Chicago lost one of its top blues guitarists a little over a year-and-a-half ago when Carl Weathersby relocated to a little town outside of Austin, Texas. If you weren’t aware of his exit, that’s understandable–Weathersby frequently comes back to his old stomping grounds for gigs.
This month he returned for several shows in Indiana and the Chicago suburbs. He’s booked to appear on October 13 at B.L.U.E.S, and the next evening headlines at Rosa’s. On October 15, Carl will be inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame as a Blues Legend during ceremonies at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Weathersby first made his mark alongside harmonica master Billy Branch in the Sons of Blues/Chi-Town Hustlers from 1982 to 1996 before embarking on a solo career that’s encompassed a series of acclaimed CDs and frequent European touring. He goes back overseas in November, and there’s also a new recording project in the works with Bobby Rush and Blinddog Smokin’, tentatively titled Rush Through History.
Blessed with a richly burnished vocal delivery, Weathersby never uses a pick when he plays his axe, the fingers on his right hand creating greater dynamic range. “I played with a pick for a long time,” he says. “Then all of a sudden I got put in a band with Billy Branch. Billy wanted me to essentially play two parts at once. Because he wanted the lump, the same thing the bass was doing, but he also wanted chords. And that involves using two, sometimes three fingers to get that done, and the thumb. So there’s no room for a pick.
“I found out that I could get a lot stronger playing with my fingers without messing around with the knobs, because it’s touch. I could feel my thumb a whole lot better than I could that pick, so it’s to the point now that if I had to play with a pick, they probably wouldn’t want to hear me playing a solo. I can leave my guitar at a certain volume, and I can be loud, or I can be quiet. “
Like his heroes, Weathersby prefers the sound and feel of a Gibson guitar. “A 345, one of those like Freddie King used to play,” he says. “I’m a Gibson humbucker type guy. I don’t like Strats. I have a Telecaster, but it’s got humbuckers in it. It has a heavier sound, and for me, although there’s a wealth of guys that play blues, the main people were Albert and B.B. King, Little Milton for me. And all of those guys play humbuckers or Gibson guitars. So when you’re trying to imitate those guys, that’s the sound that you’re always looking for. You can’t do that with a Stratocaster unless you buy pedals, and if you pay up to $1000 for a guitar that you’ve got to do something to it to make it sound like you want, I think you probably bought the wrong guitar.”
Developing his own sound was paramount. “That’s always been my goal,” Weathersby says. “A long time ago, I started to notice that guys, no matter what label it was, when you listened to them, there was only a few of them that you could really tell who it was when they first started playing. A lot of people, you had to wait until they started singing to tell who it was. And I just wanted an identifiable sound so people would hear it and say, ‘Hey, that’s Carl!’ I mean, two or three notes, and ‘Hey, wait a minute! That guy’s guitar is angry!’”
Weathersby’s ongoing affinity for soul music helps to inform his contemporary blues attack. “That’s kind of natural for me, because during the time when I was forming my musical talent, when I left Mississippi and moved to East Chicago, Indiana, the musical focus for people my age was on R&B, the soul music from the ‘60s,” he says. “And being around it, seeing the guys doing it, I just wanted to be in there with them. So I had to learn how to play it. Therefore, I got a spot where sometime I just say, “Hey, I sing that stuff!’ If there were a bunch of places that would support me doing that, I’d sing them a little blues in there, just so people wouldn’t forget about it, but I could do the R&B thing because I know how to play it.”
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Weathersby spent his early childhood in Meadville, 84 miles southwest of the state capitol. “My grandfather ran a beer joint,” says Carl. “I heard blues. Some Motown crept on his jukebox. A lot of the stuff out of Memphis was on there. So I was around it. My uncle Robert played. Mr. Jim Brown played. There were a lot of musicians around there.” There were guitars around too. “I picked one up down there,” he says. “I had an uncle that was really big on Elmore James. He used to always listen to this song by Elmore James, ‘Pickin’ The Blues.’ And I mean, he would play it 20 times in a row. He just liked it. And I’m starting trying to learn how to play. I figured how to do it without that slide, and I’d come over there. He’d say, ‘Boy, get that box down and play me that “Pickin’ The Blues!”’ So I knew how to play the Elmore James/Jimmy Reed-type stuff.”
Carl’s family moved to East Chicago when he was eight years old, though there were trips back South during the summers. “When I moved to Indiana, my father was a mechanic, and then he worked on cars on the side. So one of his buddies—they had a shop together—his name was John Scott. Mr. John, I have yet to hear anybody play as much like B.B. King as him. He was almost a carbon copy of B.B. King. There was a song out. The song was in a minor (key), and I knew how to play it, but it was a song that young people liked. And John said, ‘Hey, man! If you learn me how to play that song, I’ll learn you how to play the blues!’”
