Smokin’ Joe Kubek is the focus of this Monthly Artist Spotlight in the September 2012 edition of BLUES JUNCTION Productions. In this interview Joe discusses his early days playing in Dallas, meeting B’nois King, and his first all acoustic release, “Close to the Bone,” on Delta Groove Music.
Interview by David Mac / BLUES JUNCTION Productions (Published September 2012).
David Mac (DM): Joe, I have always wanted to ask you, where did the “Smokin’” moniker come from?
Joe Kubek (JK): That was hung on me back when I was 17. The next thing I know, there it is. I don’t know why it just stuck with me, but it has.
DM: When I think of “Smokin’ Joe” I always thought of the former heavy weight champion of the world, Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
JK: Oh yeah. I remember somebody came up to me and asked me to autograph some blues society magazine up in New Jersey one night, I think it was back in 95’, and Smokin’ Joe Frazier had for some reason signed it. So I wrote on there, ‘I’ll kick Smokin’ Joe Frasier’s ass any day!’
DM: (laughing) Careful Joe…
JK: I quickly added please don’t show him that.
DM: Good move. Do you remember when you became interested in the guitar?
JK: I remember being in the first grade and watching the Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan show and for some reason that just made an impression on me.
DM: Can you imagine how many kids said to their folks the next day, “I want a guitar”?
JK: Oh yeah, I became fascinated by the instrument.
DM: I have read your bio on your website and it said you played with Freddy King while still a teenager. That is pretty serious.
JK: I played with him for just a second. I was 19 and was with him for a very short stint. I played a gig and did some rehearsing with him. Unfortunately, that gig was Christmas night at a place called the Eagle ballroom in Dallas. It used to be the old Ascot Room on the Southside of town. It was kind of a dangerous part of town. You know the place had a real bad reputation. There’s only one way in and one way out. Anyway, we played Christmas night there…
DM: Oh man…. THAT Christmas night…
JK: Yeah, THAT Christmas night. He died like a day or two later. He was fine on stage. His last performance was unbelievable man. We were over at Deacon Jones’ house in Dallas, rehearsing when we got the phone call saying he passed away. Needless to say we were in shock.
DM: As you were coming up through the ranks, there were so many guitarists that were just a few years older than you in Texas that were just so darn good and already a little more established. Did you ever feel a little intimidated by all the talent out there?
JK: I used to sneak into these clubs and catch a band called, Storm which featured Jimmie (Vaughan). His playing, even back then, was just jaw dropping you know. He was always cool man. Jimmie decided early on he was going to play blues. Nobody wanted to hear that stuff man, I mean he was starving to death. For me, it’s like I don’t care how well you play guitar it’s like how well do you play blues guitar? Like you said Dave, there were a lot of cats back then that were monsters. I don’t think you see as much of that in Texas these days. It seems like all of the killer players right now are on the west coast with guys like Kirk Fletcher and Kid Ramos and on and on and on.
There are a lot of cats out these days that think they can just, you know, listen to some Steve Ray Vaughan and then they have it. What they don’t understand is that Stevie would eat, sleep and breathe this stuff. It was his whole life. He was into it totally. For him it was an all consuming kind of thing. I loved Stevie. He was my good friend.
DM: Let’s talk about your experience playing with Al “TNT” Bragg.
JK: I was with him for about four years. I learned a lot from that guy. Al was on Peacock Records back in the 60’s. He wrote a lot of songs for Bobby Bland, such as, Share Your Love and Soul of a Man. He told me he wrote, Call on Me but he sold it to Bobby, well sold it to Duke/Peacock which is Don Roby. The writer’s credit on all that stuff said, Deadric Malone.
Al taught me a lot just playing with him and rehearsing with him. I was doing a lot of sessions in Dallas-Fort Worth in those days. I did an album with Little Joe Blue. He was on kind of a small label. I worked with a lot of different artists like Ariel Griffin, Charlie Robertson, Big Ray Anderson and Ernie Johnson. Anyway Al would write for these guys and produce for these guys as well. So I was in the studio a lot and Al was always writing songs for B.B. (King) and Bobby Bland. There were a lot of songs that were written for Bobby that we did demos for, but that he never ended up recording.
DM: How did you meet B’nois King?
