When a young guitarist embarks on a music career, it helps to have friends in high places.
Carl Weathersby had such an acquaintance. His name was Albert King. Actually, King was Weathersby's father's friend, and Carl didn't even know this guy who hung around with dad was the same Albert King on the record "Crosscut Saw."
That was until young Carl, struggling with learning to play a guitar, thought he had "Crosscut Saw" licked. Carl announced to his father that he finally got it right. King was present at the time and informed the youngster that it was he playing on that record, and his version wasn't what Carl was playing.
"No one told me who he was," Weathersby says of King. "He was only some diesel mechanic who worked at the same job my father worked. No one ever mentioned he was a guitarist."
King, of course, was an influential blues guitarist. But in the middle 1960s, King's records were little known outside of his home state of Mississippi. It was ironic that King was far better known in Britain, where young musicians were embracing blues just as the genre was hitting rough waters in America.
"Back in the '60s, you didn't have blues artists making long-playing albums," Weathersby says. "We had 45s. Those 45s never had pictures on the jackets. We never knew what the people looked like. The albums didn't come until the '70s."
Weathersby was related to famous music makers. His grandfather's sister was the mother of Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston, the pianist in Willie Dixon's Big Three Trio in the 1940s and '50s.
"I knew who Baby Doo was, because he was a relative. Albert wasn't family, and he wasn't famous until [his 1972 debut album] I'll Play the Blues for You."
Weathersby, 44, is on his third CD, Restless Feeling. He will be at the Savannah in Westlake on Sunday, promoting that album and his others, Don't Lay Your Blues on Me and Looking Out My Window.
Weathersby was born in Meadville, Mississippi, but moved to East Chicago, Indiana, when he was eight. His music career didn't begin until King, by then a well-respected bluesman for his big hit "Born Under a Bad Sign," hired Weathersby as a second guitarist in 1979. Weathersby had previously been an infantryman in Vietnam, prison guard, police officer, and steelworker.
Weathersby stayed with King for three years. He discounts people's tales of how mean and grouchy King was.
"He was difficult if you didn't do what he wanted," Weathersby says. "If you did your job, he didn't say anything to you. What could he do if you did things right? He never lost his temper with me, because I did what he wanted."
Still, Weathersby quit King's band three times before leaving to join the Sons of Blues in 1982. "I got tired of all the touring," he says. "We traveled everywhere. It was tough for me, being young and being on the road all of the time." No such problems like that existed with the Sons of Blues. The SOBs, which also included harmonica virtuoso Billy Branch and vocalist J.D. Williams, were based in Chicago and "never went anywhere until the last few years as a band."
Weathersby quit the SOBs early in '97 after fourteen years with the band, citing discontent with the SOBs' traditional sound and the need for him to create a more up-to-date blues repertoire. He now plays with guitarist Levi Wash, bassist Skip Gaskin, and drummer Chuckie Watts.
"There aren't a lot of harmonica players not stuck in the '50s," he says. "Most of them have been doing the same things Little Walter was doing forty years ago."
Weathersby's sound mixes soul and reggae influences with brutal blues guitar work. He can get people dancing or simply force them back to their seats to stare in awe during his incendiary solos. His desire is to move blues into new territory, but he insists that nothing of what the old blues artists had has been lost.
"People think that, because I don't play like Muddy Waters, I can't play that stuff," he says. "That's jive. I don't go back as far as Mr. [Robert] Lockwood, because he's 80. But I can play all that stuff from the '50s.
"I'm not like Robert Cray," Weathersby adds, mentioning the blues guitarist most often associated with a modern sound. "My band can still hit hard. We haven't lost our right cross. Some of these boys in California have forgotten how to punch. We haven't. You will find out about that."
Plenty of fans already have. Weathersby was a big hit at the Chicago, Pocono, King Biscuit, and Kalamazoo blues festivals recently, as well as thrilling a packed house at the Savannah earlier this year.
Carl Weathersby. Sunday, December 20, Savannah Bar & Grille, 30676 Detroit Rd., Westlake, $5