He Will Survive

Houston piano man Ezra Charles has outlasted even his worst enemies

On a more personal note, let us not forget the Ezra Charles who says he's hurt when someone calls him Charlie Helpinstill, even though the brass knocker on his front door is engraved "Helpinstill." Or the Ezra Charles who had a nose job at age 40.

"I didn't have a nose job because I wanted to look different. I had a nose job because I wanted to look like what I looked like. I didn't look like me to me, until I had a nose job. Then I looked like me. Does that make sense?"

Does it?

It's suggested that perhaps all this genre-hopping might have something to do with the critical perception of Ezra Charles as a dilettante, but Charles has another idea.

"Sometimes I think it's because I'm an intellectual pursuing a primitive art form. What do you think of that? I wrote Claypool a long letter one time, a handwritten letter, I said okay, so I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, and you like guys that get up and say well, you know, we don't know what it is we do, we just get up there and do it."

It's the classic rock myth, and whatever else he may do, and however well he may do it, Ezra Charles does not channel it.

"I've always felt like journalists seem to want charisma to be the ticket to success, rather than discipline," Charles says. "Because in their own lives they would prefer to have their own charisma bring them success rather than disciplined work. I'm so motivated to success, at whatever level I can achieve it, it's a 24-hour-a-day job to me. I spend every day trying to figure out how to make it in music."

In that pursuit, Charles has been accused of arrogance, grandiosity and ego no end, and it's only fair to say that while these accusations continue to baffle him, they seem for the most part fairly leveled. For instance:

"I was watching 'It's a Wonderful Life' the other night, and I thought, yeah, if I had never been here, there would never have been a piano pickup. And all those concerts with Billy Joel and Elton John and all those people, you wouldn't have heard the piano."

Or: "I have people come up to me at every show and say, 'You're kind of like Jerry Lee Lewis, but he can't do what you do.' And that's true."

Or: "I have lots of experiences with [Professor Longhair], and the most rewarding experience to me was I took those photographs [of Longhair] and I ran ads in Rolling Stone for my piano pickup. In the ad it said, 'Professor Longhair probably invented rock and roll, but this is another invention he's getting into now.' Millions of people have never heard of Professor Longhair, and all of a sudden there's a quarter-page ad in Rolling Stone that says he invented rock and roll. And there was a T-shirt you could buy. And we started getting all these orders for T-shirts. Next thing I know, within a year, Professor Longhair is touring the world. Because of me."

But here, on the cusp of the cusp of the millennium, even Ezra Charles may be seeing a glimmer of light shining through the chinks of his grandiosity (and who wants a modest rock star anyhow?).

He asks what a reporter thinks about the "deal with Barkley," days after the aging star suffered his career-ending injury. At first, the reporter mistakes the question for mere sports chat small talk, but it soon becomes clear that Ezra Charles has something else on his mind. He's drawing a parallel between two careers, and two Charleses. Ezra thinks now that he'll probably never feel the grip of the brass ring, in much the same way that Barkley now retires without a championship.

What, in Ezra's case, would constitute the championship ring?

"In my case, it would be to be Billy Joel or Elton John, and instead of putting out a best-of album (Return of the Radio Avengers, in stores now) that will only be appreciated by people in Texas, it would be to put out a best-of album that would be recognized by people all over the world."

But if there are disappointments, there are also consolations, and Ezra, like Barkley, is proud of his body of work.

"My whole career is based on one thing," he says. "I have a real unstoppable love of really good rocking music. And I know when it's rocking and I know when it's not. I know how to make it rock, and I've always known that, and that's what's kept me going all these years. I just get real excited about really good music, and when I can make some I get even more excited. And I go through phases where I do this or that, little slight variations on what it is that I do, but it always has something in common: that ability to rock out."

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad.tyer@houstonpress.com.

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