"What do we do with our talents when fame eludes us?"
This is the question Kris Wheeler asked as he introduced his documentary film "Duke & the King" at its screening Sunday night at Seaside Repertory Theatre. Wheeler produced the film about local celebrity Duke Bardwell, and was shown during the 30A Songwriters Festival.
Bardwell has played the music scene all the way from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles and was the opening act for some big names in the music industry. The biggest name he was associated with was Elvis.
Bardwell played bass guitar in The King's TCB Band and did 181 shows with him in 1974 and 1975. Elvis died two years later.
Wheeler's film focuses on these two years and beyond.
On the film, Bardwell talks of Elvis being Bardwell's hero ever since he heard him sing "Old Shep."
"When I heard that, I was hooked and I knew I would play and that Elvis would somehow be a part of my life," he said.
Little did Bardwell know how much The King would impact his life.
On the film, Bardwell talks openly of drugs and the run-ins with The King’s bodyguards, but Bardwell told The Sun that the main reason he was replaced is because Jerry Scheff, the original bass player, wanted to rejoin the show and Elvis really wanted him back.
Bardwell took the rejection hard when the association ended and he retreated to his family's summer home in South Florida to lick his wounds, try to refocus and get back his groove. It was there in those peaceful surroundings and through his pain that the words for new music began to come, including the one that has become his signature song: "Bayou Country," which was released by Lou Adler and his Ode record label.
But these days, except for his annual trek to Europe for an annual Elvis reunion tribute, those privileged to be able to hear Bardwell's soulful voice and expert guitar playing live on 30A.
Bardwell moved to South Walton in 1985, a decade after Elvis, to get away from music and the lifestyle that comes with the territory of playing in a band. He was running the front of the house at the now-defunct Paradise Café in Grayton Beach and had not played in five years when he met a local guitarist by the name of Bill Garrett. As chance would have it, Garrett was playing with Franko "Washboard" Jackson, who had heard Bardwell's "Bayou Country" in Louisiana and liked to perform it. Jackson had never met Bardwell and thought he was a deceased Black man. Garrett introduced the two and Jackson talked Bardwell into picking up his guitar again and joining them.
Bardwell talked to The Sun about the founding of the band Hubba Hubba with Jackson, which the first year also included Potter Brown and Owen Saunders. Garrett joined later. Bardwell, Jackson, and Garrett still perform as Hubba Hubba about four times a year. This will be the 18th Super Bowl Sunday for them to command the stage at The Red Bar.
Every Thursday night during the off season, Bardwell can be found at Stinky's Fish Camp where he shares the stage with two young guitarists he calls his godsons: Kyle Ogle and Kenny Oliverio. They perform under the moniker Old Bull, Young Bulls. Ogle and Oliverio are part of the band Dread Clampitt, which performs at The Red Bar on Sundays and Mondays. Bardwell was part of Dread Clampitt for its first three years as he showed his godsons the ropes and encouraged them along. They have been known to perform his songs.
"I got Kyle when he was in the fourth grade and got him started playing," Bardwell told The Sun.
Many in these parts consider Bardwell to be royalty. When asked the question of what advice he would give young performers, Bardwell answered thoughtfully.
"I never seemed to have the level of commitment that was needed," he confides. "I was affected by rejection. Every song I have written, I have bled for. They are all so personal … "
Does he have any regrets?
"Sure, I have regrets," he answers slowly. "Who doesn't?"
What would he change, if he could?
"If I had the chance, I would change some of the hearts I have broken — I would do that," said Bardwell. "But, it's still a beautiful life. I'm happy to live here. I love the people and they seem to love me back. I am grateful to God for all the opportunities, beautiful wives, magnificent bright caring children and grandchildren and close friends that have all stayed by my side through this journey."
What does he see in his future?
Bardwell said he would like to record one more CD of his own, and, "As long as 'the boys' are willing to stand with me, I'll go anywhere and perform on any stage as long as my fingers hold out."
At the end of the screening of "Duke & The King," Bardwell performed "Old Shep," "You and I" (which Elvis wanted to record), and "Bayou Country" to a standing ovation.
Old Bull, Young Bulls take the stage at Stinky's around 9 or 9:30 each Thursday night.