True Heroes of Texas Music, PT II
- “Country band looking for singer” was all it said, with a phone number. From that seed of torn paper stuck on the cluttered bulletin board at the Southwest Texas State University student center in August 1975 grew a chapter of country music history that’s still a page-turner.
Originally, the San Marcos group was billed as “The Ace in the Hole Band with George Strait,”
but as the frontman’s good looks, charisma and pure country voice made him a star, the billing was simplified to “George Strait.” But you’ll hear no complaints from the band, which released a lone album under its name in 1994.
LET’S TALK ABOUT…BELLS OF JOY
They piled into a station wagon, with no real goal except that they were going to Houston to make a record. They didn’t even have a name, needing a new one because there was another group making records called the Starlight Singers. By the end of the year, these six young men from Austin would have the biggest gospel hit of 1951. “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by the Bells Of Joy, the name they picked out of a hat, sold more than a million copies, even more than the biggest hits by their idols, the Soul Stirrers or the gospel queen Mahalia Jackson.
With a drum beat, extremely rare for a gospel quartet record of the era, and harmony vocals that jubilantly bounced back responses to A.C. Littlefield’s smooth lead, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” was irresistible, the biggest spiritual crossover hit until the Edwin Hawkins Singers released “Oh Happy Day” in 1969.
More than a half century later — a few days before the Bells Of Joy will gather for two Sunday gospel brunch shows at Stubb’s — baritone singer A.D. Watson, the
lone original member, sits on a friend’s Clarksville porch, just down from the Sweet Home Baptist Church, where the group first sang publicly, and reminisces. “We rehearsed every other day for three weeks, so we knew the material inside and out,” he says of the fruitful session in Houston.
The group, rounded out by A.C.’s brother Ester Littlefield (tenor), co-leads Vernon Manor and Clem Reed and bass singer and guitarist Namon Brown, was to lay down nine songs in two days. “When we got to the studio and they had us all separated with partitions. A.C.’s mike was way back in the end of a hall,” recalls Watson. “We had always sang side by side, so we were a little nervous. But once they said ‘roll it,’ we locked right in together.”
The drum was the idea of Peacock label owner Don Robey, who signed the Bells at the 1408 Ulit Ave. home of KVET’s Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst, the first black disc jockey in Texas (hired by future Gov. John Connally after he heard Durst announce the Negro League games at Disch Field). Also a skilled musician, Durst
wrote “Let’s Talk About Jesus,” Watson says, but gave A.C. Littlefield the writer’s credit. “Lavada was a blues man, see, and back then you couldn’t serve both the devil and the Lord.” Born in 1913, Durst came of age during the boogie woogie piano craze of the early 1930s with such Austin contemporaries as Black Tank, Boots Walton and Baby Dotson. But his greatest influence was the great barrelhouse player Robert “Fud” Shaw who moved to Austin from outside Sugarland in 1933 to play juke joints in the wake of Prohibition’s repeal.
By the ealy ’50’s, Durst was the Man here in Austin due to his radio success and served as a silent negotiator for the Bells when they met with Robey, an infamously shady mogul, who became interested in the Bells when they tore it up at a gospel convention in Houston in early ’51. “Lavada said that if he nodded, to go ahead and sign the contract,” says Watson. The Bells opted for royalties rather than to sell their songs to Robey outright, which would’ve been a wise decision except that Robey never paid the royalties.
Instead Robey bought the Bells a brand-new Oldsmobile Delta 88 and sent them out on the gospel highway for almost 18 months solid. “When we signed the deal, it wasn’t just for recording, it was for booking,” Watson says. “Robey told us, straight up, if this record hits, y’all gonna have to quit your jobs and leave your family for a spell.” Leaving their custodial and porter jobs was no problem, especially since the members were making more than a month’s salary, as much as $500 a man per night, when they performed in package shows with Peacock label mates The Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi, as well as Soul Stirrers, Pilgrim Travelers, Swan Silvertones and others.
But the road wasn’t without potholes, especially since many in the national gospel scene resented the Bells’ instant success. “There was some grumbling,” Watson says. “You had all these great groups plugging away 10, 15 years without any kind of hit like we had on our first single.”
But a pair of Texas-raised quartets, the Soul Stirrers and the Pilgrim Travelers, smoothed the jealous waters when they could and gave the Bells some touring pointers. “They told us to never stop in small towns in the South; to get our gas and our food in the big cities, where there were black folks,” Watson says.
The group learned another lesson on their own. “See, we used to drive around with a sign that said ‘Bells Of Joy’ on our car,” Watson recalls. “But then we found out that motels would raise their prices when we pulled in. Everybody would come out and go, ‘You guys are the Bells Of Joy? You’re big stars!’ ” The sign came down in New Orleans after the group realized they were paying $7 a room, while the other guests were charged $4.
A suggestion from the Stirrers and Travelers that the Bells didn’t take was to move to a bigger city with a thriving gospel scene. The Trinity-born Stirrers were the rage of Chicago and the Houston-based Travelers had really taken off after relocating to Los Angeles.
But the Bells, who would prove to be one-hit wonders, stayed in Austin and pushed their career to sideline status, a decision Watson says none of the members ever regretted. “We was married people and we had families. None of us wanted our kids to be raised by only one parent. That’s when they start to get in trouble.”
Ironically, it was a secularized interpretation of “Let’s Talk About Jesus” and other quartet stompers that helped make the Bells’ style passe. In 1955, Ray Charles replaced the propulsive harmonies of “Talk About Jesus” with driving piano and “I Got a Woman” became his first hit. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, former church singers, would take Pentecostal fire to the pop charts and doo-wop singers would bring a streetlight glow to the quartet style. Gospel music no longer had a lock on a fever pitch. Singers were wailing on national TV.
For the next three decades, the Bells rarely played public concerts, concentrating instead on church performances and taking jobs as custodians, grocery sackers and cooks to pay the bills. Watson got a job as a maintenance man at City Hall, where he’d work for 28 years until retiring in 1986.
The group’s activity revved up in the late ’80s when there was renewed interest in vintage gospel sounds. Vernon Manor had retired from the group, to be replaced by Alton Cyphers. When group leader A.C. Littlefield passed away in January 1999, the Bells forged on.
Willis Littlefield, the nephew of A.C. and Ester, runs the band’s business today from the family homestead in the former all-black community of Clarksville. His house on West 12th Street, a shot put from the swank Jeffrey’s restaurant, is on the original two acres former slave Charles Clark purchased for $100 in 1871 to create a freedman settlement. Next door to Willis’ house is an overgrown vacant lot where Seymour Washington’s blacksmith shop used to be. “That’s where all the old-timers used to chew the fat,” says Watson, whose family moved to the neighborhood from Brenham in 1943. A.C. and Ester Littlefield grew up a block away, on a circle that no longer exists.
Construction of MoPac Boulevard displaced 26 African-American families in the ’70s. But the next decade’s development boom moved out even more blacks, who could no longer afford to live in the former rural community of outhouses and kerosene lamps, which had become a yuppie haven. The family milk cow was replaced by trendy coffee shops. “We’re one of the few black families left,” says Willis.
Likewise, the Bells Of Joy are one of the few “golden age” gospel quartet holdouts, still performing in the old style in an era of choirs, synthesizers and funky bass. Willis says his next quest is to chase down some of the royalties owed. Even though “Let’s Talk About Jesus” is included on several gospel anthologies, and still garners airplay on Sunday gospel programs, Willis says the group rarely receives residuals. “The checks we do get are so small they’re hardly worth cashing,” he says.
“If the money comes, it comes,” says Watson. “I ain’t worried ’bout it. We never sang for the money anyway.”
GEORGE JONES 2004: ON HIS 50 YEARS OF MAKING RECORDS
Do you remember the first time you tried to sing, I mean to really belt it out like the singers you heard on the radio? Imagine you’re George Jones, the eighth of eight children born to an East Texas wood-chopper (and part-time moonshiner) and his Pentecostal wife. Growing up in a log cabin with no electricity under the opposite tugs of an alcoholic father and a Bible-thumping mother, with little education to speak of, you’re pretty much set for the dreary life of labor and liquor. Then your parents bring home a battery-operated radio and a whole new world opens up. You listen to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night and during the week you hear enough hard-core country radio to pick out three favorites: Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.
One day you’re singing along and you’re surprised at what your voice can do. It can go as high as Roy’s, flip and flutter like Hank’s and stretch and slur like Lefty’s. You get a Gene Autry guitar at 9 and get so good at it that your father yanks you out of bed to play and sing for him when he’s drunk. That’s the burden of being George Jones; even as a boy, your voice seemed to rationalize even the heaviest of buzzes. But the incredibly soulful and elastic vocals of Jones, who celebrated his 50th year as a recording artist with a self-released 50-track set in 2004, can also make blue skies bluer, the good times even greater.
Like Frank Sinatra, who began his career as a Bing Crosby imitator, the young Hank acolyte Jones found his own style and sang better as he got older, recording his signature song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” at age 49, and the majestically career-summating “Choices” 20 years after that. How many artists could pull off this project, releasing a three-disc retrospective with a cut from each year, and not have to resort to filler? Half a century is a long time to be a recording artist. You expect sizable crevices in the ouevre, especially given Jones’ well-documented, two-decade ride with the twin demons of boozing and brawling. But aside from a creative drought during his late ’70s time at rock bottom, this collection is remarkably consistent.
The material starts to slip in the “High Tech Redneck” ’90s, but Jones’ voice has never wavered. It’s a marvelous instrument of effortless grace, yet so lined with hurt. How many singers can make you feel more human? Jones’ range, from soaring smooth to grizzled and gutteral, from ragged rockabilly yelper to string-laden after hours crooner, epitomizes the highs and lows of life. How many superstars have maintained such a strong bond with the common man?
Unfortunately, compilers were forced to do a musical comb-over from 1965-71, as Jones’ old label, Musicor, refused to license tracks for this set. Therefore, there’s no “Love Bug,” no “I’m a People.” Jones’ essential 1970 recording, “Good Year For the Roses,” meanwhile, is represented here by a later duet with Alan Jackson. Jones’ groundbreaking 1963 duet with Melba Montgomery, “We Must’ve Been Out Of Our Minds,” which presaged later duets with Tammy Wynette, is moved forward a couple years to fill the 1965 slot. “Take Me,” from 1972, meanwhile, is nudged back to 1971. Most of the choices make perfect sense, though “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” would’ve been a better selection for 1981 than the duet with Merle Haggard on “Yesterday’s Wine” (which actually came out in 1982). This is not a set for nitpickers. This also isn’t for those who like their boxed sets with elaborate packaging and extensive liner notes. This is as bare bones as they come, with zero biographical information.
The CD booklet lists the songs and finds Ol’ Possum recounting a couple of memories, like how he didn’t like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” at first and insisted that the spoken word break be written in to make it less morbid. But anyone expecting to read about the events in Jones’ life — his four marriages (including, most spectacularly, his stormy union with country music’s biggest female singer Wynette from 1969-75), his binge drinking “No Show Jones” era, his uncomfortability with superstardom, etc. — while listening to the songs that mirror the shifting moods, will be disappointed. The quintessential, six-pound George Jones boxed set is stuck in the future. You can package a voice, but you can’t see it. That’s really the charm of an instinctive genius like George Jones. When he opens his mouth in song, he owns the air around him and builds a monument of the mind. Fifty songs by George Jones in 50 years: That’s really all the information you need.
FLOYD TILLMAN, THE INFLUENCE
Here's my obit on the great Floyd Tillman from Aug. 2003. Tillman was, easily, the greatest influence on Willie Nelson's singing and guitar playing. But he'd never say it. He wrote Bing Crosby's 1939 smash hit "It Makes No Difference Now," recorded his first No. 1 single in 1944 with "They Took the Stars Out of Heaven" and was one of country music's first great electric guitarists. But Floyd Tillman, who passed away Friday morning at his home near Houston at age 88, will best be remembered for a 1949 song that helped usher in the social realism era of country songwriting. "Slipping Around" may not have been the first "cheating song," but it was the first one to top the charts. The title of the album Tillman finished recording just a couple months ago says it all. He was, simply, "The Influence," and such admirers as Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Willie Nelson sang duets with him on the album, which is set to be released in November. A longtime resident of Marble Falls, Tillman moved to the Houston suburb of Bacliff a few months ago, after he was diagnosed with leukemia, to be near his doctors. "He was a great, great writer," Willie Nelson said, reached by phone Friday. "But he was also a great, great friend. Floyd always had a big smile, and you knew it was real." Tillman was the last of the great 1930s honky tonk pioneers. His passing marks the end of a great era in Texas music. According to Bill C. Malone's essential "Country Music, U.S.A.," "Tillman made significant contributions in three areas of country music ? guitar playing, songwriting and singing." Indeed, Tillman's unique, behind the beat vocal phrasing, not to mention his jazzy guitar stylings, made an impression on a young Willie Nelson. "You could tell, right away, that his music wasn't the typical country music of the time," Nelson said. "He had some of those Django (Reinhardt) rhythms in his guitar playing, and he was singing about subjects that just weren't being sung about at the time." Nelson said that after he met Tillman in the '50s they became fast friends. "I was asking him about some of his songs one day, and I told him I really liked one called 'I'll Keep On Loving You.' I thought it would take a real special woman to inspire such a sweet love song, and Floyd told me he actually wrote it about his car." Tillman was born in Ryan, Okla., in 1914, but moved to Post, near Lubbock, before he was a year old. He started playing guitar and mandolin as a pre-teen, often backing fiddle players at ranch dances. In 1933 at age 19, he joined Adolph Hofner's house band at Gus' Palm Garden in San Antonio. Two years later he was recruited into the Houston-based Blue Ridge Playboys by fiddler Leon "Pappy" Selph. It was in the Playboys that Tillman started singing his songs, and in the late '30s he struck out with his own band and signed to Decca. He joined the Army during World War II and, although he stayed in Texas during the war, he identified with the loneliness and separation of soldiers being shipped overseas and penned such songs as "G.I. Blues" and "Each Night At Nine," which became Top Five country hits in 1944. With his simple, direct lyrics about everyday life, Tillman helped transform country music from songs about train wrecks and gunfights into the white man's blues. As a singer and bandleader, he was also inspiring a young breed of postwar West Texans who wanted to make music their way. "You can't underestimate the influence Floyd Tillman had on rock 'n' rollers like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Buddy Knox," said local musician Monte Warden. "With their self-contained combos, the honky tonk guys like Tillman and Hank Thompson showed that you didn't have to look to New York or Nashville for your songs. You could just play your own." Among Tillman's hits were "Driving Nails In My Coffin" (1946), "I Love You So Much It Hurts" (1946), "I Gotta Have My Baby Back" (1949) and his last hit, 1960's "It Just Tears Me Up." His songs have been recorded by everyone from Gene Autry and Tex Ritter to the Supremes and Ray Charles. "It Makes No Difference Now," which Tillman sold for $300 in 1938, was his most covered song. Tillman eventually succeeded in regaining the rights. Tillman was in a diner in West Texas when he overheard a woman sweet-talking on the phone with a man he assumed was her husband. When she asked the man to call her at home, but to hang up if her husband answered, Tillman had a song idea. Adultery was a taboo subject at the time, and since "Slipping Around" didn't moralize that cheating was wrong, the song was traveling on untested territory. But Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely had a huge hit with "Slipping Around" in early 1949, topping the charts for 17 straight weeks. Months later, Tillman's version peaked at No. 5. Tillman wrote his own "answer song," "I'll Never Slip Around Again," which warned of the consequences of stepping out on a spouse. It was a hit three months after his version of "Slipping Around." Brady disc jockey Tracy Pitcox, who produced "The Influence," said Tillman was "very excited about making his first record in more than 20 years." He was honored that so many country music greats had done duets with him, Pitcox said. "Floyd didn't get much out of accolades. To him the biggest thrill was having the respect of his peers." Fiddler Johnny Gimble, who met Tillman in 1948, said, "It was always fun to back Floyd. Even in the last few years, when he was gettin' up there in years, Floyd would have a ball. He'd forget something, but he'd just laugh and the audience would get a big kick out of it. I miss him already." Tillman, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1984, is survived by his sons Larry and Don Tillman. There are no plans for a funeral at this time.
