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Gus Thornton
BY JEREMY SEGEL-MOSS

Bassist Gus Thornton has lived a blues musician's dream. In the last 40 years he has traveled around the world recording and touring with blues greats such as Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Katie Webster. He has shared the stage with, and earned the respect of, every St. Louis Blues Musician he has played with. Gus Thornton is the epitome of St. Louis Blues.

Thornton, like many rhythm musicians, is over looked by listeners who tend to get wrapped up in screaming guitars, monster harps and raspy vocals. Musicians, however, will readily agree that the key to any blues band is the rhythm section.

"Every time one of my fingers moves, someone taps their foot or nods their head. Yeah, people pay attention to the guitar players and singers, but I have the audience attached to my fingers," said Derek Morgan, bass player for Mojo Syndrome.

Thornton is known for his fingers. His chops are on the cutting edge of music, whether it‚s his recordings with Albert King or one of his new contemporary jazz compositions. Thornton continues to be a beacon of light and breath of fresh air for those who pay attention to his music.

"He is prolific in everything," said Sharron Phoner, bass player for Bennie Smith and the Urban Express. "He is not just a bass player, though. He is an arranger and plays the guitar as well as many other instruments. He is a complete and total musician."

Thornton is quiet about his success in the business, but very honest and surprised to know people admire him. He is a self-taught musician who originally began playing guitar, but became the bass player by default when his first band already had a guitar player. As a teenager, he played in popular gospel and R & B bands mostly, but quickly got drawn into the blues.

Thornton played with local talents like Oliver Sain, Johnnie Johnson, and Shirley Brown before he started touring with Albert King. He traveled with King for several years and recorded albums like San Francisco '83 and the more recent release, In Session, with King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

He also toured with Katie Webster and got to help cut the Two Fisted Mama album, which stands as one of his favorite recording experiences. At one time, Thornton was offered the opportunity to be B.B. King's bass player. He passed it up because B.B.‚s tour schedule of 300 nights a year would keep him away from his family for too long.

Thornton's dedication to his family of six children and wife, Charlene, has been a blessing for both him and St. Louis. His obvious compassion and selfless dedication to the music has earned him a large group of people who care deeply for him and his well-being. St. Louis has in many ways become his extended family.

"He was one of the only people who always encouraged me to keep playing, even when I sucked. The people who know him, love him, and cherish what he is about. He is a gift from God," said Phoner.

Unfortunately, the blues have hit home for Thornton. In the last two years he has suffered three heart attacks and a stroke. The most recent of which was at his own benefit in November. Thornton admits he is lucky to be standing and able to be as active as he is, but that does not help the enormous amount of unpaid medical bills he has acquired. The St. Louis Blues Society and individual musicians in the area have organized benefits to help defray the cost of the Thornton's medical bills, however, he still has a long way to go.

This article and the following interview will hardly do justice to a man who has represented St. Louis so well and inspired so many. However, it is important for musicians and listeners alike to be reminded that great St. Louis Musicians are still around and are in desperate need of our help and support.

INTERVIEW


How did you first get into music?

By accident, really. My mom got me a cardboard guitar for Christmas when I was 10 or so. I played that for a little while, then got a Stella. That‚s when I really started getting it together. When I started my first band we already had a guitar player. I picked up the bass just so we could get going.

Since then you've been almost exclusively a bass player. How does the bass fit into the sound of a band?

To me the bass is the foundation. Drums can make or break your band, but you need a nice bass to give an even flow and direction to the band. Some players try to get fancy and stand out. That's OK, but to me you just have to play the right notes. Playing the right notes and the right peaks in the right places is the most important thing.

Who did you listen to when you started playing bass?

Guys like Power Chambers, Ron Carter and the bass players with James Brown. The most influential guy was James Jamison. I would go out and listen to the local guys and try to do what they did. In those days we didn't have tape recorders, so I'd rush home and try to remember the things I heard them play.

Where did you see music when you were younger?

Mostly I stayed on the East Side. There were so many places to play over here. It‚s totally different now. Back in the old days we had places like the Mountain Blue Lounge, the Avenue, and the Cosmo. Just about every club had a band, but then disco came in and people started getting into records and most of the bands got killed.

How did you do when the disco came through?
I did O.K. because I was on the road with Albert King a lot of the time. You can always survive on the road, but it was still hard. If I had just been here I might not have survived.

What was touring with Albert King like?

