A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Think that the blues in Fort Worth is only the province of white guys? Think again.
By Ken Shimamoto
You have to be heading for the Swing Club to find it, a couple of turns off I-35 on Evans Avenue on the south side of Fort Worth. The only thing that marks the shabby cinder-block building is the “open” sign that glows in neon over the door and the cars jumbled in the parking lot and filing down the side street.
It’s Sunday night, and inside the dimly lit room, the scent of frying fish hangs in the air. Knots of people sit drinking at the bar or lounge around the pool tables. But at the tables surrounding the mirror-backed stage (really just a corner of the dance floor), all eyes are riveted on Lady Pearl, an imposing, majestic presence in a smart black-and-white outfit of her own design, tearing it up with her BTA, “Better Than Average,” Showband.
Lady Pearl carries herself with even more dignity than her name would suggest — quite a feat when she’s singing lyrics like “One leg to the east / One leg to the west / You there in the middle/ Trying to do your best.” During the opening set, she uses her cordless mic to direct the band from a seat at a table by the bandstand before taking command of the stage. As the evening progresses, she holds the crowd’s attention with her powerful gospel-soul delivery.
Her most dramatic moment comes at the end of “Last Three Dollars” (a rewrite of Johnnie Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars”). The band holds an ominous, rumbling chord while she preaches a sermon about “laying up in the bed with my man” when his wife calls, begging to know what she can do to keep him. When the tension in the music is almost unbearable and the emotion in Lady Pearl’s testimony reaches a fever pitch, the band segues into her response, the uptempo “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s How You Do It).” A mix of seasoned pros, black and white, the BTA Showband is down and dirty enough to satisfy all but the most snobbish purist, but with the showbiz flair that black audiences demand.
Conventional wisdom is that only older blacks listen to the kind of soul blues that Lady Pearl puts out. And yet her appreciative audience covers the age spectrum, from young people who teethed on hip-hop all the way to their grandparents, who might have seen Jimmy Reed or Howlin’ Wolf at the Skyline Ballroom 40 years ago.
Never heard of the Swing Club? Unless you’re black, that’s no surprise.
Time was, in Fort Worth, blues buffs of all races and stripes hung together, at least for a few hours a week, at Robert Ealey’s New Bluebird Nite Club at the corner of Horne and Wellesley in Como. That was 30 years ago, however, before a murder (or was it just changing times?) ended the Bluebird’s reign, and an automobile accident and illness brought Ealey himself down. Conventional wisdom — or, at least, mainstream, alternative, and even local blues press — also holds that, these days, the blues in Fort Worth are white blues, played at places like J&J’s Blues Bar, the Black Dog Tavern, and the Captain’s Den.
Once again, the conventional wisdom should sit down and shut up. On any given weekend in Fort Worth, black blues bands and singers may be flying under the radar, but they’re still flying. Performers like Lady Pearl, Sang’N Clarence, and Vernon Garrett are throwing down in places like the Swing Club, B&B’s Blues Room on South Riverside, and the Guys and Dolls Ballroom on Southway Circle, near the junction of I-20 and I-35W, which features some of the larger soul blues shows. (Don O., KNON-FM/89.3’s blues format director and host, calls it “sort of the J&J of the soul blues scene.”) Or maybe Little Jimmy is on stage, or Sir Charles Jones, or Big Jack & the Conspiracy Band (that’s the former Johnnie Taylor’s Taylor Made Orchestra, to those not in the know.) This Saturday, for instance, Guys and Dolls will showcase Sheba Potts and Dr. Love, while the B&B is presenting former child prodigy Lucky Peterson, who’s been recording since the ’60s — quite a coup for that little Fort Worth club.
There’s no denying, however, that blues in the predominantly black parts of Fort Worth have been on the wane for at least the last decade. And some think there are signs that, once again, a more racially integrated blues scene may be coming together.
“Part of the problem,” says Sumter Bruton, probably the best-known of a number of white blues musicians who played with black bands in the late 1960s and early ’70s, “is that blues in general isn’t very popular right now. It always goes in cycles. Maybe you just have to wait another five or 10 years for another crop of white kids who dig blues or who just like being able to hang out with the black folk and still go home to come along.”
