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Tommy Castro Interview (2009)

Award-winning guitarist talks to About.com Blues


Blues guitarist Tommy Castro

Blues guitarist Tommy Castro

Photo courtesy Alligator Records

Since forming the Tommy Castro Band in 1991, Castro - singer, songwriter, and guitarist - has become one of the most beloved of contemporary bluesmen. Eight studio and a pair of live albums, combined with constant touring, have earned Castro and crew a loyal and still-growing following. In 2008, Castro was honored with the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award by The Blues Foundation, while his Painkiller album won for "Contemporary Blues Album of the Year."

The Tommy Castro Band

Castro is quick to credit his band for his success, beginning with saxophone player Keith Crossan. "He's been with me since the beginning, eighteen years," says Castro, "he's one of the best saxophone players in the world." Trumpet player Tom Poole is also a seasoned veteran, and has played alongside talents like Etta James and Boz Scaggs.

As for the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award, winning came as a shock to the easy-going and self-effacing artist. "That was kind of a surprise to me that I'd win something like that," says Castro. "I thought that it was nice enough that they nominated me, but I really didn't expect to win with all the competition."

In The Beginning

How did Castro get interested in music in the first place? "I heard it around my house," he says. "My older brother was the first guy...when I was growing up...to really get into music. The early 1960s was the first time that I remember first listening to music. There was a lot of great stuff going on in those days; rock 'n' roll was in a really good place."

"You had a lot of soul music being blasted out of low rider's cars around downtown San Jose when I was a kid," says Castro. "You'd hear Junior Walker and Wilson Pickett...and my brother was a big Beatles and Stones guy, so I heard a lot of good music. It appealed to me, and music seemed to always make me feel better."

Castro began playing guitar at the tender age of ten years old. "One day, my brother wasn't looking," Castro remembers, "he played guitar, and I started picking on his guitar when he wasn't around. He'd catch me, and give me a good chewing out, and then he'd show me a couple of chords or something. Little by little I learned a handful of songs, and then within a year or two from that I'd be off jamming with my friends."

Music As A Career

When did Castro first consider a career in music? "I was a late bloomer," he says. "I didn't think that it was a good idea. I didn't think that I was that good at it for one, and I knew that there were a lot of people that wanted that job. I just kind of did it for fun, I just enjoyed playing. I'd get together with people, and we'd start bands, jam in garages and whatnot. Then we'd pick up a few gigs and the next thing you know I'd be working all weekend in bands and bars, just having a good old time in my twenties."

"By the time I got in my thirties, I hadn't really found an occupation that I wanted anything to do with, and then a light bulb went off. By that time I was always getting gigs, so I started to think that I should follow my passion. This is the only thing that I love to do, and it just kind of hit me. I had read some books here and there, philosophy and books about succeeding, and I'd read that you should find something that you really love, and make that your job. So I decided to make a go of making my living playing."

"Lucky for me, the blues explosion of the 1980s was happening, and that was the music that I played, so it all kind of worked out." Before turning to music full-time, Castro worked for himself. "I had a window covering business," he says, "I would sell and install people's window coverings. I was always determined to be my own boss, whatever I did, so I set my own hours, when I'd show up in the morning, so I could play my gigs."

Two Years With The Dynatones

After making the decision to play music full-time, Castro moved from San Jose to San Francisco, where he would hook up with popular bay-area blues band the Dynatones. "I knew some people, we had played in San Francisco a few times, so I was a sideman for a few different people," he says.

"I was playing with Johnny Nitro and the Door Slammers on Monday nights and the Dynatones were friends of Johnny's. They'd come in every once and a while and they needed a guitar player so they asked me if I wanted to join the band. They were going to Chicago and a bunch of places that I'd never been," says Castro, "so I joined the band and ran around with them for a couple of years."

The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue

Castro and his band have performed on several Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue tours. "We came up with this idea on the Blues Cruise," Castro says of the Revue. "The reason for it was because of the big jam sessions that happen on the ship every night. It's an amazing thing," he says, "it's not something that you can really explain. There's a full day of blues from all of the national blues acts, all the main characters in the blues will perform during the day and throughout the night."

"So you have this beautiful day of music," says Castro, "everybody performing their own sets, and at the end of the night, people wanted to keep the music going and they'd just jam all night. Somebody would join in, somebody else would come up, so there'd be this jamming going on until five or six 'o clock in the morning. It was amazing!"

"I was having a good time," Castro remembers, "all of the musicians were having a wonderful time...we don't get to do that sort of thing. If we see each other at a show, we're all going our own ways at the end of it. The other thing that I noticed is that the look on the people's faces was something a little bit different than when I do my regular show."

Sometimes Magic Happens

"There was an element of...Louie Anderson used to say that people like to watch stand-up comedy for the same reason that they watch cliff-diving, and it's not for the perfect dive! The idea that something could go terribly wrong at any minute is what makes it exciting. A bunch of musicians getting together and playing spontaneously without any kind of rehearsal or a plan, and sometimes magic happens and sometimes a trainwreck happens."

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