September , 1983
By Robert Colbert
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
The Fabulous Thunderbirds Fly High
Well, they finally made it.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds that is!
This rock, rhythm and blues band, whose musical acclaim has led them to everywhere but Oklahoma City, finally came to town for a jam-packed show at The Bowery.
Kim Wilson, the group's vocalist and harmonica player, couldn't remember the last time he was in Oklahoma City. That's because when you've toured all over the United States, Canada, Scotland and into England, it’s easy to lose track of time and places. This current road trip commenced in Houston and will take the band through half of the U.S. up into Canada where it will wind up in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
But no matter where the gig is, the Fab T-Birds are a guaranteed good time. Anyone present will be a convert to the group’s unique sound. Wilson knew the performance at the Bowery would be no exception.
"Put it this way,” Kim said during a recent telephone conversation, “we're a dancin' band. Whether you're crawlin' on the floor or laid back drunk, it’s one big party. We like to roll into towns and have fun. No matter how you want it, or where you want it, we’re going to funk you out T-Bird style.”
It’s difficult to categorize T-Bird music. Some call it rock and roll. Others call it rhythm and blues. Unfortunately, labeling artists still seems to be the trend these days by critics. Even the T-Birds have a hard time describing what it is they exactly do
"Just call it 'rock'n rhythm'n blues,” Kim instructed with a laugh as infectious as the group's music. "Say it six times real fast as well. Our sound is a mixture of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Lightnin' Hopkins and Guitar Junior. We do play a lot of blues. It's our bread and butter. But most importantly, it's got to be good. It's got to move you.”
Of today's artists who are getting a lot of commercial recognition and airplay, the T-Birds most closely resemble the Stray Cats and the Blasters. The comparison is due to all three groups' dedication to turning back the clock and introducing a new generation to the original rock and roll they turned people on in the ‘50s.
"Yeah, I'm impressed with the Stray Cats,” conceded Wilson. “The funny thing about the Blasters is they used to open for us back in Los Angeles.”
The Fabulous Thunderbirds were influenced by many artists over the years, but one musician in particular had a profound effect on the band – the late Muddy Waters. His original Delta blues band included harp player Little Walter Jacobs and guitarist Jimmy Rogers. Just mentioning the legendary Waters in the same breath as the T-Birds brings out a profound emotional response from Wilson.
"Can we not talk about it?” said the musician frankly of his heroes recent death. “I made it up to his funeral. It's still unpleasant as hell to me to even think about it.”
Muddy once told Wilson he was the best harp player in the world today. In one interview, he singled out Wilson by saying, "He reminds me of Little Walter because he plays more than one harp." The accolade still resounds with Wilson today.
"I really got into the sound of Little Walter Jacobs,” offered Wilson when reminded of the quote. “I like the way he phrased the instrument. Junior Parker and Sonny Boy Williamson are also two heroes of mine as well. I would take the harmonica and play it like a horn, a Louisiana harp, everything. When I put that harp to my mouth, I play with spirit, like Walter did. Playing the harmonica is a real unconscious effort if you are doing it right.”
Wilson spent most of his time on the West Coast until about eight years ago when he showed up in Austin, Texas. That's when he encountered a fellow soul mate in guitarist Jimmie Vaughan. The rest, as they say, is history.
"I came to Austin to check out some business angles,” responded Wilson. “I saw everybody including Jimmie. He was playing with a band and we decided to get together.”
Bassist Keith Ferguson joined them and eventually singer Lou Ann Barton was added. Vaughan played guitar on Barton's debut album last year which was produced by Jerry Wexler and former Eagle Glenn Frey.
The T-Birds went through several drummers and Barton eventually left the group. The rhythm section finally came together when drummer Fran Christina entered the picture. Interestingly enough, the group had tried to get Christina to join the band previously, but it took an act of desperation to get him on board. Fran had moved to Northeast Canada, isolating himself in the woods outside of Nova Scotia. When the T-Birds drummer Mike Buck quit in the middle of the tour, they had to ask the Canadian Mounties to help them get word to Christina. Once contact had been made, the drummer then had to hitchhike to the Fabulous Thunderbirds gig in London, Ontario.
Ferguson grew up with fellow Texan and bluesman, Johnny Winter. The pair performed all over the word and split up when decided to settle down on the East Coast and produce artists for his Blue Sky Record label. When Johnny Winter left Texas, it would be Vaughan’s younger brother, Stevie Ray, who would assume the blues playing mantle. He recently performed on David Bowie's latest album, Let's Dance, and has just released his first album on Epic.
"The guy's a great guitar player," Kim said referring to the younger Vaughan brother. "Jimmie's real proud of him and the two of them get along really well.”
The Thunderbirds have had their brushes with fame as well. The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jaggar personally asked the band to open for the group after attending one of their many shows in New York City at the Ritz and other clubs. The band has also toured with the Doobie Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Eric Clapton and Rockpile featuring Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds. In fact, it was the Rockpile show that led Nick Lowe to inquire about producing the band’s current release, T-Bird Rhythm. The album has been critically acclaimed, and Wilson is quick to point out that Lowe’s productions skills made all the difference in the world.
"He knows exactly what we’re capable of,” said Wilson referring Lowe’s presence in the studio. “We are a one take type of band. We just go in, cut the song, and it’s over. Nick knew how to bring the good stuff out of us without overproducing the music. It showed on this album.”
Commercial appeal is the last thing you’ll find any of the Thunderbirds worrying about when it comes to making music. If it happens, then it happens, but not because the band purposely compromised their standards. It’s one concession the band will never adhere to.
"Let me put it to you this way,” offered Wilson. “There is a lot of inequity in this business. You see artists and groups these days jumping up and down with their songs making millions of dollars. That music can't compare to the raw blues of the great Jimmy Rogers. Yet he can barely pay his electric bill. It doesn’t seem right. If it wasn’t for people like him, there would never have been a Led Zeppelin. If you don’t believe me, just ask Jimmy Page what he thinks about the blues.
"Don't get me wrong. It's not getting worse for those artists, it's getting better. We're getting gigs and packing them in playing the blues. Obviously we want to succeed on the commercial end, but if it means compromising our standards in any way, we won’t do it. I'd just as soon have a hard time paying my electric bill than concede my integrity for a lousy dollar.
“Whether we’re playing on stage, or working in the studio, you won’t find anyone but us four performing the music. Everybody's happy with the situation we’re in. Our time will come when it is supposed to. We’re not worried about it. We still surprise each other with what we bring to the table on any given day. And it’s not exactly music either. That’s what is kind of scary.”