Grady Gaines with Rod Evans
2015: Texas A&M Press (188 pages)
When the Blues Foundation announced only three selections for the Blues Hall of Fame for 2015, to accompany the opening of the actual Hall, this writer was upset (pun intended) that Little Richard was selected in part because his contributions were primarily as a rhythm and blues-rock’n’roll performer, and not as a blues man. It also struck me that they missed the opportunity to include the leader of Richard’s band the Upsetters, Grady Gaines, at the same time (Grady’s brother guitarist Roy also clearly deserves induction). Hopefully this will be rectified soon. In any event, with the assistance of Rod Evans, we have a chance to let Grady tell us his own story in this 2015 volume that is part of Texas A&M Press’ John and Robin Dickson Series In Texas Music.
Evans has put together Gaines’ recollections and life story intermixed with comments from those associated with Grady, including members of his family (brothers L.C. and Roy and son Grady Jr., among them), musicians and others who played significant roles in his band or life (like the Upsetters’ drummer Charles ‘Chuck’ Connor, guitarist Milton Hopkins, guitarist John Andrews, trombonist-vocalist Paul David Roberts, Hammond Scott of Black Top Records and Susan Criner his current booking agent). There are also inserts giving background on other persons and events such as Sam Cooke’s passing and Little Willie John’s murder conviction and death in prison. While Little Richard had been contacted and willing to talk about Grady’s contributions to his early career, his declining health prevented it. Also not able to contribute for health reasons was Grady’s lifelong friend, and bandmate, Clifford Burks.
Grady’s story starts while he was in his first band, The Blues Ramblers. Little Richard, who just had a smash hit with “Tutti Frutti,” called Grady to recruit him and fellow saxophonist Clifford Burks to join him. Grady recalled they had played with Richard in Houston and described how the Upsetters (which Richard started calling his band) added other musicians and toured heavily. Then the story backtracks to his beginning. Grady recollects how he and Roy, inspired by a grandfather, got into music. Grady grew up in a small Texas town, although experienced little of the Jim Crow issues of other communities, The family moved to Houston after his father got a job in a lumberyard. In Houston, Grady, inspired by an uncle, started working doing a paper route and playing music, describing the process in which he learned to play saxophone. A significant influence was Calvin Owens, a student teacher at his school who taught him a variety of things including the importance of professionalism.
While in High School, Grady started his first band, eventually creating the Blues Ramblers, which became one of Houston’s biggest bands. At the same time he was able to see so many legends like T-Bone Walker and B.B. King. The band got to be one of Don Robey’s studio bands and recorded behind Earl Forrest, Gatemouth Brown, Big Walter Price and even the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Mixing his recollections of playing, recording and developing his saxophone style, he recalls the vibrant nightlife in the Bayou City, and discusses when he was first playing with Little Richard before he became the sensation he was.
He spent three years with Little Richard, observing the incessant touring, with a few days off here and there. There would be mishaps like a driver dozing off and running off into a cotton field. Besides describing life on the road, he offers an overview of what a typical show was. Then there were the films including “The Girl Can’t Help It” with the famous scene of Grady jumping and soloing on the piano while Richard was pumping away. There were side benefits too, including, as described by Connors, women throwing their panties on stage, and Grady, being handsome and prominent as saxophonist and the band’s leader, had his share of after show encounters.
It was in 1957 in Australia that Little Richard told the band he was quitting the business to become a preacher. He had hinted at doing this previously, but Down Under he actually made the decision during a tour. Richard allowed Grady to continue using the name the Upsetters, and when back in the US they toured California with Dee Clark. The band next hooked up with Little Willie John who had a smash hit with “Fever.” Grady recalls that Little Willie John was a wonderful little guy, but kind of wild. They continued to tour with him until a California tour that included Sam Cooke. Cooke wanted the band as his own, so it became Sam Cooke’s band and it toured with him until his early death. Included among the many pictures illustrating Grady’s story is a poster from their early 60s tour of Jamaica.
After Cooke’s death in 1964, Grady Gaines and the Upsetters became the main backing band for Universal Attractions, playing behind the likes of Etta James, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, Solomon Burke, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Crystals, the Supremes and “anybody that was somebody.” And the Upsetters worked hard at being entertaining. Grady himself would put a mic down the barrel of his horn, honk and walk the floor with a 150 foot cable including sometimes going outside and playing on the sidewalk. While Grady noted that he drank moderately, he stayed away from drugs and the Upsetters had few problems with alcohol or drugs.
Grady talks about disco coming in as among the things that led to decline of the Upsetters touring. The remainder of the book details him returning to Houston, playing primarily locally as well as taking employment outside of music. Grady’s Texas Upsetters became a versatile band, doing a revue type of show and playing not simply nightclubs but also private parties and other functions with their considerable versatility. It was at this time that Hammond Scott, and his late brother Nauman, heard Grady and recorded him for Black Top, and this led to some European travel. He also recorded an album "Jump Start,’ that unlike the mostly original material of the Black Top releases, had mostly older material reshaped by Grady and the Upsetters, and they continue to still perform. One thing that comes across throughout this book is the professionalism he conducted throughout his career, still seen today by the fact that he picks up all the band members up for their gigs in the Houston area.
Over his career Grady has backed 71 artists who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, likely more than anyone else. Evans is making a case for him being selected as a sideman. Certainly it would be worthy, as would be his induction into the Blues Foundation’ Blues Hall of Fame, as among those 71 artists are more than a handful of Blues Hall of Fame inductees. Additionally his own playing, and his recordings deserve recognition.
There are a couple of minor typos (Amos Milburn called Wilburn), and it might have suited Evans to have looked at the excellent biographies of Sam Cooke, Little Willie John and John Ace, as well as Preston Lauterbach’s book on “The Chitlin Circuit.” The authors do rely on Roger Wood’s marvelous “Down In Houston: Bayou City Blues,” and Charles White’s “The Life and Times of Little Richard” by Charles White. It is surprising that for a University Press book, a number of cites to allmusic.com (not completely reliable although I found no errors here), although most of the material is from Evans’ interviews. In any event, Grady certainly has been out there and this well illustrated volume tells his story in a highly readable and concise manner.
I purchased this. Here is one of Grady's recordings when leading the Upsetters.