By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
He's 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.
This 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 him.
He 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.
It's 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.
Sims 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 drums.
"Came 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.
"I 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 problem!'"
Encouraged 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.
The 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.
"It 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."
Then 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.
The 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.