Born in Fort Worth, Johnny Moeller is another member of the storied line of blues guitar players from Texas. With more than 35 years of experience, his fiery playing always impresses with vibrant statements short in length, delivered with plenty of feeling and soul. Right from the start, he was listening to the right stuff.
“I simply got into playing guitar. I was nine or ten when John Lennon died. My mother bought his Double Fantasy album. Then, for a year or two, they were playing tons of Beatles and Lennon stuff constantly on the radio. That grabbed me, I loved it! So I went from being a Beatles freak to digging through my dad’s record collection, playing his Rolling Stones and Kinks albums. I kept digging and finally got to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, which I thought was really cool, the guitar gods.
“My parents were splitting up at that point in time. My dad had a bunch of records. Growing up in Ft. Worth, blues music was real big in that area, so he had albums by artists like Jimmy Reed and Slim Harpo. When my parents parted ways, my brother Jay and I kind of inherited his collection. I still have those thick original vinyl records from the 1960s era.
“My dad was gone a lot. During those times, Jay and I would let our hair grow out long. All thirteen year old rockers want to grow their hair out! Then he would come back around, and first thing he was taking us to get a haircut. That always seemed to happen just as the hair got right where I wanted it. The barber he took us to, Bob Rhodes, was a blues guitar player. That was in 1983 or 1984, right around the time that the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Robert Cray were blowing up.
“Stevie was really big, so I knew who he was. The T-Birds were still flying under the radar as “Tuff Enuff” hadn’t hit yet. So the barber knew I played guitar, so he would ask me about my favorite players. I mentioned Stevie Ray, how I was into him. He said Stevie is great, but that I needed to hear his brother, Jimmie Vaughan.”
One evening, their father took the two brothers to a bar to hear the barber’s band, giving the teenagers their first taste of live blues. Johnny was hooked.
“Hearing the music live, I was like, wow, this is the shit! It wasn’t what I thought it would be. So I had to go dig out all the T-Birds stuff I could find. Then you figure out that they were listening to the Jimmy Reed and Slim Harpo records, too. So I dug further and started grabbing on to other artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King. At that point, I was a total blues nerd! Led Zeppelin is cool, but I’m into Freddie King now!”
The Moeller family moved to Kansas City, where they lived for two years. Once his parents finally split up, the brothers moved back to Texas. About a year later, Mom took her sons, along with a friend, to see the T-Birds and Stevie Ray Vaughan in Fort Worth.
“Paul Size went with us. He later played guitar for Lester Butler in the Red Devils. That night was it for all three of us. There was no going back. I was about 14 years old when we moved back to Texas, and Paul was one of the first people I met. He wasn’t really into music. I encouraged him to get a guitar but he was more into being a make-up artist. Once he started playing, he learned really quickly. At first, he was more into Stevie Ray’s playing more than Jimmie’s style.
“After we saw the T-Birds live, Paul was all over Jimmie’s playing. He acted like I hadn’t heard of Jimmie! He did the same thing with Buddy Guy. I gave him one of Buddy’s albums, and he acted like I had never heard of Buddy either. Buddy became his hero. It was a great thing for the three of us to learn songs together and push each other to be better.”
The three musicians formed a band, with the two guitarists taking turns on bass guitar, or using a two guitar format, Eventually, a younger friend of Jay’s started playing bass with band.
“As soon as we turned sixteen, we headed to Dallas to hit the blues jams. A short time before that, this older guy we knew drove down from Denton, which is about 40 miles north of Dallas. He wanted to go to a free concert in a park. Afterwards, we went down on Greenville Ave., where Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets were playing at Poor David’s Pub.
“I’ll never forget it. We were walking along, and all of a sudden I start hearing the real blues. I could hear Sam Myer’s harmonica from down the street. I was trying to figure out where it was coming from, because that is where I wanted to be. My friends had no interest in going. They were into rock music. They decided to keep moving, said they would catch up with me later.
“There I was, 15 years old walking right into this bar. It was a Monday night, probably eight people in the place. I sat down right in front of Anson. Watching him play, I was finally able to see everything I was trying to figure out. There were plenty of “oh my God, that’s how you do that” moments. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting three feet away from him, and getting to see Sam Myers doing his thing.
Once he got home, Johnny quickly told Jay and Paul about his adventure in the Dallas bar. A few months later, once he had reached his sixteenth birthday, they all drove down to get in on the fun.
“We got there, and could not get in! There was this greasy, sleazy door guy that would not let us in. The guys started giving me a hard time, questioning if I really had gotten in. We kept trying to get in for years and, in doing so, got to know Anson, Sam, and the rest of the band. They would always laugh about it, hey look, there are those kids at the door again! Eventually we were old enough to get in. I am tight with Anson to this day.
“You have to see blues music live. It is not played by the books, there aren’t a lot of rules. So when you see somebody playing the little weird intricacies of the music, it helps a lot. I remember around that time I met Doyle Bramhall Jr. He plays left-handed on a guitar turned upside down, so his bends go down instead up. I was trying to figure out how that worked, the complete opposite of a normal right-hand guitar player.
