Raw, N-H-B Blues
James T delivering raw blues
© Marc Wickert
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, James Thornbury was the second eldest in a family of eleven children. And for as long as he can remember, James T has been into music.
"I’ve always liked music. Even as a little boy, I just remember…I don’t even know how I came up with the records in my earliest days. They must have belonged to my folks. And then my older sister, being a teenager, she had a bit of a record collection. She would actually let me borrow…No, my mum would let me listen to her records as long as I really took care of them," says Thornbury.
"And I did, because I would just listen to records all day. Even before that, if I only had a couple of records, I would play those to death – both sides. I remember hearing The Coasters, Micky and Sylvia, Chuck Berry and some of the novelty records that were around at the time. But I’ve always really liked it."
Today, James is uncompromising in his music tastes – playing heavy doses of no-holds-barred raw blues, that is often flavoured with a twist of rural-folk strains. But his father, James Senior, was probably his first influence.
"My dad was a drummer, and at first I tried drums a little bit, but it was too boring for me, because they didn’t really know I needed a small kit and maybe some Jimmy Reed records. They had me learning paradiddles on a snare, and that became quite boring. It wasn’t really what I was looking for. So then I went for the guitar and that was something I could do by myself.
"I also have three brothers who play harp, and one brother – the next brother after me, Denny – he has a band out of Kentucky who do a bit. He just loves playing blues, and he performs around his region in Kentucky."
It didn’t take James long to realise playing for blues enthusiasts was his calling in life. The long, lonely hours of practising on his guitar were beginning to pay off, and he was finding many other talented musicians eager to be a part of the various bands he formed. And the bands, too, were gathering a following.
"The main one was the one Henry Vestine joined: James T and The Tough. We were a trio working in Corvallis, Oregon, and there was this fellow there with an unusual bikie-type name… I might remember it in a minute…Anyway, he said there was a guy back at his apartment who would fit in really well with my band. So I said, ‘Okay, just tell him to come on down.’
"That’s right, the guy’s name was Trip. Anyway, so he goes home and tells his buddy, and Henry Vestine comes down. We really played well that night – got on well, and it was just great for the band, because like I said, we were only a trio."
James says he was surprised the guy Trip was telling them about was actually Henry Vestine; however, he did know of Henry before that night.
"Sure. And I had heard he was in the area because a friend of mine had jammed with him somewhere in the hills out of Corvallis. Anyway, he came down that night and we got on really well. I was just about to go home for Christmas. It was quite a drive to Southern Cal, and I got a nice letter from Henry, saying if I had work, he’d like to be a part of it. So he joined the group and we ended up playing together for some time. Then a tour came up for Canned Heat, and I got to join his band."
That was in 1985, and James T stayed with the band until 1995. He brought with him considerable guitar, slide guitar, and harp skills, as well as astounding vocals that have been likened to Steve Winwood’s by many critics. When T took his place in Canned Heat, Fito - who’d replaced Frank Cook after their first album - was at the helm.
"Fito de la Parra was shaking it up. He was looking at a tour of Australia. We’d done some touring of southwestern United States, and he was now focusing on a different line-up for Australia. There was Larry Taylor – the original bass player; of course, Fito on drums; a top New Orleans piano player named Ronnie Barron; Henry Vestine on guitar; and I did slide-guitar, vocals and blues harp.
"In the very beginning, I was not playing flute. But I picked it up quickly. A friend in Vermont had given me a wooden flute, and I didn’t think it would be too hard to play. I told Fito that I heard the line to Goin’ Up the Country, and I thought I’d be able to play that. I went and got pretty much the right flute. It didn’t have every note I needed, but I worked around that."
James, what was it like playing in Canned Heat?
"It was 10 years, so you run the full gamut of good nights and bad nights, highs and lows. Touring is hard. It wasn’t always easy. But I’ve been out of the band for 10 years now, and when I look back at the band it’s just with a smile. The hardest times certainly don’t stick with me."
In 1990, John Lee Hooker said of Canned Heat in Rolling Stone Magazine: "They could play my music…better than anybody. I really loved those guys, and I still do." What was it like playing with John Lee Hooker?