Fort Worth has been at least a whistlestop on the blues train since the mid-’30s, when pioneering Oak Cliff guitarist T-Bone Walker fronted the house band at Fort Worth’s Jim Hotel. Fort Worth’s best-known bluesman, the late Robert Ealey, was born in Texarkana and blew into town in the late 1940s, reputedly as a drummer with Houston-based singer-guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins.
In the late 1950s, Ealey drummed in the Boogie Chillun Boys while Louisiana-born Huary (U.P.) Wilson and a local lad, Cornell Dupree, shared guitar duties. A decade later, Dupree would gain fame playing smooth soul with saxophonist King Curtis, who started his career in Fort Worth playing jump blues. Wilson belatedly began a recording career in the late 1980s, developed a strong following in Europe, and recently relocated to France.
In 1959, Ray Sharpe, a singer-guitarist who mixed his blues with country tunes to cross over to white Fort Worth audiences, had a sizable national hit with “Linda Lu,” a song that’s still a blues-jam staple today. A King Curtis-produced 1966 remake of “Linda Lu” had Curtis’ former sideman Jimi Hendrix, then poised for global psychedelic success, doing the six-string honors.
From the 1960s through the late ’90s, Evans Avenue was home to dozens of blues clubs — and Lady Pearl played almost all of them.
“I’m a dirty old woman, with a real dirty mind” she belts out. Like many other powerful singers who have moved on to less-religious topics, Lady Pearl and her brother Ray Reed started out singing in church —Cannon Baptist Church, in their case — as youngsters, “but we used to travel around singing in all different churches,” she said. “It was almost like having a gig.” They branched out into performing blues in the mid-1960s.
At first, she only played blues guitar. “When I was a little girl, I used to love Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, people like that,” she said, sitting in her cozy house near the Swing Club, surrounded by instruments, records, videos, and memorabilia. “My uncle Bob Parramore was the one who gave us our first electric guitar. He had bought one, because he played, too. We’d borrow it on Friday, bring it back Sunday, then we’d come right back Tuesday, maybe Monday, and get it. Last time we went to borrow it, he said, ‘Y’all just keep it, and whenever I need it, I’ll come borrow it.’ He never did come get it.”
After Lady Pearl and Ray were grown, “My brother told him, ‘You’re the one that gave us our first start, so this is for you,’ and he gave him an electric guitar.”
Her first band experience came because of her brother’s popularity. Someone came looking for him to play, but Ray had already left for another gig. Pearl was sitting there practicing her guitar, so she got asked to take his place.
At first, she said, she was cowed by people’s reactions to a woman playing guitar. “I kept my back to the audience. ... I wouldn’t look at nobody,” she said. But her confidence grew. Eventually, she realized it was too tough to sing and play guitar at the same time. “We hooked up our own band, and I started singing all the time, and I never went back to messing with the guitar a lot.
“We’d play little clubs like I play now, beer joints,” she continued. “The first club I played was in Mistletoe Heights, called Henrietta’s Place. There was another club over there called Ginger’s, and that was our Sunday and Wednesday spot. Then we played Friday night at Beaver’s Place, and Saturday night we were at another little club called May’s Hot Spot on Terrell. We’d play at little private clubs where people paid their dues when they had their annual anniversary celebrations.
“Then after we got better, we played Chicken in a Basket, the Silver Dollar Café, the Piccadilly, Rayford’s Place, Gentry’s, Miss Wilson’s, the Silver Slipper, the Dragnet Club over in Arlington, practically every little club around here. There was a lot of clubs at that time, and a lot of bands. Freddie King would be up at the Silver Slipper, Z.Z. Hill, Johnnie Taylor, Joe Simon — it was just like it is now with all of the fellows that come around; that’s the way we were, at that time. They got big later, but at that time, they were just like us.”
That was in the 1960s, when the blues were still important in the black community — before first soul music, then disco, and later hip-hop usurped its dominance. Most of the performers who played the black clubs of that era were obscure then and are forgotten now. Besides Ealey and Wilson, both of whom garnered substantial white audiences, few of them ever recorded, and many of them have ceased performing.
