When no higher an authority than Creem magazine crowned Cactus the "American Led Zeppelin" back in the 1970s, they were not messing around. This was one high-powered, loud and proud blues-rock machine. Cactus was formed in 1969 by bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice from Vanilla Fudge, with guitarist Jim McCarty from the Detroit Wheels, and Rusty Day, the vocalist from the Amboy Dukes. The band was half Detroiters and half New Yorkers, with all of them veterans already. And while neither the radio nor the American record-buying public entirely got on board, their first three albums released on Atco between 1969 and '71 influenced heavy ragers for decades, including Monster Magnet, Kid Rock, and Van Halen.
McCarty, who not only played with the legendarily high-energy Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, but later played in the Buddy Miles Express, the Rockets, and more recently the Detroit Blues Band and Mystery Train, resuscitated Cactus nine years ago. Appice is thankfully still a part of the group, while Jimmy Kunes from blues boogie kings Savoy Brown now sings. Lots of hoary old classic rock dudes still tour, but few are as likely to kick such serious swaggering ass as Cactus. Our Italian correspondent, Paolo Barone, sat down with McCarty not too long ago in Royal Oak for a chat.
Metro Times: How did you get started in music?
Jim McCarty: I grew up with music and musicians. My father was a drummer in a big jazz band. I was a drummer too, and even still considered myself a drummer when I was in Detroit Wheels. Around the time of "Devil with a Blue Dress On," I said to myself, "I guess I am a guitar player, now."
MT: Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels — why did that band break up? You guys were doing great from what I know.
McCarty: We were real hit-makers. We were making song after song, all good. I still believe that if we had a good manager, an Andrew Loog Oldham, we could be like the Stones. Instead, somebody decided to present Mitch Ryder as a solo act. It didn't work — they created a kind of Vegas show, and everything ended.
MT: What did you do, then?
McCarty: The entire time that I was with the Detroit Wheels, I would come back to my hotel room and listen to blues records. That music always spoke to me, so I thought to join a blues band and go on tour with them. One night we were playing the Whiskey in L.A. and Buddy Miles came. He was putting together a new band, something big, with many musicians and different sounds. He wanted me to join his band and I did it that very night. That was the Buddy Miles Express; I played with them for one year.
Jimi Hendrix was often around Buddy Miles at the time, and he and Miles were talking about a new project. I wanted to go in a different direction. My turning point was when Jeff Beck's album Truth came out — that was exactly what I wanted to play. One day my old friend Rusty Day called me from New York. He was there with Carmine Appice and Tim Bogert. They went on tour with Led Zeppelin and wanted to leave Vanilla Fudge to play a more hard rock, blues kind of music. The timing was perfect. They were looking for a guitar player and I flew from L.A. right away.
MT: Cactus was such a great band.
McCarty: Yeah, and somehow we became a cult band. We never became a mainstream group. I went to the movie theater a few years ago to see the movie Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and in the middle of the movie this guy, Lips, says, "Cactus was our favorite band and a huge inspiration!" I almost fell out of my chair. I couldn't believe it! Things like this keep happening all the time. In the '70s, we had good songs on all of our records, but that lineup was an experiment that never completely worked. On stage we were playing our ass off, but everybody was closed in their own world, without really listening to the others. But now, on stage, we are seriously better than we ever were.
MT: Les Paul won a Grammy with one of your songs right?
McCarty: Yes, "69 Freedom," a track I wrote when I was with Buddy Miles. Les Paul made a cover and won the award, so I got some royalties. Thank you, Les! That man was a genius of recording techniques — every multi-track recording is in some way coming from his ideas, still today. And we can't forget that he created my favorite guitar ever, the Gibson Les Paul.
MT: Which of your recordings are you really proud of?
McCarty: All my work with Detroit Wheels. Then Cactus 5, with the new lineup, and Mystery Train's live album. There are also two other records that I really love. Live From Detroit with Hell Drivers; that record smokes, man! Maybe the one I am most proud of is Jim McCarty and Friends, a collection of blues played with different musicians. On some of the tracks I also play with a horn section.
MT: Is there a guitar player right now that you really like?
McCarty: Recently, I played with Joe Bonamassa live, here in Detroit. The stage was on fire! Right now he's the one that I really like — an amazing technique with a big feeling. I also really like Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band.
MT: Today, many guitarists cite your work as an inspiration. But who were your own inspirations on the guitar?
McCarty: If I really have to say a name, it's BB King. But there are many sounds, many influences, which come to you from everywhere. You put them all together and then find your own voice, your own sound. The best compliment is when somebody tells me that the way I play is unique, recognizable. That really feels so good.
Cactus performs on Saturday, April 11 with the Muggs at Magic Bag. Doors are at 8 p.m.; 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030; themagicbag.com; $25.