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 it became visually conclusive who the father really was. Everyone laughed knowingly when the conversation turned to a woman who, gig after gig, lunged at Walker with a knife she kept in her bra, then turned on others each time he evaded her.
From the opening guitar explosion of Brooks’s “Roll, Roll, Roll,” Lone Star Shootout reflects the camaraderie, humor, and hard knocks behind those tales. The Big Three—Walker, Hunter, and Brooks—duel on three numbers, Walker is spotlighted on four, Hunter and Brooks on three each, and Charles on one. (A Hunter-Charles take on “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, because they all have their own music too,” says Bruce Iglauer, the president of Alligator Records, who co-produced Lone Star Shootout with Owens and Jon Foose.
If the CD is about where they started, it’s also about where they are now. Hunter was the first to leave Port Arthur, moving first to Houston and then to El Paso, where his all-night performances at the Lobby Bar in Juárez were notorious. He’s been in West Texas (at the moment, Abilene) ever since; in the past five years he has finally recorded nationally distributed albums and become a favorite on the blues circuit. Walker left in 1957, joining Hunter for eleven months in El Paso before settling in L.A. He played for Etta James and fronted a top-forty cover band before cutting Someday You’ll Have These Blues (1969) and The Bottom of the Top (1973). “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 roots in my playing.” Brooks, arguably the finest musician of the bunch, moved to Chicago in 1959, doing studio work and periodically recording obscure singles and albums until breaking through with the volatile Bayou Lightning (1979). His style betrays a hard Windy City edge, which he prefers to the swampy sound of his youth. “I bought my first guitar to play blues after seeing Long John Hunter and Ervin Charles,” he notes, “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 with several bands before giving up music for two decades.
As it happened, the anything-goes nightlife they loved so well was erased within a few years by a special committee of the Legislature. Acting on the complaint of a grand juror who claimed that local officials stymied all efforts to clean up vice, Texas Rangers raided clubs and brothels in Beaumont and Port Arthur in late 1960. When local law officers refused to provide transportation, 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. State representative Tom James of Dallas, the vice chairman of the committee, followed with three days of televised hearings that implicated, among others, Jefferson County sheriff Charles