If Ealey is remembered fondly by the black music community, it’s still true that, as Lady Pearl said, he was “never as popular among blacks as he was among whites. Part of it was because, if you listen real close to one of his records, he wasn’t singing about anything. He’d sing a song different every time he did it. Now, he could get up and play with anybody, because he’d just make his words up as he went along. They didn’t rhyme or anything.”
White fans might not know, but during the years of his success, Ealey was hardly the only game in town. Talk to the black bluesmen and women, and they call up names like Big Ronnie Bivins, Ray Flangin, Bobby Gilmore, and Shirley Daniels.
Big Ronnie Bivins, the singer in the Peter Feresten photo on the cover of this year’s Aug. 15 edition of the Fort Worth Weekly, died onstage in 1986 in an Evans Avenue club. “He was more of a soul singer, like Bobby Bland,” guitarist Wes Dixon recalled. “I met him when I was playing with C.B. Scott. I didn’t really know him, but everybody wanted him to sing. So he took the mic and sang two songs, then he said, ‘I won’t do another song because this band isn’t paying me shit.’ I told him, ‘I don’t know you, and I didn’t ask you to sing. You sit your ass down.’ I met him again a month or so later, and we got to talking. I gave him a ride home, and that’s when I found out that he was a heart patient.”
Several veteran local blues fans and musicians name Ray Flangin as the real godfather of Fort Worth blues. “He was running the 40-50 Club at the time I met him,” Dixon said, “but he had a day job at Holiday Lincoln-Mercury. He was kind of a throwback. He played my kind of guitar. He’d play songs like ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,’ but he’d do them so they sounded like Lightnin’ Hopkins. Or he’d play a Guitar Slim song.” Flangin is still a regular at the 40-50, but he performs only infrequently.
Dixon also spoke of Bobby Gilmore as a pivotal figure in Fort Worth blues, widely regarded as the best guitarist of any kind ever to emerge from the city (or perhaps the second best, after Cornell Dupree, depending on who you talk to). “Bobby could play anything,” agreed Bruton. “He could play like George Benson if he wanted to, but he was really a blues player.” More recently, Gilmore has performed with Kenny Traylor and appeared on a couple of anthologies for the JSP and Beach Ball labels, but it seems that business dealings or relationships with other musicians have left a bad taste in his mouth, and he’s dropped off the scene.
Dixon recalled another guitarist, Shirley Daniels, as having “a peculiar style. No one else sounded like him ... although I didn’t think he was really outstanding.” Bruton has an explanation for why Daniels sounded so distinctive: “What he was doing was playing early soul guitar.” Today, Daniels works in a hospital, doesn’t smoke or drink, and plays only in church.
The 40-50 Club at 1009 Fabons Street sits next to a boarded-up restaurant, and it’s hard to believe that you could fit a set of drums in the tiny space, let alone a full band. The club no longer features live music, but signs advertise upcoming blues shows in other clubs. The atmosphere is like a house party, with patrons dancing the dirty boogie and yelling to one another from across the bar while the waitress collects dollars to feed the very hip jukebox, which features tunes ranging from ’50s blues and ’60s jazz-funk to contemporary R&B.
The 40-50 is typical of black clubs that used to offer live blues. Most now employ DJs or rely on jukeboxes.
Black and white jazz musicians started playing together in Jacksboro Highway joints in the early 1950s, and there were a half dozen white bands like the Straitjackets (fronted by Delbert McClinton) playing blues in the days before the British Invasion. But young white musicians didn’t start to invade the Fort Worth blues scene in force until the late 1960s. Some were inspired by British rock bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Yardbirds, who based their music on black American blues styles.
An exception was Bruton, the son of a white jazz musician who’d played with black musicians like local saxophone legend Red Connor. “After the Beatles came,” he recalled, “I couldn’t wait to get old enough to go play in the black clubs where the real stuff was. I took refuge in Como.” He recalls another budding guitarist and blues enthusiast, the son of wealthy liberal parents, who insisted on transferring to a predominantly black high school.
