Making a Scene Presents an Interview with Teresa James of Teresa James and the Rhythm Tramps
Her persuasive pipes slathered in honey and soaked in Texas-bred sass, keyboardist Teresa James and her band, the Rhythm Tramps, have long reigned as one of Los Angeles’ leading contemporary blues outfits, even though their uncommonly imaginative repertoire, much of it supplied by Terry Wilson, James’ husband, producer, and bassist, is by no means strictly limited to the 12-bar form. Their 2019 CD Here in Babylon was nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues Album category.
Rose-Colored Glasses, the band’s new release on Blue Heart Records, continues that proud tradition. It’s their 12th album and once again showcases Teresa’s enticing way with a lyric and Terry’s prolific songwriting talent, poured over grooves that’ll grab listeners and refuse to let go until the very last notes have rung. A coterie of Texas guitar greats guest on the set, including Anson Funderburgh, Lee Roy Parnell, Johnny Lee Schell, Snuffy Walden, and Dean Parks. “This new album is kind of veering a little bit more into soul,” says Teresa. “But to me, blues is more of a state of mind. It’s where you’re coming from. It’s the attitude and the heart that you bring to it.”
By any yardstick, Teresa got an uncommonly early start on her lifelong profession. “There was always music playing in my house. My dad was a huge music fan. He had all kinds of musical interests, so I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music.” “I studied classical music until I was about a sophomore in high school. When I was like eight or so, my dad taught me how to play guitar. Those were the seeds which would eventually lead to a musical career including recordings with Walter Trout, Eric Burdon, Spencer Davis, Tommy Castro, Stephen Bruton, Randy Newman, LeeRoy Parnell, Neil Diamond, and more; plus live performances with countless others, including Marcia Ball, Levon Helm, Lloyd Jones, Delbert McClinton, and Eric Burdon & the Animals. She has been a featured act on Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruises for more than twenty years.
Teresa ultimately left Houston at the encouragement of Terry Wilson and his buddy Tony Braunagel, who had relocated to L.A. Terry proved the perfect musical cohort for Teresa. “His songs are brilliant. I think he’s a really great songwriter. And we’ve collaborated on quite a few, but I think what I bring to his songs in the interpretation is just a good match. He knows the kinds of things that I’m going to be able to put myself into to expand them,” she says. “Over the years, we have definitely developed a partnership that works.” Her band, The Rhythm Tramps, consists of world class players that have toured or recorded with artists including Eric Burdon & the Animals, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Jimmy Reed, Lightin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Vaughan, Johnny Nash, Smokey Robinson, Tom Jones, Tower Of Power, and more.
In 1998, The Rhythm Tramps released their debut album, The Whole Enchilada, on Jesi-lu, with Teresa and Terry’s studio cohorts including guitarists Watts, Schell, and Stephen Bruton. Braunagel and Herman Matthews manned the drums. Subsequent releases include Live (2000), Oh Yeah! (2003), The Rhythm Method (2004), and The Bottom Line in 2007. “The Bottom Line is a really good one,” says Teresa. “We still do most of the songs on that album, and that was the one where we got the BMA nomination.” Next up was Country by Request (2008), followed by 2010’s You Know You Love It, Come On Home in 2012, Bonafide in 2016, and the Grammy-nominated Here in Babylon in 2018, which was mixed by Ed Cherney with Jay Bellerose on drums.
As if the band didn’t keep her busy enough, Teresa has also done considerable vocal work on film soundtracks and song demos in Los Angeles. One of her favorite composers to work for in the studio is Randy Newman; she was one of the background singers on “Putin” from his 2017 CD Dark Matter.
Soon to have a full dozen albums under their collective belt spanning 23 exciting years, Teresa James & the Rhythm Tramps remain a staple of the Los Angeles-area blues scene in addition to an international touring artist, with a sound all their own. Moving easily from Texas-style grease and blues into Memphis soul or New Orleans-flavored grooves and all points in between with fun and abandonment, as one critic said, “there are no clichés in this band.”
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