Texan Rocky Athas started playing guitar at school and performing at neighbourhood gigs with good friend Stevie Ray Vaughan.
By age 23, Rocky Athas was honoured as one of the ten best guitarists in Texas, as an inductee to Buddy Magazine's Texas Tornadoes. Stevie Ray Vaughan would receive his induction two years later. Rocky holds this honour with such noted guitarists as ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Eric Johnson, Bugs Henderson, Johnny Winter and Jimmy Vaughan. Rocky grew up playing with pal Stevie Ray Vaughan, and shortly after swapped headliner chores in a series of shows with another friend, Eric Johnson. No Less than Billy Gibbons, Pantera's "Dime-Bag" Darrell Abbott, and the New Bohemians' Kenny Withrow are long-time admirers of the Oak Cliff guitarist.
Rocky wasn't only recognized by Texas musicians, the English rock band 'Thin Lizzy' wrote the song 'Cocky Rocky' after hearing Rocky play one night at 'Mother Blues', a local Dallas club. 'Queen' guitarist Brian May was also on hand for those performances and was so floored by Rocky's finger tapping style that he incorporated it on the next Queen album. May later revealed that it was the guitarist from Mother Blues who first introduced him to the style, well before Eddie Van Halen became known for this.
In the late 70's and early 80's Rocky was the creative vortex behind Lightning, one of the biggest draws in Texas nightclub history. The band toured with the hottest arena acts of the time, including Ted Nugent, Pat Travers, The Kinks, Rick Derringer, Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, and Peter Frampton. At that time Rocky's fame was such that Guild introduced the Rocky Athas I guitar, and Gibson honoured Rocky by making him the only non-record label endorsee in the company's history.
Rocky took a further step up and received a well-earned and more substantial taste of the big time when he signed on as lead guitarist for the legendary 'Black Oak Arkansas'. Rocky also played on 'BOA's ' Ready As Hell' LP, and his remarkable musical presence is indelibly etched into the grooves of this critically acclaimed album. Rocky once again joined Jim Dandy and BOA touring in 1996 through 2001. Rocky and the group recorded their latest CD ' The Wild Bunch' which was released to great reviews in late 1999.
Rocky has also worked as a session guitarist for Polygram records out of Memphis Ardent Studios, and conducted a series of regional clinics in Dallas. He has co-written songs with former Deep Purple / Trapeze vocalist Glenn Hughes and released an album called ' Tommy Bolin: 1997 Tribute'. This albums release was followed by a US tour.
You can open the pages of 'Stevie Ray Soul To Soul', by Kerri Leigh and read Rocky's recollection of childhood memories that he and Stevie Ray Vaughan shared. They were schoolmates and friends growing up in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff, Texas.
Rocky's most recent accomplishments have included a project called The Blues Berries with drummer Buddy Miles from Jimi Hendrix's 'Band of Gypsy's', and SRV's rhythm section of Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon.
Mega producer Jim Gaines was brought in for The Rocky Athas Groups 2003 release Miracle. He felt Rocky's talents should be showcased under his own name and that resulted in Rocky forming his four piece Texan band, featuring the superb vocalist Larry Samford. Miracle was released internationally on the Armadillo label.
In 2005 Rocky released his next CD for Armadillo 'Voodoo Moon', again produced by Jim Gaines, to excellent reviews.
In 2007 The Rocky Athas’ Lightning CD was released and toured in the US and Europe.
The Lightning story is told below.
In 1974, at the age of 18, Rocky started his first all original rock band called Lightning. The 70's were the height of guitar oriented rock and although Rocky had played in bands prior to this, none fulfilled his need express himself as a songwriter too. From Lightning's inception, the goal was to be known for original music and for him to land a record deal as a guitarist/songwriter.
In the late 70s and early 80s Lightning was absolutely one of the biggest draws in Texas nightclub history. In both 1978 and 1982 Lightning won the Texas Battle of the Bands contest, which had over 3000 entries. They toured with the hottest arena acts of the time, including Ted Nugent, Pat Travers, The Kinks, Rick Derringer, Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, and Peter Frampton. Also at that time Rocky's fame was such that Guild introduced the Rocky Athas I guitar, and Gibson honored Rocky by making him the only non-record label endorsee in the company’s history. At 23 Rocky Athas was honored as one of the ten best guitarists in Texas, as an inductee to Buddy Magazine's Texas Tornadoes. Rocky's school friend Stevie Ray Vaughan would receive his induction two years later. Rocky wasn't only recognized by Texas musicians, the English rock band Thin Lizzy wrote the song Cocky Rocky after hearing Rocky play one night at Mother Blues, a local Dallas club. Queen guitarist Brian May was also on hand for those performances and was so floored by Rocky's finger tapping style that he incorporated it on the next Queen album. May later revealed that it was the guitarist from Mother Blues who first introduced him to the style, well before Eddie Van Halen became known for this.
Over the years the Lightning the line-up took many personnel changes, but the goal never wavered. Their notoriety in the South led to a very strong and loyal fan base, which brought them the attention of several different labels. Yet fate played its share of cruel games; a 1977 deal with United Artists soured when Lightning determined its signing had been treated as a tax write off. The last hoorah for Lightning was being signed by Capricorn Records with Phil Walden. After completing the first album, the company filed bankruptcy and the band couldn't regain it's momentum after that disappointing blow and finally went its separate ways to pursue other professional endeavours.
This walk down memory lane was inspired by all the requests from fans to hear a retrospective from the early days. Rocky has collaborated, on this project to re-record some of their personal favourites from the past, with lightning veterans Walter Watson, Skipper Wilson and Larry Samford. Larry is one of the original Lightning singers and the vocalist with his current band The Rocky Athas Group.
As Rocky says: "Thankfully, from 1974 to 1991, I grew as a songwriter and hopefully, you can tell from the song development! I was so inspired working with Walter, Lightning's most long term drummer and singer that we created a newfound love for the old material that I hope you hear in these recordings. I believe some of these old songs stand the test of time and I am proud to release them with all the new technology available. It was a real pleasure to revisit this material and I hope that you enjoy hearing it as much as I did creating it. Happy Listening!”
For the last few years Rocky Athas has been in the spotlight, touring the world, playing lead guitar for the legendary John Mayall.
If the Rocky Athas Group was blown away by their opening act as they took the stage at Dallas’ Granada Theatre on September 15, 2007, it was only because the opening act was Rocky Athas and his late 70’s act, Lightning. Coming off that opening set, Athas was winded, sweaty and drained, but smiling nonetheless. After all, were it not for the international success of the Rocky Athas Group, he might not have had the singular opportunity to open up for himself.
During the 1970’s, Lightning, through constant gigging, had built a solid reputation for themselves and before the decade was up, they had worked their way up to opening up for arena acts like Ted Nugent, Peter Frampton, Rick Derringer, Pat Travers and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow.
“We had a great time, we were well known, we were the biggest draw in Dallas back at that time,” Athas recalled. “I mean, there people lined up around the building every time. I remember going to the Alley in Houston and we played there four nights and got $3,500 and that was a lot in 1978, but we were spending so much money on P.A. rentals and we had three roadies and truck payments, so we had to keep working to keep it alive.”
Ironically, it was their success on the local level that contributed to their ultimate undoing. The band that had started with the goal of scoring a record deal was caught up in a weekend to weekend grind that left them unable to see the big picture.
“I wish now that we would not have worked so long and hard at just gigging, cause the next thing you know 10 years rolls by,” he lamented, “but I do wish looking back, that someone would have said ‘don’t worry about all these stupid little gigs, those clubs will be gone next week.’ But when you’re 20 and getting attention and playing every night and people are digging what you’re
doing and you’re getting paid, and you don’t have to have a day job, you just think ‘this is a great life,’ but it’s not really what we wanted. We wanted a record deal.”
A 1977 record deal with United Artists was a bitter disappointment when it was discovered that the band had actually been signed as tax write-off. In 1979, it seemed that the band had gotten their big break when they were signed to Phil Walden’s celebrated Capricorn Records, the home of the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, but the label went bankrupt as their first album was in the mixdown stage. The band continued to slug it out into the 1980’s, but threw in the towel shortly thereafter.
The 1980’s and 1990’s saw Athas re-emerge, joining up with Black Oak Arkansas. He also played with former Trapeze/Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes and recorded and toured with Buddy Miles (best known from Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies) alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan’s old rhythm section, Double Trouble.
He was eventually noticed by Tony Sweet’s Blue Armadillo records of London, England and he formed the Rocky Athas Group with vocalist Larry Samford, who had been one of Lightning’s original singers and bassist Guthrie Kennard (Ray Wylie Hubbard, ZZ Hill). Finally, he was able to concentrate on his original material again. 2003 saw the release of Miracle. Voodoo Moon followed in 2005.
“After I put the first two albums out, I started getting a really good following in Europe. So when people were reading my bio, the label kept getting all these hits (on their website) saying, ‘How can we buy Rocky's Lightning work?’” So the when the president of the label called me and said, ‘What would you think about putting out a Lightning album of the old material?’ I said, ‘That would be great!’ He said, “Send me the masters,’ and I said, ‘EEHHHH! That ain’t gonna happen. Cause back then we had no money and the recordings didn't sound very good, so I said I don't mind re-cutting the songs and getting Walter (Watson, original Lightning drummer and vocalist), and we re-cut 15 of the songs Walter and I wrote.”
The re-cut songs, recorded at Watson’s home studio, drew much more interest than the label had anticipated, and Lightning Strikes Twice was released on CD, albeit a CD that resembles a small vinyl record.
“Lightning never got their record out,” Rocky explained, “but now we sorta do (laughing) - just a little one.”
The logical next step was to get a live show together to support the CD, so Athas started off by re-teaming with Watson on drums.
Getting 28 year-old son, Rocky II on bass followed next. He had experience playing in local bands, both in Dallas and in San Diego, where he had moved when he was 17, but he was more into the metal scene.
“I grew up in a very musical house but none of this was forced on me or pushed on me,” he remembered. “As musically inclined as he (Rocky, Sr.) is and as into music as he is, I think it would have almost been tainted if he would have pushed me in that direction. But he let me come to it completely on my own and that’s really the greatest thing he's ever done musically. I think it would have maybe rubbed me the wrong way if it would have been forced on me.”
“Actually, I'll tell ya…I remember it exactly,” the elder Athas elaborated. “He would always go to the gigs with me and have a blast but when Stevie Ray died, it did something to him emotionally and he came to me the day after that and said, ‘Dad I think I want to get a guitar.’ So, we went to Speir music and bought him a Strat and he played it for about a month and out of nowhere he goes, ‘I hate to do this but I think I want to play bass. I think guitar is kinda your job and I think I want to do bass.’ And I said, OK. So, we went and traded that in and I got him a Jazz Bass, candy apple red. And I showed him “Rock Me Baby” just so he could get familiar with the neck. I said, ‘Just play that until your sick of it.’ So about six hours later, we recorded for the first time and we still have that recording.”
This was truly a Godsend, especially considering that Rocky II didn’t seem to show much interest in music as a child. Rocky remembers trying to get him to see Pantera perform at Six Flags.
“I called Darrell (Dimebag) and he got me in on backstage passes, the whole thing…and Rocky didn't want to go see them, he wanted to keep riding the rides.”
When Darrell later asked Rocky how they had enjoyed the show, he had to admit, “Uh, well…we didn’t go. My son didn’t want to quit riding the rides. Darrell said, ‘I'd rather ride rides than see us anyway, too.’”
While the newfound success with Lightning begs the question of which is the ultimate Rocky Athas vehicle, it’s probably safe to say that both suit him well. The power trio of Lightning, with Athas on his Gibson Les Paul has an emotional raw edge to it. What he does with his Fender Stratocaster in the Rocky Athas group, with its two guitar approach, and where he writes with Larry Samford’s soulful voice in mind, is a more nuanced endeavor, combining musical maturity with his guitar prowess.
On tap for Lightning is a tour of Europe to help promote Lightning Strikes Twice and hopefully, some more original material for the band. Watson and Rocky II are certainly anxious for more Lightning songs.
“I know all those songs in my sleep,” the younger Athas said. “I've grown up listening to that stuff and its I'll be honest with you -being able to play with these guys is like-it’s like if these guys got to get up on stage with Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, somebody he grew up idolizing. It doesn’t change anything for me that he's my dad. I can separate it because I came into music on my own right…once I finally got old enough to finally realize what he was really doing, there’s a whole different level of respect. I've been his biggest fan since that moment forward.”
“As an all around guitar player, Rocky's the best I've ever worked with and the best I've ever seen,” Watson said. “I say a guitar player is your personality, the way you play your guitar, and the way you are to other people -he's the best.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Athas said, modestly.
“For sure!” rejoined Rocky II. “He's an even better father than he is a guitar player - I can tell you that.”
“Back in the early 80’s, we really worked hard,” said Watson, comparing playing with Lightning then and now. “We paid so many dues, it seemed like you’d almost get, almost get, and then just fall back. Looking back at it now, a lot of these bands that had made it…they always had somebody there that was really good with business and really good at telling the band what to do, and we look at that now and if we would have had that, we probably would have been as big as your big bands that are out. There just weren’t people around like that- I mean, the more I listen to the Beatles, the more I hear George Martin’s influence. That’s why the Beatles were so great- it was George Martin that said, ‘Here, take your music this way.’ I wish we would have had somebody like that but we never did. Now it’s fun. Being on the road and working together because we’re relaxed and we're always joking around and it doesn’t feel like we’re working like we used to do, having to make money to survive every week….”
“It's time to just go and play now,” Athas said. “That’s why I’m enjoying it now, because we’re all independently wealthy now, right?”
The comfort level between the members is undeniably real. Even in their off-time, they can be found playing in Watson’s home studio, recording their originals or the songs of their youth like the Beatles, the Moody Blues and Hendrix.
“Rocky and I have over 100 recordings that we put out,” Watson added, “and sometimes we can’t think of what to play, so we play fun stuff like Cream. I'd rather do that than go bowling!”
Texan guitarist Rocky Athas was a childhood friend of Stevie Ray Vaughan and had the distinction of being honoured by Buddy Magazine’s Texas Tornadoes as one of the ten best guitarists in Texas – two years before SRV was similarly lauded. As that accolade suggests, he is a phenomenal guitarist, and he has surrounded himself with top quality talent that fully complements his virtuosity, not least the classy vocals of Larry Samford.
The band’s performance is not for the faint-hearted, as was fully demonstrated by their delivery of three upbeat rockers to open the show. The slow blues, “Bluesville”, then gave Rocky Athas the stage for a fabulous solo before the original tempo was resumed with “Voodoo Man”, a terrific, bouncing Texas shuffle. The medium-paced rocker, “Tearing Me Up”, was beautifully underpinned by the excellent rhythm section of Guthrie Kennard on bass guitar and Bobby Baranowski on drums. A magnificent instrumental then led into “Road Fever”, co-written by Athas with Jim Gaines, before a visit to the Louisiana swamps with “Bayou Delta Blues” to end the first set.
The instrumental, “Rick’s Boogie”, brought the second set immediately to life with another display of prodigious fingering speed. After another Texas shuffle and “Miracle”, with its Hendrixesque guitar riffs, Guthrie Kennard delivered Mark Knofler-like vocals on the heavy rocking “Ain’t Enough”. The superb Larry Samford reclaimed the mic for the slow and bluesy “Nobody” and “No More”, the latter embellished by yet more great guitar work from the maestro. The marvellous performance was brought to its climax by two fast-flowing shuffles, followed by two loudly demanded encores.
Ultimo trabajo del guitarrista tejano Rocky Athas, que nos presenta un album con doce espectaculares temas llenos de fuerza, coraje y desbordante energa. Rocky es un virtuoso de la guitarra y su estilo est a medio camino entre Gary Moore, Jimmy Hendrix o Leslie West. Su pasin, no solo por el rock sino tambin por el blues, es declarada y no cabe ponerla en duda. La prueba es este esplndido cd donde los shuffles y los Texas-rockin-blues priman por encima de todo y son ejecutados con mucho beat y excelente pulsacin. Voodoo Moon ha sido producido por Jim Gaines y presenta tambin al cantante y guitarrista Larry Samford participando a la voz y compartiendo con Rocky la composicin de ocho de las canciones incluidas en el disco. MUY BUENO.
Last piece of work of Texas guitar player Rocky Athas, who brings us a new album with twelve amazing songs full of powerful energy and strength. Rocky is a guitar master and his style is halfway through Gary Moore, Jimmy Hendrix or Leslie West. His rock and blues passion becomes evident along the whole excellent CD where shuffles and Texas-rockin-blues prevail over other kind of music, always performed with great swing and a powerful beat. Voodoo Moon has been produced by Jim Gaines and also introduces singer and guitar player Larry Samford on vocals and a songwriter on eight of the twelve songs included on the CD. GREAT.
This is a superb release by the Rocky Athas Group, consisting mostly of original, slow Southern-rocking Blues numbers. The disc presents 14 songs, each one a jewel. They were perfected in the studio by ace producer Jim Gaines, which explains the high quality of the recording. Gaines knows how to get the best sound he can out of each musician.
Texas veteran and smoking gun guitarist Rocky Athas fits easily in the same league of guitar gods as his long-time friends Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson. His work on this release is, in my opinion, his best in recent years. Black Oak Arkansas', Larry Samford's vocals evoke a peaceful calm as he sings on this CD that is oh so easy on the ears and it complements Athas' guitar work like butter on corn.
The opener, "Miracle," has an electrified, Hendrix-like quality. The disc includes an exceptional rendition of Tommy Bolin's "Slow Driver" and the cover of Savoy Brown's tune "Long Run" features skillful organ accompaniment. One of my favorites on this disc is the stimulating song "I Love You," the quirky guitar arpeggio through the changes gives it an extra layer of taste and complexity. Another favorite is "That Was Then and This Is Now," with Samford's smooth, confident vocals and Rocky's clean guitar lines dripping with melancholy soul it evokes the spirit of the Southern Blues/Rock era at its best. Think Allman Brothers during the Dickey Betts years.
Athas is, in my mind, clearly one of the most underrated musicians of his generation. His licks are perfectly timed, precise, and sharp, yet never heavy-handed. I was first introduced to Rocky Athas through his work with Black Oak Arkansas and more recently on various works with Craig Erickson (another seriously under-known guitarist from Iowa). I've always felt then that Rocky was destined for musical greatness. His legendary Texas band Lightning had some success, but he has not enjoyed the financial gains that many of his contemporaries who have risen to the top. This release should get him the kudos he deserves. It's a good 'un!
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