Tucson is not necessarily considered one of the country’s music meccas. That said, over the years, Tucson has been home to Linda Ronstadt and more recently Calexico. The music scene is vibrant with many talented singers and musicians. One very well known blues man in Tucson is Tom Walbank.
When Walbank heard the call of John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, James Cotton, and Jimmy Reed, he knew he had found his religion in the blues. He was half a world away from the birthplace of the blues at the age of 15 in his home in England. He dreamed of being in Chicago, one of the biggest blues scenes of the world. The substance and the heart of the blues lured him into performing. He had to have more. It was deep, real, and genuine. The blues became an obsession for him.
AXS recently caught Walbank’s performance as the opening act for Samantha Fish at 191 Toole. Walbank’s performance was much like a visit to the juke joints in the Mississippi Delta or the dance halls of Chicago. He was gracious enough to chat with AXS at a later date.
AXS: Tell me about the roots of Tom Walbank.
Tom Walbank: I’m from Devin, England, a small country town south of Wales. I moved to Scotland because I had family up there. I needed to move to a city to make a living at what I wanted to do. I was a cartoonist back then.
AXS: Is art or music your passion?
TW: I have a few passions. I’m not very good at giving 100 percent to a single passion. I’m a multitasker. I had to concentrate on the music when I was 22 because that was edging ahead of what I really wanted to do.
AXS: How did you become involved with singing the blues? Did you come from a musical family?
TW: My mom and dad both sang in choirs, Handel’s Messiah, music like that. They weren’t religious, but they loved singing classical music. I had piano lessons as a kid, but I never really took to anything particular, but I saw and heard a video of John Lee Hooker on Maxwell Street, which used to be a thriving market in Chicago. It was in the film, The Blues Brothers (1980). It was the only actual blues song in the whole film. They should have called it ‘The RnB and Soul Brothers.’ I’m just joking. It was a great film. But when I saw John Lee Hooker, I said: “Oh my God, I love that.” I was 14-years old. I wanted to play guitar just like that. Big Walter Horton was playing harmonica. So I was like ‘I want to learn that.’ The next day, I went to the music store. I didn’t have a clue as to what kind of harmonica to buy. I wound up buying a Chinese harmonica about this long. (He demonstrated about 10’ long). Eventually, I bought a little ten-hole harp. I started listening to records and playing along. My motto was practice, practice, practice. There was no YouTube. There were no instruction books back then. This was back in 1984. There was nothing for English teenagers that fell in love with the blues. I got through it though.
AXS: Your performances lean toward Delta blues. What was the attraction for you? Was it the stories?
TW: It was specific to the players. A lot of the blues players went to Chicago. No one really grabbed me like Muddy Waters grabbed me. He had a Little Walter harmonica and a killer band. I could talk for days about different blues guys. There are a handful of guys who are at the top for me that influenced and formed my style as a player. Muddy Water‘s slide playing, Big Joe Williams’ guitar playing, James Cotton on harmonica, and Jimmy Reed were all major influences. Jimmy Reed’s style was far more accessible than Muddy Water’s style and some of the others. He had a formula. He definitely was the biggest seller of all those guys.
AXS: Even Elvis Presley covered Jimmy Reed’s songs.
TW: Yes, he covered “Baby What You Want Me To Do” on his comeback special. Elvis loved the blues. People get Elvis wrong about his stance on blues music and black people in general. He grew up in Tupelo and Memphis. He hung around black blues players like Big Boy Arthur Crudup, B.B. King, and Rufus Thomas. He was into that whole Memphis scene back then. He was like flash.
AXS: Tucson has its own music scene, but it is not necessarily a blues mecca. You are so good as a bluesman. How did you settle in Tucson?
TW: I followed my path. I married a Californian. We moved to San Francisco. We lived in Oakland and it became way too expensive to live there. So, we moved to Tucson with a promise of monsoons and a supportive music scene. And they weren’t lying. The support of the music scene in Tucson is the best bar none. If someone gets sick in the music scene, there is a benefit the next day. I don’t know if it is the geographical placement or people always think of Phoenix. Everyone supports each other here. There is no clawing. There is no trying to get to the top because there is no top here, especially now in the music industry. You just try to do the best you can.
AXS: Do you tour, go on the road?
TW: Yeah, since about 2006 I’ve been going to Europe and doing festivals and shows over there. I will also travel to Canada. I haven’t gone this year because I am a green card holder. You can guess the reason why I am a bit sketchy about traveling overseas. I’ve got a family here. I’ve got a little girl. I’m not traveling until I get my citizenship.
AXS: That can be a long expensive process.
TW: That’s the thing about benefits. They held a benefit for me and another musician from Europe who lives in town in order to raise money for that. Citizenship will be in the near future.
AXS: You release CDs periodically. The last one was Dust and Stone. When was that released?
TW: Yes, I released that at the first of the year. I release a new CD every year. It was a CD recorded at Gabriel Sullivan’s recording studio here in town upon Grant Road. He was on drums on a lot of the songs as well. He has been in my band for many years. In addition to performing, he produces music over there and produces bands. He’s a busy man. Each CD has a natural progression in my songwriting and my approach to the blues. All of my albums are original music. That is different from my live performances. When I perform live, I play classical blues tunes. I’m trying to turn people on to Muddy Waters or Son House or Robert Johnson. However you interpret a blues track, if you have your own style, that’s how it's going to sound. The lyrics are going to change if you write it yourself. It’s how you approach that lyric with your style. I’m not going to slavishly copy someone else.
AXS: How fast of a writer are you?
TW: It depends on the song. Normally I write pretty fast. A lot of the time it is the frame you put it in. In the past six years, I’ve been writing a lot of instrumentals. I’ve been pairing the styles of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker with different beats. In other words, beats from 1990s hip-hop or 1970s reggae. I’m mixing up different genres of music that I like. I’m trying to produce a different genre of music that missed the opportunity of happening years ago. Maybe John Lee Hooker didn’t do an album with Muddy Waters. If I’ve spent 30 years learning both of those guys styles, I can try and put those two styles together.
AXS: If you had a magic lantern or a time machine and you could go to anywhere in time, what would be your wish? You could go back to any night in history.
TW: I would want to be sitting in the corner of the room when they recorded Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter’s Hard Again album. I didn’t have the tools back then. You need certain tools to make an opportunity move forward. There are plenty of people I would have loved to have seen like Sonny Terry. I did see John Lee Hooker when I first moved to the states, but I never saw Muddy. He was dead before I moved here. I would have loved to have seen Muddy Waters.
AXS: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
TW: I don’t know. I’m still pushing the envelope in my career. Every once in a while I get booked for a festival. I’m a working musician. In these days and times, that’s pretty good. I see myself still in Tucson playing the blues. If the opportunities to tour or record or play a festival are there, I would love to do that for sure. I will actively push forward with that. There’s no guarantee. It’s music. I would love to do a tour with John Hammond, to do something like that. I want to build my fan base for sure. Artistically I am where I should be. It has taken a long time to get the tools I need and I’m staying true to my vision.
Walbank can be seen performing around Tucson venues every week. Walbank performs at the Sky Bar on Tuesdays, Club Congress every other Friday, and every Sunday at Ventana Canyon. For more information on Tom Walbank, please click here.