The Fabulous Thunderbirds
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
“If you searched all the roadhouses and border juke joint dives in Texas, chances are you couldn’t find a tighter goodtime band. Anyone who argues that good white blues and r & b are getting hard to find has never dipped a needle into the grooves of a Fabulous T-Bird LP.” Since that record review (of What’s the Word) appeared in Guitar Player in 1980, the Fabulous Thunderbirds have released five more albums, each one proving the above statement to be indisputable. Their fifth effort, 1986’s Tuff Enuff, stayed on the Billboard charts for 25 weeks, topping off at No. 13, while the title track reached No. 10. After nearly twelve years of playing 250 to 300 dates annually and receiving little, if any, radio air play, the band finally was given the national exposure and success that was long overdue.
The T-Birds were formed in 1974 by guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, the only original member remaining in the group. Vaughan played in various bands around the Dallas area, beginning in 1963 with the Swinging Pendulums. Covering tunes by Hendrix and Clapton in bands like Sammy Loria and the Penetrations, the
Formed, 1974, by Jimmie Vaughan (born March 20, 1951, in Dallas, Tex.); original members included singer Lou Ann Barton and drummer Otis Lewis; played clubs in Austin, Tex., area; Barton and Lewis left group in late 1974, replaced by bassist Keith Ferguson , singer-harmonica player Kim Wilson , and drummer Mike Buck; began recording, 1979; Ferguson replaced by bassist Preston Hubbard , 1984; group has toured extensively and appeared in featured film “Light of Day.”
Chessmen, Texas, and Texas Storm, Vaughan was gradually paring his style down from the flash of rock to the rawness of blues. Having already built up an impressive reputation, he left for Austin in 1970 to form Storm along with guitarist Denny Freeman. “I think Jimmie Vaughan influenced more bass players, drummers, guitarists, and just the public in general, and had more influence in the whole state of Texas than probably any other unsigned musician,” said Freeman in Guitar Player’s July 1986 cover story on Vaughan.
After a brief period in California he moved back to Austin and started Jimmie Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds (after the Nightcaps’ song “Thunderbird”) with singer Lou Ann Barton and drummer Otis Lewis. Bassist Keith Ferguson, who played with Vaughan in Storm and with brother Stevie Ray Vaughan in the Nightcrawlers, joined shortly after Barton and Lewis quit in 1974. Ferguson had played up and down the West Coast in the late 1960’s with Sunnyland Special and was even offered a spot with ZZ Top by guitarist Billy Gibbons.
The T-Birds hooked up with vocalist-harmonica player Kim Wilson while jamming at Alexander’s, an Austin rib-joint. Wilson was visiting from Minnesota when he blew the T-Birds’ harp player off the stage, impressing Vaughan enough to ask him to join the band. With influences like Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, and Lazy Lester, Wilson became the group’s chief songwriter and musical director. Dan Forte wrote, “If Jimmie Vaughan has few peers among blues guitarists, Kim Wilson has fewer among harmonica players—among singer/songwriters of his genre and generation, he has next to none.”
With the addition of Mike Buck on drums, the T-Birds became one of the most solid and authentic blues bands in the state, if not the entire country. The group was fortunate enough in 1975 to hook up with Clifford Antone who had just opened up a club dedicated strictly to blues music, Antone’s. The T-Birds became the house band, headlining their own shows and gaining invaluable experience by backing up nearly every major blues act that played there. “About the first year or two we stayed in Austin,” Wilson told down beat, “and then Muddy Waters got us on the road—it was his suggestion. And he spread our name around all over the place.”
By then the band had become nearly legendary in Texas, and it was time to branch out. Their music was lowdown blues mixed with a bit of Cajun and Tex-Mex, played with a style that stopped other bands in their tracks. After the T-Birds played the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1978, festival promoter Tom Mazzolini told Guitar Player that “The Thunderbirds were very self-assured, and the effect was awesome—almost overnight. The local bands had to clean up their act. Before, they were all sort of drifting, but the T-Birds gave them a focus.”
A year later they signed with Takoma records and released their self-titled first LP. The corny 1950’s-style cover did little to prepare listeners for what was inside. Vaughan’s tremolo-laden rhythms and clean economical solos lived up to his original idea for the band: “Bo Diddley on acid.” An impressive debut, with six originals and five cover tunes, it received minimal promotion, as did their follow up a year later, What’s the Word.
With nine more originals and songs like “The Crawl” and “Sugar-Coated Love,” this was no-frills party music. “We just set up in a big circle with boom mikes and go,” Vaughan said in Guitar Player.”That’s why it’s kind of caveman sounding—ancient.” Drummer Fran Christina replaced Buck (who went on to form the Le Roi Brothers) midway through the recording. The original drummer for Roomful of Blues, Christina left them in 1972, played a few gigs with the T-Birds years later on the East Coast, and then joined Texas’s Asleep At The Wheel for eighteen months. The T-Birds called him in to finish the record and kept him afterwards.
