IT’S ABOUT SEVEN ON A SUNDAY night in Port Arthur, and Procter Street—the main drag downtown—is deserted except for two men standing in front of Andrew’s Club. “In the old days this whole street would have been packed with people,” bluesman Long John Hunter says to his brother Tom, who nods in agreement.
The “old days” means the early fifties, when Hunter, fellow guitar slinger Ervin Charles, and drummer Leroy Stelly dominated the Beaumont—Port Arthur blues circuit in the form of the Hollywood Bearcats. After Hunter, who turns 68 this month, left town in 1955, he and Charles, now 67, fell out of touch. But two years ago, Austin producer Tary Owens—another Port Arthur expatriate—arranged for the old friends to play a European blues festival with Lonnie Brooks, 65, and Phillip Walker, 62, two Port Arthur veterans based in Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively. The foursome—with Charles billed as a guest because of his smaller role and lesser star power—fell back into it so easily that they teamed up for Lone Star Shootout , a blazing primer on Gulf Coast blues and R&B that was released in late May by Alligator Records, and they’re playing festivals this summer.
So it’s no surprise that recently, when Hunter found himself with an open night after playing Houston and New Orleans, he asked his brother—a journalist and blues deejay—to book a mini-reunion with Charles. 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 Hunter and Charles thanked nearly everyone present by name. There was Elmer “Big Opelousas” Harris, a onetime professional dancer who owned the Beaumont club where they played their first gig. There was Stelly, who proved he knows his way around a dance floor as well as a drum kit, and Alnetter Metoyer, a former owner of the Blue Moon, the Port Acres club where the Bearcats ruled from 1953 to 1955. Throw in half a dozen friends and relatives, plus some young guitarists who hang with Charles, and that was that. But no matter. After Charles turned out a terrific set, Hunter played like a human jukebox for two hours; then the duo slunk into a swampy version of “Two Trains Running,” the Muddy Waters tune that first made their reputation, and everyone went home happy.
The Port Arthur blues scene that produced Hunter, Charles, Brooks, and Walker is usually considered a footnote to Houston’s—if it isn’t overlooked entirely (even the Music Hall in Port Arthur’s Museum of the Gulf Coast ignores the four men, though all but Charles are known internationally). But it had its own distinct flavor. Drawn by plentiful jobs at Port Arthur’s booming oil refineries, African Americans poured in from all over Louisiana and East Texas. They worked long, hard hours 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 the Bayou City and New Orleans was—and still is—unprecedented in American vernacular music. Swamp blues, swamp pop (Louisiana’s languid versions of blues and rock and roll), country, gospel, New Orleans R&B, Cajun, and zydeco were boiled down to their spare, soulful essences in Port Arthur. And back then, Jefferson County was wide open: Gambling parlors and brothels were everywhere, and liquor was served around the clock to anyone with cash. Black club owners operated strings of joints on Hollywood and Forsythe streets in Beaumont and along West Gulfway Drive and Houston Avenue in Port Arthur.
The place to go, however, 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,” Owens says. There were dots on the map, such as China and Cheek, that seemed to exist solely so juke joints could operate there, but Port Acres boasted four black clubs with a capacity of five hundred to six hundred each. They had music every night but did their best business on the weekends, especially Sunday afternoons. “In the summer everybody would go to the beach on Sunday, and then later they’d be cooling off in Port Acres,” Brooks recalls.
And at a time and a 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 would start coming around four in the afternoon and we’d come in about five and there was nowhere to park,” Charles says. “We had to squeeze our way in to unload our instruments.” “Port Acres was people just loving each other all the time,” Hunter adds. “It was a fun thing, no fights.” Brooks frequented the Blue Moon to see the Bearcats while an underaged Walker stood outside, listening through the window; both men eventually played guitar behind Chenier before patterning their own first bands after the Hunter-Charles group, using just two guitarists (one of whom played bass lines on his bottom strings) and a drummer. That particular configuration was a hallmark of the Gulf Coast sound, and it was a career booster for Brooks, known then as Guitar Junior, who used it to score the kind of huge regional hits—1960’s “Family Rules” and “The Crawl”—that the Bearcats never could.
Predictably the nostalgia was thick when Hunter, Charles, Brooks, and Walker gathered in Austin in January to cut Lone Star Shootout . In the rehearsal studio and around the pool table, they swapped war stories, most of them unprintable or intended to be off the record. Suffice it to say that one of the four was known to get overly cozy with dice back then; another infuriated his bandmates by leaving with women 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