Tommy McLain :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

For the uninitiated Tommy McLain’s music has been categorized as Swamp Pop. A term that was popularized by author John Broven in his wonderfully enthusiastic and extremely well researched book about the depth and range of the music of the Bayous of Louisiana entitled “South To Louisiana”. I cannot recommend it enough. I would say that Tommy’s music is uncategorizable but I wouldn’t disagree that it checks a lot of those boxes. His songs have the emotional feel of soul music, the distinct melodies of the back country and certainly the rhythms of New Orleans R&B. But when he starts singing his voice grabs your attention, draws you in and you don’t want to be any where else.

Tommy has been a performer and musician since before he graduated from high school. It wasn’t until 1966, however, that he really stepped into the spotlight. His recording of the Don Gibson ballad “Sweet Dreams” hit the charts that year and got as high as number 15 in the Billboard Hot 100. Of course, like so many people who experienced success at such an early age, the inevitable downfall came with the usual nemesis of excess. He really was lucky to get out alive.

In the mid 1970s a compilation of music originally produced by Floyd Soileau called Another Saturday Night was released in England. Including two of Tommy’s songs, it became something of a cult favorite especially among the Stiff Records artists of the time including Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. It would take nearly another 20 years for Tommy to get to England and experience that recognition for himself. But it was that compilation, that admiration, that created a bridge which is partly responsible for the creation of Tommy’s comeback.

82 year old Tommy McLain released I Ran Down Every Dream, his first new record in more than 40 years, on August 26th of this year. It was produced by CC Adcock who along with co-writing a few of the songs also plays guitar. Recorded and arranged by Mike “Nappy” Napolitano featuring contributions by Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe along with many others. We sat down at Nappy’s studio in New Orleans, where the record was made, to have a conversation with Tommy to find out some things about him, about his life and about his new record. | c gaiennie

Aquarium Drunkard: I’d like to begin by letting you know how much I appreciate you sitting down for this interview.

Tommy McLain: Well, it’s all my pleasure to be here with you and all the Aquarium Drunkard readers, what a tremendous pleasure it is for me.

AD: I can’t wait to talk about the new record and hear all about how it came together but first I want to find out a little more about you. Please tell me a little bit about your upbringing.

Tommy McLain: Very interesting childhood I had, I was born 1940 and the war, World War 2, was coming to an end in 1945.  My father got a job at Camp Livingston 50,000 troops were stationed there.  He pitched a tent for us, a nice tent to live in, my grandmother and grandfather did the same thing.  That was out by Camp Livingston and when I got about 3 or 4 years old my father bought some land and he wouldn’t build a house til he paid for the land.  So therefore I was raised Pineville & Alexandria Louisiana, right in the center of the state.

AD: Beautiful country up there. I also have a lot of family from that area. So what would be one thing you want people to know about you now?

Tommy McLain: Well, I changed my life. I changed my life. When I was young I was uneducated. Uneducation gets you in all kinds of trouble and too much money with uneducation gets you in a whole bunch of trouble. I went through a whole bunch of money being uneducated. But now I’ve kindly got a doctorate of the street people and people I’ve talked to and songs that I’ve written, I got to where I more humble towards the people. You know.  I’m not doing anything, god gives me all that. Man I couldn’t even write my name if I had to do it fast, but I can get the tunes.  I can sit down and start playing and I write, just a great gift.  And I’ve always had that.

AD: So is that what got you into music? Just that it sort of came out of you so naturally?

Tommy McLain: No, back when I was like 2 or 3 years old I was dancing, they had to put me in a harness. Man all the soldiers would put me up on top of cars, they’d throw me money, I don’t know whether that had anything ringing my bell or not but I remembered all that. And then I got into the music, music kept interfering in my life, I got that in one of my tunes that I wrote. Every time I’d turn around, you know, one girl here I hear a song no I’m in love with this one or you know, just music kept interfering. Now I want to go on the road, I want to be on the Grand Ole Opry and we might have a chance to be on that in September. I think I might have a shot at doing that. 82 years old. Hallelujah brother.

AD: It’s amazing. So, let’s talk a little bit about that, your career and where you are now. We were talking earlier about Bobby Charles.

Tommy McLain: Aw, great person.

AD: You do two of his songs on this new record and he seems to have been a pretty big influence on you. How did you two know each other?

