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Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Kim Wilson interview: 'We played straight blues and we were militant about it'
By Ray Shasho
This Friday, October 28th, The Fabulous Thunderbirds will be performing a free concert on Cleveland Street just outside the doors of the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater highlighting the Blast Friday festival. The event is held every fourth Friday of the month. The street fair kicks off at 5:30 pm with entertainment ending at 10:00 pm. Blast Friday is a production of Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Don’t miss this rare opportunity to witness one of the greatest blues harp (harmonica) players in the world. Legendary bluesman Muddy Waters said Kim Wilson was “The greatest harmonica player to come along since Little Walter.” Wilson says, “Muddy Waters was my biggest mentor. He really made my reputation for me, and that was a fantastic time of my life, being associated with that man.”
The Fabulous Thunderbirds began as a straight blues band over thirty years ago in Austin Texas. The original lineup spotlighted Kim Wilson’s blue-eyed soul vocals and proficient harp playing accompanied by the great Jimmie Vaughan (Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother) on guitar.
Kim Wilson’s soulful vocal styles were prominent on the Fabulous Thunderbirds most commercially successful release Tuff Enuff in 1986. Produced by Welsh rocker Dave Edmonds the album conceived Wilson’s penned “Tuff Enuff” (#10 hit on Billboard’s Hot100) and Sam and Dave’s “Wrap It Up.” The T-Birds undeniably brought the blues back to contemporary radio.
“Tuff Enuff” was featured in the film Tough Guys starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. It was also spotlighted on the Ron Howard comedy film Gung Ho starring Michael Keaton and numerous occasions on the TV sitcom Married with Children.
Co-Founder and guitarist Jimmie Vaughan exited the band in 1989. Vaughan’s brother guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s the T-Birds toured extensively supporting bands like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.
The soulful crooning of Kim Wilson and the amazing players of The Fabulous Thunderbirds continue to astound its audiences worldwide. The T-Birds frequent blues festivals and perform over 300 dates consistently year round. Wilson also tours with Kim Wilson’s Blues All-Stars.
The T-Birds played the Sarasota Blues Fest in 1997 with the Bobby “Blue” Bland and the Tampa Bay Blues Fest in 2009.
I recently chatted with Kim Wilson while he made breakfast at his home in Southern California.
Good morning Kim thanks for being on the call today.
“It’s my pleasure Ray.”
The T-Birds are currently on a mini-tour and you’ve recently played a bunch of casino dates. It seems a lot of artists these days enjoy playing those venues. What’s your take on playing casinos?
“Well they pay good and it’s really just a great situation. I mean the room is usually really nice and all you have to do is walk down from your room to play. And usually it’s a real nice dressing room you know it’s a great situation and people are very comfortable there. They can go out and gamble or do whatever they want. They can get in the day of the show and play some golf or whatever and I love doing them. Those are great gigs it’s basically a form of playing clubs on steroids. The facilities are always great and of course there’s always free food and you get a sort of suite and perks on the golf course.”
The T-Birds are going to be touring Australia in April of 2012.
“I went down to Argentina a few months ago and that was awesome. The harmonica down there is kind of a classical instrument. I mean they have actual Masters that teach the young people how to play. People that are taking lessons actually study the harmonica. It was very interesting they play chromatic down there. I heard about it from my friend Rick Estrin who plays for the Nightcats.”
“But Australia is going to be really nice I haven’t been there for awhile. The Byron Bay Blues Fest is a great festival in a great area it’s just beautiful. You know one nice thing you get to go all over the world and see some great places it’s a pretty good life in that way.”
You’ve got a separate band of musicians that your touring with called Kim Wilson’s Blues All-Stars. How does that band contribute to your musical repertoire?
“It’s real traditional but it rocks out too. It’s a really interesting thing. I would call it less of a hybrid and then the T-Birds. It’s really more straight ahead blues. Although when the T-Birds play blues it’s straight ahead and then can really do it. The Thunderbirds can do a lot of things a lot of different kinds of music they’re very good musicians. You know younger guys and most of the guys in the All-Stars are mostly older guys but don’t tell anybody. (All Laughing) They all had that Cadillac Records movie a few years ago and we all did really well on that and a couple of them got Grammy’s out of it and we all got nominated and that was great. It’s just a very-very good band.”
You’re a pretty athletic guy aren’t you?
“I’m injured man I hurt myself.”
What did you do?
“I injured myself swinging a golf club believe it or not. I play basketball with these young guys you know and I don’t get injured. I go out swinging a golf club and I get injured.
So you play basketball with the younger guys, man that can be brutal.
“I can run with them and that’s hard to do at my age. They have no idea how old I am. They think I’m way younger than what I am.
