The Paladins (Contemporary Musicians)
Whether yelping greasy rockabilly, wailing West Coast R&B, crooning Bakersfield-influenced country, or dabbling in small combo swing, the Paladins have kept their roots-music faith alive the hardest way possiblen the road. Despite changing line-ups, record deals gone sour, shifting trends, and heart-wrenching personal problems, the trio continues to earn a solid living as a top attraction in clubs. In the process, this venerable group has become nearly as important to the rockabilly faithful as some of the genre's pioneers.
Group leader Dave Gonzalez's initial influences came from his mother, who listened to such early rock 'n' roll icons as Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and the Rolling Stones. On the flip side, his father's love of country singers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard also made a strong impression on him. Gonzalez's interest in music turned serious when his cousin Greg Leach gave him his first electric guitar in 1974, along with a Freddie King album. Jamming with older musicians also helped him develop a keen taste for blues as set down by B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Johnny Winter.
Thomas Yearsley was also a guitar player, but switched over to the upright bass so he could play in his high school jazz band at approximately the same time he began playing music with Gonzalez. Eventually, rockabilly buff Whit Broadly befriended the two, and after Gonzalez showed him some chords, he joined the as yet unnamed trio as a guitarist. Getting a drummer for their odd mix of blues, country, and early rock 'n' roll proved somewhat difficult at first, but once Gus Griffin joined, they had a full-fledged quartet ready to take on gigs.
In a Rockabilly Hall of Fame (RHOF) interview, Gonzalez noted that Broadly named the group after an old TV series. "That's exactly where we got it, Paladinave Gun Will Travel. We were really into rockabilly but we weren't into dressing like modern country and western stars. ...We wanted to look like a cross between Richard Boone and early Elvis."
At the time, neither the band's music nor its sartorial flair were popular with their fellow students. "When we first started out, we all really felt like outcasts, man," Gonzalez laughingly told the ROHF. "We got called all kinds of names and people tried to pick fights with us because we had leather jackets on and greasy hair. People would call us 'Sha-Na-Na' [the kitschy 1950s tribute group] and they didn't know what we were."
Influenced by the Blasters
If the Stray Cats' brief explosion onto the pop charts in 1982 opened some doors for the Paladins, another California band, The Blasters, paved the way for their eclectic mix. "They were the ones we really identified with," Gonzalez told the RHOF. "They were kind of rockabilly but they were also R&B, blues, country, and folk all at the same time. To me those guys were the greatest, they smoked everybody." Although they drew from the same inspirational wellspring, the Paladins were generally overshadowed by the Blasters and other up-and-comers such as the Kingbees, Los Lobos, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom they deeply admired. Later they would do two tours with Vaughan, but in the beginning they were still struggling with personnel problems.
Drummer Griffin departed in late 1983, followed by Broadly, who was tired of the poor money and hectic scrambling on the road. With the addition of ex-Red Devil drummer Scott Campbell, the Paladins officially became a trio and started making some inroads in Southwestern clubs while struggling to get a record deal. Mark Neill, whose own eclectic band The Unknowns also had a strong cult following, produced the Paladins' first recordings, and taught them the value of amplifiers, speakers, and recording with vintage equipment. "We still use all old equipment and really try hard to present our whole sound as authentically as we can and make it really sound like how it used to be when the original cats were playing," Gonzalez told the RHOF.
Neill, along with Fabulous Thunderbird leader Kim Wilson, Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin, and engineer Mark Linett shared producing chores for the band's self-titled debut on the Wrestler label. Boasting guest contributions from blues pianist Katie Webster and Anson Funderburgh, the LP created the mold for most of the Paladins' albums to follow. Inspired remakes of obscure old tunes such as "Slow Down," "Daddy Yar," and "Make It," were combined with authentic-sounding Gonzalez-penned originals. Released in 1986, the set was well-loved by the band's fans, when they could find it. Today, Gonzalez wishes he had listened to a friend's warning. "Keith Ferguson from the Tailgaters called one night and said, 'Don't do it. The guy's jive, he won't pay you, he'll rip you off. He owes us a bunch of money.' I said, 'Oh man, we need a record out so bad. We're out here on the road with our little single, we're starving to death and we need to make an album." Their haste resulted in an album, but the band has never been able to collect royalties, even though the album has been kept in constant release.
Hit Early Peak at Alligator
The band did not remain with Wrestler for long. Impressed by their live show, the Chicago-based blues label Alligator Records bought out the remainder of their contract and added the group to their impressive roster. The band would still play rockabilly and bits of country at their live shows, but the accent on their Alligator recordings was blues and R&B. Produced by Berlin and Linett, the Paladins' two discs for Alligator allowed them to survive the demise of rockabilly as a hot underground trend, and helped establish their identities for club owners. Many songs from that era, i.e., the stomping blues of "Let's Buzz," the swinging remake of Brook Benton's "Kiddio," and the grinding R&B of "Goin' Down to Big Mary's," remain often-requested staples of the band's live shows. Equally important in a financial sense, the band attracted a tour sponsor, The Miller Brewing Company.
Let's Buzz! featured legendary saxman Lee Allen, who played on sessions for rock 'n' roll pioneers Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Lloyd Price. Gonzalez has admitted that the recording remains a high point for the band. However, the young trioow featuring Brian Fahey on drumsegan to resent their label's perceived interference. "I liked working with them a lot, at first," Gonzalez told the RHOF. "I think the first record Years Since Yesterday has a good sounde had control over our production at that time. But then, on Let's Buzz!, they started trying to control our sound and productions, so we left." As events turned out, leaving Alligator nearly destroyed their careers as a recording act.
