by Michael Buffalo Smith
One of my very favorite bands to come out of the Capricorn Records era was the band called Cowboy, a group that originated a sound that other bands like The Eagles and Poco would later utilize. Scott Boyer, Tommy Talton and the band recorded several dynamic albums for Capricorn, and enjoyed several years of fame. They remain a cult favorite, and many folks still name "Please Be with Me" as one of their all time favorite songs. (I, for one.)
In this exclusive interview, Cowboy's founding drummer Tom Wynn recalls the Cowboy days, The Allman Brothers Band, Macon, Georgia and much more.
Were you born and raised in Florida?
Yes, in Orlando, way before Disney and all the major tourist stuff hit. It was a sleepy little town back then. It was very pleasant,as I recall.
What was your first exposure to music, and when did you say "hey, I want to do this myself!"
I used to listen to the local AM stations all the time - always “Top 40” and the R&B station. There was one of each. Even the radio stations were segregated back then - two entirely different play-lists and never any crossovers. Two different records stores too, but eventually I found the R&B store downtown on Church Street next to the train tracks and I’d go to both.
When I was 12, I heard live rock ‘n roll music for the first time. It just blew me away. It was a group of local high school guys playing covers. The band was named “The Icemen.” I was mesmerized – yep, that was it. Not only did I want to do that, I had to do that. Within a couple of months, I had a used set of Ludwig drums (still have them), and a couple of months after that, I played in public for the first time. And regardless of what anyone says, I intend to keep doing it.
How did you come to join We The People? Tell us a little about that rockin' band. Also, did you know Tommy Talton before that?
I’ll answer the second question first. Tommy Talton and I were next-door neighbors when he was one and I was two years old. So yes, I’ve know Tommy for a really long time. And yes, he’s always been three or four steps beyond cool – some guys are just born that way.
“We The People” was a re-forming of various members from two popular groups from Central Florida. Both groups had been managed and booked by Ronnie Dillman. Ronnie kept a lot of us busy every Friday and Saturday night for years.
Ronnie had been the manager for several bands I had invited the members to join for five or six years prior to “We The People.” The first of those bands was The Nonchalants; the second was The OffBeats. Tommy joined us as a member of the latter. David Duff was also a member of those groups; and he, Tommy and myself joined with Randy Boyd and Wayne Proctor of “The Trademarks” to form “We The People.”
What did you do between We The People and Cowboy?
I moved to Miami – played in some terrible bars in the industrial section of town. I finally got a decent gig playing at “The Wreck Bar” in Miami Beach. That was Miami’s hot spot then. Wayne Cochran and The C C Riders played right across the street. Jimi Hendrix came to the “Wreck Bar” and sat in once when he was in town (and blew up the guitar players’ amp – no one minded.) I was there six nights a week for a good while. Also worked on some side projects and kept an ear open for whatever else I could find to do. Hippie-dom was just getting started in Florida.
How did Cowboy come to be formed? Were you one of the original members?
I had stayed in touch with Tommy while he was in California after “We The People” had broken up. When I heard he was moving back to form a band with Scott Boyer in Jacksonville, I knew I wanted to be a part of that band just based on my history with Tommy. Somehow we agreed I should move to Jacksonville to be part of what was to become “Cowboy.”
Crazy when I think back – I left a solid gig at “The Wreck Bar” to move to Jacksonville to start a band with no intention of doing covers or anything else that might indicate we could make a living. But, as I mentioned, hippie-dom was getting started - we had to do it. So, Tommy Talton, Scott Boyer, Bill Pillmore, George Clark and I all moved into this big old house together -played eight or ten hours a day - every day. We did that for months. We learned a bunch of original songs... life was good.
We had no money – only one running vehicle between us – Scott had a job delivering newspapers, and we’d take turns helping him on the route. On payday, we’d go to the farmers' market and buy dozens of eggs. Fried eggs on peanut-butter sandwiches were a delicacy. We were all very thin.
Tell me about how the band came to sign with Phil Walden and Capricorn.
As I recall, Scott had played in bands with Duane and Gregg Allman when they were all in high school five or six years earlier. The newly formed Allman Brothers Band had just been signed with Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records in Macon, and they were starting to gain a little altitude. Capricorn was looking for new groups to bring forward, and Duane told Phil Walden about us because of his history with Scott. Duane had never heard the band at the time -- actually, no one had heard the group yet as we had never played out.
At some point, Phil asked Johnny Sandlin to come to Jacksonville to hear the band. He did. And when he went back to Macon, he apparently told Phil Walden he thought we had something worth hearing. So that was it - Duane told Phil; Phil sent Johnny. Phil signed the band, Johnny was our producer, and Duane got famous. The lesson must be - always help your friends.
