“When I was three years old, I would stand in the middle of the dance floor at a honkytonk where my mom and dad would go to have a beer in the afternoon with grandpa down the road, and I would beg my dad for nickels to drop in the jukebox. I would bug him until he’d give me a handful, and I would go put nickels in the jukebox and just stand there and bounce up and down.
“My body’s always wanted to dance and move and react. I understand the ritualistic thing of what my rhythm does to a room full of people, and I recognize what’s happening in 10 seconds. The power of setting a rhythm, the pace, and watching people immediately start to move. Like in seconds you watch their bodies sway and you go, ‘I get it! I get it! That’s what I’m doing. That’s what we’re doing. Now, we have a responsibility with this.’
It was Tony’s new friend, Willie Ornelos, who first turned him onto playing drums when his family moved in down the street on the North Side of Houston. Tony was eight.
“Willie started turning me on to music. He started listening to music. By then, I was already into rhythm ‘n blues even though I was raised on country music with my father. I was already into rhythm ’n blues because of my cousin. She would play rhythm ’n blues on this black radio station when I was about that age, eight, or nine, or 10, and I heard that, and I kinda switched over to that music quite easily the first time I heard it, and even got into a little bit of trouble for wanting to hear that. My dad said, ‘Where did you hear that music?’
Tony Braunagel is a producer, drummer, and songwriter whose production credits include Taj Mahal, Eric Burdon, Rickie Lee Jones, Mike Zito, Curtis Selgado, Ana Popovic, Deb Ryder, Coco Montoya, and Trampled Under Foot. And that’s not a tenth of his credits. He’s been a drummer for many of these artists as well as for Back Street Crawler and Johnny Nash. There really was never much question about what he would do. It’s in his blood.
“It’s kinda like the voodoo came out of the woods, know what I mean? And when I went to visit Clarksdale, Greenville and Oxford on a trip by myself once, I was just taken by it, man. I was intoxicated. I could stand out in the cotton fields and look out in the fields and just tell that something had gone on there that really was quite special.
“I went out to a place they said where Muddy Waters’ shack was supposed to be in a field. I had a rental car, and I had a newspaper on the back seat on the floor. And I gathered up some soil and some cotton balls, and I put ’em in that newspaper, wrapped ’em up, brought ’em both with me, and I gave ’em to a couple different friends.
“I gave a jar of it to my producer friend John Porter ’cause we were making a lot of great R&B and blues records at the time, and I gave one to Johnny Lee Schell who has a studio with the Phantom Blues Band, and that jar with that soil and those cotton balls in the studio are sitting right next to where I drum every day.”
Being a producer is like being a parent. There’s no owner’s manual. It’s all about being there and establishing an atmosphere that’s conducive to your child – or artist – creating great work. Listening to Tony talk about the people he works with is like having a father show you pictures of his offspring’s football practice or his first day of school.
As he says, “I’m empathetic to other people and what goes on in the world. When you get out in the yard, you can swing your brain all over the place in your life, and I think you need to do that. I think you need to try and let those thoughts go, especially an artist, especially when you’re creative. The world would be a lot better place if a lot more people opened their thinking beside the 10% of consciousness that we use. If everybody could just go to 11 or 12, we’d be better off.”
Tony’s longest working relationship is with Taj Mahal. His 1990s sessions with Taj include two Grammy award–winning albums Señor Blues and Shoutin’ in Key, the latter of which he produced. He spent several years touring with Taj Mahal and The Phantom Blues Band and is currently working on a 2019 scheduled release. He’s a great admirer of Taj Mahal’s encyclopedic knowledge of music from around the globe, not to mention Taj Mahal’s personal history as a modern-day griot.
“That’s where I get these threads that make me look further and deeper into stuff, and you see all these other cultures he comes up with, that he knows about whether it’s Jamaican or which part of Africa that came from or what island that came from.
“Taj would tell stories on the bus, and everybody would peel off and go to their bunks. We’d do the show, get on the bus, lay around till midnight some nights, and we’d start talking. Taj would start telling me stories. I sat up until he would go to sleep. Talking about Mississippi and all the origins of this music? That’s the guy you talk to. He’s like a griot. He’s one of the biggest keepers of the flame musically and culturally of anybody I know. No one, Buddy (Guy), Robert (Cray), no one, not even B.B., nobody has more knowledge of where it all came from and what it all means, than Taj Mahal.
“He’s a smart guy. He comes from a family of smart people. He lost his father at the age of 12. He went through a lot of pain and had to grow up to be the big guy. And he is that way, but he’s a wonderful guy, and he’s fair, and he’s kind, and he’s funnier than shit. He’s goofy. Sometimes, when we’re together hanging out, we do some goofy stuff, like little boys. Talking about stuff and laughing and crazy stuff to this day. I would say I get a YouTube or crazy track or something from him probably five or six times a week. I got two last night. I woke up this morning and looked at both of them.
