BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Mark Goodman
Last week, in Part One of his interview with Mark Goodman, Jimmy Hall spoke about the early days of Wet Willie. This week, in Part Two, he talks about where the band is now.
Mark Goodman for BluesWax: Another one of my favorites is “Rendezvous With the Blues.” On Miles of Smiles, you did a slightly faster version than your solo version. Was that intentional, or just the energy level at the time?
Jimmy Hall: I think it was the energy. Doing it live tends to push that song a little faster, and we were experimenting. We were jamming on sort of the jazzier aspects of it. We had to edit it down for the record, because it was maybe 15 minutes long. On the original we just go through all kinds of changes. I do a lot of singing on it, and play saxophone and harmonica. Everybody gets to solo, so its one of our jam pieces in our live sets.
BW: There is a consistent flavor of R&B, especially James Brown, that runs throughout the live record. Was he a big influence on your musical development?
JH: As a kid in the late ‘60s, and all through high school, he was touring the south or touring the country. Back then he would stop in Mobile, or he would stop in the New Orleans area. I could always find the records back then, and just go “Wow, this is just amazing stuff!” Here I’m just a little white kid from down there, but it was just the excitement of it; it was magic to me. I got the opportunity to see James Brown when I was in high school, probably around 1965. A friend of mine asked if I wanted to see James Brown. I told him, “Yeah, you know I’m going.” He said, “We’re probably going to be the only white kids there.” I said, “I don’t care, I got to see this, I got to see this.” It was quite an eye-opening experience, an epiphany to see that kind of showmanship and excitement all in one package.
BW: How did you hear that kind of music in the Alabama of the early ‘60s? In my part of the state, the only black music came out of their church on Sunday morning.
JH: We had black radio in Mobile, and of course in the ‘60s we were able to hear R&B and Soul music on AM radio. So that’s really where I got my first taste, and I was buying all the records I could from Otis Redding and James Brown, even Ray Charles. I continued to be influenced by it when we moved to Macon because it was such a center for R&B. It had a large black population so they had more of it on the radio and out at the clubs.
BW: Have you considered doing a purely blues record with Wet Willie, or is that more a Jimmy Hall solo venture?
JH: It wouldn’t be out of the question at all because everybody loves blues in that band. We’ve recorded many standards all the way back to Dripping Wet: Live in 1973. I mean we did Rather Go Blind on that album and Macon Hambone Blues which was one of the more requested songs we did. That song just has a lot of fun lyrics that I can throw in there. So its not out of the question for sure, its just a matter of stylistically we’re kind of broad based, you know. It’s kind of like the Allman Brothers; they sure could do it.
BW One track is Too Tall To Mambo, which is obviously a New Orleans influenced tune. Explain your ties to the city and its music.
JH Just the proximity of Mobile and New Orleans, it just kind of flowed down the coast. Also, Mobile is known for celebrating Mardi Gras, and soon as I was old enough to drive we would go to New Orleans. We’d hang out at the clubs and listen to the music; we just loved it, loved it from day one.
Being a sax player, I loved the horns, the brass bands, and Dixie Land. This was my dad had influenced me with by his taste in music. He was not a sing a long guy or player, but he was an appreciator and collector of good music. Many of the records I heard growing up were his, and he leaned towards Jazz trumpet players. So I grew up listening to a lot of it. Now I’ve made some more real strong connections and Louisianan friends. People like Tab Benoit and Leon Medica (Louisiana’s LeRoux) have become real buddies. We connect and network and do shows together. It’s been a lot of fun.
BW The tune Same Ole Moon talks about a father passing on wisdom to his son. Does this song have ties to your own personal relationship with your father?
JH Yeah, yeah it does. I wrote that song about the time I was leaving to go to Macon. It was like my dad talking to me, you know, father to son. Him saying, “No matter what happens, that same old moon will be up there watching over you. Just remember that when you look at it”. So that was a true story, and then I wrote the song. I recorded it on my first solo record in 1980, and it became my dad’s favorite song, Even in his later years he stilled appreciated it. He passed in 2007 at the age of 90, and I sang it at his funeral. It still means a lot to do the song! BW It had to be tough singing at your own father’s funeral.
JH It was tough, and I almost backed out of it. The thing that helped me through it was just the fact that he would have liked it. He would have loved to have that song, apparently he loved it, and so we pulled together. My brother and sister were there in case something happened, but we made it through it.
BW You end the record with your signature song, Keep On Smilin’. That song has been picked as one of the Top 20 Southern Rock songs of all time. Tell me about it.
JH The Top 20 was an honor, and on the show Charlie Daniels said, “Jimmy Hall has more soul in his little finger than most people have in their whole body. Hank Jr., (Williams) was on there giving me some love too. In ’74 we recorded it with Tom Dowd producing the album, which in itself was such an honor and wonderful experience. He helped form the song into what it is and told us from the beginning it was a hit because it has such a positive message. We just trusted his insight on that.
People have just reacted in such a positive way with hundreds of stories. Every time we play somewhere, somebody comes up to me, or up to us saying, “you just don’t know how that song helped me through when I lost my mom, or when I was going through a divorce, or when I was overseas in the service and lonely”. There are just so many instances where it helped somebody; that’s the power of the song to me. The song got a new breath of life when it came out in the movie Country Strong last year. It’s a wonderful thing when a song can survive almost 40 years of existence and still get interest from people.
BW Does Wet Willie have plans to go into the studio anytime soon?
JH We’re really pushing this album, so I think it will depend on the situation, label wise. I feel we’ve never sounded better, and we have a lot more great music to make. Its a new frontier out there to me with all the labels falling apart or changing, and there’s so many people doing it on their own. There are many options there too, but we’re still writing and coming up with new music, so Lord willing we’ll try to get in the studio. You know, this has been a great experience just doing the live thing. There were three of us in the studio a good bit. My brother Jack and Rick Seymour have some good studio chops, and I was there listening to harmonies and vocals and that kind of thing. So maybe in the next year we can do that.
About the Author: