Brandon Anderson | 11.17.2021
Chi-Town rockabilly stalwarts Three Blue Teardrops are turning 30 this year and we caught up with prolific frontman Dave Sisson for an unedited and unfiltered look back at the road they have paved along the way.
Where did you guys meet/how was the band formed, and how did you decide on the name Three Blue Teardrops?
(This is Dave tasked with answering these questions so I will do my best to recollect things but it's from my dodgy memory so everyone is aware of the perspective, which may be skewed, but will be skewed from me to give point of reference.)
I moved to Chicago from Pennsylvania (actually was watching bands and stealing licks in State College, PA) in late August of 1991 and itching to put something together after having tried and failed to put together a few acts in Pittsburgh and a fledgling project in Washington DC in 1990. Within days of my arrival in Chicago, I answered an advertisement in a local paper from Hi-Fi and the Roadburners who were looking for a saxophone player who understood the old greasy R&B, Doo-Wop, Rockabilly, and Jive music. I cold-called the number and talked to Erik Kish for the first time (what a CHARACHTER!!) and explained I played both electric guitar and upright bass capably and was into the music but didn't play sax and just wanted to figure out IF and WHERE "the scene" was for this type of music. He invited me to go see their gig which was happening in 2 nights from our conversation. It was there at Brixie's in Brookfield, IL I met Randy Sabo (eventual Teardrops drummer) and a guy named Carl Schreiber who were both looking to put something together. They said they knew a dude who was an upright player working at a health food store and after a couple of weeks of cajoling Carl by phone (no cell phones then!) eventually the four of us met, Carl, Randy, myself, and Rick Uppling in a sketchy warehouse with dodgy power at the corner of Halstead and Fulton (which is now a condo building). We played some covers and a few originals that Rick and Carl played from their time together in a trio called The Chasers with Rick's brother Steve Uppling on drums. A few of Rick's originals like She-Devil and Blue Hawaiian were in their sets even way back then. But ultimately what happened is Rick, Randy, and I were very enthusiastic about putting a band together but Carl was the only one who had everyone's telephone number even though the three of us were calling him to prod him, he kept procrastinating and putting us all off for some reason? In retrospect, Carl may have had some family issues going on? I ran into Randy by chance at a show about a month later and it was there he mentioned he worked near Rick and could get in touch with him. Since Carl was being difficult/too busy/whatever, we decided to get together without him and forge ahead. Back in the Summer/Fall of 1991, local scenesters Jimmy and Gabrielle Sutton (Jimmy Sutton of Moondogs, Mighty Blue Kings, Four Charms, and J.D. McPherson fame) had started a Rockabilly style open mic night in Chicago that became the long-running Big C Jamboree and it was in its infant stages so we three got together the night of that event in Rick's tiny apartment living room, had a rehearsal with some beers, worked up 4 brand new originals in about an hour, Switchblade Pompadour, Comin' Home, Go She-Devil!, Another Doggone Saturday Night, and after learning them immediately went over and played them live to a respectable enthusiastic crowd which would have been Thursday, October 3, 1991. That was our debut as a trio and even then there was some excitement at a new band playing new originals yet others were a little put off wondering why we weren't "traditional"? You can't please everyone.
Regarding the name, I had a trio called "Wreckin' Ball" in Pittsburgh after the John Doe song and as kind of a homage/in-joke to bowling culture that resulted in me getting a Wreckin' Ball tattoo. That band was short-lived and after deciding it was kind of unfair to foist that name on the new project we passed on that even though it's a great name. Later that name would be taken (ahem...stolen...lol) off my tattoo by a musical friend Randy Del for his band although we may or may not have been Wreckin' Ball that very first gig in October '91? I don't recall? How we became THREE BLUE TEARDROPS: I am a Daniel Clowes comic book fan and he had an awesome retro-flavored comic series at the time called Lloyd Llewellyn about a gumshoe private detective. It was real hard-boiled, crimes, guns, dames, cigarettes, booze, hot-rods, space aliens, R&B, and Hillbilly plot lines. Really fun stuff. In one episode of the comic Lloyd's hillbilly cousin' Floyd Llewellyn comes to the big city and has hit with a song called Three Blue Teardrops. Just for fun I had taken the words in the comic book, added my own to flesh it out, and wrote a song which had a melody and chordal structure in the flavor of Sonny James or the Everly Brothers. When presented at a rehearsal as another song to play to flesh out an entire set of material, and looking for a permanent name we thought the THREE was good because there were 3 of us, and the Blue Teardrops thing kind of implied American roots music, was an homage to Willie Dixon's Big 3 Trio, and it was not yet another band name with the word "Cats" in it as there were SO many in the 1980's such as the Stray Cats obviously but the Rockats, Polecats, Bopcats etc. All great bands but we didn't want cats in our name as it was played out. I will say since we came up with the name there have been several excellent bands that have taken the "Three" thing so what does that mean? Lol. We don't own the rights to Arabic numerals.
