.Why Don Caruth is the Hardest-Working Man on the Music Scene

Longtime leader of the Joint Chiefs brings his band to Fourth of July celebration this weekend

In 2006, Don Caruth was delivering and installing windows and doors by day, and gigging regularly with his Santa Cruz funk/soul/R&B band the Joint Chiefs at night. The popular local group had gained a loyal following covering tunes by artists like Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang and Michael Jackson, with a delivery so perfect and so polished that they could get the grumpiest of curmudgeons to shake their butts on the dance floor. But after a gig, it was back to delivering doors and windows the next morning.

One day, Caruth and a partner loaded a heavy door on a cart, intending to load it onto a semi. But the cart toppled over, trapping him underneath. His co-workers rushed over to lift it off him, but when Caruth tried to stand up, he couldn’t move. He was rushed to the emergency room in an ambulance.

It turned out his legs had been forced backward, snapping his right ACL. His left leg and ankle were smashed. He needed surgery.

“I’m lucky that’s all that happened. It could have been worse—I could have got my wrist broken or glass in my face,” says the guitarist and vocalist. “Who knows?”

After a month and a half of bed rest, he asked his doctor if he could go back to work. The doctor gave permission, but only if he worked at a desk. His boss, on the other hand, didn’t think he was injured all that bad and started having him take deliveries. When he was unable to do it, Caruth says, he was fired.

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Caruth was in his 40s at the time, and had played music his entire life. He didn’t want to go back to his day job. After suing his former boss, he realized he had a window of about a year to finally make music his full-time career.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to see if I can do this for a living,’” Caruth says. “I gave myself a year because state disability is not going to last forever. [I thought], ‘I can always go back to another window company.’”

His return to music wasn’t easy, but he was determined. Less than a week after his surgery, he played a gig at Agnew’s State Hospital in the South Bay, which brings in musicians to perform for the patients. He walked to the stage on crutches, had a pain pump around his neck, and played with his leg propped up to keep the swelling down.

“By the end of the gig, I was dying. I don’t even know why I did it, but I did it,” Caruth says. “I was doing gigs with crutches, and then a cane for a long time.”

But during that year, he booked gigs for the Joint Chiefs with a different perspective.

“I didn’t care if I was playing for a big artist or not. We just had to get paid, because now it’s a business,” Caruth says. “So I had to hustle.”

Though the Joint Chiefs had been a band since the late ’80s, Caruth spent the next decade-and-a-half building it into a local institution. Most clubhounds in this area have probably danced at one of their shows at some point. Before the pandemic, they were playing all over the Monterey Bay, 4-5 nights a week at clubs, fancy restaurants, weddings, private corporate events and festivals. With all those shows, and several one-off gigs as a guitarist, Caruth never had to go back to his job.

“What I love about him is he took his own thing and put his own band together. And he’s got his own groove,” says former Santana vocalist Tony Lindsay. “He gets deep into the R&B stuff. If you see the Joint Chiefs, you’re going to be dancing all night.”

As live music has returned since the shutdowns of the pandemic, Caruth and his band have returned to regular shows, too—with some impressive gigs. This Fourth of July weekend, they’ll be busy, playing from 4:30-6:30pm on Sunday, July 3 at Scotts Valley’s Fourth of July celebration at Skypark, and then playing after Aptos’ “World’s Shortest Parade” (outside Betty’s Burger) from 11am-1pm. Later this summer, aside from their multiple regular weekly gigs, the Joint Chiefs will play Capitola’s Twilight Summer Series on Wednesday, July 13, from 6-8pm, and the Boardwalk’s Thursday night summer music series on Thursday, Aug. 11, from 8:30-10pm.

But even with all of this success, what has been missing for Caruth was an outlet for his own, original music. During the pandemic, Caruth wrote and recorded his debut solo album, Under Open Skies, an instrumental jazzy, funky, soulful record. Its release flew under the radar, but he’s got a second album of original music in the works. This one will have vocals, and he’s hoping it’ll make a bigger splash.

“I had all these ideas, and I wanted to get them off my chest,” Caruth says. “Now I got the bug.”

Caruth’s guitar skills have won him gigs with artists like the late Sista Monica, who became a mentor.

