ROCKABILLY, EUROPEAN STYLE
"Yes, we have been to Tennessee," says Mike Taveira, lead guitarist for the Denver-based rockabilly band the Tennessee Boys. "We have been to the airport there." He's smiling, but a second later, his brow furrows. "No, we have not been to Tennessee," he amends. "It was Texas. We have been to the Texas airport."
This confusion is understandable given that Taveira and the rest of the Boys (lead singer/drummer Pedro Matos, acoustic guitarist Jorge Oliveira and stand-up bass player Nuno Silva) have been on U.S. soil for only around three months now. With their greased-back hair, fashionable tattoos and white tees worn beneath open-collared shirts, they look more American than the cast of Rebel Without a Cause, but their hometown is half a world away--a seaside community in Portugal, in fact. They came a long way to perform this Wednesday-night gig at Ziggie's Saloon in Denver, and now that they're getting their chance, they aim to prove that they can twist and bop as well as any hipster reared in the nation where Carl Perkins first slipped on those blue-suede shoes.
"What we want to do with our lives," Matos says in the pronounced accent he shares with the rest of the Boys, "is play the rockabilly music."
"The proof is that we are here," Oliveira offers. "We left our college, we left our parents, we left our girlfriends. We left everything. We had to wait for two months to get our visas, and we had to fly on an airplane for 32 hours to get here. We did not see the moon for 32 hours. And when we arrived, it was so high and so dry in Colorado that my nose bled for five days straight."
"It would not stop," Matos confirms.
"But that does not matter," Oliveira continues, "because we just want to play the rockabilly music."
That they do--and they do it so well that the novelty value of listening to a Portuguese rockabilly band becomes moot for most listeners about one minute after the Boys start their set. Tim Kaesemacher, the drummer for Denver's Truth of the Matter, says, "When I first heard that they were from Portugal, I thought it was pretty weird. But then I heard them, and they're really good."
The Boys (who range in age all the way from 20 to 21) are at a loss to explain why they fell in love with the Memphis sound. They were born in Porto, Portugal's second-largest city, but one that's not exactly known as a haven for rockabilly fanatics.
"No," Matos says. "The rockabilly scene was us and a few friends."
"Ten or twenty people," Oliveira estimates.
Matos: "I became interested when I was thirteen years old and I started listening to old records. Elvis. That was the kind of music I enjoyed."
Oliveira: "Everybody knows Elvis Presley in Portugal. He is the king."
"But a lot of people do not know anything else," Taveira insists. "They do not know the real rockabilly."
"They listen to art rock and heavy rock in Portugal. And the technological things," Silva says. "Really, they thought we were from Mars."
By the time they'd entered high school, the foursome had been drawn together by their rockabilly fixation, and soon after forming the Tennessee Boys, they achieved modest success. They appeared twice on nationwide Portuguese television, were the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles and traveled extensively throughout the country. In addition, two Tennessee Boys tracks were selected for Rock and Roll Around the Turn of the Century, Volume 2, a compilation disc released by the Dutch company Rock House Records. The quartet's keynote was authenticity: The Boys wrote original songs such as "Good Lookin' Baby" and "The Burning Miles," and they sang them in English.
"We prefer English," Matos says. "If you sing rockabilly in French, that would kill it."
"Then all you could do is sell it in France," Oliveira reveals.
In short order, the Boys developed into an incredibly tight combo whose sound was highlighted by Taveira's crisp guitar flourishes, Matos's yelping, twangy vocals and steady rhythms (his drum kit consists of a snare and a cymbal), Oliveira's wild acoustic strumming and jubilant background shouts, and Silva's rubbery bass lines. During the band's appearances in Portugal, the slapping technique Silva employs while performing attracted the most attention.
"People would see the slap bass and they would say, `You cannot do that,'" Taveira recalls.
"That is because, in Portugal, there were 40 stand-up bass players," Silva interjects, "and 39 of them played jazz. And jazz stand-up bass players do not slap."
"The people would also say, `You have crazy hair,'" Taveira adds. "They would like us, but when we would play the real rockabilly, they would think we were funny. It was sad."
Equally disappointing was the bandmembers' inability to make a living strictly from their music.
Oliveira notes, "We could not quit our day jobs."
"That is because you cannot sell enough rockabilly records there," Matos says. "So we wanted to get rid of Portugal. But we sent our music to a few European labels, and they denied us."
