It was, without question, the worst weekend of their career. Okay, life for the Fabulous Thunderbirds was hardly fabulous in the best of times. The rent didn’t always get paid on time, their poor excuse for a tour bus was always breaking down, and the band sometimes had to rely on the charity of bartenders just to get a drink. But when the Thunderbirds arrived in London last year to record their fifth album, Tuff Enuff, with producer and longtime admirer Dave Edmunds, they hit rock bottom with a resounding pow!
An impending record deal fizzled out when the label suddenly declared bankruptcy. Stranded, the Thunderbirds had no money to pay Edmunds or the studio. All they had to last through the weekend was a few loaves of bread, some cans of tuna and a king-size bottle of Coke.
A year later, the Thunderbirds are on top of the world and damn near the top of the charts. Propelled by the title track, a cocky Top Ten shuffle penned in fifteen minutes by singer-harpist Kim Wilson, Tuff Enuff has brought this greasy-looking quartet of Texas-blues veterans unexpected fame and fortune. For starters, the Thunderbirds recently got a $100-a-week raise, their first salary increase in five years. They finally got a reliable new tour bus, “a raised-roof Eagle with two lounges, two TVs, two stereos and air conditioning up the ying-yang,” says guitarist Jimmie Vaughan proudly. They are also showing up on the most wholesome television shows — Solid Gold, American Bandstand, even Disneyland’s Summer Vacation Party Special, with Adam Ant, Culture Club and Chubby Checker.
“Chubby was giving us financial advice,” says drummer Fran Christina, laughing. “He was giving us words of wisdom like ‘Don’t go out and buy big houses.’ “
“He kept telling us to buy mutual funds,” adds bassist Preston Hubbard, “and he tried to sell us his tour bus.”
Accustomed to playing their rollicking, no-nonsense barroom R&B nearly 300 nights a year, often under combat conditions, charter Thunderbirds Wilson and Vaughan, both thirty-five, are digesting their overnight success slowly. “I’ve been pretending it hasn’t happened,” says Vaughan, shocked to be overtaking his younger brother, the popular Lone Star guitarslinger Stevie Ray Vaughan, on the charts. “I don’t want it to soak in yet. I don’t want to wake up disappointed later on.”
Though Tuff Enuff — with its mixture of Wilson originals and hip covers (Sam and Dave’s “Wrap It Up,” Rockin’ Sidney’s “Tell Me”) — is the best vinyl document to date of the Thunderbirds’ electric Texas barbecue of chooglin’ Chicago blues, sassy Memphis soul and Louisiana zydeco hop, most record companies weren’t interested. According to manager Mark Proct, nearly every major label in the business turned down Tuff Enuff — and the “Tuff Enuff” video, which the group financed itself — before the Thunderbirds finally signed with CBS Associated Records late last year.
“There were times when they were at their lowest point, thinking it was never going to be right again,” Proct says of the labelless years of 1983 through 1985. “People wrote the Thunderbirds off, said they’d never sell albums. The only way we could pay the bills was by working.” That was nothing new to the T-Birds. “We’re all road dogs anyway,” declares Hubbard, who logged a few miles with New England’s Roomful of Blues before becoming a Thunderbird in 1984. (Christina, another ex-member of Roomful of Blues, joined in 1980.) Wilson, a Detroit native raised in Southern California, zigzagged across the West and the Midwest as a solo act for several years (he was briefly managed by blues great Willie Dixon) before meeting the Dallas-born Vaughan in Austin in 1974. By then, Vaughan was the undisputed six-string king of the Dallas-Austin club axis, ruling the scene with his slashing, incandescent sound and masterful assimilation of classic blues-guitar styles.
Christened by Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds quickly became the house band at Antone’s, a lively Austin blues bistro saluted in the Tuff Enuff instrumental “Down at Antones.” Muddy Waters caught one of the band’s first shows there in 1975 and was so impressed that he hyped the Thunderbirds to club owners and interviewers across the country. “He’s the one who first got us on the road,” Wilson says gratefully. “Muddy had ready-made audiences for us, just from his word.”
Aside from a few early flirtations with success — opening for the Rolling Stones in 1982, recording T-Bird Rhythm with Nick Lowe — the Thunderbirds have pretty much spent the past twelve years taking what Vaughan calls the “Bo Diddley on Mars” ambiance of their boisterous Antone’s gigs to clubs around the country. Now, thanks to “Tuff Enuff,” the gigs are getting better; the band is spending the rest of its summer playing arenas with Bob Seger.
“On one hand, I’m real excited,” Wilson says. “But on the other, it hasn’t changed nothin’. We’re still on the road most of the year. It would be nice to live to work, and not work to live.”
“If they took away our CBS contract, our record sales, our TV shows and everything, we’d still be playing,” Vaughan concludes with a shrug. “Because I ain’t gonna stop. They’re gonna have to cut off my arms before they make me quit.”