Direct from the T-Bone Walker school of Lone Star Guitar, Roy Gaines’ first exposure to show business came via his brother, Grady Gaines, noted sax player in Little Richard’s backing band the Upsetters. Roy started out doing sessions for Houston’s Duke/ Peacock Records before hitting the trail to Los Angeles where he became turban-wearing R&B star Chuck Willis’s band leader. Gaines cut his own wild rockers, “Skippy Is A Sissy” and “What Will Lucy Do” before backing artists as varied as Ray Charles and Billie Holiday and later even joining the Jazz Crusaders.
What could Roy Milton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Joe Morris, Chuck Willis, Brook Benton, Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, the Jazz Crusaders, Earl Grant, Ray Charles, Della Reese, and Harry Belafonte all possibly have in common?
At one time or another, every one of those stars and quite a few more utilized the talents of incredibly versatile Los Angeles-based guitarist Roy Gaines. He’s played on film soundtracks, taken a late ‘60s side trip into calypso, done session work for Motown’s West Coast office, tried a Cole Porter chestnut on for size in the studio (complete with a swirling string section), waxed a Bob Dylan cover for a big New York label, and dabbled in country music with Hank Williams’ first wife Audrey. Yet his albums over the last two decades, several of them issued on his own Black Gold imprint, make it abundantly clear that Gaines has never abandoned his Texas blues roots. He holds T-Bone Walker’s immaculate fretwork especially close to his heart.
When Roy takes the Ponderosa Stomp stage on Saturday evening, he has a very special treat in store for the assembled multitude. He’ll be revisiting some of his earliest singles—the torrid ‘50s jump numbers he waxed for the Chart, Groove, DeLuxe, sand RCA Victor labels along with a handful of classics he played nightly behind Willis during his days as the turbaned Atlanta blues shouter’s bandleader before Chuck lost his battle with ulcers in 1958.
Considering his amazing chops on guitar, it may come as a bit of a surprise that the Waskom, Texas-born Gaines started his musical journey at age six on another instrument entirely. “My mother bought me a piano,” says Roy. “It was a good idea, because you get a chance to hear all the instruments when you learn piano. It becomes healthy for writing songs or writing music. It was a good thing that she did. There was a piano teacher just across the tracks on the opposite side of the street from where I lived, and she was my piano teacher. So it was sort of like an in-house thing. I couldn’t get over. I had to take them up on it.”
Music ran deep in the Gaines household. His blues-loving father, Merkerson Gaines, was fluent on guitar and harmonica. Roy’s older brother Grady was and remains a blazing tenor saxophonist who went on to contribute wallpaper-peeling solos to Big Walter and His Thunderbirds’ “Pack Fair And Square” and Little Richard’s “Keep A Knockin’” and led one of Houston’s hottest bands, the Upsetters (their drummer Charles Connor appears at this year’s Stomp). The family relocated to Houston when Roy was six years old. At 14, Roy switched to guitar and became extremely good on his new instrument in a very compact timespan.
“I studied piano when I was six, so I had gotten quite a bit of knowledge of what the piano was about, and what I had to do. I started playing a few jobs on piano with my brother on piano,” says Gaines. “He had jobs where he was playing like the great saxophone Texas honkers, like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet and this other guy, Willis ‘Gator Tail’ Jackson. He would walk the floor and do that style of playing, and all the girls would follow him—well, people, period would follow him back to the bandstand. So I would sit there on the piano, watching all this.
“I had a liking for Gatemouth Brown and the way he dressed back at that time. He had on those very colorful suits, and he had tuxedo tails on. Then Guitar Slim came out of New Orleans with some really matched-up suits, shoes, hat bands and everything was matched up. And then Lightnin’ Hopkins was my mother’s favorite guitar player and blues singer. So I said, ‘Shucks—I’d better jump on this train!’”
Gaines’ most important early influence of all was the father of electric blues guitar, Linden, Texas native Aaron “T-Bone” Walker. “T-Bone Walker used to come to town, and he had people standing around the block downtown at the City Auditorium. These auditoriums were where they usually played white artists like Hank Williams and all those great country acts. T-Bone, he was playing those same kind of venues, and he had people lined up around the block—in columns of twos sometimes! So that’s what got me on the guitar ride.”
