a local call center, and found contentment in riding his bike to work each day, making $6 an hour, making amends where he could and repairing relationships with his family. One of the managers at the call center, however, discovered that he once played rock ‘n’ roll, and he asked if Zito could put together a pick-up band for the company Christmas party.

“I got a couple of guys, and we did that, and it went good,” he said. “Then I got a gig, and my sponsor said I should do it. Everybody at my home group came to the gig at this bar, and they all sat in front of the stage between me and the bar.”

That call center manager approached him around the same time and asked why Zito was no longer making music. He even offered to invest $5,000 in a new project, and after further conversations with his sponsor, Zito accepted, bought some recording equipment and made “Slow It Down” in his living room.

“I got really excited about writing music again, and I decided I was going to write about recovery and addiction,” he said. “Before that, I was just writing about sex and partying and stupid shit, but all of the sudden, I had this topic — recovery. I started playing in this band and started selling those CDs with the help of my wife, and somewhere in there, it just hit me: I think I can play music and make money.”

A blues rock advocate for recovery

Mike Zito musician in recovery

Mike Zito (left) and Ties That Bind Us alum Anders Osborne on the set of the video shoot for "I Was Drunk."

And so, from 2004 to 2007, Zito became a professional musician again. The difference is that because he wasn’t spending money on alcohol and drugs, he could actually provide for his family. He continued to make albums, and in 2006, he sent “Today” to the Eclecto Groove label. In the middle of it was the title track, an acoustic song in an ocean of rocking guitar that’s effectively a tender rumination on recovery. Nine months later, he got a phone call from the owner of the company.

“He called me and said, ‘Are you sitting down? Because I’m giving you a record deal,’” Zito said. “Then he said, ‘I’ve been in and out of the program for 20 years, and I just decided to clean up again. Me and my girlfriend were going to this retreat, and I grabbed a handful of demo CDs and put yours in, and when I heard “Today,” I pulled over and just started crying. I kept listening to it over and over.’

“I remember asking him, ‘Don’t you like my guitar playing?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, but this song, it’s good!’”

And so, in a roundabout way, recovery took his music career to the next level. In 2009, he collaborated with Cyril Neville, formerly of The Meters and The Neville Brothers, on the album “Pearl River,” which won Song of the Year honors at the 2010 Blues Music Awards. It featured guest appearances by artists such as Anders Osborne, Reese Wynans, Susan Cowsill and Johnny Sansone, and two years later, his album “Greyhound” was nominated for Best Rock Blues Album at the 2011 Blues Music Awards.

From 2010 to 2014, he played as a member of Royal Southern Brotherhood, which featured Neville, Devon Allman, Charlie Wooton and Yonrico Scott; the band released two albums before Zito left in 2014 to return to a solo career, which includes additional studio albums that have placed songs in shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and his newest collection scheduled for Nov. 1: a tribute to Chuck Berry.

“It’s called ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry,’” he said. “I’m from St. Louis originally, so I grew up around him and his music. It features 20 Chuck Berry songs, and 20 guest artists, a different person on each song.”

Throughout his career, he’s never hesitated to loan his talent to recovery-related causes. As a newcomer, it was impressed upon him that when recovery asks, a grateful recovering addict always says yes. It’s a way of giving back to a program that’s given so much to so many, and it’s a way of making amends to make up for years of selfish living and general harm to the community.

A program of service

Mike Zito musician in recovery

Royal Southern Brotherhood, circa 2012-13: the late Yonrico Scott (from left), Charlie Wooton, Cyril Neville, Devon Allman and Mike Zito.

“The whole process for me has been starting over, more or less, with everything,” he said. “Now, everything in life is all recovery-based. There’s not really an aspect of my life that’s not founded in recovery. What comes first, what I’m doing — it’s about this recovery, but people have started to notice, and people in recovery started to show up all the time and come out in droves to gigs.

“These are my brothers and sisters. Everybody start pouring out of the woodwork and showing up, because they know I’m doing the deal. Sixteen years later, it’s like, every gig I play, I know everybody there that’s in the program, because everybody comes out who’s in the deal. I could tell so many stories of meeting people and talking to people and helping people.”

One of the biggest honors of his performance career wasn’t a gig for the public: It was the 35th World Conference of Narcotics Anonymous in Philadelphia, when Royal Southern Brotherhood was the headline entertainment. It was a noon show to 3,000 recovering addicts, and when Zito stepped up to the microphone and introduce himself as a recovering brother, the room erupted.

“The response was overwhelming,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe, everybody rushed the stage … it was unbelievable. It was just a big reaffirmation that this is it. And then Anders and I did that again last year for the 37th World Convention. It’s really crazy to me, because I remember thinking that I wouldn’t ever get to play music again, at least in front of people; that I wouldn’t be able to perform anymore.

“To be playing at those conventions and making friends all over the world in the program and not in the program … to have people who hear my music and see the way that I live and come up and share the deepest, darkest parts of their lives with me … that they feel compelled to do that and feel like they can trust me with that … I don’t take it for granted. I don’t think I’m special, but I certainly make the time for it, because it’s the most important thing we do.

“Whether you play music or work at a factory — living this life and letting it be seen as an example and letting people come and be a part of it and talk to you and ask you questions and get involved, that’s what it’s all about,” he added.