Q&A with veteran musician Terry Wilson, prolific songwriter, imaginative producer, and blues rock-solid bassist

"Find yourself musically. Do what you do. Develop your own thing - your own sound & style. It’s ok to learn from other players, songwriters, singers. But, learn how they do things. Learn how they sing that way, where they get their tone, place the note in their body to get the power or sound, learn how others have learned and then move on. Bring all that to how you feel it. Learn all of that and get to understand how to play around and support the singer and the song. And learn how to sing without a dang auto-tuner!"

Terry Wilson: The Soul of Rhythm Section

Prolific songwriter, imaginative producer, rock-solid bassist—for nearly forty years, Terry Wilson has handled a lot of crucial duties as half of the Rhythm Tramps’ leadership. Wilson grew up in Deer Park, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Like his wife, Teresa James, he caught the music bug early. Though originally wanting to be a baseball pitcher, music took over. Weekend gigs were bringing in as much as 250 dollars at a time when salaries were no more than three bucks an hour.  At age 19, Wilson switched from guitar to playing bass, and had gig opportunities seven nights a week. He and keyboard player John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick were charter members of the rock band Blackwell and played on the eponymous 1970 album. Terry and Rabbit also started working with Johnny Nash, who was just getting into reggae at that time.  As part of Bloontz All Star Blues Band, Terry recorded for Evolution Records at Electric Ladyland Studios in New York. Not long after that Johnny Nash invited him on tour. Later, Rabbit invited Wilson and Tony Braunagel to come to London for a session for Island Records. As additional projects came in, they were offered a house in Chelsea while they worked as a house rhythm section to reinvent Island’s publishing catalog.

(Photo: Terry Wilson)

When Back Street Crawler was formed with Paul Kossoff, Wilson played on their 1975 debut album The Band Plays On (Atlantic Records), and wrote the title track. Their second and final album, 2nd Street, followed in 1976. When Kossoff passed away, it was time to return to Houston, where Wilson and Braunagel played with many different musicians, and Wilson ultimately met Teresa James. Wilson and Braunagel relocated to Los Angeles in early 1980. After two years of visits, James finally joined them. Their initial gigs together in 1983 were billed as T-Bird and the Moon Pies, James’ nickname was T-Bird.” Wilson also toured and recorded in Eric Burdon’s band. He played on Burdon’s 1982 album Eric Burdon Band and his ‘83 encore Power Company, and wrote “Love Is For All Time” for the reformed Animals’ Ark album in 1983. Although they were gigging steadily around L.A., Teresa James and The Rhythm Tramps didn’t make their recorded debut until 1998. Either with his wife or on his own, Wilson has written much of the band’s recorded material. Teresa James and The Rhythm Tramps’ new album titled "Rose-Colored Glasses Vol 1" (2021/Blue Heart Records). Teressa James and Terry Wilson in the producer's chair, the dynamic duo present a collection of a dozen songs reflecting the optimism of love, strength, redemption and joy.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Rock n' Roll Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I remember the day John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Having grown up in a small Texas town outside of Houston… pretty naïve and protected 14 year old boy hearing the announcement over the school sound system standing in the school hallway, that our president JFK was gone…”shot by a lone gun man that morning”. Looking back on that it was an awakening from an innocence I wasn’t aware of ‘til then. Being that JFK was shot in Texas… the very state I grew up in hit me pretty hard. It was 2-3 months later The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show… around that same time I had a guitar and was spending my time learning old American standard rock n roll tunes and soon Beatle tunes. British invasion tunes… yet I wasn’t yet aware of the connection of the expression of rebelling through music and the drugs yet to come. Right there in front of me. I felt immediately that day that there was more to the story than what was being said, fed to us. To me… it felt like some kind of trust had been broken with the assassination of JFK.

The bands I was in later on would play small weekend festivals, Elk’s Lodges, VFW Halls, concerts around Houston that would be put on… against the war in Vietnam. The music that came out of that period would form my musical tastes and leanings.

