This is a interview with R.L. Griffin from April 14, 1999 and scheduled to run in Southwest Blues Magazine in June or July.
R.L. Griffin-Still Working the Blues
as told to Don O.
When it comes to naming those most responsible for the health, breadth, and depth of the current Dallas blues scene, one of the first names to come to mind is R.L. Griffin. Not only is he a fine entertainer and recording star, but he has his own club, R.L.'s Blues Palace #2. He also holds down the prime 7 pm to 10 pm evening slot weekdays on KKDA 730 AM where he spins classic blues and R&B tunes interspersed with DJ patter that is unique and fun to hear. KKDA also broadcasts his live show from the club each Saturday night from 11 pm to midnight.
Why this great Dallas entertainer has not hit the big time with recording contracts and world tours, as so many of his former employees have, has always been a puzzle. The answer may be that he is too busy helping others get their start in the business. R.L has done several interviews in the past but I wanted t give him a chance to tell his story in his own words and bring the story up to date. Here it is.
I'm from East Texas, I'm talking about Kilgore. I was the only one in my family who was a musician when I first started. I was in the school band at C.B. Dansby High School. My band director, Mr. Rufus B. Anderson first got me started into music. When I first started I was a drummer. One day he had a program in the chapel and they got me to sing Fever by Little Willie John. I didn't know I could sing. From that day on I decided I wanted to be a singer.
The first band of my own was called The Corvettes. We were playing R&B music, the same kind of music James Brown was playing. I had an 8 piece band, almost an orchestra. We were doing a lot of James Brown, Ted Taylor, all those guys.
I moved to Dallas in 1965 after I had a job offered to me by Big Bo Thomas at The Empire Room. I was the headliner for Bo for about 8 years. Everyone else was playing an instrument. I also opened for the big touring acts like Joe Tex and Bobby Bland. From there I started working with artists such as Z.Z. Hill, Little Milton, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Little Joe Blue, James Brown, and Freddie King.
After I worked for Big Bo I got my own group together and we were working for Jack Calmes and Angus Wynne at Showco Productions. They managed me, Freddie King, and Little Gary Ferguson. I used to work at Louanns, at Kenneth's Place, and at The Red Jacket. The Red Jacket was one of Jack Ruby's places. In fact, I was working there when blacks couldn't go in there. I opened up for Little Richard at Louanns. I worked with Freddie King up until he passed, opening for him when we didn't have our own shows to do. We were touring most all the places he was playing and a lot for SMU and the college circuit. I also worked with Jack's band, The Chickenhawks. I used to open up for them, too. He gave me a nickname of "Ting-A-Ling" after one of the songs I records for Gay-Shel.
After that I had a regular gig at The Climax Club in Tyler for 7 years. I played there Thursday through Saturday and would come back to Dallas on Sunday night. That ended about 1986.
Before Z.Z. Hill had his hit record he was working with my band. We played all around East Texas and the Metroplex. He didn't get his band going until Down Home Blues hit. Then we switched around and we used to open up for him! Tutu Jones was my drummer when we used to play with Z.Z. He was just a little boy. His mama used to let me take him and I would take care of him on the road. He was still in school. It was hard to keep him in line, but I tried.
From working in Tyler I got the idea of opening up my own club. Blues was the kind of music I grew up around and mostly was playing. If you were doing blues, you could always keep a job. That's what put me back with blues, just staying with it. It was tough being a club operator. I remember the first year I worked at the club and just payed the band, I wasn't paying myself. I was paying the bills though. I hung in there because I knew as long as I could pay the bills I had a chance. Some of the artists really kept me going like Bobby Rush. He'd come in and play a show with me and if we made money, fine, if we didn't, we were still friends. The club was called The Blues Alley from 1987 to about 1993, then I changed it over to The Blues Palace. We moved across the street to a bigger, nicer place last year so now it's The Blues Palace #2.
I did my first recording with Robin Hood in Tyler Texas. I recorded with a group called the Sweet Sounds of Music. The next time was with Big Bo Thomas. A 45, If Didn't Know Better backed with I've Got to Go On. The one I got a lot of play off of was called Nobody Cares. I almost had a hit on that one. That was recorded here in Dallas on Gay-Shell.
I did a complete album with Al Braggs and Earnest Davis called I Got to Go On. Joe Kubek was on that album. He played lead guitar on Something On Your Mind and all that stuff. I also put out a tape called I Want to be Rich that eventually ended up on a CD in England. That came about through Junior Boy Jones playing with Charlie Musselwhite overseas. The guy had one of my records and Junior was over there and made the contact. They sent me some songs they wanted me to do and I did some covers. They said whatever I put out in the blues they were looking for my type of voice. I still have some of those left.
I recorded my new album, Too Hot to Stop, at Butchie Boy's (Butch Bonner's) Studio here in Dallas. Lucky Peterson is on it, Hal Harris on bass, Raymond Green on keyboards, Led and The Love Company for background, and Harold Walker on drums, Rather than go with a label, I decided to jump on it and put it out myself to see if I can get a bite with it. I had some offers on it from labels, but they weren't even in the ballpark. We should have that out in a few days. It's 4 originals and some cover songs.
The radio show came from the live broadcast I've been doing from the club on Saturday night on KKDA for over 5 years. The DJ thing is new for me, but I was talked into that by the boss over there, Chuck Smith. They were real happy with the ratings for the live broadcast so they felt I could do well as a DJ. They felt my playing music and entertaining would help improve the ratings, and it has.
The difference is you don't see an audience. You just have to sort of close your eyes and think like you're on the stage. I try to mix music in a way I would do it if I was onstage to give everybody a good groove. I'll pick up the tempo, then drop it back down with a slow blues and keep it flowing. We have a playlist that we go by, but I can pick some of my own stuff, too. I try to include some of our local artists every night. There's too many people around here that put a good record out and then nobody gets to hear it. Some of the material around here is as good as any international artist. Chuck doesn't mind me doing that. I play Junior Boy, Tutu, Big Charles, I try to give everybody a little help.
In 1992 I got the chance to take my show over to Amsterdam. Buddy Guy had given the folks my number. They were shopping through checking out acts at different clubs. They were in town for 3 days and the third night they came back and told me I had the gig. I got to take the whole band over with me. We got some real good write-ups on that, some of which I can't even understand because they're not in English! I'd like to have a chance to do some more of that.
Next I'm going to cut some videos to support the new CD and I'm going to get on the website with Southwest Blues Magazine. I've been working with Edward Holt on his Pinetop Blues Festival down in Nacogdoches and that's really starting to grow into something. We did a 45 together, Blues Alley Bound. There's going to be a CD coming out soon from last year's festival.
At one time, the rap market had taken over, but now even the young people are beginning to go back and listen to the blues. Z.Z. Hill started it with Down Home Blues and it's grown ever since then. A lot of the guys I helped out in the early days are now going on to bigger things. When they didn't have anything to do I gave them a shot. If I had to pick one artist around here now to watch out for it would be Big Charles Young. He is the next big blues singer coming up that people need to pay attention to.
I've always been around people who owned clubs and I learned how to treat people and keep things rolling. We were always working when other people weren't. The blues was working and I was working and it's still that way today.