“I showed him how to play that song, and like he said, he didn’t teach me how to play the blues. He learned me how to play the blues! Down in Mississippi, they’d always tell us, ‘Boy, you can be taught something, but if somebody learns you something, you ain’t gonna forget it!’ He showed me a few licks. And I came down there with a Jimi Hendrix album, Band of Gypsies. I asked him if I could play it on his record player. He said, ‘Yeah, go ahead!’
“John Scott said, ‘Man, I don’t know who that is, I don’t know what he did to his amplifier, but he’s playing the blues!’ I said, ‘That ain’t no blues.’ He said, ‘Oh, man, that’s the blues! I learned you that just the other day.’ I was like, ‘You showed me that?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he’s just playing it faster than I did, that’s all.’ So he stopped what he was doing and he went over there and got his 355 Gibson and plugged it up, and he played. He played that lick. He said, ‘Whoever that is is playing the blues.’ When he showed me how that lick was the same lick that Jimi Hendrix was playing, the light bulb came on a little bit.
“Before long in my little neighborhood, in the city of East Chicago, they had to be grown men to mess with me on that guitar! They couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘Man, how the hell you learn all that?’”
Albert King’s heavy influence was enhanced by an early first-hand encounter (young Carl was already a huge fan of his Born Under a Bad Sign album on Stax). “I was about 11 or 12, somewhere around there,” says Weathersby. “Something was wrong with his bus, and I guess my father was going to go with him to see what it was. My father could fix anything—diesels, cars, machines, whatever.” Young Carl had no idea who his dad’s well-built pal was. “They didn’t put black people on the album covers,” he says. “The only one I’d ever seen on TV was B.B. King. So there was no way of knowing who this guy was.
“I was sitting there with the record, wearing it out, picking up the needle and putting it back. I was trying to play, I said, ‘Daddy, I got it!’ It was the song ‘Crosscut Saw.’ And Albert King was standing over there.
“‘That ain’t the way I played it!’
“‘What you mean, the way you played it?’
“‘Boy, that’s me on that record!’
“And he got my guitar and started playing it, and I was trying to see how he did it.
“It kind of brought me down, because here I thought I had picked it up and had it note for note. Then I watched him do it, the way he did it in different positions. Everything that I tried, he did it in different positions. It was like, ‘Man, I don’t know nothing.’ But at the same time, I remembered what I saw him doing, most of it. And then after that, every time he’d come around, he always told me, ‘Don’t quit playing that guitar. I don’t give a shit what nobody say! You keep playing!’
“I had a few people that I could look up to and set examples,” says Weathersby. “I met Bobby Womack while I was in high school. I got a chance to talk to him. I learned a lot of stuff just by talking to him. His guitar player, his appendix burst. I was recommended to take that guy’s place, but I wasn’t ready at that point. I could play solos and stuff, but if you called off a chord, I didn’t know the name of the chord. So it was too hard. But Bobby was trying to show me stuff and tell me some things. Talking to him, I learned how to play all my chords in a couple different spots. He said, ‘Hey, man, the more you keep playing, you’ll learn how to play ‘em in more spots!’ And he was right.”
Music ran in the extended family. Weathersby was forced to turn down a promising offer from his cousin, Motown A&R man Leonard Caston, Jr., whose father, pianist Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, had once played with Willie Dixon in the Big Three Trio. “I met him down in Mississippi at a funeral,” he says. “My father told his father, who was called Baby Doo, he said, ‘You’ve got to hear my boy sing, hear my boy play the guitar!’ My father turned around and went back to his father’s house, and I played for him. Little Leonard gave me a card. He was up in Detroit at the time.
“He wanted me to come to Motown, because he said on first days of the week, they let people audition. And during those days, they had Robert White, Joe Messina, and Eddie Willis playing the guitars, but they were looking for guys that could play anything remotely like Jimi Hendrix. I was pretty good at that too. That’s what he was saying: ‘Come to Motown, man, and audition! You could audition, because he’s looking for guys that can play like that.’
“I told him, ‘Well, I can’t come up there because I’m going in the Army,’” says Carl. “So I missed that.” Instead of sessions at Hitsville (Caston wasn’t his only Motown connection; ex-Spinners lead singer G.C. Cameron is also his cousin), Weathersby was dispatched to Vietnam, serving a year in the trenches. When he got out of the military, Carl was hired as a guard at a Louisiana correction facility. After a few years of working in the penal system, he came back up to Indiana and got a gig as a guard at a steel mill. “It was a good paying job,” he says. “I left work one night, came back the next morning, and the mill was shut down.”
