When you first started out did you find yourself meeting a lot of your heroes?
Hanging out with your heroes tends to happen more in the build-up to a show. You sit there watching Mississippi Fred McDowell do his soundcheck, then he watches yours, and afterwards you go have dinner together.
Were you a party animal?
In the early days there was a lot more partying going on. You’d be playing a club, and when you finished you could hang out backstage. With heavy metal or rock bands, I understand that the tour manager would go out and take Polaroids of pretty girls waiting to meet them. Then the band would select which ones they wanted. But my guys would always go: “Yeah, where’s that for us?” If you want salacious stories about hanging out backstage, you’d have to talk to the guys for that. They get many more girls backstage than girl singers get guys. We tend to go out with the band.
Having grown up with the blues, did you feel obliged to emulate the lifestyle too?
I was in college and not really of drinking age until I was twenty-one. And that coincided with hanging out with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and Fred McDowell and Big Arthur Crudup. It wasn’t just: “Let’s get loaded!” all the time, it was more like stepping into adulthood. But you don’t go to the health club and drink milkshake. I didn’t feel I had to emulate them, but when you’re young you look up to your heroes. If anything, it was a really good lesson in observing some people who were in their sixties and clearly besotted with drinking too much. My parents didn’t drink, so when I was hanging out in my early twenties we all were partying. Smoking and drinking were part of the scene, but falling down drunk was not.
What made you sober up in the eighties?
I was in my mid-thirties, and the lifestyle catches up with you. Regardless of whether or not you’re playing your ass off, you’re not functioning as well and you’re not feeling as great about your life. In my case I was always pretty moderate until after the show, because I knew that playing live was my only meal ticket. But I just looked around and saw a bunch of friends of mine that had changed their lifestyle, and sobriety seemed not to be the born-again, loony lockstep into some kind of cult that I thought it would be. Stevie Ray Vaughan and I got sober within months of each other. In fact most of my musician friends seemed to be playing great, having more fun, being healthier and hadn’t lost any of their edge. So all my last excuses went out of the window. My friends were really instrumental in modelling that for me. All of us got sober around the same time, and it’s been an amazing past twenty-five years.