Tommy Castro usually looks forward to the dead of winter because he’ll soon be escaping the chilly nights in Northern California for balmy nights of the Caribbean aboard the semi-annual Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise out of Fort Lauderdale to playing before a throng of music lovers some folks describe as the “world’s largest dysfunctional family reunion.”
But not this year.
Like everyone else in these troubled times, he’s dry-docked at home as he awaits the end of the hurricane-like onslaught of coronavirus so he and his band, The Painkillers, can set sail again to do what they do best: deliver some of the hottest music on dry land and the high seas.
No matter where Tommy is today, though, he’s come a lo-o-ong way from the gritty streets of San Jose, Calif., where he was born in 1955. A powerful, soulful vocalist as well as a guitar player with a stinging approach that lands somewhere between Albert Collins and Freddie King, Castro fell in love with the blues early, as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview in which he described his path to success with both a deep sense of humor and an appreciation of what he’s achieved.
His earliest influences as a child came from all directions: West Coast and Chicago blues, soul, Southern rock, the sounds of Latin music permeating his neighborhood and more – something that still surfaces in his play today. He picked up his first guitar at age ten, and described his youth in vivid detail a few years ago on Stompin’ Ground, his stellar release on Alligator Records.
“It was the late ‘60s…Woodstock,” he remembers today. “I was playing in garages around my neighborhood, and listening to all the great music that was out there… (Mike) Bloomfield, Taj (Mahal), Elvin (Bishop), Johnny Winter and (Eric) Clapton, the (Rolling) Stones.
“That’s when I found B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker.”
Tommy’s first electric ax was a Fender Duo-Sonic, but he longed for a Gibson Les Paul after coming across it one day in a local mom-and-pop music store. “I’d go in every day and play it,” he says, “and dream about it at night, but (I knew I) could never afford it.
“One day, though, the old man at the store said: ‘We see you coming in here all the time, and we know you’re a good kid. We’ll let you pay it off on time – full retail price, but we’ll let you pay it off at $25 a month.”
Like many future musicians, he spent his youth playing in cover bands. And caught many of the top blues acts in action – everyone from Hooker to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and more – when they cruised through town. Back then, though, he didn’t sing. His interest in that came later — when he was a young adult who was working as a truck driver and hosting a weekly off-night blues jam at JJ’s Lounge, a club that’s been a fixture in San Jose for decades.
“My day job was making deliveries,” Castro says. “I had cassette mix-tapes full of all my favorite singers, and I’d sing along. If you hear me do a little James Brown, or Wilson Pickett or a bit of Little Richard…if I sound a little bit like Buddy Guy…you hear those influences. Ray Charles…that came from singing along with those tapes.”
Several other top talents emerged from those JJ’s jam back then. Gary Smith — one of the foremost harmonica players on the West Coast — and Mighty Mike Schermer — the guitarist/songwriter who spent years with Marcia Ball and whose most recent CD, Bad Tattoo, was a 2019 Blues Blast Music Awards finalist for contemporary album of the year – both dropped in to play.
“Mike’s just one of the great songwriters of our time,” Tommy insists. “I did his song, ‘Big Sister’s Radio, on one of my records (Painkiller), and it’s one of the most requested songs out of my whole catalog. He was a regular at the jams, and a whole bunch of San Jose local guys would come there.
“Then I started playing in bands on weekends, and took a hard look at what I wanted to do. I thought that if I put all my energy into what I love (making music), it might just work — and I owe it to myself to go for it.”
As busy as he was in San Jose, he quickly realized that if he was going to do it, he had to take a leap of faith and relocate to San Francisco. Once there, he bought himself a battery-powered amp and planned to start busking on the street to augment the occasional band gigs he’d get at night – something, he quickly discovered, was an impossible way to make ends meet.
“I was no good at it,” Tommy admits. “You have to really know how to hustle – it’s like turf wars — and I wasn’t prepared for that. I was prepared to go out and set up and play.”
And it really was a turf war, he insists, because he’d plug in his rig and, almost immediately, people would approach angrily, insisting: “No! You can’t play here. This is my spot!”
