Dude, where’s my tenor?
Suave R&B saxophonist Terry Hanck came west to surf. Now he’s honking and shouting.
The soundtrack to California’s 1960s surfer scene ran on three-minute instrumentals with sax in the lead, and was directly related to 1950s New Orleans R&B hits plus wild Southern rockabilly. Knowing this, saxophonist Terry Hanck makes perfect sense.
Clearly, Hanck has worshipped at the right Southern altars—those of such ya-ya R&B brothers as Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Lee Allen, King Curtis, Guitar Slim and Lonnie Mack. The jump blues emanating from those altars puts a joyous romp in a body’s feet like a jalapeño sidewalk, and the steamy slow dance of a stroll like Hanck’s “Crying Fool” packs an emotional wallop like nothing else you can accomplish vertically.
“I write songs that you think you’ve heard for years,” says Hanck, who’s got movie-star looks—think James Brolin or Kris Kristofferson—and a goodtime presence that immutably anchors the “old-style” R&B he adores.
It took one cross-country journey in the 1960s for California to ensnare Hanck. The sun-drenched lure of surfer life spoke oceans to the landlocked Chicago teen. “I used to surf on Lake Michigan!” he says, laughing. “Some of the best spots were around Northwestern University. There was a big jetty and the wind had a way of wrapping around and smoothing out the waves to give them better shape. But the whole California lifestyle thing—it just blew me away! There was never any doubt in my mind, once I got out of high school, where I was gonna end up.”
Orange County, 1967: Surfing, diving, partying. And one 24-hour AM jazz station in Los Angeles, KBCA, that played Charles Lloyd. For Hanck, that was it. “I was already listening to Coltrane, and Lloyd was more or less copying him and Sonny Rollins.” Then, as Hanck slyly remembers: “All of a sudden, I needed something to do with my mind.” He picked up a sax. “The tenor was the voice.”
Three years later, in 1970, Hanck moved to the East Bay. His first band was called Grayson Street. “We played Bo Diddley, R&B, simple stuff,” he says. “I didn’t get into the hard-core New Orleans stuff till later. But we were too bluesy for the funk crowd, too funky for the rock ’n’ roll crowd. They all hated us, except the musicians: That is always death, you know, when you have musicians coming to see you.”
One musician who did come to see Hanck was Elvin Bishop, an alumnus of seminal American blues-rock group the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. “He heard the band in 1972,” Hanck recalls, “and asked both the harmonica player and I to join, knowing he was only going to pick one guy. So I said no. And the harmonica player said yes. In 1976, Elvin brought me to Miami to play on Strut My Stuff and do some gigs. He asked me to join again. I said ‘no’ again, like an idiot. I had a single out with my band and I had a false sense of security. But in 1977 he asked and I said ‘yes,’ finally. I joined when the band was on top. I went from riding around in a potato-chip truck to limousines.”
For over a decade, Bishop provided Hanck a worldwide stage to growl, squonk, soar and soothe on his tenor. Hanck left that band in the late 1980s, and he and his ace band the Soul Rockers have carried onward since.
The aptly titled I Keep Holdin’ On (Mo Muscle) is Hanck’s brand new CD and his first to be distributed nationally. “My singing has just gotten better and better,” he says. “Playing the horn really helps my voice—the muscle control and breathing,” he says. “But it didn’t come easy for me. It’s taken a real long time to get there—to be in control on the stage. When I was real little I wasn’t shy, and music enabled me to come back to that. I knew there was a ham in there somewhere, just waiting to come out.”