The King's man

"Jr. Boy" Jones played with them all--now, he plays for himself

Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones has long been a hero of mine, but until last week, I had never heard his name. He can be heard playing on a handful of the greatest songs ever recorded in and released from this city; he was, for two years, a member of one of Dallas' greatest, if forgotten, bands. The songs to which he lent his guitar will live forever even if no one knows they exist: "You Just Got to Understand" is one, a feisty rave-up that recalls the best of the music coming from Stax/Volt during the time; "Don't Be So Mean"--a taunting, gritty, lowdown soul-brother groove--is another. The best-known of the lot is a little something-something called "T.C.B. or T.Y.A.," dug up recently for the six-disc soulfest Beg, Shout & Scream!, where it sits in between tracks by such immortals as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown.

In the late 1960s, Bobby Patterson and the Mustangs recorded for insurance salesman John Abdnor's Abnak/Jetstar labels. They were making sweet soul music at the corner of Ross and Olive, becoming the truest kind of legends--men whose names have been relinquished to the small-type footnotes of history, whose accomplishments have been forgotten by all but the most loyal and obsessive of fetishists. And Andrew Jones was one of those Mustangs, and along with Patterson and Bobby Simpson and Ronald Brewster and other men long off the stage and out of sight, he tore it up and turned it out with a nasty brand of soul that often came this close to becoming rock and roll.

"It was a special time for me," Jones says now, sitting in Daddy Jack's in Deep Ellum--right across the street from The Bone, where, painted on the wall, is a sign advertising a performance by the very same Jr. Boy Jones on June 17. "A lot what we did back then still influences me today--the sound, the energy, the discipline. It was an important time."

But it was not the only time for Jr. Boy Jones; he's not one of those guys coasting on well-preserved memories of erstwhile accomplishments. His stint with the Mustangs is just a small portion of the resume, a few seconds in a lifetime. He will be 50 this year, and though one blues magazine recently referred to Jones as an "up-and-coming modern blues guitarist," his is a story that begins with a stint backing up Texas blues immortal Freddie King when he was just a teenager; includes cameos by B.B. King, Muddy Waters, blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite, and soul stirrer Johnnie Taylor; and continues with last week's release of Jones' second album as a frontman, Watch What You Say.

He's no up-and-comer at all, nor is he a weary veteran on last legs. Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones is just a terrific blues guitarist who shared stages with myths and remained very much a mortal, one more unsung Dallas-born journeyman who remained in town for most of his life and, as such, stayed just inches out of the spotlight. Until the release of 1997's I Need Time--his debut on Rounder Records' Bullseye Blues division, his first record as a frontman--Jones was one of those guys hidden in the fine-print credits, a backup to so many better-known bluesmen.

But don't be fooled by the late start: Jones is an old-school purist who's the sum of all his experience and influences but still very much his own man. He's a revivalist and a revisionist all at once, his sound clean and wide open but prone to take some fierce turns without any warning. Listening to Watch What You Say, with its strip-tease organ and Jones' elegant way of bending a string till it sings, you're reminded of B.B. King without the Hollywood polish, Jimmie Vaughan with even more room to breathe, T-Bone Walker with a capricious sense of humor.

"But I hear music the way Freddie did it," Jones says, embracing his mentor. "It might be smoother or prettier, but basically, it's him. It's not on purpose. It's just the vocabulary. When you play tunes from your heart, you're not hearing any certain person. You're just hearing a sound."

Jones was raised in the projects of East Dallas, where he moved at the age of 7 shortly after his parents divorced. His neighborhood was the stomping grounds for such soulmen as Al "TNT" Braggs and a kid named Bobby Patterson and so many other musicians; he can remember seeing men walking through the neighborhood carrying their guitar cases, on the way to a gig or a friend's house for a little back-porch jam session. The way Jones recalls it, it seems almost quaint, romantic: musical paradise in the projects.

"Guys would sit around playing old electric stuff and Bobby Bland stuff, you name it," he says. "I would hear music all the time." Jones' mother had been a singer herself in the 1940s; she performed with Adolphus Sneed and his band the Southern Swingsters, who were pretty much the house band in Corpus Christi during the early 1950s, playing to crowds of thousands at the Coconut Grove on the pier. It was Sneed who got Jr. Boy, so named by his aunt, playing guitar when he was still a little kid. But, Jones says now, his love for guitar went far beyond Sneed's encouragement.

"I always had a fascination with guitars," he recalls. "I don't know why, but I used to watch Ernest Tubb and all those country-and-western guys. Actually, I heard a lot of music around the house too, because my mom would play a lot of Jimmy Reed and Brook Benton and a lot of good music. And she sang around the house all the time. Her singing days were over, but she still liked to belt it out. She's still trying to belt out 'St. Louis Blues,' and she's 81."

Jones played a little guitar in high school, jamming with friends and older guys at local dives in South Dallas; he'd get paid in pocket change and potato chips. All that would change when he was 16, sitting in his mother's living room one afternoon and playing guitar when a knock came at the door. Sleepy Clemons, a sax player who lived up the street from the Jones' home, asked Andrew's mother if he could take her boy to South Dallas; Clemons didn't even say why, just that there was somebody her little guitar-player ought to meet.

