Bayou City

Friends Remember Houston Bluesman Tommy Dardar: "He Was Pure Soul"

Tommy Dardar at The Big Easy's 20th anniversary celebration, February 2014
Tommy Dardar at The Big Easy's 20th anniversary celebration, February 2014 Photo by Marco Torres
Last month blues singer, harmonica player and Houston music legend Tommy Dardar passed away. His career spanned 40-plus years and included stints or gigs with some of the genre’s biggest names, acts like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, The Neville Brothers and more. Some of his finest moments came here in Houston playing alongside peers and friends. This Sunday The Big Easy hosts a day-long celebration of the man, known for his soulful vocals, sailing blues harp and big heart. Ahead of this weekend’s event, some of those peers and friends agreed to share their recollections of “Big Daddy Gumbo” with the Houston Press.

click to enlarge L-R:  Annika Chambers, Dardar and Dennis "Applehead" Clapp - PHOTO COURTESY OF BOYD BLUESTEIN
L-R: Annika Chambers, Dardar and Dennis "Applehead" Clapp
Photo courtesy of Boyd Bluestein
Former Houston Blues Society President
Nothing made TD happier than seeing promising young artists embracing the Blues! Here is a symbolic torch-passing pose with two of Houston's stellar up-and-comers who will be around the Blues scene for decades to come - God willing! Tommy took this shot with Annika Chambers — who was nominated for a 2017 Blues Music Award in the Best Female Vocalist Category — that's the Blues World's equivalent of a Grammy! — and Dennis "Applehead" Clapp, guitarist extraordinaire who was a member of Mojofromopolis and currently plays in The Sonny Boy Terry Band and fronts his own band, The Bad Apples.

Drummer, Robert Cray Band
I guess I met him around '69 or '70. We were in different bands," Braunagel says by phone from Los Angeles. "We were all kind of playing around the hippie cafes and hippie joints. Our relationship goes back to those days. Lots of fun, lots of youth...wild and crazy music days.
Musically, he and I always kind of hit on the same note. I grew up playing rhythm and blues in Houston. Being from Houma, Louisiana, he had some real roots in that music. We just kind of related and over the years we stayed in touch.I left there in the early '70s and when I'd come back, I'd always hook up with Tommy.

I remember one time I came back and Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins were gonna do a little tour around Texas and Louisiana, so he and I and Jimmy Don Smith and Terry Wilson backed up Jimmy Reed and Lightnin' Hopkins on those dates. And I had a ball. That was just the tip of the iceberg of what we did.

We just had this camaraderie and liked each other...he was close enough that when my mom was still alive, he would go check on her every once in awhile. My brother lived there and everything but still he would go check on her.He had a big heart, he would help everybody, he was always there for other people. If there was a benefit for somebody else, Tommy was there, working his thing, making sure he could help out.

Braunagel produced Dardar's album, Blues Fool, featuring members of Bonnie Raitt's band. Following that, he and Dardar teamed again to record tracks that have never been released. Braunagel says it took four days for his engineer to rescue the tracks from a digital data-storage file, but the songs are being worked for a new release.

"It'll be his legacy, it'll be a recording that everybody can enjoy and everybody will have something of Tommy Dardar to hold in their hearts," he says.

click to enlarge John Moschioni and Dardar in April 2017 - PHOTO COURTESY OF TEXAS JOHNNY BOY
John Moschioni and Dardar in April 2017
Photo courtesy of Texas Johnny Boy
Allison Fisher Band
I met Tommy for the first time at Club Hey Hey. Roy Rogers was playing. I went up to the bar, where Freddie Cisneros, a.k.a. Little Junior One Hand, was talking to somebody I didn’t know. Freddie asked me what was up. I said 'Man, I’ve been dancing my ass off.' The gentleman he was with walked behind me and said, 'Well honey, you still got plenty left.' I was appalled, but it was hilarious. Those were Tommy’s very first words to me. It was the beginning of a great friendship, and he blessed me with so many little acts of kindness over the years.

