By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Looking at Jim Suhler, it's hard not to be reminded of renegades from high school: the stoners and gearheads had his long brown hair and aquiline nose, their slender frames no guarantee that they wouldn't slap the crap outta you if you crossed them.
In fact, Suhler pretty much was one of those guys, a local boy who grew up in Lakewood, then went to Hillcrest High, a skinny kid who was into "fast cars, chasing girls, playing my guitar, and rock 'n' roll," which back then meant Led Zep and Aerosmith, with ZZ Top and Johnny Winter thrown in for regional loyalty.
Accurately equipped down to the high-powered Z-28 Camaro, Suhler lived the archetype that Sean Penn would later draw on for his Fast Times at Ridgemont High character Spicoli, at least for awhile. "It was the usual suburban stuff; there was a year or two where I was really into getting wasted," he recalls. "I snapped out of it." Part of his wake-up call involved the Z pretzeled around a telephone pole. "You should never take Quaaludes and drink tequila," he now advises.
Returning to an earlier flirtation with music, he soon found himself in local bar bands and working a series of McJobs that never seemed to end right: "I'd always get fired because I was a daydreamer, and I'd end up screwing up the job or something."
Suhler knew he wanted to be a musician. There were a few detours--like the band that, frighteningly, wouldn't let him quit--but he kept at it, finally landing in a band called the Overlords in the mid-'80s, a "hard-rock band with kind of a punky attitude," he explains. "Not very salable at the time." With the Overlords he played now-hallowed names like the Nairobi Room and the old Bronco Bowl. They weren't that hallowed--or that profitable--at the time, though, and the Overlords just sort of fizzled out, along with Suhler's youthful first marriage. Like so many before him, Suhler found himself at a crossroads.
"I figured, 'What do I really want to do?' and I decided that I wanted to try and play the blues. I mean, I tried to approximate it, because...(it) wasn't like I was from the Mississippi delta."
But he had an in. "I do have family (there), though, so I went over there and looked up this blues musician named James "Son" Thomas in Leland, Mississippi, near where I was staying. I went over to the neighborhood and asked around." Suhler found Son Thomas in a shotgun shack, authentic down to the newspaper lining the walls. "He was really gracious; he let me come in and we played together. It was really special."
Suhler came back from Mississippi revitalized and put together the Roadhogs, a band that featured a Hispanic harp player, Memo Gonzales, quite literally a heavy cat. "He was like...this 300-pound Mexican guy, writhing on the floor and playing the harp. We were trying to do straightforward blues, but it was pretty much a comedy act, too, a shtick...more of a T-Birds thing."
The Roadhogs expired, too, but it was Suhler's first time to run a band, and he learned a lot. Throughout the late '80s--when acts like Three on a Hill and Rhett Miller were all the rage--Suhler and his new group, the Homewreckers, continued to play the blues, selling homemade music off the bandstand and exploring the darker parts of Local Band Hell, like firing Amy Robins, the female vocalist to whom Suhler was married. "(That) was pretty...um, intense," he recalls.
The band did manage to get out of town, though, and it was in a Memphis club called Huey's that Suhler got his first break. Lonesome George Thorogood was in the audience, although he was anything but lonely.
"He was at the back table, smoking a cigar and eating nachos with his entourage," Suhler says. "He was real nice, and he commented on a song that I'd done in the middle of the set, so I knew he was really listening. By the end of the night, he was up front. After the set he said, 'You know, Terry would love you guys,' so I made a mental note." (Über-producer Terry Manning has worked with ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, and Led Zeppelin.)
When the Homewreckers followed Suhler's other bands into the dustbin, Suhler--armed with a high-school chum's promise of funding--sent Manning a tape, hoping the producer would engineer it; Manning eventually agreed. In April of 1992, Suhler and Manning went into Memphis' Studio Six to make an album with Dallas musicians Paul Miles (drums) and Carlton Powell (bass), the same lineup that's been with Suhler ever since as Monkey Beat.
In fact, the threesome originally was simply Monkey Beat, a band with an album but no label. That album, Radio Mojo, was "a lot of stuff I'd been writing for and playing in bars, just trying to mix things up so people would dance: fast Chuck Berry-style things, a Bo Diddley beat, (then) some delta and B.B. King-style blues."
A few months later, Manning--who'd promised to help the band shop a label--called back. He was starting his own label, to be distributed by Rounder, and he wanted Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat to sign on. The band did, for three albums. Suhler also signed a management deal with "Irish" Mike Donahue, Thorogood's manager, and in January of '93 Radio Mojo came out and the band went on the road with Thorogood.