Music isn't the only thing simmering on stage when the Sauce Boss plays the blues.
Momma and Daddy didn't give him that name — they called him Bill Wharton — but they did teach their baby how to eat. Slide guitar was something the Sauce Boss picked up on his own, and he has played anywhere people want to dance for nearly four decades.
Like other road dog musicians, Wharton needed a second income. So he concocted his Liquid Summer hot sauces to sell at shows. Turned out that was just an appetizer.
When the Sauce Boss plays these days, he's joined on stage by a bubbling gumbo pot, adding ingredients as the show progresses. For an encore, he dishes out the Cajun stew to the audience. Wharton figures he has served more than 160,000 people since adding gumbo to the musical menu. Jimmy Buffett was so impressed that he wrote a song about Wharton: I Will Play for Gumbo.
Before Wharton opens for Dr. John at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg on Thursday night, he spoke to the Times about the tastiest concert you'll ever know.
How did you get the idea to add gumbo to your act?
It was New Year's Eve 1989. I was in the studio working on my first King Snake (Records) album, The Sauce Boss. At the same time, (bluesman Kenny Neal's) mom, Shirley, was making gumbo for everyone in the studio and I watched her like a hawk. She kind of showed me how to do it all.
I'd already been doing my sauce, selling it at the gigs. And I said, you know, this would be a great platform; I'd feed some folks and show off my sauce. It has evolved into this huge, kind of like rock 'n' roll tent meeting, soul-shouting picnic. That's what I call it.
Do you plan your set to play certain songs when you add certain ingredients?
We have a very extemporaneous set list. I never know what I'm going to do when I hit the stage. There's a few tunes, you know, the finale and the beginning, and whatever has been on my mind the last few weeks or whatever. But the gumbo? The recipe kind of takes cares of itself somehow. We have a number of little segues with just bass and drums when I'm doing the demonstration, mixing it up. It's like a DNA meld between Julia Child and B.B. King.
Ever hear any complaints about the food?
No, but there are some places where the spiciness is kind of interesting to them. What it is, is that a lot of these people will be sitting there smelling this stuff cook for hours. By the time we serve it, they're ready for it.
Your Web site (sauceboss.com) is equally devoted to your tastes in food and music.
We're kind of a clearinghouse of food ideas, both in recipes and also the whole thing about my foraging on the highway. It's our quest for good food. We're over Mickey D's and that sort of thing. I like to find a place where Grandma taught this person how to cook. That's what we try to share with everybody.
What's your favorite discovery, so far?
Wow. There's so many. One was this place called the Little Red Schoolhouse, way out in the sticks in southern Alabama — which is an actual one-room schoolhouse — where the people grow their own vegetables to serve in the restaurant. That was really cool. Of course, there's always the classics like Bryant's Barbeque in Kansas City.
There's so many good places. Not only do people who are traveling need to know about these places, these places need people to talk about them. These recipes and these ways of doing things need to be preserved.
Ever have any accidents during a show, like knocking over the gumbo pot?
We had one in Windsor, Ontario. The Canadians immediately got out their snow shovels and a bunch of towels and swabbed down the stage. Luckily, the major part of the ingredients hadn't been put in yet and we were able to serve it up. It was a little light on the roux, but it worked. We've had some disasters over the 20 years we've been doing this, but somehow it always seems to work out.
Steve Persall is the Times' film critic. He can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.