Tommy McLain: Man, everybody knew Bobby Charles in Louisiana. I mean, you know, he had that Tennessee Blues album but when that come out man he become a household word. I mean, then he wrote uh, he wrote all those big tunes and I’d go out with Bobby to his house and of course we’d do a little drugs and all that.  That’s back when I was drinking and couldn’t keep my feet on the ground, I wanted to fly you know.  But Bobby, was uh, I don’t know how to say this, he wutn’t a people person. He didn’t like interviews and stuff like I’m doing here.  Man, he’d tell you to leave and stuff like..very rude, you know.  I’d just watch him but he was uh, he was unhealthy in that fact.  You know he had one arm that was shorter than the other, I think that was a glimmer of his personality. He couldn’t get over that you know, he was a handsome lookin’ dude and he could certainly write but he’d just uh…hell, I think he was drinking heavy when he was 12 ‘n 13 years old.  He had that uh, Bill Hailey thing, See You Later Alligator, 13 I think he was, 13 or 15. He was already into that whiskey.  He would drink that high class stuff. But Bobby was a wonderful person. If he knew ya he loved ya, if he didn’t know ya he didn’t have no time to fool with ya, you know.

AD: The version of “I Hope” by Bobby Charles that you recorded for this release is just fantastic. You mentioned earlier that it’s a very personal song for you. Please tell me more about that.

Tommy McLain: I was at his party one night and man we was feelin’ it good. I think, uh, I can’t remember everybody who was there but, uh, it got late in the morning about 3 o’clock, everybody had left. Bob Dylan had went to his bus and it kinda thinned out. He sat down at that piano with three fingers and he started playin’ a couple of those tunes. When he got to “I Hope”, boom, that was my song. I said he wrote that for me and didn’t even know it. He wrote about my life is what I meant. I kept that sucker in my head and now CC produced that and Nappy. It’s one of the greatest tunes. I’ve had it out before, but the way they arranged it and the way it is now and the way I’m singing with a different feeling that I have now makes it. I don’t listen to my stuff a lot but this album here I put it on every now and then. It’s like reading the bible, man, you get a different uh, you get a different morning glory about it. You know it changes up. Hell man, I love it like that. That’s what’s great about music, you know.

AD: It’s such a beautiful song and this version on the record just came out so great.

Tommy McLain: That whole album you know, some of that stuff, Charles (CC) helped me write some of that. Nappy, man we drove him crazy in here, arranging all this stuff.  But it come out so dog gone good. The reward to that, is, takes it away you know. I can’t believe I’m sitting here now doing an interview with you. A couple of years ago I couldn’t even get a record played on the radio. Nobody wanted to talk to me. (chuckles) Nah, it wutn’t that bad but it all of sudden. Boom! See the right time, the right place and god is good. That’s what it is, brother, ya know.

AD: Well, since we’re discussing it let’s talk a little bit more of some of the other songs on the record. Some were written while you were recording but others were songs that you’ve had around for a while like the title track.

Tommy McLain: “I Ran Down Every Dream”. Listen Charles, you start that tune off, that’s it. That whole tune is I remember. You remember, Nappy remembers, the lady over here remembers, Charles (CC) remembers, everybody remembers. How many times you gonna hear that during the day? I remember that, I remember. See the minute I did that the song was written. That was it.  I remember a long time ago, records sent me reeling, falling in and out of love.  You know. Aw man, it’s there, it’s me.  But Charles let me tell you when I write these tunes I did all that. I started out with me. When I’m doing personal appearances I start out with me, singing about my life and about half way through that I dump it on the audience and then I got them thinking Hey, I remember Frank, I remember what he’s singing about. You remember that? That’s where it goes from me to the audience.  Then when you get that standing ovation and that applause you know you did something. Then it ain’t the money. It thats applause, man. It’s like a waterfall falling, you know? It’s wonderful. Can’t give it away and can’t buy it but I have it, I have it.

AD: Elvis Costello sings with you on that song. It seems he has been an admirer of yours for some time. How did you meet and how did his contributions to the record come about?

Tommy McLain: Yeah, I met Elvis Costello at House Of Blues here in New Orleans at the memorial for Bobby Charles after he passed away. So I was down there and Elvis come in the backstage, and there was a whole bunch of superstars back there and he saw me and said “King David” and I said no it was “King Herod.” He had a copy of a gospel record, (Tommy recorded a gospel record that was released in 2003) I didn’t have over 200 copies of that album pressed! How in the world did Elvis Costello get a hold of that I don’t know. And then, a couple of catholic boys we started talking, gimme your number, I gave him my number, you know.  He told me he lived by some of the Beatles. He was all into that, and I was all…man, I read his book “Unfaithful Music”. Man that dude is brilliant. He’s a smart cookie, him. He’s really a nice person, just great.  Nick Lowe, also from England, another gentleman. I mean look, they’re really uh, they didn’t have to any of that for me, they just felt they wanted to do that and by golly they helped me a lot, you know. Yeah friends forever now, we done got hooked up. Nick Lowe wrote a verse to my tune Elvis wrote me a song, singing with me on one, what more could you ask for?!  Then CC went out there and got Texas Tornadoes, you know Doug Sahm passed away, we got his band and come in did a tune I wrote called Somebody.  CC put a little few verses in there, man everybody’s playin the heck out of it now. You know.  I like all the tunes Charles, is what I’m getting to when you asked me about the album. I can’t pick, I like every one after I hear it. I say that’s the one, then play the next one, nah this one is the one.  It’s like that.  That London tune is what I think might be, I’m looking to write a standard now. I’m getting greedy. Ya see how I get, I want more. I’d like to write a standard then I might leave it alone, just keep playin, you know. It’s hard to write and I never thought I’d be that kind of a writer but god give me a nice blessings for that. I love it.

