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They're happy to play the blues

(ran TP edition)

Kim Wilson, the charismatic harmonica-playing frontman for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, has been on a roll since last year.

He played on Road Tested, Bonnie Raitt's latest live album, and appeared with the red-haired blues and pop singer on one of her videos. The Fabulous Thunderbirds put a new album out, Roll Of The Dice, (Private Music/BMG), that did well on Triple A radio (adult album alternative) stations around the United States.

Finally, commercial radio has a place for blues, and Wilson is happy about it. And although he is also grateful for the helping hand Raitt has lent to give his own career greater visibility, both he and Raitt wouldn't hesitate to tell you that helping out your fellow musicians has long been a part of the blues tradition.

One night in Austin, Texas, in 1975, Wilson met one of his idols, legendary blues singer Muddy Waters. Several years later, after the two had gotten to know each other and shared stages together, Wilson walked into Antone's and sat down to listen the master play. (Waters passed away in April 1983.)

"I was sitting there one night watching Muddy, and he was playing Everything's Gonna Be All Right, by Little Walter. At the end he says, "speaking of Little Walter, there's a young man in the house tonight who reminds me of Little Walter more than anyone else.' I was floored when I realized he was talking about me," Wilson recalled. That night, the two jammed together on stage, as they did many nights in Texas.

For the past three or four years, the Fabulous Thunderbirds have included Wilson on harmonica and lead vocals, Kid Ramos on guitar, "Blue" Gene Taylor on keyboards, Willie J. Campbell on bass and Fran Christina on drums.

"Kid Ramos is just an awesome guitarist, and Willie Campbell is the finest bassist this band has ever had," Wilson enthused about the newer Thunderbirds lineup. The band has been through several personnel changes over the years, but Wilson and drummer Fran Christina have remained key members.

In recent years, after cutting two records under his own name for the Antone's label, Tiger Man, and That's Life, Wilson has blossomed into a much more prolific songwriter. Classic and obscure-but-good blues and R&B tunes from the 1950s and early '60s made up most of the material on Tiger Man, Wilson's first solo album.

"Doing a cover of something is a very touchy thing," he explained, "especially when it's by people that did them so well in the first place. You need to have a certain reverence for it, but not too much," he said.

"I've listened to nothing but classic blues and R&B for years and years," said Wilson, who freely admitted he pays little attention to alternative rock, rap or top 40 pop radio stations around his Austin home. When he's not on the road, which isn't much, he needs a place to sleep and a place for his stereo and record collection, he joked.

But in the last three years, Wilson has been writing a lot of his own songs and working with songwriting partners, like former Late Night drummer Steve Jordan, producer Danny Kortchmar and even Nashville songwriters Chuck Jones and Rick Giles.

"I find it very difficult to turn myself on and off as a songwriter, so I'm still learning," he admitted, "but on the other hand, when I'm writing with someone else, they can be a catalyst to get things going."

AT A GLANCE

The Fabulous Thunderbirds, 8 p.m. Sunday at Frankie's Patio, 1920 E Seventh Ave., 248-3337. Tickets $5 advance, $8 at the door.

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