Backtrack Blues Band Frontman Sonny Charles on Why the Band is in Their Prime

Sonny Charles talks 40 plus years with Backtrack Blues Band and the new album.

Backtrack Blues Band makes their home in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, where they’ve been one of the longest-running blues bands in the state. Since 1980 they’ve been playing original electric blues throughout juke joints, blues bars, theaters, and festivals all over the world.

Backtrack has performed with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Gregg Allman, Johnny Winter, John Lee Hooker, and many more legends. The quintet is Sonny Charles on lead vocals/amplified harmonica, Kid Royal on lead guitar/vocals, Little Johnny Walter on rhythm guitar, Joe Bencomo on drums, and Stick Davis on bass.

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Your Baby Has Left, the latest album, was released last month via VizzTone Label Group. Recorded right here in sunny Saint Petersburg, Florida at Big3 Records, an independent label whose roster has included Cheap Trick, this production is one that cuts no corners. In other words, You want an authentic analog sound, you return to a reel-to-reel deck to soothe the savage audiophile. If you want the Muscle Shoals sound, you hop on a plane and you go cut a track with the horn section.

I caught up with Sonny Charles to talk about his resolute bandmates, what makes this the band’s best work, recording with top-tier musicians (Bruce Katz and Muscle Shoals Horns), and music in the time of corona.

Lauren for American Blues Scene: Let’s talk about the new album. I still hear the Chicago blues and the rhythms of traditional blues, and obviously you have a signature sound all your own.

I think that you’re correct that the band is rooted in Chicago blues stylings. You know, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Albert King… Performers of that ilk. That is the basis of a lot of the songs. Kid Royal’s guitar playing has a little bit of a Texas influence — T-Bone Walker, Jimmie Vaughan, Anson Funderburgh type influences, Ronnie Earl…

Maybe Billy Gibbons a little bit?

Yeah. (Kid) is a little more Texas, so we blend the Texas sound and the Chicago rhythms sounds together. And it kind of gives us a unique band sound, which is I think a good thing. This record, to me, was more satisfying, probably, than any record that I’ve ever been involved with. Most of the songs are original tunes, so I think that the songs speak for themselves. But they’re fun to perform, and I think that they were very well-recorded and produced. We just had a very joyous time making the record. The band really enjoyed it. We worked with great engineers.

I saw the video. It looked really fun. 

Our producer, George Harris, is one of the finest music producers really anywhere, in my opinion, and certainly a joy to work with. One nice thing about the record — we sort of tried to capture more of a warmer, more authentic analog sound to the music. And we tried to achieve that by recording all the songs to a 2” tape instead of digitally. So, the songs were all recorded on the big, old tape machines. And if you look at our video you’ll see that tape machine is spinning. That’s what we recorded to the 2” Studer 24-track tape machine. I think it gives it a little more depth. There’s a lot more data on a tape recording than on a digital recording. Different experts can disagree over what they prefer. But for me I wanted to go back to tape, because that’s where we started. And I just felt like it suited our music perfectly. 

Yeah, full circle.  And how has the reception been overall? 

The record seems to be doing really well. If you go to Backtrack Blues Band and click on media links, you can read a lot of music reviews from all over the world. They’re generally highly positive, so we’re really pleased that people are enjoying the music. I think it was charting up to #10 on the contemporary blues radio charts. It’s charting well, and it’s being received well by music critics worldwide. For me personally, a lot of times musicians are most critical of their own work. Like an artist is with a painting. For me, I like this record better than anything I’ve ever done, which is probably a nicer way of saying I think I finally made a record that lives up to the expectations I have for the band and myself. 

Your personnel you’ve had with you all these years — Joe, Little Johnny, Stick, and Kid — what are your thoughts on the evolution of the band? 

Our music has melded more and more over the years as we’ve played more and more shows. I think the unique gift that we have as a band — and it may sound simplistic, but it’s so important — is that we’re all very good friends. We really do care about each other, we love each other, we support each other. And a lot of bands don’t have that chemistry. 

Natural chemistry. 

No superstars in the band, no one is the hero. The band isn’t named after any particular individual. It’s a group concept. 

That’s the only way a democracy of a band works. 

Probably one reason our band has had the longevity it’s had over 40 years of performing. We’ve had personnel changes. But the general direction of the band, the philosophy, the roots of the music of the band, it’s always remained the same. And we’ve always put a premium on recording our own original music. That’s one reason I like this record; I think there’s some well-constructed arrangements on this record that show our maturity when it comes to songwriting and arranging. 

Was “Dixie Grill” recorded in Muscle Shoals, as I understand that the Muscle Shoals Horns are featured on that track? 

What we did was take the recordings up to Muscle Shoals and have the horn section perform the horn parts up there. George Harris and I went up to Muscle Shoals and oversaw that. Boy, was that an experience. It was one of the more spiritual music experiences I think I’ve ever had, standing in their A studio where Aretha Franklin and Duane Allman — a lot of my heroes played music. Recording in that same room, it was just amazing. 

You can feel that spirit there. 

And of course the horn players were really top-notch. Vinnie, our trumpet player, I think he told me he played on 30 or 40 albums that won GRAMMYs. I told him, “Don’t get your hopes up too high on this release.” I think he’s got plenty of hardware to show for his talent. 

I love the harp on “Killin’ Time.” Sounds almost like a fast guitar. That song stands out to me, instrumentally. Do you have any songs on the album that you feel the same way about? That stand out especially to you? 