"Even Rock House Records denied us," Oliveira remembers. "And none of the other labels wrote us back. That was when Pedro told us he was going to write to an American label. And we said, `No American label will like a European rockabilly band.'"
However, Denver's Rock-A-Billy Records--the imprint Matos contacted--is not just any American label. It's owned and operated by Lewis Klug, a rockabilly performer, songwriter, producer, archivist and obsessive who turned his love of rock-and-roll obscurities into a business that's known to collectors across the globe. Today, rockabilly is keeping him and his devoted companion, Mary Louise, in beer and potato chips, but the reason he lets the music guide his every waking moment has nothing to do with money. "Man, I do it," he says, "because it makes chills run down my spine."
Matos first got his hands on a Rock-A-Billy disc--a vinyl platter, just like the ones the cool rockin' daddies from the Fifties issued--through a connection in Finland. He soon sent a tape of the group's material to Rock-A-Billy, and Klug was impressed enough by this primitive recording to mail Matos a complimentary letter. This missive sent the Boys into a frenzy. Matos promptly called a phone number he'd found on the Rock-A-Billy label, reaching Paul Brekus, the Denver man who masters Klug's albums. Brekus told Matos that he couldn't give out Klug's home number, but acquiesced after the singer said he was calling to order a huge pile of records. "Which was a lie," Klug says. "He just wanted to get ahold of me. And as soon as he did, he said, `We want to make a record with you. See you in two weeks.'"
According to Klug, his response was, "`Whoa, hold on.' I mean, I liked the tape, but I couldn't tell for sure that they weren't neobilly or psychobilly--you know, one of those bands that takes from rockabilly but isn't the real thing. And I could tell they didn't know a lot about rock and roll and rockabilly. They knew Elvis, Buddy Holly, a couple of others, but that was about it. So I didn't know that I'd want to work with them. And even if I did, I didn't want to be a wet nurse. I told them right from the start that I wasn't going to do everything for them. They'd have to learn how to stand on their own two feet."
These warnings didn't dampen the Boys' determination to come to America--far from it. Almost immediately, they sold most of their musical equipment and personal possessions in order to buy airline tickets, and raced through the visa process as quickly as they could. "They kept asking for more things and more things and more things," Oliveira grumbles about the American Embassy in Portugal. "We said, `We just want to go. Let us go.'"
By contrast, Klug was relieved that it took six weeks longer than expected for the Boys to board their plane. "It gave us a chance to talk and work some things out--and for me to make sure they weren't out of their minds. And when they got here and played, it was so wild I just about fell over dead."
The Boys were excited by this reaction, but they felt that some issues still needed to be resolved. First of all, there was the question of their name. Some members wondered if they should come up with something new. "In Portugal, `Tennessee Boys' makes sense," Taveira says. "But here, it is different. Because we are not from Tennessee."
"But the music comes from Tennessee," Silva responds. "And Tennessee Ernie Ford was not from Tennessee. So what is the big deal?"
Klug shared Silva's view. "I told them, `What do you want to call yourselves, the Portugal Boys?' Besides, `Tennessee Boys' is something to live up to. And they can do it."
Once the decision was made to stick with the original moniker, Klug moved on to the next obstacle. "The accents were a problem," he concedes. "There are a lot of great European rockabilly bands, but when you hear the accents on some of them, you go, `Something's wrong here.' So I did what I did when my granddaughter was just learning how to talk--I got out my guitar and played the ABC song for Pedro over and over again. And he did really well on everything except h and j. We've been working on h and j for months now, and I think he's just about got it."
True enough, the band's rendition of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" finds Matos sounding every bit the good ol' boy. At Ziggie's, he betrays his origins only while addressing the bar's customers between raveups. "And now here's an original song that we hope all you cats dig," he says in a voice that recalls a youthful Ricardo Montalban. The effect is completely incongruous--and utterly charming.
So is the Boys' manner. "They're so polite," says Joe Teitsworth, the owner of Ziggie's. "Most bands that come in to play just throw their equipment on the stage and say, `Where's the beer?' But when [the Boys] came in with their stuff, they stopped at the door and said, `Is it okay if we put our equipment over there?' and started pulling change out of their pockets to buy a soda pop. I didn't know what to say."
