He Will Survive

Houston piano man Ezra Charles has outlasted even his worst enemies

Before us now, here at the end days, straddling a piano bench between ourselves and the millennium, we have Mr. Ezra Charles, pianist, songwriter and bandleader. Mr. Charles is a young-looking 55 years old, but starting nonetheless, in his own words, to sag a little. His vaguely roosterish head is still crowned with a thatch of yellow hair pointed, as always, away from his skull. There's a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis to the look, a dollop of Rod Stewart, a smidgen of Sting. Yet the man wearing the look is, unlike these forebears and contemporaries, the most consistently, and heatedly, critically reviled musician that Houston has ever known. I don't think you'd have much luck trying to prove otherwise.

Charles, of course, is aware of this fact, and without being coy about it, it sorta hurts his feelings. Whether said revulsion is deserved is a matter for the critics to discuss, and I'd like to make clear that this is not my purpose here. I've stated my case in the past, and it is a matter of public record. What I wanted to know, in speaking to Ezra Charles here at the end of another year, is whether he feels any sense of vindication as he gazes out at the horizon of a new millennium, past the gravestones -- both literal and metaphoric -- of his critics, and sees an apparently boundless future for himself as a well-paid and satisfied entertainer. For if it is true that only roaches will survive the apocalypse, then it is equally true that Ezra Charles will anchor the house band at the Roach Motel.

They say that if you stand on the banks of the river long enough, you will see the bodies of your enemies float by. I know this to be true. What I want to know from Charles is this: Does the sight of all those bloated corpses fill him with sadness, or glee?

From Thursday's Child to Radio Avenger: The many faces of Ezra.
From Thursday's Child to Radio Avenger: The many faces of Ezra.

"I think Bob Claypool started that," Charles says, referring simultaneously to the legendary and now deceased Houston Post music critic and the dogged perception of Charles as somehow not quite a "real" musician.

We're sitting in the backyard office Charles has built behind the Bellaire home he shares with his wife and at least one child, and he has just finished telling me about his early career. In the 1970s, when he was known by his birth name of Charlie Helpinstill, Charles made a pile of money as the inventor of the Helpinstill piano pickup, an electronic device allowing for the amplification of acoustic pianos, and later as a piano manufacturer.

"Claypool was a wonderful guy, and when I heard that he had died, it just killed me, because I would love to have sat down and asked him, 'Why? Why did you do that to me?' "

What Claypool had done was review a Rockefeller's double bill of Ezra Charles and the Works and a California band called Little America in 1987.

"It was tiresome," Claypool wrote of the Ezra Charles portion, "it was trite, and it took until nearly the end of the whole bash before any couples hit the dance floor." That's not the whole review, but it accurately conveys the flavor.

"[Claypool] had this theory that he could tell the real thing. He loved George Jones because he was the real thing. He wrote several columns about how there's some people, as soon as they open their mouth, you know they're the real thing. And as soon as I opened my mouth, he knew I wasn't, for some reason. And he imparted that to a generation of music critics in Houston."

This is, of course, a highly speculative version of events, since it fails to explain the links in the chain between Claypool, who died a decade ago, and more recent nemeses such as Hobart Rowland, who arrived from Philadelphia to cover music for this paper in 1995 and left last year with a burning and public hatred of all things Ezra. But it does suggest a consistency.

"I've had a real problem with being accepted as legitimate. There's always an attitude that I'm a dilettante, and I resent that, because I'm not."

Charles makes a good case. He played in his first band at age 14, in Beaumont, with schoolmates Johnny and Edgar Winter. In the late 1960s, as a student at Rice, he played with Beatles wanna-bes Thursday's Children and recorded on the same record label as Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators. Yes, he made some money as a techie, but through it all, he says, he's been a musician first.

On the other hand, there's that nagging question: what kind of musician?

When Charlie Helpinstill adopted the stage name Ezra Charles, he launched a promotional campaign keyed around the phrase "Who is Ezra Charles?" and some would say he still hasn't answered that question. There is the Ezra Charles who anchored a rockabilly trio and styled his hair like Stray Cats-era Brian Setzer. There is the Ezra Charles who figured he could get airplay as a country artist, so he hired a steel guitarist. There is the Ezra who changed the name of his band to Design for Living because he thought that'd be a good name for the "modern rock" sound he wanted to push. There's the Ezra who invented, and apparently played, something he calls techno-bop. And even now the Ezra Charles Web site advises that the consummate professional has added a full set of swing material to his repertoire.

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