It seems that in the annals of Southern rock, the story very often goes like this: wild and crazy times growing up, scraping to make the music work, hitting it big for a while, and then either tragedy strikes or the light burns out in place of another genre’s rise — at least that’s the way it often seems to go.
It’s happened with the best of them: the great Lynyrd Skynyrd — plane crash at the height of their fame — still plays today albeit with one original member as the rest have all passed, the Marshall Tucker Band — beloved founding bassist dies and band begins to fade — are playing county fairs and small clubs, and even the Allman Brothers had their share of double tragedy in the early 70’s — the motorcycle deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley — but after some up and down times, they’ve managed to stay the course and are selling out shows today, a true rarity to be sure amidst the many Southern rock fables.
In many ways, The Outlaws have lived that bittersweet story, too. Born out of Tampa, Florida, they recorded one of the greatest FM radio rock epics, “Green Grass and High Tides”, saw their fame rise to arena-size in the mid-late 70’s, then like many of their Southern brethren, faded out of the spotlight into relative oblivion, lost some members to drugs, only to see a glimmer of fame return as the baby boomers grew up and yearned for the music that made them feel young again.
Like a character in an old Western tale, Henry Paul was smack dab in the middle of that Southern rock lore with The Outlaws, and the ups and downs he experienced — making it big, getting kicked out of the band he helped make successful, charting a new musical course, and then mending fences and rejoining the Outlaws three different times — well, it’s the stuff of good ol’ rock and roll stories around the fire with a bottle of Jack.
But Paul’s story is unlike many of the other wild-eyed Southern boy tales that are commonplace with Southern rock bands. For one, he was born in upstate Kingston, New York, and instead of idolizing Hendrix and Clapton like many of the other Southern rock boys, Paul had another icon as his main influence.
“Bob Dylan was everything to me, I was one of those nut cases that absolutely flipped over his work”, said the open and amicable 63 year-old Paul during our very candid 45 minute interview in advance of The Outlaws August 31st show at the Birchmere. “Back in the day, seeing Bob Dylan in Kingston at the Pool Hall was like the second coming of Christ. And we worked at this farm owned by an Italian guy, it was oh 70 acres, they also had a roadside stand by the Thruway exit, and it turned out to be the subject of (Dylan’s classic) ‘Maggie’s Farm’, so in some crazy ass way, I worked at ‘Maggie’s Farm.’ “
Paul left the rural confines of New York State when his parents were divorced and would end up, yep, right in the middle of Southern rock territory when the family moved to Florida, but his zest for folk music remained, and he wouldn’t stay in Florida long.
“I was never in bands or anything in high school, I was more of a folk singer. There was a coffeehouse over in St Pete and I’d hang around and go up on stage and sing a couple songs. It was a famous coffee house, Jim Morrison had performed there when he was in junior college in the area, (folk icon) Eric Von Schmidt was a sort of an in-house celebrity there. But going back up to New York for me was kind of my stepping stone, I knew I was gonna be a singer some way around, so I said I’m gonna move to New York, I’m gonna get a place downtown, I’m gonna play the clubs. I did play venues like the Gaslight and Folk City, you know, just hung around there, and met people and starved, and ya know, spent a couple years in the city.”
Then a move back down South would change Henry Paul’s career forever, as he found a calling in a way he really never expected.
“Eventually, an opportunity took me to Tampa in 1971. I put a band together, it was funny, I’d never been in a band but I kinda wanted to be in one. Sienna was born out of the Poco and Flying Burrito Brothers kind of thing. But it’s funny, I had never really performed in front of a live audience, so we played this place called The Armory in Tampa one evening and I stepped out in front of 1500-2000 people, and the light came on and the seas parted, and the rest was history. I was really good at being up there, my personality with the audience, it was just like, wow.”
Paul’s first band Sienna would soon begin to disintegrate with people leaving for other pastures. Fate would play it’s hand now — Sienna members Monte Yoho and Frank O’Keefe were in a high school band years before with this local guy, Hughie Thomasson, who like Paul, had also fled to New York on a quest to try his hand after his own musical forays fizzled in the late 60’s. But feeling homesick and broke, Thomasson drove back home to Tampa, and with no band to work with, was recruited by Yoho, O’Keefe and Paul and the Outlaws were “reborn.”
