Consummate Gentleman

American pop culture has been heartily indulging its fascination with a hopped-up, watered-down update of traditional jump blues, evidenced most readily by the rise of neo-swing. But the original swingers were digging that sound decades before it was co-opted by today's retro trendsetters and corporate deities. If there was ever any doubt that Houston's Pete Mayes is one of the originals, his long-awaited Antone's Records CD For Pete's Sake erases it.

"I can't explain it, but there's something about it," Mayes says. "God gave me the gift to put a swing in the blues. It's just natural."

Though he was born and raised south of Anahuac in a community populated mainly by black cowboys, Creole shrimpers and oil-field roughnecks, there's little rural or rustic about the music Mayes has made since forming his band, the Houserockers, more than 40 years ago. Indeed, whether he's reeling off a guitar solo or singing his heart out, the Mayes of For Pete's Sake consistently evokes a smooth elegance, a sound antithetical to the raw blues exclusively favored by some misguided "purists."

Mayes comes by his classy style -- and his appreciation of swing -- through intuition and experience. He's been a devoted fan of the prince of '40s jive, Louis Jordan, since childhood. In the late '50s and early '60s, Mayes's band regularly performed in tailored suits, backing a pair of the biggest names in postwar Texas blues, two innovators who pushed the Lone Star idiom that much closer to jazz: Aaron "T-Bone" Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Playing alongside each of these masters, Mayes ultimately discovered who he is.

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By his own admission, his gentlemanly persona and incomparable sense of style are the primary result of time spent with his idol: the seminal blues sophisticate T-Bone Walker. Mayes was just a curious kid, peering through the window of a rural dance hall, when he was initially inspired by Walker's cool artistry; Mayes later went on to share a stage with Walker, first as a shy 16-year-old copycat and eventually as bandleader backing the star "for many, many gigs" around Texas. Regarding the impact of the lessons he absorbed, Mayes explains, "My music, like T-Bone's, is based in down-home blues, that's true, but there's a little bit of class to it. It's a bit of polish sticking in there." And while Mayes credits Walker with instilling in him a taste for refined blues, he cites Brown as a mentor of another sort: "Gatemouth -- you talk about swing, man. He is swing."

For Pete's Sake showcases not only the synthesis of the influence of Walker and Brown but also Mayes's distinctive R&B sensibility, honed by years of additional experience playing behind singers such as Junior Parker and Little Milton. Though many of the dozen compositions on the new release are structured in the eight- or 12-bar style, accompanied by verse patterns that define traditional blues, there are others ("I Like Your Style," for example) that call to mind the pop methodology of vintage Motown. Whatever the subgenre, there is an engaging honesty in the delivery, a controlled energy that makes the music glide and sway a certain way.

On Mayes's cover of "Next Time You See Me (Things Won't Be the Same)," there's a definitive moment -- pure Pete. Most artists, when performing this song, follow the original phrasing of Junior Parker on his 1956 hit single for Houston's Duke Records. But Mayes softens the song's pace and pulse. Where others might slam the notes down hard, he strokes them gently.

"Some people just pump it, you know," says Mayes. "I pump it some. But I swing it."

The difference between pumping the blues and swinging it is, in a sense, the difference between Texas and everywhere else. As producer Derek O'Brien points out about the new Mayes CD, "It's real Texas music -- the walking bass, sometimes doubled by the left hand on the piano, the drums playing a shuffle or swing beat, and the horn section doing call and response with the singer. It's really the Texas blues style."

For Pete's Sake was a long time coming for Mayes; it's the first major-label release he can proudly call his own. Thanks in part to the efforts of O'Brien, who produced the eight Austin tracks for the disc -- not to mention Jerry Lightfoot and Steve Krase, who co-produced the four Houston tracks from which the project originated -- the album is a breakthrough for Mayes, who had rarely recorded as the featured artist before.

