Ozzy Osborne was on the radio captivating aspiring rock stars around the world, and a young Reverend Horton Heat was among them.
“I thought it was pretty cool to be a rock star with all of those screaming girls, that was pretty much what inspired me,” said Jim Heath (aka Reverend Horton Heat).
But growing up in Texas, rock ‘n’ roll came with a healthy dose of country. Heath would listen to music with his cousins who were into rock ‘n’ roll, country and rockabilly.
“I was lucky in the respect that there was a mom and pop record store kind of near my house, and — I’ll never forget this — I rode my bike up to the store looking for either a Black Sabbath or an Alice Cooper album. Being a young male kid, I wanted this scary aggressive music,” said Heath.
When he arrived at the record store he experienced something that changed him.
“I was in the store [and] he was playing blues and Howlin’ Wolf and his voice was scary and raw. It was rockin’ music. And I thought ‘Man, that’s cool.’ I turned on a dime and all of a sudden Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath seemed like little fanciful guys that dress like wizards and I didn’t want any of that then.”
By the time Heath was in his early teens, he was beginning to learn to play the guitar.
“I had a guitar teacher here and there when I was young. I had one teacher when I was 13, and a friend my age who was an accomplished classical guitar player. He started getting into blues and I was getting into blues, so he started showing me how play ninth chords,” Heath said.
“I showed up to my lesson playing ninth chords and my teacher said, ‘um you aren’t ready to do that yet.’ And I was like ‘What do you mean? I’m doing it! Let’s go, I wanna play the blues,’ and he just said, ‘you need to learn the blah blah blah.’ That was enough of that for me and I just quit the lessons and started learning off records.”
Heath discovered early on that it was easy for him to learn guitar solos by listening to records, and in high school he joined a 50s cover band.
“I started out just being a lead guitar player, but as a lead guitar player in a cover band you’re really at the mercy of what the singers want. They had me because I was into this blues thing, Chess Records, and they were thinkin’ ‘that’s pretty cool, if he can do that then it’s easy for you to do Chuck Berry.’ So I would do Chuck Berry and it fit into the ‘50s thing pretty well. Other bands would do the rock songs of the day and then kind of what ever was popular to get by. Back then in Texas even if you were a hard rock band you still had to play some kind of country songs,” he said.
Heath played in bands off and on until he was in college, then decided to get a real job. But when he got married and had a child he realized something unusual.
“One thing that was kind of interesting for me was that I was kind of in and out of college at various times in my life and I was back in college and I got married really young and then we had a baby. So there I was at 23 years old, in college workin’ these jobs that barely paid anything.
“Basically I was in a position where I had to go back and start playin’ in bands which is kind of an unusual situation. Most guys have to quit the band and go get a real job, and I had to quit the real job and go back to the band because of the money. I’m glad I did it now.”
One of the three jobs he was working was setting up the PA system for a night club.
“The guy at the night club had nicknames for everybody and I guess I was the token rockabilly guy and he thought I looked like someone by the name of Horton, so he called me Horton for some reason instead of Jim,” he said.
“By that time I was very much thrown into the rockabilly scene and I’d been in rockabilly bands and played guitar with some pretty famous rockabilly people, and I was writing my own songs in that vein. He heard me playing and singing and really liked it and asked me I wanted a gig — and this is when I was just going to be playing my songs by myself with no band at all. So he said ‘How about two weeks from Thursday I want you to play?’ and I said OK.”
The day of the gig arrived and Heath was setting up his equipment early.
The guy from the night club came up to Heath and told him something that would help shape the next 25 years of his life.
“He said ‘your stage name is going to be Reverend Horton Heat, OK?’ and I said ‘What? Reverend? Reverend Horton Heat!’ And I was like ‘no way, now you’re giving me a stage name, I just thought you were giving me a gig.’
“But little did I know he had already put that name on the flyer and listed it in the paper. That night, my very first gig, had a good little crowd and I finished my first set and people were calling me Reverend. I was like ‘What is this?’ People were coming up to me saying, ‘that was really good Reverend,’ and I was just confused.
“But I was so poor and broke and desperate at the time that I was just grateful to have the opportunity to do it and it turned out to be a full on 25 year career.”
Even though the Reverend intended on being a solo act, he began hiring musicians to accompany him on stage. His current bass player is Jimbo Wallace, who has been playing with him for 22 years.
“The drummer situation was like Spinal Tap. I went through a lot of drummers. The guy that I’ve got now is Paul Simmons and he’s awesome. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever known in my life and he’s the best drummer we’ve ever had,” he said.
When Reverend Horton Heat takes the stage on September 1 it’s hard to know what the audience will see.
“We throw the bass in the air…There is just a lot of good guitar playing and a lot of good guitar playing. It depends; sometimes at venues we play there will be a mosh pit and other times there will be swing dancing, so I don’t know what to expect.”
Reverend Horton Heat plays at The Royal at 9 p.m. Tickets are $35 and are available at liveattheroyal.com or at The Royal Espresso.