ONCE MAINSTAYS of the city's blues-rock scene, Deborah Ash and Mike Campagna haven't played Buffalo in more than a dozen years, not since they moved to Los Angeles in the mid-'70s. This week, however, the couple plans to make up for its long absence.
Home for the holidays for the first time since they headed west, they will give a full accounting of their present-day musical activities with shows Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m. in the Cafe Casablanca, 511 Rhode Island St.
Joining them will be some of their old Buffalo friends and bandmates -- singers and guitarists Phil Dillon and Willie Schoellkopf, bassist Steve Sadoff and drummer Jeff Whiting, all from the current band Rocket 88, plus keyboardist Jeremy Wall, co-producer of Spyro Gyra, who's flying up from his home downstate.
"It's going to be a pretty crowded stage," Campagna said by phone from the duo's home in Pasadena, Calif., "but it's not going to be a jam. We've sent some tapes and charts of our stuff back to the guys. And Jeremy's actually been coming out to the coast to record with us."
Ash and Campagna also will be among the luminaries showing up for the sixth annual Bona Vista Reunion at the Cafe Casablanca on Wednesday night. The two of them used to be a regular attraction at the former Hertel Avenue club.
"We were there for a long time," Campagna recalled. "We lived on Norwalk and we could just eat dinner and hang around and walk down to the gig. I personally am a man of convenience, and I miss that kind of thing.
"Monday nights, Debbie and Jeremy and I were one act and Polla Milligan was the other. Tuesday nights. we'd play with our band. Then on weekends we'd play with Spoon (the late local R & B singer Elmo Witherspoon). We learned a lot of stuff from him."
Both are natives of North Buffalo. Campagna played bass in high school, finding less competition on that instrument than on the one he preferred, the guitar.
"You know how that is," he said. "There were about five guitar players and one guy said, 'If you get the bass, you're in the band.' "
Ash, who did improvisational work with the Buffalo Theater Workshop, was singing and acting when she was in grade school.
"I was picked out for singing early," she recalled. "I was in the seventh-and-eighth-grade choir when I was in fifth grade. My mom was a soprano and my dad was a tenor, and there was always a lot of singing in my house. For a while, I felt more comfortable on stage singing than I did in real life."
They got acquainted when Ash joined one of Campagna's bands.
"Debbie started singing backup," Campagna said, "and within a few weeks she had moved from backup singer to leader."
"Then we started going out," Ash added, "and then we kind of got married."
Feeling eventually that they were "playing roulette" with people in the music scene in Buffalo, they resettled in L.A. and soon started getting what they went west for -- offers for recording contracts.
"Warner Bros. at one point flew 15 producers in," Campagna recounted. "This is a perfect example of how the record companies work. Warner Bros. offered Debbie a deal, but before they sign a deal they want to have the tunes intact and a producer.
"So they bring in a very well-known guy whose name I shall not reveal -- actually three or four well-known people -- and the record company is telling us: 'Listen, Debbie's voice is wonderful, but we don't think the writing makes it. We've got to have the producer bring in the songs.'
"Of course, this is the power play to get the producer to work with us, so this famous producer gives us a tape full of tunes with titles like 'Tonight I'll Shoot the Moon.' I don't know whether it was about mooning a high school pep rally or what. I couldn't figure this song out. And that was one of the better ones. There was a lot of this going on and we just absolutely turned our back on it."
"We weighed what was going on," Ash put in, "and it was hard to give up what we'd been striving toward."
"We could have played the game and stuff at that point," Campagna noted, "but it wasn't 100 percent what we believed and felt and what our vision was. We just weren't interested in it."
Ash and Campagna returned to performing in clubs and songwriting and recording demonstration tapes. They worked with another former Buffalonian, drummer Gary Mallaber of the Steve Miller Band, on writing and recording projects.
They spent some time in India as adherents of Meher Baba, the spiritual leader who also claims Pete Townshend of the Who as a follower. When they became parents of a daughter, Mia, five years ago, they temporarily put aside their performing careers.
As songwriters, they've had a measure of success. Two of their songs, "Nothing's Going to Take You Away" and "Father He Said," have appeared on singer Chaka Khan's albums.
"At the time," Campagna said, "we were managed by the same people who managed Chaka, so we knew her."
Lately, in fact, their writing stock has perked up. Jennifer Holliday will include one of their songs, "It Will Haunt Me," on her next album, due out early next year. James Ingram will record another of theirs, "I've Been Waiting for You."
They're also doing club dates. The Deborah Ash Band, which includes Chick Corea's son, Thad, on drums and former Pat Benatar sideman Roger Capps on bass, has been hitting many of L.A.'s more notable venues -- the China Club, Cafe Largo, Gorky's, the Breakaway, Al's Bar, the Shamrock.
"The past couple years we've been really refocused and playing out a lot and meeting a lot of different people," Ash said. "We do 90 percent originals, and any covers we do, we do our own versions.
"If we were going to put a title on what we're doing now," she added, "I'd say it was kind of Afro-soul-rock. The rhythm is in our bones, you know. It's an extension of our R & B background in Buffalo."