The glory of Bugs

Texas guitar hero Bugs Henderson wouldn't swap family for fame

Longtime fans still come up to Texas guitar hero Bugs Henderson, asking why he's not a bigger star, why he's not enshrined on Mount Hendrix with rightful peers like Stevie Ray, Roy Buchanan, or Danny Gatton.

It doesn't bother Henderson that much. For one thing, all the above-mentioned guitar gods are dead. Buchanan hanged himself. Gatton shot himself. Even survivor Eric Clapton's life has been dogged by domestic tragedy. Nevertheless, Henderson appreciates fans wishing him greater fame, and after 10 albums and an ever-robust touring schedule, he's finally figured out how to answer fans who wish he had more: "If I was as big as you want me to be, we wouldn't be here talking. You couldn't be asking about my next gig; I'd be sealed off somewhere on a plane, and you couldn't hear me for only 10 bucks. I'd be gone forever."

A down-home guy, Henderson still gives thanks for never having to wear the dreaded suit and tie, fight rush hour traffic, or punch the clock. After four decades on stage, he plays exactly what he wants to play, and no one tells him otherwise; yet this member of the local rock aristocracy is also a blue-collar working man whose most heroic feat has been raising four kids on six strings. "And a better father than a guitarist," declares Duchess, his wife of 28 years, in their domestic, middle-class paradise in Garland.

"How'm I as a husband?" nudges Bugs.
"Let's just leave it at wonderful father," replies Duchess.
Henderson makes it policy to tell hired backup musicians the order of importance in his life: Family first, music second, and career third. "I couldn't have the life I have now and be a major star. Couldn't go to my kids' ball games. I wouldn't give up that for anything."

In fact, Henderson's current musical "organization," the Shuffle Kings, consists of his 19-year-old son, Buddy, on drums; his 16-year-old son, Cody, as tech; and brothers Keith and Steve Jones on bass and merchandising, respectively. Thus, the title of his new Live at Poor David's CD: Henderson & Jones.

No matter how tough things got--and the Hendersons suffered through poverty during his battle with drugs back in the 1970s--Duchess always stood by him as an artist, the security of a nine-to-five job be damned. "She saved my life. I came home one day, and she was gone, with a note sayin' 'Get it together, and I'll be back.' I laid it [drugs] down that day. I'd taken her and my family for granted--for dope. The evil empire. I hate to say there's no way around it, but I don't know anybody who's been untouched by dope in this business. Most of the people I ran with then are dead, in jail, or just look terrible. With God's help and good friends, I came out of it."

There was a time when everything he owned fit into a VW Beetle. "Now I'm lookin' at two or three movin' vans. But it's just stuff."

Henderson, now 54, never lost a moment's sleep over his receding hairline, and thinks nothing of getting up on stage in shorts and tennis shoes, much to the chagrin of blues purists. At a 1996 biker concert, Harley-Davidson awarded him a first-place plaque for "Men's Prettiest Legs," which hangs in his study, along with numerous Dallas Observer "Best Blues" awards. Women half his age still clamor for discarded guitar picks. It's disarming to encounter the daytime image of Bugs, where he might pass for somebody's uncle in the aluminum-siding business. But come the night on stage, no one could deny the fact that Bugs is one sexy dude.

Because of his all-too-casual stage wear and his bag of rock guitarist's tricks, Henderson raises eyebrows among blues hardliners, yet he helped pioneer the ongoing revival of the blues. Still, virtually no blues festivals will book him today.

"People literally used to throw ashtrays at us when we would play blues," he remembers, recalling his band Fancy Space and the Rockin' Rhythm Daddies. At that time, in the early '70s, he was among the first to uphold the back-to-basics approach. "Blues was all that mattered to me; no other music was worth a damn. If you had any success, you were no good, cause you couldn't have success and be a real artist; you had to starve to play blues."

Henderson gradually adopted a more liberal guitar attitude and today dips into a melting pot of styles--to the point where he now takes grief from Austin's blues nazis, some of whom won't share a stage with him. Yet it's clear he never abandoned the blues. "There's rock in my blues, and blues in my rock," goes one of his lyrics. "But you're expected to play it only one way," he adds. "And I will not do three-chord blues all night. It's great that the blues have happened where you now have all these blues societies, newsletters, and clubs. I'm so happy for B.B. and guys like that. But there's a lotta guys who don't do it great, they just dress up. And let's face it--every old black guy is not a great blues artist."

Those who wish Bugs greater fame also wonder if he's ever jealous of peers like Stevie Ray Vaughan. "What happened for Stevie happened for all of us," Henderson insists, noting that Vaughan complimented Bugs in interviews. "He drew attention to what we were doin'. God bless him."

Like other players in Dallas, Henderson was tight with Freddie King. "We actually played more poker than we did music." When Henderson joined the rock band Nitzinger in the early '70s, Freddie King shared many concert bills. "For God's sake, Freddie used to open for us," he recalls. "It was ridiculous, sickening. Because he was great. We were both managed by Showco. But it didn't matter to him; he killed us. He'd get two or three encores, just drain the audience. He never left the stage without being top dog daddy. And then we'd go out there and jump around playing a rock song."

