The Sauce Boss Serves Up A Little Slide Guitar With A Side of Gumbo
By: VINCENT HARRIS
Bill "The Sauce Boss" Wharton is a very busy man onstage. In addition to playing positively lethal slide guitar and occasionally banging out rhythms on a stripped-down drum kit with his feet, the bluesman cooks up a giant pot of red-hot gumbo during the shows, pausing in between blistering roadhouse blues songs to stir the pot and add more ingredients, including his own brand of hot sauce, Liquid Summer.
Dressed in a chef's hat and smock, cracking jokes and riffing like a wildman, the Sauce Boss plays some vicious blues and serves up some delicious gumbo at the end of the set to every audience member in the house. It's a killer combo of food and music, and like most of the great things that have kept Wharton going over the last few years, it kind of just happened.
For example, Wharton didn't even play the blues until he walked out of his Florida home one morning in the early 1970's and found a vintage 1933 National steel guitar on his lawn.
"Technically, it was on the sidewalk in front of my house, leaning up against my daughter's bicycle," Wharton says.
How did that happen, exactly" Was it just a moment of divine musical providence? Well, as Wharton found out later, it was actually a friend looking to shed some weight as he moved out of town. "He didn't tell me at the time," Wharton says, "but he was leaving town and he wanted to lighten his load a little bit. And he figured, 'Hey, Bill could probably use this.' And so he just left it there. About a year later he came by the house and said, 'You ever figure out who gave that guitar to you?"
Regardless of the source, the gift of the guitar got the Sauce Boss on a series practicing, digging into the National's unique sound, which emanates from a small speaker in the body of the guitar. "I spent a year thinking, 'If whoever left this for me comes back and I can't play the bejesus out of it, I'm going to have to give it back to him!" Wharton says with a laugh. "And that led me down the blues path. When you get on that thing late at night, seeing what it will do, it sounds like a Les Paul through a Marshall amp if you do it right. It's not as loud, but it's got that distortion, and it just makes such a beautiful sound that it spoke to me."
So we've got the blues guitar part taken care of, what about the cooking? Well, that story, too, starts with a friend bringing Wharton a special gift. "A buddy of mine brought some datil pepper seeds over and I started growing them," he says. "It's really an amazing pepper and it works so well in a sauce that I decided to make some for myself. And people would come to my house and eat up all my sauce! So I figured I'd start bottling it and carrying it around to the gigs with me to sell it, and first thing you know I'm selling 5-6,000 bottles a year!
And what makes the Boss' sauce so good? "It's very distinctive," he says. "It's got a creeper burn. It takes about fifteen seconds to get there. It gives you all that time to taste the chili or the gumbo and THEN it comes on, but it doesn't come on like a habanero. It comes up from the bottom. You get a lot of this funky bottom to it and it's the warmth rather than the thing that takes your head off. I want to have some flavor, not some heat."
All that's left to explain now is the gumbo, which Wharton started serving up with a healthy dose of hot sauce on New Year's Eve 1989. He'd been in the studio with swamp-blues master Kenny Neal, and Neal's mother decided to whip up some gumbo in the studio's kitchen. It was so good that Wharton decided his hot sauce needed some company onstage. "I just decided I was going to make a big pot of gumbo while I was playing music and feed everybody at the same time. That was 27 years ago, and over 200,000 bowls later here we are!"
In order to time the songs and the cooking, Wharton has worked out a rough formula for when to do what, but it's not an exact science. "I've made it in every imaginable circumstance," he says. "So every show and every gumbo is different. It's a matter of pacing the music with the food and figuring out what goes with what. It's like a meal. I'm just mixing different kinds of media into a recipe."