Houston boasted several teenaged blues guitar prodigies during the early ‘50s. “Cal Green was one of my best friends, along with Clarence Hollimon,” Roy says. “Clarence taught me my first chord on guitar. When I first got the guitar, I was still a paper boy, so I put the guitar on one side of the rack and my amp in the other side of the paper rack on the back of my bicycle, and I went over to Clarence’s house.
“I thought he was going to give me a guitar lesson. He said, ‘Oh, we’ll get to that, but just put the guitar down here. And I put it down in his house on the front porch there. He said, ‘We’re gonna throw some ball!’ He was in charge, so he was throwing balls. I wasn’t too interested in those balls, but a huge dog came out around the corner in back of his house. Clarence used to like big dogs. When I saw this dog, I just nearly fell apart. And he said. ‘Don’t move! If you move, he’s gonna think you’re scared of him and he’ll chase you, so don’t move!’ I’ll always remember him telling me that. And I didn’t move, and the dog came up and he sniffed me and everything and went on about his business.
“We played a few balls, and then he carried me inside and showed me the first chords that I ever knew on guitar. That’s the way I started to playing guitar, was what he taught me that day. Him being a really close friend and respected musician, because he played professionally on the weekends with his brother, Sweets Hollimon. He played with his brother, and his brother played piano. He could sing just like Charles Brown. So Clarence could play those solos like Johnny Moore and different guitar players that played with Charles Brown on records out in California. Everybody just loved Clarence for that style, that he could play that style so well.”
Cal Green and his older sibling Clarence Green, another fantastic blues guitarist, were also friends of Roy’s. “Those two brothers were just outstanding natural-born players. They used to get on the bus and ride from Frenchtown,” says Roy. “The bus would come down Liberty Road. They would get on the bus on Liberty Road and ride it all the way downtown to where it turned into Main Street, and then they would go to the end of Main Street. They would allow them to play on the bus, and when they came back to the end and got off, they’d have pockets full of money! So that’s the way they made their resources much better than they would if they hadn’t did that. Me, I was throwing papers. So their resources were much stronger than what they would have been if they hadn’t did that. So that’s how I got to meet Clarence and Cal.”
Roy’s peers weren’t his only instructors. “There was a man named Steve Hester, he was a white man that came through Houston with one of those big bands,” he says. “He had his name in the paper, and I was a paper boy, so I kind of checked the papers out pretty much for everything. He was teaching guitar, so I started taking guitar lessons from him. It went very well because I had studied music on the piano, so it was just like a natural occurrence of events for me to switch. I was playing jobs, I guess about two months or maybe less than that, after I got the guitar. I used to play Gatemouth Brown’s popular song that they had then called ‘Boogie Woogie Rambler,’ and then T-Bone had a song called ‘Cold Cold Feeling’ that was very popular during that time. There was a song or two that I did by Lightnin’ Hopkins, so I had about three songs that I did.
“There was a club there called the Whispering Pines, and the owner, he had a cleaners right near where we lived. It was across the street from a shoeshine stand where I used to shine shoes in there to make extra money along with my paper routes for a man named Pee Wee Cage. Pee Wee Cage was a vaudeville comedian. (The man that) had the cleaners across the street from there, he bought that club and opened that club up. And Pee Wee that owned the shoe shop, did comedy at the club.”
A chance encounter on his way to a gig with drummer Sonny Freeman really got the youth’s musical career rolling. “A man named Hot Poppa—he used to drive a Cadillac, and he had a junkyard at his house, he had cars all the way around it—Hot Poppa saw me being stood up about seven o’clock, just starting to turn dark,” says Gaines. “I had caught a bus out near where he lived to go on a job with a man that played with B.B. King later, a drummer, Sonny Freeman. Sonny, he went off and left me. I must have been about five minutes late. But Sonny was always a very stern person.
“I was standing there thinking how was I going to get home, and it was getting dark and I had my guitar and my amp. So man, I started shedding a few tears. I was kind of crying and thinking about I’d better wait and catch another bus, or whether I should wait for him,” he says. “I said, ‘I wonder what I should do?’ Anyway, Hot Poppa came along, and he said, ‘What’s your name, boy?’ And I said, ‘Roy Gaines.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re that guitar player we’ve been hearing about! Get in the car and come on and go with me. I’ve got to change clothes, and I’ll take you to a club where I bet you they’ll give you a job!’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah? That sounds pretty good!’