Did you play a lot of basketball when you were a kid?
“I played football when I was a kid. Yea I played football out here in Southern California. Captain of my high school team and played all three years. I played every play of every game. Yea I played both ways I played offense and defense and I was a punt returner kick returner. The only team I didn’t play on was the field goal and kickoff team. I had scholarships to play ball but you know the writing was on the wall for me and I just started playing music. I mean if I was the size that I am now back in high school I would have been on the line. (All laughing) But I had a lot of fun and it taught me a lot of things. I was an athlete my whole life and I was also a musician and an artist and started playing music when I was about nine years old in Detroit. We had mandatory music a couple times a week in Michigan at that time and a guy would come in and tell you to play your little Tonette and play a little “Sweet Potato.” Can you imagine thirty kids playing that all at once? I can’t even imagine right now.”
“One day the music teacher comes in and he brings in a couple of horns and gets me and this other kid out of the class and hands me a baritone horn and says play it. So I played it. I played it the first time I touched it. I ended up on the trombone and I was successful for a kid. When we moved to California I played for awhile and then I stopped because I wanted to play sports you know. I was a kid!”
“Then I’m in high school and out here in California in the early 60’s and it was incredible what was going on out here. It was nuts! There was nothing like it anywhere people were coming through constantly all the blues guys so many of them and so I just became a pest. I picked up the harmonica and that was another thing that I had an affinity for and I could already sing so basically without practicing very much or at all I’m in a band. I’m the singer in the band and the harmonica player.”
So did you play blues in your first band?
“Yea we played straight blues. We didn’t have a rock and roll background. We played straight blues and we were militant about it. It was 1968. I played with the three Silva brothers. Rob on drums Marcial on bass and George on the alto saxophone. I had this kid named George Reilly on guitar he was sixteen years old and I heard he’s not alive anymore but he was an incredible talent. If he’s alive and playing he’s got to be unbelievable but I don’t think he is according to what I’ve heard. Back then he was a wino when he was sixteen. He had a serious wine abuse problem. Smack was the drug of choice and a lot of people were on it. But there was just so much stuff like that going on it was just incredible.”
What were some of the bands you emulated growing up in Southern California?
“Musselwhite use to come into town all the time he must have been just a kid back then. He was just a kid back then for sure. We’d go down to see Paul Butterfield also and then George “Harmonica” Smith started coming around and all these other people. Within a year after I started playing I was playing with Eddie Taylor, I was playing with Furry Lewis, Johnny Shines, I mean I was playing with all these guys just a year after I started. And then after that I got to know Albert Collins and Pee Wee Crayton. I met John Lee Hooker back then people like Luther Tucker there was a guy named Hi Tide Harris and of course George
“Harmonica” Smith and then there were people like Phillip Walker who just passed away recently.”
“There was this guy named Harmonica Frank you remember him? He was a white guy with a crew-cut that played the harmonica in his mouth and sang with the harmonica in his mouth. He had big race record hits and they thought he was black back in the 50’s. Look him up Harmonica Frank Floyd. His race records were blues and “Howlin Tomcat” was one of them and the way he sounded with the harmonica in his mouth he sounded like an old dude from the plantation and he probably was from the plantation actually. Harmonica Frank I don’t know what he did but he was probably a migrant worker. I think he could have been. I knew about this guy because my buddy was his pen pal and he would communicate with this guy like back in the 60’s and he communicated with this guy and his wife would write the letter for him because he couldn’t read or write. But he would sign his name and I’ll never forget it because Frank Floyd the n was backwards. But this guy was incredible he would get up there and do animal calls he was like a vaudevillian guy. In your career when you meet people like that it’s pretty Far Out!”
“So you meet all these people in your career and then you come along and later on in life people start recognizing you and start getting sessions with really cool people like Clapton like Kid Rock and I did Raphael Saadiq that just came out off Austin City Limits and I’m in a couple of those songs. And I’ve got Mark Knopfler coming up at the end of November I had to fly over to England to do it. And of course I’ve been on a couple two or three records with Bonnie Raitt and people like Paul Simon just a lot of different stuff.”
I’m originally from the Washington DC area. Bonnie Raitt was already legendary in DC before she made it big nationally so I’m naturally going to be partial to collaborations with Bonnie. I’d love to see the both of you take it on the road together.
“I’d love to do it. Maybe once she gets her record out I can do it. It would be great to do that because she’s really a dear friend of mine and I don’t see her very often. And she’s so talented and personable. She’s able to get so connected with people and that’s awesome so many entertainers don’t have that.”
The Fabulous Thunderbirds went through a commercially successful period in the 80’s and cranked out the hits “Tuff Enuff,”“Wrap it Up” and “Look at That.” What made that period so successful for the band?