I remember when I first joined Albert. We had a little rehearsal before the first gig in California. He dug everything I did. Everything was going well and smooth. We only rehearsed for maybe 45 minutes.
It was a circle stage and I remember John Lee Hooker sitting behind me. We started playing and Albert went werewolf. I couldn't to nothin' right. He was yelling and screamin‚. Kept telling the band leader to, "get me together quick, because if you don‚t you, know what's gonna happen and it's gonna happen quick". I heard stories of him pullin' pistols and I kept thinking, please don't shoot me.
It was a horrible night. We were out there for a couple of weeks. I was planning on quitting when we got back, but I noticed that the closer we got to St. Louis the nicer he got. I think that was just part of the thing Albert did. I think you just had to go through that with Albert. He was just letting you know who's boss. By the time we got to Chicago I was ready to stay.

Was touring with Katie Webster any different?

Katie was a real good experience for me because basically I got to play what I wanted to play. Katie was real nice and supportive. She had a lot of energy, too. We might do a show at the club and after the show was over there might be a few people hanging around. They'd come up to the stage to talk and she'd stay at the piano playing and talking to them for another half hour or more.
When we recorded Two Fisted Mama she was like that too. We'd get to the studio in the afternoon and stay into the early morning. We'd be there until we just didn't have nothin' else to give and she'd be going to sleep at the piano.

Do you have a favorite recording session?

I liked the In Sessions album quite a bit. Especially because of the way it went down. We went in there almost blind as to what we were going to do. It all kind of fell in place and happened so much better than I could have expected. We had a meeting the night before to talk about the plans for the next day, but we had been traveling all day and we didn't have the energy..of course, there was Mr. Jack Daniels, too.
Stevie's Texas Flood album was new so he brought it up to the room after the meeting was over and we sat around and listened to it all, but didn't have the energy to learn it. For Stevie's stuff they just gave us the tempo. You know by the way someone counts off the song as to what you should be playing and how you should play it. Mostly we just sort of winged it.

Was that the first time you met Stevie?

Nah, Stevie used to come to Antone's in Austin and sit in with us. I had known him for a little while. I thought he was a really nice guy, down to earth and a great guitar player. He used to take me over to this after hours club when I came in town. He was one of my Texas partners.

You've seen a lot of your friends, like Stevie and Albert, pass away recently. Have you had any thoughts that your time is near?
I don't really freak out about all of that because everyone is going to eventually die. My heart attack didn't kill me, and most people I know who have had heart attacks died immediately.
A friend of mine says that there is heart disease in his family and he knows he is going to die from a heart attack. I said, "you might get hit by a truck". You don't know what you're going to die from and you don't know when you're going to die. Just try to live as much of a quality life as you can and when it is your time to die, that's just going to happen. It happens to everybody, so it can't be that bad, you know.

You've been in the music business for a long time. How has it changed since you got involved?

It used to be like a kid looking in a toy store window. It was just something I really wanted to do. It was almost like a fantasy. In some ways it hasn't changed, but the business is harder now. It seems like it used to be so much easier to break into the scene in those days. You used to be able to cut a 45 with one song, but now you have to make a full CD. And in East St. Louis there aren't too many places to play.

Would you like to see the East St. Louis music scene built back up?
Yeah, there is no doubt about that. I am concerned that we are going to lose some of the blues. The Black blues audience seems to be decreasing more and more, and the white audience is increasing more and more.
To me, it's part of our roots. My parents and grandparents and a lot of people's parents grew up with the blues and I'd like it to always be a part of the Black culture. If there are more places to play here more young Black people would probably play blues.
I'm also glad the white community likes it like it does, because if you are really doing good music then different people should like it. It feels good to see mixed crowds. Music has always been one way of uniting people, even back when we had stronger racial issues. Music always seemed to bring people together. That might be something we should concentrate on more. You don't want to target stuff to one group. The bigger your audience is, the better the chance blues will survive.

What kind of advice can you give to young players?
Just hang in there. You got to be determined and expect there are going to be lots of hurtles and problems. That is true with everything in life. Just be true to what you do and don‚t be discouraged by anything.

Finally, what do you think about the support St. Louis has offered you and is there anything you want to say to them?
It's overwhelming. I knew I had friends, but when something like that happens to you and everyone comes together like they did...it was really overwhelming for me. I appreciate the money people gave me through the benefit, but more than that I appreciate the fact that there are so many people who think that much of me.

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