Continuing our tie-in with The Beachcomber’s 15th anniversary… This issue, the spotlight shines on musician and gumbo maker Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton, who performs at HarborWalk Village Saturday, Sept. 3.
1. Where do you currently call home?
I live in Jefferson County, the only county in Florida with not one single spotlight. Goes from Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico. I live in the country, down near the Wacissa River.
2. Where did you grow up?
3. How did you get into music?
I started playing guitar and drums when I was about 12. I always was drawn to music. A few years later, I went out and got a gig. Then I went home and learned the songs needed for the gig. I did a few gigs around Orlando, using this model—get the gig, then work up the tunes. When I was 17, I was playing six or seven nights a week in clubs. I was too young to be in clubs, so the bandleader said, “When the suits come in the door, you make yourself scarce. I dodged the beverage agent til I turned 18. Never looked back.
4. You’ve performed here many times. What attracts you to the Destin area?
The bay and ocean, lots of people having fun.
5. What’s your guitar of choice?
My 1953 Fender Double Cutaway Telecaster, and my Fine Resophonic Bill Wharton Special. These two guitars have defined my sound.
6. Who are some of the musicians that influenced you?
All the good ones.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
On the road—check out of the hotel and drive to the venue. Set up. Check in and rest. Do the gig. Back to the hotel, then do it again the next day.
At home—wake at 10 a.m. Computer work for a few hours or work around the house, gardening and other projects. Hopefully a nap in the late afternoon, then I work in my studio. Around midnight, I head home to relax for a while before turning in around 3 or 4 a.m.
Whether I’m on the road or at home, a very large part of every day is foraging and cooking my food. I eat a healthy diet no matter where I am. When I’m touring, I carry a small kitchen, pantry and fresh produce with me. When eating out, I Yelp the good healthy options. This keeps my stamina and focus up and my fatigue down. I don’t get sick much. And if I do happen to catch a cold, I recover much more quickly. It’s about the long run.
8. Tell us about your nonprofit Planet Gumbo.
Fifteen years ago I started a nonprofit foundation, Planet Gumbo. I now donate my time to cook and perform for free at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. (Editor’s Note: The website is planetgumbo.org.)
9. Tell us about your band.
One man does it all!
10. What’s a typical Sauce Boss show like?
You take that ’53 Telecaster, pump it through that ’48 Fender amp, add a bass rig, mix in some drums, all simmered down over some funky swamp blues, and smothered with gumbo, and you got a recipe for a good time. It’s a Soul Shouting Picnic of Rock ‘n Roll Brotherhood. There’s a lot of audience participation. Everybody is encouraged to sing, dance and come and put the stir on the gumbo.
Since 1990, I’ve been making gumbo during my musical performances all over the U.S., in Canada and in Europe. The shows transform the audience into participants in community. Serving gumbo to the audience for free has become my message of sharing. I’ve served way over 200,000 people for free. I bring my own hot sauce to every gig, and I cook the gumbo while smoking the slide guitar. At the end of the show, everyone gets a bowl.
11. Where are some of your favorite places to perform?
The list is too long. I’ve done a Roman amphitheater and a Napoleonic opera house in the south of France. Those were pretty cool. I’ve done too many festivals to name. But for me, whether it’s a large or small venue, it’s always a process of changing whatever place I am into that magic music place. Sustenance for the heart, the mind, the soul, and, yes…the stomach.
12. What are some of your favorite Beachcomberland spots to eat, drink and shop?
Donut Hole, HarborWalk, Paradise Bar and Grill, AJ’s, McGuire’s, LuLu’s, Jasmine Thai and Café Organic to name a few.
13. What have been some of your career highlights so far?
Playing in Bo Diddley’s backup band. When Bo walked into the venue, he took one look at the band and said—with trepidation—“Is this the band?!?” So we said, “Yup, we are the band.” So we did a little rehearsal. After a couple of tunes, Bo asked, “Does anyone have a recorder? I’d like to get some of this stuff down on tape.” So we did a 20-minute rehearsal, and later that night played a four-hour concert.
When Jimmy Buffett wrote “I Will Play for Gumbo” with a verse about me in it.
Playing all over France in the ‘90s to support the Virgin Records release of my album South of the Blues. Cooking at the Le Meridien Hotel in Paris for two weeks was nice. Also, playing the New Morning in Paris was a milestone for me. Plus scaring the hell out of Screaming Jay Hawkins with my steaming pot of gumbo was a whole lot of fun.
Seeing a big smear of my gumbo on Pete Seeger’s shirt when I opened for him.
14. If you could time travel forward or back for a week, where would you go?
1905, Mardi Gras in NOLA. I would like to follow Buddy Bolden around for a week.
15. The Beachcomber just reached a milestone—our 15th anniversary. How are you planning to celebrate this momentous occasion?
I will be combing the beach.
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