What was the scene like when the band started compared to now, 30 years later?
Well, the music scene, in general, was different in that 30 years ago there were a ton of people infected with the DIY punk ethos out there recording, putting out products, gigging, and touring and people handed physical product to each other, albums (actual LPs) singles, bootleg mixed tapes for each other and magazines, fanzines, flyers, and ephemera were rampant. It was a lot of work to find cool bands and the people that did it were rabid music geeks (myself included). Since there was no YouTube if you wanted to see the band live you had to get the hell out of the house even if it was a snowstorm to see the acts you liked so it took a level of dedication I don't see quite as much today in some quarters. It was visceral and vibrant and very hands-on. That had its ups and downs of course because many bands could only get so far on the sweat of their own labor and $$ and many had to hope for a big label record deal to really reach a larger audience or at least have a well-oiled promotion machine to get the word out. Often success was less based upon musical talent and more based upon marketing ability.
Nowadays of course a person can download individual songs instead of becoming fully immersed in an album. A person can party in their home and play videos of the bands they like on YouTube without leaving the house. They can Spotify and listen without ever going out and seeing the band in person, owning any physical product, or knowing what the band looks like, interacting with them or their fan base. It's a lot less personal however on the plus side music is available for people to find without ever going outside and conversely, the DIY bands can market themselves without needing the assistance of a big label. So with the negatives come the positives. Sometimes a performer has no idea how many people they may have actually influenced through the interwebs when there might only be 50 people in any given audience. I suppose if "x" number of people show up there might be "x" times 10 people that didn't show up who are fans? I don't really know?
The thing that hasn't changed is touring does work no matter what.
I'm re-reading the question I'm wondering if I should comment on the "Rockabilly" scene in general? If that were the point of the question I'd say most bands coming out of this Rockabilly influenced thing tended to be more 1950's traditional living in a time machine as if frozen in time. While there were definitely some Psychobilly bands in Europe but it was difficult for many of us stateside to find that music without a lot of work and just organically some domestic bands began to incorporate Protopunk, hardcore, and Garage Rock into our music. I guess I would give a nod to The Reverend Horton Heat and the Quakes for emerging stateside right around the same time or just slightly prior to us forming. But there were many other great bands that influenced us to combine roots and rock.
A lot of people recognize the band for the cult classic song “Switchblade Pompadour”, but what is the band’s favorite song to play?
I don't know that we have a favorite song to play, to be honest. We like to give people "the hits" for sure but we still are writing new material so on any given night it could be the newest creation or an old classic. One thing I will say is we do not ever play any one song the exact same way on any given night. Many of the songs have room for improvisation so certain sections or solos might venture off into the weeds, last a little longer, or be better or worse from gig to gig. We aren't afraid to experiment and the results can swing wildly when you aren't playing the same safe canned rehearsed show and solo every night. We've always challenged our audience and one night you might get a lot of our old classics and the next gig could be filled with all the deep cuts and new songs. But if anyone really wants to hear something...hey shout it out? We aim to please.
Is Dave’s Silvertone all stock spec or have any modifications been made?
WARNING: Guitar nerd talk. If that's not your mojo skip to the next question.
