“I didn’t know that I’d be lasting this long,” says Tommy Castro 20 years after releasing his Blind Pig national CD debut, Exception to The Rule. He was 40 at the time. A former drapery and window installer, he had considered calling himself Tommy “The Blind Man” Castro. From a poor downtown San Jose family, he’d played in a succession of bands with names like Night Cry and Johnny Nitro and toured two years with The Dynatones, a Warner Brothers recording act and show band.
Fronting his own band he suddenly he was playing 350 gigs a year – sometimes three gigs in a single day – and the hometown newspaper called his performance the highlight of the 1994 San Francisco Blues Festival in a showcase that included his mentor, Buddy Guy. The paper credited Castro with “charismatic” guitar playing with a band that had a “take-no-prisoners style of play.”
“I had a career as a blues guitar player on the scene, and I don’t feel like I was ready,” Castro says today about his sudden national acclaim. “I was still kinda workin’ on it. Ha, ha, ha. I needed more time. In my opinion, I needed more time to develop my skills as a guitar player, but I already had a gig, and I was already playing almost every night of the week. I’ve been trying to keep up with myself all along.”
His first gig east of the Mississippi was at the Troy Riverfront Arts Festival in Troy, New York, in June, 1996. He played Saturday afternoon just before headliner Magic Slim and the Teardrops. “It was the first time I got to see him live, and he was such an authentic real deal blues guy just like all the other great artists that I listened to and admired and learned from, and I always liked the fact that the guys like Slim were not too slick or politically correct.
“He was at a beer-sponsored event and got up there and said, ‘I don’t drink no beer. (laugh) It makes you fat.’ Oh, man, and then we did a few gigs with him round that time ’cause we were on the same label. We played a lot of the same festivals, and those guys would just roll around in this old van, and Earl, the drummer, didn’t have any cases for his drums or anything, but he would just put one inside another like you did when you’re playing the garage circuit as a kid. You’re a kid. You just had a double set of drums. You’d take a smaller drum and put it in a bigger drum and carry ’em around like that, and I didn’t see anybody do that on a professional level, but Earl’s stuff was all broken up, man, and those guys just sounded great.
“It was that feel, the feel of the way those guys played a shuffle was just so deep and authentic that guys like us really just can’t do, and so I have this huge respect and appreciation for where this music came from. To meet guys like Magic Slim and The Teardrops in those days for me when I was just startin’ to get out, that’s what I wanted, you know. I wanted to learn from and hang out with and see up close the cats this music came from that could really do that. I’ve done a lot of gigs over the years, and I don’t remember all of them, but I remember that one really well.”
It was the first of many encounters with mentors who would help Castro temper his sound. He did two summer tour with B.B. King in 2001 and 2003. “It was joyful. I was like a little kid. I wasn’t a kid. I might have been 40 at the time, but I just felt like a little kid that got to meet his hero. I was trying my best to be cool, but I don’t think I was doing a very good job. It’s pretty hard to hide the grin on my face sitting next to B. B. King back stage hanging out like we’re old friends.
“After that he always remembered me and, whenever I saw him years later, he would always remember who I was, and I always got a kick out of that ’cause I just thought he had so many young guys open up for him over the years, been on so many tours all over the world and all the things he had done. How can he possibly remember all the acts, you know, and all the people, but he always remembered me. He always knew exactly who I was and that really just meant a lot to me. I saw him just a few months before he died. We opened a show for him here in California, and I got to talk to him for a little bit……got a picture of him and I together that night, and that was the last time I saw him.”
John Lee Hooker did his last session on Castro’s 2001 Guilty of Love CD. “We did it at his house, took the remote recording rig out to his house. He wasn’t getting around all that well at that time. It was the end of his life, and it was a week before he died actually that we recorded him. I couldn’t believe it, but we went to his house, and we set up right there in his living room a track that the band had already recorded, and we set a mic. up in front of him, sitting there on the couch. He was sitting on one end of the couch, and I was sitting on the other end of the couch just watching it all go down.