SAX TONE AND SOUL : KING CURTIS
At the end of three exhausting and exhilarating nights of music, recorded for a pair of “Live at Fillmore West” albums from 1971 that have just been reissued, headliner Aretha Franklin praised her backing band the Kingpins, which also opened each show, and singled out its leader. “You heard King Curtis tonight, heard us do our thing together,” the great Lady Soul said of the dynamic tenor sax player from Fort Worth, Texas. “We’re gonna do our thing for years to come, I imagine.” Indeed, King Curtis was poised to be the Lester Young to Aretha’s Billie Holiday, the Maceo Parker to her James Brown. He had the honkin’ horn that clicked with the volcanic voice; they took each other to magical places.
But tragedy struck cruelly, randomly, without conscience, five months after those historic shows in San Francisco. On Aug. 13, 1971, King Curtis was bringing an air conditioner up to his apartment on West 86th Street in New York City when his path was impeded by a pair of derelicts doing drugs on the stoop. An argument ensued and one of the men pulled out a knife and stabbed Curtis in the heart. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member (inducted in 2000) was 37 when he was killed.
Born Curtis Ousley in Fort Worth in 1934, King Curtis was the master of the shrieking, skronking, stuttering Texas tenor sax sound pioneered by Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. Like those Houstonians and Earl Bostic, a big influence from Tulsa, Okla., King Curtis served his apprenticeship in the band of Lionel Hampton, moving to New York City at age 19.
Because of his versatility and ability to frame the feel of a song, Curtis became an in-demand studio player and in 1958 recorded one of the most recognizable sax parts ever with “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters. Curtis came to define Atlantic Records’ rock ‘n’ soul sound, as label co-owner/producer Jerry Wexler called on him for hit-producing sessions with Percy Sledge (that’s Curtis on “When a Man Loves a Woman”), Clyde McPhatter (“A Lover’s Question”) and Franklin (“Respect”). He also recorded with Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin, Wilson Pickett, the Shirelles, John Lennon and many more. During the late ’50s, the sax was becoming the lead instrument of rock ‘n’ roll and Curtis blew the flamboyant sparks that producers wanted. But he also had instrumental hits under his own name, including “Soul Twist,” which topped the Billboard R&B chart in 1962, “Soul Serenade” (1964), “Memphis Soul Stew” (1966) and “Ode to Billy Joe” (1967). Session work was becoming so lucrative that Curtis and his earliest incarnation of the Kingpins, which included fellow Fort Worth native Cornell Dupree on guitar, rarely toured.
But they made an exception when Sam Cooke took them out on the road in 1963, the year before the singer’s death. Sam and Curtis were kindred spirits, according to Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick, who observed that, like Cooke, Curtis was articulate, outgoing and took his music seriously. King Curtis also liked to gamble; the dice would roll for hours after each show. You couldn’t get such action in the studio. That tour is brilliantly preserved by “Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963″ which some critics have called Cooke’s best LP. It’s his answer to James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” release, with the explosive Kingpins urging the singer to cut loose like he did during his gospel days.Cooke tips his hat to Curtis on the set-closing “Havin’ a Party” with the line “play that song called ‘Soul Twist.’ “
The 1971 Kingpins, whose membership included the polyrhythmic prince Bernard Purdie on drums, plus guests Billy Preston on the Hammond B3 organ and the Memphis Horns, had a similar effect on Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West, coaxing a majestic performance from the undisputed Queen of Soul. “Respect” gallops out of the gate as if fueled by pure adrenaline, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” wrings the soul like never before, “Eleanor Rigby” struts over Franklin’s electric piano lead and “Dr. Feelgood” is impossibly lowdown.
At one point, someone from Aretha’s entourage spotted Ray Charles seated in the back of the crowd, and the Queen called up her male counterpart in soul monarchy for a loose and inspired 19-minute jam on “Spirit in the Dark.” It was a strange period for Franklin, who from 1967-69 recorded three of the most remarkable albums in music history.
At the advent of the ’70s, however, Franklin was in a bit of a sales slump, with a live album and a jazzier project going nowhere. Although her 1970 “Spirit in the Dark” album was one of her best, with the Franklin-penned title track making creative strides, it also registered disappointing sales. Had Arethamania died out? Wexler decided that the key to his prized diva’s rebound was to connect with the hippie rock audience that had so wildly embraced Otis Redding at Monterey. The headquarters of the counterculture was Bill Graham’s music hall the Fillmore, so Wexler booked Aretha into the 2,500-capacity venue for three nights. To make the shows financially feasible, a live recording was planned.
Although Franklin had a touring band, Wexler convinced her to leave them in Detroit in favor of the all-star Kingpins, the tightest band in R&B. The opening show of the three-night stand was the first time Franklin and the Kingpins had played together, though she had just gotten out of the studio with Purdie and Dupree on sessions that would restore Franklin’s perch at the top later in ’71 with “Rock Steady” and “Spanish Harlem.” Franklin’s “Live at Fillmore West” and Curtis’ album of the same name (which came out a week before his murder), are landmark recordings, finding true geniuses of soul adapting their sound for the rock crowd and, in the process, creating the funky jam band sound. Although many have tried to duplicate what went on at the Fillmore West on March 5-7, 1971, nobody comes close. You can keep your 20-minute versions of “Feelin’ Allright,” performed by Meters/Grateful Dead wannabes. Ears that know better will take Curtis and the band’s rock-funk throwdowns on Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes,” Preston’s monster organ take on “My Sweet Lord” and a sultry, percolating version of “Mr. Bojangles” that should be one of Jerry Jeff Walker’s proudest moments as a writer. When these players get an invitation to cook, they RSVP in an instant.
The “Live at Fillmore West” albums are a jubilant study in musical communication, of instinctively finding a groove and building the intensity. Three-minute songs are stretched out to 10 minutes without any sense of overindulgence. These players were having a blast and the audience knew it, cheering them on with near-religious zeal. Those lucky enough to have been at the Fillmore West on March 5, 6 or 7 won the nightlife lottery. Thankfully, those three nights were preserved. Play the records in order – Curtis first, then Franklin – and don’t dwell on how a stupid, senseless tragedy robbed us of so much more. It breaks your heart to hear just how alive King Curtis was five months before his death. Enjoy what there is. Breathe in that thick saxophone smoke and dream of what might have been.
She had done whatever it took to raise three sons alone after their father died in an automobile accident in 1961. She demonstrated organs for Hammond, taught at J.R. Reed Music on Congress Avenue and at night played elegant solo piano at local lounges and restaurants.
But what Bobbie Nelson really hungered for, especially after her boys had grown up and moved out by the early 1970s, was to play again with her brother Willie. The pair had forged an undeniable musical bond since she was 6 and Willie was 4 and their grandparents showed them the chords to “The Great Speckled Bird.”
Then one day in early 1973, Bobbie got a call from Willie, summoning her to New York to play piano on his gospel album “The Troublemaker.” Willie had just signed a deal with Atlantic Records that gave him the creative control, including choice of session players, that had been denied him in Nashville.
So at age 42, empty-nester Bobbie Nelson took her very first airplane flight and embarked on a glorious musical journey that is still en route. Willie and ” Sister Bobbie,” as she’s known in the extended Nelson family, have been musical partners for an incredible 70 years.
“There’s just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family,” Willie Nelson said last week from the tour bus he shares with his sister. “Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, I’ve had Sister Bobbie right there.”
While Brother Willie has become a major music icon, as instantly recognizable as anyone on the planet, Sister Bobbie has happily remained in the shadow, except for the one spotlight turn – usually “Down Yonder” from “Red-Headed Stranger” – she gets at each Willie Nelson and the Family concert. “I’ve always been very shy,” said Bobbie. “I sang a little when we were kids, mostly in church. But Willie had such a beautiful voice. I’d always tell him, ‘you sing, Willie, and I’ll play the piano.'”
This week , 76-year-old Bobbie stepped out of the background with her first solo album, “Audiobiography,” titled so because it’s the story of her life through the songs she’s played. “I’ve always expressed myself best through music,” she said recently at the Pedernales recording studio owned by her son Freddy Fletcher. “I remember when I got my first piano. I thought, ‘I’ll never be lonely again.'”
Not that there weren’t painfully trying times in the devout Christian’s life. She lost two of her three sons, Michael to leukemia and Randy in a car crash, in a six-month period in 1989. “Me and my three boys grew up together, and we had so much fun … and then to lose two of your three babies, well, it’s something you never get over,” Bobbie said. “It taught me to never take life for granted.” Another reminder came in March, when Bobbie underwent heart surgery to insert a pacemaker.
“I’ve never been so happy as this past April 15,” Bobbie said with a smile as radiant as Willie’s. “That’s when I flew to L.A. and joined up with the band. It’s just the most wonderful therapy in the world to play with Willie.” She said that sometimes when she’s away from Willie for more than a couple weeks, she gets a cold and feels worn down.
“Audiobiography” contains 10 piano instrumentals, bookended by a pair of Willie Nelson originals. It’s just Willie and Bobbie on those two new tunes, just like on their tour bus, where Bobbie slides a keyboard from the bottom of an adjoining bunk and Willie pulls out a guitar whenever inspiration hits. Even after two and a half hours on stage, the brother and sister – whose ages add to 150 – will often play gospel standards or work out new songs on the Honeysuckle Rose IV bus as it hurtles through the deep darkness between gigs.
It will also be just Willie and Bobbie on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” Tuesday and “The Tonight Show” Wednesday, as the younger brother has pledged to promote his sister’s album however he can. “It’s long overdue,” Willie said. “Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”
Bobbie Lee, born on the first day of 1931, and Willie Hugh, born April 30, 1933, were children of the Depression. Their biological parents were a pair of married teenagers who had recently moved from Arkansas to Abbott, a farming community about 70 miles south of Dallas. But Bobbie and Willie were raised by their paternal grandparents, whom they called Mama and Daddy.
“Daddy Nelson was the sweetest person I’ve ever known,” Bobbie said. “He had the most gorgeous tenor voice.” A proficient player of stringed instruments, Daddy Nelson taught Willie how to play guitar, while Mama Nelson, who lived to be in her 90s, showed Bobbie how to play piano. “It was just so amazing to us that I could play one part and Willie could play another and together we had a song. We’d look at each other and our eyes would light up.”
After Daddy Nelson died when Willie was 7 and Bobbie was 9, the brother and sister took to tunes, both spiritual and secular, to soothe their sorrow. “Playing music made us realize that there was something bigger out there, something more than human life,” she said.
They played together for hours every day, and on Sundays they played and sang at the Abbott Methodist Church (which Willie bought in July 2006 when he heard prospective buyers had planned to move it to another town). Bobbie, who could read music at age 6, also played at other churches in the area. When she was 16, she met 21-year-old ex-GI Bud Fletcher at a revival at Vaughn Methodist Church, near Hillsboro. The couple married a few months later, while Bobbie was a senior at Abbott High. “I’d kiss my husband goodbye every morning then get on the school bus,” she recalled.
Seeing so much talent in his new bride and the brother she called “Hughtie,” Fletcher organized a western swing dance band around them – Bud Fletcher and the Texans. A non-musician in the beginning, Fletcher took on the role of emcee, adding a Bob Willsian “Ah-HA” to hot solos, introducing band members and pumping up the crowd. He eventually learned to play bass fiddle and then the drums.
“Bud was one of those outgoing guys who could talk to anyone,” Bobbie said. “And he was a fabulous dancer.”
Bobbie became pregnant with Randy when she was 19; by age 23 she had three sons and was still playing in her husband’s band. But too many nights in a roadhouse were wearing Fletcher down. “Bud was a great person and we loved each other very much, but he was having a rough time,” she said. “That’s why, to this day, I hate alcohol. I’m so glad Willie doesn’t drink anymore.”
The young parents of three small boys also had very little money. In 1955, Bud’s parents went to court to get custody of Randy, Michael and Freddy and won. “Bud’s father was the road commissioner of Hill County and had a lot of influence,” Bobbie said. “They tried to portray me as unfit because I played honky tonk piano. It just broke my heart.”
Bobbie said she had a nervous breakdown after losing her children.
“The Fletchers hated the Nelsons,” said Freddy Fletcher. “They looked down on musicians and blamed my mother for getting my father involved, when in reality it was his idea to start a band.”
After she gave up the nightlife, took bookkeeping courses and got a job with the Hammond organ company in Fort Worth, Bobbie got her sons back after a year with their grandparents. She later divorced Fletcher and remarried, but that union ended in divorce after a few years, as did her third and final marriage in the late 1960s.
While Bobbie’s life revolved around her three sons, Willie had hit the jackpot as a Nashville songwriter. In 1961, three of his compositions were big country hits: “Hello Walls” by Faron Young, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Billy Walker.
“I was just so proud of him,” Bobbie said. “People got tired of hearing me say ‘my brother Willie wrote that one’ whenever one of his songs came on the radio.”
It was Bobbie, not Willie, who moved to Austin first. She came down from Fort Worth in 1965 to demonstrate a Hammond organ for the El Chico restaurant set to open at the spanking new Hancock Center. Impressed by her interpretations of such standards as “Stardust” and “Laura,” as well as her boogie-woogie and swing numbers, the owners offered Bobbie a job playing nightly. She later opened the Chariot Inn in North Austin and played regularly at the Lakeway Inn.
“When Willie called me (in 1973) to come to New York, I was ready,” Bobbie said. “I was always playing the piano, using music to survive, so I never got rusty.”
Although Willie and producer Arif Mardin had blocked out five days at Atlantic studio, Bobbie would be needed only the first day, when “The Troublemaker” was knocked out in ten hours. The next day, Willie was back with his band to record what would become “Shotgun Willie.” Bobbie had planned to do some shopping and then head home to Austin. “They must’ve missed me,” Bobbie said, “because when I stopped by the studio the next day, Willie asked me to stick around and play the piano some more.” Sister Bobbie has been with the Family ever since.
