Unfortunately, sometime during the 1970's arose an influx of a million bands who thought that simply learning the 12-bars and soullessly singing "Mustang Sally" was all you needed to know to adequately deliver the blues and get a fast buck as a "blues cover band".
I agree with what country-rock pioneer, Michael Nesmith, once said about the music in one of his novels exclaiming, "what counts is the individuality of the singer, the soul of the performer. Everyone plays the same three or four chords, the melodies are almost indistinguishable, so the captivating part is what the player brings to the form."
But among the amount of bad blues that's out there lies those artists who've managed to stay true to the form musically, vocally and most of all in their deliverance of the music.
Kim Wilson remains to be one of these artists.
Muddy Waters had taken Kim under his wing as his protege early on and he has performed with a countless amount of blues greats since he began his career in the late-60's.
Along with guitar virtuoso Jimmy Vaughn, Kim formed The Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1974 which catapulted him into a new era of the blues.
The band incorporated different elements, including those of which Kim had taken from his early swamp blues influences combined with superb blues harp prowess, his distinguishable charismatic style and the soulful vocals that T-Birds fans have come to know and love.
A straight on blues band at first, The Fabulous Thunderbirds evolved into more of a blues-rock band in the 1980's and nothing marked this turn more than their album Tuff Enough, which sparked the hit title track and the hit cover of Sam & Dave's, "Wrap It Up".
The T-Birds have gone through and ever changing lineup since its inception, but what has remained is the top notch musicians Kim has always chosen to be in the band.
We caught up with the blues maestro on the road and spoke with him about his bands success in the 80's, the current state of blues, forever touring and more.
S&S/J&R: Hey Kim this is James & Raina/Souls & Sounds. How are you?
KW: I'm doin' fine, are we on the radio?
S&S/Raina: We will be. This will be pre-recorded and played next Saturday.
KW: Ok, good. So I can use all the 4-letter words I want to then huh? (laughs)
S&S/James: You sure can!
S&S/Raina: Pretty much!
S&S/James: What's the first 4-letter word you were thinking about?
KW: Ahh, you know, they're all kinda jumbled together..(laughs). My kids are trying to do an intervention on me and my 4-letter words. They took me downstairs, I thought it was a big thing, you know. 'Course I haven't had a drink or anything else in many, many years so I was wondering why they were wanting to talk to me and it was about my cursing!
S&S/Raina: Ohh!? I didn't know you were a curser, Kim!
S&S/James: We all have our vice...
KW: I am. Some people call me a pre-curser! (laughs)
S&S/Raina: (laughs)...it happens!
S&S/James: Alright, that sounds like a recycled joke!
KW: eh...I know, everything's recycled. (laughs)
S&S/Raina: You know Kim, we saw you twice at Yoshi's in San Francisco last year. Both nights, awesome shows! We'd met you through your brother Brad.
KW: Okay! I remember that gig!
S&S/Raina: You guys have a powerhouse lineup right now. Tell me a little bit about the current T-Birds.
KW: The current Thunderbirds lineup is awesome. You know, younger guys. Very, very good players, excellent and probably the best I've had. A real band, people that think like a band, which is definitely the first time I've had it like that at this level in my whole career with the Thunderbirds. I think that it's only getting better and better and I'm sitting on a really good record right now that I haven't released yet.
S&S/Raina: A new Thunderbirds album?
KW: Yeah..It will be out probably in the spring time I would think. I'm tweaking it a bit more musically and changing a couple of things on it. But I've already got the pre-released copies for sale at the shows.
S&S/James: I noticed that you are really, really busy. You have a steady gig almost every night!
KW: Well, I wouldn't go that far. I work pretty much as much as I want to but with the economy being the way it is..it's pretty much a hustle. I'm fortunate.
S&S/Raina: You've been touring for quite a while now. It's gotta take a toll, touring 30, 40+ years. How do you keep fit?
KW: It's a beautiful life to be honest with you. I don't' have to get up at the crack of dawn, all the time. More often than you think though! But it's not like I'm doing something that I don't like to do. The work is getting from one place to the other, that can be a drag. I tell ya, you see alot of the country, you get to stop at Starbuck's when you want to....It's really not a bad life (laughs). When I was doing doing 320 days a year and drinking like a fish, now that was hard on me! And was just a kid then. I was doing interviews, doing morning shows, The Today Show, Good Morning America. And sometimes you have to sing early in the morning after you'd been out playing and getting all screwed up the night before. That's not fun...
S&S/Raina: I bet cutting the 'ole alcohol out must help a tremendous amount...
S&S/James: Did you ever do something like The Today Show where you just did "hair of the dog" just to keep it going?
KW: Oh, I've done hair of the dog many of times! I wasn't really one of those guys who drank during the day. I always drank at night and usually it wouldn't be 'til after the show. Or the second set of the show I'd be...well... "under the influence", I would say. But usually the party didn't get started 'til after the show was over into the wee, wee hours of the morning. And the problem is getting up! Sometimes the party went right into The Today Show! (laughs) I could tell you some great stories, but I'm not gonna do that.
S&S/James: Ah, that's too bad! We like good stories!
KW: Yeah, well wait until the book comes out (laughs). If I tell the truth, alot of people will be upset. I gotta say...I was as bad as anybody. I wasn't the worst you've ever seen, but I was pretty much an animal and I had a great time doing it. But there comes a time when it goes from being a party to a problem and you decide finally that you want to live to enjoy your music. I made that choice over 20 years ago.
S&S/Raina: I have a question about the 80's, when "Wrap It Up" and "Tuff E'nuff" hit pretty big. With all the success that came from that album all of a sudden, that must have been something new and crazy for you to deal with I would imagine.
