When you and Jimmie Vaughan started the Fabulous Thunderbirds, you were really more of a straight up blues band. The sound has evolved over time to include Soul, Rock, Cajun, and other influences. What led to this evolution?
When I first heard that first James Cotton record and he was doing “Knock On Wood”, Little Walter and Sonny Boy with Blues & Soul songs all on the same record. I thought “gee…that’s where I was going when I was a kid”. I decided why not do everything I like. A lot of it has to do with knowing the material you have an affinity for and going in that direction. You can’t help but have your own voice. You really can’t sing like other people anyway. It’s impossible to imitate people. You can play the notes…you can sing the notes…but it’s impossible to do it. Once you get that in your mind and start deliberately having your take on things, it wasn’t difficult to take off in that direction. Everything is improvised at the same time. As long as you have the juice of the old stuff in you…the Blues stuff, the Rock & Roll stuff, the Soul stuff…it’s basically just spilling your guts. Some people call it sincerity. If you have that in you, you’re on your way to doing something with it.
So that’s really your main influences then…the early Blues and Soul?
It is for me personally. I think a lot of the directions I go in, the Fabulous Thunderbirds don’t even encompass. It’s just my own personal take on music and whatever vehicle I have at the time to express whatever desire I have at that particular moment. It’s also a learning process. To get respectable as a vocalist in those genres of music is a really tall order. I think that’s why the standard has sunk so low over the years. It’s because a lot of white people have picked up this music and realized “Wow…this isn’t really easy to do”. That’s the only way to satisfy yourself. Otherwise it’s just a hobby unless you’re serious about competing with the old stuff and then standing up to that. There are a few great performances by people since the mid sixties. But really it’s based on an era when everyone could play and everyone can sing. You just kind of stay in your own world and be respectable within the world you want to be in.
Tell me about the label you started called Blue Collar Music.
Well, it didn’t last long. On paper it looked good. I think I was trying to gather up all the people that could play. A lot of them were already around me. Once you get a label, you gain new respect for the labels you were bad-mouthing in the past (laughs). There are certainly good reasons to bad mouth some of them. They’re the only ones who know where your money is going. In my case, we were dealing with people that most of the time didn’t know what the hell we were doing. It was very difficult to do business with the label unless you went into that contemporary area. Blues labels are sometimes hit or miss. There’s always somebody on a blues label and you scratch your head and wonder “why is that person on a label?” But it was a cool experiment. We had some great sessions come out of it and that really stood out. I had over 120 tracks from that period. I think people are looking for a box-set of that stuff. It’s really great sounding. It’s direct to mono analog…no overdubs…none of that stuff. A lot of people say it’s my best work. I know that’s not true, however, it’s great documentation of that time period. The musicians are stellar on that group of sessions. You’re talking about my personal evolution based on the people around me. Those people are just excellent musicians. They’re standouts.
How does it make you feel when you hear a quote from Muddy Waters calling you “the greatest harmonica player since Little Walter”?
How do you think it makes me feel? I compare it to that scene in Raging Bull…”Look at me. And look at you. And look at me. And look at you”. It didn’t matter what Muddy said, it was the greatest thing I’d heard in my life. The stories I could tell and the conversations I had with them and the daily interaction with legends….gods….that was incredible. I couldn’t get my head full of it. I knew he was wrong but it made me want to be what he said. There was no way in the world that was true at the time. I had the tools but I just needed to develop it and hone it. When you’re not knocking off records and it’s not a cookie cutter thing, it takes a lifetime to develop what you do. You can have potential, which I did. There was a foggy period of the whole substance abuse era and the only thing that saved me was that I was on the stage for so many nights a year and developed when music was the last thing I was concentrating on. When all that stopped almost 25 years ago, that’s when the real development started. I was able to clean house. I was able to exercise my demons both chemically and personally. It really made a difference for me. I was around all people that respected me and it just so happened those were people I respected. It was an awesome place to be. There comes a time when you have to make that decision. A little while longer and you might as well just keep going.
Unfortunately a lot of people do keep going.
Unfortunately a lot of people do. I never did the AA thing…I never did the rehab thing. I never did any of that stuff. Sometimes you can address it your whole life and never fix it. You do become slightly religious. You can sit back and count your blessings that you’re able to progress to that level and play at that level. It’s a lifetime thing.
The band has done so many great covers over the years including “Diddy Wah Diddy”, “Rich Woman”, “Scratch My Back”, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line”, “Wrap It Up”, etc. Is it pretty random how these come about?
It’s pretty much random. You put your iTunes on “ramble”. James Cotton calls the shuffle putting it on “ramble” (laughs). You just do whatever you’re doing around the house and something comes up and you run over to the computer to see what it is. There are so many killer covers that are so off the beaten path that are just bad-ass. There’s just a never ending supply of them. If you have those Stompin’ compilations…Chicken Shack Boogie…there’s volumes and volumes of this stuff. If you go deep into the Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry or Stax catalogs, you’re going to find something that at least influences you even if you don’t cover it. There are little things to steal here or there. That’s the beauty about traditional music is that you don’t become influenced by one particular thing. You might have your favorites but it’s all processed into your memory banks. It’s all beautiful. It makes it really easy to become yourself. It’s impossible to dwell on one or two people. There’s so much good stuff there. Lee “Shot” Williams…how about him? Or Jesse Thomas? Or Cecil Gant? You listen for enjoyment but you’re constantly soaking it up. I’ve been getting on this Specialty Records kick…Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. I could listen to that every day and I have been. What about Julius Cheeks? Oh my God! Of course don’t even try to emulate these people. At the same time you become influenced and certain things hit you. There are certain technical things you pick up and you can apply. Your technique is constantly changing…instrumentally and vocally. I can tell that guy is singing that way and using naturally that thing that I’m working on. It’s pretty interesting.
What have been some of the more memorable experiences touring with other artists over the years?
The Rockpile guys were a great band. It’s where we got our producers. Live they were incredible. Dave Edmunds got me on that thing with Dion. The band was great. Steve Cropper, Phil Chen, Terry Williams, Dave Charles, the horns. That was a really cool gig. The Clapton tour...Bob Seger…really cool tours. That was at the tail-end of me being out of it. Some of those things you wish you had back now. The tours with B.B. (King), Buddy Guy and Dr. John were a lot of fun. There was a tour we did at the end of the 80’s called Antone’s West. We had Albert Collins, James Cotton, Mel Brown, Jimmy Rogers, Luther Tucker and a few more. That was my idea. It was a really fun thing. That’s something you’re never going to see again and we knew it at the time. It was very special. There are just so many moments. When you look at your moments, it’s like looking at a snapshot. I don’t need any more snapshots of myself. I like to dwell on the snapshots of other people. Some are feature films! (laughs)
You have always toured a lot…whether it’s with The Fabulous Thunderbirds or with Kim Wilson’s Blues Revue. Is it a different mindset with those?
No. The thing is the Thunderbirds are on the same page. We’ve come full circle in a lot of ways. There’s a lot more blues in our set now. Whenever we want to do it we do it. We still have this hybrid thing in mind. Originally it was based on moving in a contemporary market. It really is just doing what you like.
You’ve been a guest on so many projects with people like Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Paul Burlison and others.
I just did Kid Rock last year. I worked with Rafael Saadiq on Austin City Limits which was killer. What a great artist he is.
Is it a different mindset to go in as a guest on an album for someone else as opposed to one of your own?
Not really. It really is an honor for these people to call you. Sometimes it’s people that you don’t even know that know you exist. There’s not much pressure. Very few are taskmasters. They just want you to come in and do your thing. They respect what you do. They bring you in for the way you played on that other record. They know me well enough to know that it will be totally different every time I go anywhere. There is some role playing as far as what part you are. When I come in, I have an open mind on the role I’m going to be playing. Am I going to be the main lyricist? Am I going to just go with the flow and fill in? It makes other people a lot more comfortable and not acting like a bad-ass and just ready to harmonize in any way you can. I’ve been on hundreds of things and people still keep calling me, so that’s a great thing (laughs).
