|Origin||Mobile, Alabama, United States|
|Genres||Jazz, jazz fusion|
|Years active||1975-79; 1997 (reunion)|
|Past members||Robby Catlin
Backwater was an American jazz fusion band, formed in Mobile, Alabama and active in the 1970s. The group was formed by Robby Catlin, Larry Hardin and Scott Pettersen, with Trippe Thomason rounding out the original lineup. The quartet formed in 1975, playing clubs and working as session musicians in Birmingham, Alabama. The group's first album, Backwater (1976), sold well throughout the Southeast and received radio airplay, leading to touring stints with B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris. Lineup changes plagued the band for much of the rest of their career. Pettersen and Catlin, alongside Tom and Myra Woodruff, produced one more recording (1978's North of the Mason-Dixon and the Heart of Dixie) before splitting as the decade closed.
The band's original members reunited in 1997 for a one-off "20 year reunion" concert.
Formation and debut album (early to mid 1970s)
In the early 1970s, Robby Catlin formed Backwater as a trio playing cover music. The Mobile, Alabama-based trio (with guitarist Bob Bishop) performed covers of contemporary hit radio singles and became staples of fraternity parties and high school dances. In 1975, childhood friends Larry Hardin and Catlin formed a band with Scott Pettersen, Steve Ferrell and Jim Reid (with whom Catlin had performed in junior high school as part of the band Free Will) along with high school friend Jim Henderson and Bishop. The band moved to Birmingham, Alabama where they played cover music at The Morris House club. Ferrell, Bishop, Reid and Henderson left the band (some to return to college) and Catlin, Hardin and Pettersen met Trippe (C.G.) Thomason, who would be incorporated into the band as keyboardist in late 1975.
Guitarist Gerry Groom also joined the band in early 1976, but left following the recording of their debut. Groom, who had been a child prodigy that studied under and performed with Duane Allman, was influential in pushing the group into a more blues-based improvisational style and encouraged the band to find its own voice. Groom also introduced the group to John Hammond Jr., who they backed in a 1975 concert. The group only owned one vehicle — a bread truck — and they lived together in a condemned home on the south side of the city. Eight months after forming, the band decided to commit the music to vinyl and record their first album. The band was largely inspired by artists such as Herbie Hancock, Weather Report and Mahavishnu.
Rather than sign to any record labels, Hardin, Pettersen and Catlin formed their own independent label, the crudely named Bongwater Records. According to the group, it was formed after receiving offers from labels who desired to change their sound. Bongwater Publishing Company was incorporated on September 2, 1976. The five musicians worked as "session men" at New London Recording in Homewood in exchange for studio time for themselves. The resulting record — Backwater (1976) — was released in September 1976 and contained a studio side and a live side, recorded at Birmingham nightclub The Midnight's Voice. Edgar Winter performed live with the band during recording (but was not recorded) and encouraged the band to go national. Released amid the late 1970s hard rock boom, radio stations such as Mobile-based WABB were skeptical at first. "The local bands back then all seemed to have platform shoes, long hair, and sequined shirts, and they were either Boston/Aerosmith or Lynyrd Skynyrd imitators," recalled Mobile attorney Lee Stamp. Nevertheless, Stamp found it "as sophisticated as anything coming out of New York or Los Angeles" and it was added it to the WABB play stack, where it sat for three years — an honor usually reserved for supergroups such as Fleetwood Mac.
Encouraged, the band launched a mailing campaign to put copies of the album in the hands of radio stations coast to coast. The exposure helped Backwater land opening slots for B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, and Emmylou Harris. The album was aired on radio stations in Auburn, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, New Orleans, and on WAPI-FM, WENN-FM and WERC-FM in Birmingham. Medusa and most of the other major record stores in Birmingham stocked the record alongside "artistically designed" tees. "Alto Ego" proved to be the biggest airplay hit, while "A Song for Don" also achieved significant radio airplay throughout the Southeast. "Southern popular music is often typecast as refried boogie produced by a faceless series of Allman Brothers clones," wrote A.J. Wright of The Auburn Plainsman. "Backwater will soon change that false image."
Lineup change, second record and breakup (late 1970s)
In 1977, Hardin and Thomason quit for "creative differences," which essentially meant the band could not function anymore as a unit. "We were full of ourselves [...] It was a matter of having too many kids with too many egos," Hardin later remarked. Catlin and Pettersen forged ahead with a long series of replacement players (most notably Tom and Myra Woodruff) who helped cobble together another release, North of the Mason-Dixon and the Heart of Dixie (1978). The studio side of the release was recorded at Fifth Floor Recording Studios in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the Great Blizzard of 1978, while live tracks were recorded at both Mobile's Saenger Theatre and Solomon Alfred's Night Club in Memphis, Tennessee. The album also included an 7" EP, Punk Jazz, containing experimental songs. The album, like Backwater, sold well locally. The band continued to 1979 with new member Frank Garcia, playing a mix of John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Little Feat and Billy Joel covers alongside originals and contemporary music.
As the decade closed, the band would eventually decide to part ways. "It got to the point where we were just another bar band," Pettersen recalled. Lee Stamp would later cite the state's lackluster music scene and lack of major label interest as factors in the split. "When [label representatives] came to town, I'd try to shop the record to them," he said. "They all said they liked it, but it wasn't the direction they were going. They weren't KISS." "Our basic problem is that our sound is too diversified," Catlin said in a 1979 interview. "There is a recognizable style, but it's not real hip — to a record company — to go from a 1940's tune to a modern one. They don't quite know where to put us. They could put us in the funk category, but we're not quite enough commercial disco."
In 1997, the group's four principal members reunited for one-off concert at Mobile's USA Saenger Theatre, sponsored by Catt's Sunday Jazz Brunch. In addition, the band's original debut, Backwater, was remastered and released on compact disc the same year. The band's founder, Robby Catlin, died in Birmingham on July 19, 2006.