"I hear some great bands today… but, I got the chance to see, hear and play with some of the greatest innovators as electric powered music began with the electric guitar.  I saw Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Sly & the Family Stone. We’ve had 60-70 something years of guitar-driven music, and nowadays the guitar is still out there driving it, but you rarely hear anything new from it. " (Photo: Terry Wilson)

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

Hmmm… friends of mine through the years at times have mentioned describing my tunes/our sound… that we have a southern, swamp, Texas soul to it. I was exposed at an early age to great players, incredible singers… Texas songwriters like Townes Van Zant, Guy Clark. Grew up playing guitar and playing the same rooms around Houston as Billy Gibbons, Joey Long, Johnny Winter, 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy while I was in high school. But, there were some incredible, great soul bands around. Soul Brothers Incorporated, The Winter Brothers, GG Shin, Jerry LaCroix, Bobby Bland, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Roy Head, Archie Bell & the Drells, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown… so many names to list here… Featuring great horn sections, great players from all over Texas, Louisiana… ”The Golden Triangle” it was called. Port Arthur to Houston to Ft Worth/Dallas bred so many great musicians, singers. My dad used to have a couple Louis Jordan records… Louis Prima albums. They caught my ear early on, thinking back. My older brother would bring home Otis Redding, Arthur Alexander, Wilson Pickett albums while I soon started buying Beatles 45’s… then The Beach Boys, Stones. I think I’ve borrowed from all of these early records… but, through the years I always come back to just good music… great tunes and singers that can touch you. Like Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. Ray Charles, Delbert McClinton, Frankie Miller and later on, bands and artists like Little Village, Ry Cooder, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Vaughan, Paul Brady. Lots of greats to draw from… steal from. I love the craft of creating new tunes… writing songs. And a lot of that I have to give credit to being married to Teresa James… the inspiration that keeps on giving. What I get from hearing her sing around the house every day. The process of me writing a new tune …which I hope is suitable for her to sing and I get to watch and hear the growth of the tune as she learns it from me and then us adapting it for her to sing. I still get goose bumps at times with this. My voice is not nearly as proficient, clear and precise as hers. Mine is much more raw, raspy…but, I’ve gotten lately where I’m ok hearing me sing my tunes and more confident… I’ve learned a lot from Teresa through the years.          (Photo: Terry Wilson & Teressa James)

"A better and more equitable pay scale for music streaming. The powers that be that have control over streaming royalties, and it’s gotten way outta hand. You’ve got a guy who is head of a “popular” streaming company that’s worth $3 ½ billion and has never written a song in his life. But, it seems a sign of our times that the rich are controlling the media and getting richer." 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What´s been the highlights in your career so far?

I was and have been lucky… Getting a chance at an early age to meet and work with Johnny Nash, an amazing, iconic local Houston artist/singer/songwriter that exposed me and our band at the time to music outside our roots. Johnny was working on his reggae repertoire. He had spent time in Jamaica and had brought it home to develop his own style of reggae, ska, which he wanted us to explore with him. Hearing roots reggae and Johnny’s roots soul opened my eyes to a new dance…new feels way outside my influences up till then. It was really going back to school for me being a Texas kid brought up on rock, blues, country and southern soul music. Johnny made me sit back and reevaluate what I was as a player…where I was going as a musician and as a wanna be songwriter discovering a new language of finding expression through songwriting and lyrics. One day Nash brought in 4 horn/percussion guys from Ghana, Africa. One day in a pre tour rehearsal, George Lanois, a 6’6” tenor player, was talking to his other Ghana buddies and they were laughing and then he turned to the rest us (we were mostly Texans… one Oklahoma keyboardist) and asked us to put our instruments down because they were going to teach us how to dance to the groove of the tune we were working on, which was a song I had written ("The Band Played On," that comes around again with Back Street Crawler). The African guys got a big kick out of teaching us to feel… be aware of sub-dividing the beat…and not feel the 8th notes so much…learn to feel the simplicity of the kick drum and the bass playing simpler… less notes and realize the power of that simplifying of the pulse.  Those roots have stuck with me and I always return to that as I continue to write and attempt to develop and grow as a writer, producer, player.

