by Don O.
There are plenty of blues bands with two guitarists, but blues bands with two lead guitarists are rare indeed. One such band is from right here in Dallas. Either Smokin' Joe Kubek or Bnois King could have solo careers in the blues world. Together, one plus one equals more than two. In the last eight years they have released 5 CDs on Bullseye Blues, toured all 50 states and many foreign counties, have been nominated for W.C. Handy Awards, and have held the number one spot on the Living Blues Radio Poll. Whether either could have accomplished those things alone is debatable, but together they have made it look easy. There are no doubts in blues circles that they are still on their way up.
Joe and Bnois have distinctly different styles. Joe has a rapid fire, staccato, blues machine gun style, while Bnois has a smooth, fluid, flowing, jazzy style. They combine two of the most popular blues guitar styles to ever come out of Texas into a sound that is both old and new. Bnois King's vocals, discovered very late in his career, add another powerful dimension to the band. A smooth mix of a Junior Parker's sound with a delivery and stage presence that is among the best in the business.
In previous interviews, Bnois King has spoken mostly about his pairing with Joe Kubek and more recent events. I have been meaning for several years to try to get Bnois (for the record, pronounced Buh-Noise) to sit down with a tape recorder and tell me his whole story. Well I finally succeeded and what follows is Bnois' story in his own words.
I was born in a little old town about 30 miles from Monroe, LA called Delhi. January 21 1943. Music was always in my consciousness. I can't ever remember not beating, pickin', or pullin' on something trying to get some sounds out. My grandmother was heavy into religion. She was sanctified, holy-fied, and everything else. There was always a lot of music around. She bought a guitar, I think with the intention of learning to play it herself, but she never did. I think I must have been around 8 or 9 years old when I discovered it and picked it up and started bamming and beating on it. I have seven brothers and two sisters and not a one of them plays anything. My mother and grandmother couldn't play anything. I don't know where it came from. I never saw my dad. Maybe it came from him. I guess it mainly came from church, the radio, and watching people through the years. By the time I was about 10 I was able to play a few things on it.
During this time Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, all those people were pretty much top 40. That's what I heard on the radio. We could pick up this real good radio station in Memphis where I heard a lot of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, all those people. What really caught my attention, I didn't know what it was at the time, was jazz. I just knew it had a sound that I liked. I still don't know why it does. My parents thought I was crazy. It wasn't popular. I had to really turn the knobs to find it, but every now and then I'd find some.
My grandmother would take me into church and that's where I first started to try to play behind people. I'd make a few sounds behind the people in church. Then one day I met a guy named Blind James. He played for a gospel group and actually knew how to play a guitar. That's when I found out I was tuning it wrong. He taught me how to do it right and taught me some chords. So I started to get a little bit better.
We didn't have a music teacher at our school, Boley High, until the last couple of years I was there. A guy named James Moody finally came from New Orleans when I was in 8th grade. He heard me messin' with my guitar. Turned out he had a band called The New Sounds which was a big band, 20 piece orchestra. He heard me and took me under his wing. He played piano but he was really a sax player. He started to teach me about music techniques and about the history of music. Where different stuff came from. The first time I heard names like Leadbelly was from him. He taught me about all these different people. He couldn't play guitar but he would sit down and play something on the piano and I would learn it. All by ear. I learned my first jazz tune through him. One night he decided to put me in the band. That was right when Elvis Presley had made it big. It almost became mandatory for a band to have a guitar. He helped make a guitar a hot item, to the point if people didn't see a guitar in the band, they didn't want to see the band. Now he didn't want me to play my guitar, just stand there and hold it. This was the first gig I ever played and it was at Grambling College. Paid me $15. At the time I was working on a milk truck. I had to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning to deliver milk and that was only paying $15 a week! So I said "Hey! What's wrong with this picture?" All I was doing was holding my guitar and I got a whole weeks pay. I knew right then I wasn't going to run behind a milk truck getting chased by dogs any more. That's when I decided I needed to pursue music. I got really serious when I saw I could actually make some money.
When I started playing blues and got away from the church thing, my grandmother left Louisiana. I haven't seen her from that day to this. I don't know if she was just disappointed or what. It may not have had a thing to do with me, but being that age, that's what I thought, and I guess I still think that today. I went to a catholic school my first two or three years and she paid for that. She had high hopes for me. She wanted me to go to college. She did not want me to be a musician. She did not want that. She wanted me to amount to something else. In her mind, when I got serious about that guitar I failed.
