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The Rockabilly Kid
By Erik Hage

Photos By John Whipple

Considered a guitar sensation at 26, Graham Tichy merely calls himself the sum of his influences and role models

Toward the end of our two-hour conversation, just before enthusiastically offering up a list of his all-time favorite guitarists (vintage folks like Jimmy Bryant and Hank Garland), 26-year-old guitar wonder Graham Tichy makes a statement that just might sum things up pretty well: “I’m a product of the people I’ve been surrounded with,” he says. While the comment reveals only part of the equation, it does underscore the fact that Tichy’s story is also a story about local rock & roll.

Our region often seems a treasure trove in that regard, and lately, when the music breaks out, Tichy, representing a new generation, is right there in the thick of it, beaming like a young man having the time of his life, his fingers dancing with mad-genius inspiration across the Telecaster neck, evoking sounds that evolved long before his birth.

Tichy is the kind of player who whips your head around a little bit, whether you’re a record geek, tracing obscure strains of forgotten geniuses like Cliff Gallup and Joe Maphis in Tichy’s tones, or just out to have a good time and feeling yourself tugged out onto the dance floor by the classic spirit in his playing. Capital Region fans have most often seen him in his frequent gigs with local rockabilly kingpins the Lustre Kings or with his earlier band, young rockabilly whizzes Rocky Velvet, who don’t play as often as they once did, but are still a vital entity. (In fact, they play Saturday night at Savannah’s.) Tichy is also making waves throughout the country and in Europe as guitarist for Detroit rockabilly combo Bones Maki & the Sun Dodgers.

But Tichy’s evolution as a local guitarist—and as a player now making his name across the country—isn’t just about the people he’s surrounded with; it’s a classic balance of nature and nurture. Yes, Tichy owes a huge debt to his pedigree (we’ll get to that) and to the players he calls his friends and colleagues (we’ll get to that too), but there are other characteristics afloat—his meticulous attention to musical detail, his encyclopedic knowledge of music history, his keen intelligence in conversation—that make him a rare kind of player. (Deep into an excited conversation jag about ’50s recording techniques and mid-’50s hillbilly music, I remind myself that he’s 26.)

This has been a huge year for Tichy. For one, he’s been gigging like mad throughout the country with the Lustre Kings, who spent part of the spring and summer supporting Wanda Jackson, the legendary first lady of ’50s rockabilly. “It was absolutely my dream gig,” Tichy says, adding jokingly, “It’s sad too because I’m 26. . . . What do I do now?” It was a musical alliance that culminated with a Wanda Jackson-Lustre Kings show at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio.

Tichy has also released his own vinyl 45 (aimed primarily at the fervent European rockabilly fans).

Another huge milestone came in the spring, when Tichy played the long-awaited San Francisco reunion shows of legendary Americana rockers Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, sitting in for Bill Kirchen (one of Tichy’s huge, early influences). This was the group in which John Tichy, Graham’s dad (a longtime RPI professor), made his musical name all those years ago. “It’s something that, whether I wanted to admit it or not, I wanted to do my entire life—play in my dad’s band,” he confesses.

In typical meticulous fashion, Graham spent the weeks leading up to the Cody shows holed up in a hotel in Florida (where he was on vacation), charting out all of the music in front of his computer for hours at a stretch. (The charts filled a whole notebook.) By virtue of growing up around the songs, he knew the licks well, but he didn’t want there to be any question about whether he deserved the gig or not—he was going to show a whole different generation of music fans that it was his chops, not nepotism, that scored him the gig.

Two of the reunion-show nights were sold out. “People were actually scalping tickets outside,” Tichy recalls. “It was probably the craziest crowd response I’ve ever seen. Those people on the West Coast have been sort of starved for the Lost Planet Airmen.” For Graham, it was an interesting glimpse into his dad’s life back when he was a musician in his 20s.

Prior to the show, the Commander himself was moved to say, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in April, “[John’s] got a genius son, Graham Tichy. . . . He’s become the new rockabilly whiz-kid guitar player. He’s out on the road with Wanda Jackson as we speak. [He’s] just off the road with Robert Gordon. He’s Tichy’s kid and he plays like James Burton used to play with Elvis in the ’60s.”