The mixing began to flow both ways in the 1970s. A vibrant integrated blues scene sprang up around Robert Ealey and the Bluebird. There, young and old black folk rubbed shoulders with TCU kids (and their parents, who might have remembered seeing the Straitjackets back then) and white blues freaks, a peculiar subspecies of record collector marked by their slicked-back hair, dark shades, soul patches, and funky hats. Besides various units fronted by Ealey, relative upstarts like Bruton’s band the Juke Jumpers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Stevie Ray Vaughan played there, and plenty of high times were had.
It was a familial, inclusive scene, and, more than anything else, it was the product of Robert Ealey’s extroverted persona. “He was a big personality,” said guitarist-vocalist-bandleader James Hinkle, who became close friends with Ealey after visiting the Bluebird as a teenager with mentor Freddie “Little Jr. One-Hand” Cisneros, an occasional Ealey sideman.
“He was a welcoming presence who created a safe space for blacks and whites to get together and enjoy the music,” agreed David Blankenship, who discovered blues as an 18-year-old classical guitar student and went on to tour with Johnnie Taylor’s band. “At the Bluebird, you might occasionally have heard virtuosic playing, but it was really irrelevant. The music was really about making contact with people, about Robert connecting with the audience.”
The end of that era came in the early 1980s. Bruton recalls the night. “The Juke Jumpers were playing, and we saw someone shot to death right in front of us. A lady was high on wine and Quaaludes, and she got upset with another lady and shot her in the back while she was trying to run out the door. You never saw so many BMWs peeling out of the parking lot. When the police came, [Juke Jumpers singer-guitarist] Jim Colegrove was still there and he pointed her out to them. She was just sitting there having a drink. No one wanted to turn her in. It turned out she had a warrant from somewhere in East Texas for doing the same kind of thing. After that, we started concentrating on Dallas.”
Ealey moved on, too, keeping a big presence in the white blues community by opening a club downtown and even promoting his own annual blues festival in Sundance Square. He recorded albums for the Amazing, Topcat, and Black Top labels.
Wes Dixon joined the Fort Worth blues scene in 1979, after retiring from the Navy. He had a band called the Blues People with Ealey and guitarist C.B. Scott for a time, and they were regularly featured at Caravan of Dreams for a couple of years. “Robert could sing anybody’s song,” Dixon said, and Scott was one of the best at playing behind Ealey. Dixon recalled one time when they played John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun,” the song that provided the name for Ealey’s ’50s band. “We played that song, and the whole place started shaking,” said Dixon. “After we were done, Robert said, ‘Don’t play that song when the club is this full — it’ll fall down!’”
Throughout the 1990s, Ealey toured Europe. By the time of his death in 2001, he had become a ubiquitous presence on the local scene, appearing everywhere from the Bedford Blues Festival to the Flying Saucer downtown to the AIDS Walk in Trinity Park. Young Fort Worth blues-rock bands that have little in common with early Texas bluesmen still cover Ealey’s “She’s a Rocket.”
After the Bluebird’s demise, the white blues scene blossomed, in a modest sort of way. A handful of blues clubs sprang up catering to predominantly white audiences. J&J’s Blues Bar, a small 200-capacity room, opened in 1985 and earned a national reputation, booking touring acts as well as the cream of local talent. Elsewhere, local bands worked bread-and-butter gigs, and novice and veteran musicians alike showed their stuff on jam nights. In this line, Fort Worth boasts rooms like the Keys Lounge on Westcreek, a cozy neighborhood bar where bassist-vocalist Bobby Counts and his band Count Blue have had a residency for several years; the Black Dog Tavern downtown, where guitarist Holland K. Smith, an intense 12-year Navy veteran, holds down the Wednesday night blues slot; the Captain’s Den on Calmont and its doppelganger the Poop Deck on West Seminary.
The two sets of blues-makers, black and white, mix and match all the time. But their audiences seldom make the transition.
Blues fan Jack McGee is one of the sparse number of local whites who show up at the predominantly black blues clubs. “I just happened to be in the Swing Club at closing time” one night a few weeks ago, he said, and happened to hear about the first Stop Six Blues Festival, planned for the next day. The event was unheralded in any of the local press. McGee showed up, along with about “200 people and four horses,” he said. The music, by Sang’N Clarence, Little Jimmy, and Big Jack & the Conspiracy Band, was “great, but the sound was lousy, and they could have done a better job of promoting it.”
