Montreal born David Wilcox drew inspiration from musician Elvis Presley, first made his mark ast the replacement for Amos Garrett in Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s band, Great Speckled Bird, played backup for acts such as Anne Murray, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Rich. In 1973, after two records, Wilcox left the band to go solo.
In his first band, David Wilcox and the Teddy Bears, Wilcox hit local stages as a flashy character with an over sized waxed mustache, a baggy suit and a flower in his lapel. His debut album, Out of the Woods, was released in 1977.and it produced three top hits, “Do the Bearcat”, “Bad Apple”, and “That Hypnotizin’ Boogie”. His most recent album — Guitar Masters —has him teamed up with Amos, James Burton and Albert Lee on a live recording released by Stony Plain Records. Bill King sat with David recently for ‘a conversation with…’
Bill King: You are the guy who is always on the road.
David Wilcox: A lot but not as much as I used to be. I used to be on the road forty-eight weeks a year. I’ve cut back slightly – just back from Vancouver and Edmonton and having a pretty good time of it.
B.K: What was your first road gig?
D.W: Ian and Sylvia. I was around twenty-one years old and that was an amazing life experience. One week I was a suburban kid, not very good in school, not a very good athlete and then the next week I’m flying to Washington and meeting Waylon Jennings and playing in a band I idolized and trying to step into Amos Garrett’s shoes, which was really daunting.
B.K: Who decided you were the right person for this gig?
D.W: I heard they needed a guitar player. Amos was leaving and knew there was never a chance of me getting the gig. I wasn’t even in the union but I couldn’t resist trying out. I realized by that time in life, and you know this – if there is a door and you don’t go through, you’ll never find out what would happen. What were they going to tell me – I can’t do it? Well that’s O.K. I wangled Ian’s phone number out of somebody and got myself an audition out of Ian who didn’t want to give it to me because he asked what i had done and my response was 'not much.’ Bless his heart, he let me come over and sit down with him and his steel player and I got the gig. When I joined Ian and Sylvia I used to play what they call ‘country rock’ but there’s a lot of blues in what I do.
B.K: Were you playing Telecaster then?
D.W: I was, but I didn’t know how to turn on the amp. I was an acoustic player and got a Telecaster on a whim from a guy who had a pawn ticket that was about to come up and I got it more out of curiosity.
B.K: Still have it?
D.W: No, I have a real good one. The pick-ups were dying and I didn’t know it. I was playing on this thing that had a thin tone. I don’t know how I kept the gig but I did.
B.K: It was always a thing with my guitar playing friends. They would truck on down to Nashville and search out classic Telecasters. Did you do something like that?
D.W: I call myself a plumber in the sense I have some wonderful instruments but most aren’t vintage. At this point in my career I could have a ’52 Telecaster if I wanted it but mine is a later one from ’78. I bought it new and it sounds really nice and big and fat and plays great.
B.K: Did you set it up yourself?
D.W: No, no, no.
B.K: But you had it set for touch and the things you expect from it didn’t you?
D.W: Very much so. I’ve had it rewired to my specs. It’s the most versatile sounding guitar I’ve ever played. After years of people mangling Telecasters and other guitars as experiments on my behalf — “put this kind of pick up in here and see what happens” – I came up with what I think is the best design and I’ve have had it for some years now. I maintain it’s the best singer’s guitar. It has one tone and one knob and the wiring is so simple you know where to go in a split second.
B.K: Who are the guitar players that shaped your playing early on?
D.W: I heard Scotty Moore with Elvis; the obvious ones – Buddy Holly, Chet Atkins, people like that. I then got into the roots music and Robert Johnson became my number one and probably still is. He never plays an extra note and it’s so deep. That’s on acoustic; on electric, James Burton on the Rickie Nelson Show and then with Elvis.
B.K: You decided to go out on your own after working with Ann Murray?
D.W: Two songs–well maybe four, on Ian Tyson’s television show. Actually, it was hers too. It was called Nashville North and they co-hosted for a few episodes. Also, Bobby Bare, Ray Price, Charlie Rich – people like that.
B.K: But you wanted to be just David Wilcox?
D.W: I decided to try it. I had a bunch of ideas I wanted to do that I couldn’t try in someone else’s band so I figured if I could try and front a band I could sing and improve my singing and get to solo a lot and improve my guitar playing. I thought it would make me a better side person and never thought it would work and now it’s forty something years later.
B.K: You started out pared down - simple.
D.W: Absolutely. For one thing, and this is most important, it makes you more flexible. If seven people improvise there are going to be a few train wrecks. When three people try to improvise you can usually find each other somewhere or somehow.
B.K: Your first recorded release was in 1980.
D.W: It was recorded in 1978 but nobody would touch it. It was all disco back then.
BK: Didn’t you start attracting those guitar watchers?
D.W: People would come and say, 'He’s not as good as Frankie Marino (Mahogany Rush).’ They’d try and rate you and say you were not as good as their favourite. That was O.K. and I’m still here. When you stop competing and just become yourself it’s a lot more fun. I feel a lot freer just being who I am. I’ll never be James Burton or Albert Lee or be able to do what they can do, but I do what I do.
B.K: It’s liberating.
D.W: I discovered when I was on a major label they’d come up with terrifying ideas, like you should over dub a bunch of chickadee samples or wear purple clothes. If you didn’t fight it and their ego got into it what you were doing then they’d win. If I said, well let me think about it they would have forgotten and moved on to advising someone else what to do.
B.K: You figured something out: You created a unique stage show.
D.W: It started with me: a handlebar mustache, a carnation, long, long hair and a sort of elaborate morning suit. With the help of my ex-wife, who produced some of the records. We did this because you it made you memorable. No records, no radio in fact there was a guy out there with a television exploding on his head. I needed something so that was my little hook. I even did a bit of comedy. I thought it was funny.
I remember the night it all changed. My first record had come out and went to play a bar in a small town in Ontario and that bar was full – to me that was a bad sign. What it meant was it was their local watering hole, the first time we are playing there and there could be trouble. But Bill, they knew the words to the songs; for heaven’s sake I was on the radio. That was the night it turned around. Before that I wrote songs like ‘Do the Bearcat.” If you haven’t been listening to the beginning or middle – you still know the end “Do the Bearcat.” It’s not Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth. From there I began to write songs that had a sequence in them, a story – a song.
BK: You rehearsed in a hotel room for Guitar Heroes’ live concert and recording?
D.W: We rehearsed in a bar – one rehearsal that took about two hours and then did the show. I hadn’t realized James and Albert had played together before, so I was walking in blind. I had played with Amos before and had known him over the years. The two others I met that day. Sort of walked in and was concerned because I knew Albert could play very fast and I don’t play fast. I’m just not that great at it.
B.K: The real test for a recording like this is when you get players who are essentially front men who can fall back in the role of accompanist.
D.W: I was impressed that we didn’t get in each other’s way. People were really courteous. To me, these guys are famous international guys and yet they were very humble.
B.K: The rhythm section?
D.W: Albert Lee’s band.
B.K: Did you ever go South in search of the roots of Americana music?
D.W: Not really. I went there with Ian & Sylvia some. I did the Johnny Cash Show in Nashville. I never went geographically looking for it. I tried to move to New Orleans once.
B.K: What happened – to hot?
D.W: No – it was money. It was the most broke I’d ever been in another city. I think in twenty-four hours I had a half a grapefruit to eat and a room with my ex. It was a magical experience in retrospect but I wouldn’t want to do it again. I got to taste the magic of the city. New Orleans is the city that taught me that I don’t have to live in a place to incorporate its spirituality and attitude into myself. I can be anywhere I want. I’m not the best songwriter in the world or best singer, but I’m the best me.
David Wilcox picture © Bill King photography