It's a common conversational icebreaker in blues clubs all over Houston's east side, when one of the regulars wants to make a stranger feel welcome: "Hey man, do you know a long-haired white boy named Jerry Lightfoot? How is that blue-eyed soul brother doing, anyway?"
He's doing much better, thank you. He's got a new tape out, Burning Desire, which his old friend Johnny "Clyde" Copeland is helping to bring to the attention of people in the music industry. Lightfoot, meanwhile, has got his bad habits down to nicotine and caffeine, which, without going into detail on his past problems, is a considerable improvement. And finally, he has his schedule synchronized with "Spare Time" Murray, so they're back playing together with Pee Wee Stephens. All in all, Jerry Lightfoot's doing pretty good.
At 43, Lightfoot is one of the younger relations of Houston's blues family. He's been a professional musician for more than 25 years, but around here that's about how long it takes to sort out your own style. Becoming a bluesman requires one of the longest educations imaginable. As Lightfoot puts it, "I didn't have to get into some blues revival; I was just being who I was. It's interesting, being from Texas and listening to AM radio before the Beatles hit, this was pop music for us. I had to go to California to realize everyone didn't grow up on Jimmy Reed."
Burning Desire is the product of learning in a lot of classrooms, from a wide variety of instructors. This is, after all, a man whose teenage nickname was "the fifth Elevator" because of his close association with Houston's legendary 13th Floor Elevators, and who, after 20 years of mentoring, refers to blues piano legend Big Walter Price as simply "the boss."
Lightfoot cites the Elevators' Stacy Sutherland as his biggest guitar influence. "He's the first guy I heard that ... encompassed all kinds of things, from Johnny Cash to Bo Diddley," he says. "The Elevators were a rock and roll band that had very definite blues roots. That was the beautiful thing about '60s music: all bets were off. I watched the Elevators one night in Austin and Stacy set up this simple riff and just chased it around the room. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen, and he did it on maybe $100 worth of equipment."
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There was, of course, more to Houston's late '60s music scene than the psychedelic bands that played Market Square. Many of the city's veteran bluesmen fondly remember "the hippie days" when they found employment and an appreciative new audience in the long-haired subculture. For a generation of young white musicians -- Johnny Winter, Rocky Hill, Keith Ferguson and Lightfoot -- it was an opportunity to learn from then-obscure but undeniably great blues artists, who in turn were pleased to discover that their contributions had been noticed and appreciated. Lightfoot remembers, "I already played the blues, but here was a chance to play what I loved with the masters of it. When I was starting to play guitar these cats didn't know who the hell I was, but they figured you're here, it's showtime. And you got up and played, and if you got your ass kicked on-stage -- which I did regularly for a long time -- you got right back up. It's like Big Walter used to tell me, 'If the horse throws you, what you going to do?'"
By the early '70s Lightfoot was playing bass with Rocky Hill -- Houston's other answer to the perennial question, "Can a white boy play the blues?" -- in the house band at Irene's, a now-defunct blues and zydeco club on Studewood.
"Rocky and I kind of went to different schools together. We were both good friends with Albert Collins, but I don't remember if the three of us were ever in the same room at the same time. Rocky really studied those old blues cats, knew them all. I learned a lot from Rocky. He introduced me to Juke Boy Bonner at a gig at Liberty Hall not long before [Bonner] died. I asked him to play "Struggle Here in Houston" and he got tears in his eyes. It blew him away that I even knew about the song and it just broke my heart, it was as true as anything I've ever heard. It really is a struggle here in Houston."
