Sonny Boy Terry Interview by Abby Owen

Posted on 7/22/2010 by Abby Owen

Houston, Tx – Sonny Boy Terry from Houston took his band to Memphis earlier this year to represent the SE Texas region in the 2010 International Blues Challenge. He didn’t win, but after receiving an average score of over 8, which was pretty high according to Terry, he hasn’t been resting on his laurels. In January he undertook a buddy trip, a ‘pilgrimage’ to Mississippi to visit the Delta Blues Museum then on to pay homage at the grave of his name-sake Sonny Boy Williamson, stopping by the ‘Crossroads’ in Clarksdale of course, and on to the Hill Country Harmonica Festival in Waterford Mississippi. He is now in the last stages of putting together his own Texas Harmonica Festival taking place on July 31, 2010 at Dan Electros Guitar Bar in Houston. In June I spoke with him in his home in Houston, and found him to be extremely welcoming and talkative. This is how it went...

AO: So, my first question is, the name Sonny Boy Terry...
SBT: Okay, right. How to explain this. My real name is Terry Lynn Jerome.

I came to Texas in 1981, but I wanted to play Blues in Houston, so I broke into the scene. I got here in ’81 but I really started breaking into the scene around like ’83. Took me a while to really figure out what was going on and I was going out to see a lot of bands and hanging around and trying to play, you know? But it was a little slow at first, until I hooked up with Uncle John Turner, who was John Winter’s drummer.

AO: Wow.
SBT: Once upon a time, very famous drummer, Uncle John Turner. You Google him and he’s quoted very frequently in the new Johnny Winter biography. Quite a guy. I was all of about what, 23 and he was a 40-year-old, a very seasoned Blues and rock musician and he really mentored me and tutored me a lot. We were roommates. I slept on his floor. We were starving, and all that stuff. Basically, the ramen noodle circuit, you know. I slept on a kindergarten mat in his apartment in Montrose. So I broke in, playing around with bands with him and playing with TC and the Cannonballs. We did shows opening for acts like Los Lobos, The Nighthawks, John Hammond Jr. NRBQ, Robert Cray. That’s how I really broke into the scene. I was always just Terry Jerome. I played with TC and the Cannonballs for about a year and a half and I quit playing with them. I got a job playing with Jerry Lightfoot. Jerry Lightfoot was the white guy who knew all the black guys and was, well, integrated. He had Teddy ‘Cry Cry’ Reynolds in his band at the time. He had Andy ‘Two Hard’ Williams. Everybody had a stage name.

AO: Yeah, (laughs).
SBT: And you know, folks like that were in the band at the time with Jerry and Emmanuel AJ Murphy, who was once with Archie Bell and the Drells and a lot of people. Jerry hosted a Sunday night Blues jam at Fitzgerald’s downstairs.

(At Left) Terry playing with Albert Collins at Rockefellers in Houston.

AO: What year was this around?
SBT: This is around ’84, ‘85. Bud Jackson was the DJ with... I don’t think it was KPFT. Maybe it was KUHT. It was University of Houston Radio.

AO: Okay, yeah, 88.9 or something.

SBT: Yeah, whatever it is. Now it’s all classical but back then they had a Blues program and Bud Jackson was the Blues DJ. And he emceed our shows and, of course, promoted us on his radio program. I mean he had a great Friday night Blues program. Well, Jerry and I were all joking around backstage about stage names and stuff because there some guys around town that their stage name was changing or getting added on or always evolving, you know. And they started calling me like, Little One Hand Sonny Boy Terry. And we were just having fun with it but then Bud Jackson announced me as Sonny Boy Terry which is really a hybrid because there were two Sonny Boy Williams so its okay. There’s--

AO: Um-hmm. I’ve been researching it a little bit.
SBT: Okay, you know there’s John Lee Williamson.

AO: I’m like, oh, there’s two of them.
SBT: There’s two Sonny Boy Williams, John Lee Will, and then he died and another guy come along, Aleck Rice Miller and he stole his name. You know him as Sonny Boy Williamson. Then, there’s Sonny Terry which was Saunders Terrell who played with Brownie McGee, and he was a legendary blind harmonica player. So my name, because my real name is Terry Jerome, it’s a hybrid of all three of those guys plus my real name. And I did not name myself that. It just happened.

