While a good portion of the country was still scarfing up the last of the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, Orlando’s Big Shirley was dishing up their own funked-up version of dessert. Indeed, their opening gig for Rick James at the House Of Blues was a big phat cherry on top of what has been a remarkable 12 months for the band. They’ve been honored with two Orlando Music Awards (1997 Band Of The Year and 1997 Best Funk/Groove Band) and released a self-titled 4-song CD that has done brisk sales. Their single “Step It On Up” is featured in a current statewide Burdines promotion, and new fans are being won everyday through MTV exposure and major radio airplay in the southeast. Not bad for their first year together.
Original members Al Cheek (vocals), Bob Heina (guitar), Brett Crook (drums), Butch Gonzales (bass), and Dave Vannoy (trombone) have been joined by Roland Simmons (guitar), Larry Merigalano (trumpet) and Chris Charles (saxophone) in a slim and trim eight-piece funk machine that has only begun to grease its gears with the sweat of the people. After giving Rick James something to contend with in a fiery display of smokin’ soul, the band headed upstairs to their opera box, and I was invited along to share in the afterglow. With sound check going on in the background and ice cold Budweiser being passed around, I sat with the band, and we got profound — here’s a backstage peek at the Big Shirley sound. Reet.
First of all, Happy Thanksgiving to y’all.
[The band lets forth with a variety of reciprocal greetings.]
Lord knows you’ve got plenty to be thankful for! Two Orlando Music Awards, several funky opening act gigs, a hot single, MTV exposure — that’s a hell of a list for a band that’s still in its first year. Any reflections, mistakes made, lessons learned?
Al Cheek: It’s about damn time.
Bob Heina: We’re beginning to learn, just now, it’s taken a while, but we’re beginning to learn.
Al: I think the biggest thing I learned is that if you play what comes from your heart, people are going to represent… pretty much that’s what I learned this year, we’ve all been in other bands before, we’ve worked hard at it, but this, I think, is the first time all of us really got together and played with our hearts.
So before the formation of Big Shirley, how did you guys hook up?
Bob: Actually, it was the two of the guys that aren’t in the band any longer, and we were kinda jammin together and I dragged them out of the rooms from jammin together and into actually turning it into a real band. It was Gary and Dale, I was living with Gary at the time and pretty much told him that if they wanted to start getting something going — I’d get on the phone and try to find some others. It took a couple of months but we ended up with a seven piece band. I got Brett (he was in another band with me at the time) and called the other guys together and took a few months before we played our first show. We opened for Dag, another funk band around, ’bout a year ago at Sapphire. Those guys were in the band for about a year, and just kind of fell out. We did a lot of heavy roadwork, took a lot out of us, pretty much all lost our jobs and we dedicated our lives and stuff — apparently the two of them just couldn’t do that, they couldn’t throw it all away. So we picked up Roland, who was playing with me and Brett a couple of years ago, and we just stayed with one bass player, picked up a whole new horn section six months ago. Things are going real good.
Al: We’re starving a little bit but we all got the attitude.
So this is your real job?
Al: This is all of our real jobs. It’s a difficult thing to keep that at task, but we are doing it, we still are — we’re dedicated to it.
You’ve got a follow-up album due in February on Kingsnake Records, how’s that comin’ — what’s the title?
Bob: We don’t have a name for the whole album yet, we’ve got about nine tunes that are roughly done right now, we’re probably going to add two or three more, probably be about eleven or twelve tunes by the time we’re done — and we’re going to try to get it all wrapped up by the end of the year as far as recording it, that way we’ll get it out by February. It’ll either be on Kingsnake or like two or three other labels. We’re trying to really get them to put it out so we can get a little bit more distribution than what Kingsnake can do, but Kingsnake’s still definitely all national and you can order it worldwide also, so at least we’ll have national distribution.
A lot of bands are drooling for a major label deal, but you guys seem content to do your thing and wait it out.
Bob: We’ve been doin’ that.
