He Will Survive
Before us now, here at the end days, straddling a piano bench between ourselves and the millennium, we have Mr. Ezra Charles, pianist, songwriter and bandleader. Mr. Charles is a young-looking 55 years old, but starting nonetheless, in his own words, to sag a little. His vaguely roosterish head is still crowned with a thatch of yellow hair pointed, as always, away from his skull. There's a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis to the look, a dollop of Rod Stewart, a smidgen of Sting. Yet the man wearing the look is, unlike these forebears and contemporaries, the most consistently, and heatedly, critically reviled musician that Houston has ever known. I don't think you'd have much luck trying to prove otherwise.
Charles, of course, is aware of this fact, and without being coy about it, it sorta hurts his feelings. Whether said revulsion is deserved is a matter for the critics to discuss, and I'd like to make clear that this is not my purpose here. I've stated my case in the past, and it is a matter of public record. What I wanted to know, in speaking to Ezra Charles here at the end of another year, is whether he feels any sense of vindication as he gazes out at the horizon of a new millennium, past the gravestones -- both literal and metaphoric -- of his critics, and sees an apparently boundless future for himself as a well-paid and satisfied entertainer. For if it is true that only roaches will survive the apocalypse, then it is equally true that Ezra Charles will anchor the house band at the Roach Motel.
They say that if you stand on the banks of the river long enough, you will see the bodies of your enemies float by. I know this to be true. What I want to know from Charles is this: Does the sight of all those bloated corpses fill him with sadness, or glee?
"I think Bob Claypool started that," Charles says, referring simultaneously to the legendary and now deceased Houston Post music critic and the dogged perception of Charles as somehow not quite a "real" musician.
We're sitting in the backyard office Charles has built behind the Bellaire home he shares with his wife and at least one child, and he has just finished telling me about his early career. In the 1970s, when he was known by his birth name of Charlie Helpinstill, Charles made a pile of money as the inventor of the Helpinstill piano pickup, an electronic device allowing for the amplification of acoustic pianos, and later as a piano manufacturer.
"Claypool was a wonderful guy, and when I heard that he had died, it just killed me, because I would love to have sat down and asked him, 'Why? Why did you do that to me?' "
What Claypool had done was review a Rockefeller's double bill of Ezra Charles and the Works and a California band called Little America in 1987.
"It was tiresome," Claypool wrote of the Ezra Charles portion, "it was trite, and it took until nearly the end of the whole bash before any couples hit the dance floor." That's not the whole review, but it accurately conveys the flavor.
"[Claypool] had this theory that he could tell the real thing. He loved George Jones because he was the real thing. He wrote several columns about how there's some people, as soon as they open their mouth, you know they're the real thing. And as soon as I opened my mouth, he knew I wasn't, for some reason. And he imparted that to a generation of music critics in Houston."
This is, of course, a highly speculative version of events, since it fails to explain the links in the chain between Claypool, who died a decade ago, and more recent nemeses such as Hobart Rowland, who arrived from Philadelphia to cover music for this paper in 1995 and left last year with a burning and public hatred of all things Ezra. But it does suggest a consistency.
"I've had a real problem with being accepted as legitimate. There's always an attitude that I'm a dilettante, and I resent that, because I'm not."
Charles makes a good case. He played in his first band at age 14, in Beaumont, with schoolmates Johnny and Edgar Winter. In the late 1960s, as a student at Rice, he played with Beatles wanna-bes Thursday's Children and recorded on the same record label as Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators. Yes, he made some money as a techie, but through it all, he says, he's been a musician first.
On the other hand, there's that nagging question: what kind of musician?
When Charlie Helpinstill adopted the stage name Ezra Charles, he launched a promotional campaign keyed around the phrase "Who is Ezra Charles?" and some would say he still hasn't answered that question. There is the Ezra Charles who anchored a rockabilly trio and styled his hair like Stray Cats-era Brian Setzer. There is the Ezra Charles who figured he could get airplay as a country artist, so he hired a steel guitarist. There is the Ezra who changed the name of his band to Design for Living because he thought that'd be a good name for the "modern rock" sound he wanted to push. There's the Ezra who invented, and apparently played, something he calls techno-bop. And even now the Ezra Charles Web site advises that the consummate professional has added a full set of swing material to his repertoire.