What are your memories of recording that first album?
We went into the studio and did what we had been rehearsing in our little practice room for months. We played everything live, and my memory is that it didn’t take long at all. I don’t think the basic tracks could have taken more than a week or so. Some of the vocals were overdubbed here and there, maybe a guitar part or two, but mostly just went down live – all of us playing at the same time – usually two or three takes. Johnny has a way of keeping things drama free, and I’m sure that helped a lot.
In retrospect, seems kind of like a dreamscape – did I mention Hippie-dom was just starting? I think we actually captured some of it on tape. Breathe deep.
What was the vibe like down in Macon and around the studio in those days?
What can I say other than it was very cool. But, you know, you don’t really know things like that when you’re in the midst of it. It seemed amazingly normal. We were a rock ‘n roll band doing what is normal business for that. Come to think of it, I guess that’s not really normal, is it?
The studio was just plain funky. It was housed in an old store-front building right in the middle of downtown. There was no sign; and, walking up to it, it looked like just another dust-crusted vacant building. The front was vacant; the studio area was a big room with a control booth in the back of the building. That area must have been used as the warehousing for the retail store that originally used the building.
Most of other buildings in the neighborhood were vacant. Seemed like they probably had been vacant for a long time. I remember the “Heart of Georgia Diner” was across the street, and I never worked up the nerve to actually eat there. I remember the red neon lights on the mission building’s cross that said “Jesus Saves” would glow huge in the fog. We could see it from several blocks away coming out of the studio late at night. It was the heart of old Georgia.
The studio sounded good. We didn’t bother much with instrument isolation back then. We were playing the tracks live, and the room was large with a high ceiling - and we didn’t play too loud so it wasn’t too much of an issue. I think there was an eight track recorder at the time, if memory serves. It was a decent machine at the time,and later it was changed to a 24-track Studer, I’m pretty sure. The control room was large enough for the whole band to be in for playback. Johnny had a number of different speakers he could choose for that. Some were audiophile quality, “as-good-as-you-could-get” type, and some were half-blown automobile speakers so we could hear what it would sound like coming out of the radio driving home from school or work. We could hear either one by flipping a switch.
I think one of the most interesting, and possibly instructive, memories I have of the place had to do with Chuck Leavell. Chuck was hanging around a lot. He was playing with anyone who needed a keyboard player; and according to his discography, Cowboy’s “Five’ll Get You Ten” was the fourth album he ever played on. But the amazing thing I found out was that Chuck had a set of keys to the studio; and every day he’d go down there and practice - all by himself for at least six or eight hours. Nobody else around, Chuck would be at the grand piano practicing. Totally focused, totally straight, he would just practice his instrument - not too amazingly, people noticed.
What were your impressions of the Allman Brothers at the time, especially Duane, but also as a whole, and were you friends with fellow drummers Jaimoe and Butch?
I liked them all. They were good guys - focused - massive nads - and they seemed to goad each other pretty aggressively, but it always seemed good-natured and positive at its heart. They had much more of a warrior feel among themselves than “Cowboy” ever dreamed of. One listen to each band’s records pretty well reveals that. Duane was definitely the spark plug, and there were zero questions in anyone’s mind about that. He was massive-raw energy. I liked him a lot.
It was interesting and not my imagination -- and I don’t think Duane would mind me saying - but I saw Dickey blow him away on more than one occasion. As a matter of fact, I’m sure that’s why Duane wanted him in the band. Duane really did care about the music first and his ego second. Sure, probably a pretty close second, but the music was first for him. He was a big-hearted guy with a big spirit. So, Dickey was not a threat to Duane. Dickey helped make the songs better.
It was always mighty impressive to watch the same skinny guys you’d just been backstage with, especially Barry Oakely and Duane, and watch them totally dominate an audience of 10,000 people. They made a point of getting up on the tightrope every night, and people had no choice but to watch - and try to keep breathing. It was powerful. And Duane always led the charge.
I have to say Jaimoe was the Allman Brother - though you know he’s not really related, right? - that I remember most fondly. He was one of the big guys to me much more than the rest of the guys. They were just guys. But Jaimoe, he had been on the road with Otis Redding before the Allman Brothers. He had already been doing it for a number of years when the Allman Brothers were not even a thought. Jaimoe was one of the big guys.
Jaimoe was cool and he loved his job. Once, when both bands were in New York at the same time, we were all staying at the Chelsea Hotel. Somehow I ran into Jaimoe as he was getting ready to go across town to his favorite drum shop. He invited me to go with him. He was looking at some new drums, and the guys at that shop would customize them in ways I had never heard of. He was excited about it and wanted to share. He’s a big-hearted guy and a mighty fine drummer - very delicate touch and the fire seems to come out of nowhere. But, come, it does.
