Southern Culture on the Skids, Part 2
Pop culture always gets recycled. One of the stranger revivals, to me, was that period during the ’90s when easy listening, Tropicalia and so-called “space age bachelor pad” music made a brief mini-comeback. And your sound even touches on aspects of that.
“I really love that stuff. And I tell you what, I was into Al Caiola and Tony Motolla, and George Barnes, and all these session cats. Jerry Cole – ok, you wanna talk about guitar players? They’re all great guitar players. Jerry Cole was part of the Wrecking Crew, and the coolest thing about him, I used to look for all his old albums on Crown and Diplomat, because he was signed to Capitol but, you know, you could tell he just went in with a bunch of cats in the studio and, like, cut 12 songs that they named after motorcycles, right, or they named ’em all after cars, or dances, or whatever. Or motorboats. It didn’t matter, right? Like Duane Eddy made a waterskiing record! I just loved how these guys would…whatever was the popular thing that day, they’d put out an instrumental record [for it]. But Jerry Cole would just go in and change one letter in his name, to a K, to get away from being sued by Capitol, I guess, or get away with it, and then he’d do these things… one of my favorites, he didn’t even do it under his own name, I think it’s Billy Boyd and it’s called ‘Night Beat’ or something. But it’s the greasiest, grimiest grooves… it’s so good, and it’s all session guys. They can’t name ’em, though, on the records, right? And you used to buy these things for 79 cents like in drugstores and places. They’d just kind of capitalize on what was hip. It was total fly-by-night stuff. But some of the greatest guitar players are on those records.”
And that stuff’s hard to find. These guys are not the most well-known figures, or heralded as guitar greats. They’re largely unknown.
“Unless you start looking at records. Like, you start looking at the liner notes on a Nancy Sinatra record, and you see where Billy Strange played the guitar and did the arrangements. So you go look for Billy Strange records. There’s a million of ‘em out there. About half of it’s great and half of it’s really bad, but it doesn’t matter, ya know! Secret Agent File is a great guitar record, by Billy Strange. It’s all secret agent themes. And they’re on labels like GNP Crescendo. Jerry Cole’s were all over the place. He did Outer Limits on Capitol and then maybe one more, but then, like I say, he did a bunch on these total budget [labels]. Another one was… Oh! One of my favorite all-time guitar players wrote the Munsters theme! His name is Jack Marshall. And he’s got an album of guitar music that is killer called Tuff Jack. He does the best version of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ I’ve ever heard. I’m not kiddin’. It’s so great. But, you know, the deeper you get into this stuff, the more you discover these guys. Another big guitar player to me is Mickey Baker. The Wildest Guitar on Atlantic was his big record, but what he was, he was an A&R guy for RCA’s R&B label, called Groove Records. And he also played a lot of session stuff. And he actually played some of the hottest rockabilly licks ever. [He] plays on a couple of Joe Clay numbers. You know, the deeper you get, the weirder it gets! I haven’t even touched on Nashville, really. I mean, there are so many great players… they say Grady Martin invented the fuzz guitar, right?”
Obviously you’ve always been very interested in researching and going back to the source and finding out who these people are. Are you still learning about obscure players you hadn’t heard of?
“Yeah, I do. Of course, obviously not as much. There was a Golden Age when all this stuff was new to me. But I’m still discovering things that pique my curiosity. Like, a lot of these compilations that are coming out with old gospel 45s. Dale Hawkins is another one I keep coming back to. I love his rockabilly stuff. But it’s not necessarily rockabilly, y’know. The guy’s from Louisiana, and he was on Chess Records. And James Burton, and some people say Roy Buchanan, played on his records. Well the guitar playing on those records is just unhinged. You know, the tone and just the nastiness of it. So good! So, recently I’ve been listening to a lot more of Dale Hawkins, and I’ll probably dig a little deeper on that. Sometimes we play with James Burton on a hot rod show down in Texas, and maybe [next time] I’ll have to ask him about it. James Burton is another guy that made some great stuff! With Ricky Nelson. I love listening to Ricky Nelson just for Ricky, but his band was just so good. and those things were recorded so well. Same thing with Buck Owens. I love listening to his records. Don Rich – wow, what a great guitar player! And they all played rock ‘n’ roll songs, too, you know.”
