“Why isn’t this guy famous?” has got to be one of the most frequently heard reactions to a Dick Deluxe performance.
Porn star-like name notwithstanding, Deluxe is actually a musician—a captivating singer and guitarist, a prolific songwriter, and a subtly magnificent bandleader who seems to have an encyclopedia of obscure country tunes tattooed somewhere on the inside of his skull. He’s also apparently played with every type of band under the sun.
So, why not more famous? It probably has something to do with his workaholism-fueled sticklerism for being technically adept, rather than focus his energies on self-promotion. He’s the kind of guy that says things like, “I started off as a frontman, but then got good enough to be a sideman.”
Lately, he’s finally been wheedled into a bit of self-promotion. His own qualms aside, it’s fantastic for the rest of us. If anyone deserves his turn in the spotlight, it’s Dick Deluxe.
The Wisconsin-born childhood trombonist switched to guitar in time to “run away to San Francisco during college to play some rock and roll.” His colorful history has taken him all around the country before finally landing him in New Orleans a couple years back, where you’ll find him most often playing around Frenchmen Street with percussionist/harmonica-extraordinaire Jimmy Sweetwater. Their project is called “SweetDeluxe,” which is a much better name than “DickWater” would have been.
Both members sing, and the multi-talented Sweetwater complements Deluxe’s guitar with wailing harmonica and a rhythm section driven by his one-of-a-kind washboard, a homemade contraption decked out with countless bells, whistles, and other percussive doodads.
Their duo is sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric, and often not a duo at all–a rotating cast of musician friends is always at the ready to sit in. For over a month this summer, for instance, the weekly SweetDeluxe Marigny Brasserie gig was a quartet, with drummer Pete Bradish and upright bassist Ryan Donohue filling out their sound. (Bradish and Donohue recently departed to tour Europe with Kim Carson.)
A typical set list features original compositions, old country tunes, folk ballads, rollicking blues numbers, even a few rock/pop hits, and more.
“We do a lot of American music of all different kinds,” Sweetwater explained. “Everything from country to blues to folksy music… I don’t like the word ‘Americana,’ though. We’re songsters. Doing all the stuff we like. That’s it.”
“I think of myself as a kind of a song connoisseur,” Deluxe said. “Whether it’s my material that I’m writing or covers that I’m doing. And I take exception to the word ‘cover,’ at least as it applies to me. What I do is interpret. I interpret my own songs differently almost every time I play.”
The act is in a class of its own, for many reasons.
“We think like a jazz band,” as Deluxe put it. “I might call a different tempo at any different time, I’ll play an introduction different, I’ll do an ending–none of the endings are ever really the same. We’re improvising.”
“To really know a song,” he explained, “you’ve got to have it hardwired into you. Then you can interpret it. If you’re worried about the lyrics, or reading it off a sheet of paper, you’re not gonna be digging deep. Which is one of the reasons I’m such a stickler for being vocationally sound. I can play the bass part and sing all the parts, and, you know, I could play the drums if necessary. That’s when I feel like I really know a song.”
“I tailor my songs to my musicians too,” he went on. “So, if I have a more of a ‘jazz guy’ like Ryan [Donohue], I can be free to play anything I know how to play, with some pretty sophisticated chord changes. The thing that makes me employable as a leader is that I’m pretty good at selecting. There’s a talent ceiling, but there’s also a taste ceiling, and a choice ceiling.”
“It’s the knothole theory,” he grinned. “I always wanna be the knothole. If I’m the knothole, I’m in a pretty good place.”
As much as he relishes being the “knothole” within a band of exemplary musicians (although it’s hard to imagine that being the case very often), he digs his solo gigs too. “I have total freedom then,” he explained. “It’s more of an intimate, personal thing.”
His solo acoustic act is also a great showcase for a quite distinctive fingerpicking style. Its rich, pianist quality marks Deluxe as a truly remarkable musician to anyone with a trained ear. That being said, you don’t have to be a trained musician to appreciate his talent.
He can interpret Hank Williams, followed by Earl King, followed by Stephen Foster, and he nails the vibe each time.
“If you put me in a room full of people, I’ll entertain the motherfuckers,” he laughed.
Deluxe has had a lot of success over the years playing with jazz and blues bands because, as he admitted with a modest shrug, “I can swing pretty much anything. And that, to me, is–I don’t care if you’re playing rock, punk rock, polkas, whatever. It’s still gotta swing.”
“You’ve seen me doing that silly punk stuff, right?” he asked. “And it’s laughable, but I love it. And I think it’s pretty cool! I mean, we’re not gonna win any Pulitzer Prize for being in tune or anything, but it allows us to just be completely nutty.”
He also puts together various duos around town, usually playing guitar but occasionally bass or mandolin. The “Dick and Rod Show,” with the Iguanas’ Rod Hodges, is a particular favorite.