“It was pretty amazing, just John Lee doing his thing on my song. It was like a dream looking over listening to that voice being recorded onto my track. I had phones on, and I couldn’t believe what was actually happening. We hung out a little bit before that and had a few laughs. It was just a really nice visit.
“John was in good spirits, seemed to be feeling fine. He was lounging around his house. He had on a suit he wears just like he does on stage, and he had his buckle loosened up, sitting on the couch. He was just comfortable, but he always looked like a blues man. His daughter Zakiya at his service mentioned that. She said, ‘I never saw my dad wear a pair of jeans or sweat plants,’ and I don’t believe he ever did.
Billboard magazine credits Castro’s latest album Method to My Madness with having “street level grit and soul.” He’s learned his lesson from Magic Slim, John Lee Hooker and B. B. King well. He has B. B.’s tone, and he takes from Magic Slim’s pickup truck brawn and outfits his sound with a supercharger that gives it a polish and punch that’s more common to rock bands like Aerosmith and the Stones than it is his blues mentors.
A veteran war horse who cuts a chiseled figure dressed all in black, this now 60-year-old bluesman who has four grown children retains an unassuming air of a man who does not take his success for granted. “To me it’s a gift. This whole idea that I’ve been able to play music for a living and do what I love to do is amazing to me that it ever worked out for me in the first place because it’s tough. How many people do you know that have the same dream, and it doesn’t work? It doesn’t happen for everybody, and I was completely just really grateful and really excited that my little plans were working out, and I had a career in music, and I’m able to run around the world doing what I do making records and just making my living and doing something I love to do.”
A six-time Blues Music Award winner, his 2014 Alligator album The Devil You Know, earned the Blues Blast Rock Blues Album of The Year, and his then new band The Painkillers was nominated for Blues Blast Band of the Year. Gone was sax man Keith Crossan. He was down to a four-piece unit and paying as much attention to the space between the notes as the notes themselves.
“It’s just a different sound. A lot of music I like doesn’t have horns in it. I remember standing on a pool deck on the Blues Cruise watching Tab Benoit play with two guys backing him up, and it was awesome. There was nothing missing. It was perfect just the way it was, and I noticed that that space in there was something that I liked. I wanted to be able to do something like that. I wanted to do something a lot leaner and without the sound of horns which I had for the previous 15 years probably.”
Bass player and vocalist Randy McDonald was back in the band after a five year absence for The Devil You Know. “I had some ideas about the direction that I wanted to go in musically and him and I put our heads together about what kind of a sound we were going to try and go for and sort of a different concept for the band without horns, and we thought it was only right to change the name from Tommy Castro Band to Tommy Castro and something, and we came up with Tommy Castro and The Painkillers so that people would know that it wasn’t just Tommy Castro losing a horn section. It was an actual shift in direction musically that would focus more on guitar basically. It was going to be more a guitar-driven sound.”
Method to My Madness, Castro’s first totally self-produced CD, came out on Alligator Records in 2015. It has his patented sound, but it’s race track clean and speedway fast. “There was very minimal production on this record. We wanted it to be very live sounding and real sounding, and I didn’t overdub guitar solos. I did on a couple of tracks, but most of those solos were done live with the band.
“I wanted to make a record this time that was more organic and really did have more of me jamming and playing with the band live, and that’s what we got. That’s what we wound up with, but it meant accepting a few little guitar things that weren’t perfect in exchange for the energy of the band and me working together. We had an arrangement, how we were gonna play the song down, but when I went to play guitar, I was just shooting from the hip like I usually do live. You get that when you listen to this record. You can feel it. You can hear it.
“I’m trying to think now what my next one is going to be, but I want it to be different again. I like to make a different kind of record each time. I think it’s important that you don’t just come up with a formula and then repeat it over and over and over again. I’ve been trying to not do that my whole career, especially the last few records.
“This last one I had no special guests. I didn’t work with anybody else but me and the band. And there’s a few people out there that I’m talking to that I would like to work with on my next project. So I think the next one is going to be working with some other artists, but I think the recording approach might be a lot similar to what we just did. I really like the way it feels.”
