Kim Wilson has kept the Fabulous Thunderbirds alive for nearly 50 years as he pursues his love of the blues.
While the band known for such massive ‘80s hits “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up” started out performing classic blues the group has always been a work in progress as musicians come and go and musical – and commercial – tastes change.
But for Wilson, the group’s harmonica-playing vocalist, its always been about the blues.
“I’m a blues and R&B and rock and roll guy, you know. That’s where I live; that’s what I love,” he said in a telephone interview from his California home earlier this month.
Wilson, in recent years, often pursued his passion for traditional blues with a side project, the Kim Wilson Blues All Stars. That changes Monday with the first of two shows at Fanatics Pub, 7281 West Main St., Lima, where Wilson will write a new chapter in the legacy of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a band the blended blues, rhythm & blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. The band’s new lineup, which includes members of the All Stars, in many ways, will bring the Fabulous Thunderbirds full circle to its early blues-centric days – but at a level Wilson said hasn’t been heard before.
“I’ve been around the block many times. I’ve had many different incarnations of this band and I’m ready to do the ideal situation, which is what this new lineup is going to be,” said Wilson, who has never been as excited for the Fabulous Thunderbirds as he is now.
On stage, there will still be the Fabulous Thunderbirds hits – sometimes with a twist, Wilson said – and a stronger blues influence.
“It’s a bit more traditional,” Wilson said of the latest iteration of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. “There will be some rock and roll. There will be, of course, a couple of the hits, being played because people want to hear that...”
But there will also be songs by such artists as Little Milton, B.B. King, Junior Parker, Bobby “Blue” Bland and other legends.
With the Blues All Stars, Wilson and his harmonica would be heard on such traditional blues songs as “It Takes Time” or the slow burnin’ “Nineteen Years Old.” There was boogie-woogie piano on “My Babe” and jazz influences on “Damn Right I Got the Blues.”
“I used to have to go out and have play with the Blues All Stars. I won’t have to do that anymore because I’ll have it all in one house. And I’m really appreciative of that,” said Wilson, who added that the All Stars project will be retired.
Modern and traditional
The new Fabulous Thunderbirds lineup includes guitarist Dean Shot, boogie-woogie keyboardist Carl Sonny Leland, saxophonist Jerry Weldon, who has worked with Harry Connick Jr., drummer Rudy Petschauer, who brings a jazz background, and others – all with their own pedigrees and who, according to Wilson, “are all badass musicians.”
“They’re basically journeymen expert musicians. You’re a journeyman your whole life. You know, once you think you’ve got it and you don’t need to learn anymore, you’re done,” Wilson said. “And I think that all these guys, they have a love of the music.
“On paper, it looks incredible. And it looks like it’s going to be an extremely fantastic band, being able to do modern and traditional,” he continued. “Of course, my idea of modern and your idea of modern might be two different things.”
“With all these players it’s no holds barred. I mean, you can do anything you want with these guys and it’s up to me to guide them,” Wilson said. “I’m not a guy standing if front of a bunch of lackeys, just backing me up in the shadows. I want everybody to be a focal point of this band ... and everybody’s got to be a badass.”
‘We were just kids...’
Wilson, who traded tackling football players for playing harmonica as a high school senior, has covered the whole spectrum of blues. His early mentors included Little Walters (though Wilson never met him), Albert Collins, Eddie Taylor, “Harmonica” Frank Floyd, and he has performed and recorded with the likes of Muddy Waters, Eddie Taylor, B.B. King and Jimmy Rodgers.
“There’s so many of them that i played with, and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have been playing music today,” Wilson said.
Wilson was born in Detroit, the son of a General Motors worker, before the family moved to California. Wilson picked up the harmonica at 17 and later began developing his musical talent in Minneapolis and Austin, Texas, where he would form the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1974 with guitarist Jimmie Vaughan. band developed a reputation as a compelling live act.
“In the very beginning we were just kids so we were really just learning back then, especially me,” Wilson said. “And so, you know, as things developed everything kid of changed.”
The Fabulous Thunderbirds eventually signed a record deal with CBS/Epic Records and released a self-titled debut album.
