BY BILL BENTLEY
Best Of: Early Birds Special, Benchmark Records
Start with their cover songs.
It’s often the quickest way to find out what a band is really
like. It shows where they come from. With the Fabulous Thunderbirds,
the artist names alone tip the hand that this is a seriously
demented bunch of blues-soaked wise men: Rockin’ Sidney, Lil’
Millet, Guitar Junior, Rocket Morgan, Smiley Lewis, Slim Harpo,
Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester and endless others. You couldn’t
make those names up, they’re so swingingly soulful.
And the T-Birds loved each and every one of them, taking their
spirited essence and turning up the emotions until crowds went crazy
listening to the sound of freedom. The year was 1975 in Austin,
Texas, and the Thunderbirds had bottled magic on the bandstand.
Jimmie Vaughan’s guitar told stories straight out of a
conjurer’s smile, while singer-harpist Kim Wilson carried himself
with a streetwise elan, sang like he’d been born with a microphone
in his mouth and played blues harp heavy enough to curl your
eyelashes from a 100 yards back. Drummer Mick Buck and bassist Keith
Ferguson found the jungle beat early and never let go. There was no
way the band couldn’t set fire to the audience everywhere they
played. During those early years, there were simply no bad gigs for
these guys. The Fabulous Thunderbirds ruled the earth, even if only
a few dozen people knew it.
Once they started recording in
1979, things got even hotter. The band’s first four albums before
the big hit happened sound like a primer in everything that was
right about rock & roll, or whatever you want to call it. The
music jumps out of the speakers and dances around the room on its
own. There is an unrelenting rush of pure joy on songs like “Rich
Woman” and “She’s Tuff” that hadn’t been heard in a long,
long time. The T-Birds weren’t retro, they were radical to what
was happening then. Not remotely new wave or even classic rock, they
were just plain bad-assed. Early Birds Special collects some of
their music from the first four albums, and even adds the monstro-hit
“Tuff Enuff” and a few others after the bright lights hit the
band, showing perfectly why so many other well-known musicians
grooved on the ground these fellows walked on.
Momentous things were happening
in rock during the second half of the ’70s, and the way what many
perceived as a bar band grabbed the glory for a ride into the hearts
of music lovers everywhere is surely a bit of David and Goliath.
Watching the band on MTV in 1986 felt almost surreal, thinking back
to early shows at joints like Rome Inn and Alexander’s and the low
down beauty of it all. But that is life in the big city, and the
Fabulous Thunderbirds rode the crest of that fun wave until Jimmie
Vaughan decided enough was enough and took a walk. Luckily for us,
though, Kim Wilson is still bad and nationwide, looking solid in his
aluminum-colored suits. The turban is gone, but the best harp player
alive lives on. As for Vaughan, he just keeps getting better and
better. We learn that the blues is born in pain but raised on
happiness, turning the proving grounds into a dance floor for anyone
wanting to step up and strut their stuff. It doesn’t get any
better than that.
Bill Bentley is
a writer, musician, publicist, record producer and A&R director.
He once played drums with Lightnin’ Hopkins.