Tom ‘TBone’ Hamilton – A Big Stake in Blues and Jazz
By Guy Powell
(Big City Rhythm & Blues Magazine)
TBone’s Notes – I was asked a few months back to be on the cover of Big City Rhythm & Blues Magazine. The feature cover is of the Blues Men & Women of the Tampa Bay area. I was honored to be interviewed by my new friend drummer – Guy Powell. You can order their October/November 2014 Edition – Sunset Florida. by clicking this link. The magazine features interviews with all of Blues Musicians on the cover. Please order one of the magazine’s as they will become a collectors item. If you are a fan of the blues become a fan of Big City Rhythm & Blues Magazine.
TBone is a good name for a bass player named Tom Hamilton who isn’t playing for Aerosmith. No confusion this way – and when you’ve got TBone Hamilton on the bandstand holding down the bass duties, confusion is not in the charts. This guy comes prepared.
Where and when did you end up on this planet? “I was born in Bridgeport, CT in 1965.”
You’re a bass player today – did you start out on bass? “Yes, I started playing bass when I was about 12 years old. A bunch of friends of mine were getting into music and I gravitated to bass. I mean I love the guitar too, butit wasn’t for me. We’d jam to The Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream – all the rock stuff of the day. I remember I got my first bass from Banco’s Music Store in Ansonia, CT. It’s one of those legendary shops that everyone from my era in New England knows about.”
Were there any musical role models to follow within your family, any encouragement from within the family structure? “Oh yeah. I come from a very musical family. My mother plays piano, 3 older brothers play guitar, my aunt was an opera singer in Italy, my uncle plays the fiddle…”
So you took lessons? “I had hounded my mother for the bass and once I got it I just started playing with my friends. My father had died before that so there wasn’t money for lessons; you know a single parent household. But it was good, I was just jamming in a rock and roll band, trying to pick up girls. My first band was ‘Fake Voices’ because back then we’d record ourselves on cassette tapes and when we played it back we couldn’t believe what our voices really sounded like, so they sounded like fake voices to us. ‘Fake’ was word of my era – you’re ‘fake,’ he’s ‘fake,’ that’s ‘fake.’ Wow this is really dredging up memories!”
Was Fake Voices when you first got in front of a crowd? “Yeah, garage parties, keggers, jamming at people’s picnics, it was all for fun – I had no real direction at that point.”
When do the blues get into your soul? “My brother-in-law is a great pedal steel player in New Orleans, Steve Spitz. When I was younger and he was dating my sister he was bar tending at the old Tipitina’s and he recorded this new guy on the scene, Stevie Ray Vaughan. So he sent it to me, and at that point I wasn’t really exposed to blues that much, but on this tape I hear this guy covering Hendrix, who I’m a huge fan of and I had never heard anyone cover Hendrix like that – and then I heard his blues and solos – this was ’79 – and after that I drilled deeper and it just went on from there. SRV’s bass player, Tommy Shannon, is who I modeled my playing after – I just loved his straight ahead style.”
At what point do you leave CT? “Around ’86 my mother and I migrated to St. Pete. In 1989 I started my first band, The Blue Thunder Band, with a good friend who I still play with every now and then – Franc Robert. Franc turned me on to Otis Rush, you know how that goes – the tentacles start reaching out all over.”
“Now my blues foundation was formed – and I meet the center of the blues in my area, Rock Bottom. I was playing at a party and Rock heard me and hired me for a one-off gig his regular band couldn’t do because they had a bigger gig to do the same night – and the first show I had with him took me to the next level. Rock Bottom was The A Team – we hit it off and after that gig a friend of his named Deacon Fuller hired me for his band. So now we’re in the early 90’s – from ’90 – ’95 Tampa had a real kick ass scene. Deacon was like a hyper John Lee Hooker, real uptempo stuff.
After that I was getting hired by all the blues guys and I got recommended to Mike Shannon – who goes by the name Dan Electro and the Silvertones – I played with him a little bit. And then Rock Bottom had a heart attack – not the fatal one – and they had these benefits for him – and after I played my set at a benefit with Dan Electro I was approached by Greg Poulos and Pat Ramsey to join their band. Greg is just amazing – he was on the road for a while with Freddie King. Pat Ramsey played with Johnny Winter in the 70’s. So I had to weigh my options – I liked Mike Shannon and it was a solid gig, but these two guys were too much to pass up – so I played with the Poulos Ramsey Band for a year or two.”
“Then at that point Rock Bottom invites me to become a permanent member of The Cutaways – so I’m with him for a year or two, that’s where me and Glenn Evans on drums became good friends. We did Rock’s recording ‘Too Many Bad Habits’ which was a really great album, did some cuts with Ronnie Earl and some with Vidar Busk, a Norwegian guy who was Rock Bottom’s protégé. So you can see I’ve played with a lot of different cats, and they’re all still good friends of mine, the ones who are still alive at least. But I started to get tired of being on the road with Rock, and I wanted to expand my capacity on the bass. So I would always come back to jazz music. I left the road, looking for a day job and then someone introduced me to a couple of guys and that led to The Swinging Johnsons. We were a trio, guitar, bass, drummer singing lead and we could play Van Morrison, fusion, Steely Dan, straight ahead jazz – we weren’t what you’d expect by looking at us.”
By the name, I would have figured Jump Blues or Rockabilly. “That’s why we were an anomaly. We eventually added a trombone to the mix. I was booking the band and we were working 40 weekends a year.”
