Perfect Sound Forever

Port Arthur Blues

Long John Hunter & Lonnie Brooks
Photo © Chuck Winans, All Rights Reserved

by John Morthland (August 1999)

It's about seven on a Sunday night in Port Arthur, and Procter Street-the main drag downtown-- is deserted except for three men standing in front of Andrews Club. "In the old days, this whole street would have been packed with people," bluesman Long John Hunter declares to his brother Tom, who nods in agreement.

"The old days" means the early 1950's, when Hunter and fellow guitar-slinger Ervin Charles (plus drummer Leroy Stelly) dominated the Beaumont-Port Arthur blues circuit as the Hollywood Bearcats. After Hunter (now 68) left town in 1955, he lost contact with Charles (now 67) until 1997, when John's Austin co-producer Tary Owens (another Port Arthur expatriate) arranged for both men to play a European blues festival with Lonnie Brooks (65) and Philip Walker (62), two Port Arthur veterans now based in Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively. The four-with Charles billed as a guest because of his smaller role and lesser star power-fell back into into it so easily that they next teamed up for Lone Star Shootout, a blazing primer of Gulf Coast blues and rhythm and blues that was released by Alligator Records in late May. The quartet is playing more festival dates this summer. So when John recently found himself with an open night after playing Houston and New Orleans, he called on brother Tom to book a Port Arthur mini-reunion with Ervin. Tom, who's also a newspaper columnist and blues deejay locally, opened the show, playing authoritative B.B. King licks.

But Port Arthur hasn't been a music town for at least three decades, and the reunion proved more "mini" than planned. The audience was so small that John and Ervin thanked nearly everyone by name. There was Elmer "Big Opelousas" Harris, a onetime professional dancer who also owned Beaumont's Hollywood Café, where John and Ervin played their first gig (the club and the band took their names from the adjacent Hollywood housing projects) There were also Stelly, who proved that he knows his way around a dancefloor as well as a drum kit, and Alnetter Metoyer, former owner of the Blue Moon, the Port Acres club where the Bearcats ruled from 1953 to 1955. Add in half a dozen more friends and relatives, plus some young guitarists who hang with Ervin, and that was that. But no matter-- Ervin followed Tom with a nasty set of his own, John played like a human jukebox for two more sets, then Hunter and Charles slinked forth a swampy version of "Two Trains Running," the Muddy Waters tune that first made their reputation, and everyone-all dozen of us-went home happy.

The Port Arthur blues scene that produced Hunter, Charles, Brooks and Walker is usually considered a footnote to Houston's, or overlooked entirely (even the Music Hall in Port Arthur's Museum of the Gulf Coast ignores all four men, though three are known internationally). But Port Arthur blues had its own distinct flavor. Drawn by plentiful jobs at the booming oil refineries, African-Americans poured into the gritty town from all over Louisiana (where these four were all born) and east Texas. They worked long, hard, hours at oft-dangerous jobs and partied when they could. Their music was less sophisticated than the jazzy, big-city blues of Houston. But the sheer variety of sounds between New Orleans and Houston was-and still is-unprecedented in American vernacular music. Swamp blues, swamp pop (Louisiana's languid versions of blues and rock 'n' roll), country, gospel, New Orleans r&b, and Cajun and zydeco were boiled down to their spare, soulful essences in Port Arthur.

And back then, Jefferson County, though strongly Baptist was paradoxically also wide open. Gambling parlors and brothels serving hard liquor-the bars had only beer and wine licenses-were open to anyone, regardless of age, around the clock. (Though when it came to drinking liquor, minors were watched more closely; they usually hopped a few minutes across the state line to Louisiana to drink the hard stuff and listen to music at joints like Busters, Big Oak, Shady Rest and especially Lou Ann's, where live blues blared until dawn.) African-Americans had strings of clubs on Hollywood and Forsythe streets in Beaumont and along West Gulfway and Houston streets in Port Arthur-but the place to go was Port Acres, an unincorporated subdivision west of Port Arthur that was the only integrated area in the region. "If something could be more low-down than Port Arthur, it was Port Acres," says Tary Owens. Owens and his partner Jon Foose share Lone Star Shootout production credit with Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer.

There were dots on the map-China, Cheeks-that seemed to exist solely so juke joints could sit there, but Port Acres boasted four black clubs with capacities around 5-600 each. They had music every night, but did their best business on the weekends, especially Sunday afternoon. "In the summertime, everybody'd go to the beach on Sunday, and then later they'd be cooling off in Port Acres," recalls Lonnie Brooks. And at a time and place where accordion king Clifton Chenier was inventing zydeco and Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow rocked the blues, the Hollywood Bearcats drew the biggest crowds of all.

"People'd start coming around 4 o'clock and we'd come in about 5 and there was nowhere to park. We had to squeeze our way in to unload our instruments," marvels Charles, sitting in Hunter's van before the recent Andrews Club show. "Port Acres was people just loving each other all the time; it was a fun thing, no fights," adds Hunter. Lonnie Brooks frequented the Blue Moon to see the Bearcats while an underaged Phillip Walker stood outside, listening through the window. Brooks, and then Walker, later played guitar behind Chenier, before patterning their own first bands after the Hunter-Charles group, using just two guitarists (one of whom played rhythm on his bass strings) and a drummer. That partiuclar configuration characterized the Gulf Coast sound. Brooks, known then as Guitar Junior, did something with it that even the Bearcats couldn't, scoring huge regional hits in 1960 with the ballad "Family Rules" and the dance tune "The Crawl."

And so when the four men gathered in Austin early this year to cut Lone Star Shootout, the nostalgia was thick. Gathering in the rehearsal studio or around the pool table of the recording studio-Ervin usually off by himself, intimidated by the stars although they're his proteges-they swapped war stories, most of them unprintable or specified as off the record. Suffice to say that one of them was known to get overly cozy with dice back then; another had an infuriating (to his bandmates) habit of leaving with a woman for ninety minutes during breaks that were supposed to last ten; and two others, unbeknownst to one of them, shared a girlfriend who eventually bore a child, with the wrong man paying child support until it became visually conclusive that the other was the father. Everyone laughed knowingly when talk centered on a woman who gig after gig lunged at Phillip with a knife she kept in her bra, then turned on others each time he evaded her, until it all became an eagerly-awaited ritual.

From the opening guitar explosion of Lonnie's "Roll, Roll, Roll," Lone Star Shootout reflects the camaraderie, humor and hard knocks behind those tales. The Big Three duel together on three numbers, Walker is spotlighted on four, Hunter and Brooks on three each, and Charles on one. A Hunter-Charles version of "Two Trains Running," recorded a few months earlier, is also included. The tracks cover the New Orleans-to-Houston waterfront, but with a contemporary overhaul. "I didn't want to make a retro record, but I wanted them to be thinking of those days while playing in the present," Iglauer says, "because they all have their own music, too."

So if this CD, which is firmly in the trademark Alligator "houserockin'" groove, is about where these men started, it's also about where they are now. Hunter was the first to leave Port Arthur, moving in 1955 to Houston and in 1957 to El Paso, where he became notorious for a decade-plus of all-night performances at the Lobby Bar in Juarez; he's been in west Texas (currently, Abilene) ever since. In the last half-decade has he's finally recorded nationally-distributed albums and become a favorite on the blues circuit. Walker left in 1957, joining Hunter for 18 months in El Paso before settling in L.A. He played for Etta James, and fronted a Top 40 cover band with his then-wife before cutting Someday You'll Have These Blues (1969) and The Bottom of the Top (1973), which made him perhaps the top "new" bluesman to emerge before the genre's late-'70s renaissance. "I kept some Port Arthur in my style, but it wasn't easy, because everyone in L.A. plays jazzy," he says. "That Texas stamp is a natural thing with me, and you'll always hear my whereabouts in my playing." Brooks, arguably the finest musician of the bunch, dropped the Guitar Junior monicker when he moved to Chicago in 1959, working sessions and periodically recording obscure singles and albums until breaking through with the volatile Bayou Lightning (1979). His style bares a hard, Windy City edge that he prefers that to the swampy sound of his youth. "I bought my first guitar to play blues after seeing Long John Hunter and Ervin Charles," he points out, "so I'm glad to be playing blues now." All three left Port Arthur because they felt they couldn't go further there. Charles, the only one to stay, probably proved them correct, kicking around several bands before giving up music for two decades; back since '97, he's hoping Lone Star Shootout provides him a shot at the big time. (The next wave of musicians to come out of Beaumont-Port Arthur turned out to be white, blues-based rock stars like Janis Joplin and Johnny and Edgar Winter.)

That anything-goes Jefferson County nightlife was erased by a special legislative committee in 1960-61. Acting on the complaint of a grand juror who claimed local officials stymied all efforts to clean up vice, Texas Rangers raided clubs and brothels in Beaumont and Port Arthur late in 1960. When local law officers refused to provide paddy wagons, the Rangers guided their arrestees to the Beaumont courthouse in an honor-system caravan--one Ranger car in front, one in back, and dozens of prisoners driving their own cars in between. Tom James of Dallas, vice chairman of the legislative committee, followed with three days of televised hearings that implicated Jefferson Country sheriff Charles Meyer, Port Arthur police chief Garland B. Douglas, Beaumont police chief J.H. Mulligan, district attorney Ramie Griffin, and district Liquor Control Board supervisor El Roy Mauldin, among others.

In early 1962, 43 persons were indicted on various vice and corruption charges. Port Acres was eventually annexed into Port Arthur, and empty fields or gutted buildings now stand where nightclubs once rocked into the wee hours. The red-light districts of Beaumont and Port Arthur were urban-renewed, or left to deteriorate. The oil refineries began drying up in the late '60s, and Port Arthur became a working-class town with no jobs, creating a horrendous tailspin which only recently appears to be letting up, if only because it couldn't get much worse. But it was fun while it lasted. At least the musicians think so, and the proof is in the grooves of Lone Star Shootout and all the unique Port Arthur sounds that preceded it.

© 1999 Texas Monthly. Reprinted by permission.

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