The improbable rise of blues rulebreaker Robert Ealey
by Tim Schuller
lewd dancing, drinking, and revelry are good things, then Robert Ealey
has inspired more good than most governments. He is Fort Worth's
premiere blues shouter, and he's doing something surprising.
getting famous. His newest CD, I Like Music When I Party, is on the
Black Top label, which just entered into a distribution deal with the
powerful and influential Chicago-based imprint Alligator. In June, he
played the Chicago Blues Festival (the world's biggest bluesfest), and
last year did festival and club dates in Europe.
flowering fame is surprising because Ealey has always seemed too
Texas-specific for the masses, more of a juke-joint kind of guy than a
"blues artist." In the 1970s to the late '80s heyday of his stronghold,
the Blue Bird (a juke joint if there ever was one), he did hundreds of
gigs that were more fun--and instigated more debauchery--than many more
orderly performances by bluesmen of far greater professionalism. All the
while he'd be up to the Swisher Sweet that was usually clenched between
his teeth in sins that the blues critics of the era would have called
at least venal. He'd sing in pidgin Spanish, jam with such rockers as
Stevie Ray Vaughan, and do Chuck Berry medleys so lengthy they'd drain a
Deadhead. He flaunted indifference to blues dignity by teaming with
Freddie Cisneros, a guitarist who played slide solos with a dildo. A
buff who says Ealey's present blues purity is skewed by his present
guitarist Tone Summers' rock-tinged playing unwittingly pinpoints one of
Ealey's main strengths. There has always been something skewed about
started out normally enough; born in Texarkana in 1940, Ealey was a
gospel quartet singer until he moved to West Dallas, the point in the
story where scholars of local blues may nod sagely and say that was
where the skewedness likely began.
an oversimplification (but not much of one) to say that South Dallas
musicians mixed R&B and soul with their blues and made a living
playing music. West Dallas players mixed blues with a toxic lifestyle,
and made a living by the skin of their teeth. They included proto-rocker
Li'l Son Jackson, the doomed Zuzu Bollin, the razor-scarred Jaquette
Brooks, and Frankie Lee Sims. It was the latter who ushered Ealey into
the blues life.
recorded (sometimes at Sellars Studio, in the building that presently
houses the Dallas Observer) for Blue Bonnet, Ace, and Specialty in the
1940s and '50s. Ealey heard him six nights running at a West Dallas bar
and, on the final night, earned Sims' hearty approval when he sat in on
to Dallas in '51," says Ealey. "Tried to find guys to sing quartet
with, but couldn't find but one or two, and that wasn't enough. So, I
changed my life.
didn't want to do it," he says with unconvincing rue. "But it was the
only choice I had. God forgive me. But, I figured if God hadn't wanted
me to start playin' blues, he would've said, 'Hey Robert--we got a
more by Sims' raving about how well he "beat the drum" than by lack of
ill portent from the deity, Ealey dumped his gospel aspirations and
teamed with Louisiana-born U.P. Wilson in an unorthodox guitar/drum duo
dubbed the Boogie Chillun Boys. Both men laugh when recalling how, when
they'd play out of town, people would ask when the rest of the band
would arrive, and they'd lie like rugs, saying the other players were
late for whatever reason. Come showtime, they'd take up their
instruments and play with such vigor that no one complained.
BCBs (which lasted a dozen or so years) were more popular in Fort Worth
than in Dallas, so they moved there, but eventually broke up. Ealey's
next band featured not one but three guitarists (but still no bassist),
two of whom were the Bruton brothers, Stephen and Sumter. Theirs was the
first band to play Fort Worth's storied Hop, but more colorful were
their gigs at the nameless barbecue joint in teeming Rinden, Texas.
was like the '50s out there!" says Sumter Bruton. "Even though it was
only 20 miles out of town, it was like you'd gone back in time. There
were black sharecroppers who'd bring their whole families, grandkids and
all, and Mexican people who worked out there showed up, too. One night
the cooler wasn't working, so someone backed an old Cadillac up to the
back door, and all the beer was iced down in the trunk. There was no
men's plumbing. You were out in the middle of a field, so you'd be out
there peein', and a cow'd walk up to you, scare the crap out of you."
the band started playing a chicken cookery called Mabel's Eat Shop.
Located in Fort Worth's Como district, Mabel's funk factor can be
imagined by knowing that Ealey and Bruton regarded moving on to the
nearby Blue Bird as a distinct step up.
Blue Bird (which still exists, but presently has bands only
irregularly) was a juke joint straight out of central casting. It was so
ramshackle it was literally bent, prompting Bill Minutaglio to report
in Dallas Life, "It made the booths look like a line of old time roller
coaster cars fading into the curve." That's not only writing of
delectable accuracy, it's an image apropos of the whole, oft-dizzying
Ealey/Blue Bird experience.
this time, Ealey had forsaken the drums to concentrate on singing, and
fronted a band called the Five Careless Lovers. They had all the
subtlety of the bad-guy wrestlers at the Sportatorium and cut one LP,
Live At The New Blue Bird Nite Club (in '73 on a one-shot imprint, Blue
Royal). The first record produced by the then-hirsute T-Bone Burnett, it
was a gloriously ragged album that aptly captured the boozy, raucous
nature of the Ealey aggregate in full cry. Ealey's later Bluebird Open
(Amazing Records, 1981) was cleaner and more ordered by far, but not a
tenth as much fun.
was made of the Blue Bird's perilousness, but Ealey and Bruton scoff at
this. They played there at least 600 times and rarely saw genuine
mayhem. Bruton did witness one killing there, and it was admittedly a
zesty one. It was a girl-on-girl bout wherein one female emptied a
pistol into another, whose corpse was then hurdled by the Blue Bird's
clientele as--in the time-honored taverngoers' tradition following
gunplay--they hurried to vacate the premises.
co-owned the Blue Bird from 1977 to 1989, but lost his share in it
after an acrimonious dispute with his partners. Without Ealey, the
cachet of the place plummeted.