The European market has embraced Bugs Henderson and the Shuffle Kings as American royalty. "Anytime you need an ego lift, man, it's magnificent," says Henderson, who racked up record sales there long before hooking up with a promoter. His last European tour was 27 dates in 28 days--playing concert halls, clubs, and festivals. "They always knew who we were," Henderson says of his European fans, "and had everything I'd ever done wrapped in plastic, even sessions I'd played on." Henderson was overwhelmed in Austria, where a chartered bus from Sweden awaited his arrival, its occupants waving flags emblazoned with the titles to Bugs' songs.

On the road, Henderson has a "no drinkin', no drugs policy," and it has occasionally complicated his life. A few years back, his then-bass wizard, Chris Brewer, would disappear from the tour entourage after hours, insisting that the time between shows was his business alone and maintaining that he was so good that he should be exempt from Henderson's rule. Since Henderson does not give urine tests, young Brewer went hog wild.

In Madrid, Brewer got rolled by hookers. When it was time to leave Madrid, Brewer, aroused from a near-coma in the tour bus, his clothes unchanged for days, couldn't produce his wallet, his passport, or his plane tickets. There were over 20 dates to go. "We couldn't get into the next country; the promoter freaked," recalls Henderson. That's when current bassist Keith Jones was summoned to Europe. He'd been working in a fast-food restaurant and left in two days to save the tour.

Brewer returned to Dallas, indignant that Henderson still owed him $300 for his last gig, raving to all who would listen: "Bugs didn't warn me Madrid was the European capital of thieves. How was I supposed to know to be careful?"

Several years ago, Les Paul heard Henderson at a show, then sent an invitation to appear at his 75th birthday celebration at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York. "Duchess and I went, and everyone in the world was there. I had a tape with me for a small independent label that had expressed interest [in his American Music album]. Seymor Duncan introduced me to Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, and [Atlantic Records founder and industry titan] Ahmet Ertegun. I told him I had a tape in my pocket. He gave me this look, rolling his eyes. But he handed it to a lady assistant.

"About a month later, I got a call from this secretary, raving about it. She goes, 'Who are you, did you write these songs, are you the one who handed this tape to us at that party? We're really interested, Mr. Ertegun loves it.' You know, I've heard this shit so many times. I always said I'd never believe it again. But they hooked me. She calls more times, I sent 'em more tapes. And then, finally, he calls me at my house. Tells me how much he loves my stuff. I'm just blown away."

Then came the proverbial "but." Ertegun explained. He ran it by his "people" at their Monday meeting, and they didn't buy it, didn't think it fit into the generic radio format. But Ertegun would keep trying. "He called back two weeks later, says, 'It's not happening--they weren't interested.' I said, 'Explain it to me. You're the guy, the boss, you love it, but you can't sell me to your own label?' He said, 'It's like Sammy Davis Jr.--an incredible entertainer, works all he wants, makes a lot of money, but can't get a record deal.' He asked that if I do studio work, stay in touch--but I could never get to him again." (If Ertegun had any balls, he could have thrown his flabby weight around and put Bugs on board. With such promotion, it is quite possible Henderson would now be as big as ZZ Top.)

But you won't hear Henderson insulting MTV or any fad of the industry. "What's bad music? Are the Spice Girls bad, or just not very good? Would I buy one of their records? Certainly not." But he is well aware that it's meaningful to adolescents. His teenage daughter's room is covered with Hanson pictures. His 16-year-old son Cody's room is tie-die, lava lamps, and Hendrix posters. "I am blessed because I love music. There is hardly anybody that I won't listen to." His sons got him A Portrait Of Sinatra for Christmas, something he wouldn't have listened to in the '60s but loves now.

Henderson's own father, an oil business geophysicist, forbade his son to play guitar for money. Local dances were OK, but clubs with alcohol were off limits. In high school, Henderson snuck out to catch gigs. Ronnie Weiss, frontman of Bugs' 1960s folk-rock band, Mouse & the Traps, got him started. Mouse & the Traps charted with "Public Execution"--recognized by no less an authority than Lenny Kaye as an essential garage-rock classic, which he included on his Nuggets compilation--and opened for acts like Sonny & Cher and the Byrds. "I saw Mouse in assembly at high school, when I was into Elvis. He played 'Money Honey' and 'I'm Walkin',' and girls were screaming," Bugs says.

Guitar-playing came naturally; Henderson never had to hole up for hours practicing. Instead, he bought any record that had a picture of a guitar on it: Chet Atkins, Link Wray, the Ventures, Ricky Nelson. He idolized Nelson's guitar player, James Burton. "I've now got videotapes of him and me doing 'Hello, Mary Lou' in two-part harmony. That fact is amazing to me."

Henderson worked in a Tyler record store in the early '60s. By the late '60s, Henderson was the house guitarist at Tyler's Robin Hood studio. He can scarcely remember most of the sessions, other than one with Ike & Tina Turner. Though he was paid only $7.50 per side, "I was happy to do it, got to play all the time."

At present, Henderson is on a roll. He releases an album per year. The most commercially successful--and perhaps his personal favorite--was 1994's Daredevils of the Red Guitar. Each album displays his deepening sense of lyrics and seasoned improvement on vocals. He contemplates the audacity of laying down his guitar someday, like George Benson did, and walking on stage with just a vocal mike. But it'll never happen. "I know people wanna hear my guitar. Too many notes and tricks? That's what I do," he says, and what of it? "I still want to be the best ever."

Bugs Henderson plays Poor David's Pub on Saturday, February 21, which will be Henderson & Jones album release party. He returns to the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth on Saturday, March 14.

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