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.
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.
"You 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.'
"That's 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 Ealey!"
One 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.
The Robert Ealey Blues Festival will be held in the beer garden of the 8.0 nightclub in Fort Worth on Saturday, September 27, and Sunday, September 28.