James Moody's band was comprised of a lot of instructors. Some were from Baton Rouge, some New Orleans, Grambling, Ruston, and neighboring areas. There were high school music teachers from Monroe and West Monroe that also had their own bands. They were all part of this one big band with James Moody. Naturally, I felt pretty intimidated in that band so I eventually just quit and joined a bunch of street guys, like me, who were just playing by ear. They were called Jo Jo and the Night Creatures. I felt a lot more comfortable with them. That's how I got my experience on playing stuff like Jimmy Reed. That was popular so that's what we did. James Brown was starting to get hot around then so we added that. Just the contemporary music of that time. After doing that for awhile I decided I needed to get out of Louisiana.
I had an aunt in Houston so I made contact with her and she said "come on." I must have been about 16. Man, what I saw in Houston was frightening! At the time Albert Collins had a hot number out called "The Freeze". Joe Hughes was there, but I don't know if he had any records out or not. He had a band that could jump from playing Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, etc. to "Killer Joe" by Quincy Jones. It was a five piece band with guitar, bass, keyboards, sax, and trumpet. I remember that band real well because I was so impressed with it. It was in the third ward at a club called The Club 500. All the old blues cats know about that club. It was the hot spot. That and the Club Matinee, which was in another ward. The Eldorado Club was right across the street from The Club 500. I saw folks like Joe, Clarence Hollimon, Wonder Boy Travis, and Melvin Sparks (he was monstrous!). I mean it was frightening. All of them were just head and shoulders over me and I had an opportunity to sit and watch them play. I was in the clubs every night. I wasn't in Houston for more than a couple of months because I could see I needed to learn more. I went back to Monroe and decided to stay away from the city for awhile until I got my stuff together.
One of my friends in Monroe was named Sonny Green. He played with a band called Little Melvin. He eventually moved on to Amarillo, Texas. Several months later he sent me a bus ticket. That's back when there was still a big Strategic Air Command base there. There were a whole lot of airmen and a whole lot of money in that town. There was a club called the High Hat Club which was open all night every night. A band could play there seven nights a week and never have to move their equipment. At that time the club owner owned all the equipment anyway so he could tell you what to do. We had a good band there. We did that for a few years, then Sonny and I moved to Wichita Falls. All this was during the 60's and the exact dates are kind kind of foggy. I was experimenting with all kind of stuff around then so don't ask me the dates. They had a club there on Flood Street where everything happened 7 nights a week. We never made a whole lot of money, but we got to play every night, pay the bills, and get our chops together. There was an Air Force base there, too, so there were plenty of people coming out.
I started getting pretty good around this time and started to meet some people. I actually went back to Houston and played a gig with Johnny Guitar Watson. This was with a band and drummer named Dusty Rose. I played rhythm guitar. It was about a week long engagement, then I went back to Wichita Falls. I also got to open up for Lou Rawls at the base up in Altus, Oklahoma. This was with a band called The Soul Enticers. We opened again for him down in Wichita Falls.
The 70's showed up and I kind of got frustrated with music. I got a day job at a car lot washing cars, airing the tires, and keeping the batteries charged. That was my gig for a couple of years. I didn't own a guitar back then, but I would go down to the music store almost every day and pick up one and play on my lunch break.
I got the itch again around 74 or 75 and bought me a guitar and amp. I finally had a car and a little money in the bank because I had been holding a regular job for a couple of years. I was in my early 30's and that was the first car I ever owned! I picked up and moved to Denver for awhile but there wasn't much happening there. So I came back to Wichita Falls, hooked up with a couple of guys, and formed a trio. We called ourselves The Grand Wazoo. We ended up back in Colorado again! Still nothing going. I picked up a few little gigs playing jazz, but not enough to live on. So it was back to Wichita Falls and my day job.
