Featured Interview – Felix Reyes

Back then, he probably would have preferred to choke him.

These days, he simply prefers to thank him.

A hot young guitar slinger eager to make a name for himself and show off his skill set on the vibrant Texas blues scene, Felix Reyes quickly found out that Doug Simril had other ideas in mind for him.

Ideas like teaching his protégée that it’s really important to learn how to walk before you can take off and run.

“He (Simril) was a member of the Marksmen, the band that had Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs in it, and he was like my guitar mentor who taught me how to play rhythm guitar,” Reyes said recently. “And in fact he didn’t let me play any leads in the band for almost eight months – just kind of drilled this rhythm guitar thing into my head. I was really kind of pissed at him for a long time about that, but it’s the best kind of learning that you could ever have.”

And judging from the resume he’s written since those long-ago days in the Lonestar State, it’s easy to see that Reyes has put those lessons to good use over the years.

A virtual jack of all trades, Reyes has left his mark on the music scene all over the place – in Dallas, Atlanta and in Chicago, a place he calls home these days, over the course of his three decade-plus career as a guitarist, songwriter, producer and recording engineer.

“It’s been a wonderful ride. I’ve met the most fantastic people … it’s such a family and it keeps growing and growing, like a circle of love that comes into your life through music,” he said.

That feeling of love through the shared experience of music really reverberated through the heart of the Atlanta music scene when Reyes came into the orbit of the late, great Sean Costello. It was a common sight to see the fire-balling Costello sitting in and jamming with Felix and the Cats late into the hot Atlanta night.

“We worked together and then he went off and did his thing. The whole time he was out there, I didn’t realize the groundwork he laid for me,” said Reyes. “We had a ton of respect that always carried through in our relationship. I just wish I’d got to take him fishing, actually. We always talked about it, but I didn’t.”

Costello flared through the blues stratosphere with all the brilliance of a supernova and although he was gone way before his time, his presence can still be felt today and looks like it will never go away. That’s one reason Blues Blast magazine calls the award it gives to the most promising young musicians each year The Sean Costello Rising Star Award.

“That deal with Sean, he was a phenom, you know? He came out and blew all our minds. He still continues to blow people’s minds,” Reyes said. “It’s really strange. His presence in my life is still felt almost every day. I think that sometimes people like that, that’s what they have to give us. We don’t write our own stories or anything. That’s his story and he lived it and he accomplished a lot more than a lot of people with a lot more time.”

That connection with Costello was also instrumental in Reyes’ penning the Grammy-nominated song “Wait for Me” for Susan Tedeschi (off her album of the same name). “He (Costello) made all that happen. That’s totally how that happened,” he said.

It’s something of a miracle that anyone around Atlanta even knew that Reyes was an accomplished guitarist, because for nearly the first year he was there, he was knee-deep in another line of work.

“I was working with my brother making tons of money in the contracting business and I really didn’t want to play (guitar) that much. I had never had any money – not like that – so this was all new to me. But I went down and met the Blind Willie’s (legendary Altanta blues club) crew, my brother kind of dragged me down there to see the house band and he made me bring my guitar … it wasn’t like I really wanted to play,” Reyes said.

Then fate stepped into the mix.

“There was a girl from Dallas there who recognized me and she kept hounding them (the band) to let me sit in and they weren’t having it. But at the end of the night, they let me sit in and they were like, ‘Oh! That guy can play.’ Then I went back to building swimming pools and didn’t think too much about it,” he said.

A couple of weeks after that, Reyes got a call from that very band, requesting his services after their regular guitarist had nearly cut his finger off. And just like that, Reyes was back in the swing of things, musically speaking.

“Through that gig, I met (tenor saxophone player) Grady ‘Fats’ Jackson, who was a big jump-swing guy. We connected not only on a personal level, but on a really deep musical level. And Fats got to where he wouldn’t play a gig there if I didn’t play guitar with him,” Reyes said. “I loved the way he was playing, with all that Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet kind of honkin.’ He helped me immensely when I was in Atlanta.”

The past several years, Reyes has been a regular member of Dave Herrero and The Hero Brothers’ Band. Not only did Reyes play guitar on the group’s latest disc, Corazon, he also co-produced it and recorded a good part of it at his House of Tone studio in Oak Park, Illinois. And although he still steps onto the bandstand whenever the opportunity arises, these days Reyes is spending more and more time inside his House of Tone.

“I haven’t been playing a lot lately; I’ve been doing more recording here. Ed (Strohsahl, who plays bass for Herrero) is with Nikki Hill and Dave (Herrero) went to Poland again and is on tour with Jimmy Burns right now in Turkey, but I opted to stay here and record,” he said.

While it has to be super-convenient to have a recording studio mere steps away from your living room, that comfort factor was not exactly the reason Reyes initially constructed a laboratory to create sounds in.

