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FDP Forum / Rock-it 88's - Keyboard Forum / Blues legend Earl Gilliam dies.

Contributing Member

Houston, Texas

Intuition's like the tuition from inside
Oct 19th, 2011 03:32 PM   Edit   Profile   Print Topic   Search Topic

Earl Gilliam, a pianist who was part of the blues bedrock in this city for a half century, has died. He was 81. Gilliam suffered a collapsed lung in 2008 but he continued to perform when his health would allow, with shows at the Big Easy or playing the Doghouse, the nickname he gave to his weekly blues jams at his Tomball home, which featured music and food in equal measure.

Gilliam was a stirring live player even through his 70s. He had a powerful left hand that pumped out table-rattling chords while his right hand danced around jazzily. His band — guitarist I.J. Gosey, bassist Fred Arceneaux and drummer Jackie Gray — had a monthly gig at the Big Easy. At the Big Easy they typically took the stage around 9:30 p.m. and their second set would leave midnight in the rearview. He said he once played for six hours without a break. There were no two repeated shows as the players kept things loose and were open to change. “I can play anything,” Gilliam said in a curving and sliding accent that tipped off his mother’s Louisiana roots. “It’s not about it being blues or jazz. It’s all about feeling.”

Arceneaux, who played with Gilliam for more than two decades, said the pianist had “a style all his own.”

Gilliam was born in in Lafayette, La. He was a self-taught pianist, first dabbling on the instrument as a child before his family moved to New Waverly. Gilliam was a quick learner. He said he only needed to hear a song twice to be able to play it. It made him a great player, though a poor teacher. “It’s just a gift,” he said. “But I can’t teach nobody about it because nobody taught me.”

The first songs he learned to play were country and western — he had particular affinity for the Light Crust Doughboys — which was played on the only radio station the family radio received. He briefly played in a country band with his brothers, which he named the Ragmops. Soon after he started playing at a church in Conroe. In his late teens, Gilliam said, “I heard the blues and that was it.”

By 17 Gilliam landed a gig playing the Eldorado Ballroom with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. He said Brown liked him because Gilliam's playing allowed Brown to go without a bassist.

He still managed to play with Houston’s other blues luminaries, gigging with Albert Collins and Ivory Lee Semien. He said Lightnin’ Hopkins’ penchant for peculiar key changes made him a difficult player to back. Of the greats, Albert King was the one he didn’t care for; Gilliam didn’t care for the way King berated his accompanists. “Don’t like hollerin’,” he said. “So I had to go.”

He spoke much more reverently of his time playing with Joe “Guitar” Hughes in the ‘80s.

Gilliam would also lead his own shows at the Hamilton Inn in the Fifth Ward. For a time he lived in the Third Ward and also in the Heights.

Documentation of Gilliam’s music, however, is scarce. He was one of only two black artists on the Texas-based Sarg Records label, which was briefly home to Willie Nelson’s music. Five of the songs he made for Sarg in the late-’50s — Don’t Make Me Late, Baby; Petite Baby; Wrong Doing Woman, Big Houston and Nobody’s Blues — appeared on an anthology released 12 years ago, but it’s an expensive import from Germany. He can be heard on a few of Joe Hughes’ albums, but Gilliam’s only CD as a leader was Texas Doghouse Blues, released in 2005. Gilliam had been working on a live album that documented his excellent band, and he also had more than a dozen songs he hoped to put together for a second studio album. The former seems more likely to see release.

The flip side to the club gigs were Gilliam’s jams at home on Sundays. He said cooking often began on Saturday nights and the system at the Doghouse was based on donations so that those who didn’t have much money could still eat. The scene there, as well as the music, was looser.

“It’s more like a jam a little bit,” he said. “Sit around and eat and play dominoes. We set up chairs under the trees. Rain don’t stop us, cold don’t stop us.

“It’s a different crowd every time, some I know some I don’t. Somebody’s gotta eat all that food: ribs, chicken, mustard greens. If you don’t cook enough you get a crowd problem. So I make sure everybody’s full before they leave.”

Blues historian Roger Wood in his book Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues called it “a galvanizing community ritual.”

The Doghouse hosted/will host a more formalized gathering, A Gathering of Friendship it’s being called, on Sunday, as friends, fans and family gather to remember a performer and person who gave so much of himself.

At 78 Gilliam liked to boast that he’d never been to a hospital, which was something he picked up from his mother, who lived to 102. When he was young Gilliam whacked the tip of his index finger off messing with a lawnmower. She stitched it back on, soaked it in vinegar and wrapped in spiderwebs. The healing ritual, Gilliam said, also involved some sort of non-certified medicine man who took a lock of his hair to a certain tree in the woods.

Before his health turned Gilliam said he enjoyed the occasional smoke, as well as a whiskey, beer or gin and tonic. “I’m already older than people are supposed to be,” he said. “So I’m just trying to get my money’s worth.”


FDP Forum / Rock-it 88's - Keyboard Forum / Blues legend Earl Gilliam dies.

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