Backtrack Blues Band is Sonny Charles on lead vocals/amplified harmonica, Kid Royal on lead guitar, Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar, Joe Bencomo on drums, and Stick Davis on bass guitar. Backtrack is clearly more than just a blues band; there is a certain vocal timbre, broadly nuanced instrumentals, and trademark techniques all around to be noted when it comes to this band. A baritone vibrato that an early rockabilly enthusiast would appreciate is not something that just anyone can do, nor is taking the acoustic harmonica to inventive new heights.
Kid Royal furnishes a classic rock tone with a Texas flair through an old Fender tube amp — a guitarist’s guitarist. No great band would be complete without a solid harmonic foundation. Enter Little Johnny Walter, Stick Davis, and Joe Bencomo. Johnny Walter and top studio bassist Stick Davis are no doubt seasoned veterans of the blues, and Joe Bencomo is an extremely versatile drummer who knows his laid-back blues shuffles. It’s important to acknowledge that Joe is also an accomplished jazz percussionist.
I sat down with Sonny Charles to get to know more about Backtrack Blues Band, one of Florida’s longest running blues bands. We discussed the most significant moments in their potent career, their signature sound which subsumes Texas-style blues right along with the echoes of early Chess records, their new live CD and DVD called Make My Home in Florida, and more. Make My Home in Florida was filmed at the Palladium Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Florida and will be released on January 26th, 2018.
Lauren Leadingham for ABS:
Backtrack Blues Band has been around for about 30 years. Is that correct?
Yes. It’s actually been a little bit longer than 30 years, because we were formed in 1980 when I moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida. One of my good friends from my college days at the University of North Carolina moved down to Florida with me, and we had been playing music up in Chapel Hill. We decided we would keep going right here in Florida, and that’s when we started Backtrack Blues Band.
Ok. Could you elaborate on the early years and what your influences were getting started?
Well, we were influenced I would say by two general schools of music; the most important being the Chicago blues scene. We were huge fans of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, performers of that type. We also liked a lot of the Texas blues folks: Albert King, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie Vaughan, T-Bone Walker, performers like that.
It’s sort of curious as to the way the band has evolved over the years. Our guitar player comes from the Texas school of playing — that’s Kid Royal — he’s more of a Jimmie Vaughan type of guitar player. And our rhythm section and my harmonica playing are more out of the Chicago school, say more like Little Walter or Paul Butterfield. So when you combine those two together…
Different elements that work together, yeah.
You get sort of an interesting amalgamation of Texas and Chicago blues that’s blended together to create our original sound.
How long have you been playing the harmonica?
I started playing when I was a very young kid, but I wasn’t serious about it. It was just fooling around. When I was in college, I think I was 18 or 19 years old, a friend of mine loaned me a blues album. It was a Sonny Boy Williamson record called Bummer Road. I listened to it, and I had never heard blues harmonica played the way that Sonny Boy Williamson performed. It sort of blew my mind. And so, once I heard that record, I went out and started buying all the Chess records I could find, all the harp players and guitar players from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
So, you’re familiar with Sam Lay. You say Chess Records, and that’s who immediately comes to my mind.
Who has influenced you vocally?
I don’t necessarily try to emulate any particular type of singer; I just sing the way it comes naturally to me. But singers that I really like and admire in the blues would be folks like John Nemeth or Curtis Salgado. They happen to be two of my favorites. I like Delbert McClinton.
Oh, yeah. Of course.
There’s a new guy named Mike Ledbetter who I think is phenomenal, Kim Wilson — I shouldn’t leave him out — he’s another singer that I really dig. I think for vocals you gotta go with your natural voice.
Any rockabilly at all? I feel a little bit of that going on. Buddy Holly? Any of that?
Not intentionally, but I could see why somebody might say, “Well, it reminds me a little bit of that.” And that’s fine with me because I love those guys. Rockabilly and early rock and roll to me are just forms of blues music, really. They just didn’t call it that back in those days. So, I’ll take that description.
Over the years, you guys must have played some memorable shows. Are there any that stick out? Perhaps the one at the Capitol with Butch Trucks?
The Butch Trucks concert was memorable in a sort of unfortunate way because that was one of the last shows that Butch played before he passed away. I really did enjoy meeting him. He was a very pleasant, joyful, humorous guy; I thought he had a really good sense of humor. He was funny and very engaging. And he came into our dressing room before the show and introduced himself, and we talked quite a bit. I really liked the guy a lot. And of course, it made it a little bit harder when, about two weeks later, he passed away.
As far as just musically, I’ll try and narrow it down to about two shows. The most intimidating was when we opened for Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Sun Dome in Tampa. I was a big fan of his music, and he was probably the hottest performer in the world at that particular time. We opened the show, and I will never forget it. I remember standing next to Stevie in the hallway and thinking that he was such a modest man. He was short and slight of build; he wasn’t a big guy. But when he got up on stage and started playing, it’s like the music turned him into some sort of giant. I mean, he seemed like he was 10 feet tall when he played that Stratocaster. So, that was very memorable to me.
Also, we’ve had the privilege of opening three or four different concerts for B.B. King over our career. I really enjoy B.B.’s performing, singing, and guitar playing tremendously. But the thing I remember most about B.B. King was his genuine kindness and professionalism. He treated his fans with great affection; he was very polite to other musicians, always acknowledged the opening bands when he performed and was just a consummate gentleman of blues music. And I know it’s been said a thousand times, but it’s so true. He had a great heart; he just loved the people who supported him. I learned a lot from watching him interact with his fans and people around him.
The current members of your band are Kid Royal, Little Johnny Walter, Joe Bencomo, and Stick Davis. Give me a little background on those fellows.