What are your memories of playing the Fillmore. Please share any stories about Cowboy and also your impression of Bill Graham.
It was definitely the real deal. The theater was an old, probably 1870’s opera-house theater. ’m not sure, but my guess is the room would hold about 3,000 people. It had very ornate Victorian-style plaster carvings and moldings in the lobby and public spaces. Heavy, high theater curtains, the old recessed footlights at the front of the stage. And it had all been taken over by us - the Hippies laid claim. We created a major commotion, and it was wonderful!
The sound system was enormous and all tube-type amplifiers and folded-horn speakers. The sound was physical; it would shake your core, but it was clean - no distortion, no over-exaggerated bass. The sound was huge and clear. I had heard “loud” before, but this was more than just loud. It was better than the best stereo I had ever heard and a lot bigger.
The first time we played there, Black Sabbath opened for us. They weren’t my cup of tea. Still, an interesting bill - Black Sabbath and Cowboy. What a concept. And I think Jethro Tull headlined that night, and that seemed a more reasonable fit.
I think Bill Graham was only present at one of our shows there – my memory is of a very busy guy who was focused on putting on the best show he could. I remember thinking that he was seeing everything. He was at the helm of a pretty unwieldy ship, and he made it work week after week. He and his crew developed a system to make sure hundreds of groups like ours got in and out with a minimum of fuss. My guess is they would do shows for 20 or 30 acts every month; it was an efficient operation. I believe it was sold out every time we were there - that speaks to customer confidence. Even if the audience didn’t know every act on the bill, they would come. When a show was booked, the house would fill because the audience knew Bill Graham wouldn’t let them down. It was the Fillmore.
What are your memories of recording the second album?
Muscle Shoals - Muscle Shoals Sound - home studio of the baddest musicians in the world. And we got to be there. That studio was popping out hits at the time. The rhythm-section players - Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood - owned the studio, and they were playing on everybody’s records. Paul Simon, The Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin are just a few. Say what you will about musicians, but those were some pretty smart guys.
The studio was usually booked 24 hours a day. When we did our record , we had the day shift and Leon Russell had the night shift so we’d cross paths sometimes at the shift change. That was cool for me because Leon had Jim Keltner playing drums for him on that session. Jim is kind of the Gold Standard of drumming for me, so to be in proximity to him really impressed me. The guy is so solid and steady and still creative within that steadiness, it’s no wonder he’s played on so many hits for the last 40 years.
I guess the most memorable moment from that session was when Duane came to sit in. He played slide acoustic dobro on Scott’s song, “Please Be With Me.” I think the tag work he did at the end of that song ranks right up with some of the best licks in rock ‘n roll history. Those final notes could slice through stone. He had heard the song for the first time 30 minutes earlier, played it through two or three times, and then he did that. His game could not have been any higher.
We were all saddened by the loss of George Clark last year. Please share with us your connection and any stories of your buddy, the other half of the Cowboy rhythm machine.
George was one of the steadiest, most consistently excellent guys I’ve ever known. George constantly humbled me. Never with words or judgments, but with his willingness to work hard at whatever he was doing with zero fanfare or arrogance. He was extremely competitive, rarely with others - but unendingly competitive with himself in the things he found important.
Whatever interested George, he did well. He was an excellent musician, fisherman, golfer, and woodworker. He was patient except with those who had no patience, and he wasted no energy debating them. He would simply be somewhere else, doing what he thought was important.
George and I worked together for a long time, both playing music, which continued until the week before he passed - he played great that night, as usual - and in the custom-woodworking shop we shared for a number of years.
His daughter, Courtney, was tremendously important to him, and she was never far from the front of his heart and mind. George had recently been excited with the news that his daughter was to have a daughter; he was so looking forward to meeting his first grandbaby. I am sad for them both that the joy of that meeting must be postponed. Courtney and new daughter and husband are doing great, and I’m confident the distance that separates at this moment has not dampened the uncharacteristic strut that seemed to overtake George when he would talk about the new grandbaby to be. With that much love beaming her way, she can’t help but do wonderfully.
When I met you guys during recording at Johnny Sandlin’s last year it was just a thrill for me, and the reunion album you all recorded was sounding excellent. Now, due to whatever problems, I hear it may not be released. What are your thoughts?
It was a privilege to meet you too, Michael. And I’ve enjoyed our correspondence since then and look forward to more of the same in the future. It’s actually a little humbling to have people fondly remember things we did so many years ago and to realize that lives were actually touched.
