I was born in Bakersfield, California, and lived there one entire month. So much for the Bakersfield sound, I suppose. My father and two uncles were evangelists in the San Joaquin Valley, and my first exposure to music was in the funky, four-square, hellfire-and-damnation Churches of Christ up and down Highway 99. No musical instruments were permitted because none are mentioned in the New Testament, so it was four-part gospel—vocals only. There was a weathered old fiddler in one congregation who looked like he’d emptied many a bottle before his conversion, but he wasn’t permitted to fiddle during service—he’d play soulfully at the Sunday after-meetin’ picnics.
I was never religious, never baptized, but I loved the singing, and those gospel songs still sound in my mind. “Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow, are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” Did that lamb have bleach in its blood?
When I visited the Mississippi Delta, it reminded me of the flat, crop-filled San Joaquin Valley, which was in fact populated in the twenties and thirties by migrants from the South. My parents’ families headed west from Arkansas and Oklahoma.
I’ll credit my mother for my sinful ways—here was dancing, drinking, and smoking, recordings of Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra. One day she and I walked into the house and the floor was littered with shattered 78s. Her piano was upended, her sheet music in shreds. Fundamentalist wrath is nothing new. Maybe my passions for wine, women, and song were reactions to my dad’s church? Their communion beverage was Welch’s grape juice. I developed a thirst for the fermented fruit of the vine. And sex, of course, was not created by God. That was the devil’s work.
In the fifties, pop music and high school dances—Wolfman Jack on my radio under the covers at midnight—and my first live shows: Fats Domino rocking for hours at the Pismo Beach Auditorium and then Bill Haley and the Comets at a school dance, but I didn’t get the bug to sing until I moved from San Luis Obispo to Berkeley in 1962. My wife at the time came home one day with the double LP Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall, a life changer. A close friend played a fine guitar, another was skilled on the bass, and we started jamming.
I took up harmonica, guitar, and piano, but never developed into much. Playing an instrument seemed to get in my way—singing was all I wanted to do.
By the late sixties I had a band called The Roaches—see the obvious Beatles connection—and we were getting sub-survival gigs at bars and school dances. Drugs took their toll, but, luckily, cocaine gave me nosebleeds. When yet another drummer bit the dust, I couldn’t bear the idea of auditioning to replace him.
I could not believe it when someone offered to buy my little handcraft business making handbags out of Oriental rug scraps. I used the money to bum around Europe for four months. I intended to form a new band when I returned—instead, I borrowed five thousand bucks from my girlfriend and opened a hole-in-the-wall wine shop. It was to be a part-time gig, maybe make enough profit to buy a new harmonica, but the shop took off and took me with it.
I still sang and composed, but in my head—never got around to re-forming the band. The wine life became my life. So I am not a wine merchant-turned-musician. It was the other way around.
Although my business is only an hour from the Napa vineyards, my inclinations led me to begin importing French and Italian wines—roots wine, if you will. Roots wine, roots music.
In 1988 Farrar, Straus and Giroux published my book, Adventures on the Wine Route: An Importer’s Tour of France, which won the Veuve Clicquot “Wine Book of the Year” award. It is still in print in its 20th printing. Perhaps because of the French edition, the French government pinned a medal on me: L’Ordre de Mérite Agricole.
Other medals include two James Beard Awards, and in 2005 the French named me Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
In 2004 my second book, Inspiring Thirst, was published.
Meeting Boz Scaggs at a Chez Panisse wine dinner was another life changer. We hit it off—Boz has a winery in the Napa hills—and he and his wife visited my French home in Provence. Boz claims I got him drunk and took advantage of him, but here’s how I remember it: sure, of course I tried to serve some tasty old wines. When he learned I’d fronted a band in the sixties, he asked if I had any recordings. I pulled another cork and played him some old garage tapes, and he told me that if I was interested, he’d get some good players together and we’d record a few of my songs in his studio behind Slim’s in San Francisco. The next morning, I reminded him.