"We ended going over to where the band was, and this guy introduced me to the band, and I ended up rehearsing with them," Jones recalls. "I was kinda quiet back in those days. I had butterflies, and Freddie King came in while we were rehearsing. He said, 'Who's that over there?' And Sleepy said, 'Freddie, that's Jr. Boy.' And he said, 'Oh, yeah? You mean little boy, doncha?'" Jones laughs. "That done lightened the load.

"And he saw my guitar, this little Kingston she bought at this pawn shop, and he said, 'What's that you got there?' I told him it was my guitar, and he said, 'Let me see it?' I took it to him, and he put on this big thumb pick and this metal finger pick, and, man, he went to playin' and pullin' on the strings, and there were strings poppin' all over the place. As you can imagine, my eyes were wide open, and when he gave the guitar back to me, he said, 'Aw, man, this is Mickey Mouse.' Scared me, man. Scared me."

Jones joined Clemons in a band called Thunderbirds and ended up playing with King on the weekends; they would tour Texas and Oklahoma, playing every palace and shithouse between here and nowhere. But his mother never much cared for her little boy hanging around with all the King's men; too much drinking and carousing for her tastes, and she was scared her son would be ruined by men more than twice his age.

"I couldn't hang," Jones recalls of those days. "It was an eye-opening experience. I was comin' right out of my mom's living room into something like that. But the guys looked after me. It was cool. It was a valuable situation for me to be in, because I learned a lot. But it was not a situation my mom preferred. She just went along with it. It was almost like being an adult."

During those days, King and his band kept an apartment on Fourth Avenue in South Dallas; it was there King held court with so many of the blues greats who would stop through town--Lowell Fulson, Big Joe Turner, and Oak Cliff's own Aaron "T-Bone" Walker among them. They would hang at King's pad, drinking and playing away the long afternoons before they had to get back to the clubs or the studio; it was an idyllic lifestyle for a child who got to drink the blues straight from the bottle.

"The first time I met B.B. King, I was with Freddie," Jones recalls. "He took me backstage and introduced him, and I remember B.B. and Freddie talking once about bringing the blues into the mainstream. B.B. said that." Theirs would be a tenuous partnership, at best: Andrew would learn much from Freddie, but the cost was being subjected, day in and night out, to King's constant teasing. He made fun of his age, his being a mama's boy; King was by then a recording star, having scored a hit with "Hideaway" in 1961, and he found endless pleasure in giving grief to a teenager who wanted to be just like him.

Jones would end up leaving King and joining Patterson when Bobby started putting together his Mustangs; most of the guys were friends of Patterson's from Sherman, but he had seen Jones play in a local club and was impressed enough with his style and savvy to sign him up. Mom was once more wary of the setup, but Patterson convinced her it was a safer situation than touring with King; after all, John Abdnor was going to put Andrew on salary, pay him to make music, and keep him out of trouble.

The Mustangs would score only one regional hit, "T.C.B. or T.Y.A.," in 1969; Jones would play with Bobby for just 18 months before the whole setup "self-destructed," in Jones' words, out of frustration and disappointment. After a contract dispute with Abdnor, famous for holding tightly to his bands and money, Jones would spend much of the early '70s playing in various pick-up bands.

In 1973, King was in town and found Jones playing at the original Red Jacket on Maple in a band with a frontman even Jones doesn't remember; could have been anybody, whoever would pay the bills. King, by then signed to Leon Russell's Shelter Records label, sat in with Jones and offered him a job one more time, which Jones gladly took. "It beat what I was doing at the time," Jones says. Jones would stay with King--and record with him, appearing on one track on the all-star blowout Larger than Life--for a few years, though he would never tour overseas with King. Once, he had contracted pneumonia; more often, he would just beg off the road, if only because he had grown tired of King's taunts and, surprisingly, his music.

By then, Jones had become enamored of jazz-rock, bands like Tower of Power and Rare Earth, who had been tourmates of King's for a while; back then, white rockers often adopted black bluesman as their heroes-of-the-moment, treating them less as idols than as creaky icons who could loan out their cred. But Jones was hooked on their fusion sound, and he became convinced the blues was too small a sound to contain his ambitions. By the time Jones had decided to rejoin King in 1976, the bluesmaster was on his death bed, and he would die later that year.

"I always had to wonder about how Freddie felt about me, because he would tease me all the time," Jones recalls. "Looking back, I should be grateful for the things that he did for me. He didn't have to come pick me up and take me to shows and introduce me to all those people, like Muddy Waters. I mean, Muddy shook my hand and spent a little time talking to me, telling me, 'I can tell you're a guitar player.' It was amazing, now that I realize what it was."

