Harmonica phenom and singer Tom Ball and guitar wizard Kenny Sultan have charmed audiences all over the world for four decades with their good-time acoustic blues music. The duo have played thousands of shows, released eight albums together, and have been featured on multiple radio programs, film scores, TV soundtracks and commercials.
Ball also has played on more than 200 albums by other artists, including Kenny Loggins and Jeff Bridges, and Sultan was honored by Martin Guitars with the Signature Model 00018KS. They are a true Santa Barbara treasure!
You may have seen Ball and Sultan at their longtime residency at Cold Spring Tavern on Sundays, or elsewhere around town. But be sure to catch them on Saturday, Oct. 26 at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara for a special gig in celebration of the duo’s 40th anniversary. Tickets are available by clicking here.
Tom talked to Noozhawk about how the duo got their start and the secret to their longevity.
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Jeff Moehlis: How and when did you meet Kenny?
Tom Ball: It was in early ’79. I fell into a band as soon as I got here called Blues Company. It was an electric blues band, and we were working, but it was a little too close to rock ‘n’ roll for me. I wanted to play acoustic blues, and I looked in the News and Review and I saw Kenny’s name, and it said that he played acoustic guitar, blues and ragtime. So I thought, “This is somebody I should check out.”
He was playing at this club on State Street called Deja Vu, and I wanted to see him but I couldn’t because my band was working at the Bluebird. So I asked [my wife] Laurie if she would check this guy out. She went there with a clipboard and took notes, and came back and said, “He plays Blind Blake and Gary Davis, and he’s a great fingerpicker, and he has a great sense of humor, and he drinks Heineken.” So I thought, “That’s somebody I should meet.”
About a week later, the Blues Society was putting on a show — Big Mama Thornton was playing at Baudelaire’s — and Laurie says to me, “Oh, that’s that Kenny guy over there,” so I went over and introduced myself. A couple of days later, we got together at his house and did some picking, and it sounded pretty good.
He mentioned that he was going to go on a KCSB radio show to promote some lessons that he was doing at the university, and he asked me if I wanted to accompany him on the radio. So I said, “Sure,” and we went and played a couple of songs on the radio. And the phone rings, and it’s the Sojourner Cafe, and they said, “Do you guys want to play here on Friday night? We’ll give you 15 bucks and a pizza.” So we held out for free beer, and they said, “OK.”
So we went down there and played, and it went well, and then we started playing there once a week. But after awhile, it wasn’t really a great fit because it was a health food restaurant, you know [laughs]? So we didn’t play there for very long, but we moved over to the Bluebird and started playing there once a week, and then one thing led to another, and pretty soon we were playing five nights a week. It just sort of took off from there.
JM: Do you have any idea how many gigs you and Kenny have done together over the years?
TB: About 5,000.
JM: And how many of those were at Cold Spring Tavern?
TB: [laughs] Quite a lot. We’ve held down the Sunday slot there for almost 40 years. But we travel, so they give us an option to cancel out as long as we give them a few weeks notice. So we’re there every Sunday whenever we’re in town, and have been for almost 40 years.
JM: What is the strangest place where you and Kenny have performed?
TB: Well, we played in the rec room of an insane asylum in the Netherlands once. That was pretty interesting. That was the only room in the insane asylum where the patients were completely unmonitored and could do anything they wanted. It was pretty outrageous.
The funny thing was that was the day after we played a massive festival in Denmark — 100,000 people. Bob Dylan was there, Paul Simon, Metallica, all these people. We felt like superstars, and then the next day we’re in the rec room of a crazy house. It just goes to show the ups and downs of the music world.
JM: Was it a successful gig in the insane asylum?
TB: This one guy kept trying to sit on my lap and yell the only words that he knew in English, which was “El Monte, El Monte!” He just kept saying that at me. And then there was a washer and dryer in the room, and there was a lot of people crowded around the dryer watching the clothes go around in circles. That was pretty interesting [laughs]. But you do what you’ve got to do, right?
JM: What do you think is the secret to the longevity of Tom and Kenny? It’s pretty rare for people to be playing together that long, and seemingly still liking each other.
TB: We’re good friends, so that helps. And we both have the same kinds of interests when we’re on the road — that helps. And because we’re only a duo, we both have veto power over the material. You’re never outnumbered. If you’re in a five-piece band and you hate a song but the other four guys like it, you’re stuck doing it because you’re outvoted. But when you’re in a duo, you can’t outvote anyone, so we just don’t do anything unless we both like it. So it actually makes things pretty easy.
JM: You’re actually also quite a good guitar player, and you’re a great singer. Is there anything you can’t do?
TB: Everything else [both laugh]. Those are the only instruments I ever learned. I kind of flirted with banjo and mandolin, but I never got very good at it. So, yeah, that’s it. Just guitar, harp and singin’.
Click here for the full interview with Tom Ball.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his website, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.