He figured I’d sing, but I wanted to hear my songs sung by a pro, so I hired Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jackie Payne. Two of the songs didn’t seem right to me, so for the first time in three decades, I got in front of a microphone to sing again. It’s like music sent out a long lifeline via Boz, and it’s been reeling me in ever since.
Quicksand Blues was produced by Boz and the session’s drummer, Ricky Fataar. Ricky and I stayed friendly, and he encouraged me to keep singing. We began jamming in his Berkeley studio. I’d bring in material, and he’d back me up on piano or guitar.
One day I was thinking back to the years of frustration trying to keep a band together. I told Ricky that I wanted to see how it feels to be backed up by the best. He suggested we head for Nashville.
We took a collection of songs we’d been working on—some my own, others that have meant a lot to me. My music doesn’t easily fit into neat categories or music store bins. I have always admired the Stones’ albums like Between the Buttons, Beggars Banquet, and Let it Bleed because of the diversity of instrumentation and musical genres. I believe the change from albums to CDs has had a lot to do with the death of the recording industry as we knew it, and with our listening habits. With an LP, when you finished one side of a few songs, you could either turn it over or put on something else. In the CD era, you have 10 to 20 tracks—the same artist, too often the same genre, the same collection of musicians and instruments. I lose focus—sometimes it gets so I don’t even notice when one cut ends and another begins. Too much sameness. And radio followed a similar path. A station now plays only blues, only reggae, only gospel, etc.
I wanted a CD that both showed cohesiveness and kept changing, so the listener doesn’t feel like hitting the shuffle key. Happily the band loves the concept. They act like they are on holiday.
We returned to Nashville and recorded Kitty Fur in April of 2009. With most of the band intact, I wanted to hear what they would do with some songs I’ve admired for years. Only the first track is an original. Its cool piano intro seems to set the stage for everything that follows. And to one of the first songs that got me into Delta Blues, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Mighty Long Time,” I took the liberty of adding some lyrics.
One of the thrills was to sing backed up by pedal steel maestro Lloyd Green. He’s played with the likes of Bob Wills, George Jones, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Lee Lewis. I’m a fan of Jerry Lee’s country albums, and I asked Lloyd what it was like to record with the Killer. “Jerry Lee walked in, put a bottle of whiskey on one side of his piano, pulled out a pistol and set it on the other side.” Hard to top that! All I could come up with was a bottle of Gigondas, but Lloyd did seem to get into it.
Ricky and I hit the studio again in April 2010 and recorded Donuts & Coffee, which—while our fourth album together—includes our first co-written collaboration, “Frustration.” The song grew out of a guitar riff of Ricky’s and my melody and words that refer not at all to the process of recording together, but rather my enduring affinity for songs about love. We also returned to a song I began writing over 25 years ago, “Sunset Avenue,” and nailed down rhythms that had proven elusive to my band back then. It’s about Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, but I don’t want anyone to imagine the dismal Telegraph Avenue of today. Back in the sixties it was a little bohemian oasis full of coffee shops, jazz clubs, book and record stores—a lovely place to be, especially at sunset when the community was out strolling up and down the avenue. The lyrics progress from the personal to the political upheavals that obliterated all the beauty.
On the covers front, I brought in songs I’d been carrying around in my head for a while, and we really tried to make them our own. I kept hearing “Ring of Fire” as a reggae song, for example. “Playing for Keeps” is an old favorite that had me wondering what the song might have sounded like before Elvis got his hands on it—and while I never did find out, what we recorded is how I imagine it sounded before Elvis elvis-ized it. Lerner & Loewe’s classic “On the Street Where You Live” has resonated with me ever since I would hum it to myself while walking down the street where a particularly “Fair Lady” of my own once resided—she was to become my first wife, in fact.
One of the high points of the sessions for Donuts & Coffee happened after we’d finished cutting “Frustration.” Pianist Michael Omartian, whose house is wall-papered with his gold records and Grammy awards, yelled out, “I haven’t had this much fun in years.” Lord willing, listeners will feel the same.