Featured Interview – Tommy Castro

There was probably no bigger musical melting pot anywhere in the world than there was in San Francisco in the 1960s and early 70s.

There were not too many other places in the world where you could see Chicago Transit Authority, Albert King and The Who, all on the same stage, all on the same night.

That melting pot also boiled over into other parts of the Bay Area, as well.

That’s where young Tommy Castro would witness the neighborhood low riders cruising up and down the streets of east San Jose, pumping out greasy tunes by the likes of Wilson Pickett and Junior Walker.

“It seemed like every time a car would drive by, you’d hear “Midnight Hour” or “Shotgun,” or something like that,” Castro said of those sticky San Jose nights.

While he was hearing that in one ear, Castro and his friends were also soaking up the sounds of outfits like Cream and The Butterfield Blues Band in the other ear.

Mix Wilson Pickett with The Butterfield Blues Band, fast forward three decades and you have an idea about what the Tommy Castro Band is all about.

“We were just learning to play guitar and listening to stuff like Ten Years After and meanwhile, we were also hearing all this great soul music and that couldn’t help but rub off on us,” he said. “So that’s kind of how my sound developed. People ask me all the time, ‘how do you end up being a blues musician, growing up in the San Francisco bay area? It doesn’t seem like that would be a good place to get exposed to that kind of music.’ But it was actually a great place, just because of all the music going on in general.”

Before striking out on his own in the early 90s, Castro’s stint in the Dynatones – Charlie Musselwhite’s one-time backing band -ended up having a huge impact on his appreciation for the power of soul music.

“Yeah, I might have known about Otis Redding and Sam and Dave and groups like that, but the Dynatones really took it to a deeper level,” he said. “Back before CDs were readily available, Big Walter (Shuffelsworth, drummer for the Dynatones) would have all these 90-minute cassette tapes loaded with all this really, cool, greasy soul music. Stuff I’d never heard. So that really had an effect on my writing and my music later on. Not only that, but they’d (Dynatones) take me down to Maxwell Street (in Chicago) and make me eat pork chop sandwiches and stuff like that.”

Not only was soul music at its hey-day in the 60s and 70s, revue-style shows commonly made their way up and down the touring circuit.
Whether it was the Stax-Volt Revue, the Johnny Otis Revue or the Ike and Tina Turner Show, variety really was the spice of life where live music was concerned back in the day.

And Castro is bound and determined to see that those glorious days return once again.

Much of the bay area bluesman’s calendar the past few years has been filled with his own traveling revue, one that harkens back to the good-old days and features some of the brightest blues stars currently burning up the galaxy.

For those unfortunate souls who have not been able to see the highly-entertaining exploits of those shows in person, Alligator Records issued Tommy Castro Presents … The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue – Live early this summer.

Like a highlight reel of those tours, the disc captures performances by Castro and his long-time band, along with notables like Michael Burks, Joe Lewis Walker, Sista Monica, Rick Estrin, Trampled Under Foot, Janiva Magness, Theodis Ealy and Debbie Davies.

That folks, is a heck of a lot of star power.

“I felt that was really a worth-while venture to put out some of these live shows that we did. Alligator Records did a fine job of packing it, promoting it and presenting it,” Castro said. “People are into live music, man. Nowadays people are taping shows and posting shows … and all of that. They’re into what happened at last night’s show. And this live album would never have happened if not for the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.”

Ah, yes.

The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.

Unless they’ve spent a great deal of time under a rock recently, blues fans from all over the world should be instantly familiar with The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.

But what many of those fans may not know, is that Tommy Castro has been made an honorary captain of the twice-annual Caribbean cruises that are stocked to the gill with a who’s-who of blues greats and is always sold out.

So how does a guy go from scuffling around the east bay to becoming an honorary captain on the high seas?

“Sheer luck, I think,” laughed Castro. “The idea for the blues cruise was Roger Naber’s and after running into some difficulty along the way early, he regrouped, changed the name and this last incarnation of the blues cruise has been a pretty tight ship, no pun intended. They’ve got it down solid as a rock. And I was lucky enough to get booked on there as one of the acts like everybody else. But I suppose I was paying attention to what the crowd liked. I’ve always considered that my job – even going back to playing clubs in San Francisco before I was well-known. You have to pay attention to and take care of your audience. That’s where it all starts, man.”

And the one thing that Castro really noticed was how the cruises-goers ate up the jam sessions that have turned into a major calling card on the ships.

“Yeah, we don’t really rehearse, we just get up there and jam and just see what happens,” he said. “And people just love that. All of us (blues bands) are just out there running around with our own groups and we don’t really get to see other acts that are out there that much. Occasionally at a festival you might have the luxury to stick around and check out someone’s show. But that’s rare. But on the blues cruise, that stuff happens all day long.”

