the subdudes


Tommy Malone

lead vocals, electric and acoustic guitars

Tommy Malone

On stage, standing front and center, Tommy Malone exudes a laid-back, down-to-earth style that epitomizes the subdudes. But his self-assured exterior masks a songwriter who mines heartache and elation, the surreal and the everyday, and who crafts the experiences into instantly memorable tunes. As the subdudes’ lead guitarist, he punctuates soulful, heart-felt vocals with playing that is at turns joyful, incendiary, melancholic.

He's been writing and playing music for more than three decades – 15 years off and on with the subdudes, and another decade and half before that with many of the same guys.

"He was always the way he is now,” says fellow subdude Steve Amedée, who would know – he's been playing music with Malone since Tommy was a sophomore in high school.

* * *

The band Elroy, 1973 Tommy Malone was a high school sophmore when he began playing with Elroy in his hometown of Edgard in 1973. Other members at the time included Steve Amedée, Nathan Stein, Mike Homer (right) and Jimmy Caldarera.

Tommy Malone was born in the tiny river community of Edgard, La., about an hour west of New Orleans, where he was the youngest of four brothers: Bill was the eldest, John played bass and guitar and wrote songs, David played guitar and Tommy, of course, played guitar.

With 10 years separating the brothers, there was an incredible variety of music playing in the house over the years – from the New Christy Minstrels to the Buffalo Springfield, from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Johnny Cash, from Dylan to the Beatles.

Surrounded by aspiring musicians, perhaps it was only natural for Tommy to pick up a guitar and join a band. The band was Elroy – a typical high-school rock band. It featured 14-year-old Tommy on lead guitar, plus on drums a slightly older neighbor from down the road: Amedée.

“We were the cover band – Creedence, Steely Dan, Beatles, anything we could scrounge up. Chuck Berry tunes. Rock. Some R&B stuff, maybe some Fats Domino,” Malone said. Elroy lasted a few years, until the guys finished school and started moving away.

“I got out of high school in ’75 and moved immediately to New Orleans – to hang out with the hippies,” Malone says with a laugh.

Before he’d even turned 18, Tommy was on Bourbon Street, playing with Dustwoofie, a country-rock band that featured two of his brothers.

* * *

Professor Longhair, Tommy Malone and Dave Malone, 1979. Professor Longhair, left, with Tommy Malone, center, and Dave Malone in 1979. (Photo by Alan Hill)

After a detour to Wyoming and Austin, Texas, for a few years, Malone returned to New Orleans around 1978 and helped form the Cartoons with future subdudes Amedée and Johnny Ray Allen. Former Rhapsodizers vocalist and bass player Becky Kury was the band’s lead singer. “I think she was the finest white R&B blues singer in the city,” Malone says.

Then one night he got a call: The Percolators were looking for a guitar player. John Magnie, who was the leader of the Percolators – Leigh “L’il Queenie” Harris’ backup band – told Tommy to come out to the Dream Palace to play with them.

Malone got the job and ended up in the Percolators for about three years.

“It was a great gig. The money was better, it was a much more popular act at the time (than the Cartoons). At times, it was really happening,” Malone says.

The band, which in the late-’70s and early ’80s was as big as the Radiators and the Neville Brothers – maybe bigger, never managed to break through to the big time.

* * *

Continental Drifters, circa 1985 The Continental Drifters circa 1985 included Tommy Malone, center, as well as future subdudes John Magnie, left, and Jimmy Messa, right.

The Percolators disbanded when core members Malone, Magnie and drummer Kenneth Blevins decided to form the Continental Drifters in 1984. The band had something of a cult following but still struggled to find gigs. Yet with the Drifters – as with the Percolators – the seeds for the subdudes were being sown. Magnie was beginning to incorporate the accordion into some songs, and Malone was gaining confidence in front of the mic – slowly assuming the role of frontman.

“When we got burned out on the Drifters, that’s when we did this jam one night in Tipitina’s on one of John’s piano nights.”