“I told him I was waiting on V.S. Freeman. He said, ‘I know Freeman. Freeman lives down the road.’ Then he said, ‘Milton Hopkins (yet another young Houston guitarist that later played with both the Upsetters and B.B. King), he lives next door to me!’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, okay!’ So I went to his house and I set for him to get dressed, and he gave me something hot to drink. Then he took me over to this club, the Whispering Pines. And I played, and people were throwing—he started it. He put a $100 bill on my guitar, and people started putting fives and twenties, and I had all this money that night. I wouldn’t have made but about $10 if I had played with V.S. Freeman, but I made about four or five hundred dollars that night! So when he dropped me off and I had all this money, and I had a job, my mother, she was excited about where did I get all this money from and all this. So that’s how the guitar thing started.”
Roy and Cal staged mock guitar battles, each teen impersonating their favorite axeman. Gaines was T-Bone’s disciple, and Green was Gatemouth’s. “We became old enough to go to jam sessions, and we could play well enough then to go to jam sessions,” says Gaines. “We’d just go in there, and people would get really excited to see these young people playing music like that. That wasn’t only Cal and Clarence. There was Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins. They were from another part of town, the Third Ward. They were real close friends, Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. So they kind of looked up to us. They were coming along. They weren’t at the stage that we were. Eventually they started the same thing out in the Third Ward where they lived at a place called Shady’s Playhouse. So they had a strong guitar battle going out there,
“There was a place called Club Matinee. Club Matinee was owned by a man named Mr. Dixon,” continues Roy. “He used to have a hotel named the Crystal White Hotel and the Crystal White Café, and inside the café was a ballroom. There was a cab stand connected to the Crystal White Hotel and the Crystal White Café, and then they had a ballroom inside the Crystal White Café, so therefore Saturday nights, those places were jumping, and they had cabs out there to go pick up people and bring people back there. It was just a really wonderful situation. Then when they would have jam sessions, it was just fortunate that Clarence (Hollimon) and Cal and myself was kind of like the guitar players that were really known in Houston.
“Whatever jobs came up, all the bandleaders of the little bands wanted us to play with them, so then we were doing shows. So it was like a standoff between Cal and Clarence. Clarence was working more than Cal at the time, because he was working on a steady job with his brother. So Cal and I would wind up over there a lot of times together. That’s how these standoff guitar battles started, over there at that club, the Crystal White.
“We worked all those little towns. There were bookers that used to book us. The guy that used to book us the most was a man named Fred Singleton. We learned a lot from Fred. He would go in those towns and set those jobs up, and then come back and put the shows together that he had for those jobs,” says Roy. “Clarence and I were working more in those towns like Baytown, Galveston, and we’d go down to Corpus Christi.”
Roy had a chance very early in his career to share a stage with his hero. “I stayed at (the Crystal White) until I was very popular in town, and that’s how I also became known to T-Bone Walker, because in those days they would put placards out. So they had your picture on these placards. This man would call me ‘the 14-Year-Old Sensation.’ And that was all over town. So T-Bone heard about it, and T-Bone put the word out that he wanted to see me at his job. The next time he came to town was at that auditorium. So I asked my mother to take me down there, so she took me there and I asked this security guard, once they let me in, I told him that T-Bone wanted to see me, and he was looking to meet me. So he got me backstage to see T-Bone.
“T-Bone was talking with a circle of men around him, talking to him, and I stuck my head in the circle and I said, ‘Mr. Bone! Mr. T-Bone! I’m Roy Gaines!’ And he said, ‘You wait right there! I’m going onstage right now, and I’m gonna call you on after I play the second song!’ And that’s the way I met Bone. I thought that was nice of him until he went onstage. He was getting ready to call me on. I started to shaking like I was coming off of a ferris wheel. Man, I was nervous! I went on, and just like he made me nervous, he relaxed me because he said, ‘Now, I’m gonna sing, and you play guitar. I’m gonna fix this strap for you.’ And he put the guitar on me fixed the strap, put the guitar on me, and he said, ‘You know “Cold Cold Feeling?”’ That was my favorite song! So I played the intro to ‘Cold Cold Feeling’ and he came in singing, and we were friends until he passed away.”
Houston wouldn’t corral Gaines for long. In 1953, at age 16, he made his first jaunt to Los Angeles. “My mother would let me come out to California in the summer sometimes, because my oldest sister had moved out here, and she married a man named Mr. Elias Jones,” he says. Roy was there long enough to enroll in high school (the Platters’ Zola Taylor was one of his classmates). It didn’t take long for him to make his musical presence felt at a talent show hosted by popular L.A. R&B deejay Hunter Hancock.
“The first night I went over there, they were so amazed that I was what I was, in the business so young and looked so young. I looked younger than I was,” says Roy. “I won the show that night, and a lady came up to me named Mickey Champion. Mickey Champion was a singer with Roy Milton. I received my trophy—it was a cup, a gold cup. So she said, ‘Roy Gaines, you’ve got to come meet Pops!’ I said, ‘Who is Pops?’ She said, ‘I sing with Roy Milton. His name is Roy Milton, but we all call him Pops. The guitar player, Junior Rogers, is going back to Oklahoma because he’s not well. He has some health issues, so he’s going back to Oklahoma City.’ I said, ‘Wow!’ She said, ‘You should come over there, because Pops needs a guitar player, and I think he would take you.’ I said, ‘So tell me where it is!’
Milton and his Solid Senders were jump blues pioneers of the first order. The singing drummer’s 1946 smash “R.M. Blues” for Art Rupe’s fledgling L.A.-based Juke Box label was one of the biggest and most influential R&B smashes of the postwar era, and he posted a constant stream of additional hits through 1953 for Rupe’s longer-lasting Specialty logo. Joining Milton’s outfit represented a big step up for the teenaged fretsman. “I met her over there, and I auditioned for him with the bandleader,” he remembers. “His name was Jackie Kelso. Jackie was a friend of mine from that day on.”
Kelso, whose tenor sax was heard on countless L.A. R&B platters, became another mentor to the young guitarist. “He used to teach me music theory in the back of the bus, where he would sit when we were traveling. That’s where I learned the rules and regulations and bylaws of a band,” Gaines says. “He had a singer named Camille Howard playing the piano and singing. Then he had Mickey. He had a horn section that was always intact, because Jackie Kelso wrote the music for the horn section, the orchestrations for the band.
“I was 16 going on 17. And I had just been out here long enough that summer to know that I was going to stay and go to school out here, because I was going to be with Roy Milton. That was kind of a unique connection, and it lasted for the most of two years. Almost two years. Then when we got back east and we played Chicago, that’s when I experienced all the cold weather on the road as a young man. We were riding in Roy Milton’s bus.”
Back in Houston, Roy backed young blues belter Bobby “Blue” Bland on his swaggering 1955 platter “It’s My Life Baby” for Don Robey’s Duke Records. Working with Duke’s trumpet-blowing house bandleader was a pleasure. “Joe Scott was one of the foremost orchestrators of all time,” he says. “All those arrangements he put together behind Gatemouth, Johnny Otis, and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland—he made that record company have a lot of class.
“Robey and his wife or his ex-wife, Miss Evelyn, Evelyn Johnson, they did the business part of it because he had a conglomerate there. He was booking, he had a booking agent there, then he had a nightclub, and he had the pressing plant. He didn’t have to go to downtown and get his records pressed. He could make his records, press ‘em, and have ‘em out in two weeks or a week or so.”
It was time for Gaines to assume a higher profile. “I was in Dallas with Roy Milton at the Empire Ballroom that was owned by Howard Lewis. Howard Lewis was a promoter also that promoted shows throughout Texas and Arkansas and Louisiana. He was a powerful man,” he says. “I was playing there with Roy Milton, and Jack Orchard out of New York, he was down there on business for Shaw Artists, Inc. Shaw was an agent out of New York that booked all the jazz. They booked the big doowop shows, those package shows. A lot of different kind of package shows. And when Jack Orchard got back in New York, he told them that he wanted to sign me.
“He put me on the road with a tour that was going out: Joe Turner, Joe Morris, and Faye Adams. Faye Adams had just left (Morris’) group, and they had a girl singer named Ursula Reed. She had a big voice like Faye Adams, and she used to have to sing that song because Joe Morris wrote that song, ‘Shake A Hand.’ So I made a tour with them, and when I got to Buffalo, I had been treated very bad, because I was young. Joe Morris was sort of probably doing all he could, as I look back on it. He was probably doing all he could do to keep a band together during that time—keep uniforms on ‘em and then travel job to job. They didn’t pay the band that much money back in those times.