All day long and well into the night, that is.

“I noticed that the audience loved that aspect (the all-star jams) more than anything else,” said Castro. “The biggest crowd of the day would be at these jam sessions. At 1 o’clock in the morning, people would be standing out there, just waiting for the thing to get started. And it would go until 4 or 5 in the morning. Then, people would wander to the piano bar where musicians would be sitting in and jamming down there. So that’s what I noticed – that the people loved to see different musicians get together and interact. That’s where this whole idea came from. And blues have been a great format for jamming, because everyone knows the form.”

Castro figured that if those jams could be so much fun on the crystal-blue waters of the Caribbean, they were bound to be equally as much fun inland.

Although it might not have been totally smooth sailing from the outset, Castro nevertheless knew he was on to something.

“Well, I’m not B.B. King. If B.B. King was putting together a revue like this, everyone would jump at the chance to go out and play,” he said. “But when it’s Tommy Castro, they’re like, ‘what? You want me to do what? With who?’ But we put that first lineup together and it was pretty magical. It’s been pretty hard to beat that initial lineup. We knew right then that the model was pretty sound and we would be able to take this thing and be able to play some bigger venues than what each of us could play on our own. That was part of the plan.”
Those performers on that embryonic run included Deanna Bogart, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Magic Dick.

Not only does the revue-style show allow Castro to travel around the country with his friends – old and new – it has also paid dividends in another category.

“Well, I’m the only guy that’s booked to play on every single blues cruise that goes out,” he laughed. “And part of the reason why is that we really promote the cruises wherever we’re playing these revue shows.”

Currently, Coco Montoya, Curtis Salgado and Sista Monica are on the bill.

“Some of the nights, the show will last for four to four-and-a-half hours from beginning to end,” he said. “I think we give people a pretty good representation of what the blues cruises’ jams are like.”

Though he’s been a fixture in the blues scene as a bandleader for a couple of decades now, it would hard to imagine Castro ever having a bigger year than the one he experienced in 2010.

Behind his magnificent Hard Believer (Alligator Records) album, Castro dominated the Blues Music Awards, winning the top honor in every category that he was nominated in.

That includes the Blues Foundation’s ultra-prestigious B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award, marking the second time Castro has managed to take home that honor.

“Those (awards) mean a lot to me, because I went for a long time with no recognition whatsoever,” he said. “I don’t think it was anything personal, I guess that I just hadn’t made enough of an impact to grab much attention. And so finally – bam! – I had a record nominated (2005’sSoul Shaker). It didn’t win anything, but the next year, I got Album of the Year (Painkiller) and Entertainer of the Year and I was just blown away. This is 15-plus years into my career. So that was pretty cool. I’ve got both those statues in my living room, right out there for everyone to see.”

Winning awards in every category that you’re nominated in has got to be xtra-special, but according to Castro, that also might be a bit of a double-edged sword.

“That was more than I expected (winning four BMAs in one year) – I really didn’t know what to think about that,” he said. “Except for, now what do we do now to follow that up? That’s what I was really thinking.”

Shiny, gleaming statues certainly do look good in a trophy case, or on the fireplace mantle, but they can also do more than just look good – they can actually help put food on the dining room table.

“The main order of business around here – yeah, you may have a good band and some good songs and all that, but unless you have a gig to show all that stuff off at, it’s not all that cool,” Castro laughed. “So, the awards did help us get some more gigs and some more festival dates and I couldn’t be more grateful for that bit of acknowledgement. And of course it means a lot to me personally, too, since I’ve spent so much of my life doing this.”

And just like any true artist – whether it be a painter, a sculptor, a photographer or a blues musician – Castro is cognizant about creating a legacy that can stand the test of time.

“When you think about, all you really have in your life on earth is time,” he said. “And if I’m spending all of my time doing this (playing the blues), it really does mean a lot that people are aware of my work. I mean, you don’t just do this for yourself, do you? You do it for the entertainment of other people. You do it for the sake of the art and the overall community. And you do want people to think that you did something good – something for them.”

And when it comes to the healing power of the blues, such gratitude is often immediate.

“When someone comes up to me and says, ‘man, I was having a hard time last time and your music got me through it.’ Then they’ll say like, ‘I listened to “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” over and over, ’” said Castro. “You can’t put a price on that. I could sit around and think about all the things that didn’t happen over the course of my career, but I don’t really spend much time doing that. Most of this came as a big surprise to me. I was playing blues in little bands at home, just because that was what I did for fun. And then I wound up doing it for a living.”

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