Tommy had a knack for calling me out of the blue when I really needed to hear from him. In May of 2013 I was riding my very first MS 150. I was all alone, struggling with a really long climb. The phone rang and it was Tommy. I stopped to take the call. He asked me what I was up to. I told him. He suggested that I get my ass off of that bike and rest for a little while. Somehow my most memorable conversations with Tommy were about ass. If he caught me at home, he’d ask me to play piano for him over the phone. I loved that. And I loved nothing more than just being a guitar player when he’d sit in with my band. He was pure soul.

Front man, Texas Johnny Boy
I never worked with Tommy Dardar on a regular basis — in a regular working band — but I often found myself sitting in with him. Myself being a vocalist for 48 years and a harmonica player for 47 years, I always found Tommy to be a very powerful rhythm & blues/soul singer. I think that Tommy could sing just about anything he wanted to. I found his harmonica style to be very interesting because I could hear country, blues, soul and zydeco all rolled into one, which equates to a gumbo style. They didn’t call him 'Big Daddy Gumbo' for nothin’.

Around 1985, Fitzgerald’s used to host a regular Monday night event called 'Blue Mondays.'  It took place in the downstairs bar. Tommy was a lead singer in the house band that was the foundation for what would, often, turn into a jam session with many fine local musicians; often national musicians would show up and play too. I will miss Tommy’s presence in the Houston community. May he rest in peace.

click to enlarge Terry Sites, Debbie Bixby and Tommy Dardar at Green Oaks Tavern, July 2016 - PHOTO COURTESY OF DEBBIE BIXBY
Terry Sites, Debbie Bixby and Tommy Dardar at Green Oaks Tavern, July 2016
Photo courtesy of Debbie Bixby
Photographer; Houston Blues Society Board
I first met Tommy Dardar around 2003 at a harp blowout at Howling Coyote and instantly became a huge fan. His voice could fill up a room, amplified or not, and of course his harp playing was incomparable. While serving on the board of of a local business group, I had the opportunity to hire Tommy and his band for a fundraiser for (Hurricane) Katrina victims. Tommy was the perfect choice. At the end of the day, I handed him an envelope containing the agreed-to payment and, without hesitation, he handed it back and told me to put the cash in the pot for the Katrina fund. That was Tommy. Huge heart, huge talent and a huge soul. We will miss you 'Big Daddy.'

DJ, KPFT's "Howlin' the Blues"
Tommy was a dear friend. He was always the first to raise his hand to help out at benefits and he did a ton of them. But there were a couple of occasions when Tommy needed help with medical expenses and the blues community came together to reciprocate. When it was all said and done, we had raised a substantial chunk of change for my coonass friend, and he was quite grateful and appreciative of our efforts.

A couple days passed and I received a call from him thanking me for my efforts but he said, 'Man I don't need all that money,' and he wound up giving a big portion to a fellow musician that was going through similar hard times. He was a big- hearted mountain of soul. I'll never forget the times we shared or his gift of music.
click to enlarge L-R: Skip Nallia, James Singleton, Tommy Dardar and John Cleary at The Big Easy - PHOTO COURTESY OF SKIP NALLIA
L-R: Skip Nallia, James Singleton, Tommy Dardar and John Cleary at The Big Easy
Photo courtesy of Skip Nallia
Luther and the Healers
It’s no doubt that Tommy and I resembled each other. People would approach Tommy and say, 'Skip, I saw you at The Big Easy with Luther last week and you were tearing that keyboard up! You were on fire!' People would approach me and say, 'Dardar, do you have any CDs with you? I’d like to buy one, how much are they?' I told T.D., “Look man, I wouldn’t mind having a stack of your CDs to sell. I’ll even autograph your name. But, if I do this, I’ll take my cut off the top.' He laughed! We always said that we’re brothers from another mother.

