The scent of freshly cooked gumbo wafted through the recording studio where musician Bill Wharton was working on his first national record release. He dipped into the kitchen and saw Shirley Neal — swamp blues master Kenny Neal’s wife — stirring up a big pot. Wharton asked if he could add his “Liquid Summer” hot sauce into the bubbling mix, and the rest was history.
“I made a big pot of gumbo onstage using my hot sauce and a recipe inspired by [Shirley] for New Year's Eve 1990,” says Wharton. “Over 200,000 bowls later, here we are.”
Previously, Wharton had only carried a few of his hot sauce bottles with him to performances to make some money on the side. Now cooking is an immersive part of his show, and the moniker “Sauce Boss” has stuck for good. For his upcoming Word of South Festival appearance audiences can get a taste of the famous gumbo while enjoying excerpts from Wharton’s new album and memoir, “The Life and Times of Blind Boy Billy.”
“You share yourself with your audience,” explains Wharton. “Having food there is just another kind of expression as far as I’m concerned. It’s evolved into this mixed media performance that I think of as a soul-shouting picnic of rock and roll brotherhood.”
Sixty years in music has given Wharton several lessons in community building. He started out as a drummer in his junior high school band. Around the same time he taught himself to play the guitar. Wharton moved from his hometown Orlando to Tallahassee where he continued perfecting his slide guitar blues.
Wharton topped the roots blues music charts for 12 weeks, and has garnered recognition from Jimmy Buffett and news outlets like CNN and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” A force in both culinary and music worlds, Wharton has also been featured in “GQ,” “Living Blues” and “Gourmet Magazine.” Eating was always a passion of his, with the principles behind sharing food stemming from his mother’s nurturing.
“She was a great cook,” says Wharton. “She showed me what hospitality is all about. It has to do with understanding what people need. Coming from a big family, we learned that we had to take care of each other and share.”
His memoir is dedicated to his mother. It was a project he meditated on for a while, however after experiencing health issues, Wharton decided it was time to write his story down. He was shocked by the 10,000 words that flowed out of him in just three days.
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