Luck of the Draw
By Greg Cahill
“I’ve always considered blues music to be dance music–and that’s OK with me,” says guitarist Anson Funderburgh with a slow Southern drawl. “I mean, with some folks, I guess they like to just lay back and listen to it.
“But if people are up and dancing then I know I’m doing something right.”
Since 1978, this guitar totin’ Texan and his high-octane Rockets have been laying down an explosive barrage of jump blues and hard-drivin’ R&B that’s earned them a place as one of the country’s premiere blues bands.
In the process, they’ve crafted an infectious sound that Downbeat magazine called “a joyful blend of Delta grit and Texas exuberance” and stepped into the vanguard of the new generation of blues musicians who are redefining the genre.
A good deal of that success, including five national W.C. Handy Awards, is due to the pairing of Funderburgh’s rapier-like guitar licks with the resonant, full-throated vocals and Windy City-style, hurricane harp of seasoned veteran Sam Myers, who played drums and harmonica for the legendary Elmore James and Robert Junior Lockwood. Myers’ earliest harp work can be heard on “Look on Yonder Wall,” the only harmonica track he ever recorded with James.
“I remember we were in New Orleans at Cosimo Studio doing the session,” recalled Myers in the liner notes to 1992’s Elmore James: King of the Slide Guitar (Capricorn) box set. “Someone else was on drums, and Elmore said to me, ‘Hey, man, you’re not going to sit around and do nothing! I want you to play [on this track].’
“I said to him, ‘Well, what am I supposed to be doing? Maybe a different type of drums?’
“Elmore said, ‘Hell, no, you’re going to be blowing harmonica on this one.’
“And I said, ‘What?’ And that’s how I happened to start blowing the harmonica on it.”
“I have an unbelievable amount of respect for Sammy,” says Funderburgh, 42, during a phone interview from his Dallas home. “He’s got a million stories. He knows a million songs. He’s just a walking book of Mississippi blues–and a real character.”
His roots also are steeped in those traditions. Funderburgh grew up near the birthplace of electric blues guitar pioneer T-Bone Walker. While other kids were out playing sandlot football, Funderburgh was honing his skills on a used guitar his bought him and acquainting himself with the scratchy blues and R&B singles that the guitar’s previous owner had tossed in with the bargain.
“I just really loved it,” he recalls. “When I first heard Freddie King’s ‘Hideaway,’ I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
“After that, it all just kind of happened for me. You know, I never sat down and thought I’d like to be a blues player. I just always did what I happened to like–and that happened to be the blues.”
At 15, Funderburgh started playing local push clubs–social organizations (“kind of like the Lion’s Club,” he explains) that sprang up around northern Texas. They were centered around a regional dance craze called the push that reportedly originated at North Texas University.
As fate would have it, most of the hottest push tunes could be found in that stack of dusty 45s Funderburgh had cut his teeth on five years earlier, including King’s “Hideaway,” Bill Dogget’s “Honky Tonk” and Ray Sharpe’s “Linda Lou.”
“To get work, you had to play that kind of music,” Funderburgh says. “I always loved it anyway, so that was just fine with me.”
he soon became a fixture on the local blues scene–which also include Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan–and later contributed a track to the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Butt Rockin’ (Chrysalis) album.
In 1981, he launched his solo recording career with the critically acclaimed Talk to You by Hand (Black Top) and started a grueling touring schedule that keeps the band on the road 300 days a year. That club experience has begun to pay off; Funderburgh and his Rockets were tapped a couple of years ago to play the hard-working bar band in the film China Doll, a Kevin Costner production that starred Ed Harris and Madeleine Stowe.
While the film appearance didn’t exactly make him a household name, Funderburgh obviously enjoyed the chance to play on the big screen for an increasingly blues-hungry crowd.
“Well, the blues has certainly turned around a lot of people’s heads lately with the success of Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, and Robert Cray–those acts have really brought it into the public’s eye,” he says. “And I’ve been lucky enough to earn a pretty decent living. Before the resurgence, it seemed to be much more of a struggle.
“So, I feel very fortunate. Maybe some of it is being in the right place at the right time,” he muses. “Or just plain ‘ol luck, I guess.”
Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets co-headline the San Francisco Blues Festival’s Battle of the Blues Harmonics on Friday, March 7 at 8 p.m. at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in San Francisco. Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers also perform. Tickets are $20. For details, call (415) 979-5588.
From the March 6-12, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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