“There have been several times where I have played a left-handed guitar. It is a different approach, makes you think about it, the way you bend notes and make chords. Some things aren’t as easy, and some things are more possible. Same as when you learn to play piano, it opens your mind a bit. With the free time we’ve had the last six months, I have been fiddling around on piano a bit.”
Another way that Moeller has been staying busy is doing some recordings as a duo with the current drummer for the T-Birds, Nico Leophonte. They are recording as Sons of a Tyrant.
“We get in the studio and push ourselves. We have one song we will be putting out soon that has both of us on keyboards with a real cheesy organ sound, plus we both play bass and guitar. I haven’t tried to get on the drums. We are trying to do anything to make some music. It has been fun.
“We also have played around Austin with Mike Barfield, who used to be in a band called the Hollisters. He is a country guy with the cowboy hat and boots, so you immediately think you are going to hear Johnny Cash music. But he does more of a James Brown funk thing. They call him the Tyrant of Texas punk. So when we started recording and needed a band name, Nico came up with Sons of a Tyrant. I thought it was perfect. We try to get together at least once a week at Nico’s place, Alnico Studio, to make some noise.”
After finishing high school, Moeller move to Austin, where his father was already been living in South Austin. Prior to that, a trip to visit him lead to another memorable evening.
“Looking back, it can be funny how your life takes the roads it does. When we could drive, Jay and came down for a visit. Dad took us to Antone’s on a Tuesday night when Little Charlie & the Nightcats were playing. There we were, kids hanging out with their dad. Next thing you know, we are talking to Clifford Antone, the owner. My dad was telling Clifford that his boys were all about the blues, that he should hear us play.
“Clifford says we need to get these boys up on stage. I’m like, oh God no, me playing at Antone’s! So Clifford gets us up there. I will never forget that Rick Estrin sat down, and Little Charlie Baty gives me his guitar and he switches to harmonica. Let me tell you, Charlie could play the harp! I’m standing there wondering, does every great guitar player know how to play harmonica? Charlie was playing like Little Walter and I was hanging on for dear life.
“I got to know Clifford quite well. He gave me and my brother cards that would get us into the club any time. And he said to let him know if we were coming so that he could arrange to get us up and playing more. So I knew I had to be in Austin. Clifford was such a big help from then on. Through him, I started meeting people and getting gigs.
“Eventually he let us play at Antone’s every Monday night for years, the club that was on Guadalupe Street. So life became hanging out eating breakfast with Earl King at 3 a.m., or Hubert Sumlin. We got to listen to many of our personal musical heroes tell us stories about other heroes. It was an incredible time. Sue Foley was just getting to town. Teddy Morgan was playing a lot. Clifford nurtured a lot of people in their late teens and early twenties that were deep into blues. I met Teddy when I was playing with Darrell Nulisch. He was the one that told us to use Rob Stupka on drums.”
Hanging out at Antone’s, Moeller got to know Kim Wilson, thanks to Clifford’s constant support. At one point, Wilson asked for the guitarist phone number, commenting that he might need Moeller to fill in. The wife of the T-Birds guitar player at that time, Kid Ramos, was getting close to the due date for her pregnancy.
“I had forgotten about the conversation, because the way those things usually go is you never hear anything. Then I get a call from the band’s manager asking if I can fly out that evening! Kid’s wife went into labor, so he left to be with her. I flew out the next morning, did two gigs with the band. That got the whole thing started with the T-Birds. I finally joined the band about 13 years ago.”
Early in the 1990 decade, Paul Size packed up his truck and moved to Los Angeles, where he had auditioned for, and was selected to be the guitar player for the Red Devils. That lead to another one of those “twists in the road of life” stories.
“It was a crazy time. John Frusciante had quit as the guitar player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were huge at that time. Paul told their producer, Rick Rubin, about me and said I should audition for the band. So I drove out there. The first day there were 150 people in a line that wrapped around the corner. It was a big shit show. The band had some people they trusted auditioning the players. One guy in front of me went in, and came right back out three seconds later. He commented that it was weird, he walked in, plugged in his guitar, and they told him that was good.
“I went in and jammed with these guys. They said I sounded really good, and told me to come back on Monday to play with the band. It was Friday, I’m in LA, and so broke. I couldn’t believe it. On Monday, there were only two other guys in line at this big rehearsal complex, so I knew this was serious.
“They had a big Marshall amplifier set up with all of these effects pedals. I had never messed with pedals, ever. Their bass player, Flea, and the drummer Chad Smith were there, quite friendly. We jammed for about forty minutes. They kept changing the groove and I did my best to keep up. I think I threw up when I walked out of the room. That was the worst case of the nerves I had had in my life.”
Moeller has cut three albums under his own name. The first, The Return Of The Funky Worm, was cut in 1996 for a label run by Chuck Nevitt, founder of the Dallas Blues Society. Nevitt was a huge supporter of the music and the musicians.
“At that time, we had two different bands. One was me, Jay on drums, Mike Flanigin on keyboards, and Bret Coats on bass, based in Austin. Paul Size had a band in Dallas with my brother and Rhett Frazier on vocals. Chuck said we should go cut a record, so we combined the two bands. He put it out on his label. That record is still a great blueprint for all of the different musical styles we were into – blues, funk, soul, jazz, and rock & roll.”
