Tallahassee’s Bill Wharton, better known as the Sauce Boss, will return to Port St. Joe as a music guest for the 17th annual Scallop Festival.
The Sauce Boss is known for his creative and high-energy blues concerts where he simultaneously cooks a pot of gumbo on stage. At the end of the concert, it’s chow time for the audience.
Four years ago, Wharton brought his brand of “swampy Florida blues” to the Port St. Joe Marina and he’ll soon make a valiant return. Despite the absence, Wharton made it clear that he’s no stranger to the Gulf.
In his years as a solo artist he spent time playing up and down the venues of St. George Island and said that Cape San Blas is one of his favorite areas to visit.
From the age of 14, Wharton had been playing music, but as legend goes, in early 1970, he wandered outside and found a 1930’s steel guitar in his yard and the instrument showed him the way of the blues.
He bared his soul and started penning songs about harmony and brotherhood.
“Blues is universal,” said Wharton. “The music lifts you up and that’s why I play it.”
For a cook, who has a degree in English education, he likes that the music allows him to speak in simple terms and yet show complicated ideas.
He calls blues music “real and authentic.”
Hot sauce was merely a side interest for Wharton in the early 80s. Unhappy with what was available on the market, he’d attempted to make his own, always on the hunt for the perfect blend of heat and taste.
It was after a friend gave him some Datil peppers from St. Augustine that he finally achieved hot sauce nirvana.
He began growing the peppers and selling his concoction, which he dubbed, “Liquid Summer Hot Sauce.” As someone who was on stage night after night, he had the perfect place to sell it.
It was on New Year’s Eve of 1990 that his two passions came together on stage. He wanted to prove to his concert audience how delicious his hot sauce was, so he cooked a pot of gumbo on stage and doused it with Liquid Summer.
After seeing the reactions of his well-fed crowd, he realized what his show would become moving forward.
“That’s the genius of serendipity,” said Wharton about the experience.
Cooking gumbo while playing music isn’t a simple task, though Wharton admitted that over the years, things have gotten easier.
His first shows with the gumbo pot at his side also included the prep of the meal, though he quickly learned that dicing onions while trying to play blues licks wasn’t a natural fit. He now does all his prep in advance.
“The first time I made gumbo on stage, I basically had a bag of groceries with me,” he laughed. “It was a total mess.”
Wharton now has a regimen that he practices prior to each show to ensure that all ingredients are ready and everything is in its place. While he feels his system is more efficient now, it wasn’t without growing pains.
He said, “A few times, I had to take breaks during the show so that I could go to the store!”
Wharton chose gumbo as his stage dish for the same reason he enjoys blues music: it brings people together. The traditional Creole dish is a combination of African American, Native American, Spanish and even German culinary influences.
“Gumbo is a melting pot…literally!” said Wharton. “As people, we’re all different, but when we sit at the table together, we make something good.”
Wharton has served over 190,000 bowls of gumbo in the last 24 years and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Recent gigs have taken him to North Carolina and Washington DC and in the past he’s traveled extensively across the United States and Canada.
His gumbo has taken him many places he never imagined, including Roman amphitheaters and Napoleonic opera houses in France.
“I’ve played everywhere…from France, to Ireland, to a show in a Laundromat in Tallahassee,” said Wharton.
Where some musicians might use their days off on tour to get a little bit of rest and relaxation, Wharton visits area homeless shelters and performs for free while still spoonin’ up his trademark meal.
Nine years ago, he started the non-profit organization Planet Gumbo to raise awareness about homelessness, feed the needy and give hope and sustenance through music and the message of gumbo.
“It’s what I do to put energy back into the community,” said Wharton. “Some people can’t come to the shows, so I go to them.”
For Gulf County residents who attend the Sauce Boss’s performance at the Scallop Fest, Wharton promises to deliver a rocking show.
“Get ready for some high-energy blues,” he warned. “It will be upbeat—this isn’t ‘cryin’ into your beer’ music!”
The Sauce Boss will take the stage at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday, Aug. 3 at George Core Park. Tickets are $5 for the event. Children six and younger and military personnel with valid I.D. get in free.
For more information on the Sauce Boss and to hear his own brand of “swampy Florida blues,” visit him online at www.sauceboss.com. To learn more about Wharton’s organization, Planet Gumbo, visit www.planetgumbo.org.