Gary James' Interview With Kim Wilson Of
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
They've recorded over twenty albums and sold millions of records and CDs in the thirty odd years they've been together. They've appeared on the same bill with The Rolling Stones, Santana and Eric Clapton. They enjoyed great success with a song called "Tuff Enough". We are talking of course about The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Founding member Kim Wilson spoke with us about the band's career.
Q - I see The Fabulous Thunderbirds have been selected to be the Grand Opening Act at Vernon Downs Race Track And Casino Events Center. How did that come to be? Did you put a bid in for it? Did they specifically ask for you?
A - We've got a good agency. Hopefully they asked for us, but I don't know. However it is, it is.
Q - Who's booking you?
A - Paradise Artists in California. We switched to them this last year. They've been really, really great. I'm really enjoying being with them. I guess they're a little smaller. I don't know. They've got some pretty cool people. A lot of older acts. I told them immediately, "this is not what this is about. It's not about retro. We've got a lot to say now. Just bear that in mind when you book us," and it's been very cool, especially considering the times we live in these days.
Q - Kim, you've been at this game for a long time now. I take it you must really like being onstage in order to put up with everything else you have to go through to get onstage.
A - Yeah. I love it. I love it more than ever. It's a good way to be at this stage of your life. I feel way on top of my game. I'm always learning. I'm always trying to reach that unattainable standard that you have. When you get to be a certain age, all of a sudden you're comfortable in your own skin. You feel you might be getting close to that period of group you desire to be in. A lot of people are done, finished, retired a long time ago, but at the same time I'm re-born. So, I feel good about it. It's a lot of uncomfortable things, the travel part of it. I'd just rather get in the car and drive to be honest with you. I enjoy seeing the countryside. It's kind of like being on vacation for a second, until it goes past five hours. (laughs) But I just went through some amazing shit with the airlines this week. Oh, my God! Losing luggage, losing guitars. Delayed. Cancellation. It's kind of the nature of the beast, you know, when you get out there in the summertime and playing in the excruciating heat. It's just insane. I mean insane if you're playing outdoors right now. It's stupid. But I really enjoy playing. I really enjoy meeting the people in all these places and hopefully attracting some new people after all this time. It's happening. I'm have a great time. It's incredible that things can still be this fresh to me. But it's really the nature of the music. I picked the right thing
Q - Speaking of picking the right thing, you started your career in music in Austin, Texas?
A - Really in California. A place called Galida, right by Santa Barbara. That's really where I got started. I was right away playing with all the old guys. Playing with Eddie Taylor, Luthor Tucker, George Harmonica Smith, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, so many people. That was all before I was twenty-two years old.
Q - So, why leave California for Texas?
A - Well, you just try to find a place where people want it. Tryin' to find where the people are to play. You can't sit there. If it's not happening in your hometown, you gotta leave if you really want to do it. And that's what I did.
Q - So, how long were you performing in Austin before you got a record deal? Years? Months?
A - Years. About five years.
Q - You signed with Takoma / Chrysalis Records.
A - Yeah.
Q - I take it they didn't do a very good job for you in the way of promotion?
A - No, not in the beginning. Chrysalis was a little better. I would have to say those were the most influential records of that year when it came to that kind of music. That's what everybody tells me. (laughs) So, where'd they all go? (laughs) Where's the royalties? Believe it or not, they're telling me I'm not re-couped. (laughs)
Q - Time to get a good music lawyer.
A - Well, I'm in the process. It's just crazy. That was just the nature of the beast back then. They're still a promotional tool. It's just something you can't get upset about. In the mid '80s when we got signed to Columbia, those people were real record people. They knew how to promote something, and they did. Of course that changed soon after that. But I did get a taste of what it was really like to see real record company in action. It was cool. It was really thrilling. They weren't the anti-Christ that I thought they were. (laughs) Especially when they were making hit records for me. But they were really cool people, dynamic personalities, really serious. I was using the L.A. and New York folks and I had access to Columbia, Epic, CBS, all those labels. I was using all their publicity people. They were cool people back then. Then all of a sudden, you started seeing interns working in their positions. That's when it all went South really, and they were spending way too much money. A lot of it was they were kind of beating a dead horse, the kind of music they were promoting. I mean, it was just kind of this formulated crap that they thought became trendy. Musical taste became a problem. It was a problem from the very beginning of time when labels started when the Pop music first started happening. It just so happens that Pop music back in the '50s was Frank Sinatra. Ain't nothing wrong with that. But then you started these off shoots in the '60s of Frank Sinatra. It was schmaltz to the hilt. There was nothing really going on with it, but people still bought it because they thought it was gonna be the next one of him. I don't know. Then you got people like Tony Bennett. People like that. Then the '60s happened.
Q - You're talking about people like Fabian?
A - Yeah. Being cute was the only thing you needed. They realized they could sell people like that.
Q - When I interviewed
Fabian back in 1992, he told me they were trying to find the next Fabian, but had no luck. So he said "I must've had something."
A - I suppose. I met him once. He was a nice guy. He was a very nice guy, but he was a heart throb. He was cute. That's what he had. Elvis was really the one who started that, and Sinatra. But here's the deal: they both had real talent. And when you combine the two, it's pretty incredible.
Q - Dynamite!
A - Dynamite. When you got an outrageous guy like Elvis Presley, who really was an animated guy. There's another part of it. He had everything. Even his movie sound tracks were good. Even the stuff he was singing in the movies was cool. Viva Las Vegas and he did the whole Hawaiian movie.
Q - "Do The Clam". Do you remember that song?
A - No. I don't remember that, thank God. (laughs)
Q - That's one of the reasons why he lost interest in recording.
