I first met Jimmy somewhere around 1981, by which time we were both living in San Diego. Jimmy moved out here from Corpus Christi, Texas, and yours truly from New Jersey. I was playing in the King Biscuit Blues Band and Jimmy had a Charlie Christian tribute band called Wholly Cats. At the same time there was a singer/harmonica player by the name of Tom Moore, who started a band called the Five Careless Lovers, which both Jimmy and I played in together for a short period of time, before my dear departed friend Scott Corey took my place in that band.
Even though Jimmy was the cat from Texas, I was probably more influenced by the young Texas guitar slingers like Jimmie Vaughan and Anson Funderburgh at that time, while Jimmy was the big band, jump blues/swing guy. And man, he could play that stuff as good as anyone! I was playing the predictable Stratocaster, while Jimmy was playing a big old Guild archtop long before they came into vogue with us young striving blues players. In fact, I recall the great guitar player from the Paladins, Dave Gonzalez, saying that it was seeing Jimmy that inspired him to start playing an archtop. And I don’t know whether it’s mere coincidence or not, but for the next 40 years, Dave’s archtop of choice was also a Guild.
In the interview below, Jimmy talks about one of the highlights of his 50-year musical career—when his band the Swingin’ Kings backed up guitar great Kid Ramos at the Gator by the Bay Festival in San Diego. I distinctly recall Kid telling me afterward how much he wanted to bring the Swingin’ Kings to Europe to play with him over there. And I remember the night I was personally in such awe of Jimmy’s playing that I went up to him and asked, “Man, how do you play swing like that,” to which he replied, “Get yourself a Charlie Christian record!” And you better believe that I was at Tower Records the very next day, doing exactly as Jimmy advised.
Jimmy has been a well-respected fixture on the San Diego music scene for over 40 years, both leading his own great band, the Swingin’ Kings, and as a much sought-after sideman for the likes of the Five Careless Lovers, Jonny Viau’s Blues Allstars, Michele Lundeen, Backwater Blues Band, and intermittently with Sue Palmer’s Motel Swing Orchestra. Jimmy has always had my utmost respect and admiration as both a musician and a person, and it is my honor to be able to interview him for this long overdue—and much-deserved—feature for the San Diego Troubadour.
Eric: Hey Jimmy, let’s go back to the very beginning. Do you recall your earliest musical inspiration?
Jimmy: I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. My mom played piano and sang in the church. I got my first guitar, which was a Kay with nylon strings, with S&H green stamps when I was about 10 or 11. A kid who lived down the street had an old Stella with rusty strings, and he showed me how to hold it and make a couple chords. I was left handed, but because I copied him I started playing like a right-handed person.
My sister had some 45 records, like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Everly Brothers. She was ten years older than me, and when she got her driver’s license and would play the car radio I started hearing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Kinks. And it was then that I knew I wanted to rock out! I also thought the song “Classical Gas” was incredible.
I took lessons from a woman who was kind of a folk player, and she had me get a songbook by a group called the Weavers. I found a version of “House of the Rising Sun” in it, which I was already familiar with from hearing the Animals’ version on my sister’s car radio, so I learned it. There was a recital coming up, and I wanted to play “House of the Rising Sun,” but when my mom, the daughter of a strict Baptist preacher, read the words she about had a cow. So, I learned “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and ended up playing that instead.
I was learning songs like “Gloria,” “Wipe Out,” “Satisfaction,” and “Louie Louie,” and I liked “Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees. I learned simple versions of these songs pretty quickly. Around this same time, my next door neighbor happened to be a big country music fan, and he had tons of 45s by artists like Buck Owens, George Jones, Patsy Cline, and some Elvis, too.
I talked my Mom into getting me an electric guitar, and she agreed if I could chip in some of my own money, which I somehow managed to save from my job mowing lawns for two dollars a yard. A guy at her work was in a country band; he sold me a Kay electric guitar, and I got a little Kalamazoo amp to play it through.