Nevitt ended up releasing several great records on his Dallas Blues Society label that highlighted little-known blues musicians, including Zuzu Bollin, Henry Qualls, and Big Al Dupree. Moeller has fond memories of a session for one of those projects.
“Paul Size had gone down to Dallas and met Chuck at a blues jam. He invited us to a rehearsal session that was preparation for Zuzu’s album. So there we were, in a room with Zuzu and the great band, a buch of guys a lot older than us, passing around a joint. I had never smoked pot, as I was around 16 years old at the time. Of course, trying to be cool, I said yeah, I’ll give it a try. I remember driving back to Denton, feeling like I was tripping!”
He did a second record, Blues Aggregation, for Nevitt in 2001, going into the studio and throwing something down. His brother was on drums, Mike Keller and Johnny Bradley on bass, Homer Henderson on rhythm guitar, Matt Farrell on piano and vocals, and Shawn Pittman guesting on one track on piano and vocal. The band plays in a variety of styles that consistently have a 50’s retro feel.
Through his work with singer Darrell Nulisch, Moeller got connected to David Earl and his Severn Records label. He did session work for the label until Earl decided it was time for Moeller to cut another album, which ended up being BlooGaLoo, released in 2010. Guests included Kim Wilson and Lou Ann Barton on vocals.
“That project started right after I had joined the T-Birds. I sang a couple of songs, but I hate singing, although I am trying to be better at it. I just turned fifty and feeling like I am starting to hit my stride. In those days we were drinking a lot, and not real focused. I never felt we put as much attention and awareness as we could have on those older records.”
These days, Moeller has some fun teasing Kim Wilson about seeing him with the T-Birds when Moeller was a youthful 15 years old. As you might expect, Wilson doesn’t need want any reminders about the passage of time.
“At some point, I realized it wasn’t in the cards for me to be Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix. But when I heard Jimmie Vaughan, that was perfect. I’m not as minimal as he is, but his whole approach supports the band and the song. It is not about the guitar first. He is probably the best rhythm guitar player ever. Figuring out his style lead me to other players like Steve Cropper and Curtis Mayfield, who play the song first.
“Being in the T-Birds is great. Kim Wilson is the best at what he does. I get to work with the best harmonica player, a great singer and songwriter. It has made me a much better musician. Early on, I learned that I had never been around a front man who keeps you on your toes all the time. It’s showtime – you can’t drink a beer between songs.
“I have never been good at learning things note for note. I work on getting the jist of it, the feel of a song. When we are on the road, I might learn a harp tune, something I know Kim likes. When I actually play on stage, he’ll look over and say, pretty good, but you missed that one note! Then he will hum the line for me and, damn, he’s right. Kim and Jimmie Vaughan know all of those cool little intricacies.”
Moeller was involved in another project, working with the Hal Leonard company on a DVD, 200 Blues Licks: Guitar licks Goldmine, released in 2011.
“A guy contacted me about it, saying they needed a bunch of blues licks for this series they were doing on blues guitar. He suggested that I write them out in tablature so that I remembered all of them, since they wanted 100 licks. He told me when we fly you to our office, you’ll need to be able to play them. So, we were on tour that year, when they had that big volcano eruption in Iceland. The band got stuck in Oslo for a week. I had nothing better to do, so I worked the guitar licks. I think some of them are on YouTube.”
When it comes to gear, the guitarist has some unique instruments.
“There is a guy that lives outside of Austin, Berly, makes knock-offs of different stuff. I have a couple that he calls the “Berlybird”. It’s like a Gibson Firebird with Fender Telecaster pick-ups, neck and bridge. I like those quite a bit. I also have a green Fender Jazzmaster that for awhile was the only guitar Kim wanted me to bring to T-Bird gigs, so I wore that one out in a couple of years. It needs some repairs. Two years ago, Kim got me a Gibson Les Paul Special in TV Yellow with P-90 pick-ups that I really love.
“For the amplifier, around here, I have an old Fender Silverface Vibrolux. Once I was in the T-Birds, it became apparent that I needed a couple of pedals. When you use backline amplifiers, you never know what you will get. The reverb might be crappy. And I like tremolo on the amp too. After a gig in Finland, a guy asked me if I ever used pedals. I told him I was thinking about it. He said he was just the guy, as he worked for Mad Professor, which builds effects pedals. He sent me a reverb, a tremolo, and a delay unit. Then I was hooked. They make things a lot easier, if you are not too much of a jerk about it.”
Moeller is excited about upcoming opportunities, especially the Sons Of A Tyrant Project, and the T-Birds are beginning to make plans for their next album.
“I want to thank everyone for their support, and glad to still be kicking it in these crazy times. Please keep a look out for upcoming releases from me and Nico, as we try to release something every couple months on-line. Jay and I have a 45 RPM coming out on Eddie Stout’s Dialtone Records label, which is pretty cool. It is hard these days to figure out when to release a record. The world is evolving quickly!”
Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!