Can you pinpoint anything from any specific guitar players that you’ve sort of taken and incorporated into your own thing?
“Yeah. There’s probably three that I’ve stolen the most from, and I still listen to, to this day, that I love. Link Wray, of course. I think the first time I heard Link Wray was just an epiphany. His attitude and tone and the way he played, it’s so primitive, so good. It never gets old. And the next guy is Pops Staples. I love [him], and Pops Staples is a direct line to guys like John Fogerty, with CCR and that heavy vibrato. The best version ever of ‘For What It’s Worth’ is not Buffalo Springfield – it is the Staples Family Singers, with Pops Staples doin’ this kind of a slow grind on that thing, with the tremolo guitar, and the whole gospel thing, and the singing, with Mavis Staples’ voice which gives me goosebumps to this day… I’m a huge fan of Pops Staples, and I’ve stolen from those E7 chords – I use ’em all the time. Just slide ‘em up and down the neck, ya know, hahaha! And the other guy would probably be Steve Cropper, with those sixths, and just the way he phrases things. But that opens up a whole other thing of, like, a lot of soul guitar players and stuff like that, and the kind of phrasings they use. You know, what’s odd for me is, like, Scotty Moore and things like that, I listen to but I don’t see it as much of an influence on what I do. I’m much more into the blues and R&B side of rock.”
Oh, I can totally hear that in what you do.
“The tones and things like that. Like, whoever played guitar (and they say it was Lightnin’ Slim) on Slim Harpo records…like, the Excello label is just fantastic. I love everything on the Excello label. And their gospel [label], Nashboro I think was the name of it, was good, too. But, that swampy, tremolo-laden, deep kinda guitar stuff – that’s what gets me off.”
It may be more the Pops Staples influence, but one of my first impressions after seeing SCOTS for maybe the first time – late ’80s probably, or early ’90s – I described you as something like a Bizarro World mutation of CCR.
“Right. And it is. You’re exactly right. That would be a good call. Especially back in the ’90s. And still to this day. Dave Edmunds and then CCR was probably all I listened to for about three years. Because I couldn’t find anything else. And Commander Cody, back in his formative years.”
A lot of people don’t realize how difficult it was to find information on so much of this stuff, pre-World Wide Web. The Internet’s made it unbelievably easy, you can find just about anything on YouTube or whatever. Obscure recordings, live stuff, whatever.
“Oh, no, it is fantastic. And I mean, some days, I gotta say, I’ll just get on…I don’t buy anything, but I’ll get on the Apple Store and it’ll say, ‘If you like this, you might like this…’ And I’ll just type in an obscure something – The Five Du-Tones, or something – to see what pops up. Go down the rabbit hole, and try and find some stuff. My son was learning drums – he was in the jazz band at his junior high, at his middle school. And he’s playing ‘Shake a Tail Feather,’ right? And I said, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a great song.’ So I was thinking about…what was it?… who had the hit with it? It wasn’t the Righteous Brothers… [James & Bobby Purify]. I remember Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels had a killer version of that. But I went back, and it was the Five Du-Tones, and I went, ‘Oh, man, I gotta play this for you, Jack – this is the best version!’ And it is just a gut-bucket rhythm & blues tune. And the drums – the feel is so good! And then, like I say, with the surf, and the punk and stuff like that… The weird thing about the surf thing is the Middle Eastern thing is so prevalent in that. Dick Dale, his real name was Monsour or something – he was Lebanese. And that kinda got me into that, and for a while I was buying a lot of belly-dance records. You can find those in the bins with the easy listening records! So I’ve got a lot of belly-dancing records. My favorite one is called “Navel Observatory,” hahaha! And I love all that stuff, too. I love the old record covers. I mean, who would put a balding, middle-aged guy like Al Caiola on the front of his record? Probably nobody, right? But… put some hot chick in a bikini with a spear gun, so he could do ‘Thunderball,’ hahaha! You know, it’s just fun.”
