For Harvey, hitting the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, was a trip well worth making. After all, how often do you get a chance to play guitar on the same stage where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper gave their last performances on their 60th anniversary of that fateful Winter Dance Party show?
Once. Just once.
“Clear Lake was amazing,” Harvey said by phone from his home in Austin in an interview last week. “This was the third year I got to do it. It’s kind of awe inspiring. It hasn’t changed at all. You see all that history there.”
This year at the Surf Ballroom, Harvey performed with his wife, Annie, and her mom, Linda Gail Lewis, who last summer released an acclaimed roots-rock record with Robbie Fulks called “Wild, Wild, Wild” that features a lot of tracks with Harvey’s guitar playing.
Linda Gail Lewis is legendary rocker Jerry Lee Lewis’s younger sister, which means Harvey can call Jerry Lee Lewis “uncle.”
“It’s a cool family I married into,” Harvey said.
Growing up in Kentucky, Harvey cut his guitar-playing teeth learning old-time country as well as classic rockers like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix — the first song he mastered start to finish was Hendix’s “Purple Haze.” He also was fascinated by the virtuoso fingerstyle guitar playing of Chet Atkins (and later Merle Travis), but doing that kind of playing seemed beyond his reach — until he lucked into a monumental mentor.
Harvey moved to California as a teen and was taking jazz guitar classes. It was his good fortune to have Joe Pass, probably the best jazz guitarist around at that time, drop in frequently on an improvisation class he was taking. One day after class, Harvey cornered Pass. “I said, ‘I learn so much when you come down,” Harvey recalled.
Pass invited Harvey to come over for visits, during which they’d listen to records, jam and talk. “He was a real fun guy,” Harvey said. “He’d probably see this whole thing and say, ‘Yeah, this is great.’”
By “this whole thing,” Harvey means HeadCat 13, a trio that has its roots in Head Cat, which Harvey formed 20 years ago with Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister on bass and vocals, and drummer Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats.
Harvey actually had a front-row seat to witness the Stray Cats’ rocketing popularity, which started in England. Harvey had relocated there in the mid-1970s after being recruited by Levi Dexter to join his punk rockabilly band, The Rockats.
“The Stray Cats were so good,” Harvey said. “The thing they had over all the other rockabilly bands is they wrote great songs.”
Harvey had started getting into rockabilly in high school, attracted by its simplicity, raw power and flexibility — he could throw in rock, jazz or country riffs in a rockabilly song, and it all sounded great. “I could just play anything I wanted to,” he said.
Kilmister, whom Harvey first met in London in 1980, was working on tracks for an Elvis Presley tribute album by multiple artists in the summer of 1999, as were Harvey and Phantom, another old friend of Harvey’s. An impromptu jam led to formation of Head Cat, a rockabilly supergroup.
Harvey said Kilmister was a restless sort, so when Motörhead was off the road, Head Cat would get on the road. Kilmister, who died in 2015, would have loved the recent event at the Surf Ballroom as he was a big Holly fan, choosing Holly songs as nine of the 13 tunes on the first Head Cat album.
“Lemmy was really into Buddy Holly, and the songs he picked weren’t the hits,” Harvey said. “He knew the history of every track. He was a very smart man. If he heard something once, he’d remember it.”
After Kilmister’s death, Harvey and Phantom kept Head Cat going, and Phantom would be coming to La Crosse with him except Phantom is back together with his mates in the Stray Cats, with a new album coming out later this year and a string of concerts planned. “This is going to be their year, if you know what I mean,” he said of the Stray Cats.
While Harvey and his wife record and perform live together, there’s something about the thing he had going in Head Cat that he loves. “It’s really just simple three-chord rock and roll,” Harvey said. “It’s the kind of thing where I get to turn my Marshall amp up to 10.”
While Phantom is tied up, Harvey has put together HeadCat 13, which features bassist/vocalist Thomas Mikols Chicago-based Killmister, the only tribute band to be endorsed by Roadcrew, the official beer of Motörhead.
Harvey said he’s excited to get a chance to play in La Crosse for the first time, and he’s just about as excited for another visit to Dave’s Guitar Shop.