When his unemployment ran out, playing music looked like an excellent idea. Carl did three stints as Albert King’s rhythm guitarist in 1979, ‘80, and ‘82, never staying on the payroll for too long. “I had little kids,” he says. ““I never got fired, but I quit. I quit three good times.” A permanent gig with a band a little closer to home was a priority.
“I had a cousin that was playing for Little Milton. He was telling me to come to Chicago,” he says. “It may as well been the moon. I didn’t know where none of that stuff was up on the North Side. So my cousin brought me over there to see Billy Branch and them. I got there too late the first time. The second time, I made it on time and I played. (Bassist) J.W. Williams and (drummer) Mose Rutues, Jr. kind of pushed Billy’s hand a little bit because Billy didn’t like what I was playing. J.W. told Billy, ‘Well, look, man. This band is called the Sons of Blues and the Chi-Town Hustlers. If you don’t hire this guy, me and Mose are the Chi-Town Hustlers. We’ll go and get a horn or something else to complement the band, and we’ll use him!’
“I played two weeks. Billy went to California to visit his mother. My car wasn’t running, but I was still getting to Chicago on time. J.W. said, ‘Two weeks this man don’t even have a car that’s running, he was not late for one gig. He was at every gig, and how I don’t know. When I got there, he was there!’ J.W. said, ‘Well, I’ll keep your amp for you.’ And that’s what happened. They’d give me the address, I’d get on the train, I’d go over there, and after awhile I got where I could figure my way around Chicago.” The foursome made some incredible blues.
“I equate another harmonica player having to deal with Billy Branch like a guy that knows he’s got to guard Michael Jordan all night. He ain’t looking forward to that, you know what I mean? Billy had that kind of talent on the harmonica. Mose could bring emotion by hitting those drums. We used to call him ‘the Man with the Gasoline Voice,’” says Weathersby. “I was able to play whatever they wanted to play. Whatever J.W. decided he wanted to do. I could play the R&B, I could play the B.B. and Albert-type blues, I could play the Sonny Boy stuff, the Little Walter blues. So we were kind of like the Bar-Kays of Chicago. We could play behind anybody, and we had all these different personalities in that one little group. When it called for fire, we could get it from J.W., or we could get it from Billy, or sometimes I could bring it. So that’s what I think made the band good.”
Weathersby contributed some of the strongest selections to Branch’s 1995 Verve album The Blues Keep Following Me Around as both singer and composer and also appeared on Billy’s followup, Satisfy Me. Before long, Carl was on his own. “April 1, 1996 was when I kind of made the decision that I needed to be in control of what I was doing,” remembers the guitarist, who waxed his own debut CD that year for Evidence, Don’t Lay Your Blues On Me. Cut at Dockside Studios in Maurice, La., it featured four strong originals, his band including his cousin Levy Wash on rhythm guitar. Evidence subsequently released Looking Out My Window (1997), Restless Feeling (1998), and Come to Papa (2000), the latter done in Memphis. “I didn’t have anybody telling me what to do,” he says. “(Evidence owners) Jerry Gordon and Howard Rosen, they just said, ‘Hey, bring me a good CD back!’ That was pretty cool, seeing how I didn’t have a whole lot of records under my belt.”
2004’s In the House, issued on the German Crosscut imprint, was captured live at the Lucerne Blues Festival. One track, “Hobo Blues,” featured two special guests from the Windy City, Branch being the first. “We called him out to play the harmonica,” says Carl. “Otis Clay was there watching us. When he walked out on the stage, I couldn’t believe it. It might not be the same to a lot of other people, but to me, that’s my Million Dollar Quartet!” Hold On came out in 2005 on Louisiana Red Hot, and Carl’s most recent CD, 2007’s I’m Still Standing Here on the Magnolia label, was cut in Michigan with rhythm guitarist Hollywood Scott in tow and opened with a sizzling reprise of O.V. Wright’s classic “Ace Of Spades.”
Weathersby has also spent plenty of quality time in recent years with harpist Pierre Lacocque’s Mississippi Heat, appearing on their Delmark sets Hattiesburg Blues (2008), Let’s Live It Up! (2010), Delta Bound (2012), and Warning Shot (2014). “They needed a guitar player, so they wanted to know if I would play with them. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll play with you!’ I sat in and played, and things must have went pretty good because when they needed me, they would call me,” says Carl. “The Lacocque brothers, there’s no finer, better people.”
The guitarist has learned that living in Texas is very different from his former home. “If you’re in Chicago, you really don’t appreciate the value of that environment that we were in when B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera was open,” says Weathersby. “Everywhere you go in Texas, the country people, I’ve got people asking me, ‘Can you play Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire”?’ I say, ‘Miss, how in the hell do you think I would even know that song?’
“I’m from Chicago. I play blues!”
Visit Carl’s website at: http://carlweathersby.org/
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.