The Bubba System – Conch Bred
It all started, in 1998, with a trip to Big Coppitt Key for the first rehearsal of a still unnamed group of local Conch musicians that included Paulie Walterson, Johnny King, Bobby Jabour, John Nunes, and a bartender/lead singer from the Purple Porpoise Bar, Debra – no one can remember her last name. Having a female singer in the band did not work, so they quickly disbanded before getting off the ground.
Paulie Walterson lived in New Town, off Northside Drive. He converted an unused bedroom into a soundproof studio. They lost their bass player (Bobby Jabour) so the remaining trio of Johnny King, John Nunes, and Paulie rehearsed for almost a year in the bedroom studio. Art Descoteaux joined as the new bass, and they started working on originals and the music of Carlos Santana.
Another Conch, Henry Fuller, became the manager. He booked the still unnamed band at Finnegan’s Wake. John Nunes was the bouncer at Two Friends Restaurant. One night at work, Nunes and Paulie were talking about the old days when they called each other ‘Bubbas’ and spoke of the mythical Bubba System that ran Key West. It was a Eureka moment – that’s it – everyone loved the idea, and the Bubba System band was born. The debut was a big success and attracted a good deal of local attention.
Paulie Walterson, on drums, was the volume control. Johnny King was lead guitar and singer-songwriter. John Nunes played rhythm guitar and was also a singer songwriter but with a Latin flare. Art Descoteaux started as the bass player but during a rehearsal, picked up a guitar and started rocking Jimi Hendrix songs. He became the utility guitarist, fiddle/violinist, and bells. They would later add Tom Conger on bass (his late wife Nancy became Paulie’s “roadie”) and in 2001, Caffeine Carl Wagoner joined the group, adding a special sound.
Carl’s mom loved Paulie and trusted him to get then young Caffeine Carl home after gigs. Paulie tells stories when young Carl would get in trouble (often) for one offense or another and his mom would banish him to his room for punishment. He would spend the time practicing guitar which today hardly seems like punishment for Caffeine Carl.
They were all Key West Conchs and all had day jobs. They really loved their community and tried to help every fundraiser for every good cause, especially the Annual Cancer Society Fundraiser. The original music by John Nunes always seemed to be about one of his ex-wives (“I Que Linda Eres”, “Mary Luz”, “Vibra Slap”). Johnny King’s music was all over the place (“Bubba Talk”, “Monroe County Jail”, “Empty Space”). All became popular.
Paulie brought in another Conch, Mundy Ramirez, to play congas. Mundy was a unique old school conguero and really started to highlight the Latin and Santana themes. Caffeine Carl added two very popular original songs (“My Little Island Home”, “Mama Don’t Like Me”). The group became popular with locals and tourists. The band would vary in size from six to eight pieces with an incredible popular sound.
They started performing at Virgilio’s, Schooner Wharf, Blue Heaven, Captain Tony’s, and Grunts. From 2000 to 2006, the Bubba System played every Sunday evening at Sloppy Joe’s, their favorite gig. Sloppy Joe’s had rules for bands. They had a house “play list,” no original music, bands couldn’t play too loud, and so on. Caffeine Carl was banned off and on for being too loud. Paulie and the Bubba System broke every rule. They eventually lost the gig but Sloppy Joe’s continues to contact Paulie for a return gig.
Their only released album, “Conch Bred”, was titled by John Nunes and Paulie Walterson while they were eating Cuban bread at Five Brothers Café. Artist Rick Worth immortalized the band on the album cover. They were partially funded by Sloppy Joe’s corporate. It took a while to get everyone recorded at Cosmos Studio on Stock Island with engineer, David Tortellino. The album of ten songs includes all original music written by band members with one exception. Paulie got permission from Gerry and the Pacemakers’ agent to record the song, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”. He and Caffeine Carl worked on the song in the studio, and then Paulie took the music home to work on it. He played it over and over for a couple of days. Paulie noticed his pet canary, Pinky, was ‘singing’ the song perfectly. He recorded Pinky, went back to the studio and included a recording of Pinky at the end of the song – it worked great.
Kenny Chesney had his boat off Little Palm Island and visited the Looe Key Tiki Bar while the Bubba System was performing. He got Paulie’s attention on a break and complemented his band and their music. A few weeks later at Schooner’s Wharf Bar while Paulie was setting up for a gig, Kenny Chesney came over and asked Paulie, “Remember me?”. They talked about music and the band and Chesney told Paulie that the band had him up dancing the night before. The next day Kenny Chesney showed up at Grunts and asked Paulie if he could sit in with them.
Paulie Walterson held the Bubba System together for over 20 years. They were all like family – once you joined the Bubba System, you were always part of the band. Players continually changed. Russ Scavelli and Laura Black joined the band. Johnny Nunes got married (#4) and moved away. Johnny King’s health deteriorated. Mundy passed away in 2017. Tom Conger started playing regularly on the Fury boats. Art Descoteaux moved away. Caffeine Carl moved on with the Buzz. They continue to play select gigs and most recently headlined at 2022 Goombay Festival. Former players are always welcome.