Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


KUBEK, Smokin' Joe

Bnois King (b 21 January 1943, Delhi LA) and Smokin' Joe Kubek (b 30 November 1956, Grove City PA; grew up in Irving TX) Blues guitarists and songwriters who teamed up in 1989 and have been making blues fans happy ever since.

King's name is pronounced Buh-noise; when he was 31 years old and wanted to buy his first car, he obtained his birth certificate from his mother, and the name on it was B. Noris King. His family was not musical, but music was always on his mind; he cannot remember not beating or picking on something trying to get some sounds out. He was eight or nine years old when he picked up a guitar. In church a guitarist for a gospel group taught him how to tune his instrument properly and taught him some chords. On the radio he heard Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and other blues greats, but it was jazz that caught his attention. He didn't know what it was at the time, but it had a great influence on his guitar style. There was no music teacher in the local schools until a James Moody (not the famous jazz musician) came from New Orleans when King was in the eighth grade. Moody taught him more about music, and told him about classic Bluesmen like Leadbelly. Moody had a big band at about the time Elvis Presley was making it big, and hired King, not to play guitar, but just to stand there and hold it, so people would think the band had a guitar. The job paid $15 at a time when King was making $15 a week getting up at two in the morning to deliver milk.'I knew right then I wasn't going to run behind a milk truck getting chased by dogs any more...I got really serious when I saw I could actually make some money.

What followed was many years of scuffling in various bands while he honed his chops; he played once with Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, and opened for Lou Rawls on an air force base. In the 1970s he took a day job in Wichita Falls at a car lot; he didn't even own a guitar for a while, but would go to a music store almost every day and play a little. In the mid-1970s he bought a guitar and amp, finally had a car and a little money saved up. There were gigs in Fort Worth and Dallas with various bands, mostly in black clubs, and never much money.
Then he met Joe Kubek.

Kubek was playing in Dallas clubs at the age of 14. A few years later, he took a deeper interest in blues, inspired by Eric Clapton and Peter Green, and formed his first band. In the 1970s and early '80s he played with Stevie Ray Vaughan and the three Kings, B.B., Albert and Freddie in the Dallas bar scene, toured on rhythm guitar with Freddie King just before King's death in December 1976. After a short spell with Robert Whitfield's Last Combo, Kubek joined Al Braggs' band, and examples of his work coud be heard on Braggs' 1979 production of tracks by R. L. Griffin. He also recorded with Charlie Robinson, Big Ray Anderson, and Ernie Johnson, and on Little Joe Blue's album, It's My Turn Now. Then he met Bnois King.

Months earlier, the two had shared an uncomfortable meeting. 'We laugh at it now,' Kubek says, 'but when we first ran into each other, it was in some club dressing room a while before I'd invited him to sit in with my band. Neither of us remembers why we were there, because it wasn't our gig. We never said a word to each other. We just kinda sat there and looked at each other. It was weird.' But as soon as they played together, the die was cast. Kubek has a fiery, take-no-prisoners Texas style and slide techniques, while King's style was more melodic and jazz-influenced, and they complemented each other perfectly. 'When we got onstage together, it was immediately like I had been playing with the guy all my life. There was no clashing, no competition. Every time I would do something he would do something that made me sound good. Every time he did something, I would do the same. It was just automatic. I had played with a lot of guitar players, but it always turned into a shooting match or a duel or just completely clashed. This was without any conversation about it...At the time he had Phil Campbell on drums and Paul Jenkins on bass. Bobby Chitwood would sit in from time to time as would Paul Harrington. Occasionally, Sam Myers would join us. It was just jelling.'

King hadn't sung much, except as a novelty, until he joined Kubek, who said, 'Somebody is going to have to sing in this band.' King bought records by Collins, Wolf, Muddy, Hooker, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Milton. 'I started going to the jam sessions to see what everyone else was singing. They were doing all the obvious songs like "The Thrill is Gone", "Sweet 16", and "Stormy Monday". I started learning all the obscure songs no one else was doing [such as "Buzz Me"] so that we would be different. Every Monday I would come in with a new song. That's how I became a singer...I had also never written an original song in my life...Now that's one of my primary jobs.'

They realized the only way they were going to make a living was to go on the road; an agent booked them into Memphis, which is where Bullseye Records heard them. Things have got easier since then, but life on the road is never easy. They are a non-drinking band. 'This business doesn't pay a lot of money and you put a lot of miles on the road. People come along and think it's a picnic and they find it is a hard, grueling job...But the only thing that could pull me off the road would be a real bad illness. If I had to do it on crutches, I'd do it. I'd have to be completely immobilized. If there is any way I can be rolled or pushed out there, I'm going. Johnny Copeland was the greatest inspiration to me of any human being. Here's a guy waiting on a heart transplant, and he was still playing gigs. He was uplifting other people in the hospital. You would think he would retire, but that never crossed his mind. How can it ever cross mine?' (Quotes from an interview with Don. O.)

The Axe Man was an album of covers recorded before their debut on Boston's Rounder/Bullseye Blues label. Their first proper album was Steppin' Out Texas Style 1991, followed by Chain Smokin' Texas Style '92, Texas Cadillac '94, Cryin' For The Moon '95, Got My Mind Back '96, Take Your Best Shot '98 and Bite Me! 2000. Served Up Texas Style 2006 on Rounder was a compilation of the Bullseye material. Meanwhile they had moved to Blind Pig for Roadhouse Research 2003, Show Me The Money 2004 and My Heart's In Texas 2006, Moving again to Alligator for Blood Brothers 2008.