Jukin' with the Reverend

The improbable rise of blues rulebreaker Robert Ealey

By 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.

Much 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.

Ealey 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.

"See, 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.

"Spent 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.

The 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.

During 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.

Ealey 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.

In 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.)

Onstage, 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.

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