A Lighter Shade of Blue

In the summer of 1981, the new music critic at the Houston Chronicle walked down five flights of stairs at 801 Texas Avenue, went through the lobby and stepped into the thick, tormented Gulf Coast afternoon.

At the curb sat a black, low-slung beat-mobile with a couple of blues guys inside. They were wearing shades. They were smoking cigarettes. One was a harmonica man. The other was a guitar player. He introduced himself. He was a tall, lanky man with a mustache, ponytail, pallid complexion and deep, restless eyes. His name was Jerry Lightfoot.

The critic rode shotgun and the beat-mobile ferried him to the other side of town, across the great divide to a weathered house somewhere east of his senses.

Into the sweltering afternoon they sipped Crown Royal and listened as the gentleman of the house, named Big Walter, recalled the old days. Lightfoot was in the process of coaxing keyboardist Big Walter "The Thunderbird," author of Pack Fair and Square, out of retirement.

So began the critic's free-fall into the Houston blues scene, a murky, smoky world of faded glory and vital purpose, of laughter, liquor and late-night drives into strange neighborhoods. The music burned, crossing generations and cultures, between the "fellas" and those white boys who had a clue.

In the dark hours, the city was revisiting its heritage, and the man most responsible was the mustachioed one they called Foots.

At 1 p.m. Florida time on September 12, Colleen Lightfoot answered the phone in her Jacksonville home. It was the emergency room at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Texas. Her husband had been admitted an hour earlier with a head injury. She arranged a flight to Austin.

Jerry was somewhat conscious when admitted. He squeezed hands and communicated by eye movement, said Carolyn Wonderland, his partner-in-rhyme over the years.

"He looked at me one time," Wonderland said. "And that was it."

She told him Colleen was on her way.

Jerry was giving the nurses a hard time. He kept pulling out those stupid needles and tubes. Just before Colleen got there, before midnight, he'd yanked an IV out of his leg.

"It made a big mess," Colleen said. "They had to put him down."

She paused. "I never did see him awake."

Lightfoot remained under heavy sedation. He may have woken up, who knows. "At one point they said he was responsive, but I never saw it," said Charlie Prichard, the slide guitarist who maintained a weeklong vigil until Lightfoot died on September 19.

Regardless, Lightfoot's brain bled profusely. "The bleeding in his brain kept going and going," Colleen said.

At press time, the circumstances surrounding Lightfoot's death remained a mystery.

On that September 12, a Tuesday, he was preparing to drive back to Florida after weekend gigs in Houston and Austin. He'd been delayed while waiting on a new tire and rim for the car.

At 10 a.m. he supposedly fell off a curb outside his Austin motel, the Budget Lodge on I-35. A witness called an ambulance, Colleen says, but to date he has not come forward. The witness has disappeared.

Speculation is that Lightfoot suffered an aneurysm, but whether he had fallen first -- or was assaulted -- is anyone's guess.

"He's pretty clumsy, anyway," said Tommy Vetrano, who bankrolled Lightfoot's Texistentialism album of 2001.

Last year Lightfoot stumbled at home and broke a scapula in his shoulder.

Nevertheless, when she arrived at the hospital, Colleen said, "It looked to me like he had the shit beat out of him. I don't see how a fall off the curb could cause that much damage."

She referred to wounds in the back of the head and scraped-up knees. There were no injuries to the hands that would indicate he struggled or braced himself for a fall.

"He died under slightly suspicious circumstances," said Austin guitarist George Kinney. "I don't know how you kill yourself falling off a curb. I guess it happens, but..."

An autopsy is pending, and the case has been referred to an Austin homicide detective.

Jerry Lightfoot was born September 9, 1951, and raised in Pasadena, Texas. In the hippie days he knocked around Northern California, exploring that link between the blues and psychedelia. The bookends of his influences were Michael Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service, with a pass through Carlos Santana.

By the early '80s Lightfoot was back in Houston, married, with a daughter, Skyler, and a son, Noah.

He teamed up with Michael Knust (Fever Tree) to form the band Special Forces. He then created the Essential Blues Band, mixing and matching the fellas with the white boys and, later, Marie English. He recruited Grady Gaines, who'd played sax for Little Richard. He gigged with Trudy Lynn, Texas Johnny Brown, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Pee Wee Stephens, Pete Mayes, Big Robert, Joe Medwick, Teddy "Cry Cry" Reynolds and others you never heard of. To Lightfoot they were all seminal figures.

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Marty Racine