“This is Wet Willie’s 50th anniversary and we are still walking on this side of the ground and playing music. Where did the years go? I thought I was just going to play with a band with guys I didn’t know for three weeks and return to work for my family. Instead, the gigs kept coming and every day was something new. I jumped off the cliff and didn’t know where I was going to land. I moved out of my parent’s house and into the apartments across from UMS managed by Nanny Hall. It was me, Jimmy and Jack Hall. We painted two apartments a month to pay for our rent. That is how we really got to know each other. The chemistry was there from the beginning because we had the same influences and were blues-based.
Songwriting was just making up songs, nothing as sophisticated as composing. ‘Red Hot Chicken’ came from a groove I made up in college that an unconscious influence of Muscle Shoals. It was first called ‘Digging in the Bushes’. That was not a great title when we played it at the McGill High School Prom. ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ were some of the covers we played. We could pull off anything we played and things were happening serendipitously. My college friend Frank Friedman saw us playing in Tuscaloosa. His band in Macon called Willie split up. Frank had written a few songs and asked us come to Macon to audition for Capricorn if he could join the band. That was 1970, about a year after we started playing together. I didn’t know what audition meant, but we loaded up a van with all of our stuff and drove to Macon.
Capricorn Records signed the Allman Brothers and was looking for more. We auditioned in a dingy warehouse with a bare light bulb. We played four or five tunes that would be on the first Wet Willie album. They told us to come in Monday morning and sign the papers. We were the second band that they signed. I was 23 and the oldest guy in the band. We had no idea we needed a lawyer to sign the papers and look out for us. That was a terrible idea and they got all of our publishing for the first five years. Capricorn changed our name from Fox to Wet Willie because they saw us as a sexy teenage rock band. They called us ‘cock rock.’ We just rolled with it because we were about to open for the Allman Brothers and play all over the place with our own tour manager named Speedo. Not long before that we drove from Mobile to New Orleans just to watch The Allman Brothers play at The Warehouse. Getting to open for them and know them was crazy. I talked guitars and the blues with Duane Allman. It was going so fast there wasn’t much time to think about it. A year later, Duane was gone.
It was time to cut an album, but we didn’t have much experience and were naive. It wasn’t until we recorded a live album called ‘Drippin’ Wet’ from a gig in New Orleans that an album truly captured us. The recording process and separating sound grabbed my attention. I learned from Tom Dowd when he was working with Wet Willie. He worked on the Manhattan Project and went into audio engineering at Atlantic Records. He worked with John Coltrane and Ray Charles and was a genius on all levels.
We toured behind our last studio album, ‘The Wetter the Better,’ in 1976. I thought there were some high potential singles in that album. It was disappointing that none of them went to the top of the charts. We were growing into different styles and started to fracture a little bit. If we had stayed together, it would have been interesting to see how the sound evolved.
We were in Knoxville, Tennessee opening for Charlie Daniels. The red light blinked on the phone in my motel room for messages. The message was Greg Allman called and needs to speak with you. Greg was married to Cher and called to say they were recording a duet album and wanted me to be a part of the band. That was around November of ’76. I went out and did some demos and it sounded good. I became a part of their recording and touring band and received a retainer plus pay for touring. It was a good paying gig and I was faced with a decision about Wet Willie. We were in a stagnant period and I was torn about what to do. My father said if I decided to move on, I couldn’t look in the rear view mirror. It could be burning a bridge that I can’t go back on. It was a hard decision and there were some ruffled feathers. My leaving turned into a good thing for Wet Willie. Epic bought them out of their contract with Capricorn and they made two more albums. Epic stylized them and took good care of them. They went off and did their thing and I moved to L.A. and did mine.
I had just turned 30 when I moved to L.A. at the end of ’77. That was an adventure. Life begins to unfold for you at that age. My connections in Los Angeles started to grow and Cher was connected to everyone. Cher liked to cook and she and Greg would have the band over for dinner at their house that was next door to the Playboy Mansion. Cher also rented out skating rinks for massive skating parties attended by all kinds of celebrities, agents and stars such as Mac Davis and Donna Summer. I could skate, but it had been a long time. Just as I got out there, someone came hauling ass around me. Her skate hit mine and she hit face first in front of me. I looked down and it was Britt Ekland. Her manager was yelling at me that she had a shoot the next day.
I also played with Joan Armatrading who brought together a great band and gave us so much latitude. She was funny as hell. Those were some of the magical times feeling the music and the audience. So much diverse music has gone through this brain. The Doors, Moby Grey, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gay. I listen to all of it, even symphonic music. I would love to meet Scott Speck from the Mobile Symphony and pick his brain. I know how I relate to things I am hearing and where the influences coming from, but it is only my interpretation.
Life provides you many opportunities. What choices do you make? I made the choice to move to L.A. and bought a bungalow in West Hollywood, an oasis in the middle of 13 million people. I still have the house but didn’t want to live there forever. Mobile is home and has a magnetism that nowhere else would give me. My favorite stretch of road is that Causeway. I knew I wanted a place on one of the rivers in Mobile. I saw this house from the riverside before I set foot in it and fell in love with it.
Mobile was the town that people drive through but not stop along the way. I think they are starting to stop here. There has slowly begun to be a changing of the guard
I enjoy producing with Studio H2O as much as playing. Live from Avalon with Catt Sirten connected me with different people and we got our arms around a lot of local talent to expose them. I love connecting with the next generations of Mobile musicians and helping them as others helped me. I love playing with Molly Thomas and the Rarebirds. Mobile has a lot of musical attitudes and it is our common language. We need to give more appreciation to it.
I live on the water and catch grief from people about not buying a boat yet. I have a target boat that I want to get me into the river, the bay, and the Gulf. It has to have a pilot house with an air conditioner. I haven’t found it yet. I also want to get my captain’s license and learn how to guide a boat with confidence. Times a wasting.”
Rick Hirsch, Part Two
(This is the fourteenth story in the series “The Souls of Mobile,” with people nominated because of the good they do for the city. Their faces are now part of the mural “The Souls of Mobile” that Ginger Woechan painted on Hayley’s Bar on Dauphin Street in Mobile. This mural is a collaboration with the Mobile Arts Council.)
Photo by Michelle Stancil