A Lighter Shade of Blue
In the summer of 1981, the new music critic at the Houston Chronicle walked down five flights of stairs at 801 Texas Avenue, went through the lobby and stepped into the thick, tormented Gulf Coast afternoon.
At the curb sat a black, low-slung beat-mobile with a couple of blues guys inside. They were wearing shades. They were smoking cigarettes. One was a harmonica man. The other was a guitar player. He introduced himself. He was a tall, lanky man with a mustache, ponytail, pallid complexion and deep, restless eyes. His name was Jerry Lightfoot.
The critic rode shotgun and the beat-mobile ferried him to the other side of town, across the great divide to a weathered house somewhere east of his senses.
Into the sweltering afternoon they sipped Crown Royal and listened as the gentleman of the house, named Big Walter, recalled the old days. Lightfoot was in the process of coaxing keyboardist Big Walter "The Thunderbird," author of Pack Fair and Square, out of retirement.
So began the critic's free-fall into the Houston blues scene, a murky, smoky world of faded glory and vital purpose, of laughter, liquor and late-night drives into strange neighborhoods. The music burned, crossing generations and cultures, between the "fellas" and those white boys who had a clue.
In the dark hours, the city was revisiting its heritage, and the man most responsible was the mustachioed one they called Foots.
At 1 p.m. Florida time on September 12, Colleen Lightfoot answered the phone in her Jacksonville home. It was the emergency room at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Texas. Her husband had been admitted an hour earlier with a head injury. She arranged a flight to Austin.
Jerry was somewhat conscious when admitted. He squeezed hands and communicated by eye movement, said Carolyn Wonderland, his partner-in-rhyme over the years.
"He looked at me one time," Wonderland said. "And that was it."
She told him Colleen was on her way.
Jerry was giving the nurses a hard time. He kept pulling out those stupid needles and tubes. Just before Colleen got there, before midnight, he'd yanked an IV out of his leg.
"It made a big mess," Colleen said. "They had to put him down."
She paused. "I never did see him awake."
Lightfoot remained under heavy sedation. He may have woken up, who knows. "At one point they said he was responsive, but I never saw it," said Charlie Prichard, the slide guitarist who maintained a weeklong vigil until Lightfoot died on September 19.
Regardless, Lightfoot's brain bled profusely. "The bleeding in his brain kept going and going," Colleen said.
At press time, the circumstances surrounding Lightfoot's death remained a mystery.
On that September 12, a Tuesday, he was preparing to drive back to Florida after weekend gigs in Houston and Austin. He'd been delayed while waiting on a new tire and rim for the car.
At 10 a.m. he supposedly fell off a curb outside his Austin motel, the Budget Lodge on I-35. A witness called an ambulance, Colleen says, but to date he has not come forward. The witness has disappeared.
Speculation is that Lightfoot suffered an aneurysm, but whether he had fallen first -- or was assaulted -- is anyone's guess.
"He's pretty clumsy, anyway," said Tommy Vetrano, who bankrolled Lightfoot's Texistentialism album of 2001.
Last year Lightfoot stumbled at home and broke a scapula in his shoulder.
Nevertheless, when she arrived at the hospital, Colleen said, "It looked to me like he had the shit beat out of him. I don't see how a fall off the curb could cause that much damage."
She referred to wounds in the back of the head and scraped-up knees. There were no injuries to the hands that would indicate he struggled or braced himself for a fall.
"He died under slightly suspicious circumstances," said Austin guitarist George Kinney. "I don't know how you kill yourself falling off a curb. I guess it happens, but..."
An autopsy is pending, and the case has been referred to an Austin homicide detective.
Jerry Lightfoot was born September 9, 1951, and raised in Pasadena, Texas. In the hippie days he knocked around Northern California, exploring that link between the blues and psychedelia. The bookends of his influences were Michael Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service, with a pass through Carlos Santana.
By the early '80s Lightfoot was back in Houston, married, with a daughter, Skyler, and a son, Noah.