After one of the Drifters' shows at Jimmy’s – an Uptown music venue – the pair started talking about music, about the shortcomings of the Drifters. The music was too loud, it needed to be more “subdued,” they agreed.

“I don’t remember if it was him or me that said it, but we looked at one another and said, ‘That’s the name!’ If we could just be a little more ‘subdued!’

“After the (first subdudes) gig, we went over to Steve and Johnny Ray’s and listened to the (tape of the) entire set and said, ‘Goddamn, it’s rough – but it’s got a real cool kind of chemistry going on.’ It was different than anything we’d heard. At this point, we decided, ‘This is cool. This is it.’ ”

* * *

Tommy Malone and Willie Williams, 1995 Tommy Malone with Willie Williams during a subdudes performance around 1995.

Within a few months, members of the fledgling band decided they needed to leave New Orleans if they were going to make it. So they headed for Fort Collins, a college town near Magnie’s hometown of Denver. They landed in the fall of ’87 and never looked back. A contract with Atlantic led to their first two albums, in ’89 and ’91. East-West released Annunciation in the spring of 1994, followed by Primitive Streak in ’96. All the while, they toured heavily, winning fans and drawing near unanimous praise from the critics.

But by early ’96, the band was starting to fracture. That summer, in mid-tour, the subdudes announced the fall shows would be their last.

“The subdudes had been on the road for 10 years, we’d made a bunch of records, we were separated from each other geography-wise, we weren’t writing together, the moods within the band were getting funky,” Malone told Offbeat, a New Orleans music magazine, in 1998.

Malone, who had moved back to New Orleans after about five years in Colorado, and Johnny Ray Allen had started working with Nashville singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin and former Continental Drifters bandmate Kenneth Blevins on a new project they dubbed Tiny Town. The band had a brash, hard-rocking edge that gave Malone a chance to stretch out. Tambourine, accordion and acoustic guitar were nowhere to be heard.

“When Tiny Town formed, I made a conscious decision that I was not going to touch (an acoustic guitar)… I wanted to play everything on electric guitars,” Malone told Offbeat.

* * *

Offbeat magazine Offbeat magazine, September 2000

The guys eventually signed with Pioneer Records, but shortly after the band’s self-titled debut was released in the summer of 1998, Pioneer went belly up. Within a year, Tiny Town called it quits.

“I had about a year-and-a-half of figuring out what’s next,” Malone told the Baton Rouge Advocate in April 2001. “I pretty much knew I wanted to do it on my own. I just knew it was gonna take a lot of time and energy.”

Malone emerged that spring with “Soul Heavy” – his first solo CD. It fused elements of R&B, soul, jazz and other forms of American music. At times it was reminiscent of the subdudes, at others it rocked like Tiny Town. In the end, it was purely Tommy Malone.

Malone and his trio hit the road in earnest that spring and summer. By the fall, a personnel crisis resulted in Malone calling up former Continental Drifters bandmate Jimmy Messa, who brought along drummer Sammy Neal. In October, a casual reunion on stage with John Magnie sparked conversations about what once seemed impossible – a permanent reunion of the subdudes.

Prior to the show, the pair had spoken by phone, and Malone invited Magnie to bring his acccordion and come down to the Soiled Dove in Denver.

“It was just a matter-of-fact thing – he got up and played. There were some old fans in the front row – they were going apeshit,” Malone says with a laugh. “It reminded them of the old thing. Of course, I was loving it. Jimmy looked like he was loving it – and Sammy, too. We just thought, this is crazy – we just started talking about (regrouping) more and more on the phone. We decided we’d put the two bands together,” Malone says.

The two bands were Tommy’s solo outfit plus Magnie’s 3 Twins, which featured Amedee and former subdudes tour manager Tim Cook, who also sang, played music and wrote songs.

* * *

Tommy Malone with The Dudes, 2002 Tommy Malone with the Dudes at the Little Bear Saloon in Evergreen, Colo., March 21, 2002. (Photo by Clare Schachter)

The merger resulted in The Dudes. The six-piece band toured for a year before scaling down to five members. Drummer Sammy Neal left on good terms as part of a conscientious decision to get back to the stripped down sound of the subdudes. Perhaps the most symbolic shift was reverting to the original name, ‘subdudes.’

