DarielB – Flying Under the Radar

My Long-awaited Interview With Don Wise

Posted in Interviews by darielb on January 29, 2009

The first time I heard Don Wise play saxophone was with the Rickey Godfrey Band at Nightclub 2001 in Myrtle Beach. I became an instant fan, and I’m not alone. Rickey Godfrey says, “When you hear a couple notes from his sax, you immediately know it’s him playing. Don is a technically skilled player, but he emphasizes ‘feel’ over ‘technique.’ He sounds like one of those guys from the 50s, Sam “The Man” Taylor and Fat Head Newman – in terms on tone. But his style is uniquely Don Wise.” I was thrilled to have this chance to talk with him and I wanted to know all about his time with Delbert McClinton, his propensity for old WWII horns and his plans for the future. Here’s the interview:

BENDIN: You played sax with Delbert McClinton for 22 years. Can you tell me how it began?
DON WISE: In the Summer of 1985 I was in a recording studio in Lubbock, Texas, with a band named Radio Zebra from Germany.
We were rehearsing and recording almost daily at this time and I got a phone call at the studio. The voice, without saying who it was, asked what I would be doing in September. I said, “It’s June now and I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, why?”

It was the then bass player for Delbert. Someone had told him [Delbert] about a sax player in West Texas and he was calling to see if I was available.

Here is the storied part: I was sent cassette tapes of about 50 songs to learn. With no rehearsal under my belt, I received a plane ticket to be in Houston to play on the 25th of September. I wrote out scads of horn parts and even on the plane to Houston had headphones on and sheets of music manuscript spread all around to make sure I had it down.

At the gig, having never met any of the Delbert band, I was introducing myself and trying to get a feel for what the first four or five songs were going to be. (Delbert didn’t get to the club until about 15 minutes before show-time!) All the band guys were saying, “Well, Delbert will just start calling songs.”

“Surely he’s gonna start with something he usually opens with?”

“Nah, something different every night.”

I set up a makeshift music stand with all these sketched parts and suddenly realized that he doesn’t even do the songs any more that I’d spent months committing to memory.

Maybe 80% of the songs I’d learned we have NEVER played with Delbert! Of the other 20%, and since they didn’t send a list of the songs on the tapes, I would write down a title that cued it for me. So, the first line became the title “It’s 3 O’Clock in the Morning,” but is actually “Back To Louisiana”! I had the titles wrong, so even when he called a song I had learned, I kept asking, “How does that one go?”

To reverse any goodwill I may have brought with me, the makeshift music stand with the 75 pages of circles and arrows got knocked into the crowd about 20 seconds into Delbert’s first song!

I guess he liked my playing because I didn’t miss a show for 17 years and only then because I was caught in a blizzard in the mountains of Tennessee.

BENDIN: Why did you leave the band?


DON WISE: It was a total of 51 years since I started playing in clubs in Westerly, Rhode Island and I had been with Delbert’s band for the past 22 + years. It was the perfect place for a honking tenor sax guy like me to be, but over the course of time the music changed…leaning a different direction than we played before. Ultimately, it became too much like ditch digging. The hardest part wasn’t the playing. It was the getting in the car to drive three hours to Nashville to get on the tour bus and ride 12 hours to Texas or Kansas or Connecticut to play two hours and go home.


BENDIN: Are you playing any gigs with Delbert now?


DON WISE: I have not played any with Delbert since leaving in July, but I am going on the Sandy Beaches Cruise as a guest with my lovely wife Pamela. If all goes well I will be honking a few notes during the week on the cruise!


BENDIN: You produced at least one of Delbert’s CDs, didn’t you:


DON WISE: I was producer on Live from Austin (Alligator Records) mainly because I absolutely wanted to have control over what those horns sounded like on the final release. My solos, of course, but mainly the glorious horn section that played on that Austin City Limits show! Horn sections had been used as dull-witted background for a long long time (from when everybody realized they could play a guitar and turn a knob to be LOUD!). I wanted it to sound like those great late 40s R&B records with their pure section horn sound. I still think, for overall quality of music, it’s Delbert’s best recording! [Editor’s note: This CD earned Delbert McClinton his first Grammy nomination. Four of Don’s solos from this project were later included in the recording produced for the John Laughter book, “Contemporary Saxophone.”]


BENDIN: When and how did you learn to play?


DON WISE: I started clarinet lessons when I was nine because I aced some type of tonality test early on (probably more because the band director needed warm bodies). My mother always liked saxophone music, so the decision was made and I liked it.


BENDIN: Rickey Godfrey told me you have an interest in older saxophones, and that you own one from the World War II era. How are the older ones different?


