Jimmie Vaughan, guitarist for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, is the elder brother of the perhaps more celebrated late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Both came out of the Texas blues scene of the Seventies. Jimmie rose to prominence with the Thunderbirds, a quite rootsy four piece that combined jazzy swing with deep blues feeling. Jimmie was kind of the anti-Stevie Ray in guitar playing terms. His forte was understated, yet never dull, accompaniment and quirky piercing solos as part of an ensemble and not as flashy frontman. Kim Wilson was the flamboyant guy up front who wore a turban, sang and played harp. In contrast Stevie Ray was the main man and he sang and played fiery almost interminable guitar that initially served the songs but over time started taking on a life of its own. The Fabulous Thunderbirds was a band, a combo of like-minded individuals. Stevie Ray & Double Trouble was a leader and two sidemen.
My introduction to the Thunderbirds was through a review of their second album, What's The Word? (1980), in the NME. At the time blues was not exactly fashionable. It was at the tail end of the post punk / New Wave period and the blues acts were not front cove subjects. The only other contemporary blues act that received some attention was George Thorogood and the Destroyers, a similarly rootsy three piece mainly inspired by Elmore James. Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash and not so much the Texas roots of the Thunderbirds.
Anyhow, What's The Word? received a really positively review and recommendation. Because I was a collector of blues albums I made a mental note to look for the record, though I found it in some Cape Town record bar only a couple of years later. It truly was fine.
From the opening cut, "Running Shoes" I was hooked on What's the Word? The tough, exciting houserocking blues never let up to the end of the record. The most interesting and interesting part was the concise, to the point rhythm guitar parts and the relatively brief guitar solos. This was no guitar hero doing his best to sound like a maestro of the fretboard but rather a man who was clearly maser of his instrument and his chosen idiom and was not going to overplay his hand or overshadow his band by his histrionics. The music was also just so damn loud and could have given any of the punk bands or New Wave guitar bands a go. I would have given my left testicle to be present at any bar where this band was playing.
I could recognise that the playing was tough and traditional enough and that the production gave the music a hard, punky edge without losing the essence of the blues. Some of the songs, like "You Ain't Nothing Nut Fine" and "Sugar Coated Love", for example, were even sing-a-long blues-pop type tunes. This record quickly became one of my favourites and took pride of place in my blues collection.
In all the years since I never saw any other Fabulous Thunderbirds albums in the various record stores I haunted on a regular basis. Why on earth What's The Word? would have arrived in Cape Town on its own and not be followed by other releases by the band was a mystery then and remains a mystery. The only exception was Tuff Enuff (1986.)
The Thunderbirds had a bit of a purple patch with this album and eponymous single and also "Wrap It Up." Possibly the commercial success of Stevie Ray Vaughan helped and perhaps also the Eighties production techniques for music where the straight blues element was pushed into the background to give way to a pop-rock attitude, with subdued blues flavour, that would guarantee radio airplay. The two singles were played on South African radio and impressed me enough to buy the audio cassette version of the album when I found it in a discount bin. Having said that, the singles had not been impressive enough to persuade me to pay full price for the record and certainly did not motivate d me to buy any later product. My deepest wish was to own the debut album, Girls Go Wild.
My attitude towards the commercially successful Thunderbirds was similar to my attitude towards the very commercially successful Z Z Top of the Eighties who also modernised ad updated their sound and left behind the dirty blues of the Seventies albums, which were the records I preferred and still prefer.
Somewhere at the beginning of the 21st century I bought a Thunderbirds anthology album on CD that concentrates on the early, blues years and avoids the commercial years and that is why I bought this particular set, as there are a number of "best of" and "greatest hits" compilations of Fabulous Thunderbirds music.
I had not listened to What's The Word? for probably 20 years until May 2013 when I bought and downloaded the Fabulous Thunderbirds' first three albums, Go Girl Crazy (1979), What's The Word? and Butt Rockin' (1981)
from iTunes. Not for the first time I blessed the advent of the digital media revolution that has made it possible for me in Cape Town, South Africa, to acquire and listen to music that I craved to hear when I was a teenager or in my early twenties and never had the opportunity due to the relative backwardness of South Africa at the time. My musical tastes were never exactly mainstream and most of the artists I wanted to hear were not stocked in my local record store. Since the Nineties we have not only had the benefit of multiple re-issues of almost forgotten records but now there is even more stuff available on the Internet. Today I can build a collection or records I would have wanted to own when I was a kid or simply rebuild my record collection in digital format.
This is why I decided belatedly to catch up on the Thunderbirds buying that trio of ground breaking albums. For all I know there were lots of white blues combos in the USA who sounded exactly like the Fabulous Thunderbirds yet this was the band I got to know and to love. To play blues in 1980 was hardly a serious commercial move and to play it with such authenticity and intensity probably did not enhance the commercial appeal either.
During the Eighties Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray brought blues back into the mainstream though neither of them had quite the nous or intense blues power of the early Thunderbirds. Stevie Ray just played too much damned guitar and Cray was too much too smooth for me. I own a bunch of Stevie Ray Vaughan albums and only one by Robert Cray, an early effort issued with the part work publication Story of the Blues. As far as I was concerned The Fabulous Thunderbirds were more of the real deal than their contemporaries.
Each of the iTunes versions of the first two albums comes with extra tracks. In the case of Girls Go Wild they are a couple of studio tracks and with What's The Word? they are live cuts. From the latter it is evident that the band was smoking hot as a live proposition.
The mix of songs varies from tough shuffles to melodic Fifties-styled pop and the latter is a tendency in the evolution of the band as if there had been a policy decision to ensure some radio play by positioning the band in a poppier place than the juke joint blues shuffles would have put them in. No doubt the songs were staples of the set anyway in a bar where the band is usually expected to be a human jukebox of sorts and to play for dancing, whether it would be the frenetic jiving to stompers like "Running Shoes" or the romantic slow dancing to a slightly cheesy "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White."
It may be the long-time familiarity that even now makes What's The Word? resonate with me more than the other two albums, especially Butt Rockin' which seems to be heading towards the more commercial, less appealing sound of Tuff Enuff.
What's The Word? is simply more satisfying because it seems to be the best basic blues album of the trio, with the best songs too. I can well imagine, if I had bought Butt Rockin' on first release, that I would have given up on The Fabulous Thunderbirds for having taken a commercial direction in the blues that did not appeal to me at all. Perhaps it is significant that this relative decline in the Thunderbirds' music happened just at the time that Stevie Ray Vaughan's blues star was rising with a much tougher take on the music.
What's The Word? is one of a number of albums, that I first owned as records, that represent the period in my life between high school and National Service, when I had the money to start collecting records and scoured the records stores of Stellenbosch and Cape Town for bargains, informed by records reviews in the NME and found many gems, this album included, at bargain prices. It was astonishing that a record store had to discount a record like What's The Word? in order to sell it. This album belongs to a group of albums that I truly loved and admired and treasured because they were just so astonishingly good. I have never grown tired of those records and each time I listen to one of them I have the same enjoyment, perhaps out of nostalgia too, but in general simply because they are great records.
If one is allowed to have only one Fabulous Thunderbirds album in one's collection, What's The Word? should be it. Not even a best of collection can replace it for pure, unadulterated quality and good fun.