That was March 2003, and the band spent much of the rest of the year touring and working up new songs for their first new studio album in eight years. With the release of “Miracle Mule” in April 2004, the band is back on the road, touring wider and harder than it has in nearly a decade.

“We enjoy making music together again – we’re enjoying writing together. It’s fun as hell to me,” Malone says.

“To me, and I really believe this, it’s better than it’s ever been.”


Q&A with Tommy Malone

Q: What was it like growing up in River Parishes – out in the country?

A: It was kind of isolated, but it made us use our imagination. We spent a lot of time outside, a lot of time on the levee – building fires and roasting sausages, drinking cheap wine. For us, that seemed normal, for 14- and 15-year-olds to be drinking wine on the levee – we did a lot of that. Our house was sort of party central in Edgard. We would set up on the porch every weekend, set up musical equipment, and people would just stop by, and we would play music.

Q: Tell us about when the subdudes decided to move from New Orleans to Fort Collins.

A: We all packed it up, Beverly Hillbilly-style. I bought a Ford LTD from Steve's girlfriend at the time for $200, hooked a U-Haul trailer to it, and we all took out together. John had gone on a month earlier to find some apartments. And we all just showed up – I think we all lived on the same block. We painted our name on the side of this Ford LTD, and drove around town, advertising, and played Sunday nights regularly for a year. We finally got some attention. … It was an exciting time.

Q: Some of your songs chronicle very personal experiences. Lines such as, "she sent my ring back Fedex without a note." Is it tough, reliving those experiences every time you sing a song?

A: It's still real every time, it's not as painful now, obviously. But it's still a heavy time of my life. I try convey the emotion of that experience every time, whether or not people are into that… It's a tricky thing, sometimes you can get too personal, or you can get into cheeseworld. But if it feels truthful and honest enough, it'll survive. I feel good about doing those. Although I've definitely written some things that I'd rather not ever do again.

Q: How are things different today in the subdudes, compared to, say, 1996?

A: There's less tension. There's a genuine spirit of creativity. It's fun, it's exciting - it's truly fun. … Being clean, for one thing, is different. I'm a lot more focused, I'm a lot more committed to the vision of the band – the desire to make it as good as it could possibly be. It feels like, really, a blessing – like a second chance. …

Lagniappe

(a little something extra thrown in...)

Q: Who has the best po-boys? Or do you have a favorite eatery in New Orleans these days?

A: Used to be Weaver's in New Orleans. … But Liuzza's by the Track is kicking ass. They've got great gumbo and great barbecue shrimp po-boys. I like that place a lot.

Timeline

Sept. 16, 1957 – Born in New Orleans; raised in Edgard, La.

circa 1970 – Receives his first guitar – a Gibson LGO – from an older brother.

circa 1972 – Buys his first guitar – a Gretsch Tennessean (Chet Atkins model).

circa 1974 – Plays trombone in the high school band.

circa 1972-1975 – Joins the band Elroy that also features fellow Edgard native Steve Amedée.

1975 – Moves to New Orleans; lands first job on Bourbon Street

1975-circa 1977 – Joins the band Dustwoofie that also features his brothers John and Dave.

circa 1977 – Performs with Kurt Kasson and the Wheeler Sisters.

1978 – Moves to Wyoming.

1978-1979 – Moves to Austin, Texas, and spends about a year recording and touring with singer-songwriter Willis Allen Ramsey.

1979 – Returns to New Orleans

1979-80 – Plays with the Cartoons, a band that featured future subdudes Steve Amedée and Johnny Ray Allen plus bass player and vocalist Becky Kury.

late 1980-1982 – Joins L'il Queenie and the Percolators, working with future subdude John Magnie for the first time.

1984-1987 – Forms the Continental Drifters with former Percolators Magnie and Kenneth Blevins. Membership later includes Johnny Ray Allen and Jimmy Messa, among many others.

March 15, 1987 – the subdudes perform for the first time – at Tipitina's in New Orleans.

