Dec 27, 2019
by Robert Feuer
Keyboardist Howard Wales will be in the spotlight at Cotati’s Redwood Café on Jan.11, with what he calls “an organ trio,” backed by guitarist Terry Haggerty and drummer Kevin Hayes.
Wales has led an improvisational lifestyle which carries over to his music. “I’m totally original. I don’t do cover songs,” he says in an early December phone interview from his current home in Weaverville.
He began performing in hometown Milwaukee, playing pop music on his Hammond B3 with local bands starting at age 20, before hitting the road for points unknown. Along the way, he acquired a 1949 Chevy panel truck from a judge for $85. His Hammond B3 traveled inside. Occasional hard times saw him subsisting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and salads.
In the Midwest, he joined Lonnie Mack on the classic King label for a year and backed up the Coasters, the Four Tops, and Little Anthony & the Imperials, with a band called the Click. In El Paso, he worked in “an all-black club including ten frightened white people hiding in the corner,” he says, and briefly played with James Brown. They didn’t get along.
Wales arrived in San Francisco in 1968, where saxophonist Martin Fierro helped him get a job in a tortilla factory and invited him to play on the soundtrack of the film, El Topo, described by a critic as an absurdist acid Western.
Wales became a member of the blues-rock band A.B. Skyh in 1969, and jammed with Jerry Garcia, Santana, Elvin Bishop, and Harvey Mandel (Wales played on two of his albums), among many others, at the Matrix on Fillmore St. Wales hosted their Monday night jam. “It got really weird,” he says. “Everybody was there. Garcia came down all the time.” Wales also recalls performing at the rock meccas, the Fillmore, the Avalon, and the Family Dog. “It was a renaissance period. The whole scene was developing. Everything, including the people, was original.”
From 1970-72, Garcia and Wales collaborated, leading them to record the jazzy, all-instrumental album Hooteroll in 1971. Wales wrote 85-90% of the music, he says.
He performed on three songs on the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album – Truckin’, Brokedown Palace, and Candyman, though he never became a bandmember. Bob Weir thought he was “much too weird, too quick.” Bill Kreutzmann considered him “a madman on organ, insanely brilliant.” Wales describes himself as “way out there.”
Exclusively an instrumentalist, Wales once said, “Jammers have no fear.” This has led to many backup roles. “Keyboards players don’t mean anything,” he adds. “They aren’t recognized compared to guitars.”
From 1976 to 2014, he’s been on a lot of studio albums and demos. Another album with Wales and Garcia, Side Trips, released in 1999, was recorded at a long-ago Matrix jam. “I’ve been with the bad, the ugly, and the great,” says Wales. He has even backed up strippers and castle (baton) twirlers.
“I’m a freebird, man. I’m gonna die that way.”
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