Willie said there’s an instinctive connection between him and his sister that he doesn’t feel with any other musician. “She knows what I’m going to do even before I do sometimes,” he said with a laugh.
In 1976, Willie bought Bobbie an $85,000 Bosendorfer grand piano like the one she played on “Red Headed Stranger.” But when IRS agents seized Willie’s property in 1990 to help satisfy a $16.7 million tax lien, Bobbie’s piano was among the Pedernales studio contents auctioned off.
Friends of the Nelsons bought the Bosendorfer and gave it back to Bobbie. It’s the piano she plays so exquisitely on “Audiobiography” and all of Willie’s records.
The brother and sister have never had an argument, Bobbie said, even after she was awakened by police in Louisiana in September 2006 and charged, with Willie and three others, with possession of a pound and a half of marijuana and three ounces of psychedelic mushrooms. The prim and proper churchgoer has never used drugs, but since they were found on the bus she was traveling in, Bobbie was cited with the others. “All I knew was that if Willie was going to jail, they’d have to take me to jail, too,” she said. But Willie and company were issued only misdemeanor citations and sent on their way.
In the mid-’70s, when “Red Headed Stranger” hit and the parties and groupies got crazy, Bobbie didn’t ride with Willie and the band but flew to gigs and stayed in hotels. But she’s traveled with Willie since 1983 and has learned to tolerate the ever-present illegal perfume.
“I think he smokes (marijuana) too much,” Bobbie said, “but that’s just because I’m worried about his health.” Willie said his sister’s physical well-being is also foremost in his mind. “We were all very concerned (in March), but she has great doctors and they caught the problem early,” he said.
If any two people deserve to live forever, they are Bobbie and Willie Nelson, who have filled the air with beautiful music and helped whomever they could . But one day, one of them will have to go on without the other, a prospect neither Willie nor Bobbie wants to face.
“Every day is so precious,” Bobbie said. “Every time I play with Willie is a gift. We are just so blessed to be still doing what we’re doing after all these years.”
In a small Texas town in the 1930s, a 6-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother learned the power and magic of making music together. And they’ve been doing it ever since.
When Henry Lebermann was 6 years old in 1879, his mother, Alice Marie, born and raised in the French Quarter of New Orleans, took him from their home in Galveston to visit her parents’ native Paris. What a glorious time it must have been in young Henry’s life, meeting relatives he didn’t know he had and discovering that there was so much more to the world than Texas.
The next year, the boy was stricken with spinal meningitis, which left him completely blind. Without the ability to read music as he played, it seemed impossible that Henry would equal the musical accomplishments of his father, noted Galveston composer and music professor Heinrich August Lebermann. But Henry Lebermann, the grandfather of late Austin City Council veteran Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., in many ways surpassed the high standard set by his father.
As a music teacher and orchestra leader at the Texas School for the Blind from 1901 to 1938, Henry Lebermann had a positive influence on such students as Fred Lowery, “the King of the Whistlers” of the Big Band era; legendary sheriff Pat Garrett’s daughter Elizabeth Garrett, who would go on to write the state song of New Mexico; and country songwriter Leon Payne, who wrote “Lost Highway” for Hank Williams, among other classics.
But perhaps Lebermann’s most wide-reaching musical contribution was when he, assisted by his sighted wife, Virginia, transcribed scratchy field recordings for John A. Lomax, setting such standards as “Home on the Range,” “Git Along Lil Dogies” and “The Old Chisholm Trail” into sheet music for the first time. Those songs and 25 others transcribed by the couple were collected for posterity in the landmark 1910 Lomax songbook “Cowboys Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.”
The longtime organist for the Central Christian Church at 12th and Guadalupe streets, Lebermann was a well-known Austin figure who was often seen walking to and from his home on East 23rd Street and the Texas School for the Blind at 45th Street and North Lamar Boulevard, more than three miles away. He’d meet his co-worker R.M. Perrenot at 30th and Guadalupe streets each morning, and they’d walk together the rest of the way.
“Lowell Jr. was only about 2 when his grandfather Henry died and so had no clear personal memories of him,” said Lois Pattie, who was Lowell H. Lebermann Jr.’s personal assistant from 1982 until about five years ago. “But he always spoke of him with pride, particularly in relation to his having played the organ at the Paramount Theatre during the Depression.” Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., who passed away in July 2009, was instrumental in the efforts to restore the Paramount in the 1970s.
Before he was a teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann was a student there, enrolled in 1883 at age 10 and graduating in 1894. At that time, the school was located at the University of Texas “Little Campus” in what is now known as the Arno Nowotny Building next to the Erwin Center. The current location was built in 1917 on 73 donated acres.
During his time as a student, Lebermann benefited from the leadership of Superintendent Frank Rainey, who emphasized musical training as a way for the blind to make a living and appealed to the board to spend money on instruments.
Rainey also encouraged innovative instructional methods and was overjoyed when one of his young teachers, Elizabeth Sthreshley, invented a Braille typewriter called the punctograph in 1890. Four years later, she married noted Congress Avenue photographer George Townsend and would assist him in his work with new X-ray technology.
Disaster in Galveston
After graduation, Lebermann moved back to Galveston and then to nearby Alvin to become a farmer. Besides music, Lebermann had a lifelong passion for growing and tended a vibrantly colorful garden until his death from congestive heart failure at age 68 in 1941.
In 1900, a hurricane destroyed Galveston, killing Lebermann’s father and brother Lee. According to a 1937 Austin Statesman article, Henry Lebermann and another blind farmer spent seven days with water up to their waists, with no food, abandoned by their terrified hired hand.
With a heart heavy with grief, Lebermann went back to the place in Austin that had been his home, his musical training ground, for 11 years. But this time, he would be an educator and leader. Kristi Sprinkle, a historian of the school, found records that Lebermann gave a classical music recital at the school in January 1901 and lectured on the life and work of Chopin in March of that year.
The school orchestra he led was one of the finest in Austin and was hired in 1904 to play a concert at Central Christian Church welcoming new students to UT. There, a 33-year-old Lebermann met an 18-year-old church member named Virginia Carrington, whose father, Leonidas, owned the prosperous L.D. Carrington and Co. retail business on Congress Avenue.
After a year’s courtship, Henry and Virginia were married. Son Lowell was born in 1906, with daughters Virginia and Jeanne soon following. As the family grew, the Lebermanns moved out of a house at 902 Manor Road and into a bigger place at 906 E. 23rd St., where they lived for almost 20 years. Both houses were torn down when the university expanded east.
In 1929, the family moved to 3110 Walling Drive, in the same North Campus neighborhood where the Lomax family lived.
The subject of a 1994 master’s thesis by Baylor student Kelly Stott entitled “The Emerging Woman,” Virginia Leberman (1886-1968), who went with a one “n” spelling, was shown to be a progressive thinker and painter who spent summers at the Taos, N.M., artist community as early as the 1930s. She also co-owned the successful Christianson-Leberman Photography business at a time when female entrepreneurship was rare. Among the subjects she photographed were Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.
“We are perhaps more properly balanced than most married people,” Virginia Leberman told The Dallas Morning News in a 1925 profile of her husband with the headline “Blind Genius at State Capital.” “Each approves so entirely of the actions of the other that there is no friction in our home.”
Encouraged to follow her artistic and philosophical pursuits, Virginia Leberman was new age before the term was invented.
“This social grande dame was quite bohemian to her core,” Stott observed of Virginia’s fascination with the Pueblo Indians and their customs and beliefs.
When he accepted UT’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000, Lowell Lebermann Jr., who was blinded after a shooting accident at age 12, credited his grandmother with expanding his cultural curiosity. “I’d go by the studio behind her house, and she’d be beating a tom-tom, breathing deeply and chanting,” he said. “How many grandmothers that you know do that sort of thing?”
In correspondence with Stott, Virginia Leberman’s friend Lady Bird Johnson recalled the night of a full moon in New Mexico, when Virginia asked their driver to pull over so they could get out and take in the view. “It was a high moment filled with respect for our surroundings and an experience that was a typical part of Virginia Leberman’s personality.”
Although it was prevalent in that era of raging anti-German sentiments during World War I to alter a name to sound less German, it’s not known if Virginia dropped the second “n” for her children’s surname as well for that reason. But Henry Lebermann kept the original spelling, perhaps in homage to his beloved father, as well as his first teacher at the School for the Blind, Edmund Ludwig of Heidelberg. Though his father, prominent Commerce doctor Lowell Sr., used just one “n,” Lowell Lebermann Jr. reverted to the original two “n” spelling after college and was “Lebermann” in 1971 when first elected to three consecutive terms on the City Council.
In returning to the School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann may have hoped to have the same impact on his charges as Ludwig had on him. One such student was Fred Lowery, a native of Palestine in East Texas who was blinded at age 2 by scarlet fever. Lowery came to the school in 1917 at age 7 and took to the musical training with dreams of becoming a concert violinist.
In his autobiography, “Whistling In the Dark,” Lowery recalls a “long, fatherly talk” he had with Lebermann about the steep odds facing a blind classical musician. “Here at the Blind School we can make music together because we use a system designed for the sightless,” Lowery quotes Lebermann (blind musicians received their cues from the tapping of the leader’s baton). “Sighted musicians are trained in a different system. They play by sight, reading the score, watching the conductor. Their system and our system won’t mix.”
Although the reality check discouraged him, Lowery credited Lebermann with sending him on the path of being a big-band whistler. Having noticed Lowery whistling around school, Lebermann asked him to stay after band rehearsal one day. “I think we could use your whistle in the orchestra,” Lebermann said, astounding Lowery, who had never heard of such instrumentation. But Lebermann said he heard tones that suggested Lowery could mimic the sound of a piccolo, which the orchestra didn’t have. Lebermann craved a piccolo sound on the John Philip Sousa marches that were crowd favorites.
Lowery went on to a great career as a whistler, making his name in the 1930s with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, whose arranger was a trombone player named Glenn Miller. Perhaps best known for whistling the theme to “Lassie” and his TV duets with Bing Crosby, Lowery was a virtuoso who perfected the double-note whistle and performed such complex material as “The William Tell Overture.” (Hear samples of Lowery’s whistling with this story at austin360.com/music.)
Entering the School for the Blind in 1923 was Leon Payne from the Northeast Texas town of Alba. Under the tutelage of Lebermann and other teachers, Payne (1917-1969) became proficient in guitar, keyboards, trombone and drums and joined Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys just three years after graduating.
As a solo artist, Payne had a No. 1 country hit in 1949 with “I Love You Because,” written for his wife, Myrtie, a former classmate at the School for the Blind he reconnected with and married in 1948. Payne is best known today as a songwriter, penning big hits for Hank Williams (“They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me”), Jim Reeves (“Blue Side of Lonesome”), Carl Smith (“You Are the One”) and many more. Elvis Presley recorded “I Love You Because” at one of his first sessions with Sun Records.
As a teacher, your students’ success becomes your own, in a way. But as a musician and scholar, Lebermann left his own legacy. Among his compositions were “Spring Song” and “The Blue Bonnet Song,” but his invaluable preservation work with John A. Lomax deserves special citation in this 100th anniversary year of “Cowboy Songs.”
Lomax first heard “Home on the Range” in 1908 from a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio who had been a camp cook on the Chisholm Trail for years. Lomax lugged an old Edison wax cylinder recording machine to record the barkeep. Lomax took the a capella recording to Lebermann, who, according to Lomax’s notes, “used earphones and played the record over and over again until he felt he had captured the music as the Negro saloon keeper had rendered it.” As Lebermann listened and played the piano, Virginia Leberman wrote the notes on sheet music.
“The original cylindrical record of the song has crumbled into dust, but the music that Henry Lebermann set down from the record I made still survives,” Lomax wrote.
According to Stott’s thesis, Virginia Leberman used to say that “a great mind is always humble and curious.” It was an adage lived out by her and her husband and passed on to their children and grandchildren.
Henry Lebermann was blind, but not before he saw Paris. In darkness he created his own “City of Light” in a town he loved. As a conductor of music and life he led in the most meaningful way — by example.
GOSPEL PIONEER DRANES LEARNED TO PLAY IN AUSTIN
New evidence shows that Arizona Dranes, the blind Pentecostal piano player who inspired everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Jerry Lee Lewis, attended the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths at 4104 Bull Creek Road from 1896 until graduating in 1910. Let that sink in for a sec: The first person to ever play piano on a gospel record, the musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe credited with influencing her raucous, syncopated style, learned how to play in Austin.
Dranes remains virtually unknown today, with only a single blurry photo ever found, but she’s celebrated by prewar gospel and blues enthusiasts.
“Arizona Dranes is the most important performer for introducing ‘hot’ piano style to African American gospel music,” says Grammy-winning music historian David Evans. The first musical star of the Church of God in Christ, a Memphis-based Pentecostal sect that emphasized foot-stomping music in the styles of secular music, Dranes and her lost-in-the-spirit outbursts laid the blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll.
Her first music teacher in Austin was a Miss B.M. Boyd. Her last here was Lizzie B. Wells. Also teaching Drane (the “s” would be tacked on later) in other subjects at the institute was Mattie B. White, a noted educator and painter, who had earlier founded the first private school for African American girls in Austin in 1892.
Until recently, the only known evidence that put Dranes in the Austin school was a 1910 census, which listed her age as 19. Though that document disproved accepted biographical information that Dranes was a mere 21 when she invented “the gospel beat” with recordings for Okeh Records in 1926, it doesn’t show that Dranes attended school here from kindergarten through high school.
That jewel of information came just a couple months ago when Kristi Sprinkle, a Web administrator for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, found the official enrollment record for the 1896-1897 school year, which lists “Arizona Drane” of Sherman as a student.
Not much is known of Dranes’ whereabouts from her graduation in 1910 until the early 1920s, though at some point she fell in with Hillsboro-raised singing preacher Ford Washington “F.W.” McGee. Dranes is believed to have helped McGee establish a Church of God in Christ in Oklahoma City circa 1920. McGee later presided over a pair of revival tents in Chicago, where he and his Jubilee Singers backed up Dranes on five of her landmark recordings.
Dranes had been living in Dallas (not Fort Worth, as has been written) in the State-Thomas neighborhood when she was discovered by a traveling Okeh talent scout in early 1926. At the time, most gospel performances were vocal only or accompanied by guitar, but Dranes stood out with her Holy Ghost-fueled piano.
All six sides recorded on June 16, 1926, were released, including a sanctified ragtime instrumental called “Crucifixion,” which has greatly influenced generations of gospel keyboardists. The follow-up session in November 1926, with the backing of McGee’s group (possibly including Tharpe’s mother, Katie Bell Nubin, on mandolin) did even better, producing such stellar spiritual rousers as “He Is My Story” and “Just Look.” Arizona Dranes was the full package, with a voice that quivered with emotion.
Dranes became Okeh’s biggest gospel star almost overnight, but she wasn’t always paid in a timely manner, according to correspondence between Dranes and record execs made available in 1970 to writer Malcolm Shaw. “I’ve only received 50 dollars from you,” she wrote Okeh’s owner in February, 1928, while stricken with an unspecified illness in Memphis. Her deal called for her to be paid $25 per song.
