Clean, Sober and Blue

Jerry Lightfoot struggles in Houston -- and wins

It's a common conversational icebreaker in blues clubs all over Houston's east side, when one of the regulars wants to make a stranger feel welcome: "Hey man, do you know a long-haired white boy named Jerry Lightfoot? How is that blue-eyed soul brother doing, anyway?"

He's doing much better, thank you. He's got a new tape out, Burning Desire, which his old friend Johnny "Clyde" Copeland is helping to bring to the attention of people in the music industry. Lightfoot, meanwhile, has got his bad habits down to nicotine and caffeine, which, without going into detail on his past problems, is a considerable improvement. And finally, he has his schedule synchronized with "Spare Time" Murray, so they're back playing together with Pee Wee Stephens. All in all, Jerry Lightfoot's doing pretty good.

At 43, Lightfoot is one of the younger relations of Houston's blues family. He's been a professional musician for more than 25 years, but around here that's about how long it takes to sort out your own style. Becoming a bluesman requires one of the longest educations imaginable. As Lightfoot puts it, "I didn't have to get into some blues revival; I was just being who I was. It's interesting, being from Texas and listening to AM radio before the Beatles hit, this was pop music for us. I had to go to California to realize everyone didn't grow up on Jimmy Reed."

Burning Desire is the product of learning in a lot of classrooms, from a wide variety of instructors. This is, after all, a man whose teenage nickname was "the fifth Elevator" because of his close association with Houston's legendary 13th Floor Elevators, and who, after 20 years of mentoring, refers to blues piano legend Big Walter Price as simply "the boss."

Lightfoot cites the Elevators' Stacy Sutherland as his biggest guitar influence. "He's the first guy I heard that ... encompassed all kinds of things, from Johnny Cash to Bo Diddley," he says. "The Elevators were a rock and roll band that had very definite blues roots. That was the beautiful thing about '60s music: all bets were off. I watched the Elevators one night in Austin and Stacy set up this simple riff and just chased it around the room. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen, and he did it on maybe $100 worth of equipment."

There was, of course, more to Houston's late '60s music scene than the psychedelic bands that played Market Square. Many of the city's veteran bluesmen fondly remember "the hippie days" when they found employment and an appreciative new audience in the long-haired subculture. For a generation of young white musicians -- Johnny Winter, Rocky Hill, Keith Ferguson and Lightfoot -- it was an opportunity to learn from then-obscure but undeniably great blues artists, who in turn were pleased to discover that their contributions had been noticed and appreciated. Lightfoot remembers, "I already played the blues, but here was a chance to play what I loved with the masters of it. When I was starting to play guitar these cats didn't know who the hell I was, but they figured you're here, it's showtime. And you got up and played, and if you got your ass kicked on-stage -- which I did regularly for a long time -- you got right back up. It's like Big Walter used to tell me, 'If the horse throws you, what you going to do?'"

By the early '70s Lightfoot was playing bass with Rocky Hill -- Houston's other answer to the perennial question, "Can a white boy play the blues?" -- in the house band at Irene's, a now-defunct blues and zydeco club on Studewood.

"Rocky and I kind of went to different schools together. We were both good friends with Albert Collins, but I don't remember if the three of us were ever in the same room at the same time. Rocky really studied those old blues cats, knew them all. I learned a lot from Rocky. He introduced me to Juke Boy Bonner at a gig at Liberty Hall not long before [Bonner] died. I asked him to play "Struggle Here in Houston" and he got tears in his eyes. It blew him away that I even knew about the song and it just broke my heart, it was as true as anything I've ever heard. It really is a struggle here in Houston."

In the mid-70s a new musical trend swept through the live-music scene like a hurricane. (Basic blues chronology: the "hippie days" were the good old days of three or four low-paying gigs a week; the "disco years" meant day jobs and playing for free to stay in shape.) Many Texas musicians, Lightfoot included, migrated to California to ride out the storm. There had been a Texas-hippie consulate in San Francisco since the late '60s, when Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers creator Gilbert Shelton and other deranged University of Texas alumni started Rip-Off Press. Rip-Off became a focal point for expatriate Texans; it was there that Lightfoot's friends Mark Naftalin -- pianist with the seminal psychedelic blues band Mother Earth -- and Nick Gravenities of Electric Flag introduced him to Mike Bloomfield. The disco era made for lean times for blues musicians, even in California. It also made for friendships that lasted for decades -- in some cases, even beyond the grave. The Gravenities-penned "Fantasy World," which appears on Burning Desire, reiterates a common thread through the cassette: mourning for friends, such as Bloomfield, who died after becoming their own worst enemy, and celebrating those who struggled with themselves and won.

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