FLIPPING EXPECTATIONS

Caruth’s original musical inspiration was the church. Specifically, his grandfather’s church, True Holiness Church of God in Christ in East Palo Alto. His dad, the church’s minister, played the Hammond B3 organ, and his mom played the piano. But it was his uncle’s guitar that intrigued him the most. After enough pestering, he took young Caruth to buy a cheap guitar at a pawn shop. His dad gave him a little lamp and set him up by the choir to play with the church band.

Caruth, who’s left-handed, flipped the guitar over, with the low strings at the bottom and the high strings at the top. Sometime later, his cousin Tony Harris, who played in an R&B band in Compton, told him he was playing it wrong, but it was too late.

“He said, ‘You need to flip the strings around,” Caruth says. “I’m like, ‘This is just for fun.’ I left the strings the way they were because I was used to playing it that way.”

Just a small group of guitarists play left-handed upside down, like Albert King and Dick Dale. But then, everything Caruth has done has been on his own terms.

“I’ve mostly played by ear. I know how to read a little and know what chords are, but it’s mostly by ear,” he says. “I started playing for hours and hours, sitting in my room playing records. I had to come home, and I wasn’t really allowed to hang out. My mom was strict.”

His family moved to Los Gatos when he was 16. There he met a new group of friends that introduced him to rock ’n’ roll, which eventually led him to the genre’s foundation: blues.

When his parents divorced, he moved out and lived with friends. For the next eight years, he devoted a lot less time to music, and a whole lot more to cutting loose and partying. A strict upbringing will do that.

“I hardly even picked up my guitar. I was too busy picking up beer bottles,” Caruth says.

That changed when, at 28, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. He quit messing around and got a better-paying job. While working construction, he ran into an old high school friend, Ken “KC” Colby, who was driving a tow truck, and invited Caruth to come jam at his house. He hadn’t played in a while, but it sounded fun. It was a strictly blues-only jam. They played lots of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King and Freddie King.

After a few jams, they decided to make it a band. Colby even had a name in mind. He’d just watched the news and heard the joint chiefs of staff were meeting to deal with Operation Desert Storm. The Joint Chiefs. It was perfect.

BEYOND THE BLUES

The Joint Chiefs’ first show was at old downtown San Jose punk club Marsugi’s. Somehow, they impressed the punks enough with their blues songs that they were invited back. However, they found their market for later gigs by playing blues-focused clubs like Moe’s Alley, and eventually even landing on the Santa Cruz Blues Festival a few times.

The lineup changed a bit in the early years, but the constants were drummer “The Flash,” Colby on bass and Caruth on guitar. They started with a harmonica player, but he was soon replaced by sax player Bill Biala.

“We’re kind of like Spinal Tap, we’ve gone through 15 drummers and maybe 10 bass players in the span of 35 years,” Biala says. “When I met Don, we were both single, young, aspiring musicians. He started having kids, I started having kids. We were both working during the day and playing music at night. It was our aspiration to play music full-time.”

In the mid-’90s, Colby complained about having a headache and blurry vision during a show. After the gig, his girlfriend took him to the doctor. After a series of tests, the doctors found two brain tumors. They removed one, but said the other was inoperable. Five months after the release of their album In Session with The Joint Chiefs, Colby passed away.

 “In honor of KC, I couldn’t let the band go,” Caruth says. “I keep the name alive, so I keep him alive. He’s the one that started it.”

After recruiting bassist Daniel Lewis, who played in the band for 20 years, they moved toward more funk, soul and R&B. Suddenly, the Joint Chiefs were playing everywhere, and soon festivals and private events. Rather than a niche band in the narrow blues scene, they were becoming a dance band that everyone could enjoy.

“If you play one style of music, you’re not going to be playing that much,” Caruth says.

In the early 2000s, he decided to record a second Joint Chiefs album, Smoke Signals, which had all original tunes. The group had occasionally written songs for fun, and by that point, they had several lying around. It was exciting for Caruth, yet he didn’t give it too much attention. There wasn’t even a CD release show for it. They just kept grinding.

Caruth has been playing with the Joint Chiefs since the ’80s but only recently started to pen original tunes.

“I don’t usually do those [originals] unless I’m doing a show at Kuumbwa or something,” Caruth says. “When you’re playing at bars and clubs, people come to dance. They want to hear cover tunes.”

