SAN DIEGO — A widely held myth among this city's pop musicians is that a national record deal--and/or a hit--means no longer having to pay your dues on the local nightclub circuit.
Percussionist Tommy Aros of Fattburger, however, has seen that myth explode right before his eyes.
Early last year, the San Diego jazz-fusion quintet's debut album was released on the nationally distributed Golden Boy Records label. Within months, the record had made it all the way to No. 11 on the jazz album charts in Billboard.
Then, in August, Fattburger's second album, "The Good News," came out on an even bigger label: Intima Records, the jazz subsidiary of Enigma, which is distributed nationally by Capitol Records.
The title track was co-written by Fattburger keyboardist Carl Evans Jr. and drummer Ricky Lawson of Michael Jackson's band. And although it's still too early to tell how the album will fare on the charts, preliminary sales and airplay reports show that "The Good News" is already the most successful album in Intima's history.
Today, however, the members of Fattburger continue to make most of their money playing the same San Diego nightclubs they've played in for years: the Old Pacific Beach Cafe, Fat City (where they're playing Thursdays in October) and Humphrey's.
They're still paying their dues, long after their account, according to myth--should have been paid off in full.
"It's a little strange, but I guess that's the way it is, at least for jazz bands," Aros said. "People think success happens overnight, but that's a myth, not a reality.
"You need at least two or three records before promoters really start getting interested in you and even consider booking you on national tours.
"This thing takes time, and until we reach that point, we're happy with the success we've had so far--and with the progress we continue to make."
Among the "progress" Fattburger has made in the two months since the release of its second album is landing more and more gigs at such prestigious Los Angeles jazz clubs as Bon Appetit and the Golden Tale, and co-headlining the recent Catalina Jazz Festival with established fusion giants Spyro Gyra, Earl Klugh and the Rippingtons.
Like the others, Fattburger's sound is honeyed but swinging; there's enough improvisation to appease all but the most die-hard jazz purists, and plenty of catchy melodies and dance rhythms to appeal to more pop-oriented tastes.
"If you go into any record store and look up even as big a star as George Benson, you'll find that he did maybe five, six albums on obscure labels before he actually made it," Aros said.
"And we're fully prepared for the same thing to happen to us before we, too, are able to headline major concert halls around the country and play to thousands of people a night."
The origins of Fattburger date back to 1981, when veteran San Diego jazz players Hollis Gentry and Bruce Cameron formed a fusion group to take advantage of the increasing popularity jazz-fusion, or "pop-jazz," was enjoying on the local nightclub scene.
In late 1984, Cameron decided to return to traditional jazz and left the band, while Gentry and the others quickly regrouped as Fattburger, named after a popular Los Angeles fast-food chain.
The following March, Fattburger released a self-produced album, financed by a trio of longtime Gentry fans, that sold more than 2,000 copies in San Diego alone.
A year later, the album was reissued on Golden Boy Records. But by then, Gentry had been unceremoniously dumped by the other members of Fattburger--Evans, bassist Mark Hunter, guitarist Steve Laury and drummer Kevin Koch--and replaced with Aros, who joined shortly before the album's re-release and subsequent rise up the charts.
"Initially, there was a lot of friction between Hollis and Fattburger," Aros said. "But now his new band, Hollis Gentry's Neon, and our band are both doing pretty well, and everybody's happy--which is really the most important thing.
"The neat thing about Fattburger is that while we're all good players, individually, we really play well off each other; there's a certain kind of chemistry you don't generally see in jazz-fusion clubs around Los Angeles, where there's usually one main guy and a bunch of different back-up musicians who don't play together that often.
"That's why I'm confident we can be as big as Spyro Gyra, which is set up similar to Fattburger. No one's trying to be a star; we're all in this together.
"And we're all taking things very, very slowly, because we know from experience that success just doesn't happen overnight."