People tend to notice when Ted Horowitz (a.k.a. Popa Chubby) sets foot onstage to tune up. They might not notice as he spins the volume knobs on his amps to 9. But when he strikes a chord, heads definitely turn.
On a fine evening in California he plays a sunburst ’66 Strat, one of 40 noteworthy guitars in his collection. Midway through the first set, the B string pops. But Popa is doesn’t miss a note, finishing the set so seamlessly few in the packed house even notice.
Throughout the evening, Popa works the crowd like a true blues man – building it to a frenzy, then dropping it down with a precision reminiscent of the late Freddie King.
He is blues guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/performer extraordinaire rolled into one big package. The band, backed by bassist Chris Jefferson and drummer Paul Richards, plays about 250 dates a year, primarily on the East Coast and in Europe.
Vintage Guitar: How did you come by the name?
Popa Chubby: It didn’t start out [as my name]. It [was] the name of the band. The Popa Chubby Band, like “Come out and pop a chubby with the Popa Chubby Band,” you know? Then of course, people started looking at me goin’, “Hey, Popa Chubby,” because I’m um… chubby, you know (laughs)? What can I tell ya’? I guess I reminded them of their father, I don’t know. I got nailed with the moniker and it stuck. I could put out a Ted Horowitz album tomorrow and no one would buy it.
Were you raised in a musical household?
My family didn’t play music – my mother sang beautifully and encouraged me to sing and play instruments – but everyone in my family was a big music fan. My father and mother dated during the bebop era – late ’50s/early ’60s. And I was told they spent every night on 52nd Street, seeing people like Monk, Bird, and Coltrain. They were big jazz fans, and dad was a big blues, R&B, and rock and roll fan. I was born in 1960, and my father took me to see Chuck Berry when I was just a little kid – maybe five years old. I remember seeing this guy playing guitar and I thought, “Whoa!” It was the coolest thing. I thought Chuck Berry was a god, and he very well may be.
What are some of your more memorable performances?
I kind of got my first big break because of Southern California’s KLON radio station. In 1991 they had a nationwide blues talent search and my mentor, Buddy Fox, said I should enter. So I sent a tape. First they had regional playoffs, and I won that, and then they shipped me to California for the finals, where they had all the winners from the different regions.
I remember we played a slow blues, and I just looked out at the crowd, hit a high note, and just held it. And people got to their feet. And at that moment, it just hit me, and I went, “Man, I can do this…I can do this!” And the crowd was digging what I was doing. It wasn’t that I was playing anything that great, and it wasn’t that I was playing anything anybody else hadn’t played before. It was just that I was playing, you know, and they were responding to the energy and emotion I was feeling. And I found that very overwhelming.
One of the only other players I’ve seen play with your intensity and ability to channel during a solo was Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Stevie Ray was a rebel unto himself, and no one could touch him for what he did and what he brought to music. He is one of those guys who you just aspire to. You gotta understand that Stevie Ray was an overnight sensation that took 15 years to make. You know, he was playing every dive in the country for a long time before his first record ever came out. Stevie Ray Vaughan became Stevie Ray by copping a lot of different artists – Albert King, Hubert Sumlin, Lonnie Mack, Kenny Burrell, and a lot of others, and he created his own style. He had a lot of different influences, but he stayed true to the blues.
My wife is from Toronto, and she was working at El Macambo [when that performance was filmed]! I’ll tell you one thing, man – Canadian blues fans are really happening!
You play in Europe frequently. How is that different from stateside?
I tour Europe a lot, and the sole reason is that in Europe – and other foreign countries – they seem to have a far greater respect for the music than Americans do. In America, everybody’s looking for the next big thing, and no one takes a minute to appreciate stuff for what it is. The music isn’t judged on whether or not it has merit or integrity anymore. That’s the problem with the music scene in America, especially with the blues scene.