About 1978 I went to a place in Fort Worth called The Aquarium. There was a band in there called Just Us. They were playing sort of a fusion/funk/jazz mix. I asked them if I could sit in and they liked what they heard. They asked me to join the band and I went off and thought about it for awhile. Tommy Hopkins was the band leader. I went back to work in Wichita Falls then one day it just hit me. I hopped on the phone and told them I was ready to move to Dallas. I had a 1974 Cutlass Supreme. I sold that and bought a 1969 station wagon, paid cash for it, threw everything I owned in the back and drove to Dallas. That was in 1979. I drove directly to The Arandas Club in South Dallas, clothes and everything in the car, took my guitar and amp out and played a gig. I was with that band for a couple of years playing nothing but black clubs in Dallas and Fort Worth. Sonnys Lounge, E.T.'s, The Arandas, and other clubs, mostly in South Dallas.
Then I met George Forms, who had a duo called One Plus One. It was piano and bass with a drum machine. Well the piano player quit. They were playing a place called Smokey's, a barbecue place on Lemmon. The band set up in a little corner. Somebody told him about me and the fact that I knew chords. He came and talked to me and that worked out for about 3 years. We mostly played South Dallas, too, but occasionally we'd do a gig at Mr. C's in the West End. I also did a gig with Big Joe Williams at the Fairmont. One Plus One opened and they liked my playing well enough that they asked me if I'd like to back Big Joe in his big band. That was cool. The duo was paying well, but eventually my partner got a little greedy on me, so I quit.
I was back stumblin' around Dallas in the early 80's and I ran into a lady keyboard player, Kendra Holt. She started taking me around to all these places I had never seen. I remember the Prohibition Room was like a flashback. I thought the blues as I had known it was dead. No one was playing it in South Dallas. There was soul blues like Z.Z. Hill, Tyrone Davis, Little Milton, and Denise LaSalle, but that was all you could hear. I didn't know anyone was still playing Jimmy Reed or Freddie King. I went back one night and sat in with Hash Brown or somebody. I didn't make a connection that night, but it felt good.
Later they were trying to start up Mother Blues again. I walked in that place one night and I saw this big guy. It was Joe Kubek. I didn't know him and he didn't know me. We just stood there and looked at each other. Somehow we ended up in the dressing room of the performers that night and we still didn't speak. We also ended up onstage during the jam, and even played some together. Even though we never spoke, I remembered him because he could play. I left that night and didn't think about it again.
Then one night I went down to Poor David's Pub and there was Joe Kubek. He came over and said, "Say man. I remember you. You want to play a little bit?" That was the first time we ever spoke. When we got onstage together, it was immediately like I had been playing with the guy all my life. There was no clashing, no competition. Every time I would do something he would do something that made me sound good. Every time he did something, I would do the same. It was just automatic. I had played with a lot of guitar players, but it always turned into a shooting match or a duel or just completely clashed. This was without any conversation about it. He told me "This gig don't pay much" (That was really stretching it! Sometimes we made $2!) "but why don't you come over here on Mondays and sit in with us." At the time he had Phil Campbell on drums and Paul Jenkins on bass. Bobby Chitwood would sit in from time to time as would Paul Harrington. Occasionally, Sam Myers would join us. It was just jelling.
I didn't really start singing until I was with Joe. I sang one or two songs a night when I was with One Plus One. It was always Jimmy Reed. I never saw myself as a singer. Every time I did, the house went wild, but I never put two and two together. It never added up. It was a joke to me. I was kidding. It was just a novelty. I never thought about singing seriously until I got with Kubek. Joe said "Somebody is going to have to sing in this band." I told him I knew a couple of songs, but at that time I did not even own a single blues record. I rushed out and bought a whole bunch of records by folks like B.B. King, Albert Collins, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, and Little Milton. That was my crash refresher course in the blues. Then I started learning the songs like "Buzz Me" that no one else was covering. I started going to the jam sessions to see what everyone else was singing. They were doing all the obvious songs like "The Thrill is Gone", "Sweet 16", and "Stormy Monday". I started learning all the obscure songs no one else was doing so that we would be different. Every Monday I would come in with a new song. That's how I became a singer. Before that I had never even considered it. It was there all along, I just didn't know it.
I had also never written an original song in my life. I had made up a few jazz riffs, but that was about it. I had never been on any recordings, either. Lyrics? I didn't ever think about singing so why would I write any lyrics? That was foreign to me. Now that's one of my primary jobs.