It’s interesting. From a radio play perspective, almost every song on the record has gotten radio play. It just depends on what the DJs or the programmers like.

They all sound radio-friendly to me.

For nine songs, I think eight of them have tracks on various radio stations. As far as the songs themselves, I like the first song on the album, “My Best Friend’s Grave.” The reason is because it’s got a little gospel tinge to it. And with Latonya and Dana singing backup, it just makes me happy. When I sing that song I just feel good. And of course, the song is about somebody passing away.

So it starts from a sad perspective involving somebody’s demise, and yet the music and the theme of the song is a celebration of life. Not a focus on death, but a celebration of the joy of life. So that works well for me. But I like all the songs. I like “Your Baby Has Left,” the boogie groove of it. The one cover we do, “Natural Born Lover,” that Kid Royal does, people have liked that. And that’s received a good bit of radio play. 

Bruce Katz, who has played with Gregg Allman, Delbert McClinton, John Hammond, etc. plays keyboard on this album. Can you tell me about your history with Bruce? What’s the story there, and what was that experience like recording with him? 

Bruce Katz is one of the premier keyboard players for blues music in the world, and you just listed a litany of some of the top blues musicians in the world who have used him as a member of the band. I think I first saw Bruce playing with the Allman Brothers. Maybe 10 years ago. Gregg Allman was still alive. It was Gregg, Bruce, Butch Trucks — those guys.

The thing about Bruce’s playing is he knows when to pull back and not be too busy. And then when he has to fill a spot or play a solo, of course he can do that extremely well. But he knows how to lay out and support the music without trying to dominate it. It floats the band at a higher watermark. Bruce and I have become friends over the years since I saw him play. I know him from Memphis, at the Blues Music Awards and just seeing him around. And of course after the record, I got to know him really well. I like to think we’re musical companions.

I would also say that when we’re out touring with Backtrack, we have another exceptional B3 player that performs with us by the name of Wayne Sharp. Wayne is the former player for Elvin Bishop, and for Michael Burks Band. He’s hooked up with us and does our festival shows around the world. 

I feel you ended the album with a powerfully blues and principally instrumental song, “Times is Hard.” Was it your intent to end on that note?

Kid Royal wrote the song, and it’s a very old song in his repertoire. He explained to me he wrote it as a very young guy, like 16 or 17 years old, when he lived in Canada. But he had never recorded it. And we played the song in clubs and theaters frequently. And it just really gives him a chance to show what an absolutely phenomenal guitar player he is. The record sort of has an upbeat feel to it. Most the songs are a little peppy and have a rocking vibe. But yeah, we wanted to end the record by decompressing and letting everybody slip down and go out with a nice flow. 

In these times of quarantine, it seems like every band is live-streaming their shows, either alone from their respective homes or together at a CDC-recommended six feet apart. Have you taken to live-streaming, or do you plan to in the near future? 

We haven’t done it yet, and I pray that things will get better before we’re forced to do that. As I’m sure you know, bands derive so much energy and positive feedback from the audience. When you’re performing to a camera and not to people, it’s just a whole different interchange. I like to see their response to what we’re doing, and we miss the live shows tremendously. I understand why people do it, and I certainly support the bands doing it. If things get worse, we may get stuck with that, but I sure hope not. 

I’m grateful that my favorite bands/artists have been live-streaming, but I definitely miss seeing them at venues.

I think this hiatus that’s been created by the virus is probably going to reinforce in a very positive way our collective appreciation of live music. I know as a performer, I don’t think I ever took for granted much of anything, and certainly not our fans, but I really miss being able to perform with the bandmates that I really love playing with. And I miss being able to present our music to the people in person.

I think the consumers — if we ever do get a chance to come back and hear live music again — I think people are going to have a renewed appreciation for how important it is to their happiness and entertainment. I hope that when we all come back together again it will be a beautiful resurgence that will make music and festivals and nightclubs even more popular than ever. That would be my hope.

I worry about the 20-year-old musician starting out who’s trying to raise a family or pay a mortgage and this happens, and they have nothing to fall back on. We all miss it, and we all think of each other. We’re all in it together, as they say. I can’t wait to perform again, but I can’t wait to hear other bands play again. 

On that note, the new album makes me want to be at the old Ringside, drinking a beer and watching Backtrack. 

I started that place in the ‘80s. To say I have some great memories would be an understatement of my lifetime. I had so much fun there. I remember doing shows with Anson Funderburgh, William Clark, Delbert McClinton… Even Little Milton played the Ringside back in the day. “Gatemouth” Brown… The list goes on and on. Dave Mason played the Ringside. We have so many great memories of that club. 

We will come out a stronger people united, and the music will be there.

I certainly hope so. 

We’ve been playing music for a long time, and we’ve generally been perceived as a Florida-based blues band. But we’re trying to bring our music to a higher level and bring our music to people all around the world. I think if people give us a chance, download the record, buy a cd, I think they’ll really dig the music. I think it’s a really good record, and I hope people will support it and buy the music. Because we’d love to be touring more in Europe, and we’d love to be playing festivals all over the world. But you’ve got to create the biggest identity you can in order to get those opportunities, and I think this record could open up some doors if people hear it. 

Watch official video for “Best Friend’s Grave” below.

Backtrack Blues Band

Buy ‘Your Baby Has Left’

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