KW: It was crazy. It was something that nobody in that band was able to deal with to be honest with you. The fact that it was so big really made it the beginning of the end of that particular band. The haves and have nots become separated. And when you're out of control of the whole situation and writing the songs, then people change and have different agenda's they're on. I can't tell you that was real success. We had quiet a few hits records. But my whole thing was, don't neglect what got you there. When you really haven't done anything yet, you ain't a big shot (laughs).
I think having a hit record is more of a humbling experience than anything else because it just shows you a lot of things from a lot of different sides. It shows you that maybe having a hit record isn't the end all, you know? After you have a hit record people expect things out of you that you might not wanna give them. It's beautiful in a lot of ways and it's a curse in a lot of ways.
S&S/James: I have to know, most would consider you the best current blues harmonica player. As far as blues harp or vocals, do you have a preference?
KW: Well I like them both. But you can't just be a harmonica player, I'll tell you that...you can't do it. You know if you're gonna be playing blues these days, you have to be able to do just about all of it.
S&S/Raina: And there's so many bad blues bands out today!
KW: I agree with you. And I can get on my soap box and talk about all that kind of stuff but I think the main problem today is the concept of actually what blues music is. You're really better off going to all different kinds of music that are cool. It's kind of gotten to the point where there's so few people who are really playing blues anymore, it's better that you just try and follow people who are playing some sort of bluegrass, or jazz, or anybody who's playing cool music in any form of music. I'm really more into the roots festivals and stuff like that these days. I like playing blues festivals and I will of course, I enjoy doing all of it. But I find that I have more kinship in other forms of music that I do in blues music these days.
S&S/Raina: And it is different with your current lineup, it's a bit more different than when the Thunderbirds started out, when you guys were more straight blues focused. Now it's more mixed with jazz, funk and soul music.
KW: Yeah, we started doing that kinda stuff, mixing things in, we became a hybrid a long time ago. But the whole thing about it is that you have to bring the delivery of that blues music that you love so much to everything that you do. It's very important. I think that it's not about playing the notes. There's allot of things that are kinda shallow. Really, more than any kind of technical ability (although being a player is nice), you really have to deliver the song, you gotta be true to yourself and you gotta move people.
KW: That's the most important thing about music period, that you have to move people. If you're a good player...you use that as a tool to move people. If you want to see someone be an acrobat, then you should go to the Cirque Du Soleil and watch someone take their life into there own hands by jumping through a ring of fire or something, you know what I mean? That's alot cooler than somebody attempting to be an acrobat on a musical instrument. There's other things that people do on musical instruments that really should be done behind closed doors (laughs).
S&S/James: (laughs) I always say that too. Alot of people give blues a bad name just for that reason. Like everytime we go to a Brewery or something and see these blues bands. How many times are you gonna hear "Mustang Sally" in that same format?
KW: Well, "Mustang Sally"...there should be a moratorium on that song...
KW: ...I know the guy who wrote that and he'd probably be angry with me if he heard me say that. There's certain songs you don't do. If you're gonna do a song like "Stormy Monday" for instance. Well, do the Elmoore James version of it, you know what I mean? Instead of the Bobby Bland or the T-Bone Walker version.
S&S/James: I agree. I loved blues so much growing up and when I was old enough to see it live, it was alot of that. It wasn't until I came across Ron Thompson in 2000. He really revitalized my interest in blues again. That guy really testifies.
KW: Ohh yeah! Now there's a guy that can move people. He's one of the few people left who really knows how to do it, period. He's really something.
S&S/James: It's the difference between a 'cook' and a 'chef'.
S&S/Raina: I'd love to see a Thunderbirds/Ron Thompson double header.
KW: That would be great. You know, Ron called me to do some gigs with him a while back but I couldn't do it unfortunately.
S&S/Raina: People know you for your excellent harmonica playing, but I think you've got a really great soulful voice too. Who were your influences as far as singing?
KW: My influences were everybody, just like with the harmonica. I love Bobby Blue Bland, I love B.B. King, I love Otis Rush...but I also love Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed and all those people too. To me it's more difficult to sing that stuff then the stuff that's done by "real singers" you know what mean? Or more schooled singers. It more gospel versus blues. Guys like B.B. and Otis and those guys, they really have more gospel in their voice. Muddy Waters of course, he was like my dad. He was like a second father to me.
S&S/Raina: It really must have been something for him to consider you his favorite harmonica player.
KW: Yeah, it was just an honor to be in his presence. I always had alot of respect for those guys. They let me do my own thing, but they gave me little hints on how to approach things. In other words they told me when I was doing something wrong (laughs). Those guys taught me alot first hand and they knew how much I loved the music. I realized that all of my hopes were confirmed when I met those guys because they were so generous to me and they didn't have to be. It took a long time for it all to sink. Maybe my alcohol abuse kind of stymied my growth as a musician. The only thing that saved me was that I was on a bandstand every single night and I was really just learning by experience. But after I stopped, things took a huge leap for me and I just feel like I'm just starting to hit my stride now.
S&S/Raina: No doubt. Well Kim, we really appreciate you taking time with us and tell Amanda [Kim's wife] we said "hi", she knows of us.
S&S/James: We'll be at your show in San Francisco on the Dec.9th and we'll plug the hell out of it.
KW: I appreciate it!
S&S/James: And we appreciate you for not sucking.
KW: (laughs!) Well thank you! (laughs)....Thank you very much, talk to you later.
A portion of this interview can be heard on Thrift Store Records With James & Raina, Nov.28th 10pm on 90.7FM KFSR Fresno, CA and www.KFSR.org.