AO: Well, that’s the best way to get it, right?
SBT: Yeah, that’s how you always get your nicknames. Somebody else names you that. The next day Marty Racine from The Houston Chronicle published it in the Chronicle and it was almost like then it just sort of etched it in stone. That’s what they called me and they had fun with it and it sort of stuck. I was pretty young, so anyway, I kind of made it my name for myself.

AO: Well, where are you from originally?
SBT: I come from a little farm town in Northwest Ohio near Fort Wayne, Indiana called Van Wert, and there was really no Blues there. I was the only guy that liked the stuff at the time, you know?

AO: So you liked the Blues there before you came to Houston.
SBT: Oh yeah, way before. I came to Houston to play Blues. I wanted to go to the big city and play Blues. There were jobs down here in ’81 and it was right when Reaganomics was kicking in really good. Up there it was the rust belt and jobs were drying up. Like any bluesman, I followed the jobs where I could find opportunity. Of course, after several years in Houston, again the economy went belly up to for awhile. I had no choice but to try and get gigs.

AO: Yeah? Was there work down here?
SBT: There was work down here, lots of it. Yeah, and when I got here, I had never heard of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, only Chicago guys because I bought “Living Blues” magazines and bought the records and stuff. But I didn’t know too many of the white Southern guys, you know. So when I got here first I think I saw Stevie Ray Vaughn about a month later. And you have to realize, before when you talk about Stevie Ray Vaughan, you’re talking about...I mean now he’s commonplace, to the point of there’s a lot of people that copy him now, take him for granted, but if you saw him in ’81 before he’d made it big, and this is before David Bowie had him play on his ‘Let’s Dance’ album, right before he made it big. He was the most exotic cat I’d ever seen. He had a kimono on, and he’d sweat profusely under the stage lights wearing that hat, you know, and the duct tape cowboy boots and beat up strat, and the whole deal. But then I went to see the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Of course, Jimmy Vaughan was in that band at the time, Stevie’s brother, and I just couldn’t believe how great Kim Wilson was on the harmonica. What a great band it was. I’d never seen a band with a harp player that good before. So when I saw that I just, you know, you kind of feel like, like God dropped you there for a reason to learn, you know, or to grow. Because there was so much roots music going on in Texas. And you saw Rockin Doopsie, Clifton Chenier, you saw the Wild Magnolias. You saw the Neville Brothers. You saw Jason and the Scorchers. You saw The Blasters. You saw James Harmon with Hollywood Fats, Marcia Ball, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton.

AO: All coming through Houston.
SBT: All touring, coming through Houston. Then you had this incredible local scene, with all kinds of great players, you know. And everybody was accessible. Just an endless array of people, you know? And we just got all that experience and you saw it firsthand and you’re like part of it.
(Pictured at left)
- Harry Shepard, Sonny Boy Terry, Grady Gaines, Joe Guitar Hughes, Phil Marquez, Rex Wherry, Adam Burchfield, Allison Fisher, Benny Brasket, Jimmy Rose, Terry Dry, Bill Allison, Snit Fitzpatrick. 2001 Billy Blues album art photo shoot for Breakfast Dance. This photo is prominantly featured in Alan Govenar's new book 'TEXAS BLUES: THE RISE OF A CONTEMPORARY SOUND'

AO: Sounds like you were! (laughs).
SBT: Right away! Yeah, within two years. Yeah, two, three years. I was really green, too. But I was, I guess, solid enough to get it going, you know.

AO: What drew you to the Blues rather than rock or something else.
SBT: Harmonica.

