April 1996 Cover Story
Written Exclusively for Southland Blues Magazine
by Joseph Jordan
A cool breeze blows from the street through the club door. It's getting on to mid-evening. The Texas slinger slowly strides on stage, straps his Stratocaster on and plugs his bullet-shaped cord into his trusted and battered amp. He nods to his musical counterparts, who've been ready and waiting to back him up. The crowd that's gathered to watch feels the anticipation of the moment. His face and demeanor show he's all business. And business is good.
For Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, it's another night on the road in another city, in front of another hungry-for-the-blues crowd. The gig is one among the "every bit of" 250 or so a year he and his band have traveled the blues road to play for over fifteen years. Funderburgh is recognized as being one of the most gifted blues guitar players in the world and his band is known as one of blues' best.
All you've got to say is, "Anson's in town tonight," and most blues fans will know who you're talking about and where you'll be that evening. He is one of the one-name wonders of the blues world and although he's not a demonstrative artist on stage, Anson's still a star. With absolutely no guitar pyrotechnics or rock-star stage moves, he has quietly led the Rockets to being one of the most popular bands in contemporary blues.
Many people, guitar players especially, come just to marvel at Funderburgh's work. He rarely plays up the neck of his guitar, concentrating on the rich abundance of choice the middle of the fretboard has to offer. He is also a marvelous rhythm player, backing up his fellow musicians with solid chording and just-right fills. "I've spent years learning what not to play. You're always learning 'til you die."
Standing off to stage right, this rail thin Texan is innocuous as a sideman. He almost shyly acknowledges the crowd's applause after another economical and ultimately perfect solo. Anson seemingly never runs out of musical ideas. And he rarely takes the mike to talk to the crowd. He just quietly kills them with his musical brilliance.
Which makes Anson kind of a blues anachronism. It isn't often a bluesman becomes so widely known, indeed, revered world-wide, without ever singing a note. When asked if he ever sings, he says, "Maybe to myself, but I'd hate to admit it. I'm no singer." With his Stan Laurel-like looks and compelling guitar style that's a unique hybrid of jump-blues, Texas swing, boogie shuffles and heart-wrenching Chicago-style blues, Funderburgh is one of just a handful of blues guitarists that can transport the music of a regular club gig into the realm of greatness.
On-stage you'll rarely catch him smiling. Off-stage, he is one of the most affable, sincere and pleasant men in the blues. After the show, or between sets, you'll often see him at stage edge, greeting fans and friends he's made in the towns and cities, clubs and concert halls he and the Rockets have played over the past decade and a half.
Funderburgh taught himself guitar, listening to old records of T-Bone Walker, B.B. and Freddie King and Magic Sam. By the time he was sixteen, he was playing professionally on the Dallas circuit. In 1978, he and co-founder, lead-vocalist Darrell Nulisch (still active with his own band, Texas Heat) formed the Rockets.
The band became quite popular and enjoyed a strong regional following, which in turn brought them frequent engagements at better pay. Their solid Texas blues reputation brought them to the attention of the Scott brothers, Hammond and Naumann, who were looking for artists to record for a label they were launching out of New Orleans.
Anson and the Rockets first recording, "Talk To You By Hand," was the maiden effort of that company, Black Top, which has gone on to become one of the most respected and listened to blues labels in the world. The band has remained with the Scotts ever since, and perennially are among the label's most popular artists.
1996 marks a special milestone for the Plano, Texas guitarist. This year, in May, marks the completion of the first decade of one of the most consistently pleasing and productive partnerships in the blues business. He and his "featured" singer and harp player, Mississippi native Sam Myers, are celebrating their first ten years playing together.
They'll be going into the studio within the next month to record again for Black Top. It'll be a little bit different from their regular routine, in that the two of them will hand pick musicians other than the Rockets to play with. What will stay the same is the standard M.O. of carefully chosen, half-original, half-cover material, played with blues artistry and filled with toe-tapping fun. The CD, which will be recorded in April has as its working title, "I'm Shakin,'" and is scheduled for release sometime in mid-to-late summer. "We're going to get some friends of ours we enjoy working with, and we're going to see what we can do with it. It should be very musical and a lot of fun to make.
Hammond Scott, who has handled the production chores on all of Funderburgh's previous releases, will once again helm the recording. "He pretty much gives us a free hand in these things," Anson says. "He and Sam and I work fairly close, trying to get the right songs picked out. None of us would do anything that the other one hated. Sam's a wonderful man and he's very in to what we're doing. With both Sam and Hammond, it's a good working relationship and a good thing, and I take what they say to heart."
It's been said that Myers gives Funderburgh's band legitimacy and authenticity. But that is a patronizing view of both artists in their own right. These are no defiant ones. They are both bluesmen to the core and would be so without the other. Sam did bring the Rockets a vital, experienced voice, firmly rooted in African-American blues. His vocal and harp style was honed in hundreds of juke joints of the Delta and countless college campuses of the south during the 50s. As a result, Anson and Sam's musical symbiosis is pure magic.
Anson is content to let his powerful vocalist and Little-Walter influenced harpman from Laurel, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, "Sweet" Sam, be the Rocket frontman. The legally blind and mezmerizingly slow-moving Myers got his start playing drums and harp for the late Elmore James and later, formed his own band to play Delta blues in the chitlin' circuit around Jackson, Mississippi. Bandleader Funderburgh, though many years, Myer's junior, is fond of saying of the 60-year old, "Sam's got more energy than any of us."
After meeting and sitting in with one another several times in 1984, and after Nulisch left the band, Anson thought about it for awhile and asked Myers to join the Rockets as frontman.
Sam did just that in 1986, and he and Funderburgh have enjoyed a critically acclaimed and durable association ever since, one that's been extremely rewarding to fans and pleasing to themselves. They've won eight W.C. Handy Awards, the Grammy Awards of the blues world, and this year are nominated once again (they were previous winners in 1988) for Best Blues Band. Overall, the Rockets have recorded seven albums in addition to being on several Black Top compilations.
And in case you thought I'd overlook one of the great mysteries of the 90s, animator Mike Judge, who created American cartoon icons Beavis and Butthead, and resultingly became a multi-millionaire, was for a couple of years the Rockets' bass player. Judge is said to have created Beavis' look, (and look only,) from that of a certain thin-bodied, long-jawed, blonde-pompadoured blues-guitarist. When asked about this, Anson just chuckles and says, "vicious rumor," and then he laughs again.
"Sam and I and the Rockets are about the music and not about the show. Naturally you develop better stage presence, but the show to me is always secondary to the music. Maybe it's a drawback to us, 'cause maybe if we were a little bit more showy we'd be drawing bigger crowds and be on a major label and be making more money. But, to me, it's always been the music. We have to be honest with our own hearts. The music is very important to us. We'll always continue to make good records. Really that's all we can ask for and hopefully with some of the other avenues we've just started exploring, maybe more people will know who Sam Myers is and what the blues is all about."
If they don't Anson, they'll be missing out on what many of us feel is truly one of the treasures of the blues world.