Fortunately, however, Castro’s luck changed on a street corner one day when he met Randy McDonald for the first time. A frequent fixture in Castro’s bands through the years, Randy was holding down the bass for Warner Bros. recording artists The Dynatones — one of the top proponents of West Coast blues — at the time. Led by drummer Walter Shuffelsworth, its revolving roster included future Grammy-winning keyboard player Jim Pugh, guitarist Steve Edmondson and a horn section anchored by Mike Rinta in various incarnations, during which they shared billing on LPs with both Charlie Musselwhite and Sir Mack Rice.
It wasn’t long before an introduction from McDonald landed Tommy a spot in the the lineup and a chance to travel the world. For years, he played a black 1966 Fender Stratocaster formerly owned by Johnny Nitro, another Dynatones alumnus. A San Francisco institution who died at age 59 in 2011, “Nitro lived in a hotel room above The Saloon (a legendary, hole-in-the-wall bar) in San Francisco,” Castro remembers. “He had a little tiny room with a bathroom down the hall, but he was happy as hell. He had gigs right on the block.”
A man who was such a character that he stood out from the crowd even in the City by the Bay, Nitro possessed a distinctive, raspy voice and kept all of his guitars in pawnshops because he felt they were safer there, Tommy says, adding: “He had all these old vintage guitars that he bought cheap early on. If he needed some money, he’d go get a guitar out and sell it.
“And he was about to sell that Fender to somebody else. He brought it down to the gig one night and said: ‘Yeah, I got a guy coming tonight to buy this.’ I said: ‘Johnny…please…don’t sell that guitar. Let’s work something out.’”
He’s also moved on from that black Strat, currently preferring to play a Delaney custom model. “I was kind of looking for one guitar that would do a bunch of different things,” he says. “So I thought about it, went online and ordered body parts. I wanted Jazzmaster body, a Stratocaster neck like the one I’m used to on my ‘66 Strat. I wanted a humbucker, a (Gibson single-coil) P-90 (pickup) and a Strat pickup, too.”
Initially constructed by his guitar tech as a prototype, it’s now marketed by Delaney as the CastroCaster model.
While Tommy’s appreciative of all the awards he’s received, it’s something that hasn’t gone to his head.
“Yes, I am proud of that, but I don’t put a lot of stock in awards,” he says. “When I don’t get nominated, I try not to let it bother me too much because I know it’s very much a popularity contest. But if I if I do get considered, it’s a great thing because it can help you get better gigs.”
Tommy’s run with the Dynatones came to an end in 1991, when he formed his first iteration of the Tommy Castro Band, feeling that it was time to go out on his own.
“I always liked Randy’s playing, so I offered him the gig,” he remembers, “and he accepted. Then we went looking for others to join.” They recorded their first album, No Foolin’, on the Saloon label with a lineup that included Keith Crossan – another longtime bandmate — on sax and Shad Harris on drums, delivering an interesting mix of originals and covers from across the blues and soul spectrum.
For the better part of the next 15 years, the band made their home at Blind Pig Records, where Castro gradually expanded the lineup to include Tom Poole on trumpet and Pugh on keys. As their fame grew, B.B. King invited them to serve as his opening act for his 2001 and 2002 summer tours.
“I watched B.B. live night after night,” Tommy remembers fondly, picking up all the pointers he could along the way. “When B.B. felt the need to change the tempo, he let the band know — and usually, he wanted it faster – not slower. Wow! And it was a great band: his nephew, Walter King, James Bolden and Stanley Abernathy in the horn section, James Toney on keyboards and Caleb Emphrey Jr. on drums.
“Those guys would just waltz in…there was never any sound check, and B.B. would just walk in off the bus. You know he’d had been sleeping up to that moment. He could just wake up from his little nap and walk on stage and kill it. He was playing great. I was glad to be there for that.”
Invariably, B.B. closed the night with “You Gotta Love Somebody” and “You Know That I Love You,” occasionally inviting Castro to sit in – something Castro never expected to happen one night in the Bay Area with Carlos Santana in attendance.
“I thought: ‘Well…you know…Carlos!” Tommy says. “’I don’t think he’s going to need me.’ Then, as he (Carlos) was walking towards the stage, B.B. said (to me): ‘Are you going to play with us tonight?’
“I said: ‘Oh yeah!’ He said: ‘This is your town isn’t it?’ I was pretty excited to play with Carlos. I was so nervous that I think I started played my solo in the wrong key!”
That was one of few mistakes Castro made during his Blind Pig years, during which he released a half-dozen rock-solid albums and included guest appearances from heavyweights Dr. John, Curtis Salgado and Delbert McClinton.
His relationship with the label culminated with Pain Killer, which earned the 2008 Blues Music Award for contemporary blues album of the year, the same year Tommy was tabbed as entertainer of the year, too. He’s achieved even bigger success since moving to Alligator in 2009 – a shift that Tommy made with trepidation.
“The move to Alligator was clearly a step up for me, but I felt conflicted,” he says. “I felt like Ray Charles leaving Atlantic (for ABC-Paramount in 1961) – but in a much smaller way. I felt some kind of loyalty to the guys at Blind Pig for helping me make a name for myself when there was a lot of opportunity for guys like me in the ‘90s.
“But things had changed. By the time 2009 came around, the CD market – actual physical copies of record sales — were way down and budgets were cut. They were doing the best they could to stay in business, and I understood that. But I also thought at that time: ‘Maybe it’s time for me to talk to Bruce Iglauer finally about making it making a move.’”
The Tommy Castro Band’s Alligator debut, Hard Believer, captured both contemporary album and band of the year honors in 2010 for Hard Believer, and nominations in the same categories for its follow-up, Tommy Castro Presents The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue Live! That album delivered the same sort of excitement on record as cruisers experienced at sea. The lineup included Rick Estrin, Janiva Magness, Michael Burks, Debbie Davies, Sista Monica Parker, Joe Louis Walker and Trampled Under Foot.
And Tommy made blues history of sorts, too, taking home another top entertainer trophy and putting himself in a tie with Buddy Guy as the only performer to do so.
In another year, Ronnie Baker Brooks probably would have been part of that album, too, because he’s also a regular cruiser. But he and Castro play together whenever their schedules allow. “I’m just a big fan,” Tommy says. “When we’re together, I consciously think to myself: ‘I’m putting him on last when we’re on a show – because I’m not going after him. And I’m going to learn what I can from watching him!
“I was still kinda in my traditional blues when we first met, using heavier gauge strings with no effects and plugged straight into a Super Reverb. I’d used that sound for 15 years, but it was one-dimensional — one tone that I got out of my guitar. And I did everything with that.
“B.B. King had one sound when he played,” he notes, “and Albert Collins did, too. But Ronnie would come up and do all kinds of cool stuff, and using a pedal board. I played his guitar one time. He had lighter gauge strings. When I played it, I went: ‘Man! Why am I working so hard?’”
Castro changed his approach as a result, realizing: “Ronnie was kind enough to show me a few licks he got from Buddy and Albert. If you change your tone, you change the guitar and the amp that you’re playing, it can bring something else out of you.”
All change in the music world is inevitable, and after a comfortable, 20-year run, Tommy made a conscious move to change his approach to the blues in 2011.
“I’d been driving my teenage kids to school, and they’re listening to Green Day, Jack White and the Black Keys,” he remembers, “and it’s all really based in blues. The more I listened to it, the more I wanted to pull some of that into what I was doing.”
The timing was perfect because McDonald, who’d previously left the band because of health issues, was ready once again to rock ‘n’ roll with Castro. And Tommy wanted to reimage his band as a stripped down, four-piece unit with both a somewhat harder edge and more guitar.
Reborn as Tommy Castro & the Painkillers with keyboard player Mike Emerson – a road dog who’s toured with Elvin, Debbie Davies and Harvey Mandel – and former John Lee Hooker drummer Bowen Brown, the band hasn’t lost a step with the four CDs they’ve issued on Alligator since the changeover.
The latest Painkillers album, Killin’ It Live – offers up a collection of performances captured on the road in 2018, but comes across with the feel of a single show. It was a finalist in last year’s BMAs in the blues-rock category.
In the midst of the coronavirus shutdown, Tommy remains busy, working on a concept album that Grammy winner Tom Hambridge is going to produce – details about which remain under wraps. Meanwhile, he’s itching to get back on the road – hopefully before the tour he’s got scheduled with label mate Marcia Ball this fall.
Check out Tommy’s music and, hopefully, where he’ll be appearing before that by visiting his website: www.tommycastro.com.