On a more personal note, let us not forget the Ezra Charles who says he's hurt when someone calls him Charlie Helpinstill, even though the brass knocker on his front door is engraved "Helpinstill." Or the Ezra Charles who had a nose job at age 40.
"I didn't have a nose job because I wanted to look different. I had a nose job because I wanted to look like what I looked like. I didn't look like me to me, until I had a nose job. Then I looked like me. Does that make sense?"
It's suggested that perhaps all this genre-hopping might have something to do with the critical perception of Ezra Charles as a dilettante, but Charles has another idea.
"Sometimes I think it's because I'm an intellectual pursuing a primitive art form. What do you think of that? I wrote Claypool a long letter one time, a handwritten letter, I said okay, so I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, and you like guys that get up and say well, you know, we don't know what it is we do, we just get up there and do it."
It's the classic rock myth, and whatever else he may do, and however well he may do it, Ezra Charles does not channel it.
"I've always felt like journalists seem to want charisma to be the ticket to success, rather than discipline," Charles says. "Because in their own lives they would prefer to have their own charisma bring them success rather than disciplined work. I'm so motivated to success, at whatever level I can achieve it, it's a 24-hour-a-day job to me. I spend every day trying to figure out how to make it in music."
In that pursuit, Charles has been accused of arrogance, grandiosity and ego no end, and it's only fair to say that while these accusations continue to baffle him, they seem for the most part fairly leveled. For instance:
"I was watching 'It's a Wonderful Life' the other night, and I thought, yeah, if I had never been here, there would never have been a piano pickup. And all those concerts with Billy Joel and Elton John and all those people, you wouldn't have heard the piano."
Or: "I have people come up to me at every show and say, 'You're kind of like Jerry Lee Lewis, but he can't do what you do.' And that's true."
Or: "I have lots of experiences with [Professor Longhair], and the most rewarding experience to me was I took those photographs [of Longhair] and I ran ads in Rolling Stone for my piano pickup. In the ad it said, 'Professor Longhair probably invented rock and roll, but this is another invention he's getting into now.' Millions of people have never heard of Professor Longhair, and all of a sudden there's a quarter-page ad in Rolling Stone that says he invented rock and roll. And there was a T-shirt you could buy. And we started getting all these orders for T-shirts. Next thing I know, within a year, Professor Longhair is touring the world. Because of me."
But here, on the cusp of the cusp of the millennium, even Ezra Charles may be seeing a glimmer of light shining through the chinks of his grandiosity (and who wants a modest rock star anyhow?).
He asks what a reporter thinks about the "deal with Barkley," days after the aging star suffered his career-ending injury. At first, the reporter mistakes the question for mere sports chat small talk, but it soon becomes clear that Ezra Charles has something else on his mind. He's drawing a parallel between two careers, and two Charleses. Ezra thinks now that he'll probably never feel the grip of the brass ring, in much the same way that Barkley now retires without a championship.
What, in Ezra's case, would constitute the championship ring?
"In my case, it would be to be Billy Joel or Elton John, and instead of putting out a best-of album (Return of the Radio Avengers, in stores now) that will only be appreciated by people in Texas, it would be to put out a best-of album that would be recognized by people all over the world."
But if there are disappointments, there are also consolations, and Ezra, like Barkley, is proud of his body of work.
"My whole career is based on one thing," he says. "I have a real unstoppable love of really good rocking music. And I know when it's rocking and I know when it's not. I know how to make it rock, and I've always known that, and that's what's kept me going all these years. I just get real excited about really good music, and when I can make some I get even more excited. And I go through phases where I do this or that, little slight variations on what it is that I do, but it always has something in common: that ability to rock out."
E-mail Brad Tyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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