DarielB – Flying Under the Radar

Interview: Don Wise (Dec. 2008)

Posted in Interviews by darielb on March 17, 2009


My Long Awaited Interview With Don Wise

[Note: this interview took place in December, 2008. An edited version of this was published in my Beach Newz column that runs in both Coast Magazine and Alternatives NewsMagazine, the two independent fortnightly papers in Myrtle Beach, S.C.]
The first time I heard Don Wise play saxophone was with the Nashville-based Rickey Godfrey Band at Nightclub 2001 in Myrtle Beach. I became an instant fan, and I’m not alone. Singer/songwriter/guitarist 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 wanted to know about his time with Delbert McClinton, his propensity for old WWII horns and his plans for the future.

DarielB: 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.

DarielB: What was touring like for you?

DON WISE: In the beginning we would go out across the country for or five weeks at a time. The last few years the money was a lot better and we played less, which is what most of us aspire to.

It seemed that no matter where we played the audiences were super and excited that Delbert and the band were there! We could play in a rural area in Finland and 8,000 people would show up singing the lyrics in English along with him.

DarielB: Why did you leave the band?

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.

For several years I was feeling a bit frayed around the edges and THIS year I simply decided it was time to vacuum the dust and cobwebs accumulating between my ears and breathe some fresh clean air that wasn’t already breathed twice!

DarielB: Are you playing any gigs with Delbert now?

DON WISE: I have not played any with Delbert since leaving in July [2008], but I am going on the Sandy Beaches Cruise [January 2009] 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!

DarielB: With Delbert, did you have artistic control over your parts?

DON WISE: Most of the time we were a two-horn section of trumpet and tenor, and it is indeed fortunate when you and your section partner can read each other’s phrasing intentions before they’re played.

Some of the horn parts were already a part of the musical fabric when I came on. I had freedom to be creative enough with my parts on a nightly basis to keep it interesting. Some songs have horn parts that HAVE to be played very much the same as when I played them in 1985 for the first time. Other songs can be experimented with some and still not lose the feel or intent. I like to think I was able to interpret the Delbert music as well as anybody out there and was consistent to his genres over those 22-1/2 years.

DarielB: 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.”]

DarielB: When and how did you learn to play? What instruments?
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.

DarielB: You seem to always play tenor sax? Is there a reason for that? Do you not care for alto and soprano sax sounds?

DON WISE: I am not a big fan of soprano sax, though I have one. I started playing alto after clarinet and still like to play it. I recorded “America the Beautiful” on my first CD playing alto and tenor, and I’m on various recordings playing all three saxes over the years including flute as well. I played tenor exclusively with Delbert because it fit his music better than the other saxes.
DarielB: Rickey Godfrey told me you have an interest in older saxophones, and that you own a sax with thicker metal in it from the World War II era. What are the differences between newer saxes and older models like yours?
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.

A few years ago I found and bought another “The Martin” tenor made in 1947 and silver plated. Heavier, bigger bore and so consequently it can wear me out. But what a sound. 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.

DarielB: 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 to hear.

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.

DarielB: 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: www.MySpace. com/donwisemusic.]

DarielB: 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, Texas, 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!

DarielB: Are you doing any songwriting now? If so, do you write just for yourself or other artists, too?

DON WISE: As far as song writing I think the ability to say the same old story but in a unique way is what separates the great song writers from the lesser talents. I still don’t consider myself a songwriter by any stretch but  I think my songs are unique by virtue of using the language differently. I think that came from being around Delbert for all those years. I have bits and pieces and half-finished songs, plus a few songs that are ready to record.  I occasionally have written with the singer in mind, for instance “Deeper Shade of Blue” for Teresa James.

I don’t like the sound of my own voice when I hear it recorded and until “You Don’t Have to Be Lonely,” I wouldn’t let my voice (other than the few comedy type things like “Hold the Mayo”) be put on my own CDs. Everybody, including Delbert, told me my voice was perfect on that song (“You Don’t Have to Be Lonely”) but I still regret letting Don Wise sing it.

DarielB: 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!

It cuts both ways also, when you’re having a mediocre night, you know that THEY feel that, too.

Have you ever tried to play a song that you liked for somebody and they talked all the way through it? They are the opposite of THAT…. and it’s more than the over-simplification that their applause is getting you over the hump, they truly are knowledgeable, indepth, music-loving listeners.

DarielB:  You and I have spoken about concept CDs in the past, in particular Genuine Snake . . .

DON WISE: My first CD was like a shotgun approach. Musically  In Wise Hands is all over the place. Sure, they’re all good songs, but musically scattered because I had so many ideas and I wanted to get them all out.

