Here's an interview with Texas Slim from 1993. A lot has happened for Slim since this article, but I include it because there is a lot of good historical bio info. The Gems broke up about 1995 and Slim joined local bar band Cold Blue Steel. He honed his chops even further and learned a lot about the business side of music from front man James Buck. His rhythm section, Kenny Stern and Bill Cornish, spent some time touring with Joe Kubek before re-joining Slim for the Texas Slim Blues Band in 1996.
Robin "Texas Slim" Sullivan
The Blues are Going Places and So Is He
By Don O.
Robin "Texas Slim" Sullivan is one of the hottest unsigned blues men in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He's been thrilling area club audiences for over 14 years, yet his only recording to date is a self released demo made with one of his early bands, Blue Ice. Only about 100 copies were made. In the last year and a half, Slim has finally quit his day job, something prophesied in one of his first original songs, and has pursued a music career full time with his new band, Texas Slim and the Gems. Slim's reputation has begun to spread outside of the Metroplex. He recently played a sold out show in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is beginning to regularly tour through Kansas, Arkansas, and Tennessee. I have no doubt this will be the year he is signed to one of the big blues labels, or maybe to a major label. He has that kind of talent. Here, in his own words, is the story of Texas Slim. His early bands, his major influences, and where he thinks the blues are going. Pay attention. Texas Slim is going places himself.
I'm 29 years old. I was born in 1963, the big year for Dallas. The Kennedy year, July 26, 1963. Born here in Dallas, Baylor Hospital, I've been here all my life. My very first memory of hearing blues would have to be John Lee Hooker in about the 8th grade. Which is a major time in life, you know. It really influenced me. I was turned off by all the commercial music at that time and just hearing it blew my mind. I knew that was The Stuff. It was just a record a friend had. I think the first blues record I bought was Lightnin Hopkins.
I knew as early as 5th grade that I wanted to play music. My older brothers were playing around with it and I had taken lessons off and on. I messed around with guitar, drums, and bass. I had played guitar since I was about 7 years old and was playing mainly drums by the 8th grade. Hearing the blues made me want to play guitar more. I decided that same year to go to the Dallas Arts Magnet High School so it was a potent time in my life. When I first started playing guitar I used to jam on a simple blues riff. I didn't even know it was blues, but it's what I played.
The first blues song I consciously tried to play was "Kansas City." I heard one of my brother's friends play it and I liked that cool beat. I thought "I can do that" so I was singing "Kansas City" when I was 8 years old. I didn't even know it was blues until years later. My high school guitar teacher encouraged me to get into a working situation so I joined a country and western band and played that predominantly through my high school years. It wasn't commercial rock. I was protesting that. I knew it wasn't a permanent situation. I spent all my spare time listening to blues. We played a lot of big gigs. We were on TV, 4 Country Reporter it was back then. We were on PM Magazine back when that was local. We also played national TV on NBC, the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon at the Dallas Convention Center. I did "Johnny B. Goode" and played like a pretty hot little 15 year old guitar player on a Stratocaster.
Once I turned 16 and had wheels, around 1979, I started thinking I could have my own band. That's when I started my first blues band with two of my best friends. We called it Blue Ice. The original Blue Ice was Richard Pickerell on bass and Randy Ventrika on drums. The significance of those guys is they were my older brother's friends. They were older than me, and they had a big influence on the music I listened to. Randy was a great guitar player. He's really the one that got me kicked into electric guitar. He had an electric guitar, an amp, and a fuzz box and we could go over to his garage and turn it up LOUD and nobody complained. In fact the neighborhood kids would come by on their little scooters and stop and listen. That was when I was around 9 or 10 years old. He is the one who really started me playing. I saw him play and I said "I've got to do that." He's a carpenter these days. He opted for the family life, lives out in the country, and is doing really well.
The first paying gig with Blue Ice was at Big Ralph's City Dump, Marsh Lane at Northwest Highway, which was in my neighborhood. It was a biker bar. I even tried to paint on a moustache to keep me out of trouble because I definitely wasn't old enough to be in there. That particular gig was also my first experience at playing blues for a not so friendly crowd. They did not want to hear blues. They wanted to hear ZZ Top. I was saying stuff like "This next song is by Freddie King, but I think ZZ Top did it one time!" I was a little scared. After I graduated high school I went to college up at North Texas State (now the University of North Texas) in Denton and I kept Blue Ice going. We played on campus a couple of times at Bruce Hall, which is the music dorm up there. Wild parties. Those were a real inspiration to me because all those other musicians were there. Those were great gigs that I was actually in control of. We played real blues and everybody loved us.
