Remembering Bugs Henderson

I can’t count the times I saw Bugs Henderson play. There was a while in the mid- to late ’70s where, on almost any night in Austin or Dallas, you had your pick of seeing Bugs, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rocky Athas, Eric Johnson, John Nitzinger, or Too Smooth (with guitarists Brian Wooten and Jeff Clark).

Since I was at school at Baylor, in Waco, precisely and conveniently located halfway between Austin and Dallas, and since showing up for an 8 a.m. biology or Russian History class the next morning held far less appeal than staying up all night, getting to see one or more of those players for almost no money, I burned up a lot of highway miles.

I blame them, of course, for the fact that I eventually flunked out — as opposed to blaming me — but the musical education was world class. You’d have to be an idiot to pass up those opportunities, and I didn't. I also don’t know that such a confluence of guitar talent will ever be trotted out ever again in such an all-you-can-hear, buffet-style greatness.

Henderson passed away late last week, from complications of liver cancer, at the age of 68, and he was just one of the finest blues-rock guitarists ever. His was a unique fusion of tone and riverine speed, an appreciation of space and dynamics, and while he had a scholar’s appreciation of archival blues and rock ‘n’ roll, he played with wit and joy and effortlessly found ways to take blues and rock into the future. Here, for example.

A few random things I remember about Henderson:

-- At the relative dawn of Saturday Night Live, there was speculation that Henderson would be a musical guest on the show. He had no record deal and, this being way before the Internet, little public awareness outside Texas. But somehow the NY folks had heard about him. I remember being so excited, writing for The Baylor Lariat, that Henderson was being considered. It ended up not happening, but just the idea that Bugs was on that radar made us think he was on the cusp of national awareness and certain fame and riches. (It should be noted that Henderson’s relative anonymity, in the context of major label stardom, was perfectly all right with him. He did what he loved on his terms, and the important folks knew.)

-- Bugs joined Nitzinger for the One Foot in History album, released by Capitol in '73. Theirs was a great partnership that didn’t work for a lot of the usual reasons. But Nitzinger was a stunning songwriter and an innate rhythm player, and Henderson’s spinning guitar lines danced around and through the consistenly great songs on that album like fireflies. Nitzinger used to tell the story onstage about the time that Bugs was busted in the parking lot between sets at a gig. If I remember correctly, they were playing a biker bar where the denizens were assembled expecting to see Henderson's guitar explosions. Suddenly, Bugs wasn't there; he was in a squad car on the way to jail. Nitzinger looked out from stage at all the expectant bikers -- folks who didn't care why Bugs wasn't there, just that they had paid good money to see guitar heroics. "I learned to play some lead guitar real fast that night," Nitzinger would say.

-- At the old Electric Ballroom on the south side of downtown Dallas, Bugs and Nitzinger would later share bills with their respective bands, and the evenings inevitably ended with guitar duels. In terms of flash -- despite the quick-lessons-learned in the biker bar -- Nitzinger was never in Bugs’ league. but Johnny had plenty of tricks and it was a blast to watch how Bugs’ effortless greatness pushed Nitzinger to new heights.

-- Before Henderson’s long-lasting group the Shuffle Kings, he had a band just called the Bugs Henderson Group. What a killer outfit. It was more straight ahead rock, in terms of material, and the experiment was probably doomed to burn out simply because, at heart, Bugs was more of a pure blues soul. But for a while, they were dazzling. Along with Bugs, slide guitarist/vocalist Stevie Davis shared front duties. I remember a song called “Poets,” I think, and I’d kill to have a copy of that.

-- For years, Bugs took the stage every night barefoot and wearing old-school gym shorts. I always loved that. Let’s face it, Bugs wasn’t exactly interested in throwing down the Steven Tyler or David Lee Roth persona. He had serious work to do — work that required a great deal of personal comfort.

He was a funny, kind soul and a musical giant -- always true to himself and The Music.

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