A - That's too bad. People do regrettable things in their lifetimes, but he made money. He could've had a way, way longer career than he did. He destroyed himself, unfortunately. It's too bad.
Q - For four years, The Fabulous Thunderbirds didn't have a record deal. That's between Chrysalis and CBS. You still were touring. How did you manage to do that?
A - It's the nature of the beast. It's not all about... you don't even have to have a record out for people to know that you kind of put on a good show. It helps of course.
Q - Financially speaking it must've been tough to go out on the road without any label support.
A - There was no money to be made, but there was no money to be needed. You didn't make money back then. It wasn't like now. It wasn't like when you got older and you need family support or you just pay all that stuff, no. There were times when I'd go "what am I gonna do now?" You know what I mean? Knowing full well that I wasn't going to do anything else. (laughs) We were out there having a great old time. It was not a big deal.
Q - Did you write "Tuff Enuff"?
A - I did.
Q - How long did it take you to write that song?
A - About ten minutes.
Q - The melody and the lyrics?
A - Of course.
Q - After you finished, did you realize you had a hit song on your hands?
A - Listen, I've thought I had many hit songs and probably should have. After Edmunds recorded it for us and that whole record, I knew I was gonna have another one that was special. I think at that time we were... it was kind of a developmental thing as far as getting to that point of creating something that was quote, unquote, contemporary. A lot of ingredients involved in that record. I think that version of the band had pretty much hit its apex. Even though we weren't anywhere near where we should've been to create contemporary records. We just got one back then. A lot of people were out there watching us play. We were on the road so much that there were a lot of people just ready to buy something. And of course the people at CBS, Epic, they were great. The song was in like three or four movies. There was a pecking order to that record because back then you had AOR Radio. You climbed up AOR Radio until you got to CHR. Well, we had a bunch of stuff inside AOR Radio. We had "Why Get Up", which was the classic morning song. We had the follow-up single, which is "Wrap It Up". There was a whole pecking order to that record. It was very, very clear what was going to go first, what was going to go second. We had "Look At That, Look At That", which was like a Top Five AOR, but it didn't go any further, but, so what? Consequently they were still adding that record to the P-1s a year later. It had a really, really long life.
Q - What are P-1s?
A - P-1 radio stations, which was like Top 40 at that time. That's what they called them. That's what I was told anyway.
Q - I never heard that before.
A - That's a long time ago. Those were the top major stations and there were a lot of 'em back then of course, unlike now. Of course now what you would call the top stations are playing fifteen songs.
Q - That's what Top 40 radio did, especially in the '60s.
A - Yeah. That was really the beginning of the demise of it. Shutting down the options. You're talking about real cultural deprivation. I remember back when I was a kid in the early '60s hearing Charlie Rich and Slim Harpo both doing "Mohair Sam" on the same station, different times of the day. Of course back then we had Wolfman Jack in Tijuana, XRB. I would learn songs off that station. What's crazy about back then is, even if the song was totally stupid, they had some incredible sessions musicians playing on it.
Q - What was it like to open shows for The Stones and Eric Clapton. Was it nerve wracking to be on the same stage?
A - For The Stones, yeah. It was nerve wracking. But I think the guy who was really great on that was Bill Graham, who in my opinion was the greatest promoter who ever lived. He was a very musical guy. He really was generous with us and with me. When he spoke to me, I definitely listened. By the time we got to Clapton, which was a few years later, I think we were a little more comfortable on a big stage. It was a good match, Clapton and us. So I think that made a lot of difference.
Q - It must have been incredibly exciting and gratifying for you to work with Muddy Waters.
A - Oh, it was the best. He was like my Dad. He was like a second father to me. He really got my reputation going out there back in the mid '70s. He spread the word and said all kinds of cool stuff in the newspapers. It was a very cool thing. There would be times when I would be sitting with him, just me and him and those are some incredible times is all I can tell you.
Q - Talking about his music or his life?
A - Both. That's stuff that I can hardly even talk about because it's so special to me. He was really passing the baton. You know what I mean? Passing the torch. Some of these guys, I've played with all of them. It was a great period of time for me. I learned a lot. I learned about what kind of people these guys were. That really influenced me as much as anything as far as the kind of generosity. They were way better people than I am. I'll guarantee you that.
Q - You've got to write a book so some of this material isn't lost forever.
A - Well, you're right.
Q - Shouldn't you pass the baton along?
A - Nobody to pass it to. That's the problem. There's nobody to pass it to.
Q - Justin Bieber just wouldn't fit.
A - No.
Q - What keeps your fans coming back to see your show?
A - They always know they're gonna get a world-class bunch of musicians. They're starting to get used to the spontaneity of the show. They start to realize how spontaneous it is. They're never gonna get the same show, ever. You're not gonna get the same show the next night. There's no set list. I call 'em up on the spot. Musically it's very spontaneous. About all improvised. So they're gonna get people who are in that vein. And they're gonna get something unique. A unique hybrid form of American music that has to do with a lot of different music, Blues, R&B, Rock 'n' Roll. That is appealing to people. They can get a good up-tempo set. Or I can give them the drama too, for the sit-down crowd. It's all a judgment call at the time. Now people over the years realize that's why they can come year after year because they're never gonna get the same thing. If you had people comin' to your show three nights in a row, they would never get the same show. They're gonna get energy. It's gonna be fresh.
Q - I like that approach.
A - It's very old school. It would be detrimental to me to have a strictly arranged show. I've seen guys like James Brown do it and it was awesome, OK? (laughs) There are other people that have done it where you have to do it. But with me, I don't have to. There's so many different musical genres that I cover and so many times when I want to mix musical genres in one song that it's almost impossible to me to have things arranged. I think it rubs off on people. They get it.