Mayes's prior discography is patchy, to say the least. It includes instrumental appearances behind Junior Parker (on the Mercury label) and Bill Doggett (on the French label Black & Blue). In the late '60s and early '70s, Mayes cut a few singles under his own name for the local Ovide label. In 1984, he released an album called I'm Ready on the Dutch label Double Trouble. But none of his efforts enjoyed significant distribution back home. Nevertheless, Mayes's talent was recognized by filmmaker Alan Govenar, who directed a 1984 documentary focusing on Mayes and fellow Houston legend Joe "Guitar" Hughes titled Battle of the Guitars. That exposure led to another album for Double Trouble, 1986's Texas Guitar Masters, on which Mayes and Hughes shared the billing. More than a decade later, Mayes would turn up on the 1997 Austrian compilation CD Texas Blues Party, Vol. 2, which includes selections Mayes and Hughes had recorded previously for Double Trouble.  

Those examples aside, Mayes has suffered the indignity of having inferior and unauthorized recordings of his performances show up on at least two CDs on the Collectables label, produced by infamous pilferer-of-the-past Roy Ames. Those products are now off the market, thanks to a class-action judgment against Ames won by Mayes, Hughes and several other local blues artists (all of whom are still awaiting settlement during a lengthy appeals process).

But with the release of For Pete's Sake on the Antone's Records label, Mayes feels validated. He credits Lightfoot with triggering the sequence of events that eventually led to the CD, which was released last month in America following several months of success in Europe. It was at Lightfoot's invitation that Mayes and the core of the Houserockers -- his cousin and lifelong pianist Bert Lewis, drummer Johnny Prejean, and bassist Eugene "Sparetime" Murray -- came to record at Rock Romano's studio in the Heights. Lightfoot also proposed the album's title, and the resulting package was offered to Antone's. Additional recording with O'Brien ensued in Austin, and the result is a disc featuring Mayes with both the Houserockers and some of Austin's most respected studio sidemen.

For Pete's Sake also documents the technique Mayes was forced to adopt a few years ago because of medical complications from diabetes: He switched from the traditional flat pick to a thumb pick, trading his beloved Gibson for a smaller Fender Strat guitar.

"I can't hold a straight pick anymore. It'll fly out of my hand," Mayes says. And although his beautiful old Gibson is featured in posed photographs for the CD booklet, in the studio he exclusively used the white Fender he calls Freckles. "I've gotten where I really like the little guitar," he says.

That ability to adapt to adversity with dignity intact has characterized Mayes's life, which has had its share of difficulties and personal losses. "The guy is high character," O'Brien testifies. "The guy has so much courage, so much."

Perhaps the best example of that character can be found back in his hometown of Double Bayou, a predominantly African-American community in the swampy countryside of lower Chambers County. There, he still owns and maintains (even though his residence is more than 60 miles away in Houston) the historic Double Bayou Dancehall, which he inherited from an uncle who had rebuilt and assumed operation of the establishment in 1946. Commitment to the community that raised him keeps Mayes from closing the place, which once served as a regular venue for Amos Milburn, Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Joe Turner, Walker, Brown and scores of others. Today -- except on those rare occasions when the Houserockers come home to play -- it's mostly an after-work watering hole for the locals.

"Yeah, I keep it going; if I didn't, it would be laying flat on the ground. Because that place right there, if it wasn't for that place, I wouldn't be in the music world at all," Mayes says. "And the place means a lot to me. I spend money keeping that place open. I'm not complaining, just explaining.

"Any bridge that you walk over, if that bridge keeps you out of the creek or out of the valley, it's worth looking back at, even if you never cross it again."

One of the highlights of For Pete's Sake is "House Party," a Mayes original that's a tribute to places like his old dance hall. The studio version features a spoken segment during which Mayes addresses various friends from Double Bayou, many of whom have passed away. As the low-end walks a smooth groove and Bert Lewis chimes in on piano and supporting vocals, Mayes calls on the spirits of the folks who've meant the most to him, ad-libbing to re-create "the way they spoke, just common everyday language that they used." Aware that others may not comprehend the personal meaning of the odd expressions and names he utters in this sequence, Mayes shrugs and says, "It's just a novelty song. It's novelty and my history."  

Pete Mayes performs Thursday, September 17, at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond. Showtime is 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $5. For info, call 266-9294.

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