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No Pain,No Gain
Howard Kalish admits that he likes being a sideman. He likes to accompany the singer and weave in and out between the words. He likes to rip off a hot solo or play a pretty melody and watch the dancers glide across the floor. For 15 years he played fiddle and guitar with the incomparable and intercontinental Don Walser. He's played fiddle with legendary singers like Hank Thompson, Ray Price, Johnny Bush and Cornell Hurd. For a fellow who's not a full-time musician, he manages to perform with many superb players and does lots of fun, exciting and challenging gigs.
Howard was born in Brooklyn, New York where he was weaned on broken glass. He moved with his parents to Providence, Rhode Island when he was 9 and then to Southfield, Michigan when he was 15. When he was a kid, he really liked Al Jolson and big band music. In junior high he got the blues, so he started playing harmonica and guitar. He also started listening and learning from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
An interest in jazz guitar lead him to Django Reinhardt, but when he heard Stephane Grappelli's hot violin he decided that he wanted to learn how to do that - swing on the fiddle. Around the same time, he became familiar with the music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. The combination of take-off jazz, soulful singing, vibrant fiddle tunes and the blues gave him his musical focus. He taught himself to play while attending Grand Valley State College (now University) in western Michigan. After graduating in 1976, he moved to California where he played with many different bands and honed his skills. While in the Bay area, he met Cornell Hurd and played some shows with his band, the Mondo Hotpants Orchestra. Howard joined a popular outlaw country band called the Rattlesnake Hatband and played many dives and skull orchards. In 1978, Howard moved to Texas to get a better understanding of the music that he enjoyed. Once in Texas, he immersed himself in the varied country and western swing styles and became an avid fan of Tommy Jackson's fiddle style, which is a key component of the Ray Price shuffle sound that still resonates in Texas. He sought out the great swing fiddle players in Central Texas and took some lessons from Asleep At the Wheel's Bill Mabry and Danny Levin.
In the spring of 1979, Howard was playing with a band called Seven Come Eleven at a club near Lake Travis, west of Austin. It was raining real hard and the band was swinging harder. In walked a stunningly beautiful woman. Everyone in the club turned around. On the break, Howard came by and started talking with her. She said her name was Kathy and she wanted to take fiddle lessons. Howard and Kathy wound up getting married 1982 and they have a daughter, Corrina, who was born in 1985. Both Kathy and Corrina enjoy Howard's music and come out to hear him play. Howard has had numerous offers to go on the road with popular country singers, but has preferred to stay home in Austin with his family, work a day job, and play music on the side.
Howard played in a variety of bands in the 1980's and was part of a great house band at the Texas Tumbleweed Restaurants, which allowed him to pursue his interest in computer programming. That band moved to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Austin and played a happy hour there for a number of years. The musicians in that band were superb and at various times included Ernie Durawa, Reese Wynans (from Stevie Ray Vaughn), Terry McBride (from the Ride), Larry Nye, Frosty, Carl Hutchins, Steve Mendell, and Nick Connelly.
For several years Howard played with Centex honky-tonk favorites Possum Gap and then started doing shows with Ethyl and Methyl (aka Chris O'Connell and Maryann Price), who swang like mad. In 1986 Howard started his own band, the Rightsiders with Marty Muse and Mike Potter. They wanted to play the old dance style music and throw in a lot of swing. The Rightsiders played for dancers in honky-tonks and beer joints all over the Central Texas area. Also, that year he performed and recorded with one of his fiddling heroes, Johnny Gimble. They played during the Texas Sesquicentennial at the San Jacento Monument. Quite an honor. Howard would get to record and perform several more times with Johnny in later years. It's always an invigorating experience.
In 1987, Howard was part of Al Dressen's Super Swing Revue. In April, they backed up many luminaries for a big Western Swing Show including Floyd Tillman and a formidable fellow named Don Walser, who knocked the audience out with his singing and yodeling. Howard and Don hit it off and started playing gigs together. Soon they had a regular Monday night at Henry's, on Burnet Road in north Austin. Henry's was a rare scene, where old folks and young folks, rednecks, punks and vintage people shared a love for a smoky joint with cold, cheap beer and a country band in the corner. Don and Howard beefed up the sound with Skinny Don Keeling on bass and then added legendary steel guitar player Jimmy Day. Before long the Pure Texas Band had twin fiddles when young Jason Roberts joined Howard to form a fine fiddle section. The proprietors, James and Gail Henry, loved the music and held court at their table beside the band.
Howard played steadily with Don from 1988 until the present and played fiddle on Don's CDs. They and the Pure Texas Band, which now includes Scott Walls on pedal steel guitar, Skinny Don on bass, and Phillip Fajardo on drums, played many great shows over the years, including Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta for 6 days. They played a monthly Saturday night at the world-renowned Broken Spoke for over 10 years and played weekly at South Austin's Jovita's Mexican Restaurant. Howard says restaurant gigs are good.
Though Don Walser gigs kept him busy, Howard continued to perform and record with other interesting ensembles, including the adventurous Austin Klezmorim, the Derailers, Wayne "the train" Hancock, and the great pedal steel guitarists Herb Steiner and Bert Rivera. Recently, Howard has been playing with the powerhouse Cornell Hurd Band. He's been part of their recording band for years, but now has more time to play with them on a regular basis.
At the end of 2002, Howard took the Pure Texas Band and auxiliaries into the studio to record 8 songs featuring Don Walser. A few months later, he took them in again and started work on his new CD "What the Hey". It's the culmination and the beginning and it was a blast to make. In addition to Pure Texas Band stalwarts Scott, Skinny Don and Phillip, the recording ensemble includes Garmmy-award winning piano pounder Floyd Domino, the incomparable guitar player Rick McRae from George Strait's band, recent Pure Texas addition Timmy Campbell on drums, Howard's pal from the Texas Tumbleweed and Hyatt, drummer supreme Ernie Durawa, Rightsiders alumni and bass master Lynn Daniel, and Dave "LeRoy" Biller chunking out the rhythm guitar. The CD is a mix of instrumentals and songs with Howard singing 6 tunes and special guest Don Walser singing 3. The record is rounded out with 6 original instrumentals that let Howard and the band stretch out and show that shuffles, swing tunes, waltzes and polkas still have a lot of life in them.
Several years ago Howard got a 5-string fiddle and more recently added a 5-string electric mandolin to his arsenal. His musical approach has always been to build on the wonderful country and western swing music of the past, not to recreate it but to help it continue to evolve. His style encompasses the sounds of his musical heroes but it comes out as pure Howard. Give a listen to his new CD and remember Howard's words to live by - "What the Hey".