"That's nothing," Klug counters. "After three months of coming to my place, they still wait after you open the door for them and ask, `May we come in?' And they won't get themselves anything to drink. I told them, `I won't wait on you--if you want something to drink, just get it.' But they still won't do it. If it wasn't for Mary Louise waiting on them, they'd have died of thirst by now."
Fortunately, the Boys don't seem bothered by Klug's sometimes abrupt manner. "It is a big thrill that he chose us," Oliveira says.
Matos nods. "He is the rockabilly encyclopedia."
Oliveira: "He has been educating us. Now we can play covers of songs no one has ever heard before."
Matos: "There is a lot to be discovered about rockabilly. You will die and not know everything about rockabilly."
Oliveira: "But Lewis knows a lot. He has made the American dream real. The European labels never wrote us back, and I can tell you that they will be sorry."
Perhaps, but first the Boys must conquer Denver. They've managed to get enough mid-week club dates to pay for an apartment (where, presumably, they feel comfortable enough to serve themselves), but they've yet to worm their way into the hearts of many local-venue bookers. Klug has been working with the foursome to make their act more accessible--"Right now they're playing about 70 percent originals and maybe 40 percent covers," he guesses. Meanwhile, the Boys are trying their best to deal with culture shock.
"It is very different here," Silva says. "You have gangs."
"There is a lot of violence," Taveira concurs. "Everybody tells us, `Be careful, be careful. Lots of crazy people are here.'"
"In Portugal, it is impossible to be shot just walking the street. Here, it is like the movies."
The Boys feel safest at Lewis and Mary Louise's home, where they've been spending much of their time recording. Klug already has 22 Tennessee Boys tracks in the can and plans to release the best of them in 1995. After that, possible U.S. and European tours loom.
When the time to travel comes, Klug believes that the Boys will be ready. In his opinion, "They don't have the flaws that a lot of young rockabilly bands have. They don't do much drinking, they don't do a lot of partying, they don't womanize. Some bands say they only play so they can get booze and women, but not them. They'd like to make some money, but the only thing that matters to them is rockabilly."
The Boys agree. When rockabilly is the topic (as it almost always is with them), they come across as rabid yet sincere proselytizers determined to infect everyone they meet with their mania.
"We want people to go to the stores and find the rockabilly records," Matos says. "Because it has a lot of rhythm and it is fun."
"Everybody likes rockabilly music--they just do not know it yet," Oliveira maintains. "That is why I advise everyone to see a rockabilly group."
"The music is an art form, like country or jazz or blues," says Matos. "It is not just music from the Fifties. It is everyday music. We want to be part of the rockabilly family and get it respect."
They're prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish this goal. Silva has been slowed by a flareup of tendinitis, which he's trying to treat with a bandage wrapped loosely around his wrist, but he won't take a night off. "I guess I slap too much," he says. "But I love to play, and when I play, I must slap."
If Silva's wrist is causing him pain, he doesn't show it. At Ziggie's, the Boys deliver forty minutes of primo rockabilly that's consistently energetic and amazingly pure. There are no Stray Cats affectations here; these guys sound as if they've just stepped out of a time machine that carried them to the stage from a Deep South state fair circa 1956. The saloon is far from packed--perhaps 25 people are in attendance--but the Boys perform as if they're facing 5,000 screaming girls who'd willingly pull their poodle skirts over their heads for one of Matos's smiles.
After the first set, the Boys take a fifteen-minute break to smoke cigarettes and pose by the barstools. When they step onto the stage again, Klug joins them. With the band roaring behind him, Klug sings several tunes, including "All Messed Up" and "Hospital Blues," then staggers back to his seat.
"These guys exhaust me," he shouts as the Boys crank it up again. "But that's what rockabilly is supposed to do. After you've been to a rockabilly show, you ought to be able to sleep well that night. And these guys are one of the best rockabilly bands you'll ever hear in your life."
The Boys accept this compliment with the same modesty that's flummoxed the Denver music scenesters they've encountered thus far. "This is a beautiful town, and there are so many nice people that are nice to us," Matos reports.
"We have no complaints," Taveira affirms. "We miss our families and Porto, but we are happy."
"People in Portugal told us, `You are absolutely crazy to fly 10,000 miles just for music,'" Silva says. "But we cannot live without the rockabilly music."
The Tennessee Boys, with the Dalheart Imperials and Moon Doggies. 9 p.m. Wednesday, November 16, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway, $5, 777-5840.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.