Caruth went on tour with local blues/gospel legend Sista Monica in Europe but couldn’t be a full-time member because he still had a job. But then in 2006, he no longer had to worry about that. As soon as he’d healed, he joined her group and toured with them whenever they went out of town.

Sista Monica, who passed away in 2014, had a huge influence on him. She taught him how to up his performance game, and how to hustle on the business side.

“Sista Monica was a self-made musician. She did all her own promotion,” he says. “She pretty much called her own shots and booked her shows. She built her career.”

Caruth also occasionally played with Tony Lindsey’s band Spang-a-Lang, and other artists like Dale Ockerman, Lou Pride, Buddy Miles, Terence Blanchard and others.

And the Joint Chiefs kept on keeping on. In 2009, the band recorded its third CD, Back In The Day, an album of funk/R&B covers like “Lonely Day” by Bill Withers, “Cut The Cake” by Average White Band and “Breezin” by George Benson.

Every year, Caruth got better and better at creating a full schedule of paying gigs, and he kept getting invited to play guitar in others’ sets. The work kept coming.

“The year that Covid came, that was the one year where we were in March, and we were booked solid through almost the whole year,” Caruth says. “We were in high demand. Overnight, it was all gone.”

RETURN OF THE CHIEFS

The first show Caruth played after the lockdown was in January 2021, in front of an old gas station on the corner of 41st and Portola. People were excited for live music again.

There were a few more gigs in the months to follow, but they didn’t become regular until that spring.

Playing gigs now has a new layer of stress that wasn’t there before. What is safe, and what isn’t? For their most recent New Year’s Eve show, the Joint Chiefs played Coffee Bank in Carmel. The gig was sold out, but was supposed to be indoors. Due to the Omicron spike, that didn’t seem like a good idea. Caruth asked the owner if it could be moved outside.

“I said, ‘It’s going to be a little chilly, but we’re going to have to suck it up.’ I don’t want my band to be the band that has a superspreader event,” says Caruth. “They put heaters everywhere. And coverings. People had to wear jackets. But everybody danced outside.”  

Even though he lost momentum in the pandemic, the time off also helped him realize how important writing and sharing original music was to him.

“I told my wife, ‘I can’t just sit here. I’ve got to do something. I’m never going to have time like this in my life again,” Caruth says. “So I just sat down and started writing songs.”

On Under Open Skies, he collaborated with his friend Jesse Barbosa, who lives in San Paulo, Brazil. They sent tracks back and forth until it was finished; Caruth played guitar, Barbosa played keys, drums and bass. They both contributed to the songwriting. Another friend, Luis Lenzi, contributed saxophone to a few tracks.

The album shows Caruth’s heart a bit more than he’s used to. It’s a funky record, but you can feel the emotion bubbling up—a strong feel-good vibe in tough times that everyone needs right now.

“It was great. I had a lot of time on my hands,” Caruth says. “Just trying to make something positive out of something negative.”

Obviously, he couldn’t do a CD release show for Under Open Skies when it was released in 2020, but he would still like to have a show to celebrate it. And thinking about that makes him realize that the original songs he wrote on the Joint Chiefs’ Smoke Signals are also long overdue for a special celebration.

It’s one more project for the quintessential working man’s musician, who never seems to slow down, let alone stop.

“We sold a bunch of CDs, but we never actually did a show. I’m going to have to; I got to get that off the bucket list. That’s bothering me,” Caruth says. “I probably will do the Joint Chiefs CD. I’ll probably do songs from that and combine it with my solo CD. I’m going to sit down and look at my calendar.”

The Joint Chiefs play from 4:30-6:30pm on Sunday, July 3 at Scotts Valley’s Fourth of July celebration at Skypark, and then Monday, July 4 after Aptos’ “World’s Shortest Parade” (outside Betty’s Burger) from 11am-1pm. The band will play Capitola’s Twilight Summer Series on Wednesday, July 13, from 6 to 8pm, and the Boardwalk’s Thursday night summer music series on Thursday, Aug. 11, from 8:30-10pm. All of these dates, plus their weekly regular engagements and other gigs can be found at thejointchiefsband.com.

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