“We started making this record in 2014 that we’re finishing up right now for release next year which is going to be incredible. I can’t wait for everybody to hear it, and so I’m updating. Not a month ago, two months ago, I get a phone call, 5 o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday. ‘Watcha doing? (in Taj’s voice)’ I said, ‘Hey, watcha doing?’ ‘I’m in town. ‘Where you at?’ ‘I’m down round the corner from you in the hotel.’ I said, ‘Oh, you workin’?’ ‘Yeah, what are ya doing for dinner?’ I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m coming to pick you up and take you out.’”
Tony’s finesse in “parenting” an artist as their producer is best explained in his comments concerning his co-production of Mike Zito’s 2008 Today album. I mentioned to Tony that his friend Tom Hambridge had told me that the reason his (Hambridge’s) production on Mike Zito’s Make Blues Not War album works is because he doesn’t have the usual in-the-box prejudices about the crossover between rock and blues. I asked Tony if he felt the same way when he produced Today.
“Absolutely. It was amazing because I had to think about this. I was making the record for Delta Groove, and (label founder) Randy (Chortkoff ) was a blues Nazi somewhat, and he really wanted things to be authentically blues as much as possible, but he suggested the fact that Zito had that side to him. In actual fact, Randy started Eclecto-Groove because of that. He said to me, ‘I have to start another label. I can’t have this on my blues label. I need to start another label,’ which he had Zito and then Anna Popovic and some other acts on, ‘but I have to start a new label,’
“He really respected what Zito was doing so much that he loved that song “Today.” He’s a blues guy, you know. So, when we made that album, I said, ‘Randy, this album is not blues, all of it. It rocks.’ He goes, ‘That’s ok. Just make it the best you can.’ So, I went down to Texas and drove over to Beaumont or wherever the hell he lives, and spent the day with him, and I just remember saying to young Zito, ‘You know, we gotta back up here. You got less song and more guitar in this song. What’s going on here?”
“I said, ‘What’s gonna draw the people in is your songs and then your voice, and then they’re going to hear you’re a great guitarist. If you communicate with them in that way, and these terms, and in that sequence with those things being the most important in that order, then nobody is gonna forget what you do. They’re gonna love what you do. They’re not going to turn on the radio and just hear a whole bunch of guitar playing. They’re gonna hear a song, and they’re not gonna forget Mike Zito can sing. He’s a good-looking guy with a great voice who writes great songs and plays his ass of. And that’s what you want ultimately.’
“So, I sat Zito down, and I gave him all those ideas and ideals about how to do it. We sat there and wrote out arrangements for the songs for him and he said, ‘I’ve never done anything like this.’ I said, ‘You come to California and make an album, dude. Let’s do this the best we can. Let’s not be willy nilly.’
“And when Mike came out with Benmont Tench on keyboards, we just went into the studio and played it like a bunch of friends playing great music, and that’s how it came out, and I feel the same way about Zito. He was able to pull the two things together, and he bridges the gap really well, and now the market is opening up for blues rock. You see all the other guys. You can’t deny obviously Walter Trout, Albert Castiglia, Joe Bonamassa. You can’t deny that whole movement of guys. Some people in the blues community are bugged, are bothered by that, but somebody has to carry on this music. They don’t have to necessarily do it with friggin’ banjo, you know what I mean?”
Tony has appeared on 10 Eric Burdon albums from 1982 to 2013 and has produced the latest three: My Secret Life in 2004, Soul of a Man in 2006 and ’Til Your River Runs Dry in 2013. Burdon is the veteran British Invasion vocalist who broke internationally in 1964 with The Animals on “House of The Rising Sun.” Tony calls him the fifth Beatle, and for my money he’s is the most underrated artist to emerge from that initial splash begun by the Beatles.
Tony also played drums on Burdon’s 2013 world tour. I had the pleasure of experiencing that tour in Albany, New York, and in a review wrote: “He turned half century old British Invasion hits with the Animals into four-color, 3-D juggernaut performances with a crack seven-piece band. He combined that with original new songs from the best album of his career, ’Til Your River Runs Dry, sprinkled in some electric blues standards and stood naked on the stage wearing well his 72 years of both soaring and crawling across the world, equal parts rock star and has-been.
“Words like venerable and gravitas are not easily applied to aging rockers, especially British Invasion bands who served up refried American blues to a country that was ignoring artists like Nina Simone for pre-fab Philly pretty boys Fabian and Frankie Avalon in 1963, but when the Animals covered Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” they touched a nerve in America’s youth. When Burdon covered it this time, the song indeed did have gravitas, and the aging baby boomers in the crowd sat slack-jawed and propelled so far into Burdon’s world that when he held the microphone out, hardly anyone sang along until he bitch slapped them. ‘Wake up,’ he ordered and the crowd snapped to attention and sang along.”