DON WISE: Most musicians are interested in trying out new instruments and for a long time I did just that. I’ve bought several different makes of horn that sounded great in the store, only to find it didn’t speak the way it should when we were in high gear on stage. I kept going back to the horn I bought in 1964 from a guitar player in New England. I gave him $55 for it and it’s the horn I still rely on to make my life enjoyable! It’s called “The Martin” and it was made in 1951 from left-over brass howitzer shell casings from WWII. In California a few years back, BB King’s drummer, hearing me getting ready to go to the stage, said I was the loudest tenor player he’d ever heard without a mic. I always took that as a compliment to my horn! I have a “The Martin” alto, too. I believe the quality of the metal was better on the older horns. The mechanism on newer horns may be easier to get around on, but the sound coming out the of the bell has to resonate through a lot of things, including the reed, mouthpiece, pads, the type and thickness of metal in the horn and even the resonance in your own head.


BENDIN: Who has inspired you musically?


DON WISE: For sax inspiration there were several that stand out because of the raw energy AND facility on their horn. I was there with my ear to the radio when sax was the centerpiece. I spent long hours working loooooooong tones because I was going for that big, fat, rattle-the-roof sound that I liked. Red Prysock, Sam “The Man” Taylor and Sil Austin were early on favorites and later King Curtis. He played on all the Coaster hits and later with Aretha Franklin. I liked Jr. Walker somewhat but none of them had the intensity of Red Prysock for sound AND fury! Red Prysock was from Greensboro, North Carolina. Illinois Jacquet was more a big band swing guy from Texas and I think the players I named earlier developed their style from him and brought it into the jump-blues/R&B era.


BENDIN: Any best-loved gigs? Delbert or otherwise?


DON WISE: I’d pick the best-loved one this way. When my kids were little and I would come in from playing late at a club, they knew the rule was “Don’t anyone wake me in the morning until at least noon!”… and I always tacked on, “unless Ray Charles is on the phone!” In 1997 he finally called and I played on national TV and got the solo on “Let the Good Times Roll.” [The video of this performance can be seen on Don’s MySpace page: http://www.My Space. com/donwisemusic.]


BENDIN: Anyone special you’d like to work with?


DON WISE: If I had to pick just one, there’s a fantastic band out of Austin, TX, named Mingo Fishtrap that I’ve played a few times with on the Delbert cruise and they’re as rockin’ as any band I’ve heard in my life. Original songs, powerful horn section, super vocals AND at the beginning of their careers!


BENDIN: You seem to have a lot of fans in Norway. How did that come about?


DON WISE: I’m not exactly sure why the fans of Norway like my music. I will say that Norwegians and Europeans in general are very good listeners. By that I mean that when you’ve played a good solo, it is reflected in the response you get back from them immediately. Or if the band has had one of those one in 500, “This is the best we’ve sounded in a long time!” the Norwegians are right there with you!


BENDIN: Are you gigging now? Any plans to come to the beach?


DON WISE: I’ve turned down way more than I’ve taken just because I have really liked sitting still, with no obligation to anybody except my lovely wife Pamela and our rescued Pit Bull, Gigi. After Winter I may be ready to play some with Rickey Godfrey or maybe just go over and visit my friend Paul Craver.


BENDIN: I remember a piece by you in the old Beach Reporter about DJs putting together their own compilations and selling them. Is this still a problem? Can you talk to me about piracy in general?


DON WISE: (Take a big deep breath here!) Beyonce, Britney or 50Cent making in excess of 150 million dollars a year through appearances and endorsements are not overly concerned about this. Here we’re talking about the artists that play the dances & clubs and are basically supporting families and trying to stay afloat. Perhaps one-third of their income may come from selling CDs at the shows and dances. We’re talking about the musicians and artists in the trenches here. Some of them your friends and neighbors perhaps. Even though most digital downloads are about 99 cents per song, if someone wants 20 songs all from different artists that would cost $20. So they may give the list to an unscrupulous DJ (who may have been given CDs by the artist in exchange for playing it) who then burns the songs to disc from HIS collection of freebees and pockets the $20!
Stealing music is the same as stealing anything else. It’s illegal and the consequences are real – for you and for the music.


BENDIN: You seem to enjoy MySpace i.e. changing your status, mood , default photo. Is MySpace keeping you in touch with people who love your music?


DON WISE: A friend of mine named Robert Eriksen in Norway convinced me to use MySpace to get a little more attention for the projects I was doing, but I thought it would take up too much of my time, which the computer already does. He offered to do it for me, because he loves music. As it turns out, I do enjoy putting up new pics and finding “friends’ that are either truly friends or people that have music interests similar to mine. They don’t have to be an actual acquaintance for me though quite a few of my MySpace friends are actual friends of mine.

Finding tribute sites to past originators like Albert Collins or Wynonie Harris is an honor for me to put up as MySpace friends and now that they’re gone, it’s a great way to keep these names alive. It seems the true innovators hardly make it into any “History of Music” or “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”

Without the contributions of the Red Prysocks, Louis Jordans, Earl Bostics and Wynonie Harrises of the music world, Rock N Roll couldn’t have been conceived.

This interview has been edited for length. Read the entire piece at http://www.myrtlebeachalternatives.com. To learn more about Don Wise or to hear his music (and legally download it), visit his website, www.donwise.com . And be sure to check out his MySpace page: www.myspace. com/donwisemusic.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: