Razor-totin' women, bandstand brawls and lost weekends. Ah, yes, the good old days.
Get these wily veterans of the Gulf Coast blues scene together and the talk invariably turns to the wild and wooly world of playing the blues on the Texas/ Louisiana border in the '50s. Big city blues were all well and good but the marvelously malleable music heard in the jumping joints of Port Arthur, Beaumont and their environs was rougher stuff, directly from the front lines of the frontier.
The area, one where the Louisiana swamps and East Texas piney woods converge, was known as the Golden Triangle in its heyday and it was undeniably a hot and happening scene. Blues fans, ready to party all night after a hard day's work at the booming local refineries and shipyards, had money to burn, but they demanded full value for every cent spent. Bands didn't leave the stage until the fans said they could and any musician who thought he could just coast by was frequently taking his life in his hands. "Those folks wanted to have a good time every time and anybody that got on a bandstand had damn well better deliver the goods," Lonnie Brooks recalls. "The fans weren't shy about showing their feelings and you certainly didn't want to see the mad side of some of those big roughnecks."
In some ways, the boom town scene in Port Arthur and Beaumont resembled the post-war economic explosion on the West Coast that attracted so many of the Golden Triangle's workers and musicians. But unlike the Texas and Louisiana blues transplanted to California, where the music soon assumed a character of its own, the Gulf Coast blues continued to stew deliciously in its own juices, remaining true to its roots and sources with only minimal outside influence. Those roots, planted firmly in the all-night party music of zydeco innovator Clifton Chenier and the jazzed-up jump blues of T-Bone Walker, had a certain blues symmetry. It helped to be named Lightnin' or Slim, as the sly "city folk" blues of Lightnin' Hopkins and the electrified anguish of Guitar Slim staked out the Gulf Coast music's borders, while Lightnin' Slim's muddy R&B approach held down the center.
There's always been a certain time-warp quality about music in the area, as songs heard nowhere else stay on local jukeboxes for decades, providing a cultural continuity embraced by succeeding generations of fans. "Everybody pretty much knew the same songs and that's what everyone always wanted to hear," Brooks recalls. "The trick was to play them so they sounded different, to put something special in them that nobody else did. If you could do that, you could make a name for yourself and work steady."
Working steadily was what it was all about and Lonnie Brooks, Long John Hunter, Phillip Walker and Ervin Charles, the principals of this landmark recording, seemingly never stopped playing. Their careers eventually took them in all manner of directions but their hearts never left the Golden Triangle. Their reunion to reprise the sounds and sensibilities of their younger days was a heartfelt homecoming which also enjoyably demonstrated the enduring vitality and viability of the Gulf Coast music that originally inspired them to take to the stage.
Lonnie Brooks has carved out a considerable career for himself since he left the swamplands. He's become one of the mainstays of the Chicago scene, but his bayou roots are always under the surface. His first professional musical employment came, quite naturally enough, in Clifton Chenier's Red Hot Louisiana Band. Brooks, calling himself "Guitar Junior," rocked the Gulf Coast with a series of regional hits like Family Rules, The Crawl and Roll, Roll, Roll. "Lonnie drew big, big crowds. He was sharp; Lonnie was where blues and rock 'n' roll were meeting up. He was in the blues, but he was on the cutting edge of rock flavor. Lonnie and I jammed on Sundays at Roy's Grill in Port Arthur. We'd be after each other's throats, you know, 'let me see how good could you really play,'" recalls Phillip. After hitching a ride to Chicago via a Sam Cooke concert caravan, Lonnie found his stage name was already taken and that there wasn't as big a demand for funky Gulf Coast gumbo blues. With a new name, Brooks ultimately found work with quintessential bayou bluesman Jimmy Reed and slowly but surely began to establish himself with a more streetwise, sharp-edged sound. When he exploded onto the national scene in 1978 with his urban voodoo blues approach his future was assured, as his energetic, crowd-pleasing style, a direct product of his days in the Golden Triangle, mesmerized new fans everywhere he went.
Long John Hunter's rise to international blues fame made for one of the '90s most entertaining musical stories. Back in Port Arthur and Beaumont, he was the blues king. "Everybody was crazy about Long John," Lonnie recalls. "He was like a local star. B.B. King could be playing and they would skip B.B. to go see Long John. When I bought my first guitar, I brought it out to him and let him play it. I would watch his fingers on the guitar and memorize it. Everybody looked up to John. He was a big name to us." But Hunter's prime years of paying blues dues came south of the border, down Juarez way, where he ruled the infamous Lobby Bar like a Dionysian duke. The club's clientele, a mixture of off-duty military, adventurous tourists and local pimps and hustlers, demanded a stage show to go with their music and Hunter, whether swinging from the rafters or taking his guitar up close and personal to patrons at their tables, was more than happy to comply. The intensity of the action could have scared some musicians off, but Hunter, already well-schooled in such matters, just let it rip. Hunter, who says his days in the Golden Triangle clubs prepared him well for the no-holds-barred Juarez scene, knew what to do. "It wasn't healthy if they weren't having fun, so it was just like playing back home," he says with a laugh. After Hunter cleared customs for the final time he began working in West Texas, developing his trademark blues sound: a leaner, more direct style than his bayou buddies, but one still capable of locking into a swamp groove like a 'gator going after his next meal.