October 1987 – Moves to Fort Collins, Colo.

early 1989-November 1996 – After signing their first big contract, the subdudes release four studio CDs and tour widely before pulling the plug.

Feb. 24, 1996 – Performs with Pat McLaughlin, Johnny Ray Allen and Kenneth Blevins on stage for the first time as Tiny Town, at the Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans.

1997-1999 – Tours widely with Tiny Town.

August 1998 – Tiny Town's self-titled CD released. Record company folds not long afterward.

late 1998-March 2000 – Performs a handful of shows with brother Dave Malone and Theresa Andersson as Monkey Ranch.

July 1999 – Tiny Town members call it quits.

spring 2000 – Begins working with Ray Ganucheau, recording solo demos and performing occasionally in New Orleans as a solo artist.

April 2001 – First solo CD, "Soul Heavy," is released.

May 2001-January 2002 – Tours widely with a trio that includes Ray Ganucheau and drummer Nicole Falzone. In September they're replaced by Jimmy Messa and Sammy Neal.

October 26, 2001 – Performs at the Soiled Dove in Denver where he reunites on stage with John Magnie. Talks ensue about working together again.

February 2002 – The Tommy Malone Band and Magnie's band, 3 Twins, combine to form the six-member Dudes, which includes three of the four original subdudes.

March 2003 – The Dudes scale back to a five-piece band and revive the name “subdudes.”

April 2004 – The subdudes' first studio album in eight years, "Miracle Mule," is released.


Tommy’s gear

With the subdudes, Tommy primarily uses:

Guitars

  • 1988 reissue Homer Haynes custom shop Fender Strat (Lindy Fralin pickups with 2 percent overwind)
  • mid-80's Fender Telecaster Custom (Lindy Fralin pickups)
  • 1967 Gretsch 6120 Nashville
  • 1961 Gibson J-45 (B-Band transducer pickup run through a Baggs Para Acoustic DI)
  • Electronics

  • 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb
  • 1975 Fender Vibrolux Reverb
  • Trace Elliot acoustic guitar amps
  • Pickups

  • Mi-Si acoustic guitar pickups (Tommy uses Mi-Si acoustic guitar pickups and is a Mi-Si endorser)
  • Misc.

  • Coricidin bottles for slide
  • D'Addario strings
  • John Pearse 80/20 Bronze strings (on the J-45)
  • Spectra-flex cables
  • Tortex thick picks

Discography

Here’s a look at a handful of the albums on which Tommy Malone has appeared. (Click the cover for more information.)


MP3

Here are some excerpts of recordings featuring Tommy Malone:

  • Have Mercy – Tommy takes the lead vocals on this Don Covay tune that was popularized by the Rolling Stones. This was recorded at Tipitina's on March 4, 1980, during a show by The Malones, which essentially consisted of Dave Malone and Susie Malone backed by most of the Radiators. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.
  • Can’t Find Me – Toward the end of the Percolators' existence, this song was often performed and featured Tommy on lead vocals (with harmony vocals from Leigh Harris and John Magnie). L'il Queenie and the Percolators recorded live at Tipitina's, May 9, 1982. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.
  • All the Time in the World – From the subdudes' last studio album prior to the reunion, Primitive Streak, this song kicked off the 1996 CD and remains a fan favorite. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.
  • Standing Tall – Tommy wrote this song in the days after the 9/11 tragedy (and shortly before the birth of his daughter). This early public performance features Tommy alone on a tiny stage, sharing the song with a handful of fans at the Old Point Bar in New Orleans, Dec. 7, 2001. Listen to this mp3 excerpt.

Article by Richard Russell; © 2004 Richard E. Russell

Malone portrait by Yiannis Samaras, courtesy of Back Porch Records. Archival photos are courtesy of Tommy Malone.

Photo credits listed above when known.

The L'il Queenie live recording is courtesy of Tommy Stevenson and Ben Windham.

The Malones recording is courtesy of Rich Rothenberg and, indirectly, Tim Clary.

The Malone solo recording is courtesy of Richard Russell.

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