The maitre d' of R&B
Up on stage, sliding coolly in a juke joint pas de deux, Elvis T. Busboy is decidedly not your average R&B crooner. With his linebacker's physique, slicked-back Bobby Darin hair and a Mephistophelean goatee that predates slacker fashion, Busboy looks like some boyish union of Wolfman Jack and a pro wrestler. That's the least of the incongruities which define this 26-year-old white guy who wants to jump-start the oft-forgotten sound of vintage rhythm and blues.
It's an obscure mission, but it's gaining momentum. Backed by the Texas Blues Butchers, a trio, Elvis T. blasts through the decades with evangelical zeal, resurrecting everything from Robert Johnson to Marvin Gaye. With his tendency to hop on the bar or stroll through the crowd sans microphone, booming out Freddie King's "Same Old Blues" or Little Joe Blue's "Dirty Work," Elvis T. is far beyond the average lounge hack.
Since the band's casual inception in Lubbock in August of '92, Busboy has become a staple in Dallas joints like Muddy Waters, and word is slowly spreading to nightclubs across Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. If no one expected this gregarious Anglo with the muscular voice to carry the torch for a genre most familiar to the MTV generation through Animal House's Otis Day and the Knights, well, for Elvis T., it's a labor of love.
"I hated listening to the radio in the '70s," he remembers over a late afternoon iced tea in a bar where everyone else is swilling Pearl. Busboy (real name: Stephen Shaw) is casually dressed, giving no indication of his onstage predilection for Jimmie Vaughan-style hipster threads.
"I grew up in Hobbs, New Mexico," he continues, "and my parents had these three albums that I listened to over and over: one by the Everly Brothers, one by Elvis Presley, and one by Buddy Holly." Inspired, Shaw started experimenting with anything that wasn't on the radio. The results were a bit unorthodox for a junior-high kid in a New Mexican oil town: "When I got old enough, the first record I bought for myself was the American Graffiti soundtrack, [from which] I discovered Chuck Berry. I kind of went from Chuck Berry to Otis Redding to Muddy Waters, but that was too fast, so I had to back up. I kinda detoured through the Allman Brothers to B.B. King, and he just opened up the sky."
Surely in Hobbs--or anyplace else where Flock of Seagulls or Van Halen held radio sway--Shaw's musical tastes couldn't have helped much with schoolyard popularity. "Well, I played every sport, which helped. (Then) I hid my R&B stuff and started experimenting with heavy metal." Shaw sips his iced tea and chortles: "It didn't work out. We started with, say, Def Leppard, and it seems like Krokus was in there. Then one kid tried to get me to listen to KISS and that was pretty much the final straw." By his junior year, Shaw had moved with his widowed mother to Lubbock and his listening habits changed yet again.
"Well, when I got out of heavy metal, I got into what were the foundations of rap, stuff like Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Whodini, and Kurtis Blow," he says. "I started hanging out with this black guy named Reggie, and he got me back into listening to Sam Cooke and Otis and James Brown, and I turned him onto rap."
A little later, Shaw couldn't help but notice the guy with the picture in his notebook of Elvis Presley, so he struck up a conversation and found that the two shared a love of blues, R&B, and prototypical rock 'n' roll.
"We'd pass notes back and forth--incomplete lyric sheets from all these obscure old tunes--and the other guy would have until two classes later to correctly supply the missing lyrics," Shaw remembers. "So we had our own songwriting trivia class along with everything else we were studying. That guy's still a close friend of mine."
It's possible that Shaw would have realized his plans for medical school, but a part-time job as a roadie for a Lubbock bandleader named P.J. Belly changed everything: Shaw found out that he could carry a tune. "We went down in '89 and did the folk festival in Kerrville, and he asked if I wanted to get up and sing; I said sure. I didn't have time to think about it long enough to be nervous," Shaw says. He blasted through the only tune he knew, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right (Mama)," and it worked. When Belly opened his own club in Lubbock in January the following year, Shaw became the singing cook.
"By that point, I knew three songs," he says. "So I'd be in back cooking, and he'd bring me out and I'd do "That's Alright Mama," "Folsom Prison Blues," and "Runaway." Then I'd go back until the kitchen closed, and (then) I'd sing again."
Friends had already started calling him "Elvis," out of his habit of answering the phone in a pseudo-Presley voice. "Busboy" came from the whole singing-cook scenario--straight out of King Creole. "The King was a busboy," Shaw recalls, "and they'd holler, 'You wanna hear the busboy sing?' So I was Elvis the Busboy, and the 'the' got shortened to 'T.'"
Shaw was soon a featured performer, but his burgeoning popularity was starting to overshadow the band and he was let go. He started working with bands all over town and eventually crossed paths with the Blues Butchers, a side project of Lubbock's premiere '80s band, The Nelsons.
Though the Nelsons had played on Farm Aid and toured with Culture Club, the group was struggling and had formed the Butchers to get blues gigs; with Shaw sitting in, the project was soon getting steady work--without the members ever formally declaring themselves a band.
"It was strange," Shaw smiles. "They were a terrific rock 'n' roll band trying to play the blues, and they literally were butchering it. Now, though, there are nights--quite a lot of them--when they are just a crack R&B outfit."
Jobs came so steadily that, a year ago, Shaw moved to Dallas to help the booking process. While the members of the Butchers still live in Lubbock, the Elvis T. phenomenon is rapidly becoming a career concept. The band is booked several nights a week well into next autumn, and the territory it plays is spreading like a pool of molasses.
"This is more than I'd ever hoped for," Shaw says. "Kevin Mackey and John Sprott played some amazing gigs with some big-time people in the Nelsons, and they'll tell you that this band gets a good reaction faster than anything they've been involved with. The response has just been mind-boggling."
Is Elvis T. Busboy and the Texas Blues Butchers milking a nostalgia gig, a la the Blues Brothers, or is there cause to speculate on the marketability of a contemporary R&B band?
"It's kinda interesting," Shaw says. "You hear blues everywhere now. It's mainstream--and that clearly wasn't the case 10 years ago. We just go and play in blues bars."
Clearly, the idea works--few trot out classic R&B in the fresh, contemporary fashion of Busboy and company, at least in the mainstream clubs--but what future is there beyond an endless circuit of gigs for beer-swilling frat guys?
The key lies in original material, which could take the band to the next level. "That's been our big holdup," Shaw says, "trying to write songs that fit into the classic R&B framework that we like, that match up."
Shaw and Sprott have to date written several tunes which percolate nicely alongside their classic covers, and plan to release an independent CD sometime this summer. Then, if they can transcend the party-band label, it's possible Elvis T. Busboy and the Texas Blues Butchers can re-invigorate a musical style rich in lore and heavy with groove that's lamentably been largely forgotten by today's songwriters.
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