Little Johnny was my college running mate. He and I hung out in Chapel Hill together for at least six years; we played music up in North Carolina together. I moved down to Florida, and then he came down shortly thereafter. John helped me form the band, and he’s been a good friend and collaborator on writing and arranging songs as a group.
Stick Davis has probably the longest resume of any member of the band. I would refer to him as the Professor of the Blues because of his lengthy career. He’s won a Grammy award, is one of the founders of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and he has performed on the bass guitar with such artists as B.B. King and Al Green, John Mayall, and many more. Stick toured with the Amazing Rhythm Aces and opened for such mega-bands as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Jimmy Buffett, and so forth. Stick has done it all. He’s an amazing guy and a wonderful person to perform music with.
Joe Bencomo is the only true native Floridian in the band; he was born in Tampa, Florida. I used to go hear Joe play with a jazz band at the Vinoy Hotel many years ago and thought to myself what a magnificent drummer he was, and if I could ever steal him I would do anything in my power to try and pry him away from that jazz band and get him to start playing blues. I’m happy to report, after years of sniffing around, Joe finally did join Backtrack Blues Band. He really is one of the preeminent blues drummers here in Florida.
And jazz drumming is no joke.
Joe is very sophisticated. His jazz playing — it’s amazing what he can do. Of course, different stylings, but it is very impressive.
The lead guitar player and another vocalist, the newest guy in the band but also one of the greatest fellows I’ve ever played music with and just a huge talent, is Kid Royal. He came down to Florida from London, Ontario and joined the band a number of years ago. He’s a good songwriter and performer, and just an amazing guitar player. He sort of plays what I describe in the Ronnie Earl or the Jimmie Vaughan school, very clean tone. He plays a Stratocaster; no other effects really other than a little reverb through his Fender amplifier.
I just love the way he plays, and I love his tone. He has turned out to be a great friend to every member of the band. We’re very blessed because it’s really hard to find the right chemistry. When you have a band, you can find the best players, but they don’t always get along or like each other. We have genuine friendship and admiration for one another, and I think it’s shared by all the guys. So, we’re very blessed in that regard.
You are releasing a new live CD and DVD called Make My Home in Florida. Where was that filmed?
Well, the DVD and the recording were both done at the Palladium Theater in downtown Saint Petersburg, Florida. As you know, that is a historic theater. It used to be an old church back in the day, and it was converted to a live music room. It’s a very beautiful venue, great acoustics. That particular night, the place was packed with blues lovers, and we recorded and filmed the show. It’s really the best live recording the band has ever made, and I really like the record a lot. I think people will enjoy listening to it. Our official album release date is January the 26th. Folks can get advance copies at our website at www.backtrackbluesband.com. It will also be available through our distributor, Select-O-Hits, in Memphis; can be purchased online through iTunes or Amazon, as well as other such sites.
What are your impressions of the west coast blues music scene in Florida? Do you feel that the Floridians support live blues shows?
I think Florida, for the past two or three decades, has had a growing and improving blues scene. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. When I moved to Florida back in the late 1970s and I was checking out the music scene, there was really only one blues band working on the west coast of Florida. My friend Rock Bottom had a band called The Cutaways. He was also in a band called Nick Danger and the Heat. They were doing blues tunes, and that was Rock Bottom’s band. And he encouraged us to play our blues, which we did. Back in those days, there were really just two blues bands playing the club scenes around the west coast of Florida. Last time I looked at 12 Bar Rag, a publication of the local blues society, I think I saw about 50 blues bands performing in the Tampa Bay area now. So, that just shows you how much it’s grown.
They’ve got whole societies.
Yeah, there are blues societies in almost every region of Florida. And there are many many blues festivals throughout the state, including the Tampa Bay Blues Festival which is the earliest and remains one of the biggest that we’ve performed at on multiple occasions. Very pleased to have had that opportunity.
What is next for Backtrack? What would you guys like to accomplish?
Our goal now is to try and export our music more outside of the state of Florida and get into more of a national and international arena. We have been touring up in Canada over the last three years; we would very much like to continue doing that.
Just over the summer, right?
Yeah, the past three summers. We would like to get some dates at some festivals in Europe. We have been working with Blue Mountain Artists, trying to make that happen. So, we would like to get out and tour a bit more and travel some more. We are writing more original music. We’d like to do another studio album. So, all of those things are in the back of our minds. Getting our sound out to a bigger, broader audience is our priority at this point.
Where did you perform in Canada?
We played a number of festivals. There is a large festival called Tremblant International Blues Festival in the province of Quebec. There’s also a small festival we played last year that was a lot of fun, wonderful people, in a town called Donnacona. A few years ago we played a festival called Trois Rivières, or Three Rivers, which was also wonderful. Those are three festivals that come to mind in the near past.
And how did those fans in Canada take to your music?
We found the Canadian blues fans to be as good as any we’ve ever been around. They were highly knowledgeable about the music; they seem to really have a deep knowledge of blues music, appreciated the playing that we presented, and were just warm and affectionate. They would buy our CDs and really supported us and other blues bands from around the world. If any blues musician can go to Canada, particularly up into Quebec, they should really do it. They are just wonderful people up there.
Your last studio album, Way Back Home, was a top 10 release on U.S. blues radio. Did that help you achieve wide recognition?
It certainly helped quite a bit; I think it charted around #8 on the blues radio charts. It was selected among the top 50 blues albums to be released. Technically, that was in the year 2016. It was released in late 2016, so it was selected as a top 50 blues album worldwide.
We got great reviews on the record from lots of magazines, including American Blues Scene and Elmore Magazine; Blues Music Magazine; Big City Blues; Blues Matters over in the United Kingdom. We got reviews from Italy, France, Spain… Just all over the place. It was really refreshing to know that people liked what we were doing and extolled what they were listening to. That was great for us and encouraged us to keep going.