“Well really when you think about it… it was the times for sure. But people were just ready for it. And there were a lot of key things that happened. Dave Edmonds producing for one and then the song Tuff Enuff being in a few movies it had a long shelf life. The song was still going a year later after it started going. Just a lot of work putting your face in front of a lot of people which is what we do now. Back then that was like the tail end of the record business and I think the first record or two that we had with them with Columbia Epic Sony became Sony they had a real record savvy staff a bunch of veterans real record people. It was very interesting and no matter what you think of the business you really have to respect them because they really were on top of it. They pushed and knew a lot of people and had personal relationships all over the country and they were salespeople is what they were. They say business is business no business is personal. You could go out and have dinner and a few drinks with everybody it was a pretty cool deal to watch. Then that was done and those people left the business and the record industry painted themselves in a corner musically to where no wonder they’re not in business that’s too bad. I think the Independent label now is the way to go. A friendly relationship and actually hang out a little bit with and that’s how you do it.”
The artists aren’t being promoted at all and I think we need to go back to radio basics.
“They need to be opening up the airwaves to everyone and get deejays back get the personality’s back in radio. You listened in for the personality as much as you did for the music.”
“I just got a feeling that this country is going to go back to the basics because we have no choice. This whole country has been pumped up on nothing but a bunch of air and now it’s all deflated and we’re back down to reality. No sense on being greedy you’ve got nothing to be greedy with. And don’t depend on the politicians to do anything it’s really up to you. You’re in control. I’ve got a song coming out called “Do you know who I am?” and it’s all about that.”
When will it be released?
“Something should be coming out in the beginning of next year sometime. I haven’t signed a deal yet but I am signing with a new label and it’s an Independent label and I like the people over there. You know we’ve been in the studio for a couple of years now in and out and we have a lot of different tracks that we can go with.”
You know when “Tuff Enuff” first hit the airwaves I really thought it was Tom Jones.
“Hey I tell you what that’s high praise. Tom Jones is a great singer.”
That song would have been a great cover song for him.
“You know what you’re right and he could do the s**t out of that song.”
Who are some artists you would collaborate with today?
“The Black Keys… I would love to get involved with those guys and do something with them that would be a fun thing.”
Mick Jagger didn’t call you to work on his new SuperHeavy band?
“He plays harmonica in that anyway… probably.” But The Stones were my favorite band when I was a kid.”
Is Mick a good harp player?
“He’s got his style and I would say he’s recognizable. Robert Plant also and he’s been very generous with me and I’ve heard people say he’s talking about me and stuff. He’s a really nice guy and just a really- really cool guy. Robert Plant is one of those guys he knows how to make himself and make his music timeless. Him and Clapton too you’ve got to hand it to Clapton he knows how to legitimize what he’s doing in modern times and pushing the envelope as far as musical styles and stuff in that same way. But it’s all based on the blues though and that’s a cool thing.”
Final thoughts Kim?
“Go see Raphael Saadiq with myself on Austin City Limits on PBS. Raphael Saadiq and Black Joe Louis is the show. We’ll have the latest Fabulous Thunderbirds at the show on Friday and then look for something around springtime maybe look for us to be breaking out.”
Additional collaborations with Bonnie Raitt and Robert Plant maybe?
“Have gun will travel.”
Kim, I’ll see you on Cleveland Street in Clearwater for Blast Friday on October 28th.
“Thanks Ray see you there brother.”
FREE concert this Friday October 28th Starring Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds!
It’s Blast Friday on Cleveland Street outside the doors of the Capitol Theatre.
The Street Fair begins at 5:30 pm.
COMING NEXT Ray’s interview with Todd Rundgren and the Utopia reunion.
Special thanks to Anne Leighton Media for this interview.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds official website http://www.fabulousthunderbirds.com/
Ruth Eckerd Hall official website http://www.rutheckerdhall.com/
Anne Leighton Media http://www.anneleighton.com/
Don’t forget to order columnist and author Ray Shasho’s great new book Check the Gs –The True Story of an Eclectic American Family and Their Wacky Family Business available now at amazon.com, iuniverse.com, barnesandnoble.com and borders.com.
“Normalcy is a myth and anyone who tells you differently isn't very normal. "Check the Gs" is a memoir from Ray Shasho who tells of his own offbeat upbringing working in the family business art gallery, from a young age. Of Cuban and Syrian descent, he tells a very American story of coming from everything, seeing everything, walking the line of the law and much more. A fun and fast paced memoir, "Check the Gs" is a worthwhile addition to many a memoir collection.” ~~ MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW
Contact Ray Shasho at email@example.com