When did you start singing? “Well I started singing in church when I was young. My mother was a singer and played piano. And then in the 70’s folk masses were all the rage and I was asked to join the church band – so I had to start learning how to read sheet music,. The chord progressions were cool – and so I’m singing and playing there. I was always singing in bands, kinda like a co-lead singer in all the bands, so my singing has always been there – ready for me to be a leader. And when I joined Poulos Ramsey I asked if I could sing 1 song a set, and they were cool with it, for a while at least – I think it may have led to some problems now that you’re jogging my memory…”
“At the end of The Swinging Johnsons in 2003 I started a band called The Hamilton Harris Project – that was a 5 piece jazz standard, funk and blues band, with Dan Harris, who is the guitar player I currently work with who was also the guitarist in The Swinging Johnsons. I was singing in there as well, and we did 2 records during that time frame, and the last one was a live recording with a killer chick singer named Marilyn Freemon up front. We’ll be reuniting soon for a big festival gig.”“By 2003 I’m also playing upright. I’ll sometimes bring both electric and upright – but for some gigs down here, well the upright is a temperamental instrument, and the humidity can cause problems so I’ll leave it home.”
We go off on an extended discussion on jazz – my inabilities in the genre and TBone’s abilities – he has studied all the theory and knows the relative minor of all the chords, knows the standard arrangements, knows how to build a tasteful solo – all the stuff that makes me illiterate in the style. “I love jazz, but it is still the groove of the blues that is so compelling to me. I mean I play with the top jazz guys in the area who kick my ass, but some guys who went straight into jazz without a blues foundation don’t quite have that groove that the blues will always make you conscious of. But the challenge is to know not to try and be Jaco on a blues gig!”
“In ’05 my mom died and my sister who lives in New Orleans was affected by Katrina, so music wasn’t a focus that year – but I started freelancing with guys all around – jazz, blues, a Grateful Dead-type of band, a duo with a piano player, The Castellano Hamilton Duo, a harmonica duo, Hatfield Hamilton Duo – I started to get hired for the duo stuff because I’m a bass player who can keep time without a drummer. And by 2009 I started a band again, The TBone Hamilton Band – kind of a Booker T and the MG’s model – guitar, bass, drums, keyboards – we’re a New Orleans Style band – eventually I will be moving to New Orleans, hopefully within 5 years. And I front the band, lots of second line feel. I’ve also developed a relationship with Mitch Woods, and before he goes on the Blues Cruise I put a band together, he calls it The Tampa 88’s – and we do shows whenever he come down here. I’m pretty busy – I’ll also put jazz bands together for visiting jazzers who need a band.”
How’d you get the nickname? “As a kid, people would call me Hammy, Hambone – and TBone. So Tom being such a common name, when I got into the music I needed to find a name that would stick out a bit – Aaron T Bone Walker – what a better nickname to use than his?”
You could have left Florida at some point in your life, what kept you here? “Aside from family, I love the weather!”
Any secret place you wanna let us know about? “Ginnie Springs in High Springs Florida – 72 degree year-round freshwater-fed spring. It’s like the fountain of youth!”
Yes, you do you look young for your age now that you mention it!
How can you have the blues in paradise? “Blues is a universal music so it can be played and enjoyed anywhere.”
Any musical mentor? “I have several. There’s Rock Bottom – Harmaniac – who taught me about the blues and how to run a band and front a show. Greg Poulos – a guitarist who gave me a shot in his band and showed me the value of constant learning. And last but not least, Buster Williams, Jazz Bassist. He has been a great spiritual and life mentor. One of the greats of Jazz!”
Favorite nightclub you play at? “Skipper’s Smoke House. I have been playing there for many years. They do a great job supporting musicians and live music.”
Favorite Florida festival? “Tampa Bay Blues Fest. Chuck Ross is passionate about Blues and has helped build a killer Fest!”
Favorite national festival? “The French Quarter Fest. I like to see the local guys there perform. I have friends and relatives in New Orleans so it holds a special place in my heart.”
Favorite Florida food? “BBQ Gator Bites – tastes like chicken! I also love Greens and Corn Bread!
What instruments do you play? “Bass – Acoustic and Electric, Guitar, Harp, Piano and Vocals.”
Is there a cool highway in Florida like Highway 61 in Mississippi that musicians ride? “Highway 41 – mostly condos and strip malls now.” What kind of vehicle do you ride? “I need an SUV to carry my big upright bass around – and I used to own Great Danes too!”
You’re such a busy guy, what kind of projects you have going on? “I am releasing some blues singles. It is my homage to the great Willie Dixon. To be out on iTunes soon! And aside from my band, I also produce other musicians and I also have a web development and marketing company.”
What would you say or play at The Pearly Gates? “Where’s the jam? I want to jam with so many friends that have come here before me – and I’m sure I’ll make some new friends too.”
Tom Hamilton has got passion. Anything we discussed, whether music, current events, his business, my business, his new hometown – it is easy to see why he is a first call bassist. He attacks things with that passion and has the brains and talent to bring any project to the next level. As we were going to print I saw a press release for his Willie Dixon tribute song – his plan to release songs as singles, one a month, is pretty cool – then in a year or so he’ll have released an album’s worth of tunes on iTunes. The new paradigm, the shifting business model – its sink or swim and you’d figure a Florida guy might know a thing or two about that. TBone Hamilton – check him out at www.ThomasJHamilton.com.