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One night last year, Def American founder Rick Rubin strolled into L.A.'s King King Club. Onstage that night was a revamped version of longtime L.A. blues band the Red Devils. Having proved his "Midas touch" on rap, metal, tasteless comedy, grunge and alternative, it suddenly occurred to the recording industry's reigning enfant terrible that he needed some roots music to round out his stable. And what roots go deeper into American music than those of the blues? Right place, right time. And the rest, as they say. . . .
The story of the Red Devils gets under Dave Gonzales' skin. The very similar Robert Cray saga is another. Along with a lot of other hardworkin' SoCal blues and roots bands, Gonzales can only make a tsk-tsk sound and shake his head when the Red Devils come up. Although he says he likes the Red Devils' album and is happy for them, Gonzales can't understand why that kind of success story hasn't happened to his trio, the Paladins. Compared to the Paladins, the Red Devils are just another blues band--a fact borne out by the Red Devils' average debut album.
The Paladins, on the other hand, mix blues, roots rock, rockabilly and soul with a power-trio format and come out the kind of honky-tonk original that the Blasters--fellow L.A. rockabilly revival mates--used to call "American Music." Loud and raw enough for Stevie Ray fans, the trio also exudes the kind of live energy and honest retro vibe that's made it a star in roots-appreciative spots like Norway and Holland.
On record, the Paladins have suffered a fate familiar to all bands that play traditional or retro music. After a solid but ignored debut on now-defunct Wrestler Records, the band signed with Chicago-based Alligator Records, who've released two sets, 1988's Years Since Yesterday and 1990's Let's Buzz. Despite decent marketing and promotional support, neither recording saw five minutes of airplay. But that didn't slow down the albums' steady sales or the legion of fans who routinely pack the trio's live shows.
Unfortunately, though, Gonzales and Company are still waiting for the big payoff--a major-label deal. For a time, that prospect was tantalizingly close. In the past two years, the band has been paid to do demos for Geffen, Interscope and Slash Records. There were also serious nibbles from Warner Bros. According to Gonzales, Geffen was interested after the first Alligator Record, but decided to wait until after Let's Buzz to sign the band. In the end, everyone passed.
"Right now, the stuff with the majors is dead," Gonzales says with disappointment. "Man, I guess we're too roots. If we were from Seattle or we rapped, we'd be there."
Tired of waiting, the band has settled on returning to Alligator. The Paladins join Little Charlie and the Nightcats as the two West Coast anomalies on Alligator's roster of Chicago blues acts. Gonzales hopes the new as-yet-untitled recording will be finished by late April and released in August. The new album also continues the longtime Los Lobos-Paladins connection that began when Steve Berlin produced the first two Alligator albums. This time out, Lobos guitarist Cesar Rosas will be in the booth.
The Paladins began their musical life as a San Diego-based band called the Top Cats. The core of the group were Gonzales and standup bassist Tom Yearsley, who had met in high school in San Diego. The pair got serious about music on the Yearsley family farm in Blythe, California. On weekend trips there, both fledgling musicians would sit out by the Colorado River and play guitars. At night they'd listen to B.B. King records. Back home in San Diego, the pair landed their first real gig in 1981 as openers for the Penetrators, a legendary San Diego band fronted by present-day Beat Farmer Country Dick Montana. Around this time, Gonzales and Yearsley took on a second guitarist, Whit Broadley. Besides introducing Gonzales to Billy Boy Arnold and other guitar players who would come to influence his style, Broadley (who departed in 1986) is the one who came up with the band's name.
"It came from the TV show Have Gun Will Travel," Gonzales says. "The main character was called 'The Paladin,' who was played by Richard Boone. He was kind of a good-guy gunslinger. A bad dude who never really shot anybody."
The newly christened Paladins made their first appearance on record as a part of an L.A. rockabilly compilation put out by Rhino Records. Soon after that, the band's career took off when the Stray Cats and other faux rockabilly acts made the music cool again. But while record labels were beating down the Stray Cats' door, no one even knocked on the Paladins'. The first of many record-label frustrations to come, this lack of interest convinced the band to take an extended journey to Texas, where it began hanging out and playing with Fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. After a few months in Austin, the still-green Gonzales naively asked Wilson to produce the Paladins' first recording. To Gonzales' surprise, Wilson agreed.
For that first recording, Gonzales, Yearsley and drummer Scott Campbell wanted to capture the echoey, in-a-box sound that is the trademark of all the Sun Records. To get that vintage flavor, the band went to a studio called the Three Track Shack in L.A. A completely restored, all-tube studio, the Shack was where Rick Nelson made his last recordings. The band also drove to Texas and recorded with Kim Wilson at Arlyn Studios in Austin.
What came out of these cross-country sessions was the much-underestimated debut, The Paladins. Full of gritty material like "Let's Go," the debut landed them the Alligator deal and nearly two years of solid touring.
The roadwork is what gives the Paladins' music its bite. Since 1987, Gonzales estimates that the Paladins have played more than 1,000 shows.
Unfortunately, that kind of mileage takes a heavy toll in personnel. Eventually, even the most incorrigible greaser wants to sleep in his own bed. For the Paladins, the problem has for some reason come down to keeping a drummer. In the middle of the Let's Buzz recording sessions, Campbell quit. He was replaced by Phoenician Brian Fahey. Unfortunately, the road also got to Fahey and in 1992, he left the band. As a final twist, Fahey's replacement, Jeff Donovan, landed a lucrative gig in Dwight Yoakam's band. Fahey, who has been playing around the Valley in the Mazola Boys, has agreed to return and play on the new recording. He may also do a limited amount of touring. The band's drummer follies are clearly beginning to drive Gonzales mad.
"It's crazy, but I try not to get too worried about it," he says without laughing. "Brian's heart's there, but he knows he has to stay home and take care of his family. And Jeff's making good money with Dwight. Meanwhile, I've got a dozen other guys calling me, wanting to be our drummer."
No matter who's sitting on the drum stool, the center of what makes the Paladins tick remains Gonzales and his vintage arch-top guitar. Like Stevie Ray, he is a convincing front man who has the voice and chops to carry the band. When asked who influenced his playing style, Gonzales reels off a list that includes Merle Travis, Link Wray, James Burton, Don Rich, Magic Sam and Robert Jr. Lockwood. One he doesn't mention is Stevie Ray Vaughan. Gonzales' aggressive, attacking style is straight out of Stevie Ray. His greatest influence, though, was the late Hollywood Fats. A legendary character on the L.A. scene, Fats followed the Hendrix arc--live hard, play brilliantly, die young. Best known as a member of the James Harman Band, Fats died in December 1986. His one, out-of-print album, The Hollywood Fats Band, is a classic.
"In terms of guitarists, Fats was the heaviest guy I've ever seen or met," Gonzales says. "There was so much going on in his playing. He never sat down and said put your fingers here or put your fingers there, but he really tightened us up. He really inspired us."
Inspiration is something the Paladins could use some of lately. After two years of playing the major-label game, Gonzales says he's ready to get on with the new recording. Although he admits that the band thought about tinkering with its sound to find a more commercial direction, Gonzales says the new recording will be classic Paladins.
"It's been so frustrating beating our heads against the wall for two years. But we never really thought about changing. Going commercial, trying to give labels what they want instead of what we do," he says. "We're gonna keep playing the music that we love and are true to.