Consummate Gentleman

Pete Mayes, Houston blues' premier nice guy, finally gets busy

American pop culture has been heartily indulging its fascination with a hopped-up, watered-down update of traditional jump blues, evidenced most readily by the rise of neo-swing. But the original swingers were digging that sound decades before it was co-opted by today's retro trendsetters and corporate deities. If there was ever any doubt that Houston's Pete Mayes is one of the originals, his long-awaited Antone's Records CD For Pete's Sake erases it.

"I can't explain it, but there's something about it," Mayes says. "God gave me the gift to put a swing in the blues. It's just natural."

Though he was born and raised south of Anahuac in a community populated mainly by black cowboys, Creole shrimpers and oil-field roughnecks, there's little rural or rustic about the music Mayes has made since forming his band, the Houserockers, more than 40 years ago. Indeed, whether he's reeling off a guitar solo or singing his heart out, the Mayes of For Pete's Sake consistently evokes a smooth elegance, a sound antithetical to the raw blues exclusively favored by some misguided "purists."

Mayes comes by his classy style -- and his appreciation of swing -- through intuition and experience. He's been a devoted fan of the prince of '40s jive, Louis Jordan, since childhood. In the late '50s and early '60s, Mayes's band regularly performed in tailored suits, backing a pair of the biggest names in postwar Texas blues, two innovators who pushed the Lone Star idiom that much closer to jazz: Aaron "T-Bone" Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Playing alongside each of these masters, Mayes ultimately discovered who he is.

By his own admission, his gentlemanly persona and incomparable sense of style are the primary result of time spent with his idol: the seminal blues sophisticate T-Bone Walker. Mayes was just a curious kid, peering through the window of a rural dance hall, when he was initially inspired by Walker's cool artistry; Mayes later went on to share a stage with Walker, first as a shy 16-year-old copycat and eventually as bandleader backing the star "for many, many gigs" around Texas. Regarding the impact of the lessons he absorbed, Mayes explains, "My music, like T-Bone's, is based in down-home blues, that's true, but there's a little bit of class to it. It's a bit of polish sticking in there." And while Mayes credits Walker with instilling in him a taste for refined blues, he cites Brown as a mentor of another sort: "Gatemouth -- you talk about swing, man. He is swing."

For Pete's Sake showcases not only the synthesis of the influence of Walker and Brown but also Mayes's distinctive R&B sensibility, honed by years of additional experience playing behind singers such as Junior Parker and Little Milton. Though many of the dozen compositions on the new release are structured in the eight- or 12-bar style, accompanied by verse patterns that define traditional blues, there are others ("I Like Your Style," for example) that call to mind the pop methodology of vintage Motown. Whatever the subgenre, there is an engaging honesty in the delivery, a controlled energy that makes the music glide and sway a certain way.

On Mayes's cover of "Next Time You See Me (Things Won't Be the Same)," there's a definitive moment -- pure Pete. Most artists, when performing this song, follow the original phrasing of Junior Parker on his 1956 hit single for Houston's Duke Records. But Mayes softens the song's pace and pulse. Where others might slam the notes down hard, he strokes them gently.

"Some people just pump it, you know," says Mayes. "I pump it some. But I swing it."

The difference between pumping the blues and swinging it is, in a sense, the difference between Texas and everywhere else. As producer Derek O'Brien points out about the new Mayes CD, "It's real Texas music -- the walking bass, sometimes doubled by the left hand on the piano, the drums playing a shuffle or swing beat, and the horn section doing call and response with the singer. It's really the Texas blues style."

For Pete's Sake was a long time coming for Mayes; it's the first major-label release he can proudly call his own. Thanks in part to the efforts of O'Brien, who produced the eight Austin tracks for the disc -- not to mention Jerry Lightfoot and Steve Krase, who co-produced the four Houston tracks from which the project originated -- the album is a breakthrough for Mayes, who had rarely recorded as the featured artist before.

Mayes's prior discography is patchy, to say the least. It includes instrumental appearances behind Junior Parker (on the Mercury label) and Bill Doggett (on the French label Black & Blue). In the late '60s and early '70s, Mayes cut a few singles under his own name for the local Ovide label. In 1984, he released an album called I'm Ready on the Dutch label Double Trouble. But none of his efforts enjoyed significant distribution back home. Nevertheless, Mayes's talent was recognized by filmmaker Alan Govenar, who directed a 1984 documentary focusing on Mayes and fellow Houston legend Joe "Guitar" Hughes titled Battle of the Guitars. That exposure led to another album for Double Trouble, 1986's Texas Guitar Masters, on which Mayes and Hughes shared the billing. More than a decade later, Mayes would turn up on the 1997 Austrian compilation CD Texas Blues Party, Vol. 2, which includes selections Mayes and Hughes had recorded previously for Double Trouble.

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