As music journalists, we try to avoid using superlatives, like, say, “the greatest living blues drummer.” At the same time, it’s inarguable that for those who’ve been in a room where the Austin drumming icon George Rains is playing, the notion is tough to ignore. Rains’ credentials in the world of blues are impeccable. In addition to backing Jimmie Vaughan since 1993, he was the house drummer at Antone’s blues club for a decade, and has played behind just about every blues artist you can think of from the early ’80s onward.
Rains got into playing regularly in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, in the early ’60s, sitting in with older musicians. A natural left-hander playing on a right-handed set, he became a left-handed/right-footed drummer. (Think of Billy Cobham or Lenny White.) “I started playing on other people’s drums,” Rains recalls today, “so I didn’t know that you set them up differently.”
Dallas/Fort Worth had a very active nightclub scene in those days, with the infamous Cellar Club being the hot spot. The Cellar actually had locations in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, with bands rotating in and out of the various locations. Rains played in the after-hours band in Fort Worth, but the San Antonio club is where he met one of his most important musical contacts, the late Doug Sahm, who made an immediate connection with the drummer and told him he would be in touch. Back home a couple of weeks later, Rains got his first break, a gig in California with a rock ’n’ roll guitarist and singer named Charlie Carey, who was originally from Fort Worth himself. Rains promptly moved to Los Angeles.
Carey was playing clubs around Southern California—“One of my first gigs with him was playing in a bowling alley with topless go-go dancers,” Rains remembers—and got an opportunity to sub at the famed Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip. The band took up a short residency there, subbing for the Tulsa singer-songwriter J.J. Cale. Rains’ encounter with Cale and his band led to a lifelong friendship with all of the Tulsa musicians, including Leon Russell. Subsequently the drummer spent a great deal of time hanging out and recording at Russell’s Hollywood Hills home.
The gig at the Whiskey led to Rains and the band playing in the club’s other locations in San Francisco, Denver, and New York; in Queens, New York, they performed at the 1964 World’s Fair. Somewhere in the midst of this busy schedule, Carey’s band got booked on a USO tour of the Far East, including Vietnam. “They offered the gig to Cale,” Rains recalls, “but he turned it down and offered it in turn to Charlie. The Vietnam experience was surreal—a lot like Apocalypse Now.” Upon his return to L.A. from overseas, Rains went to see Sahm, his old friend from San Antonio, at the Whiskey. The reunion with his fellow Texan would prove to be career altering.
Sahm was a musical chameleon and a former child prodigy on steel guitar who once sat in with country legend Hank Williams. He cashed in on the British Invasion, playing in a Mexican-American band with a British-sounding name, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and had a hit record, “She’s About a Mover.” He was an excellent R&B singer as well. Sahm told Rains he was folding his group and wanted the drummer to come to San Francisco to start a blues band with the help of the Bay Area music entrepreneur (and original Janis Joplin manager) Chet Helms.
Rains made the move to San Francisco with Sahm and gigged around the Bay Area, playing Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding tunes. “Along with Tower of Power and Sly & the Family Stone,” George recalls, “we were one of the very few bands that I knew of to play R&B.” At that time Rains met Boz Scaggs, who was just starting a solo career after leaving the Steve Miller Band, as well as the members of soul-rock singer Tracy Nelson’s group, Mother Earth.
After the gigs with Sahm dried up, Rains moved to Nashville with Mother Earth and recorded the album Living With the Animals. It was also in Nashville that he ran into his friend Scaggs, who joined Mother Earth as well. Scaggs had just finished his debut solo album, featuring newcomer guitarist Duane Allman, to much critical praise. Internal problems within Mother Earth gave Scaggs and Rains a reason to go back to San Francisco and record Moments, the guitarist’s first album for Columbia.
Moments was well received and yielded the FM radio hit “We Were Always Sweethearts.” The follow-up album, Boz Scaggs & Band, was recorded in London with Glyn Johns (the Who, Led Zeppelin) engineering and producing. Midway through recording his next album, My Time, Scaggs decided to change direction and fired the band, including Rains, who consequently shares drumming duties on the release with the great Roger Hawkins. “I always thought Boz really wanted to be Smokey Robinson,” Rains says. “He wanted something much slicker than what we were.”
Rains was back in San Francisco, freelancing around town, when Sahm called again with a new recording contract with Atlantic Records and the great Jerry Wexler producing. An all-star cast of musicians was recruited for the 1973 session, including Bob Dylan and Dr. John, with Rains playing drums on all the tracks. The album, Doug Sahm and Band, was generally well received by critics but sold poorly.