Prior to gigging with the Silvertone I was playing a 1960 Barney Kessel model Kay Hollowbody. It had the tissue box single-coil pickups with a clean bell-like tone that sounded great, played like a baseball bat, and was stolen from my house. I never did get that one back. I guess the thief didn't like Silvertones or he couldn't carry two guitars so the Silvertone which was an all original 1959 1385L (renamed the 1427L model in 1960) made by Harmony in Chicago was the only guitar I had left so I had to make do with what I had as I couldn't afford anything new...or used. I took it on as a project to preserve the Silvertone guitar (sold by Sears and Roebuck) and become its caretaker since it's a slice of Americana that should live on for future generations to enjoy, and additionally, I thought it appropriately crappy for our little retro Rockabilly-punk trio. Unfortunately, the original Gibson p-13 pickups were weak to almost non-existant, it had no pickguard, the binding was falling off, the frets buzzed so I did the "paper trick" up under the string nut to fix the buzz until I could afford a refret. It also had no Bigsby bar which I like to use so I took my $550 guitar (1996 price) and put about $800-$900 into it. I replaced the pickups with a Seymour Duncan p90 in the Neck, a DeArmond Silverton 1990's reissue in the bridge, put an American Bigsby on it, a new roller bridge,ENTER the return of our old friend Carl Schreiber to do some custom work on the pickup surrounds, put new Grover tuners on it and eventually had it refretted and rebound after a shard of neck binding stabbed me in the hand during a gig one night causing me to bleed on the front row of spectators...sorry! So after all that investment, I like to joke the $550 Silvertone has $900 of work in it and is worth probably... $550. <ba-doom-psssh>. The guitar has a lot of mojo and I've played it in this trio a long time and I retired it once due to its sad state of being worn out. As groovy as it is, it's important to remember it's still a pretty crappy guitar! I mean...crappy in a good way and definitely something a regular working-class person could afford then and now. I tried a Gretsch Country Club for a while but I just can't get that to work in this trio despite it being such a great instrument for country and jazz. I've recently picked up a 1956 Guild Stratford x350 so I'm going to start experimenting with that. The poor Silvertone really needs a break.
What was the first 3BT touring vehicle?
Our first van was a very beat-up 1983 black Chevy 350 with no bench seats and two captain's chairs in front. We had no heat and no air conditioning and no radio and it got so hot in there in the summer we painted the roof white with latex house paint and while we were at it painted the tires white and named it "The Scatter Van" and painted "Scatter" on the hood. We couldn't afford new tires ever so we got really proficient at waking up from a dead sleep after a blowout and NASCAR pit crewing a spare tire on there in a flash.
What is your most memorable gig?
This is pretty hard to answer. I have a few standouts:
Maybe it was opening up for Jason and Scorchers at the Majestic Theater in Detroit, Michigan and stepping up to the microphone to begin singing during our very first number and getting shocked by electricity so badly my lip split, I saw stars and was frightened to death the rest of the show singing about 12 inches away from the microphone all night?
Or the time in Hollywood when two gorgeous tattooed Latina's dressed to the nines broke out into a full-fledged catfight before our gig was pretty memorable punching each other and ripping each other's tops off and hairs out?
Or it was the actual dog fight that broke out after the human fight at the old Black Cat Lounge in Austin, Texas?
Maybe it was the Skinheads vs. Greaser rumble in the parking lot in Wilmington, NC?
It could have been watching a frenzied fight break out at Paycheck's Lounge in Hamtramck, Michigan during "Wanted Man" and we kept playing and had a great view to the action which I learned was one of those "You hit on my girl" situations.
Or was it the two girls having sex against the wall 4 feet in front of me in Charlotte, North Carolina?
They were all memorable which is why we do what we do.
What’s the craziest story you have from the road?
Well, should it be a breakdown story, a sexual exploits story, a harrowing drive story, or an overindulgence on substances story?
The specifics aren't really important in any of these stories but I will say honestly the breakdown stories are usually the second craziest thing that happens in that you need to overcome some type of impossible obstacles to progress from some type of dead-end standstill impasse, zapping energy, hemorrhaging money, and requiring bucketloads of effort. This misfortune is often inextricably linked with financial hardships, boredom, hunger, and physical danger, causing self-reflection, and requiring enormous amounts of self-reliance and grit to persevere; all of the above which can make a person grow as a human by leaps and bounds.
The first craziest stories are probably driving stories involving mountain roads, no guard rails, and 2000 feet drops, exhaustion, inclimate weather, prolonged times and distances, and often the inability to rest and just be sensible. This touring thing ain't for the faint of heart.