Graham had flown to the Commander Cody gig straight from Green Bay, Wis., where he and the Lustre Kings had just finished up a leg with Jackson, renowned as the first significant woman rock & roller in the ’50s and an early musical ally of Elvis Presley. The gig came about through the exhaustive work of head Lustre King Mark Gamsjager, who has a long history of keeping the Lustre Kings on the road year-round and of bringing top-notch vintage acts to the Capital Region.

For the first rehearsal with Jackson, Tichy remembers, “Everybody was nervous as hell,” to be in the presence of the rock & roll legend. Tichy already knew the parts to a good portion of the songs as part of his musical repertoire, but the problem was that Jackson, through the vagaries of age, now sings the tunes a whole step flat. But prior to the rehearsal, Tichy had taken the heavily guitar-centric songs and “painstakingly went through and doctored everything” to take into account the change. Jackson was impressed by Tichy’s attention to detail. During the rehearsal, “We finally got to [Jackson classic] ‘Fujiyama Mama,’ and she immediately knew. She goes, ‘That sounds just like the record and it’s in a different key!’ You sound just like Joe [Maphis, Wanda’s guitarist]!” It was, quite simply, “a dream come true,” Tichy remembers. He’s Tichy’s kid and he plays like James Burton used to play with Elvis in the ’60s.

But on the way to fulfilling a couple of dreams, Tichy has had the good fortune to be in an environment that nurtured his unique brand of talent. First, obviously, there was his father, whose own record collection, musical career and support provided a solid foundation. (In fact, it’s rare to see Graham play locally without his dad jumping in for at least a couple of numbers.) Tichy’s friends growing up were also similarly minded; his next-door neighbor Jay Gorleski would become the bassist for Rocky Velvet, while his good friend from Doane Stuart School, Ian Carlton, would become the band’s singer.

Tichy also is quick to point out the supportive nature of our region, which contains some of the most genuine fans of rockabilly that he’s seen. And he thinks that has a lot to do with his predecessors, singer Johnny Rabb and guitarist Eddie Angel. Because of them, Tichy points out, “Your average guy that’s been following the local music scene for years considers ‘20 Flight Rock’ a barroom standard, which is not common if you go to, say, Baltimore. In that regard it’s a much more genuine thing; it’s not about, you know, how many inches is the cuff on your jeans.” Through his dad, Tichy grew up around Rabb and Angel. “I remember being 6 or 7 years old and Johnny Rabb singing Boy Scout songs to me in my apartment in France [where John was working for the summer].”

Tichy also gives a huge dose of credit to Lustre King leader Gamsjager. “He should get the Albany music scene man of the year, as far as I’m concerned,” Tichy says, citing Gamsjager’s constant efforts to bring world-class rock & roll to our area and his ability to keep the local rock & roll scene going. Gamsjager also gave Tichy a break early on. At 19, Tichy gave Gamsjager an early demo of Rocky Velvet (“It was atrocious,” says Tichy), and Gamsjager soon assumed an influential mentor role. Tichy started out primarily by hauling gear for Gamsjager after Gamsjager hurt his back, but after witnessing the prodigy’s talent onstage, things quickly evolved into full-fledged membership in the band. And that relationship is still going strong today.

In fact, later that night when I see Tichy in Williamstown, Mass., at a Los Straitjackets show, Gamsjager (on a rare night off) is his designated driver. In fact, it could be a This Is Your [Rock & Roll] Life episode, as Gamsjager has also driven the Rocky Velvet guys. Tichy and friends can be seen banging around the streets of Williamstown and taking in the outrageous Christmas extravaganza put on by Los Straitjackets, the Grammy-nominated, masked rock & roll combo led, of course, by prodigal Rensselaer native Eddie Angel, a man who has also watched Tichy grow into rock & roll maturity. Tichy isn’t on stage tonight, but as Angel in full black-masked supervillain mode sends a roomful of Williams College kids into paroxysms with some ’50s guitar bursts, Tichy’s words from earlier that day ring more loudly than ever: “I’m a product of the people I’ve been surrounded with.”

Graham Tichy will perform with Rocky Velvet on Saturday (Dec. 11) at Savannah’s (1 S. Pearl St., Albany, 426-9647).

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