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Houston Honker

Grady Gaines helped Little Richard create rock and roll. And he's not finished yet

When folks in the know speak of "the Texas tenors," they don't mean some trio of opera singers. They're talking about a proud African-American circle of "honkers" with a fat blues saxophone sound. The list includes Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, King Curtis, Don Wilkerson, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, David "Fathead" Newman and many more (including, probably, some others with "head" nicknames). Their vibrant horn sound originated in 1940s-era jazz and blues and proved crucial in the evolution of R&B. And one honker in particular went on to energize the earliest rock and roll, blasting behind the musical phenomenon called Little Richard. Remarkably, that Texas tenor, Houstonian Grady Gaines, remains a vital presence on the local scene today.

Gaines and his group, the Texas Upsetters, command an amazing variety of styles, at least one of which is likely to suit any venue or audience. The band is as comfortable in a down-home juke joint as it is at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place. It has played dimly lit roadhouses, private parties at posh mansions and even inauguration fetes in Washington, D.C.

"I'm just a hard, honking-hard player," says Gaines. But along with his talented bandmates he's also the human equivalent of a multivolume encyclopedia of soulful music.

A recent night in the Sierra Atrium Room, where the band has played midweek gigs "for going on two years," offered a sampler. Mixing covers with a few originals, the Upsetters performed a nonstop two-hour set. There were slow blues ("St. James Infirmary") and shuffles ("I Done Got Over It"), old-style swing ("In the Mood") and hipster jive ("Jump Jive and Wail"), timeless soul ("Let's Get It On"), funk ("I'm a Freak for You"), jazz ("The Girl from Impanema"), zydeco ("Don't Mess with My Toot-Toot") and more. Heck, when a patron approached with money for the tip jar and whispered a request, the band even responded with an impromptu treatment of "New York, New York."

Most of those cover songs exuded a strong gospel-blues feel, compliments of Gaines's reedy honking and the emotive delivery of singers Big Robert Smith and Paul David Roberts (who also plays trombone in the band). Gaines seems most inspired when backing a strong vocalist, including nimble Patrick Harris, who is also featured often. "Whatever a singer is doing, I'll ad lib and try to blow something to make him do it better," says Gaines. "I've been doing that my whole life."

That same strategy underlies his interplay with other instrumentalists. The call and response between Gaines's sax and Roberts's trombone on "Honky Tonk," for instance, is a study in one player's feeding off another.

Pleasing crowds suits Gaines fine. His longest-running engagement is the late-Sunday-night jam each week at the delightfully funky Etta's Lounge. Located in the back of a ramshackle wood-frame building (there's a modest cafe up front), this Scott Street joint is home to some of the deepest blues in town. Guitarist Milton Hopkins, who backed B.B. King on tour for years, initiated the weekly gatherings in the early '80s. Eventually he handed the host job over to Gaines, who'd been playing there from the start.

In terms of both music and atmosphere, down-home Etta's is yin to upscale Sierra's yang. It's difficult to imagine a patron's requesting "New York, New York" at Etta's, where gritty blues and chitlin-circuit soul rule the night. The relaxed atmosphere attracts older, predominantly African-American musicians who relish the opportunity to sit in and jam. For Gaines and many others, Etta's is a refuge they can retreat to once a week to nurture their musical roots.

"We are really a blues band," says Gaines. "But we also play a lot of other functions, like weddings and private parties, all the fine hotels and country clubs. A lot of people think that because we can play those things that we are not solid blues, you know. But we are blues."

The gutbucket solos Gaines unleashes at Etta's powerfully underscore his point. And the beer-drinking audience there would never question his true-blues credentials. But at Sierra, martini sippers respond more readily to the Upsetters' pop material. Shifting musical gears between venues is no problem. "I've been in this business over 40 years, and I've learned how to control it and please whatever crowd I'm playing for," Gaines says.

And it's not as if he considers pop beneath him. "I love gospel, blues, rock and roll, jazz and the big bands," he says. "I'm just a music lover. That's why I don't put myself in just one category. My whole heart and soul is just music, period. All music."

Born in the East Texas town of Waskom, Gaines says he grew up in Houston's Fifth Ward, "about ten blocks from the Peacock Records building." In junior high he fronted Grady Gaines and the House Rockers, changing the band name to the Blues Ramblers a few years later. His technical proficiency and dance hall showmanship were noticed by Peacock owner Don Robey, who soon used Gaines in the studio. "We did a lot of recording behind Gatemouth [Brown] at Peacock," Gaines says. "Also we did some stuff with Big Walter [Price]."

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