“Of coarse I dident know anything about record making or prices on them and I dident even consult our white friends down here,” reads the letter. “I’m asking that you consider me as I am disable to work now and have to be confined to my room for awhile.” Elmer Fearn, who owned Okeh parent company Consolidated Music Publishing, said he had lost track of Dranes and wired her the $60 she asked for.
Dranes was staying in Sherman, where her family (mother Cora Jones and siblings Milton, Millie, Rome and Bill) lived, when she was beckoned to record in Chicago for the last time in June 1928.
The Depression decimated demand for gritty gospel-blues, but Dranes remained a star on the Church of God in Christ circuit, where she often performed before church founder Bishop Charles Mason.
Although Dranes established such tunes as “I Shall Wear a Crown,” “My Soul’s a Witness for the Lord” and “Lamb’s Blood Has Washed Me Clean” as Church of God in Christ standards, there is no mention of her in the official church biography or one written about the life of Bishop Mason. The name Arizona Dranes brings only puzzled looks from staffers at the Mason Temple in Memphis, where A.J. Dranes wrecked the house 75 years ago.
Dranes died of a stroke on July 27, 1963 at age 72. She had been living at 5219 McKinley Ave. in Los Angeles and attending Emmanuel Church of God in Christ, founded by Rev. Samuel Crouch of Fort Worth. Dranes’ death certificate, listing her occupation as missionary, says she was buried at the Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. But no one knows exactly where Dranes’ body is today.
Investigators discovered in 1995 that the cemetery had reached capacity 10 years earlier, so the owners were digging up bodies in the older sections and reselling plots. The undertakers would also stack bodies in the same plot, often crushing caskets to fit more in.
According to the 1963 burial record, Dranes was laid to rest in section 183, block 4 and lot F-3. According to Warren Clark, a researcher for Find a Grave Inc., that was one of the recycled plots. Dranes’ remains were most likely moved to the mass grave, which was seven feet high and 50 feet wide.
The scandal led to several arrests and widespread cemetery regulation reform.
Still, it’s ghastly to think that one of Texas’ most influential gospel musicians would end up in such a discarded state.
The Austin Music Memorial, which is expected to open when the Long Center does in March 2008, isn’t just an idea that makes sense. In the case of Arizona Dranes, it’s a downright necessity.
BARBARA LYNN’S HAD A GOOD THING GOING
During rehearsals for a November 2008 tribute to Les Paul at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the side of the stage was full of milling guitar greats, including James Burton, Slash, Duane Eddy, Richie Sambora and Lonnie Mack. But when Barbara Lynn took the stage for a blues duet with Billy Gibbons, she became the center of attention.
“She destroyed,” says witness Ira Padros, who has booked Beaumont native Lynn to play his annual Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans since its 2002 inception. “Everybody knows her (early ’60s) hits like ‘You’ll Lose a Good Thing’ and ‘Oh, Baby, We’ve Got a Good Thing Going,’ but until you see her live, you don’t realize what an incredible guitar player she is.”
Picking leads with her thumb while keeping up a strong rhythm with the rest of her left hand, Barbara Lynn Ozen, of Louisiana Creole descent, is a self-taught dynamo who should’ve been bigger yet has no complaints.
“There weren’t really any women playing electric guitar that I knew of coming up,” says Lynn, now 68 and living in Beaumont with her 88-year-old mother, Mildred Richard. “But after I saw Elvis Presley on the TV when I was just a kid, I just wanted to play the guitar so bad.”
After she started off with a right-handed ukulele, her factory-worker parents finally saved up enough money to buy her a Gibson electric guitar down at Swicegood Music in Beaumont. “They had to special order a left-handed guitar, so I had to wait,” Lynn says. “Longest three months of my life.”
At Hebert High School, she dropped her last name for good and formed a band called Bobbie Lynn and Her Idols, whose versions of Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” and “Sweet Nothings” by Brenda Lee always tore it up. But Lynn was also filling her notebook with song lyrics, which she would set to music with her guitar in her bedroom at night. Lynn had a boyfriend named Sylvester, and when she found out he was cheating on her, she wrote the bluesy, soulful pop number “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.”
After graduating from high school, Lynn started playing clubs in the Golden Triangle (Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange), where she studied Guitar Slim and traded licks with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Another friend on the circuit, singer Joe Barry, who had a 1960 hit with “I’m a Fool to Care,” brought her to the attention of Houston-based producer Huey P. Meaux.
“Joe told Huey, ‘there’s a black girl over here playing electric guitar that you’ve gotta see,'” Lynn recalls. Meaux caught the 19-year-old at the Palomino Club on the Louisiana border and cut “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” with her at Cosimo Matassas’ studio in New Orleans the next week. When Philadelphia’s Jamie Records picked it up, the record became a national smash in 1962, knocking Ray Charles out of the No. 1 slot on the R&B charts.
“Oh, boy, that was something!” Lynn remembers of the time Beaumont topped Billboard. “I went out on tour with all the big acts — Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye. I met Michael Jackson when he was nine years old.” Lynn’s mother quit her job at the box factory to look after her daughter, still a choir member of Our Mother of Mercy Church, and once reportedly shooed away a drug deal going down backstage.
“My dad thought I was too young to go on tour by myself, and he was right,” Lynn says.
Aretha Franklin covered “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” in 1964, and a version by Freddy Fender, also produced by Meaux, made it to No. 1 on the country chart in 1975. But Lynn’s time in the spotlight was short.
She married an Army man from back home in 1970, while he was on leave from Vietnam. After her husband died of emphysema, leaving her with three small children to raise, Lynn put her career aside. “I’d play a club here and there in L.A.,” she says, but she hadn’t recorded since 1968.
Protégés unknown to Lynn at the time kept alive the songs, including “I’m a Good Woman” (which was sampled by Moby in 2002). When Lynn made her Austin debut in the mid-’80s, after Port Arthur’s Clifford Antone tracked her down, seemingly every blues musician and R&B collector in town was crammed into the club at 2915 Guadalupe St.
“They knew all my songs,” she says of both the house band and the singing-along crowd. “That shocked me, but then I found out that Lou Ann (Barton) and Sarah Brown and Marcia Ball and Angela (Strehli) had been doing my songs for years. I love those girls.”
With eight grandchildren, Barbara Lynn can still wail on guitar, still draw chicken skin when she sings ballad/blues numbers such as “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Her fan Sharon Jones is trying to make a new record with Lynn on Daptone Records in New York. And there are always calls from promoters in Europe, where Lynn is especially popular.
“I can’t leave for too long ’cause I got to care for my mother,” she says. Padros calls Lynn “one of the most genuinely sweet people you’ll ever meet.” Lynn moved back to Beaumont 20 years ago, after her second husband, a Los Angeles salesman, died of a heart attack.
“Beaumont is home,” she says. “I feel like I belong here.”
“The Empress of Gulf Coast Soul” will be honored Thursday at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center with a Star of Texas Folklife award. Also receiving Stars will be fiddle great Johnny Gimble and accordion master Santiago Jiménez Jr. The event is a benefit for Texas Folklife, an organization that has promoted Texas roots music for 25 years. Classy and soulful Barbara Lynn, meanwhile, has made Texas proud for almost 50 years.
THE GANTS: AUSTIN’S FIRST FAMILY OF SONG
It sure seemed quiet for 10 a.m. on a weekday, when John A. Lomax, who recorded folk songs for the Library of Congress, knocked on the front door of a six-room shanty on the northern bank of the Colorado River. Maggie Gant answered, still in her bedclothes. The children were still asleep, the mother of eight whispered.
“Last night we all got to singing and dancing. We didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning,” she told Lomax, which he recalled in “Our Singing Country,” his 1941 book that contained four songs collected from the Gants.
“The singing kept us so happy,” Maggie Gant told Lomax, “we couldn’t go to sleep.”
It was 1934, during the depths of the Depression, but the Gant family of dispossessed sharecroppers was rich in music.
Lomax, a former University of Texas administrator, and his son Alan made more than 40 primitive recordings of the Gant family, whose vast repertoire ranged from jailhouse ballads and play ditties to cowboy songs and minstrel tunes.
The most prominent of those, in retrospect, was “When First Unto This Country a Stranger I Came,” which Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang live and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded in 1993. They all learned it from the 1960s folkies the New Lost City Ramblers, who heard it from the Gants.
Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother) of the Ramblers and his sister Peggy knew the song growing up, as their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, transcribed and archived the songs the Lomaxes recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1930s.
If Maggie Gant and her 17-year-old daughter, Foy, hadn’t sung the tragic song about a jilted lover-turned-horse thief into the Lomaxes’ acetate phonograph disk recorder, it almost certainly would’ve been lost forever.
The Lomax family, based in Austin, lived to keep such songs of the working-class people alive, lugging their 315-pound disk-cutting machine to prison work camps, Cajun settlements, fishing villages, cattle ranches, the hills of Kentucky, the Rio Grande Valley and even Haiti to find words and music that told the story of a culture.
With the Gant family of singers, led by mother Maggie (father George wasn’t very musical), the Lomaxes found a treasure in their own backyard.
In a note in the Lomax family papers, archived at UT’s Center for American History, John Lomax wrote, “The Gant family in Austin, Texas has a repertoire of about two hundred genuine folk-songs. We only had just begun the job of recording these tunes when we left town.”
The Lomaxes recorded only a fraction of the Gants’ material before they took off to manage and tour with their great discovery Leadbelly, yet it’s a body of work that puts the Gants as “among the most important informants on traditional music that no one’s ever heard of,” said Minnesota musician/folklorist Lyle Lofgren.
The family’s list of songs passed down was “astoundingly broad,” Lofgren said. “It included many rare versions of archaic British ballads, the sort you might expect to find, if you were lucky, in some remote holler of the Appalachians, but probably not in Austin.”
The mystery behind the music has made the Gants’ story all the more intriguing. Even the Library of Congress, which keeps a thin file of info on the Gants, did not know until a few months ago that one member of the family, 86-year-old Ella Gant, was still alive and living in Utah.
But the biggest question has always been this: Where did this family of Mormons, originally from East Texas, learn some extremely rare songs of so many different styles?
A clue came with the family’s recently discovered genealogy, which daughter Foy Gant Kent registered with the Mormon church before she died in Houston in 2008 at age 90. Maggie Gant’s maternal grandmother, Lavinia “Lucy” Brown, was born in Wales, “the Land of Song,” which has a rich ballad tradition.
Maggie’s mother, Sarah Reeves, was born and raised in the Tennessee mountains but moved to Texas before Maggie was born in the East Texas town of Lone Oak in 1893. Lavinia Brown Reeves, the Welsh wellspring from which the songs most likely came, died in Grayson County, about 60 miles north of Dallas, in 1899.
Austin’s first family of song
The Gant family’s path to Austin can be charted according to where the children were born, starting with oldest son Nephi in the Northeast Texas town of Mineola in 1913.
The next four — Ether, Foy, Adoniron and Ella — were born just a few miles south of Mineola, when the family lived in Kelsey, the largest Mormon colony in the state.
Georgia came next in Altus, Okla., in 1925, and the youngest, Trovesta Mae, was born in 1929 in the Texas Panhandle town of Shamrock, from which the family moved to Austin after a severe drought dried up farm work. It’s unknown when and where Glida Koch, Maggie’s daughter from an earlier marriage, was born.
George, Maggie and the kids arrived in Austin in 1933 looking for work and, according to Lomax, went on relief at times.
The two oldest kids, Glida and Nephi, started families and lived together in a house at 1115 E. Third St. The rest of the family lived in the riverside shack where the recordings were made, about a half-mile west of Deep Eddy Pool.
In her 2008 memoir “Sing It Pretty,” daughter Bess Lomax Hawes, who was 12 when she met the Gants, recalled that the family’s house on the river was constantly being flooded. “But that old river never could stop the flow of their extraordinary repertory of Anglo-American balladry and folksong.”
The Gants recorded only for the Lomaxes, in four sessions spread out over two years. Then World War II hit, acetate previously used for field recordings was restricted to the war effort, and the Gant family split time between Houston, where there were jobs in the Ship Channel, and San Angelo, where the parents moved with their three youngest. Maggie and the kids never recorded together again after 1936.
But Austin’s first family of song didn’t stop singing. Maggie’s grandson Edward Gant recalls Friday night folk song sessions in Houston led by Foy and her brothers Ether and Ado, as Adoniron was called. “There was music at every family gathering,” said Ether’s son Edward, who owns a Houston architectural firm.
Tim Gadd of Houston has a box full of cassettes of his grandfather Ado, who died in 2005 at age 84, singing and playing the guitar. Several of the recordings feature duets with Ado and Ether, who both worked as welders and married sisters. But after Ether died in a 1977 car accident, Ado mainly recorded himself playing along with singers on TV.
Ella Gant McBride’s granddaughter Julie Johnson said her grandma wrote songs about each of her granddaughters. “The last time I saw her she broke into the ‘Julie’ song as her greeting to me,” said Johnson, who lives in Florida. McBride, who broke her hip two months ago when she went out dancing, according to granddaughter Marianne Hewlett of El Paso, was not up to being interviewed for this story.
Senseless loss of a life strikes
‘a lovin’ bunch of poor people’
The Lomax family background — patriarch John got his master’s degree in the arts from Harvard University — was different from the Gants’, but they had the Great Depression in common.
Although he made his mark as a folklorist with his 1910 anthology “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,” John Lomax had moved on to other pursuits and was working for a bank in Dallas during the 1929 stock market crash, which left him unemployed.
Even worse, his wife Bess died in 1931, leaving him with two school-age children to raise.
Oldest son John Jr. encouraged his father, then 65, to get back into “ballad hunting,” a passion born from the cowboy songs Lomax heard growing up on a ranch in Bosque County, about 40 miles north of Waco.
Things began looking up. In 1933, John and an 18-year-old Alan Lomax began collecting songs for the Library of Congress, which named John Lomax the head curator of its Archive of American Folk Songs. The next year, John Lomax married Ruby Terrill, UT’s dean of women, and the Lomax family moved into the house Terrill owned at 400 E. 34th St.
The Library of Congress provided the Lomaxes with a bulky recording machine, which fit into the family’s Ford after the back seats were removed. Superior to the old wax cylinder recorders, the new machine cut grooves onto a disk as the songs were sung, giving the singers all the reward they wanted when Lomax played back the record they’d just made.
According to John Lomax biographer Nolan Portfield, the Lomaxes became aware of the Gants through budding folklorist John Henry Faulk, then a 21-year-old UT classmate of Alan Lomax’s. Soon the Gants were starting to become well-known to many in the Austin area and proudly accepted an invitation to play at the State’s Centennial Celebration in Dallas in 1936.
But earlier that year, tragedy hit the singing family hard. Oldest boy Nephi, 22, was murdered on Feb. 1 after a fight at Ollie’s Place at the corner of East Fourth and Waller streets.
