Valediction For An Exceptional Man and Honored Drummer Friends and Peers Remember Doyle Bramhall
From Buddy – The Original Texas Music Magazine #13 December 2011www.buddymagazine.com
Photo by Ron Mckeown
Valediction For An Exceptional Man and Honored Drummer
Friends and Peers Remember Doyle Bramhall
by Tim Schuller
DOYLE BRAMHALL DIED IN HIS SLEEP. I wish he was still with us. But to have passed while in slumber suggests a peaceful, distinguished departure for a fine artist and an empathic man.
Bramhall was a singer, songwriter, and drummer. And O Lord how did I dig on how he drummed. Empower me and I will mandate that hewing to his propulsive yet conversely minimalist method will define drumming forevermore.
We’ll have some recollections on Bramhall from some colleagues of his, but first we’ll have some back-story, and secondly — a valediction from this reporter.
BRAMHALL WAS BORN IN Dallas. His Mom worked in grocery stores and remembers meandering through the places, where the meat guy had country music on his radio, the Mexicans in the back had Tejano on theirs, there was Top 40 on the floor and the cat on the loading dock dug R&B. “By the time I was eleven, twelve years old I was already exposed to a lot of various music forms.”
His elder brother Ronnie had a blues association with high school pals, who periodically donned secretive guise and met at the Bramhall dwelling to spin discs. Doyle was too young to be admitted to these secret summits, but would coop outside the door and “listen to R&B all night.”
He saw the near-mythic Nightcaps at a Teen A Go Go shindig in swingin’ Irving and was ensorcelled by the drumming of Jack Allday (drummer, as well as iconic jazz activist). He got his first kit in time for the landquaking three shows in three weeks Beatle gigs on Ed Sullivan’s TV program, Doyle and his new kit were “in front of the TV, when Ringo was doing ‘Boys’” (Ringo will recur in this missive.)
Doyle was a month or three behind fellow Dallasites Denny Freeman and Jimmie Vaughan’s move to Dallas. In their orbit, a blues scene appeared.
In 1973 he teamed with Stevie Ray Vaughan in the Nightcrawlers. He was SRV’s main vocal influence and wrote and co-wrote some of SRV’s most compelling songs. (This would, as you might expect, prove remunerative to Bramhall on down the line.
Surviving the times
VAUGHAN AND BRAMHALL survived excesses endemic to the era, and it’s no stretch to say they did so by the skin of their teeth. The skin on your writer’s teeth is barely there. I wrote several articles about DB and got the feeling he was an all-around good cat. Came a time I felt a need to call him about a serious matter. Typically (for me) I’d lost his phone number. So I asked Denny Freeman for it.
Freeman gave me the number. I phoned Bramhall. See, I’d known he’d had all sorts of substance abuse issues and kicked ’em. I was well north of “facing” incipient alcoholism. I’m not the kind who can accept counsel from just any ol’ one. I needed someone who knew the score. Called Bramhall. I didn’t know if I had the stones for the 12 step riff (or whatever it is), said to DB, and his response was “call me - anytime: Now remember, to him I’m some hack writer who shows up at his gigs every year or so and cranks out copy — and he says “call me.” “Anytime.” Now that’s one good amigo. (Never did call him back — probably to my significant detriment.)
HIGH TIME TO HEAR SOME recollections about Bramhall from guitarist Sumter Bruton, his collaborator on several projects. Bruton said, “I talked to him about a year ago, on my (67th) birthday, and worked with him about two years in the Juke Jumpers. He was a very pleasant man, a GREAT singer, and a nice, steady drummer. Who didn’t overplay and sure didn’t NEED to. He knew right where to put every beat. I remember, we did that LP (Texas Bluesman, Dallas Blues Society, 1989) with Zuzu Bollin, there were songs that needed brushes. He didn’t have any in his kit so (laughs) goes out and BUYS some. I don’t know if he’d ever played brushes in his LIFE, but he sounded fine on ’em.”