My 11 year old son loves you guys and had a question after hearing the line from Tuff Enuff where you say “I’d work 24 hours, 7 days a week/Just so I could come home and kiss your cheek”. He wondered how you would have the time to come to kiss her cheek if you were working that much.
(laughs) Well, that’s a great question. I guess it says it makes you “want” to not that you “will” do it. That’s a good point. That kid has a mind like a steel trap!
The new band and self-titled album has a raw but tight band sound. These songs have to be fun to play live.
|The Fabulous Thunderbirds|
You go through so many records where if they don’t hear it on the radio it doesn’t go over. A big thing for me now is doing songs that will go over live easily and appeal to live audiences. If you go back to a Louis Jordan concept, he would try songs out on an audience before he recorded them. That’s kind of what we’re doing these days. I think this record now is going to be revamped and officially released on a label. A lot of people don’t know it exists. It never got officially released. We’ve got several more tracks to put on there. We’ll probably keep some of it and lose some of it. It’ll basically be a whole new record. You can mess with as much as you want when you own it yourself. When it goes to a label then the label will own it. Even if it’s a long term lease, there’s a lease in place. Even if it’s ten years at least you get your masters back. You don’t have to deal with the stereotypical record labels that have put themselves out of business. They painted themselves into a corner they can’t get out of. A lot of it is fairytale music not geared to adults. It’s geared to children. The analogy is for me when I was a little kid. My mother gave me one of those cheap little record players you could get anywhere back in the 50’s and there were those little Mother Goose records. Now those are hit records. People enjoy no substance. They don’t want to make the emotional investment in a musical performance. I think this is why this American Idol thing is so successful. Because people are on the tube, they have to make an investment in the people they are voting for. It’s genius. I’m not saying it’s a great concept …it’s an awful concept because it helped destroy everything. However, it’s a genius concept in the fact it’s more like a drug to people. They pick a person they want to root for and it becomes their person…their kind of pet. It’s based on everything traditional without the talent. That’s the way that goes. In general, when it comes to the record industry and radio and what people surround themselves with, they don’t like to have the hair stand up on the back of their necks like when you hear a Solomon Burke song or anything on Chess Records. They don’t want that feeling. They’ve been slapped into their cubicle and have been fed this stuff piped into them. It’s like a lobotomy coming out of a speaker. (laughs) I think with the demise of the record industry, you’re in control of your destiny.
Anyone you’re a fan of currently?
I’m kind of a fan of Slash. I never bought the band Guns N Roses but I liked him. I’d be thumbing through the TV and he’d be on there. I thought “I like this guy”. He’s got great tone. He’s really doing something here. I’ve followed him a bit. This latest band he’s had, he had some really good rock singers in that band. That was a legitimate outfit. I would enjoy working with someone like Slash. I like the guys from AC/DC. I like Malcolm (Young). I like the author of the blues chords. And by the way we have the same birthday (January 6th). We’re both blues freaks. It would be great to get a couple of these guys in the studio and see what happens.
What does the new year look like for you?
It’s wide open. Hopefully, there will be a new release…maybe 2 or 3 new releases. It’s just onward and upward. I’ve got a great bunch of guys playing. I’ve got the Moeller brothers on guitar (Johnny) and drums (Jay). I’ve got Randy Bermudes on bass. I’ve got Mike Heller on guitar. I had Mike Finnigan play with me up in Ventura recently which was a great addition on organ and piano. I can see things catching on with this band. Hopefully it’s an example of the era of the player.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds EPK
The Fabulous Thunderbirds live from JazzFest 2011
Kim Wilson- "Lookin' For Trouble"
The Fabulous Thunderbirds- "Tuff Enuff" 1986
The Fabulous Thunderbirds- "She's Tuff"
The Fabulous Thunderbirds- "The Crawl" (w/ guest guitars by Stevie Ray Vaughan)