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By Angelica Leicht
By Corey Deiterman
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Next to the pedals of a vintage Hammond Porta-B organ sits a tan size-ten Stacy Adams dress shoe, which belongs on Eugene Hawthorne's left foot. The shoe is so well broken in that it normally glides over Hawthorne's thick black cotton socks without a shoehorn, caressing the heel and the joint at the end of the big toe before it is laced up.
But tonight the shoe is temporarily abandoned while Hawthorne is on stage at Local Charm, sitting behind his instrument. Hawthorne is playing a soulful rendition of Horace Silver's "Song for My Father." The organist plays the bass line with his left foot, the chords with his left hand, and the solos with his right hand. He plays with his shoe off for two reasons: to get a physical feel for the rhythm and also because a bare foot is not as hard on the organ pedals.
"It saves the pedal, because they ordinarily do wear out," says Hawthorne. "I don't know if they make replacements for the Porta-B. The organ is almost a collector's item. When I purchased mine here in town in 1971 or '72, it was used. I don't know how much it would cost to buy a Porta-B today."
The Hammond B3 and the Porta-B define the soul-jazz organ sound popularized by Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and Bill Doggett in the 1950s and '60s. Using an organ/ guitar/drums format (with optional sax or horn), these musicians replaced big band chording with fast-moving bebop lines. The melody lines were distinctly flavored with blues phrases, giving rise to the term soul-jazz.
Hawthorne says all the soul-jazz organists play the bass line with their feet. But few, if any, play the bass line with their shoes off. Hawthorne's left hand rocks back and forth in a rhythmic motion while his right hand darts across the keys in exuberant outbursts. His foot frolics on the pedals in crazy mystical harmony with his upper body.
They say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Hawthorne is living proof that such threadbare adages do not fit everyone. For five decades, Hawthorne's been one of the city's top bass guitarists. He broke in with Big Walter Price in 1961, but two years later, after a stint with Clifton Chenier, the bassist assembled his own group, Eugene Hawthorne and the Sonics.
Hawthorne, however, made his first big splash with the Romancers, Incorporated, led by trumpeter Melvin Dismuke. The Romancers were a fixture at the Eldorado Ballroom (see "Preservation Hall," by Carol E. Vaughn, December 16, 1999) between 1965 and 1968. When Dismuke got married, he changed the all-too-amorous name of the band to the Pacesetters. The band played in all of Ray Burnett's clubs: the Cinder Club on Dixie Drive, the Casino Royale on Almeda, the Latin World off Harrisburg and The Sands of Houston. Along with occasional dates at Mother Blues downtown and Shandy's Ballroom on South Main, Hawthorne played every one of the major clubs on the local blues and soul circuit during the '60s.
When Dismuke went into the service, Hawthorne formed his own group again, Rhythm Plus One ("one" for the lone horn player, Leo Polk), with Texas Johnny Brown on guitar. Keyboardist Eugene Carrier later left the band to tour with B.B. King. During the early '70s Hawthorne formed the Peace and Love Band, a trio in which he played bass and organ alongside Brown and Shederick Cormier on tenor sax. The trio had a regular gig at King Leo's on Griggs. The Peace and Love Band stayed together until 1983, when Hawthorne took a break to freelance. In 1992 I.J. Gosey asked Hawthorne to play with him. The bassist stayed with Gosey's band until last year, when he decided to refocus on the organ.
For 31 years Hawthorne also worked at General Electric, from which he retired two years ago. Other people might have whiled away their golden years hunting or fishing. Not Hawthorne. He used the extra time to sharpen his skills on the organ. So at the age of 69, when many people are forgetting most of what they have learned, Hawthorne was reinventing himself and his musical vocabulary. Working with guitarist Gary Cooper, Hawthorne began learning new tunes. He went from straight blues to a jazz style full of blues motives and inflections.
"I love music, and when I'm not playing, I go out and listen to other people," says Hawthorne. "Everybody on my daddy's side, nine boys and four girls, all played music." Family has always been important to Hawthorne. He got married to his wife, Nola Mae, at 19, before he started playing professionally. Eugene and Nola Mae Hawthorne will celebrate their golden anniversary next February.
Being a professional musician is a demanding life. If you reach for the brass ring, you have to be out on the road or make CDs or spend your nights in smoky clubs instead of being at home with your family.
Early on, Hawthorne, like Gosey, made the choice: family first. That's why Hawthorne has spent his entire life in Houston. It wasn't that he lacked the chops to go on the road. The musicians he's played with are among the best the Bayou City has spawned. His bandmates have included people who later toured with Ray Charles, Bobby Bland and B.B. King. Hawthorne himself had an offer to tour America with Grady Gaines, not to mention one to tour Europe with Joe "Guitar" Hughes. Hawthorne always declined.