“I didn’t start out to have a studio. I started out wanting to get the best guitar tone I can on a recording and I was having problems doing that when I’d record at other places,” he said. “Sometimes engineers have a one-size-fits-all approach to recording, and I know from listening to records that a lot of stuff that we love was recorded in ways that are very ambient, which runs counter to the way that engineers are trained to record now.”

Coming of age in the Dallas area, Reyes had the luxury of seeing a host of impressive blues men and women playing all around town on any given day or night.

“I got pretty lucky. We’d go to the park on Sunday and Freddy King would be playing there. And you know, it got to the point where he was out there so much that quite honestly, we kind of took Freddy for granted. And Marc Benno was in town then (Stevie Ray Vaughan played in his band, The Nightcrawlers),” he said. “And you had Cookie McGee. She’s one of those Dallas artists that nobody knows about, but she was on the scene in the early ‘80s. She learned from Freddy King, played a Flying V and an Explorer and was amazing; if you could imagine a young girl who played like Freddy and could sing her ass off, that’s what you got.”

Seeing performers like that sure didn’t deter Reyes from wanting to get in on the action and play the blues.

“When I was coming on the scene there, those people were around and you had Zuzu Bollin. Prior to that, I was kind of playing world music … reggae and Brazilian stuff … and they really turned my head around about the blues,” he said. “I was such an Allman Brother’s fanatic, when I heard them mention T-Bone Walker, and I found out he was from Dallas, you know, I started to listen – well, even to find out about it. Now, you have YouTube, and anything is possible and easy to research. But back then, there weren’t very many resources.”

It’s obvious through his playing that Reyes is well-versed in the history of the blues and has great respect for the fore-fathers of the genre and the groundwork they have done to build such a glorious musical platform. With that being said, Reyes is also sharp enough to know that if artists in the here-and-now don’t do their part to help keep that platform a sturdy one with their own original contributions, the blues might become stagnant.

“”I’m way into anyone who’s trying to write songs. I love those classic blues tunes just like everybody else does, but the genre needs people to write songs for it to move forward,” he said. “I really think that’s what’s kind of lacking.”

The Chicagoland area now seems as comfortable as a pair of well-worn shoes to Reyes, but when he first arrived there, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“When I first got here, I didn’t really know the city and I was older and it was just hard for me to go out and be in clubs every night in a very competitive atmosphere. Of course I met people early on and these guys have been really, really great about helping me out. I always remember stuff like that,” he said. “Tom Holland hooked me up with a gig with Eddy Clearwater and I went out on the road with him on bass. Tom got me a gig with Byther Smith and I played with Sam Lay for a while.”

Reyes also went out on the road for – looking back on now – what had to be a bittersweet time; the last tour of Pinetop Perkins and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith.

“I lucked into that. Willie’s son (Kenny ‘Beady Eyes’ Smith) was on that tour on drums. I’m glad to have it under my belt. You know, if I didn’t play again at all, (after that) that would be alright. It was amazing,” Reyes said. “One night we were playing and they played three-and-a-half – almost four – hours straight. I knew that we were supposed to be done, but everybody stayed there and Willie kept calling tunes. It wasn’t like we were going to say, ‘We’re done at two o’clock … I’m outta here.’ And that was really cool.”

Reyes is certainly blessed with all the flash, fire and technical ability of just about any of the most jaw-dropping guitarists that a person can name. While it’s important to have those tools on your workbench, he also understands that there’s way more to playing the blues than just seeing how many notes you can peel off at one time.

“Rhythm guitar playing is a lost art. Everybody wants to be a hotshot lead guitar player. When you hear a bunch of guys play – I hear it all the time – it’s like nobody’s really listening (to each other), they’re just kind of all playing. It’s like a horse race,” he said. “Doug’s (Simril) concept was, hey, I’m gonna make you sound good when you play your solo, so you had better damn well make me sound great when I’m playing my solo.”

Whether comping for another guitarist, or whether he’s the one out front soloing, it’s evident that Felix Reyes was just born to play the guitar. And as he found out somewhere along the path he’s traveled, that bond between man and instrument can result in much more than just a good time.

“I remember the first time I got paid for playing a gig. I was like, ‘What? Are you kidding?’ When you first start playing guitar, you just want to get good enough to play a piece of a song. And you learn a song and then you want to play guitar with somebody and then you want to play in a band,” he said. “And that’s a big deal. Really my expectations at that point were were just to play for people and have them like it. I never expected to get paid for it. I’ve been really lucky.”

For more info on Felix visit his website at www.felixreyes.com

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2013 Blues Blast Magazine.

Interview conducted by Tom Hyslop. Story written by Terry Mullins.

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