When I was 14 I started surfing and set the guitar aside for a couple years. But then underground FM radio started happening and I was hearing stuff like Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Hendrix, which inspired me to get back into the guitar. In my junior year of high school I had a friend who knew some older guys that actually played in bands, and they showed me that all my rock guitar heroes got their stuff from blues guys like B.B. King, Freddy King, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, and Otis Rush. I was hooked and started buying blues records. B.B. King’s Live at the Regal was the first, and then I bought every blues record I could find. I spent hours in my room with them, trying to learn how to play, and I would get these older guys to show me stuff, too. They also turned me on to jazz records. My friend Tom Robinson, who was learning to play sax, and I would sit outside the bar where our mentors were playing and listen, because we were too young to get in. We would stay until they finished and then help them load out. And this is how I got to know most the working musicians around town. One of the sax players was Joe Sublett, who currently plays in Taj Mahal’s Phantom Blues Band, and there was a drummer by the name of Chris Layton, who became Stevie Ray Vaughan’s drummer for pretty much the entirety of his career until his tragic and untimely death in 1990.
Eric: What memories do you have of your earliest gigs?
Jimmy: I had my first paying gig when I was 17. It was with a country band at little bar called the Town Pump. We were basically hired to back up the singer, a guy by the name of Don Pierce, who was somewhat of a Kenny Rogers wannabe; he also happened to own the bar. The drinking age was 18 at the time, so I got a friend of mine to “crudely” alter the date of birth on my license, but I don’t think Don really cared anyway. I got a Gibson 335 for high school graduation, and that was the guitar I was playing for this gig. I also believe that my memories of the country music, which my neighbor was always playing several years earlier, helped me quite a bit when I was learning the material for it.
I played with this country band throughout the summer after high school graduation, and then my friend Tom Robinson talked me into going to school at Texas A&I in Kingsville, where I studied music, played in the stage band, and even studied playing upright bass because they didn’t have a program for guitar. Tom and I, and a bass player by the name of Larry Grady—who everyone called “Shady Grady”—started a band there called Big Heat. Larry played slap bass like Larry Graham, the bass player for Sly and the Family Stone, and we started learning funk, Average White Band, and a couple of Tower of Power songs. Larry was also on the A&I football team, so when we played the bars around town, half the team would show up. And while l always felt safe with several 300-pound linemen around the stage, if one of them wanted to come up and sing, the only answer was “yes!” And most of these brothers could sing pretty good anyway. We got to open for the Sir Douglas Quintet when they came to play the college, and thought they might pay us something. But after the gig they just loaded out and drove off in their bus.
Eric: What are the highlights of your musical career?
Jimmy: I have been playing music for so long, I don’t have a short answer for that. I must say that I am eternally grateful to the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, which has given me so many great opportunities. Going all the way back to 1981, just three years after I moved to San Diego, I got to open for Michael Bloomfield—and personally meet him—at the Belly Up. Over the years I’ve opened for Etta James, Junior Walker, John Mayall, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Roomful of Blues, Asleep at the Wheel, Leon Russell, Robben Ford, Tower of Power (twice), Tommy Castro, Robert Cray, Johnny A, and Walter Trout. I also got to back up Big Mama Thornton, Pee Wee Crayton, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Smokey Wilson, Big Joe Turner, and Bo Diddley, all at the Belly Up. A guy by the name of Kevin Morrow was part of the Belly Up’s talent-buying team, Falk & Morrow, and being the big blues fan that he was, he put together some shows where I played with Hollywood Fats, Charlie Musselwhite, and William Clark. These were all such great opportunities that it’s really hard to single any one out. The Belly Up has also supported me with projects like my Charlie Christian tribute band called Wholly Cats. The owner, Dave Hodges, liked the concept and gave us happy hour slots back in the eighties.
One show I will never forget was the Swingin’ Kings with Kid Ramos at Gator by the Bay in 2013. I had a full band with a horn section playing jump blues, with Kid out front as our featured guest. To me Kid Ramos is one of the greatest guitar players around, and he burned down the house that day, while we were there fanning the flames every step of the way!
My mother was the daughter of Baptist Missionaries and was born in Cuba. She had fond memories of her childhood there, which she had shared with me over the years. Then, in the early 2000s, I saw the Buena Vista Social Club documentary that Ry Cooder did about all the great Cuban musicians who were famous before the Revolution, but who lived in obscurity and poverty ever since. I fell in love with that music, found some guys who played that style, and started playing with them. It was a whole other way of playing for me and I worked really hard to learn it. I am also grateful to these other guys for helping me figure it out. I told Chris Goldsmith and Chad Waldorf at the Belly Up about it and they got us some bookings at Club M in Del Mar. We also got to open shows for Poncho Sanchez, Cubanismo, and Los Van Van, all top internationally acclaimed artists, and we were beyond thrilled to have these opportunities!
