In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Stanton Stephens. Look for the Dallas Observer People Issue on newsstands this week. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.
Gene and Tommie West belong to the world now. Their new album, The Electric Word, earned four stars in The Guardian and a lengthy profile in The New York Times. They've played for the drunks of Bonnaroo and for the tuxes of the Lincoln Center. But no matter how far their stardom pulls them, they always come back to West Dallas.
Gene, who's 76, and Tommie, 66, are both pastors. Their father was a pastor too, but he died when Gene was 11 or 12. Ugly car accident. Mom raised them and six others. Back then the streets of West Dallas were dirt. Water came in once a week on horseback. The West boys slept with the doors open, even on the porch some hot nights. They went often to the dump to search for fresh fruit or an unsoiled cake. "When we would kill a hog, everybody in the neighborhood got some meat," Gene says.
Gene does most of the talking, but Tommie is the onstage leader. He gets the crowd paired off and moving. When he was 12 he'd dance at neighborhood barbecues for change and use the money to buy his sisters new shoes. "All the girls wanted to dance with me," he says.
They started The Relatives in the early 1970s. Gene had already spent a decade touring churches around the country with gospel bands. But Tommie would always write songs while Gene was away, and they'd learn them when he came home. The Relatives formed and played their first shows in churches, but the band wasn't well received. "They couldn't take that beat," Gene says.
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They caught plenty of ears at a community event, and soon they were playing jazz clubs and hotel bars. They petered out in the late '70s. That would have been the end had Heavy Light Records, a small Austin label, not discovered one of their old 45s buried in a thrift-shop bin.
The label reissued the single and sought out the brothers, who, along with drummer Earnest Tarkington, were the only originals still fit to play. They recruited two younger singers to fill out the harmonies, and the label helped form a backing band of Austin musicians. The Relatives were reborn.
When they play churches today, they play mega ones. But you won't find them at places like that too often. They'd rather be home.