There was always something different about the Outlaws. In the 1970s battle for Southern Rock supremacy, the Outlaws were always a bit more melodic, their songs more lyrically literate, and they blended their heavy-riffing guitar attack with complex three-part vocal harmonies.
That always set the Tampa-based outfit apart from the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band and the other bestsellers of the genre.
Lead singer and songwriter Henry Paul credits the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco and other groups that put a premium on harmony singing. When the “classic” lineup of the Outlaws came together around 1972, out of the ashes of several other bay area bands (including a very different type of group called the Outlaws), they were all infatuated with that folk/rock/country harmony blend.
“The four of us, we were very much disciples of that,” Paul remembers. “That was earlier in our musically sensible lives, and what came next was the Allman Brothers. Their first album was kind of dark and bluesy, and not altogether melodic, but the second one – Idlewild South – really resonated with me.”
The first incarnation was Paul on vocals and rhythm guitar, with Monte Yoho on drums, bassist Frank O’Keefe and (particularly) versatile guitarist Hughie Thomasson, who also wrote and sang. They started as Sienna, but by the time second lead guitarist Billy Jones joined the ranks, they were the Outlaws.
“I knew that our guitar playing, with Hughie and eventually with Billy, would mimic that Allman Brothers musical style,” Paul says. “So it was ‘Sing like the Eagles, play like the Allmans.’
“And if you look at some of the lyrics, like ‘Girl From Ohio,’ it’s very Gordon Lightfoot. It was an attempt at an early stage in my career to be poetic. Gregg Allman was great at that. ‘Midnight Rider’ just blew our minds. And ‘Melissa.’ The Lynyrd Skynyrd personality was more ‘Hey there fellow, with your hair colored yellow.’ That sorta had more of a common-man theme.”
In time, big boots and wide-brimmed Stetson hats became Outlaws trademarks.
“The good news was that we could go out and put on a blistering performance. And we could hold our own onstage with these other nasty little energetic rock ‘n’ roll juggernauts.”
He shuffled in and out of the band several times over the decades – in the 1990s, he founded the multi-platinum country act BlackHawk – but Henry Paul has been out in front of a reconstituted Outlaws since 2008. He and the band, which also includes founding drummer Monte Yoho (the other original members have passed on) will play Ruth Eckerd Hall tonight and Saturday (Dec. 20 and 21).
Although he was raised in Hillsborough County and had played in numerous Tampa groups, Henry Paul spent two years in New York City, gigging around as a singer/songwriter, before returning to Tampa in 1971.
In that period, Paul remembers, the teen dance bands of the ‘60s were giving way to something “earthy and more organic.” The nascent Outlaws developed an audience among University of South Florida and Tampa College students, playing hangouts like the Collage and My Back Yard.
“These were places the university crowd would flock to,” Paul explains. “And we started to develop an audience with the college crowd. It stopped being Pepsi-Cola and started becoming beer and wine.
“Even as a four-piece band, when we got into the Collage, there was a counter-cultural quality to the band that mimicked the personality of the actual bar. We started to become the sort of poster children for the hip and the groovy, you know? It was a pivotal time for us, musically, and sociologically as well. For us, as young adults.”
All the while, they watched the Allmans and Jacksonville’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, and how the dynamics of their live shows played out. “By ’74, we had figured it out, and we had written some really good songs. And we were mixing them in with our cover songs in clubs; we had grown into the idea of being a national act. At least, song-wise. Whereas, early on it was not about that.”
Soon, the buzz around the Outlaws was so great that Arista Records came sniffing around. Record industry mogul Clive Davis’ newly-created label wanted a horse of its own in the Southern Rock race.
“We were kind of in the right place at the right time with the right racket, and the right look and the right energetic performance,” says Paul. “And of all the bands from Tampa, or Central Florida that had promise, some chance of making it, the Outlaws were in the right place at exactly the right time with the very right mojo.
“I remember the night the head of A&R from Clive’s label came to see us in Orlando at the old Sports Center. It was hot, it was dusty, it was July and the band just got out there and smoked it. There was no way he couldn’t go back and say ‘God, they’re f—kin’ great.’ He went back and said exactly that. Then Clive came down and we did the same thing again.”
Thomasson’s “There Goes Another Love Song” and “Green Grass and High Tides,” from 1975’s The Outlaws, were instant FM radio staples, as was “Hurry Sundown” from the band’s third album, also called Hurry Sundown.
With Thomasson and Jones on twin leads, and with O’Keefe (and later, Harvey Dalton Arnold) on bass, they crafted what worked-up fans came to call a “Three Guitar Army.”
In 1977, Paul left and started a new band, on a new label. The Outlaws continued, released a killer live album and scored another hit “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” and the Henry Paul band landed a radio classic with “Grey Ghost.”
Sure, there was some bad blood over the years – it’s only natural – but Paul and Thomasson reunited for 1986’s Soldier of Fortune album. Henry left again, to put BlackHawk together, and Huey carried on the Outlaws, in name and in spirit.
Huey Thomasson died at his Brooksville home in September, 2007, leaving Yoho and Paul the lone surviving members of the group’s original lineup.
“When Huey died, Monte called me and said ‘What do I do now?’” Paul remembers. “And I said ‘We’ll put the band back together, and it’ll be fine. Just knowing that with the Outlaws, the Henry Paul Band, then Blackhawk then back with the Outlaws – just knowing that it would be OK. I knew we could collectively do that.”
“The tenacity and the vision that drove the original band is still an integral part of who I am.”
And so they carry on. Southern Rock may be more of a point of nostalgia these days, but Henry Paul and Monte Yoho – along with the other guys in the contemporary Outlaws – aren’t completely comfortable resting on decades-old laurels.
Paul is philosophical about this. “If you want to be relevant,” he says, “you have to do something today. You can’t just lean on the old hitchin’ post. It won’t hold you.”
That’s why It’s About Pride, the 2012 Outlaws album, was well-reviewed and a reasonably big seller, defying all odds. This was followed by Legacy Live, and in February there’ll be an all-new one, Dixie Highway.
“Creatively,” Paul says proudly, “the Outlaws continue to write and record at a very high level. One of my commitments to the band was to stay into the musical personality of the first three records that I was a part of, and not try and take the band into some foreign place.
“I wanted to breed familiarity and comfort, from the song themes to the style of play, to the look and feel of the record. Very middle ‘70s in its concept.”
The fans, he explains, “just wanted the Outlaws to sound like the Outlaws.”
Firefall shares the bill with the Outlaws for both shows. Tickets and info here.