Our first CD, The Axe Man, happened at Dallas Sound Lab. Marc Benno was in some kind of management position there and he talked his boss into doing a blues record. We did it late at night, maybe it was two nights. I forgot all about it. I didn't think it would ever see the light of day. Next thing I know, it comes back on CD. All I know is they leased it in Europe somehow. It came out just a few days before Steppin' Out, our first CD on Bullseye. I was totally surprised. I remember posing for the picture on the cover in Montgomery, Alabama. I don't know how they got that picture and got that on there. I haven't seen a nickel from that release. Joe hasn't either, I think. We bugged them for awhile, to no avail. We called them, we had our lawyer call them. Ain't nothin' happenin' there.
One night Phil taped us on a little tape deck and sent it down to Antones. They liked it and booked us. It was a Wednesday night or something, so few people showed up, but Clifford liked us. They invited us back again. That's when we began to get the idea we had something going. We started playing little gigs in Ardmore, Longview, Shreveport, Abilene, local and regional touring. We thought we were really stretching out when we started playing places like Chattanooga, TN and Wichita, KS. Phil was doing all the booking. We finally figured out that the only way we were going to make a living was to go out on the road. Joe had expired around DFW and I had, too. We'd played every little place around here. You couldn't hardly make $30 a night and it was getting worse and worse. We eventually ended up with an agent and he got us farther down the road to places like Memphis. That's how the record deal came about. The club owner knew the folks at Bullseye, invited them down, and they signed us.
The only big city we haven't played is Milwaukee. I love playing Manny's Car Wash in New York City. Any night of the week there, we have a house full of folks that have our records, know who we are, and have been listening to us. It's always packed and we are never there on a weekend. I like B.B. King's in L.A., The Zoo Bar in Lincoln, there's so many places. I wish I had my book so I could rattle them all off.
Charting number one on the Living Blues Radio Poll made me feel elated. They don't give that up real easy. That says something to me. At last people are starting to take us seriously. For awhile, I don't think people thought we were going to last. I think the longevity and being consistent with what we do is important. We're not blues purists. We know that. We can't play pure blues. We can't. There's just too much stuff mixed in me and Joe's got too much stuff mixed in him. We're not pure anything. I think a lot of people didn't take us seriously for a long time. That's kind of like a seal of approval. We are now approved blues guys. (laughs)
On the stage we are a non-drinking band. Everybody knows that coming in. Joe and I have been through that and are lucky we lived through it. I've been sober 10 years now. We don't tell guys not to drink, just don't drink around us or when you're working. No substance of any kind in the truck. Nothing onstage and have a clear head at showtime. Those are the only rules. Some people just can't stick to those rules and can't understand why they're so important to us.
This business doesn't pay a lot of money and you put a lot of miles on the road. People come along and think it's a picnic and they find it is a hard, grueling job. It is hard work. When they see New York City for the first time it's exciting. By the fourth or fifth time it's "Oh no, New York City again!" After awhile, it's just another gig. Some people just get the travel out of their system and they're ready to go. There's personality conflicts, too. When you're cooped up in a van with the same four people, day after day, if you can't get along, or at least respect each other, you have a real problem.
I told you I was late in my life when I got my drivers license. I was 31 years old. I needed my birth certificate to get it, so I called my mom and she got it for me. When it came back, it came back B. Noris King. I guess they couldn't understand her. Like I have an initial for my first name! That's what's on my passport. I'm stuck with that! Whenever I write a check or something that's how I have to sign my name! People at home know my real name. If they ever have to look at my license to do an obituary it going to come up B. Noris. You have the real scoop, now.
I had an anxious feeling when I heard we were going to be playing Poor David's recently. I wanted us to do well there, since that's where we started. I was not expecting it to fill up and pack out like it did. It was totally beyond my expectations. I didn't think our fans would come out there to see us since we'd been playing the Blue Cat so much. They were there. A lot of the folks that did come out weren't Blue Cat people. I saw a lot of strange faces, but they knew about us. I look forward to being back there on June 13.
The only thing that could pull me off the road would be a real bad illness. If I had to do it on crutches, I'd do it. I'd have to be completely immobilized. If there is any way I can be rolled or pushed out there, I'm going. Johnny Copeland was the greatest inspiration to me of any human being. Here's a guy waiting on a heart transplant, and he was still playing gigs. He was uplifting other people in the hospital. You would think he would retire, but that never crossed his mind. How can it ever cross mine?