For eighteen years, The Kentuckiana Blues Society has given the Sylvester Weaver Award to a deserving recipient. Many of our early winners are no longer with us, including Henry Woodruff, Jim Rosen, Foree Wells, Winston Hardy, Fred Murphy and Mary Ann Fisher. They were the foundation of our blues community from the '50s to the '90s. It is gratifying that these people received recognition from the KBS while they were alive and well.
This year the voting was very close, so close that the three members of da Mudcats were in a three-way tie. The option of giving the award to the band was a win, win, win situation.
Ex-Mudcaters Jim Rosen and Susan O'Neil have already been honored. The present members - Gene Wickliffe, Rob Pickett and Mike Lynch - have been playing together for six years. Gene has been drumming from the beginning in 1985. Rob joined a year later, while Mike is the baby in the band. They have crafted their own sound with vocals shared between Rob's smooth ballads and Mike's deep, gritty blues. The band had a dream gig in 2001 when they were selected to play at the Monterey Blues Festival in California before thousands of fans. They made such a good impression that they were asked to return two more years. Mike didn't take his Monterey T-shirt off for two months.
Lynch played with Blue Suede Shooze and The Accused Blues Band and has hosted the Tuesday blues jams at Stevie Ray's for several years. He currently is in the house band for the Wednesday jams at Longshot Tavern. Jim Rosen always referred to Rob as his "Nubian Brother" on the bandstand. They had a close bond, having grown up together. With the departure of Sue O'Neil and Rob, Pickett has developed a vocal style that contrasts nicely with Mike's. Gene is as steady as they come, keeping the beat for da Mudcats for over 20 years. I will talk more about Gene later in this article.
The award was presented to da Mudcats on November 16 at Stevie Ray's after their first set. The plan was to surprise the winners while letting their friends and family in on the secret so they could be there. The plan worked, thanks to several behind-the-scenes calls by Sue. Since there were several past "Weaver Winners" in attendance, we all got on stage for photo opportunities. Congratulations to da Mudcats!
By giving the Sylvester Weaver Award to the whole band, the KBS recognized that the rhythm section works just as hard as those who front the band. It was the first time that a drummer and bassist got the "Weaver." Mike Lynch and Gene Wickliffe are on the bandstand at every gig, laying down the beat. Because Gene is the most senior member of da Mudcats, I contacted him for an interview. We met at the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library where he runs the print shop. Gene prepares forms for all of the branches and does sound setup for events.
This January, Gene will have been at the library for twenty-seven years. Last November, da Mudcats performed at the library staff appreciation party at Slugger Field. Gene feels that his work experience helps him musically because his department markets the library. This background gives him ideas for the band to be more professional. Years ago, it was hard for the band to understand not to take the business aspect for granted. The library has been flexible, allowing Gene to take off for gigs.
During the '80s, da Mudcats were playing several nights a week. Gene was also with Cosmo and the Counts and Rusty Ends' show band, Heat, doing the Kentucky State Fair and the Derby Chow Wagon.
We backed up to Gene's musical beginnings in elementary school, when, he said, "my parents bought me a set of drums after they got tired of me banging on the furniture." Gene's father, Louis, would play R&B, swing and jazz records for him to drum to. His mother, Zelma, would occasionally let Gene go with his older brother, Alvin and his best friend, Paul Evans, to perform at Senior High quarter dances. This led to playing on the local TV shows, "Urban Insight' and "What's Happening."
At Parkland Junior High School Gene was in an alternative band where the kids who didn't read music would learn by listening to popular records. While the regular band members were learning music by Beethoven and Bach, the other kids down the hall were soaking up the Temptations and Jackson Five. At the recitals, there was a rivalry between the classicists and the rockers. While at Central High School the history teacher, Mr. Klinert, was impressed with the talents of the trio of Gene, Alvin and Paul after they had won second place at the Minority Expo. He arranged for them to record some rhythm tracks at a New York studio session.
Gene was later influenced with the live performance of Buddy Rich and his big band. Gene grew up in the same neighborhood with Rick and Joe DeBow. At the time Gene started at the library, he had the chance to go with the DeBow Brothers, Brian Manley and Donny Bridges to Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1982 to record with Tony Joe White and make some rhythm tracks for Percy Sledge. At that time Muscle Shoals was still one of the main recording centers in the country. In the mid-Eighties, Gene felt he needed some professional help, which led to attendance at drum clinics held at Mom's Musician's General Store. After he watched Marvin Maxwell and Roy Burns, he would go home and try to work it out and apply it to his playing. These clinics were Gene's first professional drum lessons.
Gene's main teacher was Mark Tate, who played with the Louisville Orchestra. He patiently laid techniques out for Gene, giving him the tools to move on. Other professional drummers like Brad Kennedy and Jeff McCallister have also helped Gene. These were busy times, working, training and playing six nights a week with Heat and da Mudcats. There were some brief experiences for Gene to play with touring professionals while he was drumming with Jerry Green. They backed Ben E. King in North Carolina and the Drifters at the Brown Hotel.
