Houston Music

Ervin Charles, featuring Richard Earl

A Texas blues guitarist whose early-1950s performances directly inspired guys such as Lonnie Brooks, Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker, Ervin Charles was just beginning to earn wider recognition when he died last year in Beaumont. Unlike his nationally established friends, Charles had pretty much stuck to playing humble joints around the Golden Triangle throughout his career. But when Alligator Records brought Brooks, Hunter and Walker together to record Lone Star Shootout (hailed as the No. 1 blues album of 1999), the guitarslingers insisted that their former mentor be included in the sessions. That break pulled Charles out of obscurity and into the international blues spotlight -- a belated glory sadly cut short by his death at the age of 68.

Charles, however, did leave us this posthumously issued document of his considerable talents -- an 11-track set of delightfully low-down, honky-tonking blues shuffles and ballads. Featuring his former bandmate and master vocalist Richard Earl, Greyhound Blues is as unpretentious and gritty as an old bus station: Nothing fancy, but it can get you where you need to go.

To put it another way: Listening to this modestly packaged, minor-label effort is akin to stopping randomly at some dingy, time-worn eatery along a Piney Woods back road. There's no reason to expect anything special, but once you've sampled the offerings, you realize that the joint -- though limited in range -- serves up some deliciously greasy chow. Like that comfort food, Charles's music is familiar in form and content. It's nothing new, just simple, savory staples that have satisfied for generations.

The lead-off track, a remake of the Elmore James number "So Mean to Me," highlights Charles's chunky, string-bending guitar licks and capable singing (as well as some spontaneous moaning). But it also reveals a deep-in-the-groove rhythm section accented with harmonica by guest Paul Orta (whose first-rate honking resurfaces on four additional songs).

"All I Want Is You" introduces the chitlin-circuit soul pleadings and straight-from-the-pulpit inflections of Earl, whose vocal stylings sometimes evoke Percy Sledge. Earl also sings superbly on the minor-key ballad "Sweet Woman's Love" (plus contributes a series of wrenching piano arpeggios to the mix) and testifies with righteous fervor on "My Love Is Real."

But it's Charles who lays down the potent vocal and instrumental leads on the title track, a 12-bar meditation about a woman who has up and gone. Kicking off with a guitar solo that would make T-Bone Walker swell with pride, Charles sings the classic AAB verse pattern in a voice whose timbre communicates both self-pity and determined pride. Whatever its musical merits, the performance speaks to some basic truths about the human condition. It's real. And in an industry of poseurs aplenty, that's all the more remarkable.

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Roger Wood
Contact: Roger Wood