You mentioned seeing Dick Dale. Which others that you’ve mentioned have you had a chance to see play live over the years? Anything stand out?
“Actually, yes. The Belly Up Tavern up there in Solana Beach was a real find for me, because I got to see Albert Collins, I got to see a lot of blues guys there. They’re all gone now. I was really lucky to see ‘em, and get turned on to ‘em. I saw Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker. These are not old guys, but I remember I saw The Blasters when their first record came out, on Rollin’ Rock Records, I saw ‘em above a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. There were like maybe ten people there. That was a fun show. And I got to see B.B. King. The surf stuff was tougher [to see], because really, Dick Dale was the only guy doing it then. The Ventures would come around every once in a while, but most of those guys had kinda gone away. By the time the resurgence was happening, I was playing so much in my band, it was kinda hard to go see anybody. I would’ve loved to have seen The Lively Ones, and The Safaris and all that kinda stuff.”
Did you get to see Link Wray?
“Oh yeah, we played with Link Wray. We bought Link Wray a Danelectro for his birthday. We played with him on his birthday in Minneapolis. We knew it was his birthday, and we went to a guitar store and bought one of those reissued Danelectros for him. We all signed it and stuff. He cried! He was such a nice guy.”
To this day, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen was Link Wray at the Star Bar here in Atlanta.
“Right. Well, that would be the place to see it. See, that’s the other thing, too – when they take the real rock ‘n’ roll out of clubs, and you put it in theaters and ‘listening rooms,’ you know, it just takes something away from it. The Star Bar, you know, a grungy hole in the wall, what a great place to see Link Wray, right?”
Or you guys.
“Anybody. It’s as much about the surroundings, and the people, and the music. [Dive bars] are the best place to see music, because they watch you sweat, you watch them sweat, the energy that goes back and forth between the [band] and the crowd – no barriers, face to face, eyeball to eyeball. It’s the best. And, we were talking about the Internet – the Internet is a great place to find all kinds of music, but what you miss is the record stores. The people that ran ‘em. The people you met there. All those things. All of those things add up in your head, with me. It’s not just the song, it’s where you found it, how you found it, who was in the record store, you know, ‘cause a lot of ‘em are hole in the walls run by these guys that just knew everything about R&B or jazz, or you name it. And they’d talk to you, they’d tell you about it. It was great. I mean, it’s great reading about ‘em in Wikipedia, but it was always way more fun listening to somebody tell you some racy story about how he met, you know, somebody backstage, or this show there. I’ve got a lot of friends that used to go to the chitlin’ circuit shows here. They’re older than I am, and they have great stories about, like, seeing James Brown in Greensboro, or seeing Otis Redding or somebody at frat parties. It’s the only place they could play in the South at a certain time. For white kids.”
When you’re 80 years old and can’t tour with SCOTS anymore, maybe you can open up a little hole in the wall record shop and tell all your own stories to the teenage kids that come in.
“I don’t know, we’ll see if they come in! But no, it needs to be passed on. That’s the beauty of it all. And the great artists, man… talking to Link, man, he’d tell you anything you wanted to know. I’d say, ‘Link, how’d you get your sound?’ He goes, ‘Well, Rick, man, I didn’t play a Fender. Everybody plays Fenders. Man, I’d grab myself a guitar from Sears or something, and I’d get my amp from Sears, because it just sounded different. And it made me different.’”
And it changed the course of rock ‘n’ roll.
“Yeah, well, it did for me!”