This interview with Memo Gonzalez originally appeared in Texas Blues Magazine in late 1993. Since then. Memo recorded an album for the German record label Stumble Records with a fine German band, The Bluescasters. He moved to Germany in early 1997. We hope to have him back in Big D in 1998. I hear the tequila supply in Europe has been severely affected by Memo's re-location!
Memo Gonzalez Interview 7/22/93
Memo Gonzalez, "The Lone Wolf" Howls
by Don O.
The scene: outside almost any DFW blues club. It's late. You're looking for some good music and a cold beer. As you walk up to the door you hear some great blues rattling the walls. You pay a small cover, way too little for the great sounds you've heard from outside. Inside it's dark, smokey, and packed. The dance floor is full and folks are jumping around like their shoes are on fire. You can't quite see the stage for all the dancers, but you can hear the music better and you know you're in the right place. Wailin' harp, great guitar, honking saxes, a driving rhythm section, and deep, heartfelt, soulful vocals. An original tune, too. Who are these guys? Welcome to a typical night with Memo Gonzalez and The Mistreaters.
Memo Gonzalez is a Dallas native. He's been into music since he could barely ride a bike. Not just blues. All kinds of music. He was first introduced to blues partly due to the remaining predjudices of the 1960's. "We lived in a predominantly Anglo area and I really didn't have many friends around home" said Memo. "Most of the white kids weren't ALLOWED to play with us. That's just the way it was back then. When I started school there were a few more Mexicans but there were black kids, too. I became buddies with a number of them and I used to ride my bike over to play with them. Their parents used to have rhythm and blues on the record player and I got so I really liked that kind of music. I'd go home and my sister would be listenin' to rock & roll and I enjoyed that, too. My dad liked that dentist office music. He even got mad when the Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan Show."
In elementary school, Memo took piano lessons and later started playing trumpet and coronet. "I really preferred the low tones of the coronet to the high shrill ones of the trumpet" said Gonzalez. "I used to play hour after hour. My dad finally got tired of listening to it and he went out and got me a mute to keep the noise down! By junior high I was in the marching band. Mr. Falkas was the traditional marching band director. He treated me like dirt because I was always trying to play those low down blues licks I'd heard on the radio. He wanted nothing to do with R&B. He liked all that Doc Severinson stuff. What a square. Fortunately for me, in the 9th grade the band was taken over by Mr. Watson, a black guy, and man, he turned my life around. He loved all that Grambling Marching Band stuff and even tried to get us into soul marching. That meant we got to learn all kinds of great soul tunes in school. I haven't played any Doc Severinson stuff since." He also shared classes with the son of Dallas blues legend Freddie King. "He was a great guy" laughed Memo. "We used to talk music all the time. Freddie used to pick him up at school sometimes and I was always knocking on the window and yelling 'Hey, Freddie!' Freddie used to scowel and tell me 'Just move away from the car, boy.'"
By the time he entered North Dallas High School, Memo was hooked on hard edged soul music. Listening to Dallas soul station KNOK and marching in the High School band were his training grounds. The band competed against SOC and other black high schools. "We did alright considering we were a small band from a racially mixed school. We pretty much kept up with them." But high school wasn't all good times for Memo. "My senior year at high school I got in a fight and got stabbed in the back with a bayonet. It punctured a lung and just barely missed my heart. That kept me off my horn for awhile and that really discouraged me. The only course I made straight A's in was music. I went through some really tough times, got messed up on drugs, and dropped out of school for awhile."
Memo went back and finished school, but he had to find another musical outlet while his lung healed. "That's when I picked up the bass guitar. I was listening to mostly rock & roll around then. Hendrix, Led Zepplin, that kind of stuff. I didn't have the blues stuff figured out and I just plain didn't know how. I took a few lessons and eventually I ran into Felix Reyes. I'd been doing sheet metal and welding work with my dad up till then. One day I was getting my bass out of the pawn shop and Felix was getting his guitar out. He said he was starting a reggae band and needed a bass player. I said 'Cool, I've always wanted to learn reggae.' We were called The Iraters, a big old 12 piece reggae band! That lasted for awhile but eventually we got tired of it and me and Felix went back to our true love, R&B."
It was that love for R&B that led to the formation of a band that is destined to go down in Dallas blues history, The Weebads. That band lasted for years with dozens of the area's best players rotating through. The revolving door of The Weebads exposed Memo to countless influences, and eventually, to his main instrument, the harmonica. "I was still playing bass until Ronnie Palmer came along. Dave Issacs, our drummer, really wanted to bring Ronnie in on bass because he had worked on the road with Steve Miller and Boz Skaggs. Fortunately, Felix didn't want to get rid of me and gave me 6 months to learn the harmonica. I learned from listening to records by James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimmy Reed. They're still my heros, especially Cotton. I love Sam Myers, too. He's an encyclopedia. I wish someone would record him just talking about his adventures. He's a real treasure."
Memo has definite ideas about how a harmonica player should fit into a band. "I'm not a Chicago style harp player like Little Walter. I'm not a purist, never have been. I believe in injecting my own style into everything I do. We do some Clarence Carter stuff, and while I like Clarence Carter, I'm not going to sing it like he does. It's the same thing with the harmonica. I infuse my horn experience with my harp playing. I like it like that. I don't play a lot of harp because I don't feel like I HAVE to play a lot of harp. I like to infuse my harp into the way a song is flowing. I don't want to dominate the song with a harp. Some musicians don't even consider the harp to be a real instrument because it's difficult to infuse it in with other things. But that's what I've always tried to do. Be a part of the music rather than a dominant instrument. Everybody should have solos, and I take my share, but I don't want to do songs completely dominated by harp."