"Well, he was an absolute blues legend. There aren’t a lot of blues legends. I suppose there are in some ways, but it just depends what your criteria for blues legend status is. But he would be considered one of the true blues legends. So just to meet him … He used to come to our gigs. He was at several of our gigs. He didn’t always play, but one night he did jump up and that was really a buzz for me.
"I was always surprised. I had this rock’n’roll amp – an Ampeg VT-40, and I let Hooker use it. I couldn’t believe how his sound even came out of that amp. It didn’t matter what he was playing, it still sounded like John Lee Hooker."
Are there other musicians you encountered whose names come to mind?
"We’d meet people on the road…Albert Collins. Canned Heat actually got Albert a record deal. They invited him to come to Los Angeles from Texas to record for Liberty Records. They were real musicologists. Henry Vestine used to go into the Deep South looking for people…Alan (Al Wilson) as well.
"There were so many people we’d meet on the road. Alvin Lee (Ten Years After) was one. And before I was in Canned Heat, I got to play a couple of times with Big Joe Turner. We had the same agent as Spirit and Country Joe McDonald…So we did shows with those guys. And of course the blues festivals – Ronnie Barron worked with Paul Butterfield. These were folks you just bumped into. And for me…I wasn’t quite as old as the other guys, and it was always a buzz to be introduced to folks."
You also met Ken Kesey.
"Yeah, his daughter, Sunshine, used to sing with me. I met him. He’d come to my gigs in Oregon with James T and the Tough, and a couple of little offshoot bands I had. He wasn’t there all the time, but of course when his daughter was singing with me he was more likely to come along to different gigs in different towns."
He would have been a big, powerfully built man.
"Yeah, he was a wrestler. And he was quite a presence."
How did Canned Heat become known as a bikie band? Was it through the hard-nosed boogie music and the On the Road Again theme?
"I seem to remember Fito saying that when the disco times hit, which was really tough on the blues bands – and certainly hard on Bob Hite – I seem to remember Fito saying that the bikie gangs really hung in there with them. Of course, they wouldn’t have been into disco. So that is one way that they were linked. And they always stayed that way I guess."
Albums James T performed on with Canned Heat:
Bonn Blues Festival – 1987
Boogie up the Country – 1988
Reheated – 1989
Burnin’ Live – 1990
Internal Combustion – 1995
Gamblin’ Woman 1998
Blues Down Under
Canned Heat: Ron Shumakee, Junior Watson, Fito de la Parra, James T
© Marc Wickert
Since the sixties, there have been two main bands that are like boarding homes for bluesmen with exceptional skills. Originally from the UK was John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. From the other side of the Atlantic emerged Canned Heat.
The Blues Breakers featured such big guns as Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Canned Heat boasted names like Fito de la Parra, Henry Vestine and James T. With both bands having a mutual respect for each other, some members – such as Larry Taylor, Harvey Mandel and Walter Trout – took up boarding with both blues institutions.
Today, the two bands continue to do a lot of international touring. And it was on one such tour of Australia with Canned Heat that James T met his wife Mallika, and eventually settled Down Under.
"I met Mallika here at the very first East Coast Blues Festival. We then moved to America. I was still working with Canned Heat at the time. I was willing to stay on with the band, but it just didn’t work out. It was hard, I guess, being so far away.
"But anyway, I thought…because I was on the road quite a bit…rather than me leaving my wife somewhere in California, and her waiting for me to get back from tours…it would be better if she lived around her own folks, where she grew up.
"I mean, it was always totally cool in California, and my family loves her. She always has good folks to be with. You know, all that was taken care of, but still - it wasn’t home for her, and it’s so much different being down here. We just thought - as far as bringing up kids – this was a better place, the way we saw it."
Mallika, a respected vocalist in her own right, later provided backing vocals on two of James’s albums: This Ain’t That, and Cincinnati Cat.
His first band in Australia was James T and The Last Volunteers, comprising James T (vocals, harp, acoustic and electric guitars, and bottleneck), Jimmy Bee (bass and vocals), Gary Lothian (electric lead, rhythm, and slide guitar) and Nick Churchin (drums and backing vocals). They released two classic albums: First Up, and Sharpen Up.
