charles campbell photo
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON OCT. 9, 1987
By Steve Newton
Like the title of their latest album, the Fabulous Thunderbirds of Austin, Texas, are a Hot Number these days. Their previous LP, the Dave Edmunds-produced Tuff Enuff, sold nearly a million copies, and their latest disc, also produced by Edmunds, will probably move a million more.
But things haven’t always been rosy for the T-Birds, who play the Expo Theatre this Wednesday (October 14). Fabulous as they might be, just a few years ago they were prime candidates for going down in obscurity as the band with the most talent and the worst luck.
For starters, the band’s first attempt at recording went awry and their proposed debut album had to be scrapped. Then the band was courted by Bob Dylan, who at the time was planning to launch his own label. But Dylan the talent scout took a back seat suddenly to Dylan the born-again Christian, and the label proposal was forgotten when he recorded his gospel powerhouse Slow Train Coming.
Aborted tours with Rockpile and Eric Clapton followed, the former in 1980 when T-Birds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan broke his leg, and the latter in ’81 when Clapton was hospitalized for a penetrating ulcer. Then the band was left floundering without a record company after the release of its fourth album, 1982’s T-Bird Rhythm.
Times were hard, but the band kept plugging away, and in early ’86 a demo tape of Tuff Enuff fell into the hands of the head honcho at CBC Associated Records, who immediately signed the group.
And the rest is gravy.
Success hasn’t really changed the band much though, at least not according to Jimmie Vaughan, who called the Georgia Straight from Corpus Christi, Texas, recently. “We just work more now,” he says, “and we have a nice bus.”
Although not as well known as younger brother Stevie Ray, Jimmie Vaughan is actually one of the top blues-rock guitarists in the world today. Taking the approach that fast licks don’t add up to much, Jimmie has mastered the subtler concepts of tone, timing, and spontaneity–and fused them into the T-Birds’ winning mixture of rockabilly, Memphis soul, Tex Mex, hillbilly, and Louisiana swamp rock.
As a youngster growing up in Dallas, Texas, Vaughan spent a lot of time listening to blues and western swing. His early influences were people like B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Bobby Blue Bland, and Little Milton.
“What I dug about Little Milton and all those guys was style,” explains Jimmie. “That’s my favourite thing about music and my favourite thing in life. Style. So I try to play what I hear and feel. If nothing’s happening I’ll just stand there and wait–otherwise I’m bullshittin’ everybody, myself included.”
Don’t let Vaughan’s laidback approach fool you though, ’cause he can turn around and wail on his Strat with the same force as brother Stevie. He’ll just be a lot cooler about it. And although Jimmie’s minimalist approach differs greatly from Stevie Ray’s flash, the older Vaughan is not about to criticize his brother’s style. Even as a kid, Jimmie had the impression that one day Stevie Ray would be a superstar.
“He was always pretty hot,” says Jimmie with a note of pride.
Nowadays Jimmie Vaughan is a real fan of acts like Los Lobos and Robert Cray, as well as Omar & the Howlers, the band that the Thunderbirds are currently touring with. “[Omar] doesn’t take no for an answer,” says Vaughan. “He just comes out and gets right to it.”
You can expect the same approach from both groups at the Expo Theatre. It should be a real howler. And keep an eye open for the T-Birds’ new keyboardist. It’s none other than the great Chuck Leavell, formerly of the Allman Brothers.