Original Outlaws (L-R) Billy Jones, Monte Yoho, Hughie Thomasson, Frank O’ Keefe and Henry Paul (courtesy Henry Paul.com)
“The logical thing to do was to bring Hughie into the band, and Hughie, Frank and Monte and I went out as Sienna for while, but Hughie and Monte and Frank had been in a high school band called The Outlaws so we said ‘maybe we’ll get more work with this name’, so we changed the name. Hughie wanted his friend Billy Jones in the band, so he called Billy and he loaded up his s—t out in Colorado and came down too.”
The die of what would be the most successful machination of The Outlaws was cast, a then-unique blend of country and rock that would err on the harder side but always retain that countryish tinge. They set out to play the local clubs as largely a cover band in suburban Tampa. But it’s the original material they would create that would be what would truly kick start their steady rise to fame.
“We had sort of an eclectic playlist of cover material, songs from artists who we loved like Badfinger, America, The Eagles, Dickey Betts, Eric Clapton, and we wrote songs and mixed our songs in. And eventually we just kept developing and writing and reaching a larger audience at home, the band grew into probably the most popular local band. And that sort of propelled us regionally, and then a few of the right people saw the group and got excited about it. It was really (Lynyrd Skynyrd front man) Ronnie Van Zant telling his manager Alan Walden, and Alan telling (Rolling Stones tour manager) Peter Rudge, who told the head of A & R at Arista. I mean I think Arista wanted a Southern Rock band ‘cause everybody had one. So this Arista guy flew down to see us at the Sportatorium, a dirt floor, metal roof concert hall, and by that time we had a really damn good band and were operating on that ol’ energy and we had some good songs, and he went back and said ‘this band’s f—ing great.’ So (Arista chief) Clive Davis came down to see us play and signed us then.”
The brotherhood of the Southern rock bands would be in full force at that time, Van Zant’s “promotion” of The Outlaws being one example of the kinship these bands have always felt towards each other.
“It was real, and it was very geo-political, social, the Confederate flag…pre-racist connotation…just rebel rock, and the Allman Brothers with all their tattoos and s—t, we were just trying to be them. Everybody was just musically tied…Marshall Tucker, their original band was like, whew. And for our audience, it was novelty of sorts, and it was sociological, I think the Confederate flag, the schtick with the whiskey, kids kind of gravitated towards the rebel persona, it just came down to timing with cowboy hats and boots, it was just a moment.”
The Outlaws pre-show as they begin their rise (courtesy Henry Paul.com)
Clive Davis called them “the first full tilt rock band signed to Arista” and The Outlaws would go on to write some of Southern Rock’s most classic compositions, with the songwriting being shared amongst the members. As Paul tells it, “Billy was kinda like the Neil Young of the band with his tragic lyrics and high voice, Hughie was the Stephen Stills with his odd but attractive vocals and he wrote some freakin’ great songs like ‘Breaker Breaker’ and my favorite, ‘Hurry Sundown.’ We were trying to write in character, some of my compositions like ‘Girl From Ohio’, they had a very poetic quality to ‘em that was uniquely my own.”
In 1977, after FM radio, album and touring success had found it’s way to the band, Henry Paul’s time as an Outlaw would come to an end. And it’s not something he really expected or wanted to happen, leaving a hot band on the way up. Paul is not shy about his feelings toward being asked to leave a band that he helped grow into a Southern Rock force, and speaks deeply and openly about the experience.
“I was forced out of the band so to speak, by Hughie and Billy, and of course I was crushed. I was very, very, very, very hurt, it was devastating because I’d put so much in to it. Ya know, there were so many reasons for any of us to be expelled from ‘school’ (laughs), the liquor and the women, and the whole rock and roll trap, but I think my control issues with the band, my personality, being the front man, I was very ambitious that way, I always took the responsibility of doing interviews and going to radio stations, putting a face on the band, and I think they may have been, ya know, a little bit beaten down by some of it. I think then after I left, the band sort of unfortunately lost some of it’s musical direction, the band became more hard to define. All the fans that were accustomed to me being there were a little bit vocal about me not being there. I think it was a lot more damaging than anyone knew. I think if we all were a little bit smarter we woulda found out a way to communicate better. I think we were operating on the premise that it was about me.”
“When a band goes from becoming a struggling club act to a more recognizable national musical entity, fame and fortune have a way of contaminating the experience of any band. It’s a very shopworn story that I think that the Outlaws fell victim to. I wish we had known more about how to communicate with one another rather than build up resentments and overreact. But I love those guys and have a deep respect and admiration for ‘em.”
Paul would shake off the pain of the breakup from the Outlaws and form The Henry Paul Band in 1979, calling it “an answer to the notion that I wasn’t needed.” After finding moderate success with his debut Grey Ghost, the title song dedicated to his late buddy Van Zant, he went on to record a couple more albums with the band before breaking it up in 1983 and reuniting with Thomasson in the Outlaws, cutting an album, Soldiers of Fortune, and staying together until 1989.
