Rockabilly fans have always had a friend in James Heath, also known as the Reverend Horton Heat, even if they have never been quite sure what to call him. Throughout his 10-year recording career, fans have affectionately referred to Heath as “James,” “Jim,” “Jimbo,” “The Reverend,” and simply, “The Rev.” But no matter what they call him, all of his fans agree on this – if you are looking for trouble, look no further than the Reverend Horton Heat.
As the devilishly devised RHH, Heath has adopted the image of a sinfully likeable backwoods preacher, who feverishly pounds his guitar pedals with one foot here on earth, as his other foot dangles precariously above the fiery depths of hell. Naturally, Heath’s loveable RHH character resides in a white trash world of trailer parks, fucked-up Fords, and aboveground swimming pools. And the majority of his tongue-in-cheek “sermons” revolve around the “finer things in life” – fast cars, faster women, and plenty of booze.
While Heath obviously enjoys playing the part of the hell-bound RHH, the singer-guitarist does not take his image or his lyrics too seriously. Many of Heath’s best-loved tunes, such as “One Time for Me (Do It),” “Wiggle Stick,” and “Big Red Rocket of Love” are full of silly sexual innuendo and sticky double entendres. By composing humorous, multi-layered ditties about the powers of physical attraction, Heath both satirizes and pushes the boundaries set by conventional rock sex symbols like Jim Morrison, who once sang the things “men don’t know, but the little girls understand.”
According to an old press release issued by one of his former labels, Sub Pop Records, Heath “began as a guitar-playing orphan prodigy,” who spent most of his teen years at a juvenile correctional facility in East Texas. The Sub Pop bio goes on to say, “At age 17, [Heath] hit the streets, supporting himself as a street musician and a pool shark.” Then, “after a few years of hustling,” Heath beat “the unnerving odds stacked against him” and formed his band with bassist Jimbo Wallace and original drummer Patrick “Taz” Bentley.
Although the facts listed in Sub Pop’s press statement may be one hundred percent accurate, Heath’s 1996 track, “That’s Showbiz,” probably portrays the veteran musician in a more realistic light. In “That’s Showbiz,” Heath tells the bitter story of a hard-working, long-suffering lounge lizard: “You work, practice, woodshed, suffer for your craft/ Do the old soft-shoe ‘til your feet bleed/ Sing ‘Mammy’ ‘til your throat swells/ All the while smiling even though your face hurts/ You do this for 10 years, and the day after the back page of some local rag says you’re great/ You see somebody better and younger than yourself/ And he closes the show with a gag he stole from you/ And that’s show biz.”
Six years, four albums, four record labels, and countless tour miles after the release of “That’s Showbiz,” Heath is far from running out of gas. Once again Heath finds himself on the never-ending concert trail, this time to promote his latest full-length, Lucky 7. From a hotel room phone in Bloomington, Indiana, Heath talked about hot rods, rockabilly fans, and his larger-than-life image.
“We tour irrespective of any album that comes out,” Heath explained in a calm, raspy voice. “Last year, we didn’t have a new album out, and we still played over 200 shows. We’re not doing anything special in particular to promote the new album, even though our label [Artemis Records] might have some ideas. You know, we’re just doing our gigs, man.”
And with Lucky 7, Heath has rolled a real winner. Full of gospel and rockabilly-based tunes that his longtime fans will undoubtedly appreciate, Lucky 7 shows Heath at the top of his craft. When asked if creating the album’s maniacally clever 14 tracks was at all an out-of-the-ordinary experience, Heath humbly shrugged off the question.
“We were just having fun,” Heath said about the making of Lucky 7. “Actually, I was going to try and write a theme album all about hot rods and cars. But, to tell you the truth, writing songs about cars got to be too limiting. And I had all of these other songs, and they seemed like they would be better and more fun to play. So I kind of nixed the idea about doing an all-car album, and left some of the songs about cars on Lucky 7.”
Speaking of hot rod numbers, one of Heath’s new Lucky 7 tracks, “Like A Rocket,” was used as the promotional theme music for this year’s Daytona 500. And Levi’s also ran Heath’s 1994 tune, “Big Sky,” as part of a recent television ad campaign. Not surprisingly, Heath cited practical reasons for the commercialization of his songs.
“If it’s something that helps pay the bills, then it’s something bands have to think about,” Heath matter-of-factly stated. “I mean they pay us and use it in commercials, but the commercials do not really seem to affect our record sales or the attendance at our concerts. The commercials are something that’s off to the side. As far as the whole commercialism issue – Neil Young is really against rock bands selling-out and the whole commercial use of songs and stuff. But hey, Neil Young has been a millionaire since the ‘60s, and we’re still fighting to pay the bills.”
Even with the albums and commercials, Heath draws most of his paycheck from touring and playing live shows. Heath knows and understands his audience well, especially his fans here in Los Angeles. And according to his jam-packed concert calendar, Heath will be making an appearance at the House of Blues in West Hollywood on April 25.
“Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California have been the cornerstones of our career,” Heath thoughtfully mentioned. “One of the reasons why we’ve been [successful] is because the rockabilly scene has never really died there. And that’s partly because of the Mexican-American community. The ‘50s have always been big with the Mexican-American population-base, and the whole lowrider scene coupled with the LA rockabilly scene has been an important thing for us. We love to play there, man. We’re really looking forward to it.”
Finally, Heath realizes that it will be nearly impossible for him to ever live down his fast-living, two-fisted persona. However, at this point in his career, he would sure like to try…
“Well, if I tried to live up to the image people had of me, I’d be dead,” Heath said, sounding tired. “We still like to party, but we don’t get quite as stupid as we used to get sometimes. My whole image, that’s an interesting thing. There’s been so much bogus stuff said about me, and there are so many things I never said or did. This whole image deal goes back over to the record companies.
“For me, the whole image aspect has helped ruin music because now we live in a world where a musician has to have an image. I mean you’re better off being a gangster who doesn’t know how to sing than having a Ph.D. and being one of the best piano players in America. If you’ve actually got a Ph.D. in music, even though you’re a great musician, you’re probably going to wind up playing the lobby at the Hyatt Regency on Sunday evenings. I think we should focus on people who are trying to become great musicians rather than people who have some cool image.”