Cruise Control

Roomful of Blues's Doug James rewinds and fast forwards

Such encounters come with a career like Roomful's. "Cleanhead [Vinson] was a ball," he says of the blues-sax specialist. James recalls backing Vinson at a small club, when the dome-pated hornman was "a little bit inebriated. The club owner brought him some ribs during the break. So he took his teeth out and put them on the table. When we called him up [on-stage], he says right over the microphone, [imitating Cleanhead], 'Anybody seen my teeth?' So this girl brings the teeth up in this napkin, and he decides to just forget about playing sax, and just puts his teeth on our drummer's floor tom tom, and they were bouncing up and down, like chattering teeth. It was kinda hard to play with a straight face while he was doing that."

Then there was the time Count Basie came in to see the fellas. Says James: "I said to Duke Robillard, 'A guy that looks like Basie just walked in!' And we're lookin' and it's Count Basie! Oh, no! We're just shakin' in our boots. He called us over during the break and was like the nicest guy in the world. I didn't know what to say. I was, like, seventeen. 'So, Count, where you playing lately?'" James is still a bit embarrassed by his callow youthfulness. "He said, 'I wish I had a tape of you guys to play for my band, because half of 'em don't know how to play blues.'" Although too late for the Count, Bullseye has in the works a double CD compilation of live Roomful performances -- backing Big Joe and Cleanhead, among others -- as well as a new studio album due this spring.

It's often been an uphill struggle for Roomful, from the limelight-hogging Newport Folk Fest acoustic blues craze to rowdy crowds pelting the players with firecrackers and shot glasses. James is somewhat philosophic about it all. "Stevie Vaughan never went out to sell a million records. He just did what he did. Nobody really knows what makes a hit record, except a lot of serious money being put behind an established big-time star. If something makes it big, we'll go with it. Other than that, let's just make some records and have some fun."

Roomful of Blues performs Saturday at 8:30 and 11:00 p.m. at the Musicians Exchange, 729 W Sunrise Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 764-1912. Tickets cost $12.

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