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30 Years Ago: The Fabulous Thunderbirds Get ‘Tuff Enuff’

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The Fabulous Thunderbirds spent much of the early ’80s in search of a record deal, paying for new recordings out of their own pocket while paying the bills with tour dates. That faith paid off in a big way with the band’s fifth studio album, Tuff Enuff.

The Thunderbirds had been pegged for wider success for years. Co-founded by singer Kim Wilson and guitarist Jimmie Vaughan in 1974, the group became a fixture on the local live scene in Austin, Texas, earning a slot as the house band at the blues club Antone’s and establishing a quick command of the stage. The following year, their opening set caught the attention of club headliner Muddy Waters, who was impressed enough to offer his endorsement to booking agents and music critics on a national level. By the end of the decade, they’d landed a contract with Chrysalis Records.

Unfortunately, although early efforts like 1980’s What’s the Word and 1981’s Butt Rockin’ earned positive notice from critics, the group’s sales failed to spark during its Chrysalis tenure — even after 1982’s Nick Lowe-produced T-Bird Rhythm led into a tour opening for the Rolling Stones. Parting ways with the label, the Fabulous Thunderbirds spent the next several years biding their time while scouting a new deal and continuing to tour.

Not willing to wait until they had an advance from a record company for a new album, the band entered the studio in 1985 with Lowe’s band mate and musical sparring partner, Dave Edmunds, stepping in as producer. The retro tinge of Edmunds’ production was well-served by the band’s latest batch of originals — led by a strutting Wilson rocker titled “Tuff Enuff” — as well as a handful of covers that included the Thunderbirds’ spin on the Sam & Dave classic “Wrap It Up.”

Watch the Video for “Wrap It Up”

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After being greeted by an utter lack of interest from the first round of labels they approached, the band finally latched on with Epic, where the new LP — titled Tuff Enuff — ended up on the release schedule for January 1986. Arriving on the heels of hits by vaguely like-minded acts like the Stray Cats and George Thorogood, the Thunderbirds saw critics peg their latest work as part of a throwback trend, even though that wasn’t really an accurate estimation of their overall sound.

“It’s funny. When the first album came out they said, ‘Oh, these guys must be new wave.’ Then they said, ‘Oh, no, these guys are rockabilly.’ And now I don’t know what they’re saying,” chuckled Vaughan. “And we’re still the same. We haven’t changed. We never pretended to be rockabilly or new wave. I don’t think our music is trendy; I don’t think that this is a trend in music, ’cause it’s always been here and we’ll be doing it regardless of whether we have a hit record or anything like that.”

“A guy named Harmonica Frank once told me something long ago. He was a white guy who used to sing with a harp in his mouth, so everyone thought he was black, and he had a bunch of R&B hits. He said, ‘If you didn’t do something somebody else did, you wouldn’t be doing anything.’ And it’s true,” said Wilson. “That’s where this music comes from … It’s all in how you attack it. Even Muddy got his stuff from Son House and Robert Johnson. But he incorporated himself into it and got something unique. I’m not trying to do someone else, I’m trying to do us. You gotta do it like you and you’ll be fine.”

The Fabulous Thunderbirds were definitely fine as far as Tuff Enuff was concerned. Thanks in part to its placement on a series of soundtracks (including the films Gung Ho and Tough Guys), the title track gave the group their biggest hit, rising to No. 10 and sending the album to No. 13. Not long after being left for dead by the major labels, the band finally had its first taste of mainstream success.

“I think it’s because we just kept working hard and we kept playing and we wouldn’t stop,” Vaughan told Creem. “I mean, the music has always been there. It’s the same; we haven’t really changed our music any. It’s the first time we’ve had a record company that was behind us, we have a new manager – it’s like starting over. Hopefully, it’ll turn out right this time. Whatever right is.”

Unfortunately, Tuff Enuff would prove to be the end of the Thunderbirds’ brief flirtation with the pop charts. Although 1987’s Hot Number repeated the Edmunds-produced formula of the previous effort, beefing up the arrangements a bit while continuing to blend blues and roots rock with a more mainstream sound, it failed to catch on to the same extent, and 1989’s Powerful Stuff fared even worse. Vaughan left to pursue a solo career after recording a 1990 album, Family Style, with his brother Stevie Ray; shortly thereafter, the band lost its deal with Epic.

Listen to “Tell Me”

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Wilson, however, continued undeterred, and has presided over a series of shifting Fabulous Thunderbirds lineups over the last quarter-century and change, maintaining the band’s steady touring schedule while periodically releasing new studio efforts like 1995’s Roll of the Dice and 2013’s On the Verge. Regardless of trends, regardless of label logos, Wilson’s vocals and harmonica remain the thread tying the band’s catalog together — along with an ongoing commitment to keep toes tapping and hind quarters moving.

“We play blues, but we’re much more than a blues band. We play blues, we play R&B, we play rock ‘n’ roll — you know, we play rockin’ s—. Let’s get that s— straight, we’re not on the f—in’ Holiday Inn circuit around here, man,” said Wilson. “We wanna get out here and rock these people. We wanna see ’em dance. This isn’t an evening at the Boston Pops – and I like them too – but that’s not where we’re at. We wanna hear that floor pound, pulsate with dancing humanity. We wanna see the f—in’ people dance out there. Our whole thing is fun. F— art, let’s have fun.”

See the Top 100 Albums of the ’80s

Next: Top 10 Albums of 1987

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