“Rod’s a great country and blues guy,” Deluxe said. “I can pull out my most obscure stuff, and he loves it, and he does the same. That’s always total fun.”
Of all the performers he admires in New Orleans, “Washboard” Lissa Driscoll (who OffBeat featured this past spring in our Faces of Frenchmen video series) is up at the very top of the list.
“She’s something. I love playing with her,” he emphasized. “She’s got the most authentic feel for country blues I’ve ever heard, even from the people she’s learning it from. She–I mean, you’d swear Jessie Mae Hemphill was there, or Etta Baker. The way she plays time. I would argue she’s a genius, you know?”
“I mean, she’s crazy as fuck,” he continued with a grin, “but her feel is so strong. I think she’s right there with Lucinda Williams. I really do.”
He would know, having certainly studied under and played with his fair share of genius over the course of his career. Bill Barrett, Joe Paquin, Danny Ott, and John Perry are just the beginning.
While living in San Francisco, Deluxe also spent a decade playing with Richard Marriott’s modern jazz outfit “Club Foot Orchestra,” a Ralph Records act that provided the soundtracks to silent films.
“We played live in the theaters, and we used to dress up as characters,” Deluxe explained. “We were kind of a real critics-pick hipster band, but we didn’t work that much relatively speaking, so I was also in a zydeco band called the Sun Dogs.”
He doesn’t play much modern jazz these days, though. “I’m just not interested anymore,” he admitted. “I mean, if I hear James Singleton and those guys play, I can listen to a set and enjoy it, but for the most part, it’s just so self indulgent, so obscure, and it’s just–I like entertaining people. I like singing a lot. I like songs. I think I think like a jazz player, but I play the repertoire I play.”
Even more out there, Deluxe was also involved from the very beginning in San Francisco’s storied punk scene.
“I was around when punk rock started, in 1976. Right before the 4th of July,” he remembered. “And I’m coming back on the train from Berkeley, and there’s these two girls, and they’ve got safety pins in their cheeks. I was like, ‘What the fuck? Is this, like, Halloween?’ They were from New Zealand, and they were like, ‘Oh, no, no, haven’t you heard of punk rock?’ And I’m thinking, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ So about three or four, maybe six months later, my next door neighbor—he was this guy who played Coltrane-style modern jazz, he’d always wear, like, a suit, he was super serious—he shows up at the house with a mohawk and a leather jacket. I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’ and he says, ‘It’s called punk rock. There’s this band called the Ramones…’”
“So, I jumped right into it. I was a little overqualified,” he chuckled, “but I got to do a bunch of fun, goofy stuff. I did a handful of gigs substituting in Paul Revere and the Raiders… I backed up the Coasters once, by accident.”
San Francisco, he explained, “was the first place I played where I played seven nights a week. And vocationally speaking, you can’t beat that. I think I’m old-school in the sense that I’m really a big vocational guy.”
He eventually relocated to Bellingham, where “it was more playing Grateful Dead songs, or the Allman Brothers, or R&B stuff,” and lived in L.A., a city which he found to have the highest concentration of “real polymath genius” session musicians he’s ever encountered.
He played music vocationally until he was 32, when his daughter was born. He took a brief, 20-year hiatus from music and went into the business world. He worked for Microsoft companies in Seattle, Silicon Valley, and beyond while raising his daughter and putting her through college. Afterwards, he moved back to California to get back into music and finally settled down in New Orleans.
Now that he’s well-situated in the city’s music scene, Dick Deluxe is laying down big plans for the future.
“I’m actually now just starting to think of this as an actual career again instead of… what my hustle is,” he grinned. “And the reason I’m really interested in taking it up to the next level is that I think I’ve got a bunch of great songs. I kind of think of them like kids after a while.”
“I’ve got 50 or 60 that are really, really strong on recordings already,” he went on, “and I’ve got another hundred songs I’d like to record. I’m hoping if things go right, we can release some of my backlog and get out some of the new stuff soon.”
He’s already released two albums of previously-recorded material, and he and Sweetwater are currently working on a SweetDeluxe recording. They’ve booked two tours (in the Midwest and in Florida) this fall, and they’re working on getting together a European tour within the next couple years as well.
“Moving up in the festival circuit… I never really tried before,” Deluxe said with a shrug. “People don’t just come up to you and tap you on the shoulder. You gotta really hustle. And if you build momentum, that’s when other people jump on the train.”
There’s little doubt that they’ll be able to build up the momentum. Case in point: after the applause died down at a recent SweetDeluxe set at the Apple Barrel, a one tourist summed things up neatly, wondering aloud in an only-semi-inebriated stage whisper, “Who the fuck are these guys? They blow every single one of those other assholes we’ve heard on this goddam, frat-boy street out of the fucking water.”
He paused, considering.
“By, like, a lot.”
Praise for SweetDeluxe has been phrased more gracefully, for sure, but this guy definitely had the right idea.