"I had an agent by the name of John Christensen. He was out of the Newcastle area, and I used to see him on Canned Heat tours. We always got along well, and he thought, ‘Oh, when you come down, I’ll get you work.’ It was an idea he had to hook me up with Sydney’s King Bees. They were a quartet at the time and one of the members was heading in a school direction. Eventually, from that, we ended up becoming James T and The Last Volunteers."
James’s next major band was Expatriate, featuring James T (vocals, guitars and flute), Doc Span (vocals and harps), and Dirk Dubois (fender bass). This resulted in another critically acclaimed album: Expatriate.
James, how did you meet Dirk Dubois?
"I met Dirk one time when I was touring with Canned Heat and he was playing bass with a group called Third Degree. And they did supports all over the country for us. I just got on very well with Dirk. As a matter of fact, I used to just travel…because we had a big entourage, and it was all rental cars…I used to hop in with them and just travel around. As it’s just different people and new people, you start to meet new folks and swap lies."
And Dirk was the bass player with Chain?
"Still is. In fact, they’re on tour right now with the Doobie Brothers."
Your current band is Patrick Chambers and John Sutton. How did that combo come about?
"Let me think. Yeah, Patrick was seeing Jane Crawford (one half of the Everly Sisters with Mallika Thornbury), and she said he would like to have a go on drums with us. We were doing a folk trip at the time, and he just wanted to be heard. So I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and it’s worked out pretty good.
"I had another bass player or two. I remembered John: I met him at a blues jam up on the border (New South Wales/Queensland border), and I thought, Oh man, I can work with this guy. I go back with Patrick about five years now, and John - probably a couple."
Obviously, they have to be solid, musically, but at the end of the day, you’re all people, and you have to be able to get along on a personal level too, don’t you?
"Absolutely. I always think: Unless a person is a total meal-ticket – that’s one thing, but even then, you wouldn’t put up with it for long. Some guys can be pretty rough to work with, but who needs it?"
Your guitars: You’re using two main guitars at the moment.
There’s the twin-neck guitar, and both necks are six string.
"Yes. It was custom made in Sydney by a man named John Browne – just a focused dude. The guitar player I was working with at the time, Gary Lothian…I was talking about getting a double neck because I always have to change instruments on stage. Anyway, Gary – a fine guitarist – he said, ‘I’ve got just the guy for you.’ And, man, he was so right. He turned me on to John Browne.
"We had three lengthy telephone conversations about what I wanted – the sounds and all that, and he sent me a cut-out cardboard template in actual size. We talked about it some more, and three months later it was sitting there in the case."
You also play a single-neck acoustic.
"That’s a Guild D-44, and I bought it new in ’72. I love the sound of the acoustic: I love playing and hearing it, but often times when you go out live, you can’t get the sound you want on it. It’s such a battle for most of us.
"I’ve heard a couple of people who have great acoustic sounds. But they’re too far between, unless it’s a conducive venue – a real listening kind of thing. As far as real rockin’ pubs or anything like that - as much as I’d like to incorporate the acoustic on some stuff, it’s hard to get a sound I can live with."
James T has a new compilation CD coming out in early 2006, entitled "One Act Pieces (originals from 1995-2005)", which comprises 16 remastered gems. The recording will be available through Knucklepit Blues.
James T plays live regularly at:
C-Vue Bar & Bistro
35 Coast Road
Cabarita Beach, NSW
Fish Bowl Café
Forest Bistro & Bar
13 Main Street
North Tamborine, QLD
Palm Beach Surf Club
Palm Beach, QLD
120 Riverside Road
Coming soon: James T’s
blow-by-blow review of One Act Pieces.
ONE ACT PIECES
© Marc Wickert
photos - Lorraine Wickert
With the international release of James Thornbury’s latest CD - One Act Pieces - just days away, Knucklepit Blues thought what better time to do a review of this outstanding musical masterpiece? But better still, why not invite James T to lend a hand with the review?
