Swimming With Sharks, Musically Speaking, Suits Dennis Quaid Just Fine
Blessed with leading-man looks, a character actor’s range, and a rakish grin, Dennis Quaid would seem like a rock star even if he had never played a note. He even talks like a musician.
“I’ve got the need to go out there and rock and roll,” Quaid says by phone from Southern California one afternoon last week. “I just love it. It’s a really good time.”
Between takes, or tee times, Quaid can often be found rocking out with the Sharks, the rootsy bar band he has fronted since around 2000 or so. The group, largely L.A. session cats Quaid more or less inherited from Harry Dean Stanton of Repo Man and Paris, Texas fame, is currently on a ten-city Texas tour that brings them to Clear Lake’s Scout Bar Tuesday night. The Bellaire native, now 63, was once quoted as saying the only way for him to have fun onstage was to make “an utter fool of myself,” something he’s happy to confirm again.
“Even if you’re a plumber or whatever, or a cowboy or an actor or whatever it is, you can’t be afraid to fail,” Quaid says. “Otherwise you’ll never learn anything. You’ll just be up there pretending.”
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As with several of his fellow well-known actors — Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland — Quaid’s extracurricular musical pursuits amount to something more than a hobby. Another is Billy Bob Thornton, who a lifetime or two ago played in a ZZ Top cover band in Houston.
“We’ve been friends for, oh gosh, it’s been a long time; 25 years, I guess,” says Quaid. “We’re very close. We don’t really play music much together. We have, but we didn’t fit together.”
Quaid has been playing music for most of his life, he explains. When he was 12, his grandfather bought him his first guitar for $18 at a Western Auto store; he learned the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and was hooked. He grew up listening to country greats like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, as well as crooners like Dean Martin and Eddy Arnold, before moving on to Buddy Holly and Elvis. By junior high, Quaid says he was playing some of the songs he still does with the Sharks, like “Not Fade Away” and “Gloria” by Them, nowadays better known as the then-teenage Van Morrison’s first band.
“My brother [Randy] and I used to pretend we were The Beatles, you know, do John and Paul,” Quaid recalls. “We bought the singles a lot, and every Beatle album there was, of course, all those Elvis albums. There was always music around the house.”
His high-school and college years brought weekends sneaking off to see Jerry Jeff Walker or Willie Nelson in Austin, Quaid recalls, or B.B. King at a nearby club while an undergrad at the University of Houston. After he moved to L.A. in the mid-‘70s, Quaid credits wisecracking Texas singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman with showing him around, often in the company of a girlfriend whose name Quaid pronounces “Pank-ee!”
“[Friedman] gave this party for Bob Dylan on his birthday,” Quaid remembers. “I had been out in L.A. for about a month and I half I think, straight from Houston, and this party was my first L.A. party or whatever. It was on top of this penthouse, and Joni Mitchell and Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson, you know, and Bob Dylan shows up. That was a great memory.”
Quaid has since starred in dozens of films — comedies, dramas, Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, sports, Disney, you name it, winning special acclaim and assorted nominations for his work in Breaking Away, The Right Stuff, Traffic, The Rookie, Frequency and Far From Heaven, among others. But has he ever taken a role for musical reasons?
To that end, Quaid played an aspiring country singer trying to keep on the right side of the law in 1981’s The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia, and sang three songs on the soundtrack. In the 1987 New Orleans-set thriller The Big Easy, he sings “Closer to You” onscreen; offscreen he says he loved immersing himself in a music scene then humming with the sounds of the Neville Brothers and the Radiators. But one of his most memorable roles, hands down, is Quaid's kinetic performance as original rock and roll wildman Jerry Lee Lewis in 1989’s Great Balls of Fire.
Quaid says he studied piano for a solid year for the part, and remembers “The Killer” as a strict teacher who was always telling him “you’re doing it wrong, son.” But the lessons stuck; Quaid continues to play “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in his Sharks sets. (His friend, Texas blues-rock legend Jimmie Vaughan, co-stars as a member of Lewis' band.)
“His music really kind of set the world on fire, especially at the time,” Quaid reflects. “And he’s still out there, despite the scandals that he had and the ups and downs of his career and stuff; he still is out there. He just played a festival out here in California last week.
“He just loves the piano,” the actor marvels. “I saw him, in the studio, just sit at the piano there for 12 hours and not even get up to go to the bathroom.”
Quaid is demonstrating similar longevity, and his acting career is still going at an impressive clip — his recent projects include the hit family film A Dog’s Purpose and the suspenseful Amazon series Fortitude — but he says in the future he’d like to get even more serious about the Sharks than he already is.
"In fact, we’re in the studio right now and recording a lot of stuff, and I’ve written a lot of new stuff. And we’ll also do the show, and [plan to make] it available and [put] it out there,” he says of the Sharks’ live set. “Try to make a day job out of it, in other words.”
Dennis Quaid and the Sharks perform with special guests Rainchild and The Weeds on Tuesday, May 16 at Scout Bar (18307 Egret Bay Blvd., Clear Lake). Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $21-$25.
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