Hittin' the Note: The Tommy talton Story
Rhythm & Blues is not a complex musical style. Nobody understands this better than vocalist & master guitarist, Tommy Talton. Like other veteran R & B musicians, Talton is not about how fast he can play, nor is he about how many chord changes fit into a measure, or how many tempo changes can be built into a song. What Talton does care about is touch, restraint, texture, and feel. He cares most about those notes that remain, as yet, unplayed.
Singer/songwriter Tommy Talton has spent an entire career searching out just these essential notes. Never showboating or grandstanding, Talton ‘lays back’, allowing a refined flair for lyrical melodies, and velvety guitar hooks to speak for him.
It is this ‘laid back’ technique which catapulted Talton from Macon, GA to sold-out dates at Carnegie Hall with the Gregg Allman Band and ultimately out-drawing ex-Beatle, George Harrison at the Fillmore West. Listening to a Talton finely crafted song is like watching a lathe-smith turn wood into finely sculpted art. Talton’s extraordinary songwriting abilities deliver material with ‘texture and theme’, resonating freshness no matter where, or when his music is played. You would expect this magnitude of talent coming from a musician that grew up in New York City, LA, or Chicago, but not in the uncontrived, pre-Walt Disney World, of Central Florida.
Talton’s earliest musical influences came at the age of 4 while listening to sing-along favorites like Patti Page’s 1953 hit “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” with his mother on the family’s radio. By 1956 Talton recalls listening to vinyl with his older sister as Elvis sang “Hound Dog,” and then rifling her record collection for other gems.
At age eight, before he ever picked up a guitar or slide, Talton would sneak a transistor radio under his pillow at night, and stay awake for hours, listening to local Orlando radio stations, WDBO, WHOO, or WLOF. Through the feathers, Talton began developing an early ear for musical nuances. He began to notice, early on, how the guitar and drummer played against each other, or how the keyboard worked together with the drummer, and the vocalist. Talton paid particular attention to flawless harmonies, listening to vocal groups like the Everly Brothers sing classics such as “Lucille” or “Cathy’s Clown.” While most boys his age were still mastering the bottom row of the big crayon box, Talton had taught himself the primary shades, hues, and tones of Music, an art form that would become his life’s passion.
These early musical influences seemed as endless as the Central Florida orange groves that spread in every direction from 1960s Orlando. If doomed to hear only one record on a deserted island for the rest of his life, however, Talton said it would be “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke. “Everything is perfect about that song,” said Talton, “His vocal, the lyrics, the approach, the feeling that he conveys, and the texture of the recording. That song is the perfect vehicle for recording a musical feeling and emotion—it covers it all.”
Talton began to play guitar and write music in the early 1960s. He soon landed a job in a Central Florida group called the Nonchalants—that morphed into the Offbeets—eventually it became We the People. We the People garnered local attention, challenging the likes of The Night Crawlers and The Allman Joys for stage time. Talton, and We the People played throughout the state of Florida, and as far north as Kentucky chasing that elusive hit record. Playing a variety of teen clubs, nightclubs, and armories, We the People, eventually settled into the beer infused southern fraternity circuit—playing primarily at FSU and the University of Florida.
It was during late night drives back home from fraternity gigs at Florida colleges with We the People that Talton discovered a radio station from far off Nashville, TN that was to turn his musical world on its ear.
Talton and other central Florida teens that were ‘in the know’ discovered a closely guarded secret in the early 1960s. What they discovered was that on clear nights, after 10 pm when atmospheric conditions were just right, they could tune their AM radios to 1510, and something extraordinary would happen. The music that crackled forth from those tiny AM radio speakers, tuned to WLAC, was as opposite from his mother’s Perry Como as it could possibly be.
Like musical manna falling from the night sky, WLAC would offer a magical, musical cornucopia of innovative, dangerous, and often scandalous music from musicians like Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Lowell Fulson, Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Little Junior Parker, The Spaniels, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf, and Etta James to name a few. It was on these late night sojourns across the Florida darkness that John “R”, WLAC’s late night disc jockey, offered-up the musical communion that would ultimately influence Talton the most as a songwriter—Rhythm and Blues.
After several years of wading through a sea of stale beer cups on fraternity house stages with We the People, and garnering only moderate recording success, Talton met another songwriting powerhouse in Florida by the name of Scott Boyer. Talton quickly decided that it was time to move on. Boyer and Talton eventually joined forces, moving to Jacksonville where they put together the band that would eventually become the Capricorn Records group, Cowboy.
Talton recalls that Cowboy received a little help on their way to a successful touring, and recording career from Boyer, and Talton’s old friend Duane Allman.
“On nothing more than Duane Allman’s recommendation, Phil Walden signed Cowboy to a contract, sight unseen,” said Talton, “I don’t know what Duane said to Phil Walden, but a week later we had management, publishing, and booking contracts in the mail. That’s how much influence Duane had with Phil Walden. I’d bet that had not happened to another band, before or since.”
Allman’s influence blanketed the southern music business in those days, carrying weight with almost everyone that he had contact with. Talton fondly remembers the subtle way in which Allman influenced his guitar playing—and he Allman’s.
“I loved Duane, but you know what? The thing that I learned from Duane was feeling. He always played with so much feeling, and emotion. We’d just sit down, just the two of us, at the old Capricorn Studio in Macon, and enjoy playing for each other for hours, and hours. There was never any jealousy or envy. We just liked to show each other things that we were working on.”