In the mid-70s a new musical trend swept through the live-music scene like a hurricane. (Basic blues chronology: the "hippie days" were the good old days of three or four low-paying gigs a week; the "disco years" meant day jobs and playing for free to stay in shape.) Many Texas musicians, Lightfoot included, migrated to California to ride out the storm. There had been a Texas-hippie consulate in San Francisco since the late '60s, when Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers creator Gilbert Shelton and other deranged University of Texas alumni started Rip-Off Press. Rip-Off became a focal point for expatriate Texans; it was there that Lightfoot's friends Mark Naftalin -- pianist with the seminal psychedelic blues band Mother Earth -- and Nick Gravenities of Electric Flag introduced him to Mike Bloomfield. The disco era made for lean times for blues musicians, even in California. It also made for friendships that lasted for decades -- in some cases, even beyond the grave. The Gravenities-penned "Fantasy World," which appears on Burning Desire, reiterates a common thread through the cassette: mourning for friends, such as Bloomfield, who died after becoming their own worst enemy, and celebrating those who struggled with themselves and won.
It's a struggle that Lightfoot knows firsthand, and a victory celebration that he takes part in on a daily basis. For years, conversations between local blues-scenesters included raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders when Lightfoot's name came up. It was no secret that he was wrestling with some very powerful demons of his own making, and it was a considerably relieved community that recently noted the appearance on-stage of a happier, clear-eyed Lightfoot, a Lightfoot fueled by nothing stronger than coffee. In classic Ann Richards-style, Lightfoot prefers to skip the gory details of his years as a stereotypical down-and-out bluesman and speak of those times in general terms. "I just had that romantic attitude that you gotta suffer if you want to sing the blues, which is absolute bullshit. You build a monster, except the monster is you," he says. "You start out doing something because you think it's enhancing the music, and then it turns into where you're not going to do the music unless you have that thing."
During those years, Lightfoot tried several times to step back from the cliff's edge by relocating to California or Chicago, only to find himself in the same predicament in new surroundings. Before one trip to California several years ago, there was a going-away party at the Continental Zydeco Ballroom, where it was obvious that the headline act was a troubled man. "I was going away, all right," Lightfoot admits, "and not to California. It's like 'Spare Time' used to say, 'You got a real death-defying act going there.'" Although Lightfoot credits much of his recovery to friends and band members such as Murray and Price (who's listed as "spiritual advisor" on Burning Desire), he wonders now if his problems may not have been a spectator sport for some. "The entertainment industry is such," he explains, "that there's people that get a vicarious thrill out of seeing if you're going to make it through or not."
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The experiences -- good and bad -- that Lightfoot survived are evident when he performs. At the Chelsea Pub recently, his newfound self-confidence showed as he sang Gravenities' "Born in Houston," combining a resigned, bitter acceptance in the line, "All you can say is, he sure died young," with a relieved delight that the odds of Gravenities adding a verse about him were greatly diminished. During the wailing interludes with harp player Steve Krase, Lightfoot drew notes from his strings that produced ecstatic grimaces Jim Carrey would envy.
"I've done a lot of things that maybe I wish I hadn't," Lightfoot admits, "but now that I've made it through all that, this is my blues. I'm more at ease with my playing than I've ever been. I'm enjoying myself for the first time. It's coming to realize you have your own unique voice. I can't write a song about riding a boxcar, I never picked cotton. I love to hear cats that did those things and can make entertainment of it, but I'm this white cat that grew up on blues and rock and roll. I've paid a lot of dues; still got a lot of learning to do."
Burning Desire is an aural photo album of Lightfoot's extended family and travels. Burt Wills provides rhythm guitar and the selection "You Gotta Rock," while Price contributes "The Preacher Walks and Plays the Blues," on which he subs for Lightfoot"s regular piano man, Pee Wee Stephens. Adding to the Houston-ness of it all are guest appearances by Trudy Lynn, Grady Gaines and Joe "Guitar" Hughes, while Krase bends notes Chicago-style in a way that emphasizes Lightfoot's sojourns to the Windy City.
Two uncredited collaborators are Johnny Copeland and Holly Bullamore, Copeland's manager, who's shopping Lighfoot's tape around to various record labels. Copeland has known Lightfoot since the days when Lightfoot's Essential Band played behind Trudy Lynn, and Bullamore expresses certainty that Burning Desire will get the attention of someone in the industry. "Johnny was teasing me the other day," Bullamore says, "about spending more time helping his friends than I do helping him. Then he told me, if anybody's due for a break, it's Jerry Lightfoot.