Before even opening the case to One Act Pieces, it’s interesting to note that all 16 tracks listed have been battle tested before Live audiences. And every tune has received a unanimous thumbs-up from smaller, more intimate blues rooms to the larger open-air shows at such venues as the East Coast Blues Festival and the Bridgetown Blues Festival.
There is a definite contrast of styles presented on this album, from the folk blues of Landau Tops to the raw blues of Ode To An Old Poway Boy, and on to the more electric Hey Charlotte. But somehow all the tracks blend well together in this superb blues presentation.
Now, let’s get down to business with this legendary bluesman and see what he has to say about the album:
Knucklepit Blues: The CD opens with a rattlesnake guitar intro, and the hypnotic rhythm comes in big. There’s also some classy blues harp – courtesy of James T.
Wrote this in Oregon. It started out as something else, but it eventually
wound up as a short commentary on blues travel.
KB: The texture of the backing vocals is a stand-out on this tune. JT is on support vocals under the alias of Waletta Tilt. Gary Lothian slips in the respectable slide guitar.
JT: This song is boy-girl stuff with a south-western American Indian backdrop. Manuelito (1818 –1893) was a Navajo Chief and warrior. It was written at home in Julian, California.
KB: James playing solo in the studio with his guitar, harp rack, and haunting vocals. Conjures up a day-of-reckoning scene from a southern preacher.
JT: Back in the Eugene, Oregon days a few of us were renting a house on the other side of the tracks. We had a band (James T. and the Tough) and we worked as much as we could, but every now and then we might be a little strapped for cash. One of our mates (I've been in Australia for 11 years), Dave Landau, who lived at the house, was gainfully employed with a huge logging outfit.
Anyway, as I said, we were in a band - a blues rock band, and every now and then we needed a financial bail-out 'til after the next weekend's gig (if there was one). Chevrolet built these hardtops made to look like convertibles, called Landau Tops. They looked pretty cool for a while but actually they were solid protection from the elements, just like Dave. As time goes on the Landau Tops represent the inner life from the outer.
BIG BLACK PLYMOUTH:
KB: A very dry tune, with guitar hovering like a condor over the dusty Plymouth – maybe recorded in Death Valley. But what does James have to say?
JT: It was a daydream of mine to have a big, black Plymouth. Something that would haul my gear with a big back seat to sleep on. Years ago, guys ‘into cars’ had something called ‘pencil tips’ on their exhaust pipes that were quite loud, thus "wrap yours up" in the song.
SHINE LIKE THAT:
KB: Vocals remind me of Johnny Rivers. Once again – outstanding voice.
One night, not that long ago, I was driving over the hill in New South
Wales, between Stokers Siding and Uki, listening to a Joni Mitchell album.
It was a lovely, wet, thoroughly enjoyable ride.
KB: James played Taylor guitar on this track, and added his own bass, slide and backing vocals.
JT: A psychedelic lyric with country music, I think. "Fourth and long" is an American gridiron term that means the team with the ball needs a big play.
KB: Like Sleepy Airplane, this is another one to crank up and share with the neighbours. Lovely beat. Try keeping your feet still to this one.
JT: More boy-girl stuff. Rev. Mick O’Connor played outstanding keyboards on this track and on I Swear.
LET MY JOCKEY RIDE:
KB: A bit of a tear jerker, this song. Fortunately, the prayers were answered and the tale has a happy ending.
JT: This prayer/song was written on behalf of my nephew who was very ill with a blood disorder. It was a very tough experience for the whole family, especially his parents, and it went on and on. I've never known anybody to have so many people praying for them. He's better now, but I am reminded of an incident at Children's Hospital in San Diego where a boy with a walker supporting all kinds of tubes and bags said, "Let's go home, Dad." That stays with me.
BE BOLD SUZANNE:
KB: More nice lead guitar from Gary Lothian. Very laid-back blues.
This was originally a country song written in Oregon. I converted it to
blues for the "First Up" album. When this song was performed
well it provided some of my favourite moments with the "Last
Volunteers". A girl I knew was approaching a creature out the back of
her house. Her boyfriend said, "Be bold, Suzanne."
KB: Can picture James T floating down the Mississippi on a raft with Huck Finn here.