According to a never-published story by Alan Lomax, Nephi, who had two hungry babies at home, had gone to the beer joint to try to borrow money from a bartender friend or “maybe he could pick up a few nickels singing … because he was the best singer in the family.”
At Ollie’s, Nephi was challenged to fight by a man who’d just gotten out of prison 24 hours earlier and was “already crazy drunk and looking for trouble,” according to Alan Lomax. Nephi got the best of 21-year-old Howard Armstrong, who went out to his car, got a gun and shot Nephi in the head through the glass door. Sporting a black eye, Armstrong turned himself in to police the next day and claimed self-defense.
But the jury deliberated less than an hour before convicting Armstrong and sentencing him to 30 years in prison.
At Nephi’s funeral, Alan Lomax noted that the family “cried so much that their eyes and cheeks were red with salt burn.” Calling the Gants “a lovin’ bunch of poor people,” Lomax wrote of the incredible pain they surely felt at losing a brother, a son.
“They knew what it was like to be hungry and cold and not have a place to call home; but they’d been strong under all this suffering and sorrow because they loved each other so much.”
After her children’s father, George, died in 1943, Maggie Gant remarried twice and eventually moved to Arizona, where she ran a trailer court. She died in 1977 in Houston and, according to Mormon records, is buried in the same cemetery in San Angelo as George Gant.
Lofgren, the Minnesota folklorist, said the Gant family singers had “arrived seemingly from nowhere and disappeared again, at least as far as the folk song community was concerned.”
In fact, only in recent months did most of the Gants’ descendants discover the extent of the family’s influence.
“For so many years we kinda thought that Grandma’s stories about her family being recorded were, ya know, exaggerations, tall Texas tales,” said Johnson, who recently contacted the Library of Congress and was stunned to receive in the mail several discs of recordings made by her grandmother Ella’s family. “Now we are wondering if all the other crazy stories are also true.”
FREDDY FENDER: EL COMEBACK KID
originally published in 2004
When Doug Sahm recorded “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” on his 1971 Tex-Mex roots project “The Return of Doug Saldana,” the track opened with a salute to the man who wrote it. “And now a song by the great Freddy Fender,” Sahm said, his voice drenched in echo. “Freddy, this is for you, wherever you are.”
At the time, Fender was back in San Benito, where he was born Baldemar Huerta on June 4, 1937, working as an auto mechanic and playing beer joints in the Rio Grande Valley on weekends.
A teenaged Sahm used to follow Fender, billed as “El Be-Bop Kid,” all around Texas in the late ’50s. But the pair, who would comprise one half of the Texas Tornados in the ’90s, didn’t meet up again until 1974.
Rediscovering the voice of the Valley, Sahm convinced Fender that a nice payday awaited him at the Soap Creek Saloon, off Bee Cave Road in West Austin. To ensure a full house, Sahm opened the show.
When Fender arrived to see a group of longhairs in cowboy hats outside passing joints, he was apprehensive. But the audience’s jubilation at hearing songs that were merely regional hits more than a decade earlier persuaded a buoyed Fender to refocus on a music career. Maybe there was a new, young white audience out there that wanted to hear his mix of gritty bar band rockers and romantic bilingual ballads, delivered with a quivering vibrato.
Fender also reconnected with Houston producer Huey P. Meaux, who quickly signed him to his Crazy Cajun label. Although Fender and Meaux originally intended to make a Chicano R&B album, the producer had found a country song that was perfect for Fender’s delicate vocal style. “I don’t want nothing to do with country,” Fender said when he heard a demo of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” But after about half an hour of arm-twisting, Meaux convinced Fender to cut it.
The single was released in January ’75 and shot up the country charts, staying at No. 1 for two weeks. A true monster smash, the song also topped the pop charts. The follow-up, a re-recording of 1959’s “Wasted Days,” also landed at No. 1 on the Billboard country singles chart and reached No. 8 on the pop chart.
Suddenly, the lisping Latino mechanic was the hottest “new” singer in the country. Billboard named him 1975’s male vocalist of the year. “Teardrop” was also named the single of the year by the Country Music Association.
His recasting as a country balladeer was one of several times that Fender has started over in a career that has taken him from the cantinas to the casinos, county fairs to European festivals, from the slammer to the Grammys.
Saturday night, the 66-year-old will be reborn once again, performing for the first time since undergoing a liver transplant three and a half months ago. Organized by Texas Folklife Resources, the “Freddy Fender: 50 Years Of Music” concert at the Paramount will be a career retrospective.
The talkative and self-effacing singer says his comeback started when he opened his eyes after the Jan. 2 transplant. “The doctors gave me a 50 percent chance of survival and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ If they said there was only a 1 percent chance, I’d still go through with the transplant because it was all I had.”
Fender wrote a letter of appreciation to the parents of the liver donor, “and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Corpus Christi. “Their son died, which allowed me to go on living. That’s deep, man. Even Charles Dickens would have a problem putting all those emotions into words.”
Fender says he’s recently started driving again and has been able to walk his prized pugs around the block, but he’s been unable to play the guitar because the anti-rejection medication makes his hands shake.
“I’m not one to think like ‘poor me,’ ” he says. “I’ve always accepted the ups and downs. Maybe I’ve had to start all over again a few times, but at least I’m not an old cup of stale coffee. I’ve had a few refills.”
Although he didn’t become a star until he was 38, Fender grew up fast. As a child he labored beside his migrant worker parents in the cotton fields of Arkansas and the beet farms of Michigan. Back in San Benito during the winter months, he’d sit outside Pancho Dalvin’s grocery store, plucking a backless, three-string guitar.
At age 10, he made his first radio appearance, singing “Paloma Querida” on KGBS in Harlingen. Figuring the barracks beat the barrio, Fender joined the Marines at age 16 and came out three years later with dreams of becoming the first Chicano rock ‘n’ roll star. His specialty was putting the big hits of the day to Spanish lyrics and, using his real name, he
had a regional hit in 1957 with “No Seas Cruel,” his version of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”
When he signed to Imperial Records, the home of Fats Domino, in 1959, he became “Freddy Fender” after his favorite guitar. “Baldemar Huerta” was, after all, not the sort of name that would flow effortlessly from the tongues of Top 40 disc jockeys. “Just think,” he told an interviewer years later, “if I had been playing a Yamaha guitar, I’d be the number one act in Tokyo.”
While out on tour in May 1960, Fender was arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana in Baton Rouge, La., and sentenced to five years at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. After serving three years, Fender spent the rest of the ’60s singing R&B in the bars of New Orleans, often bumping into the similarly life-hardened balladeer Aaron Neville.
The nightclub lifestyle had its grip on Fender through his successful years and in 1985 his wife Vangie dropped him off at a substance abuse treatment facility. He’s been sober ever since. The needles he shared while using heroin had a lasting effect, however. Fender was diagnosed with hepatitis C in the early ’90s, which had led to health problems. He had a kidney transplant in January 2002; his 21-year-old daughter Marla was the donor.
In recent years, he says the compassion he feels for Vangie, whom he married for the second time in 1975 (they divorced soon after he got out of prison in 1963), has grown significantly. “I feel guilty for how I treated her when I was younger, all the partying, all the lies,” he says, then recounts his audition with Robert Redford for the 1988 movie “The Milagro Beanfield War.”
Asked his acting experience, Fender told the director, “Man, I shoulda won the Academy Award for all the stories I told my wife when I’d come home late and drunk. She believed them.” Fender got the part as the town’s mayor. Meanwhile, the career accolades just keep on coming; the latest just may be Fender’s all-time favorite. The new book “Above and Beyond” lists Fender as one of the Top 100 former Marines who’ve conquered civilian life. It’s an honor that draws howls of laughter from the former hotheaded recruit.
“I’d love to buy a copy for every drill sergeant who kicked my (rear end),” he says.
It’s been a rough life, but also a fulfilling one. Fender’s angel is a waitress, always there to fill up that ol’ cup of joe.
Freddy Fender passed away in October 2006.
THE PRIDE OF EAST AUSTIN: L.C. ANDERSON YELLOW JACKETS
Trumpet players blew so hard to produce the slightest spit of sound that they almost passed out. Drummers snapped their sticks with all the rhythmic sense of a pair of tennis shoes in the dryer. The honks of confusion rang out in the music room on the first day of band practice.
It was 1950 and Austin native Alvin Patterson, a 27-year-old recent graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, sat in his office at Douglass High School in El Paso and wondered what he’d gotten himself into. The school had never had a band before. His thoughts turned to his mentor, B.L. Joyce, the larger-than-life band director at L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin.
Patterson wondered how the man he called “Prof” would handle the situation. He took a deep breath, thrust the door of his office open and stood firmly before his musical beginners, but the dissonance barely dispersed.
THWACK! Patterson brought his baton down hard on a table top. The room froze. “Rule number one,” Patterson intoned, sternly. “When I step up to the podium I want to be able to hear a pin drop.”
Patterson sits in his home office/Anderson High museum in East Austin and smiles at the memory. “I always thought Mr. Joyce was maybe a little too strict until I had to control a room full of kids with noisemakers in their hands,” says the 81-year-old recent retiree. “You’ve gotta demand discipline and respect or there’s gonna be chaos.”
The Anderson High School Yellow Jacket Band, whose lofty alumni include bop trumpet great Kenny Dorham and former Motown arranger Gil Askey, had only two directors in its 38-year history. Joyce founded the band in 1933 and ruled it with an iron baton until Patterson took over in 1955, when the old man was forced to resign because of a new statewide regulation that required high school band directors to have music degrees. That Joyce, who got his college degree in tailoring from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, didn’t step down voluntarily made for a rough return for Patterson.
“We gave (Patterson) some grief that first year,” says Joseph Reid, who played clarinet in Joyce’s last and Patterson’s first bands. “If there was anybody you could call a legend in East Austin during that time, it was B.L. Joyce.” Imagine replacing Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama or taking over “The Tonight Show” after Johnny Carson’s retirement. Several band members quit after Patterson’s first practices. But the 1940 Anderson grad didn’t shy from the challenge and was eventually able to carve his own imposing legacy until federal orders to desegregate closed Anderson, Austin’s historically black high school, in 1971.
Long before Janis Joplin sang at Threadgill’s and Willie Nelson got the heads and ‘necks together at the Armadillo, Austin’s reputation as a music town was forged by the Anderson High School band. Resplendent in uniforms as bright as a September sunrise, the Yellow Jacket Band would trek to the annual Prairie View Interscholastic League competitions and invariably come back with a trophy. Under Joyce’s directorship, the Jacket band won the state championship seven times from 1940-1953.
“If we got second place it was a big disappointment,” says Ernie Mae Miller, a tenor sax player with the band from 1940-43, who went on to a lengthy career as a singer/pianist. “We just sounded better than the other bands. When they called our name as the winner, we were like, ‘Of course!’ ”
For most of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the East Side was invisible to most of Austin’s West Siders. The predominantly black neighborhood on the other side of the freeway might as well have been a town far away. But when the Yellow Jacket Band marched down Congress Avenue, its presence was full and pronounced.
They would span the full width of the street, causing rubberneckers to jump back on the curb or else be swallowed up in their swagger of brass. “We felt like we were representing not only our school, but our entire community,” says Reid, who heads the Original L.C. Anderson Alumni Association. “When we sang our school song (‘When the days are dark and dreary/We are never blue or weary/ It’s ever onward, upward, forward, marching AHS’), we really meant it.”
The Yellow Jackets were the first black band to march at a Texas inauguration, for Gov. John Connally in 1959. They were the first all-black band to play in the Austin Aqua Festival parade a few years later.
Besides Dorham, Miller and Askey, more than two dozen future band directors, including Ray Murphy (Hobbs, N.M.), T.W. Kincheon (Caldwell High), Richard Elder (Taylor High) and John Whitehurst (Boulder, Colo.), passed through the ranks, but then so did such notables as Travis County tax collector Nelda Wells Spears, Dr. James Hill (chief of the University of Texas community relations department), John Q. Taylor King (former Huston-Tillotson College president and head of King Tears Mortuary), longtime H-T music department head Beulah Curry Jones and educator Charles Akins, who became the first black principal of a predominantly white high school in Austin in 1973.
“Teach the whole person. That’s what I learned from Mr. Joyce,” says Patterson, who spent 32 more years in education after the original L.C. Anderson High closed. (The current Anderson High, at 8403 Mesa Drive on the West Side, was built in 1973.) “Being in the band was more than just playing the right notes. It was about building character and leadership skills. If you didn’t toe the line, we’d put you out of the band in a second.”
Jazz turns the tide
A tailor who made custom suits out of his house at 1706 E. 14th St. and taught the trade at Samuel Huston College, Benjamin Leo Joyce was also a musician who played tuba in the Army band during World War I. With a desire to give black students the same kind of musical training given in the white schools, Joyce started canvassing East Austin in late 1932 looking for kids who wanted to play. He also solicited neglected instruments. An Austin trumpeter, William Timmons, had been teaching a community band over at the youth center on Angelina Street but he was soon off to join the Ringling Bros. circus band. Joyce recruited four Timmons students — Alvin Patterson’s older brother Roy, Hermie Edwards, Ulysses Fowler and Raymond Edmondson — as the core of his first AHS band.
Joyce made the uniforms that first year; no beginning band ever looked so snappy.
The players were expected to carry themselves in a manner consistent with their sartorial splendor. “Mr. Joyce didn’t put up with an ounce of foolishness,” says Ernie Mae Miller, whose grandfather Laurine Cecil Anderson was the school’s namesake. “You couldn’t play no jazz either.”
Joyce bent his strict “no jazz” rule only one time that Patterson could remember. “We were playing football against Wheatley (the archrival from San Antonio) and they were beatin’ us,” he recalls. “But even worse, their band was showing us up, playing all these hot big band swing numbers. So Mr. Joyce called me over and said, ‘What was that swing thing you were playing the other day when you thought I was out of listening range?’ I said that was ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s hear it.’ ” The band also did Cab Calloway’s “Fat Foot Flewzy.”
Miller, who was also in the band at the time, recalls that the crowd went nuts when the precise, militaristic Yellow Jackets of marches and grand overtures turned to swing and jazz. “It lit a fire under the football team, too. We ended up winning the game,” she says, with a hearty laugh.
When Patterson was in the band with Dorham and Askey, the trio and such friends as trombonist Buford Banks (father of noted local jazzman Martin Banks) and trumpeters Paris Jones and Warner “Rip” Ross would meet in the back yard of Patterson’s house at 1709 Washington Ave. to play improvisational jazz. Though Dorham went on to iconic status, replacing Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948 and co-founding the influential Jazz Messengers in 1954, he often deferred to the older players in the back yard jam sessions, especially Hermie Edwards, recognized as the baddest horn player in East Austin at the time. “Kenny was quiet, deep,” Patterson recalls. “Very thoughtful and perceptive.”
After being drafted into the Navy in 1942 and stationed in Boston, where his job was playing “Taps” as the body bags from World War II were unloaded, Patterson met up with Dorham when the trumpet player was in Billy Eckstine’s band. “He used to copy Erskine Hawkins when we’d jam in Austin,” Patterson says, “but he started getting into his own thing.”
