BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Mark Goodman
I first saw Jimmy Hall and Wet Willie around 1974. They were opening for Bachman-Turner Overdrive at the Philadelphia Convention Center. B.T.O. was huge at that time, and went to see them. I wasn’t familiar with Wet Willie, they were just the opening act.
Well, you can probably guess who stole the show. From that time on, I became a fan. I enjoyed Wet Willie as a band, but was infatuated by Jimmy Hall’s stage presence and musicianship. There was energy about him, and it’s still there today, some forty years on. As a singer of Southern Soul, he is unmatched. Listen to his version of “A Change is Gonna Come” and it will give you goose bumps.
However, Wet Willie is so much more than a one-genre band. When you go to see them, don’t plan to sit back and listen; it’s impossible. You’ll spend the night on your feet. That’s a fact!
Mark Goodman for BluesWax: Jimmy, for the younger fans, tell me a little about your early career and the start of Wet Willie.
Jimmy Hall: Really, my recording career started with Wet Willie. It started when my brother Jack and I got our first group together, and really that group morphed into what later became Wet Willie. I mean, it was trial and error and getting some of the best players we could get our hands on. We handpicked guys and moved through some players. So Wet Willie got together in Mobile and then decided that was not going to be the city to help us achieve our goals. So in 1969 we were rehearsing, writing, and just getting our sounds together. In the early part of 1970, we were trying to look ahead and see where we wanted to seek our fame and fortune in this country. Where we might end up trying to get a record deal, or where we were going to move to further our career. After considering several cities, we decided on Macon, Georgia. We were listening to a lot of music back then and we had heard the Allman Brother’s first record.
There was so much good music out, but the Allman Brothers were a beacon to us in many ways. They had taken the southern sound, with some old styles like blues and jazz, and were reinventing them in certain ways. We decided that was what we wanted to do. Not copy them, but go from that town, go for that attitude, and get on their label.
So through connections that we had, we managed to get names and numbers at Capricorn Records. They were very open to the idea of us coming down for an audition. The audition went well, so in July 1970 we became the second band to sign with Capricorn after the Allman Brothers. After we signed, we started working on our first record, and when that was finished, we started touring some with the Allman Brothers.
So that really started our ten-year run with Wet Willie. It’s become much longer now, but the first ten years were the golden years for us.
BW: Wet Willie ended around 1980. When did you decide to get it going again, and what was the inspiration?
JH: In 1980, music had changed and the band was floundering as far as direction, and the record company was not as happy with some of the material which we had. Also at that time, I had been offered a solo deal with Epic. So we put Wet Willie on the side burner, not the front burner. I said, “Let’s just wait and see what happens with that [solo project] and maybe we’ll do another record down the road a bit.” So I did a solo album for Epic in 1980.
I didn’t want to break the band up. You know, I wanted to do both things but there were certain guys in the band that weren’t of the same mind. So it led to a split at that point. I did two solo albums, then moved to Nashville and got into working with Jeff Beck.
We reunited in 1992. There’s lot’s of reasons why, but you know it was like, what was good once was still good. So my brother Jack and I started talking to Richie Harris and some of the original guys about doing some more shows. There were lucrative offers that made it worthwhile, and we haven’t been apart since.
BW: After all this time, why did you decide to release a live record?
JH: We had a coalition with Hitting the Note magazine and their labels. Hitting the Note is the magazine for the Allman Brothers Band. Cohorts and friends, including Randall Bramlett and Tommy Talton had recorded for this label. They said, “You should consider doing something for them, their doing really straight-up honest work”. We were doing some concerts in an area of Georgia that made it convenient to record live and they said to us, “why don’t you guys record at these shows while you’re touring. We’ll see what we come up with; let’s just get it on tape”. Nothing ventured, nothing gained so we agreed on a couple of shows. Macon was one, but most everything came from the Woodstock show. We recorded two nights and took the best of what we got. We were gambling that we were going to get what we needed out of the two nights. Everybody was happy – we got what we wanted.
BW: Back in the ’70s, you took the Taj Mahal song “She Caught the Katy” and really made it your own. Considering your style of music at the time, what was it about that song that caught your ear?
JH: Well, some of it had to do with the Allman Brothers. They were a big influence for us and we were all listening to a lot of music. It was like, “What do you guys listen to? What’s been turning you guys on lately?” We’d all talk blues and I’d talk about harp players. About that time some of their guys were saying, “Man, you got to listen to some of this stuff.” So I got the Nacthel Blues album and two or three others, I can’t remember which ones, but it just hit me that I love country blues. As it turned out, the Allman Brothers recorded more Taj’s version of “Statesboro Blues” than [Blind Willie] McTell’s. Later on I got to do some shows with him, and hang around with him a few times. He’s been a lifelong influence to me and I told him that he was my hero.
BW: Siblings Jack and Donna [Hall] return in the current lineup, how many other original members came back?
JH: When we had the opportunity to put it all back together, we put feelers out to all the original members. John Anthony had been involved until about a year ago, maybe a little longer. Then for personal reasons, he decided he wanted to discontinue the roadwork, so we had to opt for a great choice in Bobby Mobley. Now Rick Hirsch, who was our original guitar player and co-writer on many of our songs, lives in Los Angeles. With him working out there, he was not always available. Plus, we were trying to do tours and shows and it was just not cost effective to fly him from L.A. Along the way we decided to go with a couple of other guitar players, one from the Hank Williams, Jr., Band. Also on guitar are Ricky Chancey and Rick Seymour, who’ve been with us for more than twenty years. T.K. Lively is the original drummer from 1976 when we “sort of” had to reorganize with a couple guitarists and new drummer.
BW: Even though Miles of Smiles is mostly up tempo, there are a couple slow burners, “Lonely” is one of those. Tell me about the song.
JH: “Lonely” is a song that I co-wrote with a couple of guys here in Nashville. A friend of mine who was into R&B and I used to get together and write. I don’t remember how long ago it was written, but I think it was back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. There’s a little story about the song that may be interesting. I didn’t cut it on another record until we did it live, but we had pitched it to B.B. King when he was in town doing some work. I can’t remember the producer that worked with the Crusaders, but he liked the song. They wanted to do a demo with a rough vocal using a friend of mine named Troy Seals. He’s the guy that wrote so many great pop and rock ‘n’ roll songs, like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart” and “Drift Away.” Then they played it for B.B. The word I got was it was too high for him, or he just decided it was going to be too rangy. For whatever reason, he said he couldn’t do it, but I still have a copy of it somewhere with Troy Seals singing. We have been doing it live with Wet Willie for a while and we loved the harmony on it.
To be continued…
Mark Goodman is a contributing editor and photographer at BluesWax.
About the Author: