The Quintessential Guitar Band
Jimmy Wallace & the Stratoblasters have remained a close-knit family, on stage, in business and the Dallas Guitar Show
By Tom Geddie
The first gig Jimmy Wallace ever played was at a retail store on Mockingbird Lane. He was barely a teenager, and the band – the–whole band – was paid $20 and one waterbed. Not a waterbed for each member of the band, just– one waterbed, and the band’s members used a series of coin tosses to decide who’d get it.
Years passed. One night, after Wallace and some other musicians established themselves as the Stratoblasters, he got a phone call from somebody who wanted an authentic Texas blues group to play a private party. No, this has nothing to do with the waterbed; it’s about the sometimes strange – or at least unexpected – possibilities of the music business. The person on the phone wouldn’t say who the client was, but that whoever it was had rented the entire, sprawling Dallas Alley complex for the night. “They want you to play all night. I said ‘cool.’ When we got there, there was massive catering, tons of preparation, and intense security,” he recalled. “We were playing for the Rolling Stones. Because Jerry Hall (Mick Jagger’s wife at the time) was from Mesquite, she wanted a big party where she could bring her friends. So Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and all the other guys in the band got up and played with us several times during the night. It was like we were their band for the whole night.”
Today Wallace still plays guitar with the Stratoblasters and with other bands. He’s also still ramrodding what’s surely the biggest music event in town: the Dallas International Guitar Festival, and largest such event in the world, and the lineup includes more than a hundred musicians plus enough vendors, guitars, and equipment that somebody might learn to play guitar just by hanging out for a few hours. He’s done what too many musicians have failed to do: turn what he loves into a solid way to make a living.
“I think first and foremost at all times it’s my passion,” he said. “Out of that comes a way to make a living. It’s not a passion because I need a job. First and forem
ost, ever since I was a kid, the music has been the passion.” Wallace grew up in Oak Cliff, where he went to Carter High School. He attended weekend “sock hop” dances at Glen Oaks Methodist Church where local bands – including the Vaughan brothers – were learning their own chops. “They rehearsed in garages like I did,” he said. “It was this cultural thing that was supposed to be a huge influence, and it was. I loved it. I wanted to do it. I was surrounded by incredible talent and I was greatly impressionable. I started playing when I was 13.”
His band – the one that got the waterbed gig – was The Mint, which ended up getting two songs on A New Hi, a compilation album of high school bands that also included a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughan tunes with Vaughan backing up lead singer Stephen Tobolowsky – the actor – and other bands. Because of Vaughan’s presence, that album, Wallace said, now sells for $500 when anyone can find it. Other guitarists included Rocky Athas, Mike McCullough, Scott Phares, and more who all played the sock hop and a gig called “Candies Flair” at the National Guard Armory, and at the Twilight Roller Rink and the Studio Club.
Wallace eventually graduated to the Stratoblasters featuring Bugs Henderson, which still plays once or twice a month and has a trip scheduled to the Marshall Islands this November with Jerry Branch and Junior Clark. Wallace and his band Lynx toured in the 1970s with bands including Styx and Kansas. He and a friend also partnered to buy a rehearsal space and rent out what he didn’t need to other artists. He also worked at Arnold & Morgan Music during the day.
While working for Arnold & Morgan, Wallace honed his interest in the lack of new models based on older styles of guitars. So he made a trip to the Gibson Guitar factory with a couple of his favorites in tow, a 1959 Les Paul and an ES-335. A Gibson designer used Wallace’s guitars as templates for a new model, and honored him with the Jimmy Wallace Les Paul, which some consider the Holy Grail for guitarists.
WALLACE JOINED BUGS Henderson & the Stratoblasters in the 1980s, along the way performing with Todd Rundgren, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Cars, Phil Keaggy, Stephen Stills, Johnny Winter, Willie Nelson, Albert King, Gregg Allman, James Burton, and many more. After six years of playing in two bands he decided to part ways with Bugs and took the name Stratoblasters with him. “The Stratoblasters were originally Bugs Henderson & the Stratoblasters, with Bugs, Junior Clark, and myself. When I left the band, Bugs gave me permission to keep using the name, and there we went,” he said.
Through the years, the Stratoblasters have included singer John O’Daniel, bassists Bobby Chitwood, Randy Cates, James Anderson, and Mike Medina; and drummers Mike Arnold, Mike Gage and Mike Fialla. Guitarists have included Jerry Branch, Matt Tapp, Mike Clark, Joe Lee, and Wallace. The band has also showcased keyboardists such as Tommy Young, Shawn Ferris, and Johnny Marshall. Other subs have included Andy Timmons, Danny Sanchez, Chris Campbell, Rodney Johnson and Wilson Fisher. “I love the Stratoblasters. It’s like going home,” Wallace said.
“Somebody said the other day the Stratoblasters have so much firepower: three great guitar players, sometimes four, and then
John O’Daniel and two other voices that could front a band, and Mike Gage on drums and Randy Cates on bass.” That might be enough for an entrepreneur who sells enough guitars and pickups that he’s “probably going to reopen a retail store” this summer. “The pickups are doing really well in Japan. It’s vintage-based for 1950s or 1960s Strats and Telecasters.”
Then there are the “vacation” projects that Wallace likens to going on vacation. “They keep your passion up, keep you fresh, and on your toes,” he said. There’s The Guitar Army with Clark, Branch, Lance Lopez, Quinten Hope, and Wallace, with plans to work on an album. There’s The J’s with Branch, Jenny an Anthony Ayres, and Wallace who put out an album last year.
There’s the new blues-soul project with Rachel Stacy. “I’m just having fun,” said Wallace, who is now 59 years old. “At this point in my life, I just continue to pursue music projects and am taking the show to another level by occupying almost double the space.
While a lot of people would think about retiring or selling it, I’m just really enjoying myself. I’m saying go for it.” The “show,” of course, is the Dallas International Guitar Festival that Charley Wirz put together back in 1978 that now serves as a fairly common model. Today there are more than 2,000 guitar shows and festivals staged around the world, but the guitar show phenomenon actually began in Texas with Wirz’s idea of establishing and promoting a vintage guitar show similar to other collectible shows, with booths leased to dealers and collectors. Wallace and Mark Pollack took over the festival in 1989.this year, the 140,000-foot exhibition space will sprawl across the Centennial, Automobile, and Women’s buildings at Fair Park plus a covered outdoor stage for more than 100 musicians. Including the indoor stages, that makes four.