Unsung hero of the blues
Local bluesman Bill Zongker dies, but local legend lives on
I’ll never forget the first time I met Bill Zongker. I went to a jam session of the newly formed Midnight Blues Society in 1991. It was at the old Hofbrau where the VIP Club is now on The Esplanade. It was a Sunday afternoon. I got up on stage with my drumsticks in my back pocket, looked at the drumset, and said, “Well, here goes.”
I hadn’t played in quite a while. On stage with me were my new musician friends—Chuck Oakes on bass, Dana Olson on lead guitar and, of course, Bill Zongker on rhythm guitar and vocals. God, what a voice! I remember thinking, this guy can really sing. I’d love to hook up with him.
It really clicked and it was a Godsend for me. Getting over my divorce after 18 years of marriage and setting down roots in Chico—it really centered me where I wanted to be. I was familiar with a lot of Bill’s tunes and I instinctively understood the way he interpreted them—raw and emotionally powerful.
I really grew as a drummer and musician because Bill trusted me musically. He never quibbled about arrangements. He just let them organically grow out of the continued experience of playing them all the time. I felt freer as a drummer than I had in a long time with other players; probably because Bill had such a great sense of time. I didn’t feel like I had to be a metronome for him. And that freed me up to finesse and embellish the songs in neat percussive ways that I sometimes couldn’t with other musicians. He trusted what I would do in the song—and I trusted him. He was like a big brother even though he was two years younger than I was.
Bill Zongker started playing music in the early 1960s in Southern California with various surf bands. One of the highlights in that period for Bill was playing with Dick Dale, the legendary King of the Surf Guitar. Bill later was a regular on the Cinnamon Cinder nightclub circuit in Southern California, backing up The Rivingtons and The Olympics and his group even opened for Tina Turner. But Bill eventually became weary of the Southern California scene and moved to the Chico area in 1979.
I’m tempted to say Bill Zongker was one of the most under-appreciated bluesmen in the Northstate. He could have been right in there with The Blue Marvels or Big Mo and Friends, and a real contender at the Monterey Blues Festival and other big venues. Sour grapes? Maybe. But it’s true.
But, in spite of his tendency to “blow up the place and leave” (one of his favorite sayings when we’d play a club or venue), Bill was still quite well known at many longtime local clubs like On The Rocks Lounge and the old Wild Hare Saloon (now Off Limits) as well as the famed Torch Club in Sacramento.
In fact, with a live DVD and CD out, there were plans afoot in 2006 to take Bill to the next level. A major talent agency in Sacramento was interested in his work and clubs in the Bay Area like Biscuits & Blues were receiving promo packs. The manager of Rolling Hills Casino, who was a huge fan, played a CD of the band in the casino all the time and actively told other casinos about how good the band was.
I had the honor of playing with him for 13 years in a band that has gone through a hell of a lot of changes and through it all, somehow, we (The Fly By Night Band and The Bill Zongker Band) developed into a tight and soulful unit. It was like putting on a really good pair of shoes that fit well. We just clicked. Anybody who saw and heard the band, especially in in its last days, can attest to that.
My life changed in those 13 years. And if I know anything at all, I know that in spite of his moods, I loved Bill Zongker. Why? Because I know he got his heart broke. And I knew he knew that I knew that. And I was honored that he let me see it. I’m honored that he trusted me because I don’t think Bill trusted many people.
Bill could act sullen and surly, too. In fact, sometimes he was downright rude and hurtful. Isn’t that the way with all of us sometimes when life’s outrages just get to be too much? That was the “cowboy” in him, the rugged facade that Bill put up to protect his heart from the slings and arrows of the world. Bill could cop an attitude quicker than just about anybody I know … about any affront, real or imagined, to his dignity and autonomy. But underneath the “you go your way and I’ll go mine” image that he sought to project was a passionate heart. That’s why he sang the blues so goddamn well. He knew what it felt like.
He recently watched a program featuring George Carlin and made the comment that he really understood where Carlin was coming from, loved his humor but shared Carlin’s pessimism about the human condition. Bill didn’t think much of the future of humanity. But he changed when he played. Oh, Lordy, how he changed. He transformed that pessimism into something else again … the blues and the bliss of release. He processed his life experience right into the music. I remember him telling me many times, “I’m not a juke box. People either like what I play or they don’t.”
He played authentically. He opened up his real, honest and passionate self, and he shared it with everyone. I knew exactly where Bill was coming from—musically at least. Because that was the real Bill as far as I’m concerned. Not the “f ya, if you don’t respect me, if you don’t honor my turf” guy, but the wide-open, emotionally powerful blues singer that he was. Bill had a picture of John Wayne on the wall in the basement where we practiced. That and the Ford Brothers Blues Band and The Fly By Night Band. I think they were three signposts in the depths of Bill’s personality—that and the fishing rods hanging from the rafters of the basement ceiling.
There are many stories and good times that I recall playing with Bill Zongker. Perhaps the best is the one about Gregg Allman. Bill used to love to tell this story himself. I don’t blame him. It’s a great story.
One night in the late ‘90s, The Bill Zongker Band was playing at the Holiday Inn. We were having a fairly good night—people coming and going, mostly blues fans. Around midnight, a large entourage of what I can best describe as affluent hippie types came strolling into the lounge. Up until then it had been a fairly quiet night with the club only being half-full at best. Inside of about five or 10 minutes though, the whole lounge filled up with people and they were ready to party. The next thing we know there’s this guy who approaches Bill and me over on our stage right. He’s got straight, blond hair down to his shoulders, looking a little toasted, and he says, “You mind if I sit in with you guys?”
At first we didn’t recognize him. In spite of all the stories, you don’t really expect to see Elvis pumping gas at a service station. You don’t really expect Eric Clapton to be standing beside you as you’re taking a leak in the men’s room. Nor do you expect Gregg Allman to come modestly up to where you’re playing at a local club in Chico and ask if he can sit in.
Well, needless to say after we both did a double-take and realized who we were talking to, we told him to come on up. What ensued was two hours of some great music and serendipity: “Born Under A Bad Sign,” “Stormy Monday” and lots more of the great blues classics, with members of The Gregg Allman Band and The Bill Zongker Band sharing the stage. I’ll never forget it. I know Bill never did either.
Jim (Dr. Jimmi) Conlin, a.k.a. Jason Fine, is the drummer/vocalist for The Bill Zongker Band, The Fly By Night Band and The Rolling Blackouts Revue. He is also a DJ at Oldies 102.1.