Music has long been the plaything of the disinterested worker. In its infancy, music provides the means of alleviating the boredom associated with ordinary working life; if the pursuit survives the pain, anguish and inevitable moments of poverty, within it can lay the potential to make a career from the passion, fun and excitement of life on stage and on the road.
Before he bestowed upon himself the blues title ‘Black’, and hooked up with the Honeybears, Joe Lewis was working a variety of jobs in his native Texas. A chance event led Lewis to start playing the occasional open mic gig in Austin; a few ups and downs later, and Black Joe Lewis has discovered a soul fired blend of rock’n’roll that runs from Little Richard through to James Brown and King Khan. The cashiers aren’t ringing quite yet, but Black Joe Lewis is no longer completely beholden to the whims of the claustrophobic rat race.
Joe Lewis was brought up in the intriguingly titled Round Rock, just outside Austin, Texas. “Round Rock is a suburb of Austin,” Lewis says down the phone from Austin. “It’s developed a lot since I grew up there, but it’s still just an ordinary town. There’s a lot of cotton and corn farming, and open land,” Lewis says. “It wasn’t too fast, and it wasn’t too slow”.
Lewis’s musical upbringing wasn’t anything to write home about – the usual confluence of family record collection and childhood musical interests. “I didn’t really have much of a musical upbringing,” Lewis says. “I didn’t really get into music until later”.
Lewis had moved from Round Rock to Austin in his teenage years, eventually getting a job at a pawn shop. It was around this time that Lewis first picked up a guitar and began contemplating a musical career. “For me, getting into music was a way of getting away from working the day jobs that I hated,” Lewis says. Lewis took possession of a guitar that had been sold to the shop he was working in, and – figuratively speaking – got to work. “I got a guitar and tried to become good enough so I could stop working my day job,” Lewis says.
Lewis’s first musical forays came via the blues artists that had filled his parents’ music collection. With its rich musical tradition, there was no shortage of venues for Lewis to ply his fledgling trade. “I just started playing the blues,” Lewis says. “The first gigs I played were happy hours and open mic nights,” he says.
The flipside of Austin’s musical reputation is the difficulty of being seen in the ocean of quality of musicians who dominate the local musical landscape. “I never really thought about it,” Lewis replies, when I ask him if playing in Austin was easier or harder than starting out in a city with a negligible musical history. “It was hard to get noticed with so many good musicians,” he says. “But once you leave the city, having played there it really holds you in good stead,” Lewis says.
Lewis’s musical activities were proceeding at a pedestrian pace until fate stepped in, in the form of a vacant support slot for legendary '50s rock’n’roller Little Richard. Lewis denies that he was on the verge of giving up on a musical life, but does admit things had reached an early plateau. “I wasn’t going to quit, but I didn’t have a band,” he says. Zach Ernst had seen Lewis playing around town and approached Lewis to support Little Richard at his Austin show.
“Supporting Little Richard was how I met Zach,” Lewis says. Ernst offered to pull together a band comprising himself and various other local musicians. The gig went well, and Joe Lewis became Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. While the gig was a success, Lewis didn’t have the opportunity to meet the notoriously volatile headline act. “I didn’t get to meet Little Richard,” Lewis says. “He was in a bad mood on the night, and he was complaining a lot. He didn’t want to shake hands, so I didn’t push it,” Lewis laughs.
Supporting Little Richard might not have added to Lewis’s autograph collection, but it did help in establishing Lewis’s credentials to local and interstate booking agents. “It helped having the Little Richard gig on my resume,” Lewis says. “Playing that show was definitely the most people that I’d played to at that time of my career,” he says.
Ernst’s role transcended his guitar playing duties, as he took on the role of manager and booking agent for the newly christened Honeybears. “Zach helps out a lot,” Lewis says. “He used to do the booking, and he brought in all the members of the band – he knew all these guys from school, and basically started up the band we’ve got now,” Lewis says.
With his own musical performance heavily influenced by James Brown, Iggy Pop and Elmore James, Lewis’s intentions are succinct. “I just try and put on the best show that I can,” Lewis says. “I think soul is both a kind of music, and an emotion. We’re more of a rock’n’roll band, but with horns – and it’s the horns that make a soul sound,” Lewis says.
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears have already managed to tour Europe a couple of times, with reasonable success. “Spain was definitely my favourite country,” Lewis says. “I love the culture and the people – they love to have fun”. And while the music is going well, the spectre of a day job still sits in the background.
“I don’t think I’ve avoided a day job just yet,” Lewis says. “I’m not rich enough yet,” he laughs.
"Tell 'Em What Your Name Is" by Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears is out on Lost Highway Records.
Black Joe Lewis Australian Tour
Thursday 7th: Melbourne, The Espy (Esplanade Hotel)
'Deep Roots' with Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro, Vasco Era, Abbey Mae, Deep Street Soul & more.
Tickets $29.00 + bf on sale now from www.feelpresents.com and http://theespy.oztix.com.au, Espy Bottleshop, Missing Link & Polyester Record stores.