The Weebads went through many transitions over the years. Breaking up, reforming, changing members, but Memo was almost always with the band. During one hiatus, he worked with Jim Suhler in one of his early bands The Road Hogs. "I first started singing while working with Jim Suhler. I had written a few songs but Felix used to sing my songs in The Weebads because I didn't really have the courage to stand out front and do it. Plus nobody ever really gave me the chance. Jim didn't have a lot of confidence in his vocal talents, even though he had a great singing voice. He wanted me to help him sing a few of my songs. That gave me some confidence and I started writing even more songs. We kind of built each other up, both in song writing and singing. Of course, he's a big hit today, touring with George Thorogood!"
After the break-up of The Road Hogs, Memo got back together with his old buddy Felix Reyes and re-formed The Weebads. "We added Richard Hunter on bass and Ritchie Vasquez on drums so we called the rhythm section 'the swinging Richards'. We were sounding great, too Unfortunately, Felix found himself in a situation where he had to leave town all of a sudden. Johnny Moeller took over the guitar duties and I wound up singing and fronting the band. I guess to make up for my discomfort out front, I just started moving around a lot, feeling the music, closing my eyes. That's how I still do it today. We played all over the southeast with Johnny Moeller doing the guitar work. Then came that fateful day at the Thunderbird Lounge when Darrell Nulisch walked in. I said 'Hey Darrell, check out our guitar player'. He said 'Yeah!' and then he stole him from us! They went on to make a CD for Blacktop. Then we had Mike Flanigan until he decided he wanted to do his own thing. Then the 'swinging Richards' went off and joined Killbilly. Richard Hunter's still with them but Ritchie Vasquez is now playing drums for Cold Blue Steel. I still wanted to keep The Weebads going so I got Hash Brown back into the band. He was actually one of the original members. Paul Size (now with the Red Devils in L.A.) was playing bass with us. Jason Moeller (Sue Foley Band) was doing drums. Paul and Jason made the move to Austin so we got Terry Groff and Bobby Baranowski to replace them. That was a great musical combination. Hash Brown and Felix Reyes are my greatest mentors. Hash taught me a lot about playing harp."
The Weebads regional touring brought Memo's harp work to the attention of Austin record producer Eddie Stout of PeeWee Records. That led to solo appearances on PeeWee's "Texas Lovers" and "Texas Harmonica Rumble" Lps. It also led to a European tour in 1991 that included a stop in the mining town of Nikel, Russia. "We were going to do a Rock for Russia benefit. This was back when the Soviet Union was falling apart. We weren't sure if we were going or if it was even safe to go until the last second. The KGB confiscated half the relief supplies we brought. Milk, orange juice, stuff we brought for the children. With the power vacuum, the KGB is now the Russian mafia. We were followed everywhere we went. They cleared out a floor for us in a sanitarium and that was our hotel. The really bad ones were still on the floors above us. We had about 80 people and just one bathroom. It was terrible. Each room had a sink, two cots, and a closet. When you turned on the water, it ran nearly black for a long time before it turned clean. Everything was rationed. The food was horrible. We walked into a little store and when we opened the door the funk almost knocked us to our knees. Darrell Nulisch started gagging. But the people in Russia were wonderful and the crowds were so responsive. I signed autographs till my hand was cramped. They love rhythm and blues. They can identify with it. I went to a music school for little kids and we did a 3 piece harp thing with Eddie Stout playing bass on this huge, stand up, 4 string, Balalaika thing. We took supplies of milk to the school and the kids were stuffing the cartons in their pockets to take home to their families. They're a hearty, dynamic, beautiful people, and it's just horrible that their government has kept them down like that. It's so polluted that people barely live past 50. I sure hope they get their act together over there. People who don't appreciate what we have need to travel overseas to see just how good we've got it. Right across the border in Norway it's the land of plenty. It's so nice. Our rooms had heated bathroom floors. The rooms were clean and comfortable. Food was plentiful and delicious. Crystal clear water. Just 60 miles away in Russia it was just filth."
Like most bands, The Weebads eventually broke up for the last time. "I got really tired of managing the band. It's a lot of headaches. Hustling gigs, keeping the band members happy, and all. I wanted to concentrate on writing and learning new songs. Little Ralph had just quit The Mistreaters after his wife had their baby girl. Steve Coronado asked me to join the band and I haven't been this happy in a long time. It's great. We have Ray Jimenez on guitar, band leader Steven Coronado on sax, and have just added Chuck Flores on bass, and Joe Coronado on drums. We're going in the studio in August to do a demo tape. Hopefully we can find some backers to extend it to an album. Eddie Stout is also sending me a plane ticket to play the Utrecht Blues Festival in Holland. It's at a little town outside of Amsterdam. I'm not sure if I'll go or not. Depends on the money. We will be playing around here quite a bit, so come on out and we'll all get drunk and get tattooed!"
Well, Memo, I'll be there, but no tattoo for me!