Phillip Walker's stylish fretwork has improved dozens of other musicians' records for decades, and he's cut eight of his own albums as well as singles for half a dozen labels. He's also penned more than a few blues standards of his own. Like Lonnie, Phillip got his first break with Clifton Chenier's band; in fact, Clifton bought him his first "real" guitar. "I was the kid," Phillip remembers. "I idolized Long John. That guy was singing at the top of his voice, playing that old brown Gibson. I used to go out to Port Acres, between Port Arthur and Beaumont, where there were three or four clubs. I was too young to get in, but I'd hang around the Blue Moon Club, where Long John played. Those guys was doing it. The four big blues guys at the time was B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone and Lowell Fulson. Those was the guys I was centered on, but Long John was my first idol." In 1956, Phillip moved on to El Paso and sealed his friendship with Hunter, spending two years playing and competing with Long John at the rowdiest border town bars. Continuing to work his way west, Phillip ultimately established himself in Los Angeles, where he began cutting 45s and made his name as one of the West Coast's premier bluesmen. He's recorded for a multitude of labels but truly hit his stride with his latest Black Top release, I Got A Sweet Tooth.
Ervin Charles is lesser known to those outside the Gulf Coast only because he is less traveled. Charles, who was the man who met Long John on his day job and bought him a ticket to attend the B.B. King show that inspired John to quit his day job and take up music full time, and who later hired a young Johnny Winter, was a major musical mentor for the area's musicians. "Everyone knew Ervin," Lonnie remembers, "I thought he was the best guitar player in the world." Soul sister Barbara You'll Lose A Good Thing Lynn also benefitted from Charles' guidance but she was by no means alone. "Everyone paid attention to Ervin," Winter remembers. "You could learn how a song was really supposed to be played and maybe steal a few licks, too. He encouraged everybody that wanted to play to go ahead and go for it." By the way, at the end of the Shootout sessions, Long John paid Ervin back the $1.50 for his ticket to that B.B. King show!
These four guitarists were backed by a tight but flexible unit of fans and friends, some of whom they had already performed and/or recorded with in the past. The rhythm section of bassist Larry Fulcher, drummer B.E. "Frosty" Smith and keyboardist Riley Osbourn is the best and brightest of Austin's deep and diverse blues talent pool. But the real secret weapon was saxist Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff, arguably the blues' most prolific and proficient horn arranger and player. Kazanoff, who also plays a mean harp on two tracks, has an inherent feel for soulful sax sensibilities and his playing and arranging on these sessions elevated the music and inspired everyone involved.
The sessions, more like a musical family reunion than real work, were wonderfully free-flowing affairs, as ideas were exchanged, stories were swapped and more than a little good-natured dissing accompanied each and every hot lick. The musicians' shared affinity for the sensibilities unique to the Golden Triangle region meant that a lot of instructions went unspoken, as they latched onto a vintage groove and effortlessly navigated the music's inherent eccentricities like a Creole trapper poling a canoe through the bayous.
Although the musicians involved come out with all guns blazing, the sessions were as much a celebration as a shootout. The competitive spirit is always there--check out the guitar one-upmanship when all the fretmasters fire away at once but in between tall tales the musicians acted as more of a mutual support group than as competitors.
The material graphically explains the Golden Triangle's deeply rooted, but undeniably off-the-wall, musical attitude. I Can't Stand It No More, an obscure tune from an obscure source, is a perfect example of the musical mindset of the bayou blues contingent. The song, a supple and surprisingly complicated one (an eleven bar blues!) is a product of the infamous R&B pianist/vocalist Eskew Reeder, better known to fans of swamp surrealism as Esquerita, Little Richard's flamboyant role model. It's essentially jazzy R&B, spiced up with some tasty Marcia Ball piano work, and there are few other blues recordings it would fit so naturally on.
Other tunes, such as Two Trains Running, a song so popular with bayou blues rowdies that Hunter and Charles swear they had to play it eight times a night in Port Arthur or suffer serious consequences, serve to illustrate the tastes of the times. The regional standard It's Mighty Crazy, popularized by the Lightnins as Lightnin' Slim waxed a Louisiana version and Lightnin' Hopkins recorded a Texas version, is another perfect fusion which evocatively recalls the music that kept the all-night parties going until sunrise services. A Little More Time, which sounds like a long lost Guitar Slim tune but is in fact a new composition that remains in the spirit, further affirms the enduring joys of the swamp blues attitude. Then there's Clarence Garlow's Bon Ton Roulet, as close to a regional anthem as exists. The guitarists, reinforced with a few perfectly chosen Ball piano runs, treat it with respect but also as a mandate to indeed let the good times roll, and attitude that works as well today as it did decades ago.
But every track has its attractions and like bayou cooking they get better with each reheating, as new sonic spices pop out of the mix and reconfigure the overall sound. Hunter said it best when he proclaimed, "I don't think we'd all like to go back and live through those times again, but if we can bring that music here to the present, without all the knife fights and carrying-on, then we've got the best of both worlds."
Lifelong Texan Michael Point is the dean of Gulf Coast blues journalists, having written about the music for a wide array of national and international publications for more than three decades. His work appears regularly in the Austin American-Statesman.
Additional material for notes prepared by Bruce Iglauer