Tony laughs. “That was a great night. I remember that night. That was a great band, too. We took his stuff and, without losing authenticity, we took it out of the realm of just standing there and playing song after song. We took you on a journey. We all just sat down and said, ‘Let’s make this stuff interesting so Eric is enjoying it. And a lot of it was his suggestion that we do something different with it, and then the musicianship of the band and the keyboard player Red Young, brilliant. There I am playing drums with him. So, we were able to fuse and change and modify right there on the spot in rehearsal, and the next day we wanted to throw it up and throw it together that night, and the band would go on stage and kill it.
“I restrained control of a polished musician was also in there as well.
“And we’re always trying to let the kid out. (Chuckle)
“Just holding onto the music so it’s right, but let the kid out every once in a while and let him go. It was a lot of fun, and I loved working with him, and I’d work with him again. I’d love to make another album with him, but I doubt the business will let us do it.
“I love Eric. We’re good friends. We go back to becoming friends when we just started working together back in the ’80s. I moved here in ’79. I think I was working with him by ’81, ’80 or ’81. I might have been doing some demos with him when I first got here. Our personalities just hit it off, and I went on the road with him, Australia. We went to Germany and did a film. I did a United States tour and something was wrong with the business, and so I bugged out because I could see people weren’t gonna get paid.”
I told Tony that it seemed like Burdon’s always made bad decisions when it came to business.
“You already said it. That kinda was what I was going to say. He’s had very, very good opportunities, but he’s made bad decisions, and he’s aligned himself with the wrong people on many occasions. Gullibility or whatever it’s his own hardheadedness and he’s said, ‘No, I want to work with that guy.’ He is both. He is gullible and he is hard headed, to watch him be so talented and be so smart and so intelligent and so colorful and so deep ’cause he and I talk on the phone all the time like friends. He tells me stories other people have never heard.
“He’s writing another book. He runs things past me, man. ‘What if I say it like this?’ And I say, ‘You’re Eric fuckin’ Burdon. You can say it any way you want to say it. Who cares now if you cross the line? I would rather people say, ‘Well, I didn’t hear it that way.” So, and so told the story different. I would rather hear that than someone go, ‘Oh, yeah, Eric’s book is ok,’ you know?”
In the late ’60s every band that played the NCO clubs in Vietnam ended the night with The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place.” It was this writer/soldier’s mantra. I must have heard it a hundred times.
Tony laughs. “Every once in a while, someone will go, ‘Let’s do this fucking song again.’ Between that and “House of the Rising Sun,” he’s a joy and pleasure to work with. He can be curmudgeonly, but I always go through it and make him laugh. He would get mad at me for busting his curmudgeoness, his bad mood or whatever. I would just laugh at him, and he would just look at me and say, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!’ (Laugh) I got him, man. ‘You’ll be better later. We’ll laugh about this tomorrow.’
“He’s honest, and he’s colorful. So, he goes out on a limb with his thoughts if that makes sense. You know what I mean? I love that, and I think you’ve gotta think 360 when you have an opportunity, you know? He should be a huge Rolling Stone superstar for all he did. I made three great records with him, and I say great because I’m proud of him, and I’m proud of what he did on ’em.
“My Secret Life, Soul of A Man and ‘Til Your River Runs Dry should have been comeback albums for him. And nobody heard them because the record label was wrong. He made the wrong choice. I had lined him up with a label. ‘I don’t like it. The contract is too big, blah, blah, blah,’ and he went with a stupid-assed German label that didn’t do anything. The person that put together the deal embezzled the money from it, and it just all went to hell. Let’s rerelease this stuff. Come on! Let’s put it out. Let’s make a compilation, and I don’t know.
“He was as big as the Beatles. He was the fifth Beatle for a while. He was really good friends with John Lennon. He was with Jimi Hendrix hours before he died. I know. At his apartment. He went back to his own apartment and Hendrix died. How much closer can you be to rock and roll legends than that? And he interviews extremely well. He’s very smart.”
Tony currently tours on drums with Robert Cray. He’s working on an album with Coco Montoya and he wants to write a song called “Driving John Lee Hooker Home,” about a time in 1979 when he did a “45-cent gig” with John Lee in Houston and ended up driving the boogie man home in his ’68 Camaro listening to a baseball game on the radio.
“Then, I get the gig with Bonnie Raitt, and I’m playing up north, probably five or six years later, and we’re playing in Palo Alto, and I come off stage. I amble backstage, and there’s John Lee Hooker, and she’s sitting on his lap. I mean they had that kind of relationship. He always looked at her like a little girl, that she would flirt with him big time.
“So, she’s sitting on his lap, and I walk in and Bonnie says, ‘John Lee, this is my drummer Tony. I want you to meet my drummer Tony.’”
Without blinking, Hooker says, ‘We played the Miller Theater. He gave me a ride in his Mustang. We listened to the baseball game.’
“And I went wow. He remembered everything. It blew my mind.”
Visit Tony’s website at: www.tonybraunagel.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.