The Ghost of Harry Choates

Posted by mcorcoran on August 21, 2013

harry-choates(Published July 2001)

by Michael Corcoran

They remember it like it was yesterday. They remember it like it was 50 years ago today. “He was shaking uncontrollably, stumbling around his jail cell in a stupor, with a big cut on his forehead,” says 72-year-old Jimmy Grabowske.

“He didn’t know us. He didn’t know anything,” says Junior Burrow, 76. “I’d never seen anything like it.” Harry Choates, the music pioneer who updated and popularized the Cajun standard “Jole Blon,” was in bad shape in the Travis County Jail that afternoon of July 17, 1951. Steel guitarist Grabowske and fiddler Burrow, plus drummer Eddie May, went looking for assistance, but only found shrugs. “We went to one of the guards and told him that Choates (pronounced “Shotes”) needed a doctor, badly, but he said there was nothing he could do about it,” Burrow says.

The three musicians headed back to the Brown Building, where they performed at 1 p.m. every day on Lady Bird Johnson’s KTBC radio station, looking for anyone who might help. Then they heard the ambulance’s siren, an ominous shriek that signaled the flaming out of another troubled musical genius. Twenty-eight-year-old Choates was declared dead in his cell at 2:45 p.m., soon after his bandmates in Jesse James and His Boys came by with cigarettes and magazines. He had been in jail three days for failure to pay child support.

Grabowske dismisses the half-century-old myth that Choates was beaten to death by Austin police, believing the injuries to be self-inflicted in a crazed state. But he wonders if the musician could’ve been saved by proper attention. “He was an absolute alcoholic suffering from DTs (delirium tremens). Why was he left alone in a cell, staggering around and hitting his head on everything?”

The autopsy by Dr. Harold M. Williams ruled the cause of death as “fatty metamorphosis of the liver,” a condition associated with being obese, which Choates was certainly not. Chronic interstitial nephritis (kidney deterioration) was listed as a contributing factor. The cut on the forehead was measured at 2.5 centimeters (about an inch), plus Williams noted large irregular contusions over the left hip and upper thigh and several reddish spots on the body. According to Houston researcher Andrew Brown, who’s working on liner notes for a comprehensive Choates collection for the Bear Family label, the short life of Harry Choates has, in the years since his death, accumulated a long list of misinformation, beginning with his birth in Vermilion Parish, La., (not Rayne or New Iberia, which are most often reported) on Dec. 26, 1922. Harry moved with his parents Clarence and Edolia to Port Arthur in 1929 and remained primarily a Texan, although he was often billed, as at his first Austin appearance at Dessau Hall on April 4, 1947, as hailing from Lake Charles, La.

“He was a maze of contradictions,” Brown says of the Cajun who gained fame singing in a language (French) he wasn’t fluent in and rarely used in conversation. “He was an exceptional jazz guitarist and multi-instrumentalist whose best-known records portray only a simple folk fiddler. He was a wild, disreputable character who sang mournful lyrics set off against traditional Cajun melodies.”

One aspect of his life untouched by speculation is that Choates had a hankering for the hard stuff. According to Kevin Coffey’s liner notes to the “Five Time Loser 1940-1951” reissue, Choates‘ drinking was already out of control as a young man. By the age of 12, whiskey was a steady part of his diet. “I didn’t even know that he was an alcoholic because there was never any change in his behavior,” says Burrow. “I guess it’s because he was always drinking.” Grabowske agrees. “He wasn’t obnoxious like some drunks. He just seemed to always be in a good mood.” He played with his eyes on fire, often jumping on tables and unleashing his trademark “Ah-Yeeeeeee!” and “Eh-Ha-Ha!” yelps.

Years after his death he would give Doug Kershaw an act. Choates became a regional favorite in late 1946, when Houston’s Gold Star label released “Jole Blon,” which had been recorded with a much more subdued arrangement in 1935 by Choates’ fiddle mentor, Leo Soileau. A few months later, the Cajun waltz landed at No. 4 on the Billboard country charts. Other notable tracks during this period include the fiddle-driven “Rubber Dolly,” “Poor Hobo” and the classic “Devil in the Bayou.” His band not only played Cajun styles, but western swing and even pop standards such as “All of Me,” which Choates would pick on an electric guitar. “Choates was to Cajun music what Bob Wills was to western swing,” says Grabowske, who’s lived in Austin since he replaced Lefty Nason in the popular Jesse James and His Boys in 1948.

“(Choates) was a master showman. Audiences loved him. He was a featured guest with us, and whenever he’d come on, the energy level would shoot through the roof.” One of the last records he cut, at a session in San Antonio six weeks before his death, was “Austin Special,” an ode to his stomping grounds during the final year of his life. The extroverted Choates left his first wife to marry a shy Gulf Coast gal named Helen Daenen in ’45. “I couldn’t figure that one out,” says Grabowske. “I don’t know anything about their personal life, except that they had a little girl and a little boy. But they seemed such an unlikely pair– this very proper, very reserved, attractive woman and this completely outgoing guy.” Indeed, the couple had their differences, separating and reconciling with regularity. Helen first filed for divorce in 1948, but withdrew the suit. In 1950, she joined Harry in Austin, and they had an apartment off North Lamar near Threadgill’s.

But she filed for divorce on Feb. 21, 1951, and left her husband for good that time. Choates often slept in the back of Dessau Hall after his wife left. During a career that started in 1947, as Charlie Walker’s steel guitarist on KWBU in Corpus Christi, Grabowske has seen his share of tragedies. He was on the bandstand for Johnny Horton’s final show at the Skyline on North Lamar. The “Honky-Tonk Man” died the next day, Nov. 5, 1960, in a car accident near Milano. Grabowske also backed a deteriorating Hank Williams, a few days before his heart broke for the last time on Jan. 1, 1953. But he’s particularly haunted by Choates’ death. The stumbling and incoherent mess he saw in the jail cell was not the fun-loving Choates he knew. But too often it’s the Choates he remembers. “I was just 22 years old, so you can imagine how hard the whole thing hit me,” he says, sitting at his kitchen table in the Allandale neighborhood, thumbing through old pictures of musicians in cowboy hats and hand-painted ties. “He was something,” he says when he comes across a picture of Choates in Bandera, smiling broadly under a white cowboy hat. Choates died penniless and underappreciated, like so many who trade their gift for the daily suicide booze brings.

Beaumont deejay Gordon Baxter had to organize a benefit dance to pay for Choates’ burial in Port Arthur’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery. In recent years, however, with Choates’ legacy finally acknowledged by more than a handful of researchers, collectors and musicians, there is a monument next to the grave of a man who didn’t even rate a doctor 50 years ago today. “The Godfather of Cajun Music,” the marker reads. But an even greater testament to Choates’ influence is whenever a Cajun fiddler cocks his head back and lets out an exuberant “Eh-Ha-Ha!”

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