AO: Yeah? So, the harmonica drew you there.
SBT: Yeah, oh yeah. And I knew what Blues was but once I started buying Blues, I started figuring out where all the good harmonica stuff was, because you’d mostly buy rock records. A lot of the bluesy rock bands of that era, would use harmonica on the recordings. The Stones, J Geils Band, and bands like that. But I listened to it all. I mean, I listened to the folk, the rock. When I was learning I was buying everything. I was trying to figure out how to play. I was interested in the whole broad spectrum. From Little Feet to Neil Young to The Stones to Howlin’ Wolf, and especially Muddy Waters and all his harmonica players.
I spent four years with Joe Guitar Hughes (Pictured with him in '92)and that’s like playing with Muddy Waters here in Houston. I spent a couple years playing with Kinny Abair on the streets in 3rd Ward. I played with Grady Gaines’ Band. But I spent four years with Joe. We played everywhere, all over the world. And we played 5th Ward, 3rd Ward, Sunnyside ice houses and juke joints on a consistent basis, you know? You’d get to know people pretty well. I’ve never had any negative experiences playing blues in blacks clubs ever. I was sometimes was poor and starving, but folks were always cool to me. Most of the folks in these places were older. I never saw guns or too much attitude.

AO: Well, moving on to the IBC thing. Tell us what it was like to win the regional competition and represent Houston in Memphis.
SBT: Uh, I allowed myself to do it because I trusted the people that were organizing it. They seemed to have it together, you know. I was a little concerned because from year to year it can be erratic in how they put their judges together. And I was real concerned. If it’s not professional it’s only going to favor an amateur. If it’s professional I feel like I’ll have a chance. And so I called them and I said you guys got it together, right? Rich DelGrosso’s wife was vice president. She organized most of it and James Nagle ‘Blues Hound’ helped her and, and they were real solid people. I trusted them.

AO: Yeah.
SBT: They were solid grounded people so that made it good and I--but it wasn’t easy because you have to do all these things to compete, you know, that you wouldn’t normally do.

AO: As what? Tell us.
SBT: You have to dress up in suits, you know, and play the game. You have to edit your material. It all has to be done within a certain time constraint, you know, like you’re going on TV or something. And then I just studied the scoring. I said, well, I have to trust this process. The scoring says it favors Blues or content. It favors originality. It favors showmanship. So that made it a little more appealing to me. I don’t think it was that easy though. We had to really prepare for it. It was very nerve wracking to do it, and I had to coach my band and really talk to everyone and making sure everybody’s on the same page.

AO: So you probably didn’t even get to really enjoy the experience as much because you had to be…
SBT: Oh no. We had a ball. After we won the thing here we...they had a bunch of gigs for us. It was one of the best experiences of my career. Totally positive.

AO: Oh okay.
SBT: We played House of Blues. We played a big fundraiser and then they had a big send off party for us and stuff, you know... after that, yeah, we were playing all over town and it was helping me raise money to pay my musicians to make the trip.

AO: Yeah, I remember seeing all the announcements about it and stuff.
SBT: It was really cool.

AO: How’d you like Memphis?
SBT: The IBC throw the best party in the f---ing world for Blues. There’s hundreds of bands there for this deal.

AO: Have you ever been to Memphis before?
SBT: Oh yeah. Yeah, I recorded with Johnny Copeland in Memphis.

AO: Okay.
SBT: And in ’96 when I was president of the Blues Society we won KBA, Keeping the Blues Alive award for best Blues organization. So I went to Memphis to accept the award for that. I recorded with Johnny Clyde Copeland for his “Catch Up With Blues” record.

AO: Oh, okay.
SBT: But that party was great. And the thing about winning was...

AO: Which party?
SBT: Memphis, I mean, it’s a big street party.

AO: Oh really?
SBT: It’s massive. I mean, it’s a massive party and there’s bands everywhere and there’s showcases everywhere. There’s two, three hundred bands there. And there’s thousands of musicians and people from all over the world there. I highly recommend it. You want to have a party, have a good time, and it’s not that expensive...

AO: Go to IBC.
SBT: Yeah, it’s fun, man. It’s huge fun. It’s nerve wracking. The first night there is really nerve wracking because you don’t really know who these other bands are. But we did well. Grady Champion won our bar and he won the whole thing that year.