That lack of publicity contributes to the relative obscurity of some of the black performers and venues. “Even when the bigger soul blues artists come through, the white blues community often does not hear about it,” said Don O. “They may get some mention on KKDA-AM or on KNON’s morning R&B shows, but other than that, the main advertising is posters and flyers in clubs and shops in the neighborhood. You don’t see adverts for these shows in the Fort Worth Weekly.”
To remedy this situation, McGee recently created a Blues Shows in the Metroplex web page (www.greendesk.net/blues.htm), focusing on “the soul/R&B and black club scene.” Don O.’s web site is also invaluable (www.geocities.com/bluesdfw ), acting as a comprehensive gateway to all things blues in the Metroplex.
The differences extend beyond fame versus obscurity, and the ethnicity of the fans. Black blues, which KNON features on its morning blues show, are “more vocal-oriented. More soul- and R&B-oriented and less guitar-focused,” Don O. said. “If you go to a blues jam in a black club, you’ll hear one band with 17 singers. In the white part of town, you’ll hear 17 guitarists.” The songs in black clubs often feature risqué lyrics in the manner of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’,” Barbara Carr’s “Bone Me Like You Own Me,” or X-Man’s “Love Potion” — a blues tradition that dates back to the 1920s. The focus is more on gospel-trained pipes (and, in live performance, on entertaining) than it is on musicianship and precisely executed solos.
The social dimension is more complicated. Some black performers feel they’ve been discriminated against in white clubs. Lady Pearl said she recently lost bookings at a mainstream blues club after some of her fans brought bottles of liquor into the venue. (Many black blues clubs have beer-only licenses, and patrons are accustomed to bringing their own liquor.) The club’s management justified the decision by saying that they feared running afoul of TABC regulators and didn’t want to have to hire extra security or subject one performer’s fans to special scrutiny.
It’s certainly not news that blacks and whites aren’t always comfortable in each other’s neighborhoods. Indeed, readers of the Weekly recently voted Stop Six the “Area to Avoid” in the paper’s Best of the West-o-Plex balloting. Perhaps there’s a reason for this that has nothing to do with race. A black blues musician who lives in the projects there showed this writer the spot where he watched a man and woman conduct a heated argument using a 9mm automatic and a shotgun. “Luckily,” he said, “the kids all scattered when they heard the shots, and I ran for the door. You could hear the bullets ricocheting off the light post.”
Guitarist Blankenship, a teacher in the Irving school system who’s been playing with Lady Pearl for nearly two decades, believes that since the early 1990s, white audiences have been reluctant to frequent black clubs for fear of gangs and the crack cocaine subculture — although both problems have greatly diminished in recent years.
To that concern, Don O. responded, “I have never been in a black blues club where I felt unsafe. Just the opposite. I have always felt welcome. My money is green just like everyone else’s, and that is the only color the musicians and club owners are worried about. Now going to and from the car can be another matter. You have to be aware of your surroundings, just like anywhere else.”
Said one musician, “I’ve seen a lot more stuff go down in white clubs — mainly fights and ignorant drunks — than in any of the black blues clubs I’ve been in. A friend of mine had his guitar stolen out of his car in front of the Red Star (just off West Seventh Street) at James Hinkle’s wedding reception.”
In general, it seems that the allure of that universally coveted green Don O. alluded to gives musicians more incentive to cross the color line than audiences, who prefer to frequent clubs in their own neighborhoods. That sentiment is easily understandable to the black musician who recalled setting up to play in a club while white patrons watched a Cowboys game. “Every time they saw Emmitt Smith, it was ‘That nigger this, that nigger that.’ Either they didn’t see us there, or they didn’t care.”
Back on stage at the Swing Club, Lady Pearl is working her magic.
Her guitarist brother Ray Reed plays and sings in a rough-hewn style that contains echoes of classic players from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Freddie and B.B. King. Bassist Quincy Brown and drummer Weldon Giles lay down a solid, unobtrusive foundation. Brown also sings backup, except on Junior Parker’s “Driving Wheel” when he steps up to lead vocalist. Two white musicians, guitarist Blankenship and former Robert Ealey keyboardist Jeff “Hot Hands” Dennie, round out the band.
