Look crazy and play the guitar 


When Smokin' Joe Kubek describes his guitar-playing as "Freddie King with enchiladas," he's speaking of a style steeped in hardcore Chicago blues, turned out on Texas swing and seasoned with the spicy Tex-Mex of his native Dallas.

Ring him at home and, likely as not, the machine answers with the vintage sounds of "There's an 'X' in the middle of Texas" from Kubek's extensive collection of 78s.

On this day however, it's a disoriented and road-weary Kubek who picks up. Currently going through his second divorce, Kubek says his most passionate relationship now is with a growing collection of guitars. This includes a pair of identical '82 Stratocasters, a double-necked maple Robin, and a '64 turquoise-blue Strat he calls "Baby Blue."

"She's my favorite. I picked her up and it just felt like she was made for me," said Kubek.

A self-taught guitar player, Kubek used to sit alone on the sofa at night when he was just 14, working out chords on an unplugged electric guitar. At 19 Kubek picked up his nick name when a club owner had him billed on the marquee as "Smokin' Joe Kubek and the Electric Tennis Shoes."

As his reputation as a Texas bluesman grew, Kubek came to the attention of the legendary Freddie King and was asked to join King's band in 1976. But just as that band was setting out on a Christmas tour, King died. And as much as the public loved King there was little affection shown for his backing band. Dispirited, Kubek took a gig leading a Monday-night blues jam in Dallas where he met his current musical partner and character foil, Bnois (no relation to Freddie) King.

The match clicked right away Kubek recalls, "King had everything I didn't. I write music and he writes lyrics. He sings and I don't but chime in now 'n' again. And I'm more of a raunchy, get-down guitar player, where as King can go ahead with any jazz guitar player you might name. King takes care of talking to the crowd, which leaves me free to what I do best: Look crazy and play guitar."

Immediately noticeable are the physical differences between this biracial pair. King, 55, is small man who dresses very uptown while the 40-something Kubek is a bulky dude who sports tattoos and a goatee and favors loud Hawaiian shirts.

As guitarists their styles are also quiet different. Kubek who takes most of the solos has this Hendrix-meets-Stevie Vaughn thing going. He's big on wah-wah pedals and loves to slide up the neck, Elmore James-style, then bring things to a boil.

King, by contrast, plays mainly rhythm and drops his jazz thing into the mix. And both are shown to great effect on the pair's latest album "Take Your Best Shot" from Rounder/Bullseye Blues. After laying down a quickie album of Texas blues for a small Belgian label, Kubek and King released five Rounder albums leading up to "Take Your Best Shot."

"I usually knock an album down in about a week. We got the basic tracks for "Got My Mind Back" done in one evening. And we did almost all of the "Cryin' For The Moon" sessions in about 6 1/2 hours.

All that changed on a return trip to Ardent Studios in Memphis where the duo had previously laid the album "Chain Smokin' Texas Style" to tape in '92. This time out Jim Gaines (Steve Ray Vaughn/Luther Allison) took over as producer from Ron Levey and the difference is a night-to-day upgrade. With Gaines' urging, King who, remarkably, never sang before joining up with Kubek comes into his own as a vocalist on the new album. And he's beyond modest when, in the bio, he says "I'm finally able to hear my voice and not cringe."

Also heard, are special guests guitarists Little Milton who plays on "You Said I Love You First" and "One Night Affair," and Jimmy Thackery on "Worst Headache." And somebody in Hollywood, too, was obviously listening as three of the album's 10 originals are heard on the soundtrack to "Copland." Kubek, who generally gets the last laugh, suggests that beyond Gaines, credit for the album's success may well rest with a heavenly hand.

"There were a record number of Elvis sightings during the time we recorded, and I think you can actually hear the King in the background of a few songs."


More by Randy Matin

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