Getting to meet and play with Jimmy Reed, Lightin’ Hopkins and around the same time Chuck Berry at an early age where I had to go back and really listen how and what to play with the very guys I grew up listening to… trying to imitate. Later on… In London, recording with John Speedy Keen from Thunder Clap Newman… getting to spend hours upon hours in the studio at Island Studios outside London doing countless tracks with Speedy as well as John Martyn. Both of these artists were such stylists, song conscious guys. Both came from a very simple place musically, and both felt the dynamics and pulse of what they were going for.  If what you were playing wasn’t “real" for them, they’d bust you on it. I’d have to give a nod as well to John Rabbit Bundrick who I met when I was around 17 years old. All he was interested in was creating music…exploring new chord patterns and melodies over the chord changes.  I was just realizing the power of knowing and understanding those things. Working with Eric Burdon was another one. A true artist. Such an iconic performer and very generous onstage and fun to work with. Working with Paul Kossoff in the band, Back Street Crawler, and putting the band around Paul. Learning to write tunes for that chemistry. Paul had an amazing power in his simplistic approach in his playing. Made me very aware of how to "dumb down" the amount of notes to where that it all had to mean something. All of those highlights led to the biggest of them all in 2019, when we received a GRAMMY nomination (best contemporary blues album) for our tenth Teresa James & The Rhythm Tramps album, 'Here in Babylon.'  It was career affirming to have our experience and efforts recognized in that way.

"You walk into any shopping mall, any store or restaurant, elevator or hotel and you’ll hear music. Music brings back memories of moments that make you happy, grateful, tearful, sad. It helps you forget the times you want to forget and helps you remember the times you want to remember. I’m incredibly fortunate to be married to and work with one of the greatest singers on the planet. I can’t count how many times we’ll be playing a song and I look out to the first few rows of people and see tears coming down." (Terry Wilson / Photo Courtesy of Playing For Change)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

There’s so many to remember back to… the big festival/arena gigs… big stage, huge audience you remember. The energy, the feedback you get from 10,000-15,000 people moving together. Then there’s those nights in a small club/venue... packed room. People sitting in seats 3-4 feet away from you. Those clubs where you’re playing 2 long sets… you kinda knew you didn’t have to come out with all barrels blasting with volume… power from the start. Started off at times acoustically… and added instruments as the set went on. Had some of my most fun nights in small rooms with not so well-known acts/songwriters, where it’s pretty relaxed. Have had many of these. A couple of nights with Texas songwriter legend Blaze Foley. With Blaze, you weren’t 100% sure what you were going to do, which songs, etc. But, he’d bring a suitcase of hats, scarves, sunglasses and by the middle of the first set you might be wearing a huge foam cowboy hat and a big kinda clown sunglasses. Nothing relaxes you like wearing a big pink foam cowboy hat with big sunglasses and having a bunch of mardi gras beads on. Nights where you’d be laughing, having so much fun you’d have tears coming down from laughing so hard. Then he’d turn around and do a song like “If I Could Only Fly” which could bring a real tear to your eye. With artists like that, you get to Escape from reality with music and forget what’s bugging you for a moment.

Another story, from my very first gig with Eric Burdon, outside of Los Angeles at The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, Ca. We had maybe two rehearsals for me to learn a 90 minute show. Eric and I were in the dressing room and most of the guys were already on stage. He comes up to me with a small bag of magic mushrooms and he puts a small amount in his mouth and hands me the bag and asks if I want to join him? Since it was my first gig, I figured that this was maybe a “new guy audition/hazing” he does with the new players to see what we were made of, so I figured…why not? About half way through the set, 30 minutes or so into the show, I start feeling the ‘shrooms” coming on and Eric must have too. We had a connection onstage from the start on that gig.  Eric was fearless like that. The eternal punk rocker still had it.