Smaller Labels Stalled Career
The band saw two dealsne with Geffen, the other with Interscopeo down the tubes before they latched on to the relatively small art label Sector 2 in 1994. Produced by Los Lobos guitarist Cesar Rosas, Ticket Home reveled in the deftly accented Swing-revival beats of jazz drummer Jeff Donovan. Although it also contained one of the band's best rockers, "Fifteen Days Under the Hood," the poorly distributed disc was mainly available at Paladins' shows. When Sector 2 went belly up, the band added four tracks and leased it to various small companies with the title Rejivenated.
Gonzalez refers to 1996's Million Mile Club as "my guitar album." Boasting hot renditions of their Alligator recordings, plus two stunning, jazzy instrumentals, it showed the group off at their sweaty in-concert best. However, 4AD, the label that released the album, was primarily known as a punk and gothic label and had no clear idea on how to market the album. Record chains were confused about where to stock the disc and even their most loyal fans had trouble finding it. To compound the problem, group co-founder Yearsley left the band to aid in the fledgling recording career of his wife, the blues-belting ex-stripper Candye Kane. Donovan also departed shortly after. Although they were constantly booked in clubs and at festivals worldwide, it seemed that the Paladins' days as a viable recording act were over.
Revived at Ruf
Undeterred, however, the grouped returned to their musical roots, along with producer Mark Neill. Neill, who had never completely endorsed the band's switch to the blues, accentuated their rockabilly and country leanings, and sharpened their songs' hooks. The result was 1999's Slippin' In, a high water mark in their career. Named after the first 45 rpm single they did with Neilln old Eddie Bond rockerhe disc blended dazzling remakes of Wynn Stewart's "Rain Rain," Gram Parsons' "Strong Boy," and Johnny Bond's "Five Minute Love Affair," with a masterful surf instrumental, and their best-ever original song, "The Hard Way."
Released on the German-based blues label Ruf Records to great acclaim, the album completely restored the group's reputation with the rockabilly faithful, making them a hot act once again. In Blue Suede News Gonzalez described the creative process Neill inspired: "When Mark hears a song a lightbulb goes on and he takes over on it. I come in and say, 'Hey, I wrote this kind of country songr a Sun Records kind of thing.' And he'll say, 'Yeah, it's kind of that, but listen to these records and tell me what you think.'... I write 'em but Mark produces and arranges the whole thing. The guys always jump in there and add their things to it too." Further, the Paladins' leader explained, "Mark's the one playing those [Nashville] baritone-guitar solos, though I have to twist his arm to do it."
Although similar to the first album in style and content, the band's 2001 Ruf album Palvoline No. 7 displays more gut level emotion. Both Gonzalez and Yearsley had gone through divorces and the impact was felt in their work. The big beat numbers such as Wynn Stewart's "She Tears Me Up," the surf-drenched instrumental "Powershake," and their own "How Long You Gonna Tease Me," were still in evidence. But they infused rocking rants like Jerry Reed's "You Make It They Take It" with palpable anger, and Brook Benton's "Just A Matter of Time" with shades of country heartache. They had become accomplished recording artists at last.
Still Growing Artistically
The combination of Ruf Records and Mark Neill seemed to be a good fit for the Paladins, but Gonzalez complained that his label didn't promote Palvoline No. 7 with any gusto. The whole record industry was suffering great financial reversals, and Ruf was no exception. Characteristically, the group departed for what they hoped were greener pastures, only to see their 2003 album El Matador, a collection of raw, stripped-down performances, released on Yearsley's own Lux Records label.
If the Paladins are discouraged, they don't show it. Still booked for close to 200 dates a year, they continue to draw a unique audience of college kids, rockabilly and blues afficionados, and fellow guitarists seeking to pick up licks by watching Gonzalez work his on-stage magic. Of the group, it is Gonzalez who seemingly never tires. When not touring with the Paladins, he plays jazz with a San Diego ensemble known as the Joint Chiefs, and lays down pure country music with Chris Gaffney, Hank Gallup, and Jimmy Lloyd, who call themselves the Hacienda Brothers. After all the ups and downs, what keeps him going? "The passion that I have for the sounds of old records," he explained in a phone interview. "I keep aspiring to make sounds that match up with all those great old records playing in my head."
Who's Listening, Government, 1982.
Best of L.A. Rockabilly, Rhino, 1983.
The Paladins, Wrestler, 1986.
Years Since Yesterday, Alligator, 1988.
Let's Buzz, Alligator, 1990.
Ticket Home, Sector 2, 1994; reissued as Rejivenated, Hootenany, 2004.
Million Mile Club, 4AD, 1996.
Slippin' In, Ruf, 1999.
Palvoline No. 7, Ruf, 2001.
El Matador, Lux, 2003.
Blue Suede News #56, Spring 2001.
Country Standard Time, March 2001.
"The Paladins," Rockabilly Hall of Fame, http://www.rockabillyhall.com (February 1, 2004).
The Paladins Official Website, http://www.thepaladins.net (February 1, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from various interviews with Paladins' leader Dave Gonzalez during 2000-01, and in a phone interview conducted on February 5, 2004, from which all quotations were taken.