San Diego’s sunny skies, expansive beaches, and laid-back lifestyle may be the last place one would expect to give rise to gritty Texas-roadhouse and small-combo Chicago blues. But then, appearances can be deceiving: enter the Little Kings of San Diego, four veterans and a rotating supporting cast that have found a niche playing regular gigs in the Gaslamp, Hooley’s Pubs in El Cajon and La Mesa, and other locales.
Founder and guitarist John Flynn has played in local roots bands for over 20 years, including Delta Heat, and decided to get the Kings together about three years ago.
“I decided to start a new band again. I was determined to have a great rhythm section and play the music I really liked. I contacted Bruce Stewart and asked him if he was interested in being the drummer. Bruce brought in his long-time friend Andy Greenberg [owner of Andy’s San Diego Guitar Repair in Normal Heights] to play bass.” The band usually adds a harmonica player and sometimes a keyboardist for live gigs.
After the departure of another singer/ harpist, Flynn recruited David Mosby to be the featured front man, whose smooth deep voice has been heard as a DJ on two local FM stations as well as performing as a singer for many years all over the country, including locally on discs by blues artists Candye Kane and Sue Palmer. “It was great timing, as David was just starting to get back into the blues scene.”
“I’ve been singing since I was 11, and I’m 58,” says Mosby. “I mainly grew up singing along with the great Motown artists.” The Milwaukee native made the move to San Diego in 1983. “I joined the Little Kings in about June 2013, John emailed me out of the blue.”
Flynn had his full lineup, but what to play? He had his own favorites in local and national music. “Bands like San Diego’s Forbidden Pigs, Beat Farmers, and Paladins; national bands like Los Lobos, Hollywood Fats, The [Fabulous] T-Birds, and others. I loved the music and wanted to be on the stage.”
While each of the players has brought their own tastes as well as talents to the band, they did have one idea in common. “One of our goals was not to do “Stormy Monday,” like every other band out here. It is all too common,” says Mosby. “We dig up stuff you won’t hear every day. Our tastes vary, and we all have input in what we play. Little Walter, Slim Harpo, Fabulous Thunderbirds. We do ‘Rocket 88.’ The band is a great group of guys.”
They have been keeping busy playing downtown and East County gigs, bringing tight blues songs to what Flynn sees as a growing local audience and being part of a solid local blues scene.
“I think San Diego has a lot of blues talent. There is also some great support in this town by the blues community. For instance the BLUSD (Blues Lovers United of San Diego) organization, folks like Rosa Lea Schiavone, Michael Kinsman, Wicked Harem Productions, Janine Harty, and others that really make an effort to showcase blues acts.”
He does shares a concern with Mosby, who feels that, at times, the blues audience seems mostly to be age “40 and up,” though he makes the point that kids dance to their music, as well as “the younger cats.”
“What I am more concerned with is that the younger folks may not have an appreciation for this music,” Flynn says. “Twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings don’t always dig this type of music. Actually, once they hear it, they do dig it, but it’s not the popular music you hear on the radio, so the exposure can be low.”
It’s Friday evening, and the small but fervent crowd at La Mesa’s Hooley’s pub don’t seem to care about what the radio is playing. The Little Kings set up, with Dane Terry, the fifth man this night, on harp and some vocals. Greenberg’s huge standup bass lurks in the rear next to Stuart’s kit, as Flynn tunes up his F-hole Gibson and Danelectro electric guitars. With no intro, they start with a strong boogie instrumental that gives Flynn and Terry room to show their wares: the guitarist carves away on his formica-slab Danelectro with the kind of disciplined blues phrasing that marks the playing of Ronnie Earl, Texan Mike Morgan, and especially on the third song, the T-Birds’ “Wait On Time” by Jimmy Vaughn. For his part, Terry rips into his harp solos like a man possessed, possibly by long-departed harp legends William Clarke or Paul Butterfield.
Mosby takes the stage, a lanky six-foot five-inch figure with easy stage presence who becomes both master of ceremonies and lead singer as the band leans into “Rock This House.” His low, soulful voice gives the tunes an extra dimension, and he builds a connection with the audience, introducing tunes and players. The songs are four minutes of tight blues with no excess or showing off, though all the cats on hand are masters of the craft; Greenberg is particularly impressive as a booming heartbeat behind one thrusting blues rocker after another. In addition to playing fiery harp, Terry sings a couple of songs really well; Flynn seems to be the calm in the storm with his steady and clean lines. The crowd, many who are clearly regulars, loves it.
Approached during a break, Flynn responds favorably to being compared to Jimmy Vaughn or Morgan, whom he calls “Monster Mike,” and says that some people have compared his sound to Jimmy’s flashier brother Stevie Ray – then concurs it really doesn’t. Terry, who rotates in the harp spot with another player, is glad to hear the comparison to Clarke, whom he says he models his playing after.
By the end of the second set, it is clear that there won’t be a “Stormy Monday” tonight, or a “Sweet Home Chicago.” Songs by Johnny Guitar Watson, Magic Slim, and Elvis Presley are going to be heard instead, along with a steady diet of covers of good songs from T-Bird albums (“She’s Tuff,” “Why Get Up”), Earl and the Broadcasters (“I Want to Shout About It”), and a blistering version of “Rocket 88,” which is often cited as the first rock ‘n’ roll song ever. From the warm reception, it appears that “Stormy” won’t be missed.
The band’s efforts to gain exposure include their three-song EP, Rock This House, available at their shows. “[Thomas] Yearsley recorded it for us, and we sell it to make money for our full-length CD,” says Mosby.
“We have plans to record this year, and are currently working on originals,” adds Flynn. “Our long-term goal is a European tour.”
“The guys in this band genuinely like each other and we are all happy with the music we are making. We each bring our influences to the band. We describe our music as Chicago, Texas, and West Coast blues and swing. The goal is to play danceable fun music and hopefully make people happy,” says Flynn. There are some La Mesa blues fans who seem to agree.
See the Little Kings live!
Saturday, November 1 @ Hooley’s, Rancho San Diego
Saturday, November 29 @ Hooley’s Irish Pub La Mesa