AD: As we’re talking about your English friends and you mentioned the song that closes the record “London Too”, tell me what was the inspiration for that.

Tommy McLain: Well I went there, I think ‘92, I went there with CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana). Johnny Allen, Warren Storm, me and a few more people we went to The Grand Clapham Theatre in London and we played a big show there and then I come back and I never could find the place that we played and all that.  Then a few years later CC called me and said look Lily Allen, the (singer-songwriter) movie star from over there is getting married and we’re gonna do a show. Come be with me and Lil’ Band O’ Gold. I said sure man let’s go do it. So I went to England again and saw a different side of it when I went with CC. When I went with CODOFIL we went to Downing Street, you know, I saw Charles Dickens’ castle, had a few beers there when I was drinking. You know I saw it all, Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s. I got to see a bomb shelter, freaked me out brother. I never seen, it was built in a beautiful part of town and we went there to rehearse in a little pub sitting over that. Jesus Christ, I said, where we gonna rehearse? This little pub’s not big enough for the whole band.  Man, they opened up a trap door and straight down that sucker about 10 floors man then they had a room, that’s how those people had to live. I got to see that, unreal man.  That was the time, the first time I went. The time I went with Charles (CC) it was more rock n roll.  That’s where I met Nick Lowe. He come back stage at The Shepherd Bush Empire, great show man.  Yeah, music is all a happy family and then you start losin’ em. You get my age and then a lot of them aren’t around anymore. You start thanking god you’re still livin’, you know. The London tune had been in my head ever since I went there. You know, you’d love this London too. I had a little girl on my mind and then it turned into a lot of women on my mind. It turned into my mother, you’d love this London too, it turned into my little puppy dog, ya see that’s the way that music goes. It starts out, you gotta it down to yourself and all of a sudden man everybody’s doin a line and singin’ and all, it makes it. You know. It’s great.  London’s gonna be a big tune man. Charles (CC) put a nice verse in there, and uh, Louis Elliot, he put a nice verse and guitar. Oh man, we worked on it but it was good. It was there brother, ya know. 

AD: Oh yes, it certainly deserves to be. Let’s talk about your earlier career. Can you tell me what it was like when you were first starting out playing clubs and touring? Did it change very for much for you when “Sweet Dreams” became popular?