In the beginning, Dickey Durlauf was to be the drummer for da Mudcats, but he died suddenly. Later, when Gene was playing at Maiers with Bill Dean, Andy Brauner and Rocky Adcock, Jim Rosen came in and told Gene "you play the drums pretty good. I might be putting a band together and give you a call." Gene just blew it off. Two weeks later, Jim called Gene and he started rehearsing with the band. It wasn't until a year later that Gene committed to be a Mudcat. He played at their first gig, a tailgate party in the middle of the parking lot of the fairgrounds. Along with Jim, Sue O'Neil, Andy Brauner and B.G. Johnson, they had to deal with a pitiful little P.A. system and four microphones. They all had the same question: "What are we going to do with this?"
There came other gigs, including opening for Lonnie Brooks and later Charlie Musselwhite at the Rudyard Kipling. The band would practice at Andy's house and every time, the police would come, which made for short rehearsals. What ever happened to Andy? Gene didn't know.
What was it like playing with Jim Rosen? Gene said, 'the experience was mostly fun and some times intense. He wanted the music to sound good. When you're in a musical relationship with someone nearly twenty years, you see the band members more than you see your family." When Jim died in 1998, the band had commitments they had to keep and there was little time for grieving. Gene recalled, "Jim's passing did not have a lot to do with music. It was a friend who had died and the drumming was secondary."
Gene hated when Sue left the band, as they often traveled together to gigs. They frequently played C. T. Pepper's in Indianapolis. Gene said, "the Hoosier crowd was odd, for no matter what you did, they would just stand there. It was so boring."
To break things up during a long weekend gig, Rob played jokes on Jim. Rob would turn the reverb on Jim's amp all the way up. When they hurried Jim back on the stage, he didn't have a chance to check his amp and when he blew the first note it went through the roof. Larry Holt, the bassist, could keep a straight face, but Rob couldn't and always got blamed.
Gigs were a lot easier to get during the '80s and '90s, since you could play anywhere, not just the blues clubs. Da Mudcats were the house band at Barry's at Pope and Frankfort, which became Gator's and is now Café Lou Lou's. Gene's favorite venue was the Butchertown Pub, because they started the music early, there were good crowds and the performers on the other stages would congregate together during the shows. Times are tougher now, because you only can book a few places where people want to hear the blues. Because da Mudcats are getting older, they can't play the younger places anymore. To improve the situation, Gene feels the fans need to go out to support the blues and then the club owners will take notice. The owners need to start the music early to suit the age of their fans and do better advertising. It's an effort on everybody's part.
To adjust, da Mudcats have gone acoustic to play the restaurants and hotels. They do the same songs with a different approach and using less volume. For Gene it means using brushes and for Mike playing an upright bass. Their gigs at Wick's on Westport at Goose Creek Road attract families and it may be the only time kids are exposed to live music. The summer months are filled playing regional blues festivals in Henderson, Morehead and Owensboro, Kentucky. In 2004 da Mudcats released their CD, Blue Kentucky Moon, which includes mostly originals by Rob and a remake of Jim's, "Big, Back Yard." In the future they would like to record a live CD, if they can find the right place.
The current version of da Mudcats is on solid ground. Gene confirmed that when he said, "the important thing about this band, even when Jim was alive, was when we needed somebody, it wasn't so much their musical abilities but how well we got along." After Wayne Carver decided to leave the band, Gene and Rob thought about who they could get that would be compatible. Gene knew Mike Lynch from playing with Tanita Gaines and Blue Suede Shooze and thought it would be a great match. Things have worked out. Gene handles the business side while Rob and Mike do the creative musical work. When Rob and Mike rehearse a new song, they just give the tape to Gene.
Simplicity is how Gene succinctly describes his style of drumming. He tries to get the music across. He uses this same method with all of the other groups he plays with, including Bodeco, Johnny Berry and Steve Cooley. Whoever he accompanies, he tries to keep it simple, laying down a groove and giving the leaders area to play. Gene has never taken a drum solo and if he ever tried he said, "don't blink, for it's done."
For any aspiring drummers, Gene encouraged them "to play as much as they can in as many different situations. Blues is not one-dimensional. If you learn to play many different styles, you will always work. Even within that style of the blues, if you are limited in only one narrow thing that you can do, you will run into a wall."
Gene spends his rare free time reading philosophy and metaphysics, but this may change soon, as he married Karen in December. He said, "two things have worked out, we can travel together and we can live together." They will be honeymooning in Las Vegas in February. Since Rob is also engaged, Gene has warned Mike, "to either run for cover or go buy a ring."
Besides da Mudcats receiving the Best Blues Band Award from Leo for three years, Gene can add their Weaver Awards to their promo packet.