For a brief moment in the mid-90s Wally Ford was making a name for himself in Memphis. Along with his band the Lizzard Kings, Ford was getting play on local rock radio, earning notice for his manic stage show, and putting out albums of cheeky alt-rock. Then, somewhere near the end of the decade, Ford just disappeared.
“I moved up to the country for about 10 years,” says Ford. “I quit playing, didn’t play at all. Then, finally, a few years ago I moved back to Memphis. I’ve played a few gigs here and there. But as far as really promoting, or putting out a record, it’s been 15 years since I’ve done anything.”
This week the 56-year-old Ford ends his long silence, with the official release of a new CD, Killer Buzz. To celebrate, he and a reconstituted version of the Lizzard Kings will play a free show Saturday at Cooper Young’s The Edge Coffee House.
Born in Memphis, Ford rambled around from an early age. “My mother and my dad divorced when I was six months old, when I was a baby,” he says. “My father was a salesman; he traveled all around the country. When I was about 11 years old I moved in with my dad and went all around with him. We lived in Texas and Florida, Alabama, all over.”
There was a strain of performer blood in the Ford family. His great-grandfather was a vaudevillian, his grandfather played guitar in gospel band, and his father, blessed with a wicked sense of humor, had longed to be a stand-up comic.
Ford picked up the guitar soon after moving in with his dad. But his great motivation to play came through the King, Elvis Presley. As it happened, Ford’s cousin was Linda Thompson, Presley’s girlfriend during the later years of his life. Being in such close proximity to rock royalty “kinda gave me a big push,” Ford says.
He started out as folk singer-songwriter, living in Nashville for a time. Returning to Memphis in the ‘80s, he enjoyed some small success as a songwriter, landing a couple tunes on major-label projects by Keisha Jackson and Moses Tyson Jr.
Ford released his debut album, Lizzards Like Me, in 1994, and followed up with the 1996 LP, Matter of Time, both on the local Inside Sounds label.
But after a few years Ford abruptly decided to leave the city. “I was pretty heavy into drugs,” he admits. “I went into rehab, and they told me if I kept using drugs the way I was using them, I was going to be dead in six months. So I just decided to get away from everything.”
Ford moved into his mother’s place in Hardeman County; he got straight, got married and left music behind.
He finally decided to return to Memphis a few years ago, and Ford slowly began putting together a new version of the Lizzard Kings. Before long, he was recording the songs that would comprise Killer Buzz. “We were working on a budget, so it took a long time for us to record it,” says Ford. “We pieced it together starting back about two years ago.”
Musically, Ford has changed, leaving behind the alt-rock pretensions of his ‘90s work in favor of a rootsier approach. “What I was going for was rockabilly with an edge,” says Ford, whose current band includes a pedal steel player, an upright bassist and pianist.
Killer Buzz reflects this sound, through a mix of new songs and old numbers that have been rearranged and re-imagined. “Some of the songs I had done years ago with my other band, but they were done as alternative rock songs back then,” says Ford. “I wanted to take the same songs and play ‘em like rockabilly — but they ended up coming out as punk. It’s a cross between punk and rockabilly.”
Ford adds that he plans on staying around this time, in Memphis and in music. “I enjoy what I’m doing now,” says Ford. “It just feels right to me this time.”
Wally Ford & the Lizzard Kings
Saturday, 9 p.m. at The Edge Coffee House, 532 South Cooper. Free. For more information, call 901-207-5072.