Alex Moore was important to me even before I started Blue Ice. During the time I played country, I would mow anybody's lawn to afford to buy a new blues album. I'd mow lawns then hit the record store. I was largely listening to country blues. That's when I bought all my Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and everything I could get my hands on. It was more available and cheaper back in the late 70's. Blues was not popular back then. They were the cheapest records in the store. I was going "Yeah! I can get John Lee Hooker and Lightnin Hopkins records for a buck!" They thought they were scamming me but I was scamming them! I became friends with Alex Moore because my mom worked at the library downtown. She knew I was interested in blues, because I was trying to mow the lawn two or three times a week. They had Alex booked on a Tuesday afternoon lunch program as a solo artist. I went down there and after his performance I just couldn't get up. The auditorium cleared out and Alex was still at the piano. I was still in my seat and just couldn't move. I thought to myself "This is really something. I just have to meet this man. If I just get to shake his hand I'll be so honored." So I finally got up and went down there and Alex didn't really have anybody else to talk to. He said "You can take me home if you want to." So I said "Sure!" We became friends that quick. He was so generous with his time, with what he knew, with the history he had lived. He was a proud man. When I was up in Denton I'd get these letters from him. Big envelopes marked all over-"Alex Moore, 1969 blues festival, International Arhoolie recording artist, piano player, Helsinki, Finland, 1969, Stuttgart, Germany" every place he'd been. The whole envelope would be completely marked with this incredibly detailed script work. I've still got those and treasure them.
Of course the next thing I wanted to do was play with Alex. But people would tell me "You can't play with him, man. Nobody can follow Alex!" Well, I thought I could and I decided I had to try it. We got together the first time at my house. My mom had a piano. We invited him over on a Sunday afternoon. Fixed him dinner and everything. I first started trying to play with him and he would go with this wild, quick, sudden change and I would jump and try to be right there with him and land it a half second late. Alex said "Now wait a minute. When I make a mistake, you just keep on going right. I'll meet you at the end." So I said "Alright. If you say you made a mistake, I'll just ignore what you're doing and I'll just play the straight 12 bar blues." So we tried it the first time. He went with his quick change and I didn't go with him. I just kept going. When it got to the turn around at the end of the 12 bars, Alex was way off, and he comes back in and just nailed it! I couldn't believe it. He never was lost. He was just out there on his own planet! I learned how to play with Alex and I did maybe 5 gigs with him. They were all duo gigs, just me and Alex. Very, very memorable. Somebody in this town has tapes of those and I would do anything to get a copy!
I met Little Joe Blue in the days of the Nash Street House, around 1984. Another period of growth for me. I had moved back into Dallas from Denton and was beginning to get a little more mature, I was still just a kid! It was the same type of attraction as with Alex. When I first saw him I just had to meet him. When I did we hit it off really big. He was very complimentary of everything I tried to do. He was so encouraging. He told me "You've got it, you're good, stay with it, and don't ever stop." He meant a lot to me. I remember we played the Bronco Bowl with only about 300 people there. That place held about 2500 so there was plenty of room. Joe and I went out into the audience and played and sang together. Another time we did a Sunday matinee at Poor David's and he turned around and told me "Now Slim, I'm going to put this guitar over my head. You put yours behind your back and lets go get 'em!" So we proceeded to stroll through the audience and we got 'em! Him with that big Les Paul behind his head! I'll remember those gigs forever.
So many of the guys that are still around had an impact on my electrical style. I saw Anson Funderburgh for the first time when I was about 16. I know I wasn't old enough to be in the club. But it was in my neighborhood, I could ride my bike home. I just remember I was in awe of Anson. I still am. Joe Kubek, Jim Suhler, Hash Brown, Mike Morgan, basically we all go way back in the struggle. I told Jim just the other day "Keep happenin! Every time something good happens for you it seems to rub off on me, too!" It's great to see Jim's band Monkey Beat taking off. Joe Kubek is killin' them everywhere. Mike used to come down and jam with us when we played at the old McKinney Station. He put my name in the acknowledgements when he put out his first CD on Blacktop. I asked him why and he said it was because I always used to let him sit in. I was amazed. We're all kind of family. Me and Hash Brown are tight from way back. We know what it's like to live the blues.
My second band, The Texas Blues Experience, came about because I was trying to improve my booking status. I took on a full time manager who really made some heavy demands, including the name change. I had taken the name Texas Slim just because I thought it was cool. It's like all those old records I've got. Those guys were dodging the labels by using different pseudonyms and it's just a cool historical thing. I called Alex and said "Hey, what do you think". He thought it was the greatest thing in the world so I've been Texas Slim ever since. I'm keeping it forever. I met drummer Kenny Stern in College at North Texas. John Bush, who was the conga player with Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, was in the Texas Blues Experience. Yes, we were the only blues band with a conga player. Kenny is my drummer now. He's been with me most of the time since 1982. He just feels it when I'm going to make a move and he's right there, BAM. Just like that. That comes from years of being together. He went through the years with Little Joe Blue and has played with Kubek, Mike Morgan, Jim Suhler, the whole gang. I strongly rejected the name Texas Blues Experience. It was something that was forced on me. The whole promotion bit was kind of taken out of my hands and I had no control. I was still young and learning. As soon as I lost the manager I lost the name. I liked Blue Ice and I went back to it for a few years. Keyboard player Andy Comess came into the picture about 1986 when I got Blue Ice back together. His brother Aaron, who is now the drummer for the Spin Doctors, was our bass player in that period, 1986 to 1987. Basically I was with them and Kenny until Snooky Duke came along. Blue Ice eventually folded because we were starving to death.
