Key became a professional musician at 45

after having picked up the guitar when he was 26 years old and taught himself how to play...


I was born in Seattle in Kings County Hospital. I’m six months younger than Jimi Hendrix. Don’t do the math, I want to be younger than somebody and I am six months younger than Jimi. He was born in the same hospital as I was.

What was your early childhood like?

My family fell apart when I was three. A new family was formed a year later. My step-grandparents had a working ranch. They liked me. They thought their daughter, my step-mom, was the Devil. I was raised half in the city and half on the ranch. I was constantly dreaming about being on the ranch especially when it was gray and raining, which, being Seattle was a lot. The sun shined at the ranch. I started doing chores up there when I was four- feeding the pigs with my step-cousin who was the same age as me. They’d send us into the pen with buckets of slop. Pigs were bigger than us. 

By the time I was 12, I was a full-on ranch hand driving heavy equipment. By the time we moved to Portland, the birth of rock-n-roll was happening. I saw Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley on the television. At school I went from being totally unpopular to an overnight sensation because I could dance. But that didn’t last long; I went back to hanging around my old friends. I did start working on the railroad so I could buy my first car, a 1950 Mercury. Maroon, with banana interior, and a flathead V8. I was styling.

I graduated high school in 1961.  I was given a choice - jail or armed forces.  I wanted to go into the Air Force, but at the last minute realized I would be by myself because all my friends were going into the Marines. So I did too. Figured I might-as-well, I knew I wouldn’t fit into the cockpit of the planes anyway.

Boot camp was hardcore. This was the time before Mothers for Marines stepped in and softened the training. The rules were if you had a relative you were granted a 4-hour leave on Sundays. I decided to track down my Uncle Jim. I found him. We would go to the bullfights in Tijuana. He was the coolest human. 

Decades later, he asked me what I was doing. I had just started playing at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, NM. He told me he was born and raised in Madrid, NM. He died soon after he told me. His tombstone is in the hills back behind town.

Where were you stationed?

El Toro in Los Angeles. I scored real high on intelligence test so they were grooming me to be an officer. I had an assignment as a MP. I had total power at the entry gate. I didn’t like the job and shook a high-ranking officer down good. Next thing I knew I was on rattlesnake duty on the helicopter pad. The rattlers sunned themselves on the hot cement. I was to kill them. I didn’t like that job either. I got out in 1964. 3 years and 14 days. I spent some hard time in the brig. I told an officer to fuck off. He was the trial judge. Not a good move on my part.

What was the music scene in Los Angeles like?

When I started in the Marines in ’61, R & B ruled the airways. All day and night it was Sam Cooke and the music of Motown. That all changed when the Beatles showed up in ’64, but before then radio rocked. 

Somehow I hooked up with four girls who had just graduated from University of Chicago and moved to LA. They really liked me and two of my friends in the Corp. I got a fake ID and we would go to all the after-hour blues clubs. I cut my musical teeth on live jazz. For years. All the greats. Sonny Rolands, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Lou Rawls, Miles Davis. That’s why I approach music the way I do. With Jazz you’re always sitting close to the musicians. 

I never did hear John Coltrane, but Alice Coltrane was brought over to the table I was sitting at to meet us. I stood up and said to her, “I should be walking to your table.”

What did you do when you got out of the service?

I hid for six months. The Vietnam War started to happen. I got out just in time. I didn’t want to be called back in. Eventually I made my way back up to Portland. I started road racing and working as a brakeman on the railroad going up the Columbia Gorge. That was a dream job.

It was during that time music started pulling on me. I had to make a choice - road racing or music. Some of the judges thought I was the most brilliant driver they ever saw. Others thought I was a mad man who was sure to get somebody killed. I knew what I was doing, but then I realized I wasn’t going to fit in any car unless I built my own and that would be too much labor. I remember I had two red race cars on trailers in front of my house. I sold them and moved to Los Angeles. 

I wanted to get my pilot’s license. I got my private one in Burbank, and commercial one in Santa Monica. I got a story there if you want it. Has to do with my cat-like instincts and saving the life of me and my instructor. We almost collided with a 747. Not my fault. I flew a lot between LA and Las Vegas until I got kicked out for counting cards. 