“We started out with Jeff when he was about 15 years old, and he couldn’t even go into clubs,” Lady Pearl recalled. “So I started telling people that he was my son. They would look at me real funny and I’d just go, ‘Well, he looks just like his daddy!’ But he could play, and we started letting him practice with us, and he picked up as he went. That’s why he knows our stuff so well — he’s been doing it since he was 15, and I think he’s about 33 now.”
Guest vocalist Sang’N Clarence, a recording artist who does most of his stage work out of the area, gives a tour-de-force performance, testifying like a sanctified preacher (albeit with more, um, adult subject matter on his mind and an off-the-wall sensibility in his heart) even when the sound system temporarily fails him. He segues from the venerable “Stormy Monday” into his own “Rocket N My Pocket,” including an extended discourse on a popular sexual practice.
Most astonishing of all is Lady Pearl’s daughter, Miss Kim, who shakes her stuff like a young Tina Turner while belting the blues (never has the line “like my back ain’t got no bone” from “Rock Me Baby” been so vividly depicted) and alternately doing the funky dog and high kicks that make her look like a cheerleader for a blues football team. The show reaches a climax with mother and daughter onstage together, as they paraphrase the chorus of rapper Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” smash, “It’s getting hot in here / Gonna take off all my clothes,” and incorporate this bit into Kim’s version of the Aretha Franklin hit, “Baby I Love You.”
From 1987 to 1997, Lady Pearl sang at Rayford’s Place at 1100 Retta Street in the Riverside area. That club, she said, had the potential of bringing white and black blues fans back together, but that magic was never realized. The club “turned into almost like a Bluebird,” she said, “until they killed [Howard Maddox], and it never was the same.” Maddox, co-owner of Rayford’s, was a longtime veteran of the club business who’d also owned a place on the West Side in the ’70s. He was ambushed by a 16-year-old boy who waited on the roof of the club with a high-powered rifle. The youth, at his trial, claimed to have mistaken Maddox for someone else.
At various times in the 1980s and ’90s, Lady Pearl owned or managed both the Swing Club and the 40-50 Club. “We’d squeeze a little old band in there every Sunday, and the little place was just packed,” she said.
In the early 1990s, through photographer Peter Feresten, Lady Pearl received a grant from Texas Folklife Resources in Austin to teach blues singing. Feresten also made a tape of her that got her into the Austin blues festival. “I went there three years straight one time,” she said. “It was so beautiful there. They just show you so much love.”
In nearly 40 years of performing, however, Lady Pearl has never had a recording released. That may soon be remedied: Don O. recently recorded a set of Lady Pearl’s at the Swing Club.
Lady Pearl sees the prospects for black and white blues audiences coming together as remote. “People say it’s going to change,” she said, “but I don’t think it’ll ever change.”
Then again, for the past year, the Fort Worth “white blues mafia” has started making the scene at the black clubs: folks like Don O. and Wes Race, expatriate Midwesterner/poet and former road manager for Hound Dog Taylor. (Race has recited his poems over the BTA Showband’s backing at the Swing Club and other venues.) Musicians Hinkle and Smith show up, as do Johnny Mack, Mitch Palmer, Paul Byrd, Tony Dukes, and Jay Lewis (a Keys Lounge jam-night regular who’s been playing blues since 1961 and was a personal friend of Freddie King’s) and several Southwest Blues correspondents. It was this influx that led Lady Pearl and her band to make some forays into the mainstream blues clubs.
There were 30 white faces — mostly musicians — in the Swing Club last Super Bowl Sunday, when Lady Pearl hosted a tribute to the late Johnny “Guitar” Watson. It featured Hinkle, Smith, Byrd, and a sizable Austin contingent including Fort Worth native and ex-Fabulous Thunderbird Mike Buck. A similar Swing Club tribute to Freddie King is scheduled for this Sunday, while another, dedicated to slide guitar legend Elmore James and headlined by Anson Funderburgh’s frontman Sam Myers, is planned for late November. Whether or not the fans will follow remains to be seen.
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