I have enjoyed working with local San Diego singer Michele Lundeen. We’ve done some great shows together at Gator by the Bay, the Cincinnati Blues Festival, San Felipe Blues Festival, Long Beach Blues Festival, Humphrey’s, Winston’s, and the Old Town Blues Club in Temecula. And speaking of the Old Town Blues Club, I have huge respect for its owner, Andy Doti, who has spared no expense creating one of Southern California’s best music venues.
For the past ten years I’ve been doing shows with my friend Tom Stewart’s Backwater Blues Band. Tom also books the Baja Blues Festival in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, where we have been on the bill with Coco Montoya, Kenny Neal, Tommy Castro, Anthony Gomes, and Chubby Carrier. And we were the backing band for John Nemeth, Mighty Mike Schermer, Michele Lundeen, and Deanna Bogart down there. We did a show at the San Diego County Fair with Gregg Wright, and he’s a monster.
Eric: Jimmy, do you have a particular philosophy about music?
Jimmy: Music is a wonderful form of artistic expression. It is a form of communication that connects people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. I fell in love with blues music because it is a simple way to covey all the feelings we have as human beings. B.B. can touch your soul with one note. I first started getting into blues from hearing rock musicians who used blues guitar riffs and jacked-up versions of blues songs, and then I began listening to the blues guys that they listened to, like Freddy, B.B., and Albert King. When I first heard Muddy Waters I thought he was kinda crude, but I eventually realized that he captured the essence of the music that was brought up from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. Then I started listening to the generation of blues players who came before Muddy, guys like Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Robert Johnson. The great guitar players all have style and don’t just play a jumbled assembly of riffs. You have to tell a story when you play or sing that connects to people. One thing that struck me when I heard B.B.’s Live at the Regal album was how he commanded the room like a preacher, always leading the audience into the next song and the story it was about. When I saw Freddy King, I stood at the foot of the stage and saw him do the same thing.
Blues and jazz can be traced back to people who were brought to this country in chains; they have struggled to survive as slaves and still struggle to be treated with respect and equality today. All the rhythms you hear in blues, swing, funk, reggae, hip hop, and salsa can be traced back to Africa.
I have been playing for dancers for years, and I really enjoy it when everyone gets up and dances. I also think it’s really cool to see how little kids just start dancing around when they hear a beat. I have the most fun creating a situation where everyone participates, instead of people just sitting there looking at me. But if I have a gig at a restaurant, that’s a different situation and I try to bring the appropriate vibe for that, and don’t mind if people have their conversations while I’m playing. Gino Matteo calls them wallpaper gigs, and that’s okay with me.
Eric: I believe you and I both know that with all the joy playing music brings us, it can also be very hard, frustrating, and even demoralizing at times, with very little financial reward. So, with this in mind, what keeps you doing it after more than 50 years?
Jimmy: It’s in my DNA! I have always had this music bug. I learned the tile trade to support my family and after 35 years it has taken its toll on my body. I’ve had two back surgeries, a hip replacement, and I’m scheduled for a knee replacement in April. Over the years I have played gigs in considerable pain, barely able to stand, and for a while I had to sit on a stool to play. But I’m feeling pretty good these days. My daughter is grown and I feel like now is my time to play.
Eric: In wrapping up this very inspiring conversation, with all that you’ve accomplished with your music throughout the years, and for my money it’s been a lot, constituting a career that anyone should be incredibly proud of, do you still have any specific goals going forward? Is there anything you feel you haven’t yet achieved that you now have your sights set on?
Jimmy: I have been writing songs and recording them. I would like to get better at that and get better at making videos of my songs. I would like to be a better guitar player. I would like to create music that could be used to promote causes like fighting climate change or pushing back against racism and social injustice.
I don’t know if I will ever get some Lifetime Achievement Award or anything like that, but I raised a daughter who is an incredible person, and I haven’t had a drink since 1993, so I feel good about that. I heard that when Peter Sprague met Joe Pass, he told him, “If you are playing music you like, with people you like, then you’re doing all right.” So I guess I’m doing alright!