Grady Gaines's leap onto Little Richard's piano in the 1956 film Don't Knock the Rock was an iconic early rock and roll moment.
Grady Gaines's leap onto Little Richard's piano in the 1956 film Don't Knock the Rock was an iconic early rock and roll moment.
Photos courtesy of Gulf Coast Entertainment

Grady Gaines, the Upsetter

Grady Gaines, who in a few years would be playing in the most important rock and roll band on the planet, was 12 years old throwing newspapers when he got the idea he wanted to play saxophone.

"There was no air conditioning, so the windows were open and I kept hearing this great music coming out of people's houses," says Gaines, who fronted the SPA-sponsored Houston blues revue "Preserving a Legacy" at Jones Hall in February. "Pretty soon I found out it was Louis Jordan and just like that, I decided I wanted to play saxophone."

Gaines's neighbor, Roger Paul Wallace, happened to be a sax master. Wallace was courted by Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but he didn't want to go on the road. Instead he counseled the young Gaines, introducing him around and showing him the ropes.


Grady Gaines' 78th Birthday Party

9 p.m. Friday, May 18, at The Big Easy Social and Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby, 713-523-9999 or

Also tutored at E.L. Smith Junior High by venerable Houston big-band leader Calvin Owens, Gaines was literally present at the birth of rock and roll. In fact he was early, helping usher in its arrival by working with Don Robey's illustrious Duke-Peacock session band on such legendary recordings as Big Walter's "Pack Fair and Square" and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's "Dirty Work at the Crossroads."

Those songs helped define the golden period of Duke-Peacock and Houston's sophisticated blues scene. And a couple of years before Little Richard Penniman sang "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lam-bam-boom" into a microphone and his meteoric single "Tutti Frutti" changed the world forever, the young Houston saxophonist met Penniman at Lyons Avenue nightspot Club Matinee, often referred to as the "Cotton Club of the South."

"Richard lived in Houston several years," recalls Gaines, who celebrates his 78th birthday Friday with a show at The Big Easy. "When I first met him, he was lead singer for the Tempo Toppers, who were a regular act at the Matinee."

Aside from the Tempo Toppers gigs, Penniman did a few sessions for Robey in 1953, but those blues sides didn't go anywhere. What he was doing live was not what producers were getting out of him in the studio.

Meanwhile, when Penniman wasn't working Club Matinee, he was touring hard. His goal was to put together a road band that could match his energy and emotional fury; that band became the Upsetters.

"I just got in at the right moment, right before he hit," demurs Gaines, who was still in high school when he began performing with the Tempo Toppers. "Richard loved a swinging sax section and that was our job, make it swing. We could really cook, the hottest band around.

"And I had enough formal music knowledge from studying with Calvin and working with Joe Scott [arranger and composer of many Duke-Peacock sides] that I became the bandleader," he adds.

Art Rupe of Los Angeles-based Specialty Records bought Penniman's contract, and Rupe quickly sent him to New Orleans to record with not-yet-legendary producer "Bump" Blackwell. The Upsetters were notoriously red-hot even then, causing a commotion anywhere they were booked — Nashville, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Houston — but weren't invited on this trip.

"It didn't really bother us," Gaines explains. "We were his road band. To us, that was just a record deal and those guys in New Orleans were great musicians."

Following Penniman's national breakout, Gaines would figure in several Little Richard recordings, including "Send Me Some Loving" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." His time with Penniman also involved three movie appearances — including the now-iconic scene in Don't Knock the Rock (1956) where Gaines famously jumps onto Penniman's piano during his sax solo — but was cut short when the Georgia wild man had a religious experience.

Little Richard suddenly abandoned his rock and roll career in 1957 in the midst of an Australian tour with Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent. Gaines recalls those days as some of his most exciting ever.

"As a band, the Upsetters never really saw any downtime," he says now. "All the big promoters knew us. Sure, it was strange for us, him just deciding to quit like that. But that religious thing had always been there in part of Richard."

With Little Richard suddenly out of the picture, the band contracted to tour behind King Records hitmaker Little Willie John and smooth-singing sensation Sam Cooke on a package tour; both artists were ushering in a new, as-yet-unnamed genre called soul. Gaines would be a vital part of the new direction blues and rock and roll would take, helping Bobby Bland record another proto-soul side, Two Steps from the Blues, in 1961.

"Yeah, no one had named [soul] yet," Gaines laughs, "but that music grabbed people."

The Upsetters became Cooke's full-time touring band. Gaines — who prefaces his statement with "I don't like to talk about this stuff, but there's nobody else much alive that knows this" — recalls a night in St. Louis when Cooke and the Upsetters tore up Kiel Auditorium, a huge sporting venue in St. Louis.

"I was always pretty flamboyant, playing to the crowd," admits Gaines. "We went into these things like it was a show, you know? Anyway, by the time the St. Louis show was over, women were throwing panties onstage, hollering all kinds of crazy stuff. It took 15 policemen with their arms locked together to get me to the bus that night."

After one 45-day run with Cooke that ended in Atlanta in December 1964, the Upsetters booked themselves a short tour while Cooke flew to Los Angeles for business. They were scheduled to rejoin Cooke in Miami in two weeks, so the band drove nonstop from Atlanta to a gig in Oklahoma City.

"We were in the lobby checking in when we heard on the television that Sam had been shot," says Gaines, who played on Cooke's smash hits "Bring It on Home to Me" and "Twisting the Night Away."

But these were the Upsetters, and they soon landed with James Brown.

"We were just so hot and so well-known by all the promoters, anyone who was going out was liable to hire us," says Gaines.

Gaines was ever in demand for his tone, his musical knowledge and his showmanship, and also toured with Gladys Knight, the Supremes, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Taylor and the great Baytown-born showman Joe Tex.

When musical tastes changed in the '70s, Gaines frequently took the Upsetters to Europe. He also recorded some sides of his own, such as "Let Your Thing Hang Down," a response to the popularity of Grover Washington's hit "Mister Magic."

In 1989, Gaines recorded a blistering live album featuring Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Big Robert Smith and legendary songwriter/rum-drinker Joe Medwick, Blacktop Blues-A-Rama Vol. 4. He also released studio albums High Gain (1987) and Horn of Plenty (1992).

Gaines's most recent triumph was as headliner and bandleader for "Preserving a Legacy," the first blues show ever to play Jones Hall and an all-Houston-talent event. He describes playing the home of the Houston Symphony as a "wonderful moment."

"But as special as that night was, in the end it was just like any other gig," Gaines philosophizes. "I just put it together the best way I can and hope the people like it."

Gaines's show these days is a mixture of blues, soul and rock and roll that screams "Houston." And he always goes back to his roots.

"We played a big wedding reception last week," says Gaines, "and a lady requested 'Tutti Frutti.' By the time we finished it, the whole place was jumping."

From the Apollo Theater to The Big Easy, jumping joints are at the core of the life of one of Houston's all-time great entertainers.


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