As raunchy as they were on record, live remained the best way to fully appreciate their sound. European audiences got a taste in 1980 as the T-Birds played their first tour overseas by opening for Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe’s Rockpile. They came back to the States to record their third album, Butt Rockin’, bringing along members of Roomful’s horn section and Anson Funderburgh on second guitar. Wilson collaborated with Lowe on “One’s Too Many,” and the group once again dug up obscure gems from the past like “Mathilda” and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”
Their first three albums were produced by their manager, Denny Bruce, and seemed to authentically reproduce the sound of old blues recordings. In 1982, the T-Birds switched producers. With Nick Lowe at the controls, their fourth LP, T-Bird Rhythm, sounded more modern and contained only a few up-tempo numbers. Although a fine album, Chrysalis nevertheless dropped the band after its release.
The next four years saw the band struggling for a record contract, playing endlessly on the road and going through more changes. Bassist Ferguson ended his nine years with the group over internal conflicts. “On the one hand we had people saying we weren’t commercial and never would be; at the same time, they were saying, ‘If you don’t change, you’ll never sell any records.’ Pretty soon, you start letting people tell you how to play,” he told Guitar Player.”To me, I was perfectly content to play better blues and rhythm and blues than anyone in the world.” Ferguson’s replacement was also a former member of Roomful of Blues, Preston “Pinky” Hubbard. After four years with Roomful, he left in 1976 to play with Atlanta’s Alley Cats and then with the Memphis Rockabilly Band. He rejoined Roomful briefly before coming to the T-Birds.
The group went to London where Dave Edmunds produced ten of their songs. They then had to shop around for a contract. Finally, in 1986, CBS signed them, and their careers took a sharp upward turn. They released their fifth LP, Tuff Enuff, recorded two videos, hired a new manager, and started opening for bands like the Rolling Stones, Santana, ZZ Top, and Tom Petty. With the record’s pop production, die-hard fans were crying “sell-out.” but as Vaughan told Dan Forte: “You change with each record. Each one of our records sounds different, even though it still sounds like us. I figured if we’re going to make records, we might as well sell records.” While scoring the movie “Gung Ho,” Stevie Ray played the title cut for director Ron Howard, who liked it enough to put it in the film.
With their newfound success, the T-Birds wasted little time by following up a year later with the LP Hot Number. Again, Edmunds produced, but the emphasis was on soul music this time around. With the Memphis Horns backing them up, the T-Birds faithfully reproduced the feel of early Stax recordings. With an appearance in Paul Schrader’s film “Light Of Day” and various soundtrack performances, the Fabulous Thunderbirds have come a long way since Alexander’s rib-joint.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds (includes “Wait On Time,” “Scratch My Back,” “Rich Woman,” “Full-Time Lover,” “Pocket Rocket,” “She’s Tuff,” “Marked Deck,” “Walkin’to My Baby,” “Rock With Me,” “C-Boy’s Blues,” “Let Me In”), Takoma, 1979.
What’s the Word (includes “Runnin’ Shoes,” “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine,” “Low-Down Woman,” “Extra Jimmies,” “Sugar-Coated Love,” “Last Call for Alcohol,” “The Crawl,” “Jumpin’ Bad,” “Learn to Treat Me Right,” “I’m a Good Man [if You Give Me a Chance],” “Dirty Work,” “That’s Enough of That Stuff,” “Los Fabulosos Thunderbirds”), Takoma, 1980.
Butt Rockin’ (includes “I Believe I’m in Love,” “One’s Too Many,” “Give Me All Your Lovin’,” “Roll, Roll, Roll,” “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” “I Hear You I Knockin’,” “TipOn In,” “I’m Sorry,” “Mathilda,” “Tell Me Why,” “In Orbit, “), Chrysalis, 1981.
T-Bird Rhythm (includes “Can’t Tear It Up Enuff,” “How Do You Spell Love,” “You’re Humbuggin’ Me,” “My Babe,” “’Neighbor’ Tend to Your Business,” “The Monkey,” “Diddy Wah Diddy,” “Lover’s Crime,” “Poor Boy,” “Tell Me,” “Gotta Have Some/Just Got Some”), Chrysalis, 1982.
Tuff Enuff (includes “Tuff Enuff,” “Tell Me,” “Look at That, Look at That,” “Two Time My Lovin,” “Amnesia,” “Wrap It Up,” “True Love,” “Why Get Up,” “I Don’tCare,” “Down At Antones”), CBS, 1986.
Hot Number (includes “Stand Back,” “Hot Number,” “Wasted Tears,” “It Comes to Me Naturally,” “Love in Common,” “How Do You Spell Love,” “Streets of Gold,” “Sofa Circuit,” “Don’t Bother Tryin’ to Steal Her Love,” “It Takes a Big Man to Cry”), CBS, 1987.
down beat, February, 1986.
Guitar Player, June, 1980; July, 1980; July, 1986; August, 1986;September, 1986; December, 1986.
Guitar World, September, 1986; October, 1988.
Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1986.
Oakland Press, August 26, 1988.
USA Today, May 6, 1986.
—Calen D. Stone
"The Fabulous Thunderbirds." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fabulous-thunderbirds
"The Fabulous Thunderbirds." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved November 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fabulous-thunderbirds