Ezra Charles: King of Texas-Style Piano
Ezra Charles: King of Texas-Style Piano
Photo by Pin Lim, courtesy of Ezra Charles

Ezra Charles Will Boogie-Woogie Your Hurricane Blues Away

This showbiz cliche has been heard so often it's lost its relevance until times like these, but the show must go on. You don't need a music veteran of Ezra Charles' stature to prove it, but that's exactly what he plans to do this Friday night at the Heights Theater. Like many, Charles' house was damaged by Hurricane Harvey-related flooding. And, just like everyone else affected by the storm, he needs to get back to work and back to what feels right.

"I’ve been dealing with getting six inches of water in my house in Bellaire, but I have a mortgage and so I’m required to have flood insurance," says Charles. "I’m in pretty good shape compared to a lot of my musician friends I’ve been reading about. I’m more disturbed by how many gigs we have lost! After our hugely successful show July 9 at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, the subsequent news release netted us new bookings all over the place, mostly in September, some public, some private.

"Almost all of those have been cancelled or postponed except our upcoming show at the Heights Theater," he adds. "The worst loss was a huge 'homecoming' concert in Beaumont at the historic Jefferson Theater that would have been on August 26, the night of the storm."

The show is "The Story of Boogie Woogie," a new offering from one of the Gulf Coast's most recognizable musicians. It's touted as a mix of music, stand-up comedy and history lesson. Best of all, the act features a style of music that is indigenous to Texas and makes you wanna kick your shoes off and dance your cares away, soggy and moldy as they may be. The show delves into the genre's roots, with its most iconic songs delivered masterfully by Charles. For this project, he's backed only by a drummer, his son Jakob Helpinstill.

We are assured they'll deliver a comprehensive lesson on the subject, but we still ask Charles for a succinct definition of the music.

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"Boogie Woogie was developed in the 1870s by blues pianists who needed to accompany dancers," he begins. "'Boogie Woogie' was the name of their dance; the music was originally called 'Texas-Style Piano.' [There were] three top masters: Meade Lux Lewis ('Honky Tonk Train Blues'), Pete Johnson ('Roll ‘Em Pete'), [and] Albert Ammons ('Boogie Woogie Stomp'). We do all these during the show, and they’re on our 'soundtrack' CD that contains all 15 of the songs we play during the course of the show."

Drummer Jakob Helpinstill and his dad, telling the story of boogie woogie
Drummer Jakob Helpinstill and his dad, telling the story of boogie woogie
Photo courtesy of Ezra Charles

In case you need it, Charles' curriculum vitae is vast and accomplished, making him suitable to the task. Born Charles Helpinstill, he logged his first musical performance at the age of three, when he sang on a Nacogdoches radio station accompanied by his mother on piano. By the time he was eight, and then living in Beaumont, he'd begun classical piano lessons, which he continued through high school. During that time, he was pianist for Johnny and the Jammers, a band formed by classmates Johnny and Edgar Winter. In Houston to attend Rice University, he founded Thursday's Children; within six months, the band scored a gig opening for Sonny and Cher in the Sam Houston Coliseum.

He once was a piano accompanist for the comedian Robert Klein, a gig that taught him some comedic timing, which has proven essential to the new act. Charles says he didn't really find his niche until Liberty Hall founder Mike Condray turned him onto "Otis Spann and the blues players that became my virtual mentors," he muses. "Playing with Lightnin’ Hopkins there inspired the number that is our surprise encore in this show."

He's spent most of his adult life as a working musician, dedicated to the music following a business venture that was ruined by "unscrupulous corporate investors," he says.

"From 1982 to 2001 I had no other income except from the band. I got married, had two children, bought a house. I adopted the name Ezra Charles and supported a band of seven or eight other musicians and crew playing original music. The band began as rockabilly, a piano version of the Stray Cats, but quickly became an R&B horn band echoing my Beaumont roots, the regional Gulf Coast sound of 'blue-eyed soul,'" he notes.

"Ezra Charles and the Works became the band name after we added three horns in 1986, and continued in some similar form for the next 30 years," Charles continues. "Many times I have been complimented for 're-inventing' myself, but I was just going into different genres that I would get interested in, and seemed to have audience appeal."

His newest musical iteration has received early accolades.

“'The Story of Boogie Woogie' was a project I thought about for years as the band era was winding down. Playing on concerts, I started adding a segment either at the beginning or in the middle where I would play boogie-woogie by myself," Charles explains. "During the band years, the piano-playing took a back seat to my bandleading, arranging, singing and songwriting, and many fans really wanted to hear a lot more piano.

"After the band disbanded at the start of 2015, we took the new show on the road for a couple of performances, and then debuted it in Houston at Ovations in the Village for three consecutive sold-out nights," he continues. "We have now played about 20 performances, and a great many have been sellouts. After the show, many audience members have commented that they loved the music, but they were truly amazed at all the factual content I deliver during the narrative."

Ezra Charles Will Boogie-Woogie Your Hurricane Blues Away
Photo by Pin Lim/Courtesy of Ezra Charles

Charles wrote the show's monologues himself, though he does credit "a few glasses of Cabernet" as a sort of co-writer, downed before one of the first performances of the set.

"Maybe that influenced my attitude and delivery that night, but I was amazed that the audience laughed at everything I said!", he says. "Fortunately we had shot a video of that show, and I was able to polish that first monologue, and preserve that 'stand-up' quality."

He's also felt more comfortable delivering the new show since he's got a family member onstage with him.

"Jake graduated from HSPVA in 2015. In order to get into that school, he had to audition with 26 kids who wanted to study jazz drums," Charles says. "They called back three and selected one for that year — him. He got his first drum kit on his third birthday and he and I started playing benefit shows when he was six. We played once a month at the Rotary House for patients at M.D. Anderson from when he was nine until he graduated from high school, netting him a 'Service Before Self' Award from the Rotary Club and a scholarship.

His "proud papa" tap now fully flowing, Charles says Jakob is also an accomplished pianist and is in his own band, which plays modern rock akin to Kings of Leon. His daughter, Chloe, he adds, is a Bellaire High School senior this year and a standout in its Theater and Choral programs.

Charles sounds rejuvenated discussing the new venture. He hopes it will add to a legendary career he's forged, one which includes six Houston Press Music Awards wins for Best Keyboards. He's a two-time Houston Blues Society representative at the International Blues Competition in Memphis. He's toured globally, sold tens of thousands of records and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Antonio Blues Society.

And, of course, he's played for countless Houstonians, in times good and bad. He knows they could use a boost right now, and said boogie-woogie can deliver that boost. It's not a thing of the past, and he cites current performers like Mitch Woods, Gene Taylor, Luca Sestak and Sylvan Zingglike as contemporaries. He's especially excited about Stephanie Trick, a young St. Louis pianist whose "YouTube videos practically define every important number in the genre" as key to keeping the music alive.

"I called the show 'The Story Of' instead of 'The History Of' because I wanted to stress the entertainment value over the academic side, but the importance of boogie-woogie cannot be underestimated, because it is simply the first music that rocked. If you want to know Americana, you have to start here. This is the ultimate roots music."

Ezra Charles tells The Story of Boogie Woogie, Friday, September 15 at The Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th Street. Doors at 6 p.m., performance at 8 p.m. Click here for ticket information, $20 and up.

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