Jones would try his hand in funk-rock bands--landing in one, The Creators, who had a deal with RCA Records for about 13 seconds--and ended up playing with Johnnie "Disco Lady" Taylor for a while, but in 1987 he moved to Los Angeles to play with Katie Webster, who had a deal with Alligator Records. But Jones was unhappy in L.A. and wanted to move back; he stayed only at the insistence of harpist Charlie Musselwhite, perhaps the last of the great Chicago harmonica-blowing bluesmen, who was then living in San Francisco. Theirs was a partnership that would last several years and a few albums.

But Jr. Boy wanted to come home, and when he did, he fell in with the regulars at R.L. Griffin's Arandas Club in South Dallas, where the house band--named the Lowlifers by Jones, though some guys in the band might argue with that--tore it up till Griffin decided he was good and ready to take the stage. In time, he'd hook up with John Steadman, who would release Jones' debut I Need Time on his tiny JSP label until Rounder picked it up for distribution and signed Jones to a multidisc deal.

The result is two albums as polished and powerful as a shiny 1977 Cadillac fresh from the used-car lot; you'd never know it belonged to someone else unless you checked the registration. They're the perfect kind of blues records for the late 1990s, two steps forward and only one backward--they keeps moving even as they looks over their shoulder.

"I've tried to be a different guitar player over the years," Jones says. "Being around Freddie a lot, I sounded a lot like him--a lot of his licks--and I was trying hard not to sound like him. It wasn't that I wanted to be my own self, but it wasn't the style I wanted at the time. Whatever you hear is what you become. But when it came around to really finding myself, I realized I had to be true to myself. Whatever comes out of here"--he touches his chest--"is who I am."

Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones performs June 17 at The Bone and June 27 at Muddy Waters.

When the 'bullet hits the bone
Band breakups are getting mighty formal these days: The second one in as many weeks came through the fax, this time bearing the bad news that Beth Clardy has decided it's time to bite the rubberbullet and leave the band she and Earl Harvin co-founded five long years ago--or was it six? Even Clardy doesn't recall. It was not a decision she considered lightly. In an interview last week, Clardy said she has been thinking about doing her own thing for more than a year now; it was then that she first hooked up with Josh Doherty (formerly of Earl, better known as the Li'l Toadies) and began writing songs and contemplating the future.

She had grown frustrated with rubberbullet's status as an on-again-way-off-again band, subject to Harvin's demanding schedule with his own jazz band and his touring and recording stints with Seal. But it all came to a head a few weeks ago, when Clardy and Harvin had a sitdown and the singer-songwriter expressed her desires to move on.

"Earl and I had a long talk about things, and we talked about how I was growing, and he only encourages that," Clardy says. "He always had. I said I was interested in moving along and doing my own things, and I wanted to wrap things up with rubberbullet before I did that. Rubberbullet kind of is in effect about five to six months out of the year, which is fine because we're all busy and doing our own stuff. But I started out on rubberbullet really involved in it, and I got to be where I needed to be involved in it again or put it down for good."

Rubberbullet leaves behind one EP, one full-length disc, and a couple of seven-inch singles--a rather small legacy when you consider the promise and personnel this band had from the get-go. Early on, rubberbullet--which, at the beginning, also featured Aaron Berlin and Richard Paul--was like Courtney Love fronting Ornette Coleman's punk-rock band; they made a beautiful noise. But relationships fall apart when husbands and wives see each other only a few months out of the year, and the end was inevitable. Hell, most people probably thought the band had broken up two years ago.

But Clardy is wasting no time, if only because she's had plenty: She's now playing bass and singing in a yet-to-be-named band that features former tomorrowperson Ben Burt, Ian Persons (ex of Record Player), and Doherty. But they will lay low for a while longer: Clardy says the band will likely not even perform until the end of the year or the beginning of 1999.

"We all have input on the songwriting, and we enjoy it as a place to have fun after so many serious relationships," she says, laughing. "I personally don't know if I could try to repeat rubberbullet, because it was its own thing. This new thing, I don't know really, it's definitely a rock band, and I don't think I would have titled rubberbullet a rock band. It's a little harder around the edges, but it's probably just a little more...it seems to be going in a more straightforward approach to songwriting. But it's so young. I feel really good with wherever I'm going. It's exciting not to know."

Scene, heard
Well, it seems as though the Old 97's will not be joining Billy Bragg on his forthcoming tour supporting the brand-new Mermaid Avenue (reviewed in Out There, page 77). As reported here a couple of weeks ago, the 97's were contenders to replace Wilco--who are scheduled to be in the studio this summer recording their third album--as Bragg's bandmates on the tour; but at the last minute, Bragg decided to put together his own band and not use his labelmates after all. The reasons for the decision are not clear; all Elektra publicist Brian Gross will say is that "it just didn't work out," insisting Bragg just wanted to use his own players and that it wasn't a battle of bruised egos. "It was nothing personal," Gross says. Still, you have to wonder why in the hell Wilco isn't touring behind a record it wrote and played on; can't they wait just a few weeks longer before they go into the studio? It all seems a little ridiculous, but who cares: The tour isn't even scheduled to come to town at this point anyway.

Send Street Beat tips, gripes, and other nonsense to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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