“I was doing all the work,” says Gaines. “You play the music and then you drive, and you’ve got to buy gas and keep the receipts. And sometimes you don’t get a receipt.” Roy was overdue for a change when he laid eyes on Chuck Willis, the blues shouter from Atlanta whose 1952-54 hits for Columbia’s OKeh subsidiary included “My Story,” “Don’t Deceive Me,” “You’re Still My Baby,” and the Latin-tinged “I Feel So Bad.”
“I used to play with a guy named Clarence,” says Gaines. “Clarence was a piano player, and he used to play and sing all of Chuck’s songs. He was my favorite piano player to play with, because he reminded me of the times that Clarence Hollimon was playing with his brother Sweets, and they were playing like Charles Brown. So with this guy, I could play Chuck Willis’ style, and it was a little more upgraded from just playing regular blues.
“Those times came to view when I saw Chuck on the bill in Buffalo, N.Y. I was sick of that band,” he says. “I went around to Chuck’s dressing room and told him that I used to play his music when I was in Houston, and that I was looking to change bands. I said, ‘I’m quitting this band tonight. I hear you’re going back to New York. I just need a ride back to New York because that’s where my agent is.’ We were with the same agent.
“In the course of driving back, Chuck said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve got to put another band together. I only have my piano player, so if you want to put a band together, this is your chance,’” says Roy, who took Chuck up on his offer. “Our first job when we left New York was in Washington, D.C., and then a little job outside of Washington, D.C. in a place called Alexandria, Virginia. In Alexandria was this drummer that came to see me named Courtney Woods. I said, ‘Well, Courtney, you played real good with us tonight.’ He played with us that night. I said, ‘You want to go on the road? I sure would like to take you on the road with me.’ So he said, ‘Yeah, I want to go on the road!’ So I hired Courtney there, and Courtney turned out to be my bookkeeper,” says Gaines. “He kept my books together and played drums, so he was working double like I did with Joe Morris.”
Using Willis’ combo, including Woods on drums, trumpeter Floyd Arceneaux, tenor saxist Carlos Bermudez, and pianist James Harris (the lone holdover from Chuck’s previous band), Gaines cut his 1956 debut single for Henry Stone’s Chart label in Miami. It twinned the houserocking “Loud Mouth Lucy” and an after-hours blues, “I’m Setting You Free.”
“We were working at a location that was about a week at this location. It was outside of Miami. That’s where I bought my wedding ring for my wife,” says Roy. “Henry Stone, he probably came out there because of Chuck Willis. And when he heard me, he said he wanted to record me in Miami before I left. And I said, ‘Of course!’ So that’s why he recorded two songs that Chuck wrote. He wrote that song ‘Loud Mouth Lucy,’ and he had recorded it before (in 1952). He sang on that song with me too. That’s him singing on the ride chorus.”
Willis treated his young bandleader right. “That was my big times. Jobs became more plentiful, the money was more plentiful, and Chuck was a good man,” says Roy. “He paid us correct. He paid me correct, and then I paid my guys.” Willis showed no reticence towards Gaines launching his own recording career. His next stop was RCA Victor’s R&B subsidiary Groove in February of 1956, where former Billboard staffer Bob Rolontz was in charge of A&R.
“I met a man named Joel Turnero,” says Gaines. “He took a real interest in me, because I played in the studios and I played with songwriters on demos, like Rose Marie McCoy and Brook Benton.” The two struck up a professional relationship. “He started to manage me. He said, ‘Well, I think you ought to be on RCA Victor,’” says Roy. “Joel went to have a meeting with Bob, and came back and told me that I was going to be on Groove. And I said, ‘Wow!’ I was thinking I was going to make it on RCA. Elvis was over there. A bunch of great big acts were over there.”
Gaines split writers’ credit with Turnero on both sides of his first Groove single, waxed in February of 1956 with first-call tenor saxist King Curtis sharing the solo space with Roy. “He was from Texas, and I’m from Texas,” says Gaines. “I know him in that respect. I don’t know him from hanging out. I didn’t hang out with him.” “Right Now Baby” was a hard-driving swinger, and its opposite side “De Dat De Dum Dum” rocked like crazy. “Bo Diddley was the reason for ‘De Dat De Dum Dum,’” says Roy. “That’s my version of ‘Bo Diddley.’”