JT: I went to pick up my car; the guy said, "That'll be $62.20." I was standing there with this money in my hand but nothin' was happening. I told the guy, "I can count. I just can't concentrate."
YOU DON'T RING TRUE:
KB: Interesting to hear this unplugged version of the song JT often plays Live as a tough, up-tempo boogie.
JT: This is an acoustic version of a rowdy, up-tempo boogie. The Fontainebleau is (or was) a hotel in Florida.
ODE TO AN OLD POWAY BOY:
KB: Raw blues and a compulsive toe-tapper.
JT: Had a good friend/brother who used to write these "odes". We always talked about one day how I'd put music to one of these odes. I saw him the last time I was in California; a few months later he had a massive heart attack. This ode’s for him. Poway is a town in San Diego County, California. The talking in the background is a line my friend Pat once said to me: "Tell your sister I quit drinking whiskey."
KB: Some very tasty bottleneck from James here. Almost touches on George Harrison-style slide. Love the lines:
Like a tree that’s watched a town grow up
It’s got stories of a thousand bars and clubs
Seen the good times and the power shortages
Gets more attention than the guitar player does.
The Danelectro Challenger is an old guitar amp. Reckon the story runs
according to fact, pretty much.
KB: Outstanding vocals and keyboard – very much in the vein of Steve Winwood. Song has a John McVie sway about it.
Always liked this feel, so I wrote a song with it. Reckon the band is just
KB: Good solid blues and a crowd favourite whether presented by James with his band or solo.
Title track from the second "Last Volunteers" album. More
KB: A good rockin’ tune. Great dancing blues and very strong.
In Australia they call it "fairy floss", in America, cotton candy.
When I was a kid, me and some friends took a bridge over the Ohio River into
northern Kentucky to check out the Alexandria State Fair. It's hard to
explain how it felt, but in the song lyrics I went for a picture of the
James T's new album One Act Pieces is now available at the Knucklepit Shop
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James Thornbury Website
are getting quite exciting for James T (Thornbury) lately, with his return
to the Blues on Broadbeach music festival from May 16, 2007, and a new CD in
Coalition of the Unwilling (James T, Darren Jack, and Hat Fitz), had
a good run a while back that consisted of five shows between Wollongong and
Newcastle, so they decided to do a Victoria run and went down there in
also recently launched his new website: www.jamesthornbury.net.
“Yeah, I’ve been dragged, kicking and screaming into the 21st
Century. I reckon it’s pretty much like most websites as far as the basics
go. Pro X Graphics, a Sydney outfit, did it and I’m happy with the
outcome,” says Thornbury.
new album will be ready to record in June. Half of it was written in the
past year and the other half is unreleased material from the days spent on
America’s Pacific Coast. This is not a band record, but a stripped-down
solo effort. I’ll lay the odd second or third track on a given song, but
I’m going for a solo recording. It’s pretty much half blues and half
folk; with the folk songs being a different variety to the ones on This
Ain’t That. I’ve been speaking with Dirk Dubois about doing the
project in Melbourne.”
had a name, and it has names, but we’ll see what sticks in a
couple of months.”
“It is ninety percent written on acoustic guitar, though I may try a few different guitars and guitar sounds. There’s harmonica on two or three songs, maybe the odd slide, harmony vocal or flute track. I think a track or two gets percussion. There are a few blues styles and some folk tunes, with all the songs being originals.”
a release date been established?
are some festivals at the end of the year that I’d like to have the new CD
at. I’d like to have it in August – we’ll see.”
James T Trio has the dubious distinction of playing ‘Under the Sails’ on
the Broadbeach Mall on Wednesday, May 16, at noon. I really like that gig.
I’ve done it every year, but this is the first time I’ve played at noon.
The other thing I’m doing is a blues workshop on Saturday, May 19, in the
went for the Melbourne rhythm of Dirk Dubois and Peter Robertson. But
logistics messed up Peter’s involvement, so Dirk Dubois, whom I’ve been
working with for years, will be on bass, and the drummer, Jamie Cantwell, is
from up my way.”
also talk that your old band, Canned Heat, is coming out from the States for
the festival. Is there any chance you'll be playing with them?