Hits change everything
Entering the 1980s the group was challenged by its management and others that they wouldn’t make a living at their music. They were told more than once that “harmonic doesn’t sell.”
The band accepted the challenge. After all, Wilson said, he loved the blues so much that he needed it. Without it, he said, there was no sense for him to be in the business.
“We had the challenge put to us, you know, people were saying ‘Well, you’re never going to get anywhere blah, blah, blah. ... The challenge to us was to do contemporary music,” Wilson said. “So, we did our version of contemporary music at the time.”
In 1986, the Fabulous Thunderbirds announced themselves by roaring onto the charts with the album “Tuff Enuff,” featuring the title track, “Wrap it Up,” more horns and a bit more R&B.
“When we had a hit record, that really changed things,” Wilson said, noting that audiences expected the band to play the songs and the styles that brought the Fabulous Thunderbirds their greatest commercial success in the mid- to late-1980s.
“I realized that you live and die by the hit record,” Wilson said. “I mean, I had a couple of hits. But thank God I didn’t have to many where I have to play them until I was 100. You know what I mean? Because I want to go off in a lot of different directions.”
In the band’s early days, Wilson said, audiences expected “a different kind of metamorphosis, a different kind of evolution.”
“But that never really happened because we got stuck in this, you know, getting involved in this hit record thing,” he recalled. “Now don’t get me wrong. I’m very, very appreciative.”
Vaughan left in 1989, but Wilson kept the band going, working on the road and in the studio even as lineups changed and their sound evolved.
These days, neither Wilson nor the Fabulous Thunderbirds depend on record companies to make a living.
Shot, the guitarist, has been touring with Wilson’s Blues All Stars since 2017. He said in a separate interview that the new Fabulous Thunderbirds represents “a more sophisticated musical sound” with “horns, great musicians and additional multi-instrumentalist.”
“The lineup,” Shot said, “enables Kim and the band to present a very exciting show. If anything, there will be more authentic, old-style blues, and a new vitality to modern blues.”
Back to work
Wilson spend the pandemic at home in South Orange, Calif., listening to a lot of music and doing some writing. As he talks in the interview, he notes that he’s sitting, looking at thousands of CDs (“I’m not a download guy,” he said).
“I live in paradise, you know,” he said (on a day when temperatures at his home were in the 70s, and Western New York was seeing its first snowflakes). “I’ve rally enjoyed the time off, to be honest with you, but it got to be too much obviously and it’s time to get back to work.”
“I really feel for people who depend more on live performances to make their livelihood,” he said. “That’s not something that I really have to do, but it’s something that I desire to do, that I want to do. I want to get out in front of people, especially with this new thing.”
A small little pub such as Fanatics may seem an unlikely place for the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But Wilson and his All Stars have played there and though he joked about how they’ll fit all the musicians on stage he expects the show to be transformative for the audience - like see Muddy Waters in a small backwoods bar.
Wilson’s talent has earned him multiple blues and Grammy Award nominations. The Blues Foundation has named him contemporary blues male artist of the year and in 2004 his “Lookin’ for Trouble” was named blues song of the year. His groups play both blues and rock ‘n’ roll festivals, and even played the Rochester International Jazz Festival in 2009.
“The beautiful thing about the atmosphere now is that you’re in control of your own destiny,” said the still strong-voiced Wilson. “And if you’ve got something unique and cool to offer you’re gonna get somewhere. And I think that it’s time for me.”
The late Muddy Waters called Wilson “the greatest harmonic player to come along since Little Walter.”
Wilson is humbled by the praise and when asked about what keeps him going he catches himself as he begins to answer. Then, after a breathe or two, said “I want to be one of the masters. I don’t want to be anybody else. I want to be mentioned with people like Muddy, like Jimmy Rogers, all the people I’ve talked about before. That’s what I want to be. I don’t want to be anything else, any less.
“And there are people who think about me that way, right now. That’s great, but i need to convince everybody, including myself, that that’s where I belong.”
If you go
- WHAT: Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, in concert.
- WHEN: 7 p.m. Nov. 15 and 16.
- WHERE: Fanatics Pub, 7281 West Main St., Lima.
- TICKETS: The show has sold out.