The Sauce Boss does his cookin’ on the stage
Stirrin’ and a-singin’ for his nightly wage
Sweating and a frettin’ from his head to his toe
Playin’ and swayin’ with the gumbo
Prayin’ and buffetin’ with the gumbo
Jimmy Buffett, “I Will Play for Gumbo”
It all began with Liquid Summer Hot Sauce.
In the mid 1980s, blues guitarist Bill Wharton began experimenting with datil peppers in his Tallahassee greenhouse. When he perfected the recipe, and Liquid Summer was born, he became the most popular guy in the neighborhood.
“After a while, I started taking it around to the gigs with me,” Wharton recalls. “I thought if people were going to come over to my house and eat up all my hot sauce, I’ll put a label on it and sell it to them. I would make a couple of gallons and it’d be gone in a couple of weeks.”
With his gritty Chicago stockyard vocals, stinging electric slide and outrageous stage demeanor, Wharton was already a popular musician throughout north Florida. Understanding that the stomach is, more or less, the gateway to the heart, he began cooking pots of Liquid Summer right onstage, as he performed. It was a powerful aroma.
“I was putting it on chips or something like that, just to show everybody how good it was. And I was looking for a way to really showcase it. Because the sauce is a different animal; it’s got this creeper burn.” Unlike the fiery habanero, “The datil pepper has this little thing where it kind of creeps up on you.”
It was 1989 when he upped the ante by cooking five gallons of gumbo from scratch, live onstage, at every show. Soon he was playing his wildman blues – and feeding audiences – all over the southeast.
That’s when Bill Wharton became The Sauce Boss.
“I’m not motivated by the bling, if you know what I’m saying,” he laughs. “I want to have a good quality of life.” As his gumbo-crafting became legendary, “it sort of evolved into this tent revival of rock ‘n’ roll brotherhood and sharing and all that kind of thing.”
Thirty-four years and 200,000 bowls of food later, Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton still holds the monopoly on blues ‘n’ gumbo; he’ll play, sing, cook and serve Nov. 8 at the Palladium Theater.
It’s chicken gumbo these days, Warton explains, although sometimes he makes it with sausage instead. In the past he says, he’s used “snapping turtle, alligator, whiskey, chocolate cake, I don’t care. I put it all in there depending on what’s happening that night.
“If you know what I’m saying.”
What, you might be wondering, does The Sauce Boss have in common with Van Halen? The legendary hard rock group famously demanded a bowl of M&M candies in its dressing room area, with all the “brown ones” removed, before every concert. This edict was on the “rider,” an integral section of an artist’s contract with the venue.
Wharton’s rider is equally idiosyncratic: “Instead of taking all the brown ones out, if you know what I’m saying, it’s like ‘I need some okra, and some zucchini and some onions and some other stuff’ … I bring the roux and the hot sauce and the venue generally provides everything else.”
Members of the audience are invited, periodically, to come to the stage and stir the simmering pot.
“There was a time in the mid ‘90s when I got tired of making gumbo,” Wharton reveals. “And more than that, I got tired of dressing like a chef and doing the clown show. But I got over that because there’s such a community that happens with this – it turns a venue into a really special place. It breaks down the barriers.
“It’s like, how many parties have you had where everybody ends up, at some point in time, in the kitchen? Something about music and food together is really health-ful in terms of your psyche. It’s pretty potent medicine, if you will.”
He also operates a charity, Planet Gumbo, which feeds (and entertains) the homeless in shelters in many of the cities he visits.
He doesn’t claim to be an altruist, but he does enjoy making people happy. And it goes both ways.
“It’s afforded me really a different life,” Wharton enthuses. “Because I’m not just a musician regurgitating stuff – no pun intended – playing the music I rehearsed. There’s a lot of improvisation in what I do, musically, but also, every show it’s different.
“It’s a gift, to me as a performer. Because I relax into it, everybody relaxes into it – come on, stir the gumbo, and everything’s OK. For a couple of hours, we’re all OK. Which is pretty amazing in this day and age.”
Find info and tickets for the Palladium show here.