Dorham, known for his dark trumpet tone and graceful melodic flights, died in 1972. But Patterson was able to hang with him one more time, when Dorham returned home, with fellow native Austinite Teddy Wilson and an all-star cast, including John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Dave Brubeck, to play the 1966 Longhorn Jazz Fest at the old Disch Field (next to City Coliseum).
When Askey made his triumphant return to Austin in the mid-’60s, he brought a trio of singers from Detroit to a party at the Hamilton Avenue home of his mother, Ada Simonds. “Everybody was pretty much focused on the Supremes,” Patterson recalls of the special guests. Askey’s credits include arranging and producing the likes of Curtis Mayfield, the Four Tops and the soundtrack to “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Whatever success Askey achieved, he was quick to credit Joyce. When the old man passed away in 1980, Askey, who currently lives in Australia, wrote a poem called “I Am an Extension of Him” for the funeral program. “Mr. Joyce lives on in the things I do, for without him there’d be no me,” it ends.
The impeccably-dressed, well-spoken Joyce came from an era, Reid says, when educators were bigger heroes in East Austin than footballers or singers. “The legends you heard about growing up were Miss (Lucille) Frazier, the English teacher and Mr. (Lawrence) Britton, the track coach,” says Reid. “Even going back to when I was in elementary school, the older kids would say, ‘Just wait until you’ve gotta take Mr. Pickard’s science class.’ Anderson High was the thread that kept the community together.”
The school was all black until the late ’50s when a handful of Hispanics attended. The first white student to graduate from Anderson was in 1970. The next year, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that favored busing as a preferred method of integration, the federal government sued the Austin school district and ordered district schools to desegregate. As the first federal suit following the Supreme Court decision, the Austin case was a national news story for several months.
AISD’s decision in July 1971 to comply by closing Anderson High, which had fewer than 20 nonblack students (out of a student body of about 800), “just devastated us all,” says Patterson.
The one-way busing — with black students sent to white schools, but white students not sent to black schools — especially rankled East Austinites. On the first day of the new school year, 121 former Anderson High students did not report to their new schools.
“It’s like they ripped the heart out of East Austin,” says Reid. “You wanna know when the neighborhood started going downhill? It’s when they closed Anderson.”
Patterson moved to McCallum High School, where many of the black students were bused, and remained a counselor in the community relations department until 1984, when he took a position as assistant to the dean at St. Edward’s University. He retired last June at age 80. Fittingly, a Juneteenth parade of marching bands ended at Patterson’s doorstep in East Austin, a show of appreciation for the 16 years he led the best high school marching band in Texas.
The building at 1607 Pennsylvania Ave. that housed Anderson High School from 1913-1953 burned down 20 years ago. Kealing Junior High now sits on the site. The original Olive Street location of Anderson (1907-1913) — which was originally named E.H. Anderson High for L.C.’s older brother — burned down in 1947.
But the brick building on Thompson Street, which housed L.C. Anderson High (renamed after the 1938 passing of its first principal) from 1953-1971, still stands. Anderson alum Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson has restored the running track and the football field on the west side of the school, but the building, which now holds the Boys & Girls Club and an alternative learning center, does not resemble a place that once anchored an entire community.
Sometimes when Patterson drives on that street, his mind brakes for memories. Other times he drives by and looks away, not wanting to revisit what used to be.
But it’s a special place, this building where Joyce passed him the baton, where he became a father figure to a family of students, just like the old man had been.
“Mr. Joyce was as strict as they come — you sure didn’t want to feel his wrath,” Patterson says. “But I think you’ll find that, deep down, kids want someone riding them, demanding the best out of them.”
The fumbling disorder of a band practice can, with the right guidance, evolve into the sweetest sound.
RAY PRICE, THE TONY BENNETT OF COUNTRY MUSIC
The woefully underrated Ray Price, who revived country music not once but twice, has every right to be bitter. He’s rarely lumped in with the titans of twang who have more colorful, mythical names such as Lefty, Buck and Merle, and yet Price is perhaps more influential than anyone in the country field besides his former roommate Hank Williams.
As a bandleader, Price has given gigs to such up-and-comers as Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, Johnny Paycheck and Roger Miller. Yet Price’s Cherokee Cowboys band does not pack the nostalgic clout of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys or Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.
Even after beating back the Elvis explosion in the 1950s by inventing the country shuffle, then helping usher “the Nashville Sound” to prominence in the next decade, Price wasn’t inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 1996.
“Well, it’s about time,” the East Texan said when he finally received the award. No one could begrudge Price his vitriolic toast, followed by the sweet chug of redemption. After all, the singer, who still performs regularly at age 85, had been so vilified by country music traditionalists when he brought strings and choral backing to country radio in the ’60s that he moved from Nashville back to Texas in disgust in 1970. Never mind that such lush ballads as “Make the World Go Away,” “Danny Boy” and “For the Good Times” expanded country’s fan base; Price became a sellout in the eyes of those who wanted to keep country in coveralls.
Dozens of books have been penned about Hank Williams, who died at age 29, but none have been written about his former protégé, whose career took off only after he stopped walking in Hank’s musical boots.
If Price, who played the Paramount Theatre a couple weeks ago, decides to write his memoirs, he’s already got a title in mind.
“I’m gonna call it ‘For the Good Times . . . My Ass!’ ” he said in a 2006 interview, sitting in his tour bus parked in a garage on his working farm 12 miles outside of Mount Pleasant. The constant crowing of roosters – Price raises gamecocks – sounds like a laugh track in the background as Price self-effacingly reflects on his five-plus decades as a recording artist. “Come by after the show (in Austin) and we’ll twist one up and smoke it,” he said to a reporter.
Through it all, Price has remained tight with fellow elderly pot smoker Willie Nelson, who got his first songwriting gig as staff writer for Price’s Pamper Music publishing company in 1961. Even after Nelson got a $20,000 check when his “Hello Walls” hit big for Faron Young, he played bass with Price for $50 a night.
Like most Texas musicians of the time, Price was heavily influenced by Bob Wills and still sings a couple of Wills tunes every night. “In Nashville in the ’50s, they didn’t use drums – we had to sneak a snare onto the Opry. But in Texas you had to have drums because the Texas Playboys did,” he said of the influence to keep his music danceable.
But the music scene was about to change in a big way. At a 1955 show in Memphis, Price got a threatening glimpse of the future when Elvis Presley, the swiveling “Hillbilly Cat,” shared a bill with the Cherokee Cowboys. By the next year, rockabilly was the hot, new sound of the South and such Price contemporaries as Hank Snow, Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells saw their popularity plummet. Country radio stations were switching to rock, as were some Nashville artists, but Price stuck to his honky-tonk guns.
“Ray Price kept the Texas in country music in the ’50s,” said Wimberley writer Joe Nick Patoski, who wrote the Willie Nelson biography “An Epic Life.” In doing so, Price was one of the only Nashville stars to see his fortunes rise during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll. With the dancehall sensations “Crazy Arms,” “I’ve Got a New Heartache” and “My Shoes Keep Walkin’ Back To You” laying the foundation, the “Ray Price beat” was the sound every country band was going for. And still is.
But nobody could sing it like Price, whose smooth, powerful tenor was built to be heard over the loud, rowdy, rarin’-to-dance Texas crowds.
“Ray’s just a natural singer,” said former Wills fiddler Johnny Gimble. “He’s also a master at picking songs.”
Such writers as Bill Anderson (“City Lights”), Roger Miller (“Invitation To the Blues”), Harlan Howard (“Heartaches By the Number”) and Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”) had their earliest big hits when Price cut their songs.
Price found “Crazy Arms,” which spent a remarkable 20 weeks at No. 1 in 1956, when a DJ played the badly sung original version for him. “That’s a hit, son,” Price said, hearing past the braying, off-key vocals. Price’s innovation came when he changed the tempo from the standard 2/4 to 4/4, creating a “walking bass” sound. He also played Wills’ “Faded Love” for fiddler Tommy Jackson as an example of the single-string style he wanted for the track. By melding elements of Western swing and honky-tonk, Price created a new sound, one that is still in vogue with country traditionalists.
Along with “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets and “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles, “Crazy Arms” is one of the pioneering, landmark records of the 1950s.
“When I’m playing drums and the front guy turns around and shouts out, “Ray Price!” I know it’s gonna be a full-on 4/4 shuffle,” said Tom Lewis of Heybale! “It’s my favorite groove to play . . . It’s a sound that gets into a true hillbilly’s soul.”
He was born Noble Ray Price in the rural East Texas community of Perryville in 1926, but growing up he bounced between his father’s farm and Dallas, where his mother lived with her second husband, who owned a clothing business. His musical tastes followed a similar city/country dichotomy. His favorite musicians were Bob Wills and Bing Crosby.
Then he heard Hank Williams on the radio in 1947, soon after Price got out of the Marines and was attending college in Arlington with aims of becoming a veterinarian. He started singing on the Big D Jamboree in 1949 and met his idol, Williams, in 1951. Helping a fellow country boy out, Williams got Price on the Grand Ole Opry in January 1952, necessitating a move to Nashville.
At the time, Williams’ wife, Audrey, had filed for divorce and the singer was going through tough times. He moved into Price’s house in Nashville, and for the last year of Williams’ life, as the legend drowned his loneliness in drink, Price was his best friend and musical sidekick. Once on tour in Norfolk, Va., Williams tried to outfox his concerned keepers by ordering tomato juice from room service and mixing it with rubbing alcohol. When he got violently ill, Price stretched his 20-minute opening set to almost an hour, then played even longer when Williams was unable to go on. This happened more than once.
The two ran into each other for the last time in Dallas, two days before Williams played his final public performance at the Skyline Club in Austin Dec. 19, 1952. They made plans to have lunch in Ohio, where they both had gigs, on New Year’s Day 1953. That’s the day Williams was found dead of drug- and alcohol-induced heart failure.
“He was the nicest guy you could ever meet,” Price said, “but that alcohol just got ahold of him.”
Hank’s music kept a hold on Price, who took over leadership of Hank’s Drifting Cowboys band.
But after fielding one too many backhanded compliments (“You sound more and more like Hank every day”), Price decided he needed his own musical identity. He found a band in Houston called the Western Cherokees and merged them with a couple remaining Drifting Cowboys and dubbed them the Cherokee Cowboys. Not above gimmickry, Price and the band often came out wearing Indian headdresses with their Western suits.
But it would be “Crazy Arms,” not crazy outfits, that finally set Price and the Cherokee Cowboys apart. “You make your mark in Texas music by doing something different,” said Casey Monahan of the Texas Music Office, “and Ray Price’s mark is huge.”
In recent years, Price has had a heart attack and an aneurysm; he and wife, Janie, are selling their ranch of thoroughbred horses and fighting cocks to move closer to his doctors. But the voice, though not quite the sturdy, honey-coated tenor of days gone by, still croons away musical boundaries.
“I’m just lucky that I can still sing,” said Price, who smoked for 35 years. “I guess it’s just a gift from God.”
There are splashes of bitterness in the words of the country pioneer whose new records haven’t been played regularly on country radio for almost 30 years, but for the most part, Ray Price knows he’s been blessed. After all, he’s the Tony Bennett to George Jones’ Frank Sinatra in the pantheon of Texas country singers.
“Listen, I don’t sing about drinkin’ and fightin’ and cheatin’ and all that,” he said. If that makes him unhip, so be it. “The only thing I’ve ever done is sing my kind of song for my kind of people,” Price said
Sometimes from such simplicity comes innovation.
JOHNNY GIMBLE, THE COMMON MAN AS MASTER
Part of being a true living legend is not talking about it, so even as Johnny Gimble made his name playing hot country jazz fiddle with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in the late 1940s and then did Nashville session work on classic albums by Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and more, you’ll never get the 83-year-old fiddle icon to assess his place in country music history.
Compliment Gimble on his fertile fiddle part on George Strait’s ‘Right or Wrong’ from 1983 and he’ll tell you he was inspired on that one by the late, great J.R. Chatwell of San Antonio. As a member of the ‘Hee Haw’ Million Dollar Band when he lived in Nashville from 1968 to 1978, Gimble picked up some homespun comic timing that he put to use on ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ in 1994, just weeks after he received a National Heritage Fellowship . ‘I asked the man on the phone from the National Endowment for the Arts what this fellowship entailed, and he said, “Well, first there’s $10,000,”‘ Gimble told the national radio audience. ‘I asked him, “Can I pay it in installments?”‘ The humble Gimble, who has lived in Dripping Springs for 25 years, is the greatest living country fiddler, maybe the greatest ever. He’s toured with both Bob Wills and Willie Nelson, been recruited by Chet Atkins for his Superpickers band of top Nashville session players, and then, at age 80, backed Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards. And yet Gimble, who still plays with son Dick and granddaughter Emily at Guero’s Taco Bar on the fourth Thursday of every month, has never forgotten his modest beginnings, growing up on a farm six miles east of Tyler. He was the eighth of nine children who loved to pick guitars, fiddles and mandolins after a day of hating to pick cotton.
“In his mind, Johnny is still the barefoot fiddler in hand-me-down overalls,” says protégé Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel. Roberts is one of several guests on “Johnny Gimble: Celebrating With Friends,” a new Ray Benson-produced CD that comes out Tuesday featuring vocal assists from such famous friends and admirers as Haggard, Nelson and Vince Gill. The folks at the CMH label wanted to call it “The World’s Greatest Fiddler Celebrating With Friends,” but there’s no way Gimble would sign off on that. The country gentleman can’t stop others from singing his praises, however, and the album ends with “Prairie Home” host Garrison Keillor singing a song he wrote called “Owed to Johnny Gimble” (“He could play ‘Darling Nelly’/ Or Stéphane Grappelli/ Or tunes that were old as the hills/ He smiled as he played/ Some old serenade/ And the music came up from his soul”). “That record was supposed to come out on my 80th birthday,” Gimble says, sitting in the music room of the ranch house he shares with wife Barbara, whom Gimble has married three times, first in 1949. (“The divorce didn’t work out,” he deadpans.)
Benson says the three-year hold-up was because the CD’s executive producers insisted on getting written clearances for the guest stars. “Merle and Willie did it because they love Johnny,” Benson says. “All that paperwork was unnecessary.”
Several of the songs on the album are ones Gimble played with Wills and the Texas Playboys, as well as later Gimble compositions “Fiddlin’ Around” and “Gardenia Waltz.” Bob Wills and his band, which formed in 1933, were already well-established when Gimble was hired in 1949. Wills and his former Light Crust Doughboys bandmate Milton Brown are considered the architects of Western swing, which was the Texas version of big band music. When Brown, whose Musical Brownies pioneered the essential twin fiddle sound, died in a car accident in 1936, Wills became the undisputed king of Western swing. “I grew up listening to the Light Crust Doughboys on WBAP,” Gimble says of the powerful Fort Worth radio station. “And then I’d see the Texas Playboys play Mattie’s Ballroom in Longview, where they outdrew Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.” Gimble got to know Playboys mandolinist Tiny Moore at Mattie’s and even sat in with the band once.