Thanks for your kind words about the album. I was pretty excited with the songs - I think people might like it, if given the opportunity to hear. Maybe there’s still hope it will come out, but a lot of other people have decisions to make about how all of that works out.
I think recording it was a special time for all of us. To have all of the original Cowboy players together with our original producer, Johnny Sandlin, was wonderful. Who could have predicted that would be possible? But it happened. And the thing that struck me was just how good those guys have become on their instruments. We played a couple of tunes together for the first time in more than thirty-five years when we got to Johnny’s studio the first night, and it felt to me like we were home. Real familiar but way more refined – dare I say it? Yes, mature.
Bill Pillmore’s piano playing is so smooth and articulate, why it’s as if he’s been playing all of his life. And he’s a pretty old guy, you know.
And Pete Kowalke - I know you were there too, but do you remember when he was doing some guitar overdubs? He would play a 6-measure run of 16th notes more fluidly than anything I had ever heard; then he’d say, “Wait! Let me do that again but with less emphasis on the second note of the third measure.” Then, he’d do it! Totally freakish! Who can do that kind of stuff? Both of those guys are just awesome players. Not just a little better - miles better from back in the day. It may be true to some extent for all of us, but those two deserve the trophy. The whole experience was great.
But there’s music - and then there’s the music business. We go from the sublime to the ridiculous in that transition. It’s always interesting to me how something that starts out as a free gift to the writer - the song - turns into the focus of so much contention and disagreement. And here we are. I’ve not heard every side of everyone’s story about what's holding up the reunion album, so I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing it has to do with somebody feeling as if they are about to be taken advantage of.
I think if everyone would back off a little and remember to have confidence in The Source that originally gave the song, things would all work out. Then the public could decide if they actually want another Cowboy record. I think too many people think they know the answer to that question; I think there may be some arrogance attached to that thought ... or maybe someone is too afraid to test for the real answer in the real marketplace. So what? Either way, let’s find out. The record’s sitting there two whiskers from finished. Most of the money that needed to be spent has been spent to get it this far. The finish line for this part is three easy steps downhill. Who’s going be the one to keep his hand in the air longest saying, “Yep, it’s me. I’m the craziest; I’m not going to let this happen.” I hope everybody gets tired real soon and does whatever they need to to let it come forward.
From my point of view, it is some combination of arrogance, fear, or stubbornness that will keep this record from coming out. None of those are reasons I would want to justify. Who knows? Maybe a little nudge from some of your readers will help. The record company’s name is Rockin’ Camel Records - www.rockincamel.com -Scott’s MySpace is www.myspace.com/scottboyer1 - and Tommy’s MySpace is www.myspace.com/TheTommyTaltonBand.
Like I said, I don’t know every side of everyone’s story, so I’m not pointing a finger in any particular direction. All I do know is that agreements need to be reached among those people. Right now, everyone is sitting with 100% of nothing - that doesn’t seem reasonable to me. Gee, I hope I haven’t hurt anybody’s feelers with all of this.
Let's talk about your kids. I deeply enjoyed the Wynn Brothers CD you gave me, and have just gotten turned on to Thomas' current project, and the samples on MySpace sound amazing. Tell me everything about your musical children.
Now you’ve opened a real can of worms. This is a subject I love – the chil'ren. Five of them, and three grandbabies. All of them have an active artistic life in one form or another.
The oldest, Angela, mixes being a great graphic artist with the other parts of her life. She lives in the Tampa area.
Leah, the next oldest daughter, is a talented artist and musician in addition to being a truly gifted preacher for Jesus. She and her husband, Larry Ramirez, run a ministry school and have their own church, which is making a difference in the Orlando area. Their two kids, Juniah and Judah, are a major blessing to us all. YouTube videos, as well as some of Leah’s services, can be seen at www.Resound247.com.
You mentioned The Wynn Brothers Band – thank you for that. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s pretty real, all original stuff - two, maybe three takes for each track live. We slammed that puppy dog. Could be cleaner, could be a lot of stuff, but it’s pretty good and that’s the way we sounded. So, I’m glad you liked it.
Musically - emotionally - spiritually, it was a whole lot of fun. We had the band together for about three years up until about May of 2007. While we were together, the band stirred up a pretty good commotion. We played a lot and it was one of the strongest bands I have ever been a part of. That kind of statement is more rare than you might imagine, unless you’ve ever tried to get something pumped up in this business. Even with two resident old guys in the band, the kids in the audience really responded wonderfully. I had not imagined that would be the case when I told my sons I’d sit in until they could find another drummer. It just worked, so I stayed. If the opportunity to play in public or private with your kids ever presents itself, I highly recommend it.
