Interview with the blues chef Bill "Sauce Boss" Wharton -- a soul shouting picnic of rock n' roll brotherhood

"The beauty of music is that a great musician transforms the place into a magical locale, no matter where it is."

Bill "Sauce Boss" Wharton

Gumbo, Blues and Poetry

The inventor of gastronomic boogie woogie. He sings the blues, he cooks the gumbo, he plays the slide, and he makes his own hot sauce. After a lifetime of music, travel and food, over a million miles on the road, over 180,000 bowls of gumbo served for free, tons of hot sauce, and thousands of gigs, The Sauce Boss, a.k.a Bill Wharton, from Tallahassee FL, is a soul shouting picnic of rock and roll brotherhood. He established something of an international reputation back around the end of the 80s and start of the 90s with albums for King Snake and Ichiban, though these days he seems to have settled for playing around his home in Florida.

The album ,“Live at the Green Parrot” (2012), was definitive Sauce Boss. It’s edgy, slide guitar, rockin blues grooves, with a large serving of fun in the Sauce Boss tradition. These songs come straight out of the life of a true character, adventurer, raconteur, and poet. His latest CD “100% Pure” (2014) blends the true-life stories with the legends surrounding the outlaw mystique of Bill Wharton. The album mixes blues songs with genre-bending selections. Mostly recorded in the one-man band format, “100% Pure” has a very large sound. Plenty of bottom, with a voice begging for mercy, and a slide guitar that crawls out of the swamp like a twelve foot gator.


Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: Ruth Wharton, Jim McKinley, Joe Sekora, Cheryl Gorski / All rights reserved

Chef, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

When I was 16 or 17 years old, I played in a band that did a lot of R&B, and I loved it. But I really became immersed in the blues in the mid 70s. A friend left a 1933 National Steel Guitar in my front yard, and the gift took me deep in the shed. That’s where I found my identity and my sound.


What characterize the sound of Sauce Boss? How do you describe your music philosophy?
Swampy slide guitar and raw vocals in a visceral mix on top of a churning groove. I believe that music will lift you up out of your trouble and tribulation, and take you to a better place.


"I walk my own path and make my music distinctive from the crowd. I believe that is why I am workin. I am lucky to be able to gig and do my own original bluesy music. It is not possible for everyone to do this."

You have pretty interesting show…live & cooking.  Where did you get that idea?
The gumbo show started with my Liquid Summer Hot Sauce. I carried it to the gigs and sold it like a 19th century snake oil sales man, extoling the virtues of Liquid Summer like it was a panacea, cure all, elixir of life! That’s how I became the Sauce Boss. Then, in 1989, I was working in the studio (Kingsnake Records) at the same time as Raful Neal (Kenny Neals father) was cutting his album. His wife, Shirley was making gumbo in the kitchen, and I watched her like a hawk. Soon after that on New Years Eve, I made a batch of gumbo on stage and served it to the audience. Twenty-one years and 180,000 bowls later, I am still serving the gumbo at my shows. I have never charged one cent for a bowl of my gumbo. It has always been free of charge.  Eight years ago I decided it was time for me to take it to the street, so I started Planet Gumbo. When we are on the road with a day off, we take our music and gumbo to homeless shelters and soup kitchens all over the USA. We play free concert and serve up a tasty meal for some folks that could REALLY use a bowl of gumbo.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

When I’m out on the road, and I have a day off, I will sometimes take my music and gumbo to a homeless shelter to do a concert for folks that could really use some entertainment to get their mind off the many problems they have. And they sure could use some good cajun cookin too! I have played soup kitchens and homeless shelters in most the USA. Yesterday I was playing a shelter in Kentucky and the kids that lived in the shelter were having a blast. This little girl made me laugh because she was just sooo happy. I was crying on the inside for this beautiful little girl, like so many, who will not be afforded the opportunities. A very happy/sad kind of music thing.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Too many great moments to count. And the worst? As time goes by the worse does not seem so bad.

"It’s true poetry in every sense of the word. The blues has given me a vehicle for my own poetry." (Photo: Bill & Bo Diddley)

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and…Chef?

The hard ones, the flops, the disastrous failures…AND… the magic performances where everything is effortless.

What does the BLUES mean to you and what does Blues offered you?

Every body has the blues, sometimes. Many people think that all the blues is, is some guy in the corner, crying in his beer about how he’s been mistreated. The blues is so much more than that. It’s a cosmic expression that lifts you out of your situation to a higher vantage point. It’s true poetry in every sense of the word. The blues has given me a vehicle for my own poetry. I feel at home in this art form. It is at once, down home and also exalted. The poetry of blues artists has always  expressed high and mighty ideals, and described dark, and powerful forces, with a limited vocabulary, making it the voice of the people.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

There is inspiration everywhere. Open your eyes. Open your heart. Open your mind. In college I studied literature and education. When I graduated, I was certified to teach high school English. From those studies, I learned the mechanics of communication. After leaving college, I consciously tried to forget the idioms of literature and write in the language of the street, all the while using the formal mechanics of the great writers. Musically, my mentors have been any one who is really good. I have never tried to copy note for note, a piece of music. The beauty of music is that it stirs you, like stirring a bowl of ingredients when making dinner. That is what I take away from to listening to a great performer. Not the riff, not the individual notes. I take away a piece of the performers soul. This is the musicians gift to the world.

"Swampy slide guitar and raw vocals in a visceral mix on top of a churning groove. I believe that music will lift you up out of your trouble and tribulation, and take you to a better place."