JK: I had heard about him but I had never met him. They reopened a place called Mother Blues here in Dallas. King and I were in there and checking out Roomful of Blues. We were in the dressing room just hanging out and he and I never spoke a word to each other. We just kind of looked at each other. Soon after that I was playing at Poor David’s Pub here in Dallas. I had a regular Monday night gig there. Whoever happened to be available for the rhythm section for that week would play with me. Well King came in one night and I said “Hey man why don’t you sit in.” and he said “OK.” I got him up there and I kept him up there all evening. When we got done that first night I asked him, “Why don’t you do this gig with me every Monday?” He said ok, and that’s how it all started, right there.
DM: The rest, as they say, is history.
JK: Pretty much. It’s been twenty three years and fifteen albums.
DM: And a lot of miles….
JK: Oh yeah! When we first got started, we were rolling into honky tonks for $250 and no rooms. We would be carrying our own little P.A. system. We would flip coins to see who got the mattress and who got the box springs. A few years later we got to the point we were doing both coasts before we’d see home. I remember being gone a couple months and coming home for four days and then doing the same thing again. We were just always out there, on the road.
DM: That is harder to do these days.
JK: Well we aren’t as young as we used to be.
DM: Not only that but with all the blues clubs that have dried up and gone away over the past ten years or so, the distances between gigs is much greater. I mean there are lot of miles between Dallas and The Rhythm Room in Phoenix. We don’t get many of the national touring acts out here on the west coast as a result of that.
JK: That’s right. There were a lot of venues that were closer together in those days. Dallas to Phoenix is the norm now. We do love the west coast. Now that we are with Delta Groove Music maybe we can get out there a lot more. We’re grateful to have a gig anywhere. Don’t get me wrong. We love playing the east coast, love playing overseas, but the west coast is one of the places that King and I talk about that we just can’t wait to get back to. It has a funky groove, sunshine and the great climate and all that. You aren’t dealing with 42 degrees below zero weather.
DM: We don’t even have to contend with 42 degrees above zero too often for that matter. Speaking of the west coast, you mentioned Delta Groove Music. You guys have had a long journey through record land before signing with Los Angeles based Delta Groove Music. Let’s talk about that.
JK: We had a long career with Rounder/Bullseye blues. We then went to Blind Pig and did some albums with them. Then it was off to Alligator and did a few with them. Delta Groove is like a breath of fresh air.
DM: Not only are you guys on a new label but you are making your first ever all acoustic album. What was the genesis that leads to such a radical career shift?
JK: It started out when we were doing this Freddy King Memorial benefit several years back. We got on the bill and we just did a twenty minute set. So we asked “What do you think about us doing an acoustic duo thing?” They said fine, so that’s what we did. We felt like we were naked up there. It was weird. We’re not standing up there behind electric guitars and in front of amps. No drummer and no bass player. Those twenty minutes seemed like an hour. The people loved it though. Don O, who is with KNON Radio, is a person I admire and respect very much. He was raving about it. He said there was some sort of mojo to what we were doing. Every time we did an acoustic gig we got a great response. We still can’t figure out why but people love it.
DM: Do you incorporate the acoustic music into your live sets?
JK: We don’t. We thought about doing it that way but we decided to do one or the other. Maybe that’s a selfish way of putting it but I’d rather not switch gears. I’d rather just do one or the other. We either make the gig an acoustic night or an electric night. King and I had a sit down about it and we decided that we weren’t going to play these songs electrically with a full band. To keep the uniqueness of this material we were only going to play these songs acoustically. So I don’t know if that makes any sense to you or not, but if someone comes out to see us play and we’re playing electric guitars with a full band, they are not going to hear these songs.
DM: It makes perfect since to me but I am guessing that Alligator didn’t like the idea.
JK: I mentioned I wanted to do an acoustic album and they basically came back and said they didn’t see us as that kind of artist. I called Rand (Randy Chortkoff/founder and president of Delta Groove Music) He liked the idea. I almost dropped the phone.
DM: One of the things I really like on the new album is that the lyrics are so darn strong.
JK: That is pretty much B’nois department. I write the music.
DM: There is a song that floored me from the moment I first heard it. It is entitled, My Best Friend. The song isn’t a blues song but it is a damn good tune.