Basically it was because we wanted to play real blues and be in control of our own music. We weren't making any money and I wasn't doing very well with the booking. I was in a situation where I had a family and I had a lot of pressure to not be doing that type of thing. There were a lot of different things that caused it to fold. Snooky Duke and the Roadrunners was a case of me just not being able to sit at home and not play. I walked into that gig. It was an every Sunday thing. I just wanted to play. I met Mouse Mayes and Guthrie Kinnard and Christian Brooks and thought they were great people and dynamite players. We did a lot of blues with Snooky Duke, mostly Stevie Ray stuff, real hard edged stuff. I like that stuff, too. It was just a situation where I wasn't the boss. I didn't have any say over what we played or didn't play. I was kind of yearning to be back in my own situation. I stayed with it for about two years. Financially it was a successful band. We worked a lot. When I finally did quit my day job I was still with Snooky Duke. I started Texas Slim & the Gems within one month after quitting my day job.
Now with the Gems, I have Kenny and Andy back. We've just added the best bass player I've played with in my life, Bill Cornish. His progress is so rapid we hope to have a studio date soon. I think by April we'll be in the studio. We just did a live DAT tape at Schooner's and may put some of that out as well. We have lots of people wanting tapes. We're on a mission and we're on a very positive track. We play a wide variety of blues. Hard edge blues, traditional blues, blues so quiet you can hear people talking and glasses clink. Right now we've got about a dozen original songs. We want to eventually have three sets of originals so we can use the standards as fill ins to mix things up. We are totally committed to blues. All kinds of blues, but blues. If you hear an R&B tune you know that the next one is going to be more hard core blues. We like to mix it up a bit to keep the people on the dance floor. The clubs expect that. That shuffle and dance beat helps us. Then we kick back into a slow blues and all the blues freaks light up and lean forward in their seats. You may even see some acoustic blues in future gigs. That's not gone away from my repertoire. I still have my acoustic songs. They relax me like no other music can. It's hard when you're packing so much gear to carry an acoustic guitar, too. I usually don't in the group situation but I may try a solo gig just to get it out there.
This is the first band in which I've really played the regional circuit. We've played in Topeka, Kansas at The Getaway. They book folks like Joe Kubek, The Crawl, and Little Jimmy King. It's a great spot. The Ritz in Wichita. I'm booked in Arkansas, mainly clubs in the 6 to 10 hour driving range. We've played Huey's in Memphis. We went there once and found out Jay Sheffield, the M.C. of the W.C Handy awards, books that club. We sent him a tape and he thought it was OK. He was a little hesitant to bring us in, but he booked us because Mike Morgan & Joe Kubek had said we are alright. He came up to us after our first set and said "Dynamite! Any time you are coming through, give us a call!" Our biggest show so far was up in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Dan Aykroyd's club, House of Blues. We sold out two hours before show time and turned away 200 at the door, in the rain! We're already booked there again for Memorial Day weekend doing two shows a night. They're opening up several more of those clubs nationwide so that may cause us to expand our circuit a bit!
I think right now things are really good for the blues. I heard John Lee Hooker is finally rich from the success of The Healer. Finally, after 40 years he's getting rich! Buddy Guy's getting rich from Damn Right I Got the Blues. I see that as part of a trend. We actually have it a lot easier than them because they've broken down some of the barriers. Hopefully I won't have to wait 40 years before I get THE record deal. There's a lot of major labels signing blues acts. The Red Devils are on Def American which is Warner Brothers. MCA, Point Blank, Charisma, and Virgin are others. Robert Cray is on Mercury Polygram. Buddy Guy's Silvertone label is actually RCA. I see a lot of others that are probably going to jump in. The mainstream rock market has fragmented into so many different styles how can you possibly keep up with them all? How do you tell pop from alternative from heavy metal from grunge from rap and whatever? They're all kind of coming into their own and I see blues maybe standing on its own and becoming another mainstream thing. Selling consistent numbers of units and becoming just another piece of the pie. I think blues is big enough right now that I don't see why MTV doesn't do maybe a two hour show each week just on blues. I can't believe it hasn't broken into that league by now. Major labels are the ones that control those markets and with the number of big boys moving into blues, it just has to be a matter of time. If they're going to sign blues they're going to have to promote them.