What are the Fabulous Thunderbirds doing hovering near the top of the Billboard magazine pop chart?

This is a Texas blues-rock band that has been around, in relative obscurity, for 11 years. Until two months ago, hardly anybody had heard of the T-Birds, who open for Rush tonight and Monday at Pacific Amphitheatre. By playing 250-300 dates a year, the T-Birds did acquire a cult following. But blues and R&B; and Texas blues-rock fans aren’t going buy enough albums to put any act in the Top 10.

The music on “Tuff Enuff"--the album is No. 21 and the single of the title song is No. 31--is lively, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not overtly pop, usually a prerequisite for making the Top 10. And you certainly won’t hear T-Birds’ tunes in discos. Also, three of the four members of the band are verging on late 30s and are not MTV pretty boys. They certainly didn’t climb the chart based on how they look.


What gives?

Kim Wilson, lead singer and chief lyricist, didn’t know. As he plodded through a hearty Italian lunch the other day, he seemed ecstatic about the success, but also mystified by it.

“I don’t have any answers,” he said. “We’ve been making albums like this for years and nobody noticed. Why are things clicking now? I wish I knew.”

The new label may be part of the answer. This is the T-Birds first album on CBS Associated, which may be better at promoting this kind of music than the band’s previous labels. The Thunderbirds haven’t really had an illustrious recording career. They started in 1979 on Takoma, a subsidiary of Chrysalis, with “The Fabulous Thunderbirds.” Later, they graduated to the parent company, recording “What’s the Word,” “Butt Rockin’ ” and “T-Bird Rhythm"--a Nick Lowe production.

In a 1981 Melody Maker story, Wilson said he was quite happy with Chrysalis. But apparently he wasn’t. None of the albums were major hits, which puzzled and frustrated the band. Now Wilson blames Chrysalis for doing a poor job of convincing radio stations to play those records. Without extensive airplay, you don’t usually get significant record sales.

Chrysalis dropped the T-Birds in 1982. The band didn’t record again until the CBS Associated deal last year. “Nobody wanted us,” Wilson recalled. “Nobody thought this music would sell. We finally had to record an album with our own money and then sell the finished product to some company. That’s how we got this deal with CBS Associated. Whatever we did with the album, we made people want to buy it.”

The Baby Boomers are at least part of the reason for the album’s success. They were grooving on this kind of bluesy rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘60s, when hip white rockers like Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton introduced rock fans to blues and bluesmen. An album of good blues-based rock ‘n’ roll has nostalgia appeal for many Boomers, many of whom are still avid record buyers. While fairly common in the ‘60s, albums like this are rare these days.

The “Tuff Enuff” album accomplishes something that’s not easy--making blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, spiced with Cajun overtones, palatable to the masses. Without a drastic sacrifice of musical integrity, producer Dave Edmunds has honed down the music’s hard edges.

Some critics have suggested that “Tuff Enuff” is a hit because it’s the first album to capture the live spirit of the T-Birds. Actually, that in-concert energy comes across more strongly on various songs on their four previous albums. What these critics are hearing is merely Edmunds’ shrewd pop production touches.

Naturally, some veteran T-Bird fans have been sniping at the “Tuff Enuff” album, labeling it “sellout” music.

Wilson was rather appalled at these charges, claiming he has only heard them infrequently: “Maybe a few people here and there have said something but they haven’t been saying nasty things.

“We’re not selling out. The only difference I can see on this album is that it’s more up-tempo. But if making an album more up-tempo is the same thing as selling out, I’ll eat this table.”

The Fabulous T-Birds originated when Wilson, who’s from the Santa Barbara area, hooked up with guitarist Jimmie Vaughan in Austin, Tex., in 1975. Initially, Vaughan worked with his younger brother, Stevie Ray, now a prominent blues-rock singer-guitarist. Wilson, also a blues-harp player, was drawn to blues and R&B; by his reverence for singers like Jimmy Reed and Fats Domino.

“Blues and R&B; and music like that does something to me and I’m not sure what it is,” Wilson said. “It touches me like no other music. The music just grabs me, grabs the hell out of me. It makes me want to sink myself into it. I can lose myself in singing this music. That’s the way I felt about it when I started playing with Jimmy. I feel the same way now.”

The T-Birds spent four years getting established in the tough Texas club scene. There were several personnel changes before settling on drummer Fran Christina and bassist Preston Hubbard.

In those early days, their music wasn’t very original. Like every other blues-oriented band they were copying the masters. Eventually, they learned how to write new songs in that venerable blues/R&B; style.

“As we were playing it, we got better and we developed a better feel for the music,” Wilson observed. “We were these white boys singing this music that we didn’t invent and that belongs to somebody else--basically black people--but we didn’t care. We just love blues and R&B; and we put it in rock ‘n’ roll form and sort of make it our own.

“Maybe we did copy it, but we had to do something . I couldn’t ignore this music. I had to be part of it. I had to play it. Maybe I’m possessed by it--or obsessed with it. Or whatever. The bottom line is I can’t do without it.”