AO: He’s local from Houston?
SBT: No, he’s from Indianola, Mississippi. This is about 40 miles outside so he was well known and he had competed at least once or twice in the IBCs before. So wasn’t like it was his first time. So yeah, he took the whole enchilada. And then there were other bands. We went to the finals and we had fun. I mean, I was advised when you get there you network and be a good guy and shake hands and work your way into a couple jam sessions and get to know people. Because there are so many variables going on and the best guy doesn’t win all the time and, and there’s all these different things going and you’ve got to know and understand why in a mature way going in, you know. And make the best of the experience because, because if you’ve got the goods...

AO: Just be in there.
SBT: If you got the goods they’re not going to ignore you.

AO: Right.
SBT: They’re not. Because they know that from bar to bar all these judges are volunteers and they’re all different. All the good judges may be somewhere else or they have different tastes. So you really don’t get caught up in that too much. You go there to win but you...we scored real high though. Our scores were, you know, eights and nines. We had an over eight average so that’s pretty good.

AO: Awesome, good.
SBT: That was out of ten so that was pretty good really.

AO: That does feel good.
SBT: Real positive. Very positive comments and we created a buzz, you know. We made a little splash there. Satellites play my music now, so.

AO: Alright!
SBT: They weren’t before.

AO: You can’t beat that.
SBT: They were talking about me and talking about Houston. It’s a great way to get your name out there, especially if you can really play.

AO: Well good.
SBT: We laughed and cried and had all kinds of fun. It was really huge fun. I met so many people.

AO: That sounds like a great experience.
SBT: Yeah, so anyway, that’s pretty much my IBC experience. I’m still milking it. I mean, I met Bill Wax when I was in Memphis from XM and I told him I was going to send him my product, and I sent him a book and all kinds of shwag. It took him a couple of months to get to my CDs. Now he’s playing it and talking about me on the air, so that’s big.

AO: Tell us a little bit about the thing coming up at the end of July, the harmonica festival.
SBT: I have produced several of these before. I was trying to put a little different spin on it and create a little clinic so that’s why I asked Adam to come in.

AO: And he is coming.
SBT: Yeah, Adam Gassow is coming, and I mean, he’s quite a renaissance man. He’s written and published several books. He’s an English professor at University of Mississippi. He’s a harmonica guru, instructor extraordinaire and a Blues performer. So he’s kind of all over the place, you know. He’s really a pretty interesting person.

AO: And that’s going to be July…
SBT: July 31st at Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar in Houston, TX.
You can get all the details. I teach, too, so I’m basically operating this through I use that to kind of launch this festival and to market my sideline, teaching blues harmonica. So I’ve got Adam coming in. I’ve got a friend of mine Larry Bernal with his band, the H-Town Jukes. He took lessons from me ten years ago. So he’s out gigging and he’s got a record out now.

AO: Look what you started. (laughs)
SBT: Yeah, so I thought it would be cool to have him play. They’re going to be there for the flow when people are coming in for Adam’s clinic. And then, that night we’re doing four acts with Adam Gassow, my band, and then Rob Roy Parnell who is really good from Austin. His brother is Leroy Parnell. I don’t know if you ever heard of him, a very famous song writer and guitar player.

AO: His name sounds a little bit familiar...
SBT: So Robert Parnell is quite a player and then Dave Nevling and the Blues Cats from Kemah, from the Kemah/ Seabrook area. All these guys got good technique in their playing and I wanted to get guys that can kind of elevate the respect for the harmonica because a lot of guys, you can tell they quit learning, you know, and then they just, they just sort of blow. ~ Continued in Part Two Next Month

Stay tuned for 'Part Two' of the interview which will post August 27th, and I will be able to include some pics and a follow up on the Texas Harmonica Festival, organized by Sonny Boy Terry, along with more stories from the road, and his pilgrimage to the Mississippi Delta.

Abby Owen - Copyright@2010 – All rights reserved.
Interview photos by Brian Smith - Copyright@2010 - All rights reserved.
All other photos used by permission, courtesy of Sonny Boy Terry, all rights reserved.

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