Another of Houston's unique blues treasures, the effusive, ebullient and always stylish pianist Earl Gilliam, has moved on to the big juke joint in the sky. Gilliam, 81, died peacefully this morning at his home in Tomball of advanced lung disease. He had suffered from emphysema and other lung complications the past few years and was hospitalized several times, most recently with a collapsed lung.
Born in New Waverly on January 13, 1930, Gilliam moved to Houston when he was 18, just in time to be part of the first historic wave of Houston piano giants: Amos Milburn, Teddy Reynolds, Lonny Lyons and Elmore Nixon. After playing country-western gigs with his cousin for a while, Gilliam got his first major break when he was picked up by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, the charismatic, hard-touring wild man who played guitar and fiddle.
In an amazing career that spanned more than 60 years, Gilliam literally played with virtually all of Houston's greatest talents at one time or another, plus a host of national blues acts that passed through places like Shady's Playhouse, where he ran the house band for years.
For five years in the '50s, Gilliam was part of Albert "Iceman" Collins' band that took the world by storm. After his stint with Collins, Gilliam and Little Joe Washington worked together in the wild border joints of El Paso and Juarez.
Back home in the '60s, Gilliam settled in at Shady's, one of the primary locations for blues on the Gulf Coast. A sideman/bandleader for hire, he worked extensively with Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny Clyde Copeland, T-Bone Walker and songwriting genius Percy Mayfield.
In his book Down In Houston, historian Dr. Roger Wood notes that Shady's Playhouse served as the main site for the mentoring of up-and-coming younger blues players. Pianist/composer Teddy Reynolds, one of Houston's most celebrated modern bluesmen, told Wood that he had been mentored by Gilliam at Shady's.
He also performed alongside many of the top female singers of his day, including Lavelle White, Trudy Lynn, Luvenia Lewis, and giants Big Mama Thornton and Little Esther Phillips.
Gilliam also had his own recording career, and while his catalog is not extensive, it includes tunes like "Petite Baby," "Don't Make Me Late, Baby," "Wrong Doin' Woman," and "Just You and I" that have become Houston blues standards. Late in his career, Gilliam teamed with Joe "Guitar" Hughes and also gigged extensively with guitarist I.J. Gosey.
Also in his later years, Gilliam became known for his famous "Doghouse Jams," informal Sunday affairs in the shop behind his home. Gilliam and his wife would barbecue and people would just show up.
Gilliam would announce these impromptu parties by phoning KPFT during the early Sunday-morning blues show; host Mrs. Vee would happily announce that "Earl is in the doghouse." This was code to let people know that one of the jams would be happening that afternoon.
According to Houston Blues Society president Boyd Bluestein, Gilliam's influence went far beyond his own playing and recording.
"Earl was mentor and huge influence on many of the younger guys who've come into the scene, guys like Larry Evans and Jonn Richardson," noted Bluestein. "And Earl was just one of those faces that blues lovers associate with Houston blues. This is a tragic day for all of us, a huge loss that can't be filled."
Longtime friend and associate Sheri Goodman noted that Gilliam added something unique to the blues sound of Houston and the Gulf Coast.
"The most important legacy Earl leaves behind is that he forged his own signature sound. It was a jazzy Texas blues with a Gulf Coast flavor, reminiscent of his Louisiana roots," Goodman writes via email.
"He never played a song the same way twice, they always went off into the most amazing jazzy blues riffs with all the players contributing equally, lead masterfully by Earl and featuring him out front.
"One young player once noted about Earl that a song is just an excuse for Earl to really play. No one played the blues like Earl, he was a true original."
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Gilliam is survived by his wife, Carrie Jean Gilliam; brother, Jessie Gilliam; sister, Betty Joyce Shields; and 10 children.
His funeral will be held Saturday, October 29, at Carl Barnes Funeral Home, 746 W. 22nd Ave. There will be a viewing beginning at 10 a.m., with the funeral service to follow at noon.