“He worried a lot about his family. But then the things with Stevie developed. One year he was mowin’ lawns, next year he didn’t have to do THAT any more! Good things happen to good people. Sometimes.”
Reference is made to DB’s offer to counsel your chronicler. Bruton added “He was the sort that always try to help. Didn’t preach to you though! Things he did as a younger man were, uh, intense and he’d cut that loose! — but he was never preachy. Sat next to him on a plane for 12 hours on the way to Scandinavia — uh, Norway, I dunno, those places are alike — I drank 15 vodkas and he didn’t have one, and he didn’t say a word to me about it. End of the flight, stewardess sez, ‘we only have five (vodkas) left’ and said “well gimme ALL of ‘em! Afterwards he never said a judgmental word.”
I have neat snapshots of Bramhall doing a trio in-store gig at a Border’s Bookstore. His bassist was Jim Milam.
Milam: “His drumming was strong, with impeccable
timing. His being a singer meant he could put the beat RIGHT where (the
Delbert (McClinton) goes through a lot of drummers because he hears things differently than they might. With Doyle there was never a question about speed, he was always ON it. The sound of his drumming was different — I mean I heard guys play on his kit and he sounded different from ’em.” (I remarked to Milam that one of the things I liked best about Bramhall’s drumming was the lightness of his cymbal work. This was highlighted exquisitely on his recent Granada show, comprising mainly selections from the excellent Is It News. Milam said “Yeah, I’ve heard times he’d just lay out on ride cymbal and hat and play maracas on his legs. We did a radio show, Q102, (DJ) Redbeard was there, and Robin Syler was on guitar. Doyle played a PHONE BOOK! “ Thought, ahhh, how’s this going to sound — well, I heard tape of the show and it sounded FINE!”
Lastly, we’ll hear from one of THE great Texas guitarists, Denny Freeman.
Freeman said “I didn’t know Doyle in Dallas, he was a little younger than me. I moved to Austin and was living with this bassist, Jamie Bassett. Met Doyle through him and a week later we were playing together. Moved back to Dallas in the mid-’70-s and we played with Lou Ann Barton a while. Then I played with Doyle from ... oh ... 1990- 91. (This mid-’90s foursome was REALLY GOOD! A version of with Robin Syler had similarities, as both the departed Syler and still-hale Freeman were/are aces at guitar instrumentals and both played blues far better than most of those who purported to be specialists in it.
Freeman added that “Then, eight or nine years ago he called me to do Is It News (Yep Rock ’07). His drumming was very simple, He could NOT be accused of overplaying. Made me think of Ringo! Was a time, EVERYBODY dissed Ringo.
“Well, I loved ’im. All my musician friends did. We’d think how can you possibly diss Ringo? He knew RIGHT where to put it and where not to. Doyle, George Raines, a few others, understood the role of drum. It’s settin’ the groove. “Not a lot of fills, no extravagant stuff. In some settings that’s fine. But Doyle came up in blues and that’s all about getting the right feel, the right TIME! EVERYBODY liked playin’ with Doyle.”
“With his singing, a lot of people heard Bobby Bland and Ray Charles, I heard (then Dallas resident) Freddie King. Y’see DFW was a good place to come up, a very soulful place to live then. When we were kids we would listen to Jim Loew, Kat’s Karavan” — the classic scene — under the covers with the radio low so your parents wouldn’t hear. That’s when WE went to school. And now rest has come to Doyle Bramhall, a good man and musician, well thought of by his peers and enjoyed by his audiences.
Recommendable CDs: Bird Nest On The Ground (’94), Fitchburg Street (’03) and Is It News (’07).
Maybe you knew of Bramhall’s work when he was with us. If not, listen if you will — but learn him.
BUDDY – THE ORIGINAL TEXAS MUSIC MAGAZINE #13 DECEMBER 2011