What you have happening now is you’ve got a lot of old timers still out there doing their thing – B.B. King, Buddy Guy, guys of that ilk. And then you have a lot of guys out there just latching on to that, and I think there are a lot of good players who aren’t even getting noticed in their own country. Walter Trout comes to mind. Walter is un****ing real – one of those guys who does well in Europe and is virtually unknown in the U.S. I played a Jimi Hendrix festival in Holland with Walter, Pat Travers, myself, and Omar Dykes. We did five dates, and everybody played Hendrix songs. I believe a record of it was released on a Dutch label called Provogue.
At the show, I was very impressed by the way you finished a slow blues number then jumped into a charged jazz/swing tune.
I’m tryin’, man! Swing is a feel, and everything has got to swing! Guys like Hollywood Fats and T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and Duke Robillard – man, those guys… I bow to them! They are the masters, and I’m just a disciple trying to learn. And I love the bebop players. One of my biggest influences is Thelonius Monk, a piano player. But man, the way those guys swung! It’s all about swing! Bennie Goodman, Gene Kroupa!
I have a little problem with the current “swing revival.” I think it will go the way of the Lambada and I want people to remember one thing – that the whole swing revival was started by a Gap ad. So don’t be brainwashed. I love jump and swing music, and I love great swing guitar players. But think for yourself – don’t confuse the music with the fad.
You played an outstanding solo rendition of “Sleepwalk” the other night. You ought to release that.
That’s funny, because I did an okay version of it, but when I listen to Danny Gatton’s version…man! Or when you listen to the original version by Santo & Johnny… I just love that melody. I really dig old surf music. I love surf guitar, I think it’s the coolest – Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Chantays.
Who’s the best guitar player in the world?
Jimi Hendrix, without a doubt. And luckily there’s a wealth of his stuff to listen to. Some of the stuff they re-released is really incredible. Just the way he orchestrated things. And a lot of the swing players…T-Bone Walker, definitely,
Freddie King totally kicks my butt, and B.B. King, Albert King. Albert was a very influential guitar player. I always say that every blues/rock guitar player owes a debt to Albert King because whether they know it or not they’re playing his licks. And backing up Earl King when he played at Manny’s was pretty memorable. And Carlos Santana! The last guitar player I saw who totally blew me away was Carlos!
Carlos has always exhibited the most tasteful phasing, and tone to die for! A very serious musician.
He takes responsibility for his music. You gotta realize that Santana is more like a jazz cat than a rocker or blues cat. He’s approaching the music with that integrity, so people who approach the music seriously tend to be serious people. And Carlos has outlived many of his peers. He knew Jerry Garcia, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, all those cats. And he’s still here, and they aren’t. He’s a very serious, very spiritual cat, and I think the spirituality in the music is very important. It’s part of his culture.
Tell us more about your stint at Manny’s Car Wash in New York. You hosted a popular jam there.
Every Sunday for three years! A story about that will be on the next record. We also backed up many of the acts that came through, like Earl King! I rehearsed for an entire day to make sure we knew all his material. He wrote so many songs, like “Come On… (Let The Good Times Roll)” which Jimi and Stevie Ray covered, and countless others.
There were just lots of amazing people, and they all had the blues in common. They play the blues because it’s in them and because it’s a part of who they are. And that’s the kind of thing learned from all of them – you just go out and do your thing. You don’t play the blues, you let the blues happen!
You played in a lot of different bands – including punk bands – before deciding to play blues.
I wanted to become a better guitar player, and I couldn’t really do it in the situations I was in. It’s like playing in a pop group or something – you learn these 10 songs, you’d play them the same exact way every night, get your two-bar solo, and that’d be it. So I said, “Man, I gotta play in blues clubs,” because number one, I love the music, and number two, I can play three sets a night. Not only that, it’s the only way to improve. A lot of people come up to me and say, “I wanna get better on the guitar. What should I do?” I’m like, “Play! Pick up the guitar and play.” Everybody thinks that there’s some magic pill or lesson. But really you’ve got to put in a lot of hours to get one iota better!
How much do you practice?