Tommy McLain: Ya see, I was in the 60’s when they had all this black and white music separatism, you know I got a colored girl song I wrote and can’t get nobody to fool with it. They still afraid. In high school I had a band, had a tv show. Got out of high school and first dog gone thing I did was to move to Wichita Falls Texas. A band had come through the E&E Club in Alexandria Louisiana and they needed a piano player. Man, I hooked up with them and went and played a year with them. Played all military bases, Monterey California, I was talking about that, man we played everywhere. Then I come back and Clint West, another great singer from down there, man he was great. He had the Boogie Kings.  He come to Leroy’s Lounge where I was playing.  He said I can give you as much money as your making here in 6 nights, I can give it to you in 3 nights. So I told the lady that owned the club I said why don’t you give me a $25 raise. I was making $90 a week, see that was good money back then. I said give me a $25 raise and I’ll stay here with you. She said, ah I can’t do that and I said well, to myself, well I can do this and I took off.  I just did Sweet Dreams on my label and I told Clint, he was already recording with JIN Records, Floyd Soileau and all that, I said get me a contract with Floyd Soileau I said I got Try To Find Yourself Another Man and something else I had.  I said they’re gonna be number one tunes and I’ll be dog gone if they wouldn’t. Black people started playing Try To Find Yourself Another Man. Now I’m going to get to where I was with the Boogie Kings. I was playing bass and fronting the show with him, Clint was the drummer.  He didn’t have nobody to front his band. I was good for that crap, I can talk, ya know. So I was playing with them and on Sunday nights we played for a black audience. No white people allowed. Brother Griffin was the security man so I made friends with him and of course we’d have the little girls back stage.  He’d say “Tommy don’t be doin that now”, you know and he’d, we become friends. So one day after Sweet Dreams had taken off I go out to Esler Field Airport in Alexandria and nobody’s around. Out of nowhere Brother Griffin comes up to me and says “Tommy would you like to meet Dr. Martin Luther King?”  What? Get out of here. I said yeah man.  So here he is, he’s coming right here and he says “I like your song”. That’s what he said. Coretta King was there. They liked my music. I got on the plane with ‘em, flew all the way to Atlanta Georgia and Reverend Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Muhammad Ali, they were all there.  So I’m looking for some pictures, ya know, they hooked me together with Delta Airlines, you know, when I flew with him. That was a big part of my life.  Man that dude was, you know, look, Mahatma Gandhi, he was like that. Peaceful person, he wasn’t rowdy or anything just kind as can be you know. And I tell everybody I met him. Well, you didn’t meet him, I say hey man you didn’t know the guy. Don’t start talking about things you don’t know about. That was one of the greatest things of my life. Damn high school boy shaking hands with him and he’s telling me he likes my record. It don’t get no better than that brother. But I did a few things, I was with uh, I took uh, Bobby Hebb’s place on the Where The Action is, The Caravan of Stars. I took their place and that’s where I got mixed up with Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page was on there and me and him talked a little bit and I thought they were Led Zeppelin. But they had just broke up Cream or something, they were trying to tell me that, but I always thought it was Led Zeppelin. Then when I met Robert Plant, hell, he wasn’t with them and I thought he was. But I don’t know who that singer was but let me tell you something, he could sing. We did all colleges then, we were doing colleges you know. But Yardbirds was who it was. Yeah man, I got to go around and see some people, made a little money and met some high class people in the music business. I met some good ones and I met some bad ones, you know, that goes along with it. But Jimmy Page told me I was going to be a big star. He would hear me do Sweet Dreams on that show. I couldn’t understand the rest of those guys, I ain’t gonna lie to you. I couldn’t understand their dialogue, you know. I talked with him a little bit and he said “Man, you’re gonna be a big star” I’d like to see him now. But aw yeah, Jimmy Page, what he, how he played, that som bitch was a star, pardon my language. He’d take a fiddle bow with that guitar and run back to the curtain…they’d cut all the auditorium lights and there’d be nothing but his shadow. Man, that dude played a fire that guitar, I’d never seen something like that in my life. He was a genius that dude. That band showed up and he’d run back there (heavy metal guitar sounds) playing that crap and I’d say, Lord have mercy, what have I gotten mixed up in here now. Sam the Sham was on that tour, me and him got to be real good friends. Say a prayer for Sam the Sham, he’s not doing well man. Think he’s got dementia, his daughter told me. What a dude, he was a dude, man.

AD: That must have been amazing. How long was that tour?

Tommy McLain: All that lasted about two weeks.  After two weeks you’re back home then you’re going another place. Every Thursday I was at the airport.  I would fly to Memphis, pick up my contracts at Ray Brown’s Artist Attractions. They had Ace Cannon, uh, he had a bunch of people. They booked me and I think Doug Sahm. But I’d go get my papers, get right back on a plane and take off, ya know. But I learned so much and it went so quick. But my song, let me tell you something Charles, I become a household word because, novelty songs go up and they fall, they go up quick they fall quick, Sweet Dreams stayed in the charts all year long. Radio stations kept playing, kept playing it, then all of sudden everybody knew me and it was like having a big number one record out of everybody. And they still play it. But I did it my way, like Frank Sinatra.  I did the song my way. I was playing for about 30, 40 people a night, ya know. Steak eaters and lawyers and doctors they’d come and they’d dance and they’d drink the old-fashions and the margaritas. They like my singing, ya know. So they kinda took me underneath their wing.  Go record that, they’d say and I did and boom, ya know. Oh yeah, what a life, I’ve had a life man.

AD: You mentioned earlier that you also played with Sam Cooke. That must have been quite an experience. How did that go down?

Tommy McLain: I was with the Boogie Kings and we were playing in Shreveport, I can’t remember the name of the club but they had booked Sam Cooke there. Man, we had twelve pieces, we were bad rock n roll, ya hear me. Blues, man we had four horns, we were tearing it up.  We thought we was gonna…that dude come out with three pieces, chook, he ate us up man. He had that charisma. It’s something about him. You know the minute he walked out on stage, he had a big fat guitar player with him, that dude, every note he’d hit that dude would hit a chord on the guitar. But you could tell that Sam was, uh, he wanted it his way. They wouldn’t let him in a hotel there in Shreveport, white hotel. He’d bought himself a new Cadillac, he held that horn down on that Cadillac driving around and around ‘til the cops come and got him. That’s who he was. He couldn’t stand it but they got him out, you know, the next day. I’ve seen all of ‘em man, Otis Redding was a good friend of mine. We took a few pills together, I hope his family’s not listening to all this but that’s they way it was.

AD: You played shows with Otis Redding?

Tommy McLain: Oh yeah, we did a lot of shows with Otis Redding. He’d come use our equipment in the Bamboo Club in Lake Charles. That’s how I met him and he hired Katie Webster there, a black girl. He hired her, man, the night that he was playing and she got up and sang a song and he said your hired. You’re going to New York with me tonight and they were packing up their stuff. Then he come play again and then I had Sweet Dreams and he had I’ve Got Dreams to Remember. We all had stuff together. You know? It was like all the tunes…everybody knew everybody, you know. But he was a great dude. He had a different show but Joe Tex that was a bad dude too. I did a lot of shows with some different people, it was uh, you learn a lot. I never seen anybody use a microphone the way he did, Joe Tex. Hell he’d be talking to you and he’d kick that microphone it would go all the way down and come right back up. I don’t see how he did it. And he’d swing that thing around, he was cool doing it, you know.  Big ol’ dude man. He could sing. But I met a lot of ‘em, then I got tired. While I was with the Boogie Kings Sweet Dreams hit and when it hit man, I couldn’t carry 12, 14 pieces with me on the road. I didn’t know what I was doing so I took off.  National Artists Attractions started booking me and Jamie Guyden picked up my record and the Boogie Kings and all went to Las Vegas. They were all superstars too now, they did their thing. But I had the big record, ya see, none of them had a record that big. Fortunate. Man, you know. God is good, I keep saying that over and that’s really…had no idea. If I knew how to do that again I’d be doing that over and over man. Just like that, boom, all of a sudden it was there, gold records, people calling, you know, ring ring ring. It was go to Mexico, go to Canada, everywhere. Yeah, I enjoy music, it made me feel young, I still feel young. You’re only as old as the woman you feel. Shhh, you ain’t supposed to say that. (chuckles) Old Irish saying man.

AD: So when “Sweet Dreams” hit, how was touring different for you?

Tommy McLain: First tour they sent me on I had $30 in my pocket. Put me on a damn plane in Houston and said you’re going to Pittsburgh for two weeks. I only had $30 in my pocket man, I wasn’t gonna ask nobody for no money, I didn’t know I had a hit record. I didn’t know I had an unlimited expense account. Hell I never had nothin’ like that but I went. I’d eat a hot dog and potato salad every day. Every day for two weeks. And I couldn’t go nowhere, you know. Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker and all them, they would all go out. They’d say come go with us but the bellhops they’d say hey boy you don’t need to be going with them. They’re headed for trouble, stay right where you’re at. They would tell me everything that was happening in Pittsburgh, I was helping them load peoples stuff in…I had a hit record. I didn’t know how to get the bed out the wall man, country boy does good. Yeah, but you learn, you see, you learn. I never did, uh, I never would ask for anything that didn’t belong to me, you know. I’ve sold coke bottles to get a contract to go record No Tomorrows Now. I did that cause I wouldn’t call ‘em collect, I wouldn’t do it. Back at that time, you’d sell coke bottles and get a nickel for ‘em when you’d turn ‘em in. I’m an old dude, I go way back. I’m old young school now, I’m in with all these young dudes now, man, here I am again. They can’t get rid of me. (chuckles) Nah, it’s all good.

AD: How does making music now compare to what it was like when you were making “Sweet Dreams”?

Tommy McLain: None of the producers knew what they were doin, Imma tell you that right now. I didn’t know…Floyd Soileau was into French music, I ain’t got nothin’ against French music but I do my music, you know. Get into something I got. So this guy that had the houses of ill repute come and told him, you know if you don’t release that Sweet Dreams…those girls are playin’ it. He said that’s all they play. So Floyd eventually released it, he wasn’t going to release that song. And I give him his first gold record. It took…he had to bite his bottom teeth out, man, he’d tell people that. He didn’t want to tell ‘em that he gave me my first gold record. Million seller. He never did give me my money (laughs), nah it was all good. I made more money than I ever would have made in my life anyway.

AD: Speaking of money you were saying that when you finally realized that you had a hit record you went out and bought yourself a new car but it wasn’t so easy.

Tommy McLain: Thirty minutes I was driving that thing off, I knew I had the money but they wouldn’t give it to me, Floyd Soileau and the uh, other producer, I don’t want to say his name cause he got in bad trouble but anyway. They would give you a little money at a time, you know. $5000, here you’re gonna sign this contract for 11 years, we’ll give you $5000. Man I got tired of all that crap, you know. They bind you, I couldn’t record for 11 years, I couldn’t record. Ol’ Floyd Soileau said I’d like to be recordin’ you but you’re hooked up with your buddy there Huey Meaux out of Houston and he said I can’t record ya. I said well you will sooner or later, I ain’t goin nowhere. Now look, he’s readin’ the charts, he’s readin’ that album uh, he’s readin’ the reviews now. But me and Floyd’s good friends, we’re still good friends, ya know. He didn’t intentionally beat me out of my money but he did. Floyd did give me the number to the dealership to buy the car and said look if you have any trouble getting it..I give it to Barry Ackel, I went to school with him, Barry said I’ll be right back, he come back with some damn thing but soon they were cleaning that car up and I was driving it off. I knew I had money, I knew, you know. It was a 1966 Ford Futura convertible brother, red, I got the real deal. Wild. I was wild brother, I had a hit record. I’ve had a lot of new cars since then, the first one was the best.

AD: Getting back to the new record and the whole process of producing, you mentioned that another tune that you had already written was “The Greatest Show On Hurt”. CC said that it was the first song y’all actually recorded for the album. Do you want to talk about how that song went down and some of your songwriting process?

Tommy McLain: Yeah, I already had that song written but we redid some of that and the music was altogether different. Nappy arranged that and Charles (CC) got to producing that and they started putting all the stuff on but that tune, Greatest Show On Hurt, that’s it. Come one, come all…how many times have you heard that? Come here and see this, come here look at this, come over here and look at this. You write tunes off of what people tell you. And somebody drops a name or a quote, I got right back home and write it down son, I got a hit record, you know. Somebody’ll say something and I’ll write it down, I’ll make it fit. But I’m having trouble writing this one tune, you might want to help me Charley G. I have holy water in every room and I haven’t got any further than that. It’s hard to match that with things. I’ve been, you know, really I can write a tune but I’ve been fooling with that one for several years. Bobby started that, Bobby Charles, he called me up.  I had a radio station, Radio Maria, 6 years I was there.  He’s one of the entertainers that called me. I said Bobby I’m so glad you called me here on this Catholic radio, so good to hear from you. He said Tommy, I got holy water in every room. So I told his friend 2 or 3 months later, I said tell Bobby go ahead and write that tune. If he don’t I’m gonna write it. Bobby done passed away. It’s uh, that was uh, it come out of his mouth right away…I got holy water in every room, you know. He was a good person inside but it’s hard to figure a person out after a while. You know you got to get know ‘em. Just like my girlfriend, 27 years I still don’t know her. (chuckles) I don’t know her. Nah, I’ve been having good times in my life son but that clock is ticking. You see what I mean Charles? And that’s not bad, we come and we go. I’ve seen ‘em come and go in New Orleans, my friends packed up most everything, even though they left I stayed here by myself. Don’t make me leave New Orleans. Put that in your pipe and smoke it brother. I got that wrote. I love to write man. That’s the way it was. I wasn’t down here when that storm hit but I guarantee you those people that I’m singing it about was here, doin’ that. My girlfriend said how do you do that, you wutn’t even down there. I said I can imagine. Imagine girl, being in water up to your waist and snakes and things getting after you, ya know. But what a life. What a great life and let me tell you something Charley G, if it wouldn’t be for people like you, Aquarium Drunkard and all the people that listen to music we couldn’t uh, it wouldn’t do me no good to play. If I didn’t have someone to sing my songs to or share ‘em with someone, man, I’d go mad. It’d be just like cutting your ear off, that artist that did that, you’d eventually go crazy. I have to share those tunes. I have to wait until somebody tells me, Oh wow, I like that or I don’t like it. I wanna hear one of the two.

AD: You also experienced success as a songwriter. I know, among others, Freddy Fender recorded a couple of your songs and did pretty well with them.

Tommy McLain: Yeah he did, I made some money off of Freddy but Freddy…I knew him when he was at the Carousel Club in Baton Rouge and I wasn’t very old myself. He was playing there and he had a saxophone player that we eventually used that played with him and he come in the Carousel Club and they blew the bandstand up. We would come on at night, Red Smiley and Veltones, me and Clint and a bunch of others, we would come on at night. Well Freddy was in there playing as was Joe Valentine…well they blew the bandstand up boy. Them people were crazy. Them ol’ boys, look, I played some dangerous place but I never was hurt, never did hurt me. Fights every Saturday night but they stuck bombs underneath that sucker and lit it. They was wanting Joe Valentine on account of the white girls and black girls…I come up in that era. Man I remember black people have to go around and use, you know, you couldn’t use the same bathroom, they wouldn’t let them stay in the hotels, I knew that was wrong. Hell, my mom and daddy raised me better than that. When I was in the service we pulled into Texarkana Arkansas, these dudes that owned that place said all you white boys get off the bus you can eat here, all you black boys can go around the back. I sat on that bus with them, I wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it, ya know. That’s the way the world was then. That’s when they had Watts and all that stuff man. Unreal to live in that time.

AD: The song “California” on the new record features Van Dyke Parks. How did that come together?

Tommy McLain: Ok, let me tell you a little bit about my life when I went on the road in 1958 with Jack Arnold and The Flames. We would go out California, to Monterrey, me and Arnie Fulson, the drummer. We would lay out on the beach and drink wine, flirt with the girls and lived in motels. So I start that “I’ve lived in motels, I’ve slept on beaches in California”. That’s my life. It’s what I’m singing about, you know. Tonight someone somewhere’s gonna find love’s on fire. Not me, I’m through with that world. I’m off into another thing now, you know. That’s the way that happened and Van Dyke got that California, me and Charles (CC) and Nappy cut it, sent it to Van Dyke…man he stripped all the music off of it and put that piano, sound like a movie! To me, that’s the best thing, you know, really, just shocked me to hear that. So hell now I’m in another movie with that. Aw, he put all kinds of great stuff in there. He’s another genius. Yeah, he’s a great person. You can tell the way he played that damn piano.

AD: Did you know Van Dyke previously?

Tommy McLain: I knew of him but I didn’t know, you know. I knew he recorded The Beach Boys and stuff like that or was on their records. But after I heard what he did to the song the first time I said I wished my mom and dad could hear it. It’s like a movie, my kids never heard me do anything like that. You’d hear that piano intro on Mathilda come back home but this stuff here is Swamp Popular, not Swamp Pop.

AD: Music should bring people together. You’ve played in front of both white and black audiences, why do you think your music appeals to so many people?

Tommy McLain: What color is a song? How do they figure that out? You know “I Need You So” was set to be number one, that’s a great tune of mine but the minute they put me in Billboard the black people saw my picture, they thought I was a black girl singer I sing so high, nah man they…no more airplay, no more magazines. They stopped it all. Now, you know, why would they do that to me, I wouldn’t do nothing to nobody. Look at…that’s what goes on. It’s who you know and who you don’t know and political. This time around I got a lot more wisdom, I’m a lot more calm at myself, you know, I take my time. What am I gonna be in a hurry for at my age? It would take 20 women and a horse full of dope to move me. It wouldn’t work no more buddy. I like what I’m doing.

AD: Notoriety can certainly come with a price but it’s hardly ever money. You told me that you were in a movie but you didn’t get paid. How’d that happen?

Tommy McLain: Yeah man, we was in Lafayette. I did a movie with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I was playing the Sheraton Townhouse, the first time I’d come to Lafayette to play for any length of time. That Tom Moore booked me in the Sheraton Townhouse 6 nights a week. I went in there with the Mule Train Band and all of a sudden you couldn’t walk, it wasn’t that big but you couldn’t walk in there. All of sudden here come Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward doing the movie The Drowning Pool. They come in and said would you like to be in this movie and I said oh yeah. They said Paul Newman’s gonna come in and he’s gonna tell you whether you’re gonna be in it or not. He come in and his bodyguards made everybody get uh, man, it was three deep at the bar, I mean wild. He come in, his bodyguards got rid of everybody and he took that can of beer and put it all over his face, he did about two of them, he shot ‘em down and he turned around and walked out and did that to me and I knew I was in, I was in the movie. Up on the marquee, Tommy McLain and The Mule Train Band. How about that crap?! I said put me in the uh, they didn’t give me no money, they paid me $90. I want ‘em to hear that but then I got in the credits. You can still see me on CBS, that affiliate, they show it every now and then. I say look I was in a movie and now we’re fixin’ to do another movie I think. Me and Charles (CC) talking about Domingo, Santa Domingo, huh? What is that, we gonna do the, what is the name of that Charles (CC)? Road House? Yeah, Road House, they’re doing a remake. It’s gonna be a big time deal. I saw it on the Today Show. They were talking about it. Me and Charles (CC) are gonna get a little piece of that, go down there and see what’s happening. Hang out with the movie stars baby. It’s unreal. The rewards for this is uh, don’t worry about the money. If people love ya you’re gonna get money boy. They’ll buy everything you got, you know. But you gotta make ‘em love ya first. It’s hard to make the people love ya now. They’re right and you’re wrong. You can’t ever tell the audience…boy you tell one person in that audience and they’re gonna tell 100 people don’t go see that dude he ain’t no good. That’s the way that go. They request something from me, I don’t know it, I’m gonna say I got something close to that, I don’t know it but I make them happy before they leave. You go all hell I…Clint West used to do that.  He’d tell people something like get out of here man I don’t know that tune. Never talk to the audience like that. Ah, you learn. I guess so at 82 years old I’ve learned a lot. Lost houses, lost a wife and it’s all good. She just beat…she went to heaven before me is all that is.

AD: So your life in music, always away from home must have been pretty rough.

Tommy McLain: Aw yeah, you lose your mind, your money, your girlfriend and everything else son. To be nothing, third down on the marquee line. Aw man look, when I had Sweet Dreams I had to swallow my pride, look I was a big star. All of a sudden that phone quit ringing. I was crazy, man, I missed three damn shows at Disneyland, that’s big time. You don’t do them Jewish people like that brother. Nope, send him home. And that’s what they did, they sent me home. Let him learn a little bit, boy, you know. Smothers Brothers, I was with all them. All I had to do was ask them to be on their show, I wouldn’t open my mouth. Now listen to me, I don’t shut it. You know, it’s just uh, I don’t know. You grow up I guess.

AD: What would you tell someone is the reason they should buy your new record?

Tommy McLain: It’s gonna change their life. If they listen to it, it’ll change their life for the better, some for the worse. But I mean I got it all in there. You’re gonna have to listen you just can’t look at something and say aw I like that. Listen to it. Put yourself in my shoes or in Charles’ (CC) shoes, and then listen to it. You gonna see what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you and your family. I’ve already did that. I don’t wanna say I did everything because look, you never know what’s around that curve. You think you done seen it all? You ain’t seen nothing yet. I know that and I’m talking 82 years old. I ain’t seen nothing, I think I have. But it’s uh, music is such a grand thing to have, such a gift. I mean, you get power the people. People love your music, they’ll follow you everywhere. So you wanna do the right thing. You wanna set the right example. You know I wouldn’t want kids doing what I did when I was young cause they might not get this age. You might not get to be 25 years old. The way I was living, just too much of everything. Money ruined me, that ruined me. You know I was happy ‘til I had all that. Then everything was going too fast and you get caught up with the culture. Go to this party, what they doing…hell I’m gonna drink some of that tequilla. I’m gonna get knocked out here, man, you know. I don’t do that no more. I grew into Tommy McLain, took me a long time to grown into myself but I did. All this beard and this hair, that ain’t fake son. It’s all real. Yeah, I’ve enjoyed my life. I’m enjoying my life now probably more now than I did before. I didn’t take time to smell no roses brother, it was all quickly. Just go and come and the wind blowing through your hair, you don’t know. Party here and party there, girls calling your house when they ain’t supposed to. It’s the same old thing man. Then when I was about 45 or 50 I quit that. I just did it myself. Hell I had to man, I was having nervous breakdowns. Yeah, wake up at my house all kinda chicks laying around, boys I didn’t know, they’d hang around, you know. Hell, you gotta little money, you gotta a little drugs, man, hell we’ll go over to Tommy. And the minute I quit doing that, where’s all them people at now? Don’t even know ‘em, don’t see ‘em, they don’t call. They scared of me now. Aw, he don’t do what he used to do, he changed. (chuckles) Changed for the better. Aw, they all good. I got a lot of good friends but like I say you get this age and you start losing them. There’s no more phone calls to make. Some of ‘em I used to call and tell jokes and cut up with, that phone don’t ring no more. That unexpected call is what I’m getting, something I’m not expecting. That’s the kind of phone call I’m getting. Guess what Tommy, somebody died. Who is it this time? Johnny Allen. Who died this time Tommy? Ya know, god damn man. It’s just…but I go right along with it son. We all gonna go. I’m going to heaven, I don’t know about you guys that’s where I’m going. My mind’s set on it. I’m sure that you might say a higher power. You know? You didn’t put yourself here, you didn’t give yourself your brain, you didn’t give yourself that air to breathe. Don’t be stupid, be smart. Simple things are smart man. But Charley G, I’ve loved the interview with you, your a great person. Aquarium Drunkard, thanks for letting me tell you my story. I need it. Old Uncle Tommy or New Uncle Tommy, whatever you want to call me. You play the music, we’ll dance to it. You play my music and I’ll dance to it, I’ll tell you that is for sure. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Charley.

AD: Indeed

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