Red Dog, the Allman’s infamous roadie, recalls walking into the studio at Capricorn on more than one occasion, and seeing Allman and Talton in a little room off to the side, sitting in chairs facing each other, locked into a firestorm of hot licks and cool slippery fills.
“When I’d see Tommy and Duane in there playing, I’d know right away, no matter how much I wanted to go in and listen, that is where I shouldn’t be, because it was a private thing,” said Red Dog. Talton remembers those private moments with Duane Allman all too well.
“What we were doing was showing each other licks, and enjoying each others company as musicians.”
Talton had another very private moment in the Capricorn studios when Joni Mitchell happened to be down in Macon with James Taylor who was recording with his brother Alex, at the time. Joni started by picking up a guitar, and showing Talton a couple of her songs. Then he reciprocated by playing a couple of his songs for her.
“One of the songs I played for her was “Josephine Beyond Compare,” said Talton, “she got real quiet, and just sat there for what seemed like forever, looking very serious, and finally she asked me, “Would you please play that again?” You know, in my experience, you don’t run across that kind of interest very much when songwriters get together—they want to show you their own songs, and that’s it. It’s moments like those that no one knows about that are my fondest memories as a musician—moments like sitting around with Duane trading licks, or swapping songs with Joni Mitchell—those are priceless.”
While in Macon, Ga., through most of the 70s, Talton was a studio musician recording with artists such as Bonnie Bramlett, Billy Joe Shaver, Martin Mull, Corky Lang (West, Bruce and Lang, Mountain), Duane and Gregg Allman, Dickie Betts, Clarence Carter, country legend Kitty Wells, Alex and Livingston Taylor, Arthur Conley of “Sweet Soul Music” fame, Otis Redding’s 13 year old son (at the time), Dexter, and more. He toured extensively throughout the U.S. with Cowboy, and as special guests with Gregg Allman’s “Laid Back Tour,” from Carnegie Hall to the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and most cities in between.
During his time with Gregg Allman’s “Laid Back Tour,” Talton recalls some memorable shows that he played for an extraordinary promoter, and remarkable man that he eventually came to know well—Bill Graham.
“One night on the Gregg Allman Tour, we were onstage with our instruments waiting for Bill Graham to introduce us at the Fillmore West, and right across the bay in Oakland, Graham was also promoting a show with George Harrison. Graham came up behind me, on his way out to the microphone, patted me on the butt, and whispered in my ear, ‘Tommy, how does it feel? You guys just outdrew one of the Beatles?”
Talton remembers Graham as a wonderful promoter, and a warm person that didn’t take guff from the uppity bands that would eventually come into his venues to play. Talton and Graham often joked about the Prima Donna bands with contracts that demanded certain temperatures in the dressing rooms, or only Courvoisier Cognac, or Remy Martin to drink, or real silverware, and on, and on—ridiculous requests.
“Those were the kind of people that Bill Graham detested, and wouldn’t put up with,” said Talton.
Also, according to Talton, Graham detested unruly crowds that heckled the opening acts that he booked to the Fillmore’s stages. Talton remembers Graham stepping out on the stage, interrupting a Cowboy warm-up set at the Fillmore East, when hecklers started hollering, “Bring on the Allman Brothers.”
Graham heard the hecklers hollering at Cowboy twice, and then, to the amazement of the audience, between two songs he came to the microphone, short-fused, and made an announcement to the crowd.
“I work hard to bring high quality music in so that you can learn something—and enjoy yourselves, and hear something that is above average,” Graham started. “Anybody who thinks that what they are hearing here is substandard, can either shut-up or walk out right now, and I’ll give you all your money back, and you can hit the street.”
According to Talton, “About that time, someone on the front row mouthed off to Graham, and he jumped of the stage, and had the security guards pick-up the mouthy mushroomhead, and drag him up the isle, and toss him out on the street. That’s how strong his feelings were for ‘quality music’ as he put it.”
Around 1975 Talton joined forces with Johnny Sandlin, and Bill Stewart as Talton, Stewart and Sandlin, and released an album on Capricorn Records under that name. After leaving Capricorn, Talton lived, and toured in Europe throughout the 90s and formed a group there called “The Rebelizers” with members of Albert Lee’s band, “Hogan’s Heroes.” Talton returned to the U.S. a few years ago, settling in Marietta, GA, where he continues to write, record, and play. Talton also plays guitar and sings with the historic Capricorn Rhythm Section, which includes old friends and band mates, Boyer, Stewart, Sandlin and Paul Hornsby.
No filler, and no frills—the Tommy Talton Band struts emotional, gut-wrenching R&B, spiced with sophisticated jazz, adding just a pinch of unique folksy Americana. Talton pens the kind of emotional music that soars off the stage, ripping through the heart, reaching deep down, wrapping itself around the musical soul. He writes insightful, clever lyrics that invite the listener into Talton’s own mystical, moody, melodic world. Talton tugs at the heartstrings one moment with his lyrics, and then he hits the audience with a slide guitar driven one-two to the mind—all performed with sincerity, cleverness, intensity, and intelligence.
By and large, it is as rare as horse feathers in a pillow to recommend musicians or artists with unbridled abandon. Typically, one person’s stack of musical CD treasure is another’s bathroom doorstop, making such recommendations, tenuous at best. In the case of Tommy Talton, however, there is almost no possible way to over-endorse him. Grab your hat, dust off your listening ears, and prepare to be impressed because you must—absolutely must—hear Tommy Talton! ~William Thames