A Southern rock legend finds new life while clinging to past glory.
It seems that in the annals of Southern rock and roll, the story very often goes like this: wild and crazy times growing up, scraping to make the music work, hitting it big for a time, and then either tragedy strikes, the light fizzles out due to inner turmoil or they are replaced by a new genre. Legendary bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band and even the Allman Brothers have all experienced the tremendous peaks and valleys associated with the Southern rock mantel.
In many ways, The Outlaws seemed to have lived that bittersweet story to the tee. Born out of Tampa, Florida, they recorded one of the greatest FM radio rock epics, “Green Grass and High Tides”, and saw their fame rise to arena-size numbers in the mid-late ’70s. But then like many of their brethren, The Outlaws faded out of the spotlight into relative oblivion, lost some of their members to overindulgence and only saw a faint glimmer of fame return as nostalgia became a ticket seller.
Like a character in an old Western tale, Henry Paul was smack dab in the middle of that Southern rock lore with The Outlaws. The ups and downs he experienced — making it big, getting kicked out of the band he helped make successful, changing course for the better, mending fences and rejoining his old band several times — are the stuff of campfire stories told with a bottle of Jack.
But Paul’s story is unlike many of the other wild-eyed tales that are commonplace with Southern rock bands. He was born in Kingston, New York, for one, and instead of idolizing Hendrix and Clapton like many other Southern rock wannabes, Paul had another icon as his main influence.
“Bob Dylan was everything to me – I was one of those nut cases that absolutely flipped over his work,” said the open and amicable 63-year-old Paul during our very candid 45-minute interview in advance of The Outlaws August 31st show at the Birchmere. “Back in the day, seeing Bob Dylan in Kingston at the Pool Hall was, like, the second coming of Christ.”
Paul left the rural confines of New York when his parents divorced and wound up in the middle of Southern rock territory when the family moved to Florida. But his zest for folk music remained, and he wouldn’t stay in Florida long.
“I was never in bands or anything in high school,” said Paul. “I was more of a folk singer. Going back up to New York for me was kind of my stepping stone. I knew I was gonna be a singer some way around, so I said I’m gonna move to New York, get a place downtown, I’m gonna play the clubs. I did play venues like the Gaslight and Folk City, you know, just hung around there, and met people and starved, and ya know, spent a couple years in the city.”
Then a move back down South would change Henry Paul’s career forever, as he found a calling in a way he really never expected.
“Eventually, an opportunity took me to Tampa in 1971. I put a band together. It was funny, I’d never been in a band but I kinda wanted to be in one, so Sienna was born,” said Paul. “But it’s funny, I had never really performed in front of a live audience, so when I stepped out in front of 1500-2000 people and the light came on and the seas parted, the rest was history. I was really good at being up there, my personality with the audience, it was just like, wow.”
After Sienna began to falter, bandmates Monte Yoho and Frank O’Keefe contacted old pal Hughie Thomasson, who like Paul, had also fled Florida to New York on a quest to try his hand after his own musical forays fizzled in the late ’60s. But feeling homesick and broke, Thomasson drove back home to Tampa, and with no band to work with, was recruited by Yoho, O’Keefe and Paul, and The Outlaws were born.
“Hughie and Monte and Frank had been in a high school band called The Outlaws so we said, ‘maybe we’ll get more work with this name’, so we changed the name,” said Paul. “Hughie wanted his friend Billy Jones in the band, so he called Billy and he loaded up his shit out in Colorado and came down too.”
The die of what would be the most successful machination of The Outlaws was cast – a unique blend of country and rock that would err on the harder side but always retain that countryish tinge. They set out to play the local clubs as largely a cover band in suburban Tampa. But, it’s the original material they would create that would kick start their steady rise to fame.
“We had sort of an eclectic playlist of cover material, songs from artists who we loved … and we wrote [our own] songs,” said Paul. “Eventually we just kept developing and writing and reaching a larger audience at home. The band grew into probably the most popular local band, and that sort of propelled us regionally. Then a few of the right people saw the group and got excited about it. It was really Ronnie Van Zant telling his manager, Alan Walden, and so on. Then Clive Davis came down to see us play and signed us then.”
Davis called them “the first full-tilt rock band signed to Arista” and The Outlaws would go on to record some of Southern rock’s most classic compositions, including the epic “Green Grass.” But in 1977, after FM radio, album and touring success had found the band, Henry Paul’s time as an Outlaw would come to a sudden and stunning end. And Paul is not shy about his feelings toward being asked to leave a band that he helped grow into a Southern rock force.
“I was forced out of the band so to speak, by Hughie and Billy, and of course I was crushed,” said Paul. “I was very, very, very, very hurt. It was devastating because I’d put so much in to it. I was the front man and well, it was kinda beating them down. But when a band goes from becoming a struggling club act to a more recognizable national musical entity, fame and fortune have a way of contaminating the experience of any band. I wish we had known more about how to communicate with one another rather than build up resentments and overreact. But I love those guys and have a deep respect and admiration for ’em.”
Paul would shake off the pain of the breakup from the Outlaws and form The Henry Paul Band in 1979, calling it “an answer to the notion that I wasn’t needed.” After finding moderate success with his debut album “Grey Ghost,” (the title song is dedicated to his late buddy Ronnie Van Zant) he went on to record two more albums with the band before breaking it up in 1983 and reuniting with Thomasson in the Outlaws. Together they cut “Soldiers of Fortune” and stayed together until 1989.
After parting ways with Thomasson again, Paul would head to Nashville to rekindle his fortunes with Arista records, and form the more countrified rock band Blackhawk in 1991. He again found success with the self-titled debut going multi-platinum. As Paul was finding new success with Blackhawk, he saw his old pal Thomasson’s Outlaws “flaming out” in the clubs, but was elated when Thomasson was asked to join Lynyrd Skynyrd, another Southern rock band trying to hang on to the glory days.
“I was really happy when Hughie got into Lynyrd Skynyrd. He needed to get out of that downwardly spiraling rut. I thought it saved him. It was great seeing Hughie find success again,” said Paul.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, The Outlaws didn’t die and in 2005 Paul was asked to do a 30th anniversary Outlaws tour with Hughie and Monte, as well another old Outlaws member from the late ’70s, David Dix. Some of the old magic surfaced, but so did some of the nagging issues.
“I split my year between The Outlaws and Blackhawk,” said Paul. “It wasn’t a fun year. It was exciting to be on stage with Hughie and Monte again, and see and hear and feel what that was, but I’d come a long way with some, well, lifestyle issues, and it was a little bit wild and wooly for my taste. So I finished out the year. It was largely my band and my crew and no one was having that much fun.”
Thomasson would stay with The Outlaws through 2006 and would pass away from a heart attack in 2007. Even though he knew about Thomasson’s penchant for the wild life, Paul was stunned at his old friend’s death.
Paul continues to do double duty with The Outlaws and Blackhawk to this day and feels that he and Monte Yoho have managed to keep The Outlaws fire aflame with dignity and respect to the past.
“Monte and I are very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with [The Outlaws], and we’ve kept the professionalism and level of musical play at a very high level,” said Paul. “We miss Hughie, and we miss Billy, and we miss Frank, but they went on a long journey to another place.”
The Outlaws play The Birchmere Saturday August 31st. For tickets click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for vps3.washingtonlife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for classic rock cover band Second Wind.