PLUS I thought I was just going to make ONE CD. I’d better give it everything I’ve got! It was given a great response by DJs especially in the Beach market, so I thought I’d do another, On the Verge of Survival.

More positive reinforcement from DJs, dancers etc. so by then I was geared up to make the best record of my playing, EVER!

The third CD was Genuine Snake!

From one end to the other … the photos … the poem under the disc…the SHAPE of the poem under the CD, Teresa James singing “Deeper Shade of Blue” was in answer to “Big” Joe Maher singing the song that precedes it named, “Lots of Flame (but no heat)”… In fact every song was part of the story told in order. “Genuine Snake”” referred to the shoes as well as the depiction of evil in a relationship.

It, too, got fantastic reviews and write-ups, but not one reviewer or listener has mentioned any intent other than the individual songs.

And to prove it was a mistake to get so deep, it has been the CD that sold the least for me.
For my fourth CD, Swingin’ Up A Storm, I wanted to put all the best dance music from my previous CDs plus four new songs that I wanted to do on one CD.

DarielB: Are you working on a new CD now? In the future?

DON WISE: I keep getting the urge to get started, but the enormous work, time, not to mention the money that goes into the making of a good CD has kept me from going beyond having good ideas for songs!

We’re in a time where anybody with $900 can buy enough equipment to put a CD out so the world is flooded with mediocrity.

DarielB: 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 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. I’ve made a few good friends over at the beach because Terry White from Charlotte liked my CDs right away and more or less grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and made me go around to radio stations and talk about Don Wise.
I probably owe any attention I’ve gotten to he and his wife Judy!

DarielB: I remember a piece by you in the old Beach Reporter about DJs putting together their own homemade compilations and selling them. Is this still a problem? Can you talk to me about industry 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 and 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 are 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!
1. Stealing music is the same as stealing anything else. It’s illegal and the consequences are real – for you and for the music. 2. Stealing music betrays the songwriters and recording artists who create it. 3. Stealing music stifles the careers of new artists and up-and-coming bands, not to mention individual career musicians wanting to record. We’re not all headliners making big bucks at the concerts. 4. The problem is that since no one is watching while the songs are pirated, then the perception is that there’s no crime.

Now, thanks to technology, anyone can get whatever whenever…I said it would change the quality of the music and it has. No musician at the level we’re speaking of here is going to risk what it costs to make a premium CD, knowing that it’ll be impossible to recoup the investment. Can’t afford to use real horns? Let’s use synth horns or synth strings or synth Hammond organ…Studio time’s expensive so instead of re-singing the background vocals and changing it, let’s just loop the one we did earlier over and over.
When anyone tries to make a quality CD using A-Team players in an upscale recording studio, the money goes out in rivers. Everything is on a cash basis and not just studio time is expensive.

Later, when you’re trying to sell the results, whether it’s from the stage at Fat Harold’s during SOS [Society of Stranders annual gatherings of Carolina beach music artists, shag dancers and fans] or through a distributor via digital download, the money comes back to you in droplets!

There are still, I imagine, innocents out there that don’t realize mass downloading is hurting anything or anybody. However, there are those who DO know that what they’re doing amounts to thievery and don’t particularly CARE that those band guys have families to take care of.

Can anything be done to stop it? I doubt it.  People still rob banks don’t they?
The average person would regard going into a store and pocketing a tangible piece of physical property as something essentially different from copy piracy.

Most players and writers I’ve talked to at the beach DO know that just like leaving your weed whacker in the front yard too long, if you put out a new CD some low-life will come by sooner or later and throw it in the back of his pick-up.

Here’s a true story that pretty well sums it up for me: I was having lunch with some friends, one of whom, was a private airplane pilot for a large company. We were having a spirited conversation about free downloading of songs, the pilot not seeing any wrong in copying whole albums to have AND share with his friends. And, of course, me trying to tell him how it hurts musicians and creativity in general. We reached an impasse and the conversation changed to other topics. Later in the meal he was reminded of the time when driving somewhere he saw a man roll down his car window and throw an empty drinking cup out on the highway. The pilot followed the litterer for several miles honking and yelling at him.
I said, “So you’re telling me that it really upset you that someone littered, but when no can see you, it’s o.k. to steal music?”

A man making probably in excess of $100,000 a year, making CDs to share with his cohorts.

DarielB: 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. If I get a request to add someone just looking to add numbers to their tally, then I will probably deny them.

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.

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. As far as I know, he isn’t Twittering yet, but it’s just a matter of time.


One Response

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  1. Linda B said, on April 20, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Hi. Great interview – really interesting and very intelligent. Thanks!

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