I play three to four hours a day, at least. I like to sit in the dressing room a few hours before a show and play through a Korg Pandora’s box with the drum machine.
Did you ever take guitar lessons?
I have, but never with one person for a long time. One of the people who really helped me out was Alex Adrian, who started the guitar department at Berkeley. He showed me how to develop the muscles in my hand so I could facilitate what I wanted to do on the guitar. The whole thing about taking lessons is that everyone has a very individual way of approaching music, and if you can find one teacher that’s going to accommodate that, you’re lucky. If I’m in a music shop and I hear somebody do a lick, I’ll say, “Hey, show me that lick.” I’m not proud!
And how about songwriting and lyrics?
Two words – Willie Dixon. He was and is the godfather of the blues, the father of rock and roll, and my biggest influence as a songwriter. It always comes down to him, and then people like Tom Waites, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix.
Willie Dixon had the ability to take the most complicated, complex thought, and put it to pen and paper in a way anybody could relate to. It’s like “Sleepwalk.” Why is it so beautiful? Why do you love it so much? Because of its incredible simplicity and immediate, beautiful melody. And that’s what I try to do with my songwriting. It’s like I don’t try and write over people’s heads, but at the same time I try to get my point across in a musical sense. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be complex, and usually the simplest stuff is the most difficult.
I see a lot of Freddie King style in your stage performance, especially your version of “Living In The Palace Of The King.”
That was totally a tribute to Freddie! Freddie had that fire and to me he was the man, the link between blues and rock. His music is high-energy rhythm and blues, and what is rock and roll except high-energy rhythm and blues? Freddie was playing this badass blues guitar, speaking his soul every time. And that’s a reason I wouldn’t cover “Hideaway,” I think it would be blasphemous. There are only two versions of “Hideaway,” Freddie’s and John Mayall’s (with Eric Clapton), which is just as important to guitar as Freddie’s.
One of your studio album is called One Million Broken Guitars. Readers might think you abuse guitars!
I don’t abuse guitars, I abuse people! No (laughing)…I abuse drummers…but they’re not people. Just kidding!
Unfortunately, I’ve suffered some damage to guitars I really loved because when you’re on the road that happens sometimes. So I’ve got a bunch of broken pieces of guitars. Actually, part of the idea for the title came from the movie Austin Powers, where Dr. Evil says, “One million dollars. We’ll hold the world ransom for one million dollars!” I thought, “Wow! One million broken guitars!”
And then there’s the fact that if you want to make an omelette you gotta break some eggs. I mean, by the same token I don’t believe in treating guitars reverently, either. It’s just a piece of wood, and the harder you play it – and the more you play it – the more it’s gonna give you back. Guitars learn tone. Wood learns how to sound, and a guitar that’s been played a lot is going to sound better than a guitar that has never been played.
The liner notes in one of your albums states, “This record is dedicated to those who refuse to turn down!”
Damn right, man! I started out as a drummer, and I couldn’t play drums because they were too loud! So what did I do? I picked up the electric guitar. The minute you plug in your guitar everybody around you tells you to turn it down! But being a kid you have those moments where you crank the amp up to 11, hit a big open A chord, and it feels like the best thing that ever happened! Then you go to your first gig, and the first thing the sound man tells you is that the guitar is too loud. I just got to the point where I went, “Look, this is how I play, and this is how I sound, and if you don’t like it, screw you – fire me!”
So I got fired a lot. But I always finished playing the gig! But then they’d look around and see that the club was packed, and the bar was doing very well. Then they’d say, “You know, you’re not that loud after all!”
When you’re playing the clubs in New York either you go the way I did or you turn down and play softly. Then you’re never playing with your full intensity or soul. But I have definitely paid the price!
And I’m glad you did point that out, man, because the sound of a loud guitar is one of the best things in life!
Photos courtesy of Popa Chubby. A recipe for scorching blues – Popa and his ’59 Les Paul Special.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Dec ’99 issue.