Castro credits his kids almost as much as his blues mentors with influencing the development of his sound. “It’s kind of an important little thing that came along just before we developed this little Painkillers concept. My kids became teenagers somewhere along the line. My youngest two were still in high school and junior high school, and they started becoming amazing music freaks, both of them, but all of my kids are big music fans, and they all have really good taste in music, thank God.
“I was driving the younger one to school in the morning. We had about a 20-minute drive into town, and the days of me programming the music were over. (Laugh). I started hearing more stuff by Jack White, The Black Keys and Green Day. They were digging up old classic rock stuff like Aerosmith and Zeppelin, and they started listening to just all kinds of really cool blues-related music.
“These kids know good music, and they love good music, and they have amazing catalogs including all of the Beatles stuff. My son found the Beatles, and he had to have every Beatles song ever recorded. They’re still that way, but at that time I was getting exposed to stuff I hadn’t heard much of, and I heard the Black Keys and stuff like Jack White and other bands. Those are the only ones that come to mind because their names are familiar, but there was a lot of other stuff that they were playing in those days on the way to school in the morning that I hadn’t heard of, and it turned out I did like most of what they were playing for me.
“I got exposed to some music that I wouldn’t probably have listened to on my own and what I got out of it was that this is just like when I was a kid. We were listening to blues done by another generation of players interpreting what they heard from Muddy Waters and Albert King or whoever. They were interpreting this music, and we got Cream and the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac and any number of great blues, you know, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Elvin Bishop Group. All of these guys were playing blues music, interpreting it their own way, and this was what seemed to me was going on, but it was fresh. This was 2012 or whatever, 2010 or 11. That’s when my ears perked up and that had a little bit of an effect on where I was going with my sound.”
Castro’s relationship to his kids has turned out to be a mutual admiration society. “Oh, yeah. They’re big fans. They know my songs, and they tell me when it’s good or bad, too. They know the differences. They can tell me when I’ve got something really good. They’ll tell me. They give me their opinion. They like my music. They like my songs. They both play and sing a little, the younger ones.”
Tommy Castro is amazingly unassuming for a blues man with his record of success He takes none of his success for granted. When he was a poor youngster, he used to dress like one of his mentors, Elvin Bishop. I asked him what he would say if he were inducted into either the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Blues Hall of Fame the way Elvin has been in the last couple of years.
“Uhm, wow, that’s a crazy question. Well, first of all, it would be a shock. It would be a big surprise to me. The Hall of Fame, not everybody gets in there. It seems to me they’ve been pretty good selecting the people they get nominated – that get inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. I don’t see myself as one of them. Maybe one day, I don’t know. I would do what I normally do when I get an award, whether I deserve it or not. I’d accept it and just try and be grateful and respectful of the people who honored me and thank them very much, but I don’t know what to think about those kinds of things. I just go out there. I don’t think of music as a competition. It’s not sports. It shouldn’t be a competition.
“It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Nobody puts out records with the intention of competing in a business, and you want to sell records. You want your career to go places and you want to draw bigger crowds, and you want to sell more tickets, and you want to do all that stuff, but whether or not you’re gonna receive that award a certain amount of people say your record is better than this record over here. Well, they were so wrong so often. They’re so wrong about that so much of the time. For one thing, it’s just a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of certain people’s opinion.
“I (do) think the award shows and the Blues Foundation are all good for business. They’re good for art. They’re good for the artist. They’re good for the whole scene. It’s news. There’s a big event going on, and it’s all about blues music. I think that’s awesome that there are Blues Music Awards, and they induct people into the Hall of Fame, and I think it’s good to honor certain artists that have accomplished certain things. My comment about being a competition, it’s not sports. It’s not a competition.
“We’re creating art. We’re writing music that hopefully will make people feel better when they listen to it and make them happy. Pull them up out of their blues whatever kind of stuff they’re dealing with, make them feel better for a little while. There’s a purpose for it. It’s more like medicine than it is sports. It’s like (laugh) I don’t know. I imagine doctors have award ceremonies for performing the best surgeries or something like that.”
Visit Tommy’s website at: tommycastro.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.