JK: That really makes me feel good that you like that particular tune. Let me tell you something Dave, one of the biggest, most devastating things that happened to me in my life is when I lost my mother.
DM: I’m sorry. How old were you at the time?
JK: I was twenty. I just woke up one morning and my mom was gone, she had passed away and I had no idea that it was coming. It just devastated me. It was so painful that I was pretty much behind the bottle for many years.
I was on the road with King when he lost his mother. We were in Michigan when he got a call one morning while we were having breakfast at an IHOP and he learned his mother had just passed away. We had to play that night. I don’t know how he did it. I know it’s called My Best Friend, but it’s about both of our mothers. It is a very personal song.
DM: When I heard it I thought it could be about an ex-girlfriend.
JK: Oh yeah, that’s a good point. We changed the lyrics so people could interpret it any way they want. We kind of left it wide open. Like you said, it could be about a girlfriend or a lover but it is about our mothers.
That was one of the songs we sent to Alligator. They didn’t like it. That’s when everybody drew a line in the sand. It was a deal breaker man. It was like “Hey wait a minute you’re messing with my mama.” I don’t think Bruce (Iglauer/founder and president of Alligator Records) really knew that.
DM: He does now.
JK: We knew that no matter what we did we were going to fight tooth and nail for that song. Thanks for bringing that song up in this conversation. Again, I am glad you like it because it obviously means a lot to us even though, like you said, ‘It isn’t really a blues song.’
DM: There are two other songs in particular that go in a whole other direction. They are Drowning in Red Ink and Ordinary Man. I wouldn’t call them overtly political but they do have somewhat a cultural and social message that’s for sure.
JK: That’s true. We have never been particularly political. It always makes someone mad and then we end up on the short end of the stick.
DM: You have a couple of covers as well. I can’t for the life of me read these liner notes but Mama’s Bad Luck Child is, I believe a Texas Alexander tune.
JK: Exactly! The record has a pretty contemporary feel to it as far as chord changes and what not but I wanted to have a tradional overtone to the whole thing and this tune from the 1920’s I believe helps to give the record a more tradional feel.
DM: When the album was recorded last spring, the first session that took place was on Memorial Day. Jeff Fleenor from Delta Groove Music called me the next day and told me about day one of tracking. I thought to myself “What is going on in there? Is this still going to be a Smokin Joe Kubek & B’Nois King album or The Mannish Boys: Unplugged?”
JK: (laughing) Looking back on it, I guess it was pretty comical the way it went down. We went into the studio after we played at the Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival out in California. While we were out there hanging out backstage I would say to King, “Check it out. There is this guy or that guy…” all these great players that are based out there. It took like six or seven hours to get the first song nailed down on Monday because we kept bringing in these great players. That was the really cool thing about it, we did a lot of spur of the moment things it was like “Hey let’s get Paul Size on here. Let’s get Shawn Pittman. Let’s get Kirk Fletcher.” We would just take turns on solos. Rather than just me taking a long solo, or King taking a long solo, we split it up where everybody’s taking one. “Even if it’s just a little measure or two let’s get everybody on here. Let’s have some fun with it.” We kept the same arrangements of the songs. We just split it up a little to have everybody play on it. The first day was pretty wild but by Tuesday we rolling along pretty good. It worked out.
DM: It did work out. All that star power is very complimentary without smothering B’Nois and yourself. I couldn’t help but notice that you gave Kirk Fletcher a lot of room.
JK: Just because I wrote the song doesn’t mean I have to be hog on it. Kirk played on it because he really made it sound good. I don’t think Kirk was planning on playing on more than a couple of songs but I wouldn’t let him leave.
I’m real proud of this album and I’m really thankful that Rand and everybody gave us a chance to do it. I’m grateful that it came out the way it did, because Rand kept saying “Let’s keep it about the acoustic.” and it really worked out. He had a vision for the project and that vision was really cool.
DM: What’s next for Smokin’ Joe Kubek & B’nois King?
JK: I would like to get out and tour as a duo. Then I would love to go back to California and do an electric album with King and all these great players out there.
DM: Can you ever envision doing a record without B’Nois King?
JK: Never! They will have to roll us out of here in body bags.