Groove had Gaines back in the studio that June for another session, with George Rhodes back on piano and bassist Lloyd Trotman and drummer Panama Francis replacing the previous rhythm section of Leonard Gaskin and Herbie Lovelle. It produced his rendition of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s torrid stomper “Worried About You Baby” (Crudup was his Groove labelmate after many years on Victor proper), which came paired with an insistent “All My Life” from the previous date (again credited to Gaines and Turnero in the authorship column). Two other Gaines numbers, “Hoodoo” and “Alabama Sue,” one of them penned by Willis, were buried in the Groove vaults until very recently.
Roy’s slashing, in-your-face solos during this period seemed to leap right out of the grooves (no pun intended). “That guitar had a story,” he says. “It was a (Gibson) ES-5 guitar, and it had those P-90 pickups. That’s when the P-90s first came out, and that guitar was first made when I purchased it. I got it because T-Bone Walker, somebody had taken his guitar and he bought one of those blonde guitars like that. But that guitar had a special sound to it, and it got taken away from me a very strange way.
“It was taken several times on the road when I was with Chuck, but somebody would always see the person that took it and which way they went, and we would always go find the guy and my valet and my driver or whoever was working for me at the time would beat those guys up for taking the guitar,” says Gaines. “Then it got taken once, I was with Brook Benton when I was playing with Brook in Houston at the Crystal White. We went in there to eat. The car was parked outside, and I left the guitar in the car, and somebody got it. Somebody also saw him, which way he went. And we went that way and caught him. Brook was with me, and Brook and Be Bop (Edwards)—Be Bop was my valet and driver. I was with Chuck. Be Bop was Johnny Ace’s valet and driver. He stayed true to being a valet and a driver in that capacity all his life. When he passed away, he passed away as that. With B.B., he didn’t have to do anything but wardrobe.”
Gaines moved over to Syd Nathan’s Cincinnati-based DeLuxe label in February of ‘57, though he continued to record at his then-home base of New York. “Gainesville,” Roy’s first DeLuxe release, was a late-night instrumental filled with exquisite light-fingered fretwork. “That instrumental did a lot for me with deejays,” he says. On the other side was Roy’s vocal cover of Roy Tan’s R&B rocker “Isabella,” then a new release on Dot Records (Clifford Scott and Count Hastings were the sax blasters on Gaines’ version). Hastings returned the next month along with Big Al Sears to blow on Roy’s romping “You’re Right I’m Left” (not to be confused with Elvis’ Sun platter of a similar title), which came with alternate B-sides, “I’ll Come Back To You” and the downbeat vocal “Stolen Moments.”
“I always had some great people around when I was recording,” says Roy. “I just never made a hit record back in that time, so I couldn’t keep that momentum going.” Done at the same session was Gaines’ version of “Love Me Cherry,” which went unissued; Willis waxed it the next month as the first followup to his monster hit for Atlantic, “C.C. Rider,” which Roy played on. “I always liked that song,” says Gaines of “Love Me Cherry.” “I don’t remember even recording that song. I’d love to hear it.”
Roy’s last DeLuxe single, done that August with several members of Chuck’s road band including Arceneaux and Houston’s Calvin Owens on trumpets and Isaiah Alexander on bass, paired another sterling instrumental, “Night Beat,” and the Gaines-penned vocal rocker “Annabelle.” “Those songs did quite well, because King Records had a really good promotional staff going out there. They were promoting records and making hits,” says Roy, who nonetheless failed to crack the R&B charts with them. “I never made any money off of any of those records.”
It was back to RCA Victor—the parent label this time—in January of 1958 for Roy’s best shot at rock and roll immortality. “Skippy Is A Sissy (If This Ain’t Love),” produced in New York by ex-Rainbow Records boss Eddie Heller and scribed by Roy himself, is the Gaines track most revered by ‘50s aficionados, Roy roaring through a rocker of epic proportions.
“‘Skippy’ has been with me my whole life. But after I made ‘Skippy,’ ‘Skippy’ didn’t take off like we thought it was. If it had taken off, my whole life would have been a different life. Because it was in the fashion of Little Richard and Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley,” he says. “I just was trying to make songs like Little Richard. You know, Little Richard and all those rock and roll guys that were out.
“If ‘Skippy’ had took off, they would have kept me on RCA Victor, and I would have been probably touring with some of those white acts. That’s the way I was headed. I would have been touring like Bo Diddley and all of them, Little Richard. It just would have worked for me. But who knows? A lot of those guys, they’ve been here and gone that made it big during that time. I’ve never myself experienced the real, real bigtime, except for when I was with Chuck. And I didn’t experience it under my own name. I experienced it through Chuck. I’ve had some high moments in this business, but it hasn’t given me what I gave it. I’ll put it like that.