After coming home from the Army in 1947, with an affinity for waltzes he heard while stationed in Austria, Gimble spent time in Austin, where he joined the Roberts Brothers Rhythmaires. The Western swing band had an hourlong radio show in Austin on KTBC every day at 12:30 p.m. One night in 1949 they opened for Wills’ band at the Trocadero Ballroom in Corpus Christi, and Moore remembered the smiling fiddler, who also played a wicked mandolin. Moore asked if Gimble wanted to audition to replace Jesse Ashlock in the Playboys.
After playing “Draggin’ the Bow,” the old Cliff Bruner fiddle workout, with the Playboys one night in Waco, Wills told Gimble, “You’ll fit.” And just like that he was a member of country music’s swingingest band ever. “To join Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys was like throwing a baseball around in your front yard and somebody coming over and signing you to play for the New York Yankees,” says Gimble, who fiddled on Wills’ final recording session in 1973. His starting pay was $90 a week, but Wills bumped him up to $100 when Gimble’s spotlight performance of “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule,” with the fiddle braying, became a crowd-pleaser.
“Johnny has a jazz mind, and Western swing is just jazz played by country musicians,” says Roberts, 33, who’s related to Barbara Gimble and has known the Gimbles all his life. “He’s a great improviser and he’s a master of that big, round, warm, buttery fiddle tone, so he was perfect for the Playboys.” After Gimble was hired, he asked Moore what Wills expected of him. “‘When he points at you (to solo), he wants you to play everything you know,” Moore advised. “Bob Wills wanted you to play that hokum, which is what country folks called jazz,” says Gimble. To be better heard over the big band, Gimble added a fifth string to his electric fiddle to give it a fuller, viola-like sound.
During his two-year stint as a full-time Texas Playboy, the most famous recording Gimble played on was 1950’s “Faded Love.” When Wills relocated to California in 1951, Gimble stayed in Texas and ran the Bob Wills Ranch House band in Dallas. During the day he played fiddle and mandolin on recordings by Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price at Jim Beck’s studio. In the early ’50s, Dallas rivaled Nashville as a country music hotbed, but after Beck’s death from accidentally inhaling cleaning solvent, the studio closed and Nashville became Music City U.S.A.
It was time to settle down and raise a family, so the Gimbles moved to Waco, where Johnny worked as a barber for seven years and also appeared on a weekly local TV show. Then Nashville called. Gimble accomplished something very few of the free-form Western swing greats were able to do: He became a session player on Nashville’s studio A-team. Through the years he’s won the Country Music Association award for best instrumentalist six times.
“You can debate who was the greatest fiddle player,” says Benson, “but Johnny Gimble has definitely been the most versatile. And he’s also the greatest jokester.” Even after suffering a massive stroke in 1999, Gimble found some humor in the situation. “When the doctors showed me an X-ray of my brain, they pointed to a black hole on the upper left side and told me that all memory from that spot was dead,” Gimble says. “I thought to myself that I hoped that’s where I kept ‘The Orange Blossom Special.'” The most requested fiddle song, the “Free Bird” of breakdowns, is also the most hated by sophisticated players. When he came home from the hospital, the first thing Gimble did was to see if he could still play “Orange Blossom Special.” He could. “I still play the fiddle every day,” Gimble says. “I’m afraid if I don’t, it won’t know who I am.”
Fat chance of that.
JAMES HAND: MAGIC WHERE THE SHADOWS WERE
When you go to see an act at a record store appearance, you’re not expecting musical magic or spontaneity, but a sampler set on the way to the autograph booth. The acoustics are not great, the sun’s still out and half the folks are there for the free beer.
But country singer James Hand’s March 1, 2006 set celebrating the release of his Rounder Records debut, “The Truth Will Set You Free,” just seemed to mean more and with the packed store in full support, he turned Waterloo Records into a moving, stirring, thrilling box full of memories. Remember the ’50s and ’60s heyday of country music? The 53-year-old Hand is not a throwback, but a continuation.
“We’ve got time for one more,” the native son of “Last Picture Show” Texas said introducing the uptempo “Little Bitty Slip.” But when that number was over, Hand and band played another one and then another, pulling out a Hank Williams song Hand rarely sings anymore because he’s become weary of comparisons to the tragic country legend. The crowd, which ranged from couples that could’ve met at the old Skyline to tattooed hipsters, hung on every vocal swoop and moan, cheering Hand on like a marathoner at the 20-mile mark. The lovefest ended with Hand singing an a capella tune, accompanied only by the tears streaking down his cheeks.
James Hand had done a lot of living, a lot of losing to get to this point, the release of his first nationally-distributed CD. Nobody from Waterloo even considered making the “wrap it up” sign until this last of the true blue honky tonk originals had stepped off the bandstand.
A day earlier, Hand sat in a beer joint disguised as the “Willis Country Store,” near his home in Tokio, about 10 miles north of Waco. He’s exceedingly polite, answering questions with “yes sir” and “no sir” and calling everyone Mister or Miz. But he often slides into gutters of gloom. He bears little resemblance to a man on the verge of national attention for the first time since playing country dancehalls 40 years ago.
“I don’t know if I’ve been more blessed or cursed,” Hand said, looking back at the hard life he sings so beautifully about.”But I been diversified.” He’s one of those guys who taps your forearm when he throws out a good line. In the blessed column you’ve got the gift for honest, direct songwriting and the voice to match. Hand was raised by a loving family, embraced by neighbors who look after him. He’s got the backroads and woods of northern McLennan County as getaways for his soul. He’s got Willie Nelson in his corner.
On the cursed side, Hand will tell you – tap, tap- is everything else.
“I just want to feel worthy,” he said, staring down at a trio of Coor’s Light bottles sent over by fellow customers. “Right now, my life ain’t worth a damn.”
His happiest years, he said, were from 1990 to 1993, when he lived with a schoolteacher and drove a gas truck from 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. for $270 a week. “The straight life suited me just fine,” he said. “If they didn’t sell the company, I’d still be working there.”
Just as at his concerts, when he measures the moments of despair with jitterbug numbers and an oddball sense of downhome humor, Hand swings the full emotional pendulum when he’s just hanging out. Ol’ Slim, as he’s known back home, is a constant jokester who recently bought the boys at Willis’ a round by announcing, “Country music’s been very good to me: I made $15 last weekend.” When the barflies chuckled, Hand said, “If you think $15 ain’t much money, try to borrow it.” He’s got a quick quip for everything. Asked if he’s Internet savvy, he said he’s had a laptop since he was 8 years old. Pause. “It was the Etch-a-Sketch model.”
Moments later, the singer’s eyes welled up as he pointed out the farm house his parents built on 14 acres of land they bought in 1959. His mother passed on in 2002, his father in 2005, both from lung cancer. Hand lived with them at that house for most of his life. His loneliness thickens the air around him.
His father, a horse trainer, took a turn for the worse in early 2005, just as Hand had finished the basic tracks of “The Truth Will Set You Free,” which features several re-recordings of songs from Hand’s three previous, locally-released albums. With the elder Hand given just a few more weeks to live, Hand headed back to Tokio, with the album 90% done and a block of studio time put on hold.
“I sat at Daddy’s bed for 60 days in a row,” Hand said, then thought about something. “Well, I done told a lie there. There was one Sunday afternoon I came down to Austin to redo a couple vocals. I hired a policeman friend from Cleburne to drive me down because he could drive as fast as he wanted and not get a ticket.”
Before he signed his deal with prominent roots music label Rounder in 2004, Hand wasn’t sure he’d ever make another record. Although it was praised by critics, he disowned his previous studio album, 2000’s “Evil Things.” 2003’s “Live at the Saxon Pub,” meanwhile, was merely a souvenir of Hand’s Thursday residency at the South Lamar club.
But Hand had his champions, such as KUT deejay Tom Pittman, who craved another minor masterpiece like the 1996 debut “Shadows Where the Magic Was.” Pittman put Hand’s ffarm noir sound in the hands of Rounder label head Ken Irwin, who caught an especially frisky set at the Saxon and offered a deal.
“Ken asked me, ‘How’s his business sense?'” Pittman recalled, “And I told him, ‘It’s the worst you’ve ever seen.’ James is even uncomfortable selling you a CD after a show. He thinks that if you give him $15, he should come over and mow your lawn.”
But Hand’s “aw shucks” humility is one of the reasons he’s probably the most beloved figure on the local country scene since National Guard retiree Don Walser started singing at Henry’s about 15 years ago.
Like Walser, Hand wears his authenticity like cologne. He’s as backwoods as moonshine, able to name more rodeo clowns than former U.S. Presidents. “I used to drive to West High with a shotgun in my truck and nobody thought nothing ’bout it back then,” Hand said. These days that would draw a SWAT team.
Hand is so country he can introduce a song as “one of the bestest I ever wrote” without a tinge of affectation. Who else can look and sound so much like Hank Williams (“you even walk like him” Ray Price told Hand a few years back) and not come off as a wannabe. When Hand sings that he’s “Just an Old Man with an Old Song,” it sounds as if he was born with that tune in 1952, the same year Hank Williams died. There’s such a depth of expression in Hand’s songs such as “If I Live Long Enough To Heal” and “When You Stopped Loving Me, So Did I,” that this music is truly his own.
“I’ve gotta believe that the same forces that moved Hank, also move James,” Pittman said of the Hank-like way Hand’s shoulders jump to the rhythm.
“I guess I’ve just been a haunted bastard my whole life,” Hand said. He said he first knew he was different in the first grade. “They made us put our heads down on a towel and take a nap,” he said. “Then they’d play a lullabye and I’d just start sobbing. Nobody could tell me why.”
Like Williams, who died at age 29 from drug and alcohol abuse, Hand has tried to negotiate his partying ways with God-fearing beliefs. “I pray every night,” Hand said, “but I also like to drink just ’bout every night.”
Unlike most real-life honky tonk outlaws, Hand doesn’t swagger, he shuffles. Other hard-life models parlay a week in the pokey into “doin’ time,” but when Hand was asked about his scrapes with the law, he deferred. “Now, when I put on my hat and sing, that’s the public’s business,” he said. “But when a door closes behind me, that’s my business.” Records show, however, that Hand was convicted of possession of amphetamine in 1988 and sent to prison, where he served nine months. To not put that marketing bonanza out there, is kinda like a gangsta rapper trying to pass off bullet wounds as birthmarks.
Rounder is not shy about promoting that Hand has a big fan in Willie Nelson, whose proclamation of “the real deal” is on the back cover of every CD. The two met in 1980 when Hand was a bouncer at Wolf’s in West and Nelson was showing his “Honeysuckle Rose” co-star Amy Irving around his old stomping grounds. “It was Halloween and when they came up to the door I said, ‘Well, if you ain’t him, you sure look like him,” Hand said, “and Mr. Nelson said, ‘I’m him.'” The two talked music for a while, then Hand went home and got his guitar. After he played Nelson a few originals, Willie grabbed a napkin and scribbled on it, “James Hand can record for free.” Several months later, Hand made it to Nelson’s Pedernales studio to lay down some demos for a few hours. Sheepishly asking how much he owed, the engineer held up the napkin Hand had presented and said “Paid in full.” Nelson has also taken Hand out on tour with him several times as the opening act.
Much more often, though, Hand plays beer joints back home, where it could be anyone playing in the corner. On such nights, when Hand’s guitar struggles to be heard over the chatter, Hand sometimes introduces classics as originals, just to see if anyone’s paying attention. “Here’s another one that done real good for us,” he said recently, then went into “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” His son Tracer, a former bullriding champion, fell to the floor laughing, but everyone else just kept on yapping.
When the crowd is enrapt in Hand’s performance, like at the Waterloo instore, the songs can be spellbinding. Every one of Hand’s songs is about something that happened to him, every lyric means something, which is why he often cries when he’s singing.
“I don’t believe that crap about how you have to make yourself happy before you can make other people happy,” he said at Wolf’s, nibbling on orange crackers from the vending machine. “Until I can make people happy first, then I can’t even think about feeling better about myself.”
originally published in the Austin American Statesman March 2006
All Over the Map
If I do a second segment of “All Over the Map,” I’d include this chapter on Gil Askey who was 85 in February when I interviewed him.
GIL ASKEY COMES HOME
Gilbert Askey left Austin for good at age 17 in 1942, but the former Motown arranger, who received an Oscar nomination for his work with Diana Ross on “Lady Sings the Blues,” says “Austin has never left me.”
Although he has lived for 30 years in Australia, where his wife, Hellen, is from, the L.C. Anderson High School graduate comes back to visit once a year. Gil’s nickname is “Brother,” and when he comes back to Austin, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes said, “Brother makes an effort to see everyone around from the old days.” His two older sisters, Grace and Velma Jo, are still alive, as are friends that go as far back with Askey as the first grade at the Olive Street School.
Timing smiled when the 85-year-old trumpet player was in town in early February, just three weeks before Ross, his boss for more than 10 years, was set to appear at ACL Live at the Moody Theater . Love a local tie-in to the most successful female recording artist in history.
Over coffee at Denny’s, however, Askey put off questions about his glitzy musical résumé and instead told long stories of growing up dirt poor in East Austin. He made imaginary street maps with the side of his hand — “Hackberry, Juniper, Willow…” he’d recite.
Askey helped discover the Jackson 5 and was musical director on tours by the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Supremes. He co-wrote hits for Curtis Mayfield and Linda Clifford, and yet he wanted to talk more about musicians he played with on the Anderson High Yellow Jackets marching band, including Kenny Dorham, Roy and Alvin Patterson, Ray Murphy, Paris Jones, Warner “Rip” Ross and Buford Banks (trumpeter Martin’s dad). They all used to get together at the Pattersons’ house and play jazz, which was frowned upon by Anderson High band director B.L. Joyce. Askey grew up idolizing Harry James of Beaumont, while Dorham, who would go on to replace Miles Davis in Charlie Parker’s band, knew every Erskine Hawkins lick.
But the authoritative Joyce was all about John Philip Sousa marches. Outfitting his band with uniforms he tailored himself, Joyce led the Yellow Jackets to state marching band championships during Askey’s last two years at Anderson, which was then located at 1607 Pennsylvania Ave., near where Kealing Middle School is today.
Askey does not go easily from memories of Rip Ross to Diana Ross. It’s as if he’s written a book about his life in his head and when asked about it, he doesn’t want to be rushed
through the early chapters. “I’m gettin’ to that,” he’d say whenever a question about his career was posed, “but first I’m going to tell you the stuff people need to know about.” He wears big glasses slid to the end of his nose and looks over them for emphasis. “Mr. Joyce thought that if the white schools had a band, the black schools should have one, too.”
Benjamin Leo Joyce, a master tailor by trade, formed the first Anderson High Yellow Jackets band in 1933 and ruled with an iron baton until 1955, when a new school district ruling that band directors must have music degrees forced him out, amidst much community uproar. His replacement was his former first trumpeter Alvin Patterson, who led the band until desegregation closed the school in 1971.