He teamed up with Michael Knust (Fever Tree) to form the band Special Forces. He then created the Essential Blues Band, mixing and matching the fellas with the white boys and, later, Marie English. He recruited Grady Gaines, who'd played sax for Little Richard. He gigged with Trudy Lynn, Texas Johnny Brown, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Pee Wee Stephens, Pete Mayes, Big Robert, Joe Medwick, Teddy "Cry Cry" Reynolds and others you never heard of. To Lightfoot they were all seminal figures.
"It was an era when a lot of these guys weren't working," said Rory Miggins, proprietor of the old Local Charm in the East End. "Foots was responsible for a lot of these guys coming back and making the connection."
He put some dives on the map, like Local Charm, the Reddi Room and Etta's Lounge on Scott Street, a BYOB place where the nights broke for dawn, the owner "Colby" warming up slabs of ribs for after-hours banquets.
But it was at Local Charm where Lightfoot's playing crested. In 1985 he was the first bluesman to play the converted grocery. "Jerry was my mentor," Miggins said. "He brought in people like Grady Gaines. Without him I wouldn't have been able to do what I did."
Lightfoot played Local Charm at least once a month for ten years. Beyond the warmth and gaiety in that tiny room, bitterness howled inside the guitarist's private reserve; Lightfoot, dogged by a reverse racism, brooded about a lack of appreciation in his hometown.
"He was a lighter shade of blue," Miggins said, "but one of the finest guitar players ever to come out of Houston."
The guitarist, eyes closed, head cocked, unleashed his fury on the frets of "Mr. Blister" -- a Gibson SG -- with a slashing resolve that tensed and towered until strings broke and all those wicked notes were freed.
"Jerry was never more comfortable than when he was onstage with Mr. Blister," Miggins said. "Mr. Blister wasn't a special guitar, but he got a special sound out of it. He treated it rough. One time he broke the neck. He patched it up with bolts and Super Glue, and it never sounded better."
It was a time of genius and madness, a hard and dark journey that led to divorce and drink. There was no time for eating or sleeping. Lightfoot couldn't switch it off. "Jerry took everything seriously," Vetrano said.
"He battled the same demons we all face, but he was always on the edge of disaster," Miggins said. "But I loved him for who he was."
Lightfoot entered AA in 1993. It was either that or death, take your choice. It was a leap of faith. "If there is no God, then there's no meaning to existence," Lightfoot said, as if to plead with the universe.
He and Colleen Marie Patrice Ward, also in AA, married on Easter Sunday 1995, in Hermann Park's Rose Garden. Later that year he released Burning Desire, the title lifted from an AA term. His playing assumed a new clarity and brevity, a lightness of being. He'd come to grips with this imperfect plane.
He needed all that courage when his son Noah, just in his twenties, died suddenly from a rare liver ailment. His son was here, and then he was gone. Lightfoot spread Noah's ashes into San Francisco Bay. A photo of the moment is the back cover of 1999's Better Days CD.
By then, Colleen and Jerry had moved to Florida, to the end of a dirt road surrounded by banana trees. Lightfoot wrote, recorded his "bathroom tapes" and jammed occasionally with a Grateful Dead cover band.
In June, Lightfoot called the ex-music critic a continent away in New Mexico. They hadn't seen each other in three years. There was a gig coming up at Fitzgerald's on September 8.
It was Fitzgerald's again, just like the old days. Rocky Hill opened and prowled for the truth on badass rockin' blues. There was Grady Gaines and his big brassy R&B.
And finally, there was Lightfoot, with Carolyn Wonderland, Tommy DarDar, Charlie Prichard, Trudy Lynn, Tommie Lee Bradley and so many others. Pete Mayes was lifted to the stage in his wheelchair.
It was free-form. "We sat in the back room and made a set list and promptly threw it away," Wonderland said.
"It was good to see him smile again," Prichard said of Lightfoot.
The next night in Austin, Lightfoot played his last, with Prichard and Kinney, at a place called Giddy-Ups. It was his 55th birthday. The final songs he touched were "Born in Houston" and "Rainman's Daughter."
His ashes will be scattered over San Francisco Bay.
Marty Racine was a Houston Chronicle music critic from 1981-2003. He is currently editor of the Ruidoso News, a twice-weekly community newspaper in Lincoln County, New Mexico.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.