Some people get up every morning, put on their smart shoes, drive to their stable jobs, clock hours, and return home to their nightly lineup of prerecorded television. Others get onstage and cook up a vat of pipin'-hot Louisiana gumbo while simultaneously singing, playing slide guitar, and maneuvering a drum kit with their feet for a live audience. One-man-band Bill Wharton, otherwise known as the Sauce Boss, would fall into that latter category.
Though he was born and raised in Orlando, multitasking Wharton prepares the distinctly Cajun gumbo stew at every one of his blues concerts, crediting the original recipe to the wife of a fellow musician, legendary Baton Rouge harpist Raful Neal, from back when Wharton was looking for a way to share his self-described “best hot sauce,” Liquid Summer. It's a sauce he makes with datil peppers, similar to habaneros in terms of heat but much sweeter and tangier, with what Wharton calls a "creeper burn.”
Wharton figured making and serving bowls of gumbo at his shows would be “a cool way to show off the sauce.” He was never a professional chef in a restaurant, but he's a pro at cooking up spicy, swampy South Florida blues, and he's bringing his unique act to the newly reopened and thriving Bamboo Room in Lake Worth this Friday. We spoke with Wharton about his show, his hot sauce, his philanthropy, and what it looks like when it all goes wrong.
New Times: You sing, play guitar, bang on a kick drum, and cook all at once, every gig. How exhausted are you after each show?
Sauce Boss: Well, I'm pretty whupped. I put out a lot of BTUs. It's a labor of love. The more I do it, the more I can do. I'm really happy to continue this whole thing. It's been pretty cool.
How long have you been at it?
I started [playing music] in the '60s. I guess I got into the blues in the '70s — kind of a swampy, slide-guitar kind of blues. I started doing my own thing, and I've been doing it ever since. I guess it was 1990 when I started doing the cooking thing, where I cook gumbo and feed everybody. That's like 26 years, 200,000 bowls plus of gumbo, all served for free. Here we are.
When and how did you decide to combine live music and cooking gumbo?
It all started with my hot sauce. I make hot sauce. It's the best hot sauce you ever had. It's called Liquid Summer. People would just have to have it, so I became the “Sauce Boss.” This sauce is so unique that I decided to cook with it just to show how good the sauce is. That's how it began. It evolved into this soul-shouting picnic of rock 'n' roll brotherhood. It's turned into a communal thing, this sharing of food with everybody. I guess about a dozen years ago, I decided to take it to the street. When I'm on the road, on my days off, I play at homeless shelters. It's my volunteer thing. I play at shelters all over the country. It's become this holistic thing I do; it's cooking and food and music and just rolling down the road has become my life. I'm a nomad.
You're talking about your Planet Gumbo charity, correct? How did that begin?
I'd been spooning out this gumbo for people at the gigs for all these years, and I thought to myself, "There's gotta be a place, there's gotta be a way for me to put a little energy back into these communities." I play all around. People come to these shows and lay their money down, and I'm going, "Well, maybe I should just go to a homeless shelter." It's been amazing... I like to tell people about it because we all can do something, maybe not play music and serve gumbo, but we can all share our talents with people.
What's your connection to Jimmy Buffett?
He loves my sauce, and he likes my music also. I played in his clubs, his Margaritaville clubs, and I was playing a long time ago, in New Orleans, at the Margaritaville there. And he and bunch of guys from the record company came down to the show. I had a great show. New Orleans is a great environment. Jimmy comes in after the show and says, "Man, this is the best band I've seen in a long time." And I said, "Can I quote you on that, Jim?" And he thinks for a minute and says, "This is the best bar band I've seen in a long time." He was really digging it. He said, "You know, everybody wants to be me, but I'd rather open a bait store and be you." And I thought, "Whoa, there's an endorsement."
What are you most proud of, your Liquid Summer Hot Sauce or your albums?
I am proud of both of them. I am first and foremost a musician. So I'm happy and proud that I've been able to make a living playing music all these years. But I am mighty proud of that hot sauce too. It's a really distinctive sauce.
Have you ever had any mishaps? The gumbo burning or spilling or anything like that?
We've had every manner of catastrophe. Not so much burning the gumbo, though. A couple of times, the bottom of the pot got a little black. There was one time when a guy knocked the pot over, but my bass player grabbed it, and we were able to save it. One time, in Canada, we were at the Windsor Blues Festival. Somehow, I bumped into the pot, and it went over. Not all of it spilled, but there were 9,000 people there, so we had a huge pot of gumbo. It was like a gumbo tsunami. You know what the Canadian guys did? They got out their snow shovels and they cleaned it all up with their snow shovels. Then we put a bunch of stuff back in the gumbo, and it was fine. No problem. We fed everybody.
9 p.m. Friday, February 12, at Bamboo Room, 25 S. J St., Lake Worth. Tickets cost $10 to $15 and include a bowl of gumbo. Visit bambooroommusic.com for more information.
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