Askey’s mother was Ada DeBlanc Simond, the noted African American historian and author who penned the “Looking Back” column in the American-Statesman for several years. Askey’s father, Aubrey, left when Askey was 2 and, with his mother already having three kids by age 26, he was raised by his grandparents Gilbert and Mathilde, Creoles from Louisiana, who spoke French in the house.
Askey’s cousin was R&B singer Damita Jo; Texas Rep. Dukes is his first cousin once removed.
Joyce had recruited a 10-year-old Askey in 1935 to start playing trumpet at Kealing Middle School, whose band he also ran. “I was shooting marbles, and this kid said, ‘You should try out for the band,’ and I said, ‘The band’s for sissies. I want to play football,’ ” Askey recalled. Joyce was in earshot of that exchange and within days Askey’s grandmother was in Joyce’s office. “He sold her an old beat-up Martin trumpet for, like, $10, and the next thing you know I’m taking lessons from Mr. Joyce.”
Like most of the neighborhood kids, Askey was intimidated by Joyce, who would carry a small billy club at band practice and rap kids across the back if they were goofing off or playing jazz. “I came to realize he had another side to him,” said Askey. “He really cared about us.”
Two hours into the interview, Askey had barely mentioned Diana Ross or the rest of his time at Hitsville USA. Another appointment ended the talk, and it seemed that this article would have to be filled in by others talking of Askey’s charmed career. He was leaving town the next day to visit his sister in Dallas and then back to Oz.
But about 9 p.m. that night the phone rang, and it was Askey. “I was just thinking,” he said with a stammer he’s had all his life, “that you might need some more stuff for your story.”
During the next 90 minutes came tales about the Supremes being introduced to chitlins in East Austin and a 10-year-old Michael Jackson hesitating to go on “The Ed Sullivan Show” until he saw “Uncle Gil” in the wings.
When he was tired of talking, Askey picked up his trumpet and gave an example of how he used to freelance jam with the bugle player on base near Wichita Falls. An officer heard the playing and, rather than discipline Askey, made him a member of the Special Services Band. “I still had my job to do every day, but I didn’t have to pull guard duty or KP (kitchen patrol), so it was a step up.”
What set Askey apart from all the other horn players of East Austin was a gift for arrangement and composition that he didn’t know he had until after getting out of the Army Air Corps in 1944 and enrolling first at the Boston Conservatory of Music and then the prestigious Harnett National Music Studios in Manhattan.
As an almost required rite of passage for Texas jazz musicians, Askey played for the Houston-based Milton Larkin Orchestra for a year between those two music schools. “You could say that was the time when the trumpet took over my life,” he said.
Askey started writing charts for full bands, eventually leading to his big break, a three-year stint as arranger/trumpet player with the popular Buddy Johnson band (“Since I Fell For You”). When rock ‘n’ roll exploded and Johnson’s brand of adult blues became passé, Askey toured in the house band on package shows, backing Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, the Clovers, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price and many more. “Bill Haley and the Comets were the only act on those tours that had their own band,” Askey said.
Askey received his first call from Motown on New Year’s Day 1965 with an offer to produce and arrange six tracks on Billy Eckstine’s “Prime Of My Life.” He ended up doing the entire album.
When the Supremes’ hits slowed down in 1967, Motown mastermind Berry Gordy decided to make a record that crossed over to an older Broadway crowd. He tapped Askey for “The Supremes Do Rodgers & Hart” and also appointed him the group’s musical director on live shows, including the 1970 “Farewell” performance in Las Vegas that was Ross’ last show before going solo.
Ross took Askey with her for 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Touch Me In the Morning” the next year and “Mahogany” in 1975. “You know, Diana Ross knows what she wants, and we didn’t always agree,” Askey said when asked about Ross’ diva reputation. “She even fired me once, or I quit, I can’t remember. Berry Gordy stepped in and got us back together.”
But Askey also recalls Ross as the consummate crowd-pleaser, who once even came back out onstage in her bathrobe to do an unscheduled encore because the crowd simply would not leave.
That the Jackson 5’s first album was billed “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5″ has a connection to Askey. His stepfather, Luther Simond, was an assistant principal at Norton High School in Gary, Ind., in the late ’60s and knew the older Jackson brothers from school and the younger ones from church. Their Jackson 5 routine had instantly become a sensation in Gary and nearby Chicago, so Simond called his stepson in Detroit and said, “You need to come down here and check these guys out.” Askey passed on the tip to Ross.
During his recent Austin visit, Askey stayed with Simond, whom he calls “my dad,” at the house on Hamilton Avenue where his mother once cooked for the Supremes and the Manhattans on an off day on tour. “One of the girls said, ‘This is good; what is this?,’ ” Askey said, with a laugh. “I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were eating hog guts.”
So many things happen out on the road, but then there’s another town, another show and it all blurs together. Or sometimes seemingly forgettable incidents can change your life. While touring Australia in 1973, Askey and a few other band members were caught in the rain and couldn’t find a cab. A woman pulled up and gave them a ride to the hotel. Seven years later, Askey married the good Samaritan, named Hellen, and relocated to Australia.
In ’82, Askey flew to Los Angeles for what looked to be a month of work, helping to put together the spectacular “Motown 25″ program, which featured a Supremes reunion, plus Michael Jackson’s sensational moonwalk to “Billie Jean.” Askey’s main role was arranging and conducting a soul throwdown between the Four Tops and the Temptations. Askey’s month in the States turned into more than a year when a tour was thrown together after “M25.”
His wife wasn’t happy about that, especially having to raise an infant alone, so Askey retired from touring in 1985. He’s well-known in Australia through his work with programs that encourage young people to learn instruments. “Brother’s hobby is finding old instruments, restoring them and then passing them on to kids,” said Dukes. At 85, Askey sits in with a Melbourne jazz combo once a week when he’s up for it. The former altar boy at Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Austin still goes to mass every Sunday.
He regrets that he was unable to attend B.L. Joyce’s funeral in 1980. Askey was working as musical director for the movie “Fame” and couldn’t get a day off the set. But he sent a poem, an “Ode to B.L. Joyce,” which he wrote about the tailor who became one of Austin’s most influential teachers.
“I could’ve been Gil Askey the carpenter… Or Gil Askey the doctor. But I became Gil Askey the musician,” said the poem, which was read at the funeral. It ends with a pair of lines that have guided Askey throughout the years: “B.L. Joyce lives in the things which I do, for without him there’d be no me,” it read. “Therefore I’m an extension of him.”
It was a single note, a G, that Mr. Joyce showed Askey at that first lesson, then sent him home to play only that note until he could play it perfectly. From the smallest details, big things one day come.
Calvin Russell: From Pflugerville to Paris
Singer-songwriter Calvin Russell’s story was one for the movies, an ex-con toiling in obscurity in Austin dives before a homemade cassette made him a star in Europe. The Townes Van Zandt protege with the rugged features and signature hobo hat passed away Sunday (April 2011) at his home in Garfield after a lengthy battle with liver cancer. He was 62.
During his early ‘90s heyday in France, where he was considered a harder rocking, Texas version of Tom Waits, Russell and his band took home as much as $15,000 a night, and gave their fans their money’s worth, playing three hour sets without a break. After shows they often received a Hell’s Angels escort back to the hotel. “They wanted to rock and, boy, we gave it to ‘em,” Russell told the American Statesman in 2005.
Russell’s unlikely career windfall came after a party for musician Ike Ritter in South Austin in 1989. Ritter’s friend Charlie Sexton was expected to attend, so, hoping the rising star would cover one of his songs, Russell made a demo tape and brought it to the party. But before he could get it in Sexton’s hands, French label owner Patrick Mathe, asked for a tape after Russell performed at the party. Russell had made only one copy.
Four months later, Russell, whose real name was Calvert Russell Kosler, received a call from Paris. “You have a heet,” Mathe said, explaining that the tape, entitled “A Crack In Time,” was released to great acclaim. It went on to sell 100,000 copies in Europe. After Russell was shown performing on a commercial for Swiss Oil during the 1994 World Cup, he couldn’t walk around Paris or Amsterdam or Berlin without attracting a crowd.
“They really loved the hat,” Russell told the Statesman. “That’s how they knew it was me.” Russell had been given a felt cowboy hat by a drunken patron at some dive, but because he didn’t want to hear Merle Haggard requests all night, Russell cut around the brim to create the cartoony porkpie that would define his image as a trouble-tossed, yet tender troubadour. Russell’s look was not a pose, but the product of a hard life. He started writing songs as an 18-year-old serving time in Huntsville on forgery and marijuana possession charges. His earliest songwriting inspiration was fellow prisoner Shotgun McAdams, a rhyme master who got his nickname robbing Safeways with a shotgun.
While in Europe, where he owned an apartment in Amsterdam, Russell was sweating a 1995 conviction for possession of cocaine back home in Austin. He eventually received eight years probation on the cocaine charge and moved back to the Austin area, where he bought 14 acres about 10 miles east of Austin. He lived there with his wife, whom he married when she was 22 and he was 49, and five dogs.
Russell was the fourth child, but the first to not die in infancy, of a short order cook and a waitress at the Sho’ Nuff Cafe on South Lamar Boulevard. The family lived on a dead-end street next to Pete Pistol’s Wrecking Yard; one of Russell’s most vivid childhood memories was the sound of the car wheels on the gravel road on the night, when he was 12, that the family moved in the middle of the night to avoid paying back rent.
When the family returned to Austin, Russell was kept back three times at McCallum High School, then kicked out of school when he showed up at the senior picnic with a six-pack of beer. “I was technically a 10th-grader, but I wanted to party with the kids I came in with,” he told the Statesman.
“Calvin always had that aura about him that he was tough,” said drummer Waddell, whose brother David played bass with Russell during the European heyday. “Everybody knew he was in prison and all that, but he was really a good guy. He cared about people.”
Russell says an adage passed down from his great-grandmother, a Comanche Indian he says lived to be 106, best sums up his life. “She told me that everyone had two dogs inside them fighting. There was the good dog, the loving dog and there was the evil, violent dog. The one that won was the one you fed.”
“Austin in the ’60s was dirty, nasty, hip and dangerous all at the same time,” says Russell, who made his living selling LSD, which was legal until October 1966. Russell’s drug connection was a successful car dealer in San Antonio who had “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” of the straight life, converting his mansion into a counterculture flophouse.
Another benefactor to the peace and love generation was a wealthy, middle-aged West Austin woman who’d inherited a fortune after her husband’s death and used the money to bankroll recording projects and feed and house a commune on her property. “One day we saw police looking at the back of the house with binoculars and that’s when she said, ‘Let’s move to Mexico.’ “
She bought a 60-passenger yellow school bus, ripped out most of the seats, put in a Lear Jet stereo system and rolled south on Interstate 35 with a group of kids in sleeping bags inside. The bus was stopped at the border, however. “They said something or other wasn’t in order with the bus,” Russell says, “but they also said we had to get haircuts.” While the bus stayed on the U.S. side, Russell and his friends walked over to the Mexican side and met a pot dealer who sold them Mexican weed for $3 a kilo (2.2 pounds). Russell brought the marijuana back to Austin where he sold it for $10 an ounce in Prince Albert cans. In 1968, high on LSD, Russell used a credit card he says someone had given him to get a room at the Chariot Inn. When he signed the name on the card, he was guilty of forgery and ended up serving 15 months at Huntsville.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Russell says of his stint at hard labor. “I had blisters on my hands, blisters on my neck from the hot sun. The guards were a sorry, sadistic bunch and they’d look for any excuse to whale on you.”
When Russell got out, he started frequenting Spellman’s on West Fifth Street and fell in with a hard-livin’ songwriting crowd that included Foley, Jubal Clark and Rich Minus. But hearing Townes Van Zandt for the first time, at a song-swapping session at Seymour Washington’s former blacksmith shop in Clarksville, was the true epiphany. “He had this magical use of words,” Russell says. “I remember he played ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and Seymour had tears streaming down his face. That’s when I realized just what a song could do.”
Van Zandt, sensing that this ex-con was a true outlaw, took in “Calvert Russell” — he used his first and middle name on the bill until everyone kept misspelling and mispronouncing it as “Calvin” — as a creative protege. “I shut up around Townes and listened,” he says. “All my intelligence just went right to him.” By example, Van Zandt taught Russell to write in complete seclusion and to not play a song until it was finished. “You never saw Townes working on a song.”
Material came slow to Russell, whose club sets were stocked with covers of blues artists such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. But over the years he’d built up a catalog of 22 songs he was proud of. When Charlie Sexton was signed to MCA Records in the mid-’80s and ended up on the cover of Spin, Russell compiled a demo with hopes that the kid who’d grown up around drunken songwriters would record one of his songs. In early ‘89, Sexton was expected to show up at a birthday party for his guitar mentor, Ike Ritter. Russell had his demo cassette in his pocket when he played a short set of covers in Ritter’s living room.
But before he could give the tape to Sexton, Russell was approached by visiting French label boss Mathe, who said he liked Calvin’s style. “I gave him the tape I was going to give to Charlie and the next morning I got a call from Patrick. He said, ‘I want to put this record out,’ and I thought, well, Warner Brothers ain’t knocking my door down, so, yeah, go ahead. I didn’t expect anything to happen.”
Then came the call about the “heet.”
So here was Calvin Russell, boarding a plane for Geneva, Switzerland, ready to play his first European show, solo acoustic, in front of 3,000 fans. “I was the opening act for a rock band, so I didn’t know what to expect, but the crowd loved it,” he says. When he played Lille, France, with a full band a few months later, the audience was 7,000 strong and out of control in its enthusiasm. “I was petrified,” he says. “I was afraid to adjust my amp. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
While most of his musical associates were mired in alcohol abuse, including Van Zandt, who died of a heart attack at age 52, Russell says he was never really much of a drinker. “Psychedelics and some good herb — those were my things,” he says.
But after a French journalist described Russell as a Jack Daniels-swigging tunesmith in a major feature, big bottles of Jack started showing up backstage before every show. And Russell began partaking. “We liked to play on LSD,” he says, “and when you’re tripping you can drink all the booze in the world and not pass out.” The hangovers got brutal and Russell realized that he was killing himself. These days he has an occasional beer, but stays off the hard stuff.
“We’re pretty laid-back,” he says of himself and wife Cynthia, whose family bought one of the trailers on the property and visits so often that the clock in the guest trailer is set on Swiss time.
He met his fourth wife nine years ago at a festival in the Alps. “Her daddy was a fan and he got his kids into my music, so they all came back after a show,” he says. “That first night, Cynthia said she wanted to be with me, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to have nothing to do with a woman that beautiful. She’s probably just looking for a big cocaine party.’ “
A few nights later, Russell and his band were playing a show in Madrid and a band member said, “Hey, Calvin, there’s that girl from Switzerland.” Cynthia was near the front and afterward came backstage. “I want to be with you,” she reiterated, and this time added, “forever.” The couple was married two years later, when Cynthia was 22 and Calvin 49.
Don’t let the glamor gap fool you — the supermodel and the hobo poet are a perfect match. “Cynthia’s just a village girl who likes simple things, like a clean house and playing host to her family,” says Russell.