"I could get it back now, but I don't want it," laughs Ealey. "It ain't gone nowhere, but I been to Europe four times.
I'm nationwide over there," he asserts. "They call me the Reverend
there. I like it over there, but it's so damn cold! Twenty below zero
all year 'round. The heating's terrible, and the food's terrible. I
stayed on cereal and eggs the whole time. Meat over there, I don't know
nothin' about. They had wieners, some kind of wieners which was burnt,
and I didn't want no part of 'em.
three weeks in Greece, and that was some food," he continues. "Good hot
food, good heat, and good hotels. That's all right with me. All I do's
play to eat." In 1993 Ealey did six cuts on the Topcat CD Texas
Bluesmen, which also featured singer-harp blower Joe Jonas. That year
(backed by a version of the Texas Topcats beefed up by hard-drinking
keyboardist Rochestor Sessions and bassist Johnny Woods) he played the
Eureka Springs Blues Festival in Arkansas.
morning before the festival, they met at the home of Topcat co-founder
Richard Chalk, who would ostensibly be the leader in a three-vehicle
convoy also comprising Jonas (in a van with Sessions and Woods) and
Ealey bringing up the rear in a sedan. A hundred or so miles out of
Texas, Chalk took too big a lead and the bluesmen, figuring they'd been
left to their own devices, pulled into a gas station to plot their own
route. When Chalk noticed his caravan's latter two thirds were MIA, he
doubled back and--needless to say--doubled right past the gas station
where the bluesmen were consulting their map. He was well back into
Texas when he decided they'd either make it to the festival without him
or they wouldn't, and resumed his trek toward Arkansas. Against all
odds, the three vehicles eventually met up and careened into the
picturesque Ozarks town around 2 in the morning, hours after every other
act on the bill had arrived.
both days of the festival, Ealey did pubcrawl shows in an acoustic duo
with Tone Summers (who'd joined him after his split with the Blue Bird).
But it was at night that Ealey triumphed. Backed by Summers and the
augmented Topcats, he played two nights running in the hotel ballroom
and tore the place to bits. Bedlam reigned as people danced and writhed
to songs with such typically subtle Ealey-ian titles as "Shake Your
Butt" and "Fat Man" (the latter with a melody based on the TV Batman
theme). He wowed 'em with his trademark "mouth trombone" effect, wherein
he uses his lips and cupped hands to make sounds like a cross between a
harmonica and the noise you would make if you farted while sitting
bare-ass on a kettle drum.
whammied all present with his juke-joint spirit, and more than a few
festivalgoers will remember his sets more vividly and longer than they
will the event's more established performers. It was a night that Ealey
proved straight-up that he had the stuff to go nationwide.
1994 Ealey did If You Need Me (Topcat) with a raft of guests including
Jim Suhler, Mike Morgan, Sumter Bruton, Johnny Reno, and (ex-Rick Nelson
drummer) Ty Grimes. It's been reissued on Black Top. Of lower quality
is 1995's You Don't Get This Every Day on Stark, although completists
may want it for one cut, "Red Dog," a call-and-response rocker that's
Ealey to a tee. (It was produced by Grimes, reportedly in a different
session than the one from which the bulk of the CD was drawn.)
Ealey hollers. Off, he mumbles almost as unintelligibly as the late
Chicago bluesman Sunnyland Slim. (Ealey amigos covertly refer to his
speaking as "Swa-Ealey.") His indecipherability is compounded by his
disjointed speech patterns, which can seem as bizarre as William
Burroughs' cut-and-paste writing experiments. And woe betide the lyric
transcriber who takes on Ealey! His songs consist of snippets of other
songs, syllables that aren't even words, and a passel of improv.
pay your money, you want to hear somethin' different! That's why you
come out, have a good time and hear somethin' different. You don't want
to hear the same thing y'got at home on tape," Ealey declares. "I make
[songs] up onstage. They [the musicians] say, 'What key?' I say, 'Any
key--I got a song for it.'
why they call me the Reverend," he offers in a typically Ealey-esque
segue. "Three women came up to me at J&J's (Blues Bar), said, 'You
the Reverend?' I said, 'I guess so, that's what they call me.' They say,
'Where your church, we wanna go to your church!' I say, 'Baby, lemme
tell you somethin'. You in my church!' You go to church, all you see's
parkin' places. More people in the beer joint than the church. Find you
the beer joint [that has] cars parked all-l-l up 'n' down the street, in
yards, double-parked--that's when you found the church o' Robert
doesn't always have to search overly long to find a parking space at an
Ealey gig. But as he readies for another Euro-tour in November--and
even though attendance is reportedly down in legit houses of
worship--the Cowtown blues shouter is one Reverend who's steadily
expanding his flock.
Co-Founder of ThatsLiveTV.com. Founder of record label TopCat Records.
Founder of Operations International, Inc., an international trading company.
BS degree -SMU - Anthropology. Masters degree - International Management. Professional musician.
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