The Famous Psychedelic Tuba
Everyone has seen Robert Barton’s (aka Bubba Lownotes) psychedelic tuba. It’s actually a sousaphone, commonly called tuba. It has appeared at almost every large Key West event, usually with Bubba’s buddy, Jeep Caillouet.
Bubba Lownotes played tuba in the high school band and was always fooling around with the tuba; he loved the sound. In 1988, he visited an old music factory in Fort Scott, Kansas that supplied instruments to high schools all over the state. They had an upstairs repair shop loaded with old band instruments. He found three reconditioned tubas with cases. He bought the white fiberglass one which was lighter than brass (brass can weigh up to 50lbs). He feels like he rescued an old unwanted broken toy.
This work of music art didn’t just happen. It took two very talented artists over a month to design and paint it … twice. Cyndy Rake and Melanie Griffith designed and painted the exotic trappings of the psychedelic tuba.
Originally from Oroville, Ohio (home of Smucker’s jelly), Cyndy has been Bubba’s partner for over 20 years. Melanie was born in Mobile, Alabama and raised in Lima, Peru. Her family moved to Key West in the 60s, where she finished high school, and purchased a home next to the Audubon house on Whitehead Street.
The two artists had recently completed painting a van in a vibrant psychedelic motif. The van became a popular ride to cruise Duval street. Bubba was thoroughly impressed and asked if they could apply a similar design to his all white fiberglass tuba.
They agreed and began working on a special design. Melanie still lived in the family home and had a small studio in the back. They hung the large bulky instrument from the ceiling so they could rotate it and complete the painting. The design was intricate and complex with a large swirl down the main bell of the horn. Melanie had to cover her head with plastic so she could get deep inside and paint the swirl as far down the bell as possible.
The tuba has a large circle of tubing to slip over one’s shoulder. The intricate design had to cover all of this tubing which, according to the artists, was the most difficult to paint. The first attempt was with an oil based paint that takes longer to dry. They thought it was fully dried but when Bubba placed the tuba in its case, the soft fuzzy lining stuck to the paint and almost completely covered the instrument with black fuzz – a real mess.
They contacted the paint manufacturer to see what could be done. A special brand of mineral spirits was recommended to clean all the fuzz, and a new paint recommended for the second attempt. They spent even many hours cleaning and completing the second painting. It took over a month to complete.
Bubba kept interjecting ‘helpful’ ideas for the design but Melanie and Cyndy continued ignoring him and did it their way. For example, Bubba didn’t want the large swirl of color to wrap inside the bell of the tuba. Melanie insisted on it; Cyndy compromised and put a period on the end of the swirl, calling it a question mark. The back of the bell was equally intricate. They were both Rolling Stone fans. Instead of adding the famous Rolling Stone lips and tongue, Melanie added two sets of lips and teeth.
Bubba loved the finished product and proudly performs with the ‘Psychedelic Tuba’. To fully appreciate this one must understand the dichotomy of this fairly quiet intro
verted musician, performing with an audacious striking instrument. Along with good buddy, Jeep, he has performed at Mallory Square many times. Once while he and Jeep were ‘fooling around’ at the monument in front of Shrimpboat Sound studio, someone came outside and gave them $100 each to leave. Evidently, the low-end sound of the tuba was bleeding into the recording studio.
Bubba Lownotes performs at New Orleans style weddings and funerals. He plays annually in the Crooks Second Line Celebration and the Key West Musicians Festival. He has taken the tuba to the hospital and convalescent home. He has played Christmas carols on the trolley, played for the Blue Angels at the Navy base, and even played on the historic schooner, Western Union.
Once, while walking home from a funeral, he was enlisted to play “Happy Birthday” at a hotel for $100. Thanks to Cyndy and Melanie’s artistry, Bubba Lownotes and the ‘Psychedelic Tuba’ has become a Key West favorite.