The Fabulous Thunderbirds

Kim Wilson, co-founder of The Fabulous Thunderbirds, had a big fan. Muddy Waters called him his favorite harmonica player and vocalist. “Muddy Waters was very good to me,” Wilson said. “He almost adopted me. I’ll never forget him.”

Now the sole original member of the band that has been called “the quintessential American band,” Wilson began his musical journey in Goleta, California. At 17, he began playing the harmonica. His influences included Little Walter, George “Harmonica” Smith, Lazy Lester and James Cotton. He also began singing and listened to B.B. King, Otis Rush, Jimmy Rodgers and of course, Muddy Waters.

Wilson began searching for other musicians who shared his love of the blues. He went to Minneapolis for a year before joining the burgeoning music scene in Austin, Texas. There he met Jimmie Vaughan and they formed the T-Birds. The band developed a solid reputation as a compelling live act. “Things were wide open back then,” Wilson said. “There were hundreds of stages where bands could show what they had.”

The group signed a record deal with CBS/Epic Records and in 1979, they released their first self-titled album. Primarily influenced by the blues, it became a cult classic.

While they started as a straight blues band, in subsequent releases, the band started to incorporate more Cajun, rock ‘n roll, and soul influences. The album T-Bird Rhythm marked a creative turning point for the group as they collaborated with noted producer Nick Lowe. In 1986, The Fabulous Thunderbirds reached a commercial peak with the album Tuff Enuff. The single of the same title, as well as the singles “Wrap it Up” and “Look at That,” all went Top 40. The song “Tuff Enuff” was featured in the film Gung Ho, starring Michael Keaton.

For the remainder of the ‘80s, the band continued to record and tour and released the album Powerful Stuff. Vaughan left the group in 1989, but Wilson kept the group going, bringing keyboards into a guitar-driven sound. “We now incorporate a mixture of a lot of different styles,” Wilson said. “We’re an American music band and we’re much higher energy than we used to be. The thing about the T-Birds is that we can play both blues festivals and rock venues. We’re a diversified band now and everybody’s on the same page.”

As for Kim Wilson, who still spearheads the group, he never forgets his roots. His solo album, Take Me Back, was nominated for a 2022 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album.

Muddy Waters would be proud.