“Fans embraced the idea, whatever was left of the whole musical phenomena, they embraced Hughie and I being back together in a band. It had gone from playing the Capitol Theater to playing a club, so it wasn’t very glamorous but it was certainly rewarding to me to kinda come back to the band, I felt a little bit, ya know, sort of, vindicated. We messed around and played and cut a record, it was kind of an odd awkward record of us trying to fit into the 80’s MTV musical landscape, it never caught on, but I had a great time playing with Hughie in clubs in the 80’s.”
After parting ways with Thomasson again, Paul would head to Nashville, rekindle his fortunes with Arista records, and form the more countrified rock band Blackhawk in 1991, where he’d find success again with the self-titled debut going multi-platinum. Paul laughs when talking about his days in Nashville feeling his oats that had ties to his Southern rock hey day, but also had another path in mind that would vindicate him once again.
“When I got there, even at 42, I had a youthful personality and look, and a lot of energy, and I was always out at night in town with my little rebel jacket and some cute little girl, just being a womanizing piece of s—t Southern rock star. The Arista rep there said he wanted to sign me, he liked my voice, he knew what I was about, and wanted me on his label. I was like ‘F—in’ a.’ So we went into the studio and cut a multi-platinum album, and wow, talk about exonerated.”
As Paul was finding new success with Blackhawk, he saw his old pal Thomasson’s Outlaws “flaming out” in the clubs, but was elated when Thomasson was asked to join Lynyrd Skynyrd, another Southern rock band trying to hang on to the glory days.
“I was really happy when Hughie got into Lynyrd Skynyrd, I knew that he needed to get out of that downwardly spiraling rut. I thought it saved him. Otherwise that was the end, the end of ends, there was no coming back. I thought the real Skynyrd band was the original band really, but this was good band, a good cover band and I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but a good band, and for the fans that maybe missed it, and came a little later, or still loved it and wanted what they wanted, it was a very respectable evening of music. And it was great seeing Hughie find success again.”
The reunited Outlaws in 2005 including Thomasson (in hat) next to Paul (courtesy Henry Paul.com)
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, like many other Southern rock fables before them, The Outlaws wouldn’t die, and in 2005, Paul was asked to do a 30th anniversary Outlaws tour with Hughie and Monte, as well as another former Outlaw from the 70′s David Dix, to which he accepted. Some of the old magic surfaced to be sure, but so did some of the nagging issues.
“I kinda split my year between The Outlaws and Blackhawk. I’d lost my founding Blackhawk member Van to cancer, so The Outlaws was kinda of a fun distraction. Then eventually there some kinda old, longstanding problems, it wasn’t a fun year, it was exciting to be on stage with Hughie and Monte again, and see and hear and feel what that was, but I’d come a long way with some, well, lifestyle issues, and it was a little bit wild and wooly for my taste. And I had gone in telling Hughie we should write some songs and do a new Outlaws record, and then out of the clear blue I heard through the grapevine that some studio time had been reserved and ‘some people’ weren’t invited, and I was like, ‘You got to be f—ing kidding me.’ So I finished out the year, it was largely my band and my crew and no one was having that much fun.”
Thomasson would stay with The Outlaws through 2006 and would pass away from a heart attack in 2007. Even though he knew about Thomasson’s penchant for the wild life, Paul was stunned at his old friend’s death.
“Old habits die hard, but I was shocked. Monte called me around 2 in the morning and said, ‘Hughie died tonight at around eleven o’clock.’ And I said, ‘You’re…kidding.’ So not long after, Monte and I decided we were gonna put the band back together, but we hit some legal turbulence and that was extremely disturbing. I got drug down this long winding expensive legal road, cost me hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we got it done. I mean, man, I was hoping to reignite the fan base and see if The Outlaws could go another decade, that’s all. We released what I think’s a pretty good record, It’s About Pride, in September of last year.”
The latest Outlaws incarnation brings it back alive (courtesy rocklegendscruise.com)
Paul continues to do double duty with The Outlaws and Blackhawk to this day and feels that he and old buddy Monte Yoho have managed to keep The Outlaws fire aflame with dignity and respect to the past.
“Our band is tight, and Monte and I are very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with [The Outlaws], and we’ve kept the professionalism and level of musical play at a very high level. We miss Hughie, and we miss Billy, and we miss Frank, but they went on a long journey to another place.”