Canned Heat’s coming: They play on Sunday afternoon (4.20-5.30, Kurrawa
Park main stage). I always planned on bringing my wife and daughters along
to say hello to the band. Reckon there would be a chance I’d hop on up for
one or two.”
know Fito de la Parra will be there, and Robert Lucas. But the other
members, I’m not sure about.”
more info about the Blues on Broadbeach music festival: www.bluesonbroadbeach.com
James T & the Tomahawks
star James T (Thornbury) is currently on the road with his new lineup, James
T & the Tomahawks – a band with a similar background to Keith
Richards’ X-Pensive Winos, as James explains:
been teaching a bit of guitar and harmonica a couple days a week at the
music shop in Murwillumbah. One early evening I'd left the shop and
was cutting through the back alley when I saw three blokes lurking in the
dark, sitting on the footpath with their backs to the wall of the Aussie
Tavern. They thought I might know when the Aussie would open for
business and I told ’em, ‘The Aussie's been closed for about a year.’
maybe it was my guitar case, but we started talking about music and blues,
and the next thing you know, me ’n David (Kirk) were playing a bit of
guitar at my place. Then next thing you know, his brother-in-law, Gary
(Thornton), was coming along for a sing and a play on his drums. Not
long after, Gary's brother, Michael, started showing up with his bass.
Must be a couple of years now, we've done a few gigs and there's a
half-dozen on the books. The next one is at a friendly little place in
Murwillumbah called the Riverview Hotel.”
James T & the Tomahawks commence playing, to the uninitiated it may
appear that the band hasn’t turned up. Then from the audience four
individuals straggle up to the stage from different parts of the room and
casually take to their instruments in a manner befitting the JJ Cale band.
here on, it’s all business – laidback blues business, where anything can
happen. At the Jam Shed in north-eastern NSW, the Sonny Boy Williamson
classic, Don't Start Me Talkin' metamorphosed from a blues tune into
a boogie that had the whole crowd foot tapping through the transition.
there was the rousing rendition of the Ron Davies song, It Ain’t Easy
(previously recorded by Long John Baldry, David Bowie, Claudia Lennear…)
that featured drummer Gary Thornton on lead vocals.
to let readers know a little more about James T and the Tomahawks, Knucklepit.com
decided to talk to the big man himself.
what style of music do you play with the
sound nowadays is still blues/original based. Of course, a band's
personnel, collective experience and musical tastes have a lot to do with
its music. And then there are my own relative changes in the whole
trip. Though we still rock the blues a bit and have several boogie
numbers, we're trying to present a listening approach as opposed to
providing one hell of a night out for ‘Greenday’ fans. We still
have my backlog of songs, but the band is also bringing in ideas and some
new songs are being born in the shed.”
pretty much always had two speeds: medium and slow. I do have some
up-tempo stuff but it represents a small percentage of what we do. On
the other hand, we don't do much slow stuff either, so I guess it's mostly
mid-tempo stuff… Whadyamean is it all laid back?”
the Road Again, Let’s Work Together, and Goin’ Up the Country.
I didn't play Goin’ Up the Country for over 10 years after leaving
Canned Heat, then started doing it at solo gigs. David (Kirk) plays
good rhythm on it which frees me up to play the wood flute. In all my
years with The Last Volunteers we didn't play On The Road Again,
then some guy at a gig said he'd buy his son a CD if I played it, so
still do a number of my songs; sometimes I open up solo just to ease on in.
Gives the night a bit of variety. The rest of the songs are by various
do you like about playing with this lineup?
have been playing for a few years in one form or another. David
started coming over to the house, then Gary and Michael (Thornton). We
all get on well and have a band approach to the songs we play. I like
the fact that we can play at a restaurant and we have enough restraint to
keep people from leaving their tables with their fingers in their ears.
We rehearse almost every week which keeps it growing and settling at the
did David get into the band – the only one
without ‘Thorn’ in his surname?
onto that: We’re changing it to ‘Thorn-Kirk’.”
do the Riverview Hotel the next two Sundays (Nov.23/30), back to Bangalow
next month (Dec.19).”
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