Al: Don’t get us wrong. We’re looking for a major labor deal, it’s reality —
Bob: At the same time, we don’t want a deal that’s going to put us in a hole either, you wanna get a deal that’s going to work on every end.
Al: We gotta pick up a right deal.
Bob: We got nine guys here, it’s not three or four guys that if something fucks up — you got three or four guys that are out, we’ve got nine guys that have dedicated themselves and at least seven or eight that are always there.
Bob: To keep that going, it’s more than just grab a label, the first one that comes at you.
Co-existing with other band members can be described as a marriage…
Al: It’s more like a brotherhood. We’re brothers.
Bob: I’ve already filed for divorce numerous times.
How do you guys manage the songwriting, schedule arranging, the beer runs and stuff without killing each other?
Bob: [Laughing] We don’t, we’ve had a very good time in the past two months.
Al: It just works. We have our fights, just like any brotherhood is gonna have their fights, but the reality is we know that we’re stuck with each other. So no matter what happens or how bad it gets, we patch it up, because we have to. We’re men, we’re not boys anymore. We gave up good careers, some of us, to go for this all the way and if somebody leaves, we’re gonna kick some ass!
I’ve heard your sound described as “groovalicious,” “space-funk,” and “gangsta jazz.” How do you describe it?
Al: Pretty much different for each person. Some guys think it’s soul-sonic, punk-funk, I’m straight-up funk.
Larry Merigalano: I call it music.
Al: It’s just soul, man. It makes the soul shake and awake.
Al: [Laughing] Nah, not medicinal — savage, savage funk bro’.
Even though it never left, do you think there’s a resurgence in p-funk going on?
Brett Crook: I don’t think it ever left. It’s always been around.
Al: I think people are generally trying to find their souls, they’re getting more soulful. You see some of the little kids running around with the beatbox and kicking it, trying to get back in touch with their soul. There’s an awakening in music in general, people yearning for something more satisfying.
[Turning to Brett] You had something else.
Brett:. [Laughing] No, I was talking to him, that’s off the record.
Butch Gonzales:. Rick James is a big fan of Big Shirley, he signed my bass.
Al: And now Butch is gonna go sign his.
I like what you said during the show, “hey Rick James is on AFTER us!”
Al: That’s right baby, there’s always gonna be people out there like that, you know what I’m saying?
[Trombone player Dave Vannoy walks in to the cheers of the group]
Bob : Hey Dave! Hey hold on, get Dave in here, get in here. No one’s ever written a story on this guy here, we lost this guy for about…
Dave Vannoy: I’m the first guy to quit his job for this band. And the first one to go get a job again.
You’ve got a savage sound, man.
Dave: Oh that wasn’t me, that was my brother.
Al:. Yeah they got a trombone family.
Elena.: It was the stand-in.
[The room collapses in laughter and heckling about genetic codes and the like. Elena attempts to hush the group.] What were some of the possible band names that were tossed around?
Butch: The Bluebirds!
Bob: The House Of Deluxe!
Al: Black Velvet Elvis.
Butch: The Fabulous Dolomite!
So, why settle on Shirley from “What’s Happening!”?
Butch: It is not about that chick from “What’s Happening!,” it’s not about her, it’s about Cole’s girlfriend on “Martin,” her name is Big Shirley, that’s where it came from. Me and our old guitar player, we were at a bar one night and we were makin’ fun of these fat girls comin’ up — we said, “uh-oh, here comes Big Shirley!” and I said, “man — that’d be a good name for the band.” And that’s that, now this is Dolomite signing off.
At this point, I finished my beer and talked with the band awhile before heading downstairs to catch Rick James’ follow-up. It was suggested that I tag along to do a piece about life on the road with Big Shirley the next day; the band was heading up to Tallahassee to spread a little more peace, funk and steamy joy. But with a deadline to meet and plenty of tape filled with the “CHECK! CHECK!” of a sound tech to decode, I took a rain check and looked forward to another chance to hang with these sincerely soulful guys.