I guess one particular story stands out. I recall the one time in the early days I kept getting pooh-poohed by my bandmates insisting they should try to "learn the pack" and how the musical equipment was "Tetrised" together in the van so we would all know whether we had everything because it went together a particular way and they blew me off resulting in a disagreement and drunken fisticuffs in a Norfolk parking lot. Fast forward a few nights later yours truly got pretty liquored up in Richmond, Virginia and my bandmates packed the van in their own special way without me resulting in us driving overnight to Philadelphia where in the middle of the night we hit an actual engine block on the highway at 4 am and it took out two of our tires! We got things swapped around and going again after a pretty rough and scary scene but limped into our lodgings in Philadelphia around dawn to pass out. The next morning Rick went to get a guitar out of the van to work on a song he was writing only to discover one of our guitars was missing. After much finger-pointing and "I told ya so"-ing we got in touch with the club folks who found it was left under the stage riser behind a piece of black scrim curtain!!! Randy and I were lucky enough to have our ladies meet us in Philadephia for our one day off so Rick volunteered to drive the 4 hours back to Richmond to pick it up. Upon his arrival, they asked him if he wanted to stay for the show? When he responded he couldn't afford to stay they asked if he wanted to wait tables? He replied affirmative and stayed to work the show and made some money on wages and tips. He then left at 2 am to drive back to Philadelphia but got so sleepy on the way decided to stop for some shut-eye at the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania Battle Field Park. He then relays that he got zero sleep as he sat in the van parked by the Rappahannock river because the ghosts wouldn't let him sleep, there were figures moving in the mist and strange noises happening. Is it bullsh*t? I dunno? I wasn't there. He did arrive safely to Philadelphia the next day albeit exhausted. Morals of the story...1) Learn the Pack!!! 2) Don't be a browbeating a**hole to your bandmates in a Norfolk Parking lot or you might get punched in the gob. 3) You can't get sleep with Civil War ghosts. Live and learn...
What was it like being an up-and-coming American band then having the opportunity to head over to England and record an album and tour on the other side of the globe?
Haha...well "Fun" quite honestly. We were just enjoying traveling and meeting a cast of characters, to be honest. As far as the recording went, we learned a lot being in the studio because we didn't know anything about anything at that point. Some great memories and friends were made on that trip.
Any plans for another future 3BT album?
Yes. We had 4 songs in the can for Swelltune Records and a 45 came out a bit before the pandemic but the other got delayed in all this business and disruption. I kept myself busy but wrote another 6-8 good tunes and Rick's got a few so between the 3 of us we are arranging and getting them up on their feet, trying them out live, and going into the studio to record in chunks of 4-6 songs at a time with the goal to put something else out. No clear timetable but we're on our way to booking studio time in November.
Who handles primary songwriting duties, or is it a shared task?
Rick and I conjure up the song's origin ideas but usually totally separately from one another. I bring in my songs and he brings in his and as a group, we 3 refine them together and try to pick out the best of them. Ones not working usually organically get abandoned over time. We both have very different styles of songwriting stylistically, structurally, lyrically, and how we go about it. My songs are usually closer to being finished story narratives and playoff loose guitar grooves or rhythmic beats and when I write I usually hear multiple parts in my head and try to make demos of them to develop them to the point whether I know if they are any good and worth introducing but also so I don't have to explain the parts to the other guys. Rick's songs are usually a bit more thought ideas or emotional snapshots (different from narratives per se) with often unique herky-jerky parts requiring a more precise structure. Rick is a solid guitarist and I guess people don't really know that because he plays bass live but he brings me some crazy guitar lines I have to learn and make sense of before I can put my own stamp on them or perhaps later suggest an improvisational section worth consideration. Then no matter the song or the origin it gets brought into the group as a whole and gets tweaked and altered and each guy puts his magic into it and hopefully something good comes out? I think a combination of the two writing styles makes for a complimentary mix and Randy holds it all down back there and puts in his two cents changing things that don't work or offering improvements. It's both individual and collaborative.
If you could tour with any band or artist past or present who would it be?
I suppose I'd like to play Tex Ritter's Ranch Party in 1957 on a night when Patsy Cline, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash are on the bill or just open for the Clash on a 30-day tour in 1979. Either is fine. And no matter which era we somehow magically go out for drinks afterward to a little tavern where Lightinin' Hopkins is set up in the corner with a drummer and a harmonica player.
If you could collaborate in the studio with any current artist who would it be and why?
I can't speak for the other guys since I'm answering these by myself but I'm really into James Hunter right now. I think he's about the coolest most talented dude with the coolest band right now. I just dig his music a lot and it ticks off all the boxes for me. I also am keen on Marcel Bontempi because he's mega talented, his music is really fun and he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously while being focused so major bonus points for that attitude. I also would like to add Elvis Costello to this list because he's been involved in some cool projects on both sides of the microphone and one could learn a thing or three from him.
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