"Go back and see what it was like to hear Beethoven and/or Mozart at a concert performing and see how the fans acted at their concerts. Spend an afternoon with Nikolai Tesla… maybe take a drive with him in his electric car. Or, go back to Dallas to that last turn the Kennedy convoy took before the Dealey Plaza and stop his caravan from going that next block. (Photo: Terry Wilson's early music days)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I hear some great bands today… but, I got the chance to see, hear and play with some of the greatest innovators as electric powered music began with the electric guitar. I saw Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Sly & the Family Stone. We’ve had 60-70 something years of guitar-driven music, and nowadays the guitar is still out there driving it, but you rarely hear anything new from it. I say that, but then there’s a guy like Blake Mills who comes along and does something powerful and fresh with his bottleneck slide and chord movement and playing. Amazing player. Seems there’s so many young players that still worship the old cats like Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Kossoff. And rightly so, I guess. I miss the freshness of hearing for the first time a tune like “Big Boss Man” from Jimmy Reed and being blown away. Great song delivered by a great performance… just delivered as raw as you can get without the clean digital recorded format. I miss so many of the young singers just singing the melody and building a tune… emoting without all the melismas. One comment from a friend a while back was that he missed the music "back when ugly people could sell records."  It wasn’t about the dance steps and vocals being synced to the performance, it was just real singers selling it. I hope to see a time when the phrase “the cream will always rise to the top” is true again.

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

A better and more equitable pay scale for music streaming. The powers that be that have control over streaming royalties, and it’s gotten way outta hand. You’ve got a guy who is head of a “popular” streaming company that’s worth $3 ½ billion and has never written a song in his life. But, it seems a sign of our times that the rich are controlling the media and getting richer.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

Find yourself musically. Do what you do. Develop your own thing - your own sound & style. It’s ok to learn from other players, songwriters, singers. But, learn how they do things. Learn how they sing that way, where they get their tone, place the note in their body to get the power or sound, learn how others have learned and then move on. Bring all that to how you feel it. Learn all of that and get to understand how to play around and support the singer and the song. And learn how to sing without a dang auto-tuner!

"I miss so many of the young singers just singing the melody and building a tune… emoting without all the melismas. One comment from a friend a while back was that he missed the music "back when ugly people could sell records."  It wasn’t about the dance steps and vocals being synced to the performance, it was just real singers selling it. I hope to see a time when the phrase “the cream will always rise to the top” is true again." (Photo: Terry Wilson with Rambling Jack Elliot and friends)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

You walk into any shopping mall, any store or restaurant, elevator or hotel and you’ll hear music. Music brings back memories of moments that make you happy, grateful, tearful, sad. It helps you forget the times you want to forget and helps you remember the times you want to remember. I’m incredibly fortunate to be married to and work with one of the greatest singers on the planet. I can’t count how many times we’ll be playing a song and I look out to the first few rows of people and see tears coming down. Teresa James reaches into your being when she sings and touches you. I want my music/songs to help bring that out in the moment when we play and she sings. I want the audience to celebrate the moment and forget their problems. Walk away from the show lifted up from their terrible day or the miserable week they’re having. They’ll have that moment to remember as a good moment in their life.

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

Wow! First off… I’d want to go back in time and buy Starbucks, Amazon stock before they took off. Go back and walk, talk and feel the healing power of Jesus. Go back and see what it was like to hear Beethoven and/or Mozart at a concert performing and see how the fans acted at their concerts. Spend an afternoon with Nikolai Tesla… maybe take a drive with him in his electric car. Or, go back to Dallas to that last turn the Kennedy convoy took before the Dealey Plaza and stop his caravan from going that next block.

Teresa James - Home

(Terry Wilson / Photo by Michael Owen Baker - Los Angeles Daily News)

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