The unexpected passing of Doyle Bramhall of heart failure November 12 has caused Lonesome, Onry and Mean to revisit the man's career. And while Bramhall is probably best known for his association with Stevie Ray Vaughan, who cut several of Bramhall's compositions and copped his singing style, Bramhall's greatest musical achievements may have been during his tenure with Marc Benno and the Nightcrawlers.
Benno and Bramhall formed the Nightcrawlers after the break up of Texas Storm, Jimmie Vaughan's band that included Bramhall as drummer and vocalist. The Nightcrawlers recorded a stellar string of albums in the mid-70s and had quite a bit of buzz but never really caught that one big break. We caught up with Benno, who was in a reminiscing mood, via phone today.
"I didn't fully realize until I was at the funeral what a big part Doyle had played in my life," Benno said. "It was a very moving service."
Benno recalled rough and tumble days in Austin in the early 70s "when we were all strung out and running wild."
"Doyle could be this gentle guy, but he was one of the best street fighters ever, just a tough motherfucker," laughs Benno. "Doyle's cousin Demetrius may have been the meanest son-of-a-bitch to ever come out of Irving, and I think he affected Doyle's makeup a lot. Demetrius was a karate expert, he could literally kill a man. I think Doyle tried to live up to some of that and had those kind of anger issues in him."
Bramhall gentled over the years, according to Benno, but there was a lot of fighting and hell-raising before that happened.
"Doyle, Jimmie [Vaughan], Stevie Ray and I played the first Willie Nelson picnic and we just got all into it and played too long. Someone told us later that Willie had 'em pull the plug on us after an hour and a half," he laughs. "So we got off the stage and there was this big cowboy standing in the back of his pickup, and he started mouthing off about how much we sucked, how we played too long and how we weren't even country, and Doyle said why don't you mind your own business.
"So cowboy starts cussing at Doyle and Doyle tells him to fuck himself and the cowboy -- he must've weighed 250 pounds -- jumps off the pickup at Doyle. But Doyle had a full unopened can of Budweiser in his hand and he hit that dude in the face with it and it just exploded all over. And blood is running down that guy's face and Doyle gets on top of him and beats him to a bloody pulp. And nobody was about to try to stop him."
"Doyle finally rolls off this guy and I go over to him and he's sitting there in the dirt crying, almost whimpering, saying stuff like I'm sorry for doing that, why do I do stuff like that. I honestly think that was one of the points in his life that straightened Doyle up, got him past the anger and wildness he had."
Benno also spoke about how much Bramhall's funeral service affected him.
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"I don't know if his cousin or young Doyle put together the songs they played at the funeral, but it was very moving to me. It was like everything that Doyle and I had lived with musically, like a log of everything that Doyle and I had always loved," says Benno.
Asked to name one special memory about Bramhall, Benno recalled a recording session in Fort Worth with B.J. Thomas in the early 90s.
"B.J. was cutting one of my songs and young Doyle played this amazing, screaming sort of metal but with a melody guitar solo. And Big Doyle was just standing there listening to the playback, and he said 'do you want a harmony part right there?' And B. J., who is an incredible singer in his own right, says 'hell yeah,' so Doyle walked into the booth and sang the most beautiful yet simple part and it just blew our minds.
"And what that showed me was how deep Doyle's musical knowledge was, what he knew and understood about how sounds work, how they fit together to make something pleasurable. I don't think most people understood his musical depth. It made him very special."