I flew into Santa Fe one time too. Little later, early 70s. 

My first bass player had a gig in Albuquerque. It was a good enough reason. He was in the first band I formed. I had a great keyboardist too. He played the Hammond B3. I was the lead singer and played the harmonica. I saw what other musicians had to lug around and decided I was going to be a crafty motherfucker. I was going to get into the music business and not be burdened down with shit. It all backfired. Problem was, I kept hearing the music I wanted the lead guitar player to play, but he wasn’t. That’s when I said to my bass player I wanted to learn the guitar. He did too, so we went up to Sausalito and that’s where it began. We would go out to Angel Island and practice in the sunshine. Seals would line-up and listen all day. 

My bass player picked up learning the guitar quick, but I kept trying to quit on him. He wouldn’t let me. Said he had “notes” but I had a “feel”. He also said people are either going to really love what I was doing, or not get it. 

What years were these?

Late 60s. I had a job at the Hip Job Co-op in San Francisco near Haight Ashbury. It was a real loose kind of place. Riots were breaking out across the country and people said they were about to happen in San Francisco. Everyone got off the streets that night and boarded up their homes. A flatbed truck filled 6ft high with carnations pulled up to the Co-op. A wedding had been cancelled and he asked if we could use them. He had nowhere to go so he drove real slowly through the city and we littered the streets with the flowers. No riots broke out in San Francisco.

What was the scene like for you?

I got into psychedelics and had a black TR4. I started running Owsley acid from San Francisco to Portland. I’d buy it at $2.50 a hit and sell it for $5. I did that for the whole psychedelic period. White lightning, mellow yellow. I saw it as my job to bring acid to all of the Pacific Northwest.

I just partied on acid. But it didn’t break open my shell. Took STP to do that. I remember meeting this guy in San Francisco who said, “Yeah, all my friends had to go to hospital to get Thorazine.” I knew that STP was the drug for me.

What music did you listen to?

There was so much music back then. In every park there was something going on. In clubs. Everywhere. I just soaked it all up. 

In Portland my friend ran the Chrystal Ballroom. Everyone played there. I saw the Ramones first tour. I learned to be careful who I went to see. My energy was big and when it mixed with other people who had big energy it could go wrong. I learned that when I went to see Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. They looked at me and we both got scared. So when Jim Morrison and the Doors came through I stayed in the lobby and sold acid. I sold a lot of it too that night. I didn’t even go near the place when Jimi played.

The electric blues players were on the scene, too. John Lee Hooker. Albert King. B.B. King. I was told to keep him company for a couple of hours after he closed out the Chrystal Ballroom. It was closed for 20 years after that. I heard a lot of Buddy Guy. He was the inspiration for me to pick up the guitar. Albert Collins and I became friends later through our mutual love of buses. I got drunk with Junior Wells, but that was later, in Taos.

How long did you stay in the psychedelic scene? 

Year, year and a half. Maybe two. I don’t know for sure. I started rotating out of drugs and psychedelia because my body told me to stop. It was around the time I was going out to the blues clubs.

Were you playing out?

No I was still practicing. When I first started playing the guitar, I thought I would learn a few changes on the guitar and that would be that. Now I looked up and saw a long, dark road ahead of me because I couldn’t play at all. I was hearing monster players and thought I had to be there before I was ready to be a professional. The first time I played out live was between Robert Cray’s set one night. He came through town a lot and once I approached him and asked if I could play. He looked me up and down and said sure. Afterwards he said good set.

What were you doing?

I started driving trucks for outlaw outfits. We didn’t stop for scales. I didn’t know what I was doing but I knew heavy equipment. I fucked up big one time, though. I picked up a hitchhiker and took a different route through the mountains than I was supposed to. I being a dumbie having no clue what happens in the Rockies. I overheated the brakes and burnt up two tires. I limped the semi back to the owners. I got it back though! The owner’s brother took me aside and asked if I really wanted to learn to drive trucks. He taught me well. I drove for a year or so, then I had a dream about driving a bus between Portland and San Francisco. When I woke up I looked down at the table I’d fallen asleep on and there was a bus ad. I bought it and drove that route for years, went all the way up to Seattle. Then I sold bus, now an old Greyhound, and route to the guy who started the Green Tortoise. He was a good friend. That was in 1974.

I went back to trucking. I drove for eight years. I listened to ZZ Top and later ACDC, and kept my head down, playing my guitar. Well, I did spend winter in Hawaii surfing and flying a little plane between the islands. That was fun.

I had to quit trucking because it got to be where I couldn’t do anything else, and I didn’t know how to live anywhere. Then my girlfriend moved to Santa Fe. I came to visit, rented a room, and stayed. That was around 1981 or so. I sunk back into my music. I didn’t still didn’t play out live until 1985. I got my first gig as a working musician at the Mind Shaft in Madrid. I had a weekly solo gig. $50 a night. 

I was 45 years old and starting on a new path. I had done everything on the planet I had wanted to do, now it was time be a musician. The reason I started late was because I saw so many people get burned out on music and I didn’t want to get burned out. I’m still not burned out!

Where did you play next?

I didn’t think I was good enough to play with other musicians yet, so I got into MIDI gear and made my own band. I got hired in as a solo player with my MIDI at the Lone Wolf. I had a weekly. $250 a night. Everyone loved it. I made it real funky. I recorded a mean version of Chief Seattle. That song came to me when I was driving trucks. Came over the CB radio. Others heard it too.

Did you travel anywhere?

I went to Los Angeles and stayed in a hotel down on the beach in Santa Monica. Some guy heard me playing in my room and knocked on my door. He hooked me up with Motown Records and I was a session player there for a while. Really, though, I felt pulled to go to England. Genealogically  I’m Irish and Scottish and I had a friend who had a friend in London. I went with my guitar. As soon as I put my foot on the ground, I felt like I was home for the first time. I formed a band and shot to the top, ended up playing the Astoria on a Saturday night. Only problem was I didn’t have a work visa. I had dodged immigration for 7 months, but then I got too big. I ran out the back door of the Astoria and got on a plane. I couldn’t figure out how to get back in legally then. No one else could either. I did go back later on a tour in 2007. At the big festival, people shouted out for me to play Bubba’s Truck. They knew my album Tiny Sparkles. One big reviewer there loved that album and said so. I guess somebody listened.

Where did you go back to?

Santa Fe. I talked it over with a friend about what to do next and drove my tour bus to New Orleans. I had a passenger who had some land I could park bus at on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I got a gig at Ruby’s Roadhouse. I loved New Orleans. Black and white communities lived real close together and we never saw no trouble, never even saw somebody treated wrongly.

Daryl Johnson, a monster bass player, New Orleans to the bone, loved my music and let me hang out at his house. That just put me up to another level. I sat in on sessions Daniel Lanois was producing. I played in the New Orleans Jazz Festival. I went out twice with Ironingboard Sam playing back roads. We’d drive around looking for where all the cars were. Usually little clubs set up in houses. It was illegal, but the cops let it be. It was a lower rung than the Chitlin’ Circuit. Ironingboard Sam was a one-man show. I just played solo. It was a good time.

When I realized New Orleans wasn’t a guitar town, I could see two choices - Nashville or Austin. Since I don’t have the twang for country, I decided to go up to Austin. There was a club I wanted to play in - Black Cat Lounge. I just loved the place. I walked in one afternoon and the owner was there. He looked me up and down and hired me for the Friday night after next. (When I was 45 years old, I looked closer to 20.) Then he had me sit in with the band for a song that was just striking up, just to make sure. Right away I became one of the big deals in town. Chris Duarte and Ian Moore were playing around. So was Stevie. We were all going hot and heavy doing all original work. This was ’89 - 90.

Tomato Records became interested in me. And when Bob Johnston heard me solo he got completely torqued and thought I was the best thing he ever heard.

Stevie died right around then. Everyone collapsed into a “What?” He was a killer guitar player; we all loved him.

Bob Johnston asked me if I wanted to record with Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton (Double Trouble). They were good musicians so I said yes. We began recording my songs. Sometime into it I was part of a big benefit at the Continental Club. I remembering looking in the dressing room and seeing 20 Stratocasters lined up. I also realized I was the only musician in the room not from Texas. I knew then that it wasn't going to work for me in Austin. Right after that the studio handed me a check for a lot less money than agreed upon. I told Tommy and Chris I was done. They said they would be too. We did one last night in the studio just for fun and I fled to Santa Fe and snowboarded for five years. It was in Austin, though, that I learned how to be a working musician.

How did you come to snowboard?

I was skateboarding down the mountain. Something that I loved to do. And this guy is driving down the mountain. He sees me and I learned the word “snowboard”. Somehow, through no fault of my own, I fell into a “teenage” life. ”. I moved my bus onto the mountain. We were strapping our boots onto boards ourselves. I was playing gigs at night and snowboarding all day. I was doing that in my 50s. Power days were the best.

What was the music scene like for you?

Albert Collins came to town and called me up to hang out at Club West. He had parked his first real tour bus on the street. He was so proud. I wanted to see Buddy Guy play when he and Junior Wells came through Taos. It was the last of his wild, drugged crazed era. But I didn’t get to. I opened for them. Afterward, Junior Wells came up to me and said he’d seen a lot of players, but I was the real thing. We finished off a bottle of Tanqueray. Just the two of us. I wasn’t drinking more than him. I was just trying to stay even. He was giving me all kinds of advice for life on the road. I remember he passed the “torch” to me, but I don’t remember where I put it.

How did you come to release Cosmic Garage? 

I was playing a lot around Santa Fe. I had great musicians - Baird Banner and Jeff Nelson. We were a power trio. They made me a better player. I’d been writing lots of songs. It was my psychedelic period. The opportunity to record an album at Steppingridge came up and so I went in and out came Cosmic Garage in 1997. I didn’t know what to do next. I’m not a career person. I don’t even know what a career is. I just hoped someone would see me who could do it for me. It happened a few times. My mind works gig to gig. I’m always focused on the next gig. My thing is being as good as I can be on the next gig. It’s a path. 

Where did you record Tiny Sparkles?

A studio out in Lone Butte. It was, and is, my only real studio album. I did that in 1999. It’s also the album the reviewer in England raved about. Just after I finished it, I started going to San Francisco and playing. I was going back and forth, then I got a room and had a go at the Bay area. I had a weekly. I hung out for a while but it just didn’t click. I decided to head to New York City. I had a friend there in the business.

What year is this? 

2001. Yeah, I got there two months before 9/11. I played the Film Festival and got a good response, but I could feel something was amiss in the city. I left out and headed to Burning Man. The next week the towers came down. 

I moved back to San Francisco and wrote songs. I had a few gigs in Santa Fe and was playing out the new music. The musicians were great. I decided to record a live session under a copper pyramid ceiling at someone’s house. I called the recording The Pyramid Session Live. I also recorded a solo album with new songs written in San Francisco. After about a year in the Bay area and not finding musicians to form a band with, I headed down the coast to Malibu. Right away I got a Friday night gig at one of the best blues clubs in Los Angeles. Only one left today. After 9/11, the music industry began to shift.

What happened in Los Angeles?

I was playing with great musicians. My drummer was from New Orleans and he had that swing. My bass player toured with Cameo. Still does. Actually there were several really good bass players to choose from. And some of the best studio drummers loved playing my music. The owner of the club in LA signed me to his label and I recorded the songs I had recorded with Tommy and Chris It’s called Friday Night Live. It was my goodbye to heading up a dance floor in a blues club. I wanted to do something totally different. 

Did you?

Yeah, the owner give me a Wednesday weekly to do with what I wanted. Deep Eddy. It was theatrical. I had a fire dancer and a conga player, and for a time a violin player with a bass player and drummer. I came into the music from my psychedelic side. It was great, and starting to become known, but it ran its course.

What did you do then?

I moved to Detroit. I had always had a love for Detroit and the music that came out of the city. I got a good gig there and was working on getting more when the place I was playing closed. I was totally bummed and went back to Los Angeles, but couldn’t get anything going again so I moved back to Santa Fe, and here I am.



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