I remember watching Tommy with the Sheetrockers at Pat & Pete's Bon Ton Room and many other local venues in Houston in the early '90s up to present at The Big Easy. Tommy was a large part of the scene with his amazing vocal and strong swamp-pop harmonica. We would visit casually through the years and play together at various benefits or sometimes he'd pop into The Big Easy when I was there and I'd always invite him up to sit in; playing with him was always a treat.

One of these times was the last time I saw Tommy, it was my birthday party at TBE and he stopped in and sat in. At the end of the night I had had a plate of cake that the ladies left for me. I had it on the side rail while I was getting everything wrapped up — when I turned around it was gone and Tommy had it. He, in turn, left it sitting on the back bar, so I took it back and put it back where I had it.

I had to go in the office to take care of business when I came out it was gone! I chuckled to myself and about then I saw Tommy walking out with it. I said 'Tommy, man, you can't have that!' His reply was quick. 'I got medicine for it!' I can still see him hightailing it out of there!

But, all seriousness, Tommy spoke to me without knowing he was. He would tell me things about the hardships of being a professional musician and all the pitfalls, he was talking about himself but at the same time I was hearing his words of wisdom for my own life and career. He without knowing, [he] really put things in big perspective and light for me and for that I will always be grateful.

Photo courtesy of The Blues Hound
Longtime Houston blues/rock musician and producer
I played guitar for years with Tommy in the Sheetrockers. I joined right as Little Junior was leaving. Continued playing with him often, 'til our last gig together with Steve Hunter and Freddie Pete at Club re:HAB, about a month before he went into the hospital for the last time. We were close, especially in the last few years. He would stop by to bitch about whatever was going on and smoke a joint. He was the real deal, always ready. What a cat.

Zydeco Dots
We were doing a huge promotional for the Houston International Festival on KPFT. We had Tommy, Rick Mitchell, the world-famous C.J. Chenier, and myself playing, talking and just generally promo-ing. As we were being introduced, Tommy had realized in all the excitement he had forgot his harps way out in Cypress where he was living. The DJ, Larry Winters ('Your friend and mine') stated Tommy's dilemma. A longtime, great friend and listener, Mr. Bill Chote, heard Tommy's plea and raced from Lazy Brook Manor to the station with a plethora of harps, most brand-new, and within minutes Tommy D was on the air blowing and singing to his heart's content.

I was fortunate enough to get to play tons of shows with Tommy, most under his alias Big Daddy Gumbo, and that day I realized how dedicated he was to the Gulf Coast sound. He could really spin a story.  He lived, he ate it, he felt it, he was it, and in my band's 20 years [of] existence, he always enlightened us to great music.

Potroast, Pigs on the Wall
I am heartbroken over the loss of Tommy Dardar. He sat in with Potroast at a KPFT benefit at the end of April. He made everyone he joined sound that much better. Tommy was at every single benefit to help, no matter how small.

Tommy would call me regularly. I'd wait for a gig offer, only to discover he had called just to shoot the breeze. Our last conversation he told me how he was looking forward to some gigs and time in Washington. A rare chance to get out of town and spend time in beautiful Washington state.

He toured the Chitlins Circuit with Jimmy Reed. The only white boy in the room. I got a small taste of that circuit playing with Pete Mayes, especially every Christmas Day at Double Bayou Dance Hall in Anahuac. But Tommy was the real deal. It's hard to find a harmonica player that knows when to play and, more importantly, when not to play. Tommy was the best singer and harmonica player around. He would play horn-section lines on that harp and man, it was so good. I still can't think of him without tears being close behind. There will never be another like him. He was a real bluesman and we are losing these guys left and right. I'm grateful that he found me.

He hired me when I was onstage playing country music with Clay Farmer at Armadillo Palace. Walked right up to the stage, introduced himself, took my number and put me to work. This was back when nobody knew who I was. He gave me a chance and I'm forever indebted to him. Bless you, Tommy Dardar.

Celebration of Life for Tommy Dardar begins at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 13 at The Big Easy, 5731 Kirby.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.