Rains recorded two more albums during this tenure with Sahm: The Sir Douglas Band’s Texas Tornado and the fan favorite by the Sir Douglas Quintet, 1+1+1=4. These records showcase Rains’ ease with blues, country, rock, Tejano, R&B, and swing feels. After this tenure with Sahm, Rains went back to freelancing in the Bay Area with guitar great Mike Bloomfield and remnants of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He also did a short-term gig with Van Morrison.
In 1976 Rains was convinced by Sahm to move to Austin and join the exploding music scene there. Dwindling finances, however, made this a short stay, and Rains headed back to California, but this time to L.A. rather than San Francisco. This period was not a high point in his career. Besides having to settle for gigs with bad country bands, he drove a cab, cleaned swimming pools, and got divorced. After a couple of years of this existence, in the early ’80s Sahm appeared again and took Rains back to Austin. With this move, the drummer’s luck began to change when he met blues singer Angela Strehli, who recommended him to the house band at the world-famous blues club Antone’s. Finally, a job with some stability in Austin’s volatile music scene.
The Antone’s gig came with its own unique set of challenges. The club featured name blues acts every week, and many of the artists required Rains to learn the songs with little or no rehearsal. Great ears, lightning-quick instincts, and a vast reservoir of experience were required to survive in this tough and unforgiving environment. It was hard work pleasing so many blues legends, each of whom had a particular style and nuances. “It was a trial by fire, and endless slow blues and shuffles,” Rains says.
Rains’ visibility at Antone’s led to friendships with many of the blues musicians in town, in particular the Vaughan brothers, Jimmie and Stevie Ray. This got Rains included on Stevie and Double Trouble’s Live at Carnegie Hall album as a guest, playing with Jimmie, Strehli, Dr. John, and the Roomful of Blues horn section. The album also features a couple of songs with Rains and Double Trouble’s Chris Layton playing dual drums.
Jimmie Vaughan left his band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, shortly before Stevie’s tragic death in 1990. Jimmie spent the next two years not performing, only writing songs—until his friend Eric Clapton called and encouraged him to start playing again to overcome his grief, just as Clapton himself had done following the death of his young son. One night Jimmie caught Rains on a break at Antone’s and asked if he would play a couple of gigs in London, opening for Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall. Rains said sure, and Vaughan said he’d be in touch. “Very casual, matter of fact, like it was a job at a bar down the street,” is how the drummer describes the offer. The association that started that night continues to this day.
When he’s not on tour with Jimmie Vaughan and the Tilt-a-Whirl Band, Rains can usually be found playing weekends at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul on South Congress Avenue in Austin, with Vaughan and organist Mike Flanigin, a gig he took over following the passing of the Austin drumming legend Barry “Frosty” Smith, who was a friend. “I really like the trio format,” Rains says. “Great communication, and no showbiz BS.” The repertoire consists of blues, some jazz standards, and a few Latin tunes.
To hear prime examples of Rains’ playing, check out his playlist at the Modern Drummer Spotify page. Some of his very best performances can be heard on the 1994 Doug Sahm album The Last Real Texas Blues Band, part of which was recorded live at Antone’s, with the rest done in the studio. The entire album contains brilliant playing, but two cuts deserve special mention. “Home at Last (My Little Country Girl)” features a remarkable-feeling Rains shuffle, and “Blessed Are These Tears” is a breathtaking blues ballad. The album should be required listening for drummers who want to check out authentic blues drumming—it features so many great songs, and Rains’ consistency on both the studio and live tracks is remarkable.
No less than the legendary studio and touring drummer Andy Newmark (John Lennon, David Bowie, Sly & the Family Stone, Eric Clapton) has sung Rains’ praises. Newmark played with Clapton on a portion of the From the Cradle tour, during which he watched Rains’ beautiful shuffle every night, describing it as “smooth, sexy, really deep, and funky.” According to Newmark, “George’s groove has so much character. He’s a soulful and sophisticated player, like Steve Gadd.” Rains offers a typically modest response to this compliment: “What a really nice thing to hear from a great player.”
Tools of the Trade
Like the quintessential blues drummer he is, Rains has paid for every piece of gear he owns. With no endorsement deals, he still has the original four-piece Gretsch drumset he bought in the mid-’60s—though that rig was mercifully retired a few years ago after thousands of gigs and millions of miles. These days the drummer plays two Sonor sets: one with a 20″ bass drum and small toms, which he uses for most of the in-town gigs, and one with a 22″ bass drum and large toms, which he uses for louder shows. He plays a Fibes 6.5×14 fiberglass snare drum with both sets. Rains’ cymbals are mostly K Zildjians; his ride is a Sabian 20″ AA Heavy model that he’s used for years. George’s hardware includes a DW 9000 bass drum pedal, a Pearl hi-hat stand, various cymbal stands (“Whatever I can get the best deal on”), and a Roc-n-Soc throne. He uses Evans heads and Vic Firth 7A nylon-tip sticks.