“I worked hard, man, to try to make it happen. It didn’t happen, but I worked on it.” There was a New Orleans connection with the B-side of the single, “Weeping Willow.” It was written by young pianist Allen Toussaint, then an RCA Victor signee himself under the odd handle of A. Tousan; his recording engineer Cosimo Matassa shared writer’s credit.
April 10, 1958 brought Willis’ tragic passing at age 30. “Chuck was a real gentleman,” says Gaines. “And he paid me right. I would keep a good band when I was with him. He became very successful when I met him. He didn’t get paid off of those songs that he made for OKeh like he did for ‘C.C. Rider.’” But the year was by no means all downbeat for Roy. He was in the studio band when the great Billie Holiday performed on Art Ford’s Jazz Party, beamed into New York over the airwaves of Newark’s WNTA-TV. It wasn’t Gaines’ only foray into the jazz world back then; he played behind Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie’s former blues-shouting front man, when “Mr. Five By Five” cut an album for Vanguard the year before and appeared along with saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins on the Prestige Blues-Swingers’ 1959 LP Stasch.
Roy went back to L.A. in 1960 (it remains his home), guesting on the Jazz Crusaders’ Freedom Sound album for Pacific Jazz the next year. He also made an unusual ‘61 single for Bob Keane’s Del-Fi logo (the former home of Ritchie Valens); “Lizzie” combined two seemingly disparate sounds into a seamless whole. “It was a slow kind of Jimmy Reed song that’s got strings on it,” explains Roy. “It’s like Jimmy Reed with strings!” Those violins were arranged by Rene Hall, whose resume ranged from playing lead guitar on some of Billy Ward’s Dominoes’ biggest hits to orchestrations for Sam Cooke. The opposite side was an unexpected treatment of Cole Porter’s 1929 pop chestnut “What Is This Thing Called Love” bathed in swirling strings. “I learned a lot from him,” says Roy of Rene. “He knew me and he respected me from a studio angle.”
The 1960s were a maelstrom of musical activity for the guitarist. He attended Monterey Peninsula College to study musical theory, toured Australia with Earl Grant, played the 1964 Monterey Jazz Festival, and crossed paths with the Genius in 1966-67. “I wrote songs for Ray Charles,” he says. “He recorded my song ‘No Use Crying,’ from his Crying Time album. But ‘Crying Time’ went sky-high. My record never was hardly noticed.”
Roy’s Calypso Cu-Be-Ar Revue during the late ‘60s featured vocalist Rita Graham, and he had a single on his Cu-Be-Ar label, the blues/calypso hybrid “Black Gal.” The Audrey Williams connection (she noticed him playing in Beverly Hills while Hank Jr. was making a Hollywood flick) spawned a 1968 45 on Uni pairing an update on Lead Belly’s pre-war blues “Ella Speed” with “I Doubt It.” The 5th Dimension’s Billy Davis, Jr. co-produced Roy’s 1970 cover of Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” its arrangement by the esteemed Marty Paich. Roy and his brother Grady co-wrote its flip, “Make It Easy,” with their old Duke/Peacock buddy Joe Scott.
Film soundtracks became another lucrative venture as Roy’s handiwork appeared on the soundtracks of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, How Many Roads, and The Color Purple. But for a while, Gaines’ recording career languished. Then in 1996, he formed his own Black Gold label and got back to the blues, releasing Lucille Works For Me!. It was followed by Bluesman For Life on the JSP logo in 1998 and a 2000 tribute to his musical hero on Groove Note, I Got the T-Bone Walker Blues. Severn issued his New Frontier Lover to kick off the new millennium, while the German Crosscut logo unleashed In the House: Live at Lucerne in 2002. Gaines’ last pair of CDs, Tuxedo Blues (2009) and The War is Over (2014), emerged on Black Gold.
As a venerated Los Angeles blues elder, Roy Gaines can look back on his prolific career with pride. “It’s been quite a ride,” he says. “I just made 80 last month, and I had probably the most wonderful birthday I could ever have. I worked two days on my birthday. I have two birthdays, because my mother said I was born on one day all my life, and then when I started traveling, I had to get a passport and all that, and they said my birth certificate had a different date two days earlier. It was on (August) 12th. My mother said I was born on the 14th. So now I get two birthdays out of the deal!”