In Houston, home of the most significant African-American-owned recording empire of the 1950s, there remains today an ever-decreasing group of players who were actually there. In the Fifth Ward studios of Duke and Peacock Records, these people helped define modern blues and early R&B. Most worked behind stars such as Big Mama Thornton, Junior Parker or Bobby Bland. Only a few of the city's surviving Duke-Peacock alumni were actual headliners then, and perhaps the most unusual of those is the artist known as Big Walter The Thunderbird.
This week he's due for a rare public appearance to celebrate his 87th birthday. This benefit concert will reunite "The Bird That Flies So Swift from Coast to Coast" (as he's billed himself for decades) with his former guitarist Jerry Lightfoot. Befitting the guest of honor's historical stature, the event also is being commemorated via a limited-edition poster, compliments of an Austin-based visual artist whose early psychedelic work defined key iconic elements of the old cosmic cowboy scene. Put it all together, and it just might be the most intriguing time trip any self-respecting, blues-loving ex-hippie Texan could hope for.
Born August 2, 1914, in rural Gonzalez County, Walter Travis Price worked the railroads for much of the first 40 years of his life, occasionally singing gospel on the side. But in the late 1940s he began to tinker with the piano and instinctively gravitated toward the barrelhouse boogies and jive-talking blues he had heard along the Katy and Texas-Pacific tracks. By the mid-1950s the man known as Big Walter had cut some regional hits for San Antonio-based TNT Records.
Big Walter The Thunderbird's 87th Birthday Bash
Continental Club, 3700 Main Street
Eugene Hawthorne and Oscar O'Bear open. Sunday, August 5; 713-529-9899
Then in 1956 he followed the lead of his former San Antonio roommate, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and moved to Houston to record for the Peacock label.
"I came to Houston [because] the entertainment field here was so hot ," he says. "Blues was jumping [here] back then!"
After a pause, he adds, "But it was all segregated, so it was just a black thing And the other side, they didn't want their kids to listen to that kind of music. But for the black folks back then, Houston was really alive."
During the heyday of his Peacock years (1956-57), Big Walter released ten original 45s. "Shirley Jean" was the biggest hit, followed by "Hello Maria" and "Pack Fair and Square." That last number was later covered by the J. Geils Band on two widely popular early-1970s albums, indirectly introducing Big Walter to the baby-boomer generation.
He fondly remembers that lucky break, which not only generated some much-appreciated royalty payments but also triggered his discovery among younger blues-rockers. "Now in later years to come, some of the white kids started hearing my music anyway. And they liked it," he says emphatically. "And that really turned the tables to try to help us, when we began to be able to draw people from the other side of the fence."
Among those new friends, one would become his special protégé. At that time, Jerry Lightfoot was a Pasadena teenager doodling on guitars and dreaming of rock 'n' roll. But after a chance encounter with The Thunderbird, his life would never be the same.
"I met Big Walter in the early '70s," the now-Austin-based Lightfoot recalls. "Once I got to know him, I'd go out there, sometimes every day, and practice with him And man, he used to chew my ass every day! Telling me all the shit I was doing wrong."
Big Walter had a unique instructional approach. "I taught him how to sound like Jerry Lightfoot, instead of everyone else," he says. "You can hear it in his guitar playing today. I said, 'Listen to the piano. Listen to what it's telling you! It's telling you something, so listen!' And that's what he did."
Reminiscing about those days, Lightfoot recalls an especially emblematic moment. "[O]nce he had some older musician friends there, and we all started playing together. Then it was my time to solo. So, man, I just took off. I wanted to show them that I could really play And about halfway through it, Walter stopped the whole damn band. He sat there, shook his head and looked at me. He said, 'Boy, what are you doing?' I said, 'Well, you know, I'm trying to play the blues here.' He said, 'You gonna need to stay after school.' "
Lightfoot adds, "And one of the first things he told me was one of the truest things I've ever found in music: It's not what you play -- it's what you don't play. And it's that space in there that gives it push and pull."
Though his more recent creations often venture well beyond blues, Lightfoot believes The Thunderbird's influence is inescapable. "A lot of blues guitar players learned how to play from other guitar players," he says. "But I learned how to play behind an old-style piano player. And it's a different way."
Having recently completed work on a forthcoming CD, Texistentialism, Lightfoot clearly is pleased to reunite with his former bandleader, who will at least sing with his former pupil. Though he suffers from arthritis, Big Walter may find the Continental Club's piano too enticing to ignore, too. "You know, I haven't seen him so much the past three years ," Lightfoot says. "But he is still the boss man to me."
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The historic occasion of Big Walter's 87th birthday bash is also the subject of an original poster painted and designed by Jim Franklin, the guy who single-handedly established the lowly armadillo as a symbol of Lone Star counterculture. "I started doing music-related posters in Austin back in '68, '69, for the Vulcan Gas Company And that's where I first began using armadillos as a basic motif," he says. "And that got to be pretty popular "
Following the demise of Vulcan, Franklin was part of a circle of Austin friends who opened Armadillo World Headquarters, the giant nightclub that would soon become the temple of Texas hippiedom. "I was, I guess you might say, the artist-in-residence at the Armadillo. I did a lot of the posters, and they got noticed. And that way I helped further the genre of music posters as art." Indeed, not only has Franklin's work graced album covers, it also has appeared in various books, exhibitions and the archives of the Barker Texas History Collections at the University of Texas at Austin.
Incorporating the images of older African-American blues performers into his paintings is nothing new to Franklin. "One of the first posters I did was of Mance Lipscomb," he recalls. He's also depicted Freddie King, Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters and countless other legends -- all former contemporaries of The Thunderbird, and all now deceased. That cold fact makes Franklin's new poster (autographed copies of which will be sold to raise funds for Big Walter), and the event it commemorates, all the more special.
Though he's largely homebound today, Big Walter survives. "Tell the people this old man is still awake," he says. "And we're going to have a party one more time."