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music…and cooking?
There are so many lessons I have learned from musicians, I can not start to tell about them. In terms of secrets of cooking, my Mother showed me how to put love in the pot. She fed five kids on a teachers pay. And she did an amazing job. A great dish is not just a formula of weights and measures. It has got to also have caring, and sharing. “Serving” is more than just giving someone a bowl of gumbo. There is also an element of nurturing, of comforting, and healing.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
Like I said before, “Every body has the blues, sometimes.” There is a time in everyone’s life when the only real, honest expression is the blues.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would ask people to give more musicians a chance to play music. There are so many good musicians who just play at home or do not play at all because they do not have a venue to express themselves.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Don’t. The career part is the hard part.

"Many people think that all the blues is, is some guy in the corner, crying in his beer about how he’s been mistreated. The blues is so much more than that. It’s a cosmic expression that lifts you out of your situation to a higher vantage point." (Photo: Bill & Eddie Kirkland)

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

The Roman amphitheater in the south of France was pretty cool. The Bayfront Festival in Duluth when we stole the show in front of fifty thousand was also a favorite. Roy Fosters Faith, Hope, and Charity Shelter in Florida, where we played for thirty homeless veterans, was pretty heavy, and an incredibly uplifting experience. However, the beauty of music is that a great musician transforms the place into a magical locale, no matter where it is.


Alive or dead, who is the one person that you’d like to meet face to face if they were alive, and talk to over lunch?
Robert Johnson


Are there any memories from the Planet Gumbo, which you’d like to share with us?
If I told you, I would cry.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

Originality and pioneering spirit. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin Wolf, John Lee Hooker, all invented the genre. Now, most of the music is derivative. There are a lot of technicians who are good players, but truly “new” blues is not the norm. I walk my own path and make my music distinctive from the crowd. I believe that is why I am workin. I am lucky to be able to gig and do my own original bluesy music. It is not possible for everyone to do this. I wish more would try.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I hope that live music in general and blues in particular regains some of the mass appeal it had in the 60s. We had a good time back then. I fear that it will continue to be difficult for people just starting out to make ends meet, to make enough to support themselves with blues music. I’m one of the lucky ones. I am also a very hard worker who has lots of original ideas and experience that helps me to make a modest living on my music. For this, I am grateful.

Do you know why the taste of gumbo is connected to the blues?
I will answer this question with my view of what gumbo is.
Gumbo is a combination of many things. Okra (known as gumbo in Africa) came from Africa. The roux came from France. The File’ (ground sassafras leaves) came from Native American.
The crawdads, shrimp, oysters, crabs came from the ponds and gulf waters
around Louisiana. The dish “Gumbo” contains the culture as well as the
ingredients gathered by the Creole cooks living on the Bayou. The Creole
people, like the dish, are a mixture of African American, Native American,
French, Spanish, English, and Caribbean peoples. So this is more than a
metaphor. This is life – a huge melting pot – a rainbow – a culture AND… it’s the
future! We should take note of the folks in Nawlins, Lafayette, Breau Bridge, who
have been living together with differences for hundreds of years. So here it is. I’m
a gumbo. You’re a gumbo. All of us together are a big ol’ pot of gumbo. And if we
can sit down at the table, forget about our differences for a minute, share a meal
together, then maybe we can work some of this stuff out.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

When I met B.B. King, I opened up a show for him. He was such a magnificent human being. Generous, and patient with all his adoring fans, taking the time to listen to their stories.  Giving back.

When I played a gig with Bo Diddly. This was 1984. I had a little trio together, and we got the gig to back up Bo Diddly. So Bo walks into the club and looks at us... and looks at the promoter..., and he asks, “Is this the band?” And we’re like, “Yep, we’re the band!” So Bo’s like, “OK, let’s rehearse.”. So we did a twenty minute rehearsal and Bo says, “Hey, any y’all have a tape recorder? I’d like to get some of this down.” Then we proceeded to blow the roof off the place with four hours of rock and roll. Playing with Carey Bell and Eddie Kirkland was great too.

What is the best advice ever given you?

The best advice I ever got is unprintable, but here’s a very good piece of advice: if you make a mistake, do it twice and people will think you meant to do it the first time.

Do you know why the sound of the slide reso-phonic guitar is connected to the blues?
The early blues guys used the National Steel Resophonic guitars for a few of reasons.
1. They are LOUD!  More so than a regular acoustic guitar. They can be heard above the din of a full tilt party at a jook joint. With a piano and a national, you can make quite a racket.
2. They were durable. If you jumped off a train, or if you were involved in a fight, a steel guitar would stand a better chance of survival.
3. And most importantly… they sound so damn good.

What are …the secrets of gumbo recipe…and your Liquid Summer Hot Sauce?

My gumbo has two ”secrets”. (which are not really secrets, because I shout it from the rooftops)
1. The roux (roasted flour and oil) is very important. I always say, “If you take care of the roux, the roux will take care of you”. If you do roux right, everything else will most likely be ok.
2. Liquid Summer Hot Sauce. The hot sauce for the new millennium, the road to culinary nirvana. Liquid Summer will change your life. It changed my life, it will change your life. It makes gumbo tast better. It makes everything taste better. But really, I’m tellin the truth, here. Y’all need some of this on yer breakfast.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would like to go to New Orleans and follow Bobby Bolton around for a day, when he was in his prime, inventing the art form of jazz. The reason is obvious.

Sauce Boss - Official website


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