The band changed lineups from time to time, but mainly it was Jordan, Thomas, Olivia - and Lee Simpson and myself. Lee is an old friend of mine who is a wonderful guitar player; he played some really great things on that record - some so good it’d make you cry, just beautiful. Lee and I were the resident old guys and mostly hung out in back while the kids fronted the band. CDs are still available on CDBaby – “Feel The Good” by The Wynn Brothers Band.
Jordan, our oldest son, has recently become a father and has a band project together with his wife, Heather Lee. They have a MySpace page that is well worth checking out. www.myspace.com/heatherleeandjordanwynn. It is great original music in the folk-gospel vein. Jordan is a mighty good guitar player and one of the wittiest and original bass players I’ve ever played with -- he is just great. His wife, Heather Lee, is a talented writer, great singer, and guitar and piano player. And most of all, she is an exceptionally good mom to our new grandson, River.
Son Thomas and daughter Olivia have an absolute powerhouse band together. It’s called Thomas Wynn & The Believers. They are working to be in the position to do music full time, so they’re working it pretty hard these days. They just finished an album with old friend and producer, Tony Battaglia. Their record sounds spectacular. Their sound, although hard to really peg, has been likened to Petty, Dylan, The Band, and a few other well-known notables. Thomas' vocals, songwriting and passion are key, brought forward by hair-raising harmonies and a fiery band.
They’re playing all over Florida, usually booked at least Friday and Saturday nights and looking to expand into new venues throughout the Southeast and beyond. Their mission at the moment is to find a booking agent/management team who can help put them in front of some bigger audiences. If you know any booking agent/management teams who are looking for really good new talent to bring forward, point them in the direction of Thomas Wynn & The Believers. They are all solid musicians and their live show is just downright impressive. I’m excited for them. They seem to be getting close to the edge of going to the next level and I’m confident they’re ready.
What's next for you? Any musical projects? Other projects?
As I mentioned, I’ve been a custom woodworker and furniture designer for many years. I closed that shop several years ago and now specialize in kitchen and bath design and project management. It’s a better fit for my body, dragging a mouse around a computer screen instead of sheets of plywood and lumber around a shop floor. And, it’s not nearly as dusty. Got any projects for me?
I’m also working with a young sculptor in Central Florida doing some mold work for him and seeing what we can do to generate lots of business for his new foundry, Inspired Bronze. Do you need any bronze cast?
And musically, right now I’m excited about a new project that’s showing every sign of being a lot of fun. It’s been percolating since The Wynn Brothers Band broke up. It’s kind of an old R&B and soul-type project that will be vocally driven with those all-important “nuances” gently massaged and nurtured. But we certainly won’t be prissy girls or pretty boys about it - you may count on that, my young buddy.
We’re gathering material right now, and the tunes are starting to take on a pretty compelling sound. We have two remarkable girl singers, ZZ Ramirez and Tammy Shiestapour. Brian Chordikof, guitarist and founding member of the Orlando group The Legendary JCs, is our guitar player and a massive force of “positivity.”
And, our secret weapon, David Duff is playing bass and singing. David and I played together for years as kids; in fact, we were in We The People together. It is a major thrill to get to play together with David after all these years. David took a break from music altogether for about 35 years; and, as a result, he has not been corrupted by too much of what’s gone on musically during that time. But time has come again, and it’s a major delight to hear him open the time capsule of his memories. They really don’t do it like that anymore and hearing David is such a treat. His touch is masterful and his vocals continue to be astounding.
Would you do a Cowboy reunion if asked?
Sure . . . well, probably . . . what do you mean? Shh?
Will they have bran muffins?
But, along the lines of old musicians playing great stuff, I heard The Tommy Talton Band a couple of months ago over in Lake land, Florida. Outstanding! Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie joined Tommy’s band that night, and Jimmy’s vocals are just stronger and better than ever.
Yep. Jimmy is still the man. And Tommy's band is one of my very favorites these days.
And who, of all people, would I get to hear playing drums for Tommy? Bill Stewart!!! He absolutely blew me away - he always has. Bill is so solid and deep in the pocket; and then, out of nowhere, he’ll take the top of your head right off with the most dynamic fill you’ve ever heard - then he’s back in the pocket, real content, like nothing ever happened. Bill is spectacular. Bill’s album, “Drum Crazy,” is a must-have in every music lover's collection. So, in the absence of a whole Cowboy reunion, go and see The Tommy Talton Band and hope Bill’s playing with him that night. It will be a night you’ll remember.
Any parting words?
This has been a real treat, Michael. Thank you very much.
No, it is I that thanks you, my friend. See you soon.