At 82, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame drummer and singer has released a new album, Matt Gets Blue, with help from James Burton and Charley Musselwhite. Michael Shelley talks to Matt Lucas about his career, his fondness for the ladies (including porn actresses and ‘The Happy Hooker’) and working in Narvel Felts’ band
After seven marriages (including one at gunpoint) and an overabundance of pills, booze and life on the road, it’s a miracle not only that Matt Lucas is still alive, but that he shows no signs of slowing down. At age 82, his energy level is still off the charts. When I first interviewed him for radio in 2017, his response to my seemingly simple first question, “Tell me about your childhood,” was a 19-minute monologue that included a lot of interesting, and at times astonishing, information, but never quite answered the original question. But that’s what you get when you interview a nonconformist like Matt Lucas.
Adopted as baby under nefarious circumstances, Lucas grew up as what would seem at first glance to be the small-town Missouri all-American boy. But, somewhere along the way he felt the pull of the dark side of town, and as he embarked on a lifetime of playing music, that pull would return again and again.
After local law enforcement made it clear his fraternizing with African Americans was not acceptable, he was branded a juvenile delinquent and after a stint in juvie he fled to Hollywood. After a tenure playing the rough Mob-controlled clubs of Calumet City and St. Louis, he joined Narvel Felts’ band on drums, and at the tail end of one of Narvel’s recording sessions Matt recorded his show stopper, an almost unrecognizable revved up version of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.” Released in 1963, “I’m Movin’ On” became Matt’s biggest hit (reaching #56 on the Billboard charts) and his signature piece.
Matt Lucas, “I’m Movin’ On”, the single:
Lots of follow-ups on lots of labels followed, but none put Matt over the top. To this day, Matt feels he was a casualty of being “too black for white radio.”
Over the next decade or so, Matt toured endlessly on Canada’s club circuit, recorded “The Motor City Twine” with famed Detroit producer Ollie McLaughlin (now a sought-after collectible Northern Soul 45), and had a fluke Canadian disco hit, all while he battled personal demons.
In 1975, after a heart attack wakeup call, he (mostly) cleaned up his act and moved to Florida. After some time touring hotel lounges of the Southeast, he spent two years entertaining at The Frenchman’s Reef Resort in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and then years playing on cruise ships.
As the years passed, Matt’s records were eventually discovered by younger collectors who appreciated the exact genre-bending wildness and over-the-top style that kept them from being hits in the first place.
His 2016 quintuplet bypass operation has barely slowed him down. He spends his days thinking up new songs, riding his motorcycle and traveling with his beloved wife Barbara (who he put on the phone with me twice) in their R.V.
His new album, Matt Gets Blue, was recorded between 1970 and 2017 and features contributions from old friends James Burton on guitar and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica and finds Matt singing songs drawn from his amorous experiences with titles like “Massage Parlour Blues,” “The Peepin’ Tom” and “The Nuthouse.”
What follows is my attempt to fill in and fill out some of the holes in his narrative and to try to find out why Matt Lucas was so drawn to the dark side and how he made it back.
PKM: You were born July 19, 1935 in Memphis, Tennessee but were adopted and grew up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
Matt Lucas: I was sold to a couple of wonderful people up in Missouri who took me from The Tennessee Children’s Home Society. It was so corrupt there, they were selling babies to movie stars, Joan Crawford, Dick Powell, June Allyson, people like that, but this woman who ran the place, Georgia Tann, had everybody in the state of Tennessee on the take. She had a bunch of women working for her in hospitals. Let’s say a woman who didn’t have a husband had a baby, they would take the baby and come back in and tell the woman, “Sorry, but your baby died.” Fortunately the people who adopted me were just so wonderful. Just about the time I was learning to read, when my parents were away, I found my adoption papers, and that really knocked me for a loop. I asked my adopted parents about it and they said “Yes, it’s true. But we choose you, we love you.” And that made me feel okay again, but for a while I felt like I was really lost growing up. My folks had two movie theaters, so I got to go to the picture shows free. That’s when I got interested in music and acting and showbiz.
PKM: Tell me about Poplar Bluff. Is there a way to illustrate how small a town it was?
Matt Lucas: It’s in the boot heel of southeastern Missouri. The country around there, as I was growing up, were people picking mostly cotton, and some soybeans and tobacco. There was a lot of prejudice. At that time it seemed like most of the religions really didn’t get along, with the exception of the Catholics and the Jews, everybody seemed to hate the Catholics and the Jews. It was tough. If a black person was walking up the sidewalk on your side, they would cross to the other side to let you walk down the street. I could never figure that out. It crushed me. I had quite a few black friends growing up.
PKM: Tell me about songwriting. You wrote all the songs on your new album. When did you start writing songs?
Matt Lucas: When I was a little kid. The first song that I can remember writing was when my dog Spot got hit by a car. I wrote a blues song.
PKM: So you were singing in church and playing music in school, and making up songs, when did you start playing out with bands?
Matt Lucas: When I was still in Poplar Bluff I started playing with some little trios. The early gigs were in the honky-tonks around Poplar Bluff. I just absolutely loved Jazz music, and I loved Blues music, because we could get WDIA from Memphis on the radio, which was the first all-black station. They played wonderful music.
PKM: When did you start your interest in girls?
Matt Lucas: I guess when I was eleven or twelve years old. I thought “My God, if there’s anything better than this, The Lord kept it to himself.” I was just crazy about gals. I was hitting on everybody I could find. Older gals, younger gals. This was a crazy little town back then. They had one street called B Street. Every house on that street was a whorehouse. I had a little gal, she was about thirteen maybe fourteen, her name was Viola Brown, and her mother was a madam of a whorehouse. I didn’t really know about whorehouses, but if you drove down that street on a hot summer night you’d see all the red lights and the smell of Lysol really filled the air. Viola Brown really taught me a lot about the world.
PKM: Is that a euphemism?
Matt Lucas: She did invite me inside the house. In the living room they had a jukebox and a pinball machine and I thought “My goodness.” People said “How come you’re running around with that whore’s daughter?” I said “Well, man, she’s a lot of fun. I’m having a wonderful time.” So I guess they were jealous. I often wonder what happened to Viola. Quite a gal, very pretty too.
PKM: You talk about how wonderful your parents were, and I get that the small town was oppressive, but can you put your finger on why you felt the need to rebel?
Matt Lucas: Maybe the racism and the small-townness, and don’t forget I was watching those movies and I had a tendency to believe “Hollywood that’s where I wanna go. I’m gonna be an actor. One of these days I’m gonna run off to Hollywood and be in the movies.”
PKM: So you and some friends stole a cement truck and ended up in the reformatory. What was life like in the reformatory?
Matt Lucas: It was rough. It was The Missouri State Reformatory in Boonville, Missouri. I was a number, not a name. I was number 3-1448. I was in trouble before that, mostly for playing hooky, and getting gals and taking them out in the woods, or whatever. Also in town there was what they called The Holler which was the black part of town, and I’d go up there with my musicians friends and we would jam, and we’d have a barbeque and we’d be drinking, I’m like thirteen or fourteen years old, it was great but I got into a lot of trouble for that.
“We would work a normal nightclub gig in St. Louis from nine to one, and then [guitarist] Bobby [Ward] was so famous that at one o’ clock we’d pack our stuff up and go across the river to East St. Louis, which was just starting to jump, and we’d play over there at some bar or strip joint till maybe seven or eight o’clock the next morning.”
PKM: When you moved to L.A. in 1953, you worked as a model, played some Jazz, worked as a film extra and tried to become a movie star. What was going on?
Matt Lucas: Oh man! Crazy women, plus crazy guys. Plus the music, the music was marvelous. I love Jazz and I love Rhythm and Blues, so I had a wonderful time in L.A., but I couldn’t crash the gates of Hollywood, I was just too dumb and didn’t know what to do. About that time white Rock and Roll was starting to happen and I thought “Man, I can do this stuff.” So I went back to Poplar Bluff, then I moved to St. Louis.
PKM: Tell me about working in St. Louis.
Matt Lucas: Oh man it was paradise for a kid my age, working in all these strip joints. I started off in a little theater called The World Theater. They had a pit band with me on drums and a B3 Hammond organ and a tenor sax, and the other musicians were black. The MC would come out and sing “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” or one of the old standards, and the girls would come out and take their clothes off and we’d play songs like “Night Train” and stuff like that. Then I started working in other strip joints. I started working with the greatest guitarist I ever heard in my life, Bobby Ward. We would work a normal nightclub gig in St. Louis from nine to one, and then Bobby was so famous that at one o’ clock we’d pack our stuff up and go across the river to East St. Louis, which was just starting to jump, and we’d play over there at some bar or strip joint till maybe seven or eight o’clock the next morning. The only time they would shut the places down was to let the drunks go home, or sweep the joint up and start all over again.
PKM: I’m guessing the only way to accomplish this was to take a lot of pills.
Matt Lucas: In fact, they were selling pills over the bar in every bar. There were two things: if you were a musician you got a water glass of scotch or gin, or whatever you wanted for a dollar, and that glass held a half pint. But they also had pills in a package, it was Benzedrine tablets. So, at that time everyone was taking Bennies, and then you’d drink the whiskey. I was drinking constantly.
PKM: What kind of ladies were the strippers? What were their personalities like?
Matt Lucas: They were beautiful, but a lot of them were speed freaks, a lot of them were runaways, a lot of them were hookers. But they were great gals.
PKM: You’ve been married seven times, were you married at this time?
Matt Lucas: I got married in the 1950s to a waitress. In fact she was a dancer on the very first country music television show, The Ozark Jubilee with Red Foley.
PKM: How long did that marriage last?
Matt Lucas: I didn’t last very long. She got into drugs and was dropping a lot of pills, and was into a lot of downers like Seconal, Nembutal, phenobarbital, and she went nuts. She was really flipping out. But of course I wasn’t loyal. I was always chasing other women, working honky-tonks and a different woman or two or three every night. Although I couldn’t afford a motel room, so we’d use the back seat of a car, at intermission, with four sets a nights, so you had to get back to work in 15 minutes, so it was some really rush-job dates!
PKM: Eventually you got sick of working for gangsters and joined Narvel Felts’ band.
Matt Lucas: I started playing one-nighters with Narvel. We never played the same town twice. But later on, Conway Twitty, who was Harold Jenkins at the time, said, “Boys, you need to come to Canada.” So we went to Canada and the first place we played we had lines outside for two blocks. We could play the same nightclub six nights a week, and a matinee on the weekend. It was fantastic. No one was getting beat up. No one was throwing chairs at each other like they were down in Arkansas. So I stayed there for quite some time.
PKM: In Canada you met “The Happy Hooker” Xaviera Hollander, what was your relationship like?
Matt Lucas: Some people from the Toronto papers brought her out to see me, and we really hit it off good. We were extremely close. I still communicate with Xaviera, she has a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in Amsterdam. I was close with some other pretty famous gals too, like Marilyn Chambers and Desiree Cousteau. I was very close to some gals in porno.
PKM: How did you meet those ladies?
Matt Lucas: I know this might seem ridiculous, but I was getting so many references from women that I was going out with that I had a lot of gals… flying in to see me, giving me money. I know this sounds crazy, I was just lucky with gals giving me money to go out with them.
PKM: Were you drinking a lot? Were you taking a lot of drugs?
Matt Lucas: I was doing a lot of drugs, but mainly was drinking. I had a 40 ouncer of J&B scotch every day, seven days a week.
PKM: Was that your lowest point?
Matt Lucas: My lowest time was probably from about 1968 to about 1970. I was really down. Unhappy marriage, drugs and booze, booze, booze. I was so down I wanted to kill myself. I was so poor that when my adopted mother died I couldn’t go to the funeral. I didn’t have enough money to get there, I was such a mess.
The most frightening time I ever had was in East St. Louis at a large hillbilly club. While playing with Bobby Ward, I met a couple on Intermission. The guy was around 50 years old and the girl he was with was around 22. I had a drink with them and when he got up to go to the men’s room, she asked me to meet her outside on my next break…… I said OK and on the next break the guy was alone so I went outside to the parking lot. She was waiting so we got in my car for a ‘Quickie’ and ran back into the club. They left the club soon after. The next night before show time, I was setting at the bar on a bar stool and I out of the corner of my eye saw the guy coming towards me. He put a .45 in my back and said “Lucas, My wife left me and I was on my honeymoon last night! It’s your fault, you SOB!! I thought THIS IS IT FOR SURE!! The next thing I knew Bobby Ward was behind the guy with a .38 in his back telling him to put his gun away and get out of the club…..I thought ‘how can I win??? If he shoots me Bobby will shoot him and me both.. But the guy left…….Bobby Ward took no shit from anyone… That was one time I will never forget.
PKM: Did you ever try to get help? Did you ever go see a psychiatrist? Did you ever try to get to the bottom of these ebbs and flows?
Matt Lucas: Man, you wouldn’t believe this, but when I would go to a shrink or go to a doctor they’d all ask me “Can you line me up with Hollander? Can you line me up with so and so?”
PKM: So how did you get straightened out?
Matt Lucas: I think when I married Barbara. That really straightened me out. I went cold turkey. I thought “I’m gonna lose the gal that I really love if I don’t straighten my life out.”
PKM: So how long have you been straight?
Matt Lucas: Well, I’m having a drink right now as a matter of fact! But haven’t been zonked… I got zonked last about three years ago, but that was the first time I’ve been zonked in about twenty-five years.
PKM: Tell me about your new record. It’s all about your relations with women. Tell me about the song “Herpes Blues,” is that from personal experience?
Matt Lucas: My experience was always with the dreaded musician’s disease, the clap. I never met a musician who hadn’t had the clap! The two things that you could never avoid, I mean, you could go out with a nun and get crabs or the clap.
PKM: Tell me about “Massage Parlour Blues.”
Matt Lucas: It is about me opening a massage parlor for women. So that led me into the “Vibrator Blues.” Even in the 1950s, I had a briefcase full of vibrators. So I was pretty popular.
PKM: Do you feel lucky to be alive? How many heart attacks have you had?
Matt Lucas: All together, five. Let me tell you, the quintuple bypass is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.
PKM: Should people take advice from you? And if so, what advice do you have?
Matt Lucas: Don’t copy anyone. Try to be yourself. I’ve never been afraid to be myself, and though I’m not a big success, I’ve made my mark. I’m a happy guy, man, I really am.
Matt has provided this link where our readers can stream or download his new album for free. Thanks, Matt!