Despite fronting one of the most talented bands in Los Angeles for better than 20 years, keyboard playing songbird Teresa James has pretty much flown under the radar in the international blues community.
Sure, she was a 2008 Blues Music Awards nominee for contemporary female vocalist of the year. But was also a devoted mom raising two young children at the time, which restricted extensive touring. Now that the kids are grown and on their own, however, she’s definitely on the verge of the common showbiz complaint of becoming an “overnight” success despite a career that’s endured for decades.
If you have any doubt, check the results of the 2019 Grammys. She and her skin-tight group, The Rhythm Tramps – a unit composed of a roster of first-call session players and other top musicians better known for their work with other groups — made it to the finals. Their CD, Here In Babylon, was self-produced with no thought about such an honor, and it was recorded in three days with minimal overdubs.
Teresa and her cohorts deliver a strong taste of blues, soul, honkytonk, Cajun, Southern rock, zydeco and roots with a strong, silky-smooth Texas roadhouse feel – not surprising when you consider that James and most of her bandmates have Houston. The music they produce is guaranteed to keep you tapping your feet or up on the dancefloor.
Blues Blast caught up with Teresa in mid-April a few moments after husband Terry Wilson – who does duties as the band’s bass player, band leader and principal songwriter — had pulled out of their driveway in Santa Clarita, Calif., with the Rhythm Tramps’ gear in tow. He was headed east to prepare for a brief tour of the Lone Star State with Teresa and her dad soon flying out to join him.
“My dad’s the biggest music fan I’ve ever known,” James says proudly. “He wakes up at 95 today with a song in his head,” she says. “He’ll sing me songs – every verse — he learned in grammar school. He knows a million of ‘em, and turned me on to so much great music when I was a kid.”
Retired from a life as a self-employed insurance and real estate broker, he’s an amateur guitar player who hosted jams for family and friends with Teresa’s late mom throughout the singer’s childhood.
“He listened to everything from western music – Marty Robbins, Hank Williams and The Sons Of The Pioneers — to blues, Dixieland and zydeco,” she says, “a lot of Western swing, too — such happy music, and bluesy, too! And he loved Julie London. Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Ian and Sylvia, too. We listened to a lot of folk music, too.
“The only thing he didn’t listen to was rock-‘n’-roll. Even today, he’s got a huge iTunes collection, which he plays from the minute he gets up to the minute he goes to bed.”
Teresa took classical piano lessons beginning at age five, which lasted until high school, and her father – who rarely played outside the home — taught her guitar, the only musical training she received before taking voice lessons much later in her professional career.
But Dad was right at her side when she fell in love with performing. The incident came when Teresa was in fourth grade and father and daughter worked together as a duet on six-string and vocals to entertain the class.
“I remember thinking that was the funnest thing ever,” she says. “We were studying Australia at the time, and I sang ‘Waltzing Matilda.’
“That same year, we signed up for the local talent show at the park by our house. From there, we got to go to the big talent show at an auditorium against folks from other parks. It was on a stage with a spotlight and everything, and I thought: ‘Gosh! This is the coolest!’”
She still chuckles when she thinks about her favorite song to perform back then, noting: “My big number was about making moonshine!”
After seeing both Townes Van Zandt – the legendary folk singer who penned “Pancho And Lefty,” a tune made famous by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson — and first-generation blues superstar Lightnin’ Hopkins in concert, she was hooked.
“Lightnin’ was just all by himself with a guitar on stage at the University Of Houston coffeehouse, and I’d grown up listening to his records with my dad,” Teresa says. “His version of ‘Trouble In Mind’ will always be the one that I hear in my head for sure!
“I always sang. When I was going through my mom’s stuff after she passed away, I found an old notebook I used in first grade to practice handwriting. In it, I wrote really, really neat: ‘I love to sing. When I sing, you know I am happy.’
“Luckily, I learned how to do it good enough and sound good enough that people will pay me to do it. That’s the goal, isn’t it? Being able to do something you love to do.”
Folk music must have made the most immediate impression because Teresa’s first group was a folk duo in high school. But her tastes and singing style changed dramatically after she started listening to Aretha Franklin’s gospel records and Billie Holiday’s jazz. Although vastly different in their choice of tunes, their similar vocal delivery immediately caught her ear.
“I just love the way they wrapped the musical melody around the phrase,” Teresa says now. “They taught me how to manipulate the song without losing the intent of the heart of the melody. They’d stretch it and move it around, but never lost it.”
It’s a technique that’s not practiced much by today’s younger generation of vocalists, she says. “I miss that now because you don’t hear melody much anymore. Now, it’s more ‘look at me, look what I can do. I can go fast. I can go high. I can go low. I can sound like I have auto-tune on my voice or whatever.’
“To me, though, being a good singer is all about the feeling. It’s singing the song in a way that touches people emotionally.”
Other artists who’ve made a major impression on her include Janis Joplin and Gregg Allman.
“Janis taught me honesty and being in the moment,” James says. “Every time I sing, I try to get to the point where my head’s not engaged. That’s when the most magical moments happen. I love it when I’m singing something and it happens, and I go: ‘Whoa! Where did that come from?’”
And Gregg’s voice, she says, was full of “earthy soul and genuine emotion that I can relate to on a very emotional level.”
Her love for Allman is so great that she paid tribute to him on Here In Babylon with the bittersweet ballad, “The Day The Blues Come To Call.” Co-written with Wilson, it recounts the first time Teresa heard him sing “Whipping Post” and mourns the day he joined brother Duane in the Great Beyond.
With high school behind her, switched to folk-rock then what she terms “some really whacked rock stuff” in college along with solo piano gigs at area hotels before hooking up with a Houston-based Cuban songwriter who was heavily influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
“It was a really interesting mix of styles, three-part harmonies atop of a Cuban beat,” she says. “I always considered myself a ‘blue-collar’ musician. I’ve always made my living that way, which is probably one reason why my career hasn’t gone a lot farther quicker. My thing has always been that if somebody asks ‘do you wanna sing,’ I say ‘yeah — what is it?’”
If you have any doubt, a quick glance at Teresa’s resume will convince you she’s telling the truth.
She’s worked on hundreds of demos for other artists and recorded or toured with Burt Bacharach, Bill Medley, Spencer Davis, Eric Burdon and even Mickey Mouse among many, many others. Her silky smooth voice has been featured in ads for McDonald’s, Michelob and Barbie, and her tunes have appeared in Toy Story 3 and other films as well as TV’s Ellen, The Simpsons and as the theme for Reba.
She’s also served as a vocal coach for a diverse group of entertainers that Andie MacDowell, Tommy Castro and even the Rockettes, the world-famous dance troupe based at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
James’ move toward the blues came, she says, after she encountered Wilson. “I was living in Houston,” Teresa recalls. “It was 1979, and Terry came back through Houston at Christmas time.”
He was traveling from England along with future Grammy-winning drummer/producer/actor Tony Braunagel and headed to Los Angeles, where the duo were planning to set up a new base of operations.
“A mutual friend of ours had to put a band together for his wife’s office Christmas party,” she says. “That’s how we met.”
She and Wilson courted for a couple of years before hooking up for good, long after Terry had made a name for himself as a fixture in the rhythm section of two true superstars: pop and reggae singer Johnny Nash and Eric Burdon, the soulful British vocalist who founded both the ‘60s blues-rock powerhouse, The Animals – best known for their 1964 international hit version of “House Of The Rising Sun”, and Long Beach, Calif.-based funk-rock/fusion band, War.
Four decades later, Wilson still holds down the bass chair in Burton’s band, and Teresa has occasionally joined them on the road to add her voice to the mix.
Terry’s back story is interesting in and of itself.
Like both Nash and Teresa who were born in Houston, Terry has strong roots there despite being born in Arkansas. His background also includes touring with both Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jimmy Reed.
He and Braunagel — the percussionist who divides his time between Taj Mahal and Phantom Blues Band and Robert Cray and producing – attended college together and, in the process, formed what would become an enduring, rock-solid rhythm section that rocketed out of Space City and toured the world.
They met Nash – a chart-topper with such hits as “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Tears On My Pillow” – after first taking their act to New York City. When Johnny traveled to the UK, they accompanied him, joining forces with another future star, John “Rabbit” Bundrick, who’s toured with The Who as their keyboard player since the early ‘90s.
Nash returned to the States, but his bandmates remained behind. Wilson and Braunagel quickly hooked up with Paul Kossoff – former lead guitarist of proto-heavy metal band Free — to form Back Street Crawler, a hard-hitting blues-rock ensemble.
Kossoff succumbed to a drug-induced heart attack in 1976 aboard a flight from Los Angeles to New York shortly before Back Street Crawler was scheduled to release their second LP, and the unit continued without him, issuing two more records before disbanding in 1978.
Longing to get back into their Texas blues roots despite still being based in London, Wilson and Braunagel formed what would become the first iteration of what would become Teresa’s Rhythm Tramps, rounding out their sound by enlisting Bundrick, who’s also spent time with British guitar legend Gary Moore, Bob Marley and Sandy Denny.
Teresa finally left the Lone Star State behind to join Wilson in 1982, realizing she’d done just about everything she could in Houston’s music world. But by her own admission, she still wasn’t a blues singer.
“I was still in my 20s,” she says. “I was still like chasin’ the big record deal when I got here. Whatever type of music was popular, that’s was what I was doing. We did sorta rock-pop kinda stuff. But finally it distilled into: ‘Wait a minute! Do I wanna play this music the rest of my life? No!’
“We gradually started backing up into our roots, and I couldn’t be happier. My band’s been together for more than 20 years now, and it works together like a railroad train going down the tracks.”
It’s no wonder when you take a look at its lineup.
Guitarist Billy Watts has spent time with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne and drummer Herman Matthews – one of three revolving percussionists – tours with Tower Of Power after time with Tom Jones and Kenny Loggins. The horn section – Lee Thornburg and Paulie Cerra – was on the road with Joe Bonamassa when this interview took place and is frequently subbed by Daryl Leonard and Joe Sublett when they’re not gigging with Taj and/or Phantom.
Alumni and rotating members include Johnny Lee Schell, Rob McNelley and Austin legend Gurf Morlix on guitars, Mike Finnigan, Kevin McKendree and Rabbit on keys, and Braunagel and Jay Bellarose on drums, among many others.
“You gotta go where the money is,” Teresa says stoically. “Livin’ in L.A., expenses are so-o-o high and there’s so much that you can do to make money. But the big money is still in touring.
“If you wanna have the best players in a band like mine, you gotta have a bench that you can call on and go with the flow when some of them aren’t available. I totally get it. No hard feelings.
“I’m so-o-o lucky. The guys I get to work with are all great.”
Since marrying Wilson in 1987, family’s always come first.
“We chose not to tour much when our kids were small,” Teresa says. “Economically, we weren’t at the level where we could afford someone to take care of them on the road.
“And I never brought ‘em along when we’re playin’ in the park or at a festival around town because I knew I’d be up on the stage behind my keyboard and wondering where they were and what they were up to in the crowd.”
Despite the impact on their career, neither Teresa nor Terry have any regrets.
“I’m so-o-o happy we did that with our kids. They’re both smart and happy,” she says. “We have a great relationship. Unfortunately, I’ve seen other musicians that have kids that aren’t as lucky.”
Both children — daughter Lucy and son Jesse – are now deeply intermeshed with The Band Of Heathens, one of the top roots groups in the world. Lucy, who’s married to Heathens’ drummer, Richard Millsap, studied dance at a conservatory in New York with plans to turn pro. Jesse, a multi-instrumentalist who studied musical composition, has served as the band’s bass player since being recruited to replace his predecessor, John Chipman, who decided he no longer wanted to tour.
“We were hoping that at least one of our kids would have a steady paycheck for when we go older,” Teresa jokes, “but…”
Terry’s often on the road with Burdon during the summer, but you can often find them at The Write Off in Woodland Hills, Calif., where they have a Wednesday night residency, and other locations when he’s in town.
Even when he’s not around, however, Teresa’s plenty busy. Her keyboard skills are on display at two different churches every Sunday, and she’s also been teaching at Los Angeles College Of Music, where she conducts a class in vocal improvisation.
“I think it made me a better singer because, honestly, my music schooling was to listen to every singer,” she says. “If anybody had something that I thought was different, then I would go home, buy the record and try to imitate ‘em regardless of what style they were.
“I always tend to go to the blue note and the back phrase, and I look for the soul in every song. The beauty of the blues is that the form is so basic, it leaves it wide open for the performer to insert their own personality and own heart.
“I think the blues is more of a state-of-mind, more of a feeling, than anything else.
“I love to ad lib,” she says. “That’s often a challenge for my students, though, because it’s hard for many of them to get away from the melody – to use counter-rhythms, sing high, sing low, sing one long note, pick some words out. It’s second nature to me now, but it’s what makes blues the blues. It’s fluid, and the music is alive and has a life of its own.
“If you can’t figure out what to do, what to say…give your guitarist a solo!”
James also was enlisted to branch out more and conduct an online course on the history of American music, which created another challenge. “Distilling it all down to ten weekly lessons was really hard,” she says, partially caused by the fact that the music industry has become so compartmentalized in recent decades.
Today, she believes, folks are boxed in to one form of music or another at the expense of everything else instead of realizing by studying the past that American tastes truly are more of a blend of different styles.
“To me, music is just music,” she says. “That’s why I tend to go wherever the song needs and give the song what it wants to be the best. If you sell the song then you’re really selling yourself.
“Take a song like ‘I’m Sitting On Top Of The World’ – (written in the late ‘20s by members of the Mississippi Sheiks and first recorded in 1930) — for example. You can hear where Bill Monroe got his version of it for bluegrass. And Howlin’ Wolf said when he did it: ‘I was tryin’ to imitate Jimmie Rogers’ yodeling, and I couldn’t yodel. So that’s how I came up with my howl.’
“All of our music comes from the very same root. That’s why I don’t understand why some people will go: ‘Oh, I hate that kind of music!’”
She also cites a statement made by Houston-born jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum when she was in the studio recording songs for one of his albums. “He always used to say – and I kinda agree – that there’s only two kinds of music: the kind you like and the kind you don’t.
“I’m thrilled when people relate to mine — that something I love to do touches people the way it does. But these days, it seems that there’s so little kindness and compassion in the world, and music should be the river we’re all swimming in.
“But folks shouldn’t forget the importance of being kind to each other.”
Be kind to yourself, too, by checking out Teresa and The Rhythm Tramps. They’re on the road with shows on the East Coast surrounding their appearance at the Heritage Music Bluesfest in Wheeling, WV, this summer, and they’re promising to ramp up their touring schedule in the year ahead.
And be sure to look for a new, live CD in the immediate future. Four of their recent albums were tabbed with honors from DownBeat magazine in addition to their Grammy nomination, and two of them also took home top prizes in the Independent Music Awards.
Recorded over four nights in a packed Los Angeles-area nightclub, the new disc will feature a lineup that includes many of musicians mentioned in this story in different configurations – like always: based on their availability the night they performed.
Visit Teresa’s website at: www.teresajames.com.