Waking up to Asleep at the Wheel’s Chris O’Connell

Former Asleep at the Wheel vocalist Chris O'Connell plays her first show in Berkeley in three decades Saturday at The Back Room with her band the SmartAlleks
Former Asleep at the Wheel vocalist Chris O’Connell plays her first show in Berkeley in three decades Saturday at The Back Room with her band the SmartAlecks. Photo: Courtesy artist

Chris O’Connell was only 18 when she signed up for the ride of her life. A shy young woman with a big bold voice, she joined Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 when the incipient western swing juggernaut was still shacked up in West Virginia, woodshedding a repertoire of Grand Ole Opry standards. She spent 15 tumultuous years with the band, including nine albums and Asleep’s first Grammy Award, but largely left her performing career aside after leaving the band to raise her daughter.

Since moving back to the East Bay in 2010 O’Connell has gradually started establishing a career under her own name, and she plays her first Berkeley gig in some three decades 8 p.m. Saturday at the Back Room with her band the SmartAlecks and a special guest, pedal steel great Bobby Black.

“I’ve known Bobby for 40 years and have had the pleasure of touring with him and doing plenty of pick-up jobs with him over the years,” says O’Connell, who lives in Alameda. “He played with the Wheel for a time in the ’80s, but we met in Oakland in ’71. The Wheel’s first California demo was done at the studio Bobby and his brother Larry owned in San Carlos. I still have the recordings, including one Tex Ritter song called ‘I Can’t Get My Foot Off the Rail.’”

O’Connell and Asleep at the Wheel had already played some high profile gigs opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna when they relocated to Oakland in 1971 at the urging of Commander Cody (aka George Frayne IV). They found cheap rent and a receptive scene. Before moving to Texas in 1974 at the invitation of Willie Nelson and becoming an Austin institution the band played every Tuesday night at The Longbranch, the storied and oft-rechristened club at 2504 San Pablo Avenue (now home of Good Vibrations).

“It was a dollar to get in, which included one free beer,” O’Connell recalls. “We would pack the place. It was like church. People just showed up, way beyond capacity. We even took Stoney Edwards in there and backed him up. The crowds loved him. He was the other black country and western singer on Capitol.”

C. O'Connell1
Chris O’Connell. Photo: Courtesy artist

While she performed around the Austin scene after leaving Asleep at the Wheel, O’Connell is still in the process of reinventing herself as a solo act. It’s a good thing she has a vast array of material and musical connections to work with. She released her first solo album in 2012, Be Right Back! and has been performing with her band the SmartAlecks since then.

The band features her partner Don Margraf on electric guitar, double bassist Brandon Essex, drummer Alex Aspinall and pianist Lee Bloom. Like in Asleep, O’Connell supports herself with expert rhythm guitar work, and brings poise and authority to an unlikely array of songs drawn from jazz, blues, R&B and of course the country canon. Her SmartAleck book includes the work of Merle Haggard and Louis Jordan, Mose Allison and Rodgers and Hart, the Beatles, Tammy Wynette, Hazel Dickens, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams.

“She has a real knack for connecting with powerful songs, and accessing the emotional core of a song,” says Bloom, a veteran accompanist who works with some of the region’s greatest singers, including San Francisco jazz legend Mary Stallings and rising Oakland song stylist Suzanna Smith. “Chris is very knowledgeable and unpretentious and funny. She’s passionate about songwriting and the power of a good song, and is drawn to them regardless of genre.”

O’Connell credits her parents with opening her years to jazz. She mom filled the house with Ella Fitzgerald and Keely Smith and her father loved traditional New Orleans jazz. She started listening on her own to Dinah Washington and Anita O’Day, but got a whole other education with Asleep at the Wheel “because everyone would bring cassettes on the bus,” she says. “One guys would play Steely Dan, and another Bull Moose Jackson. Floyd Domino was playing piano with the Wheel and he got everyone hooked on Count Basie,” which led to the band’s first Grammy Award for “One O’clock Jump.”

The Basie sound left an enduring imprint on O’Connell, particularly via the purring engine of Count’s All American Rhythm Section, rhythm guitar master Freddie Green. It was because of Green that she switched from a flat top guitar to an arch top.

“I got a chance to see him several times,” she says. “Not with the Basie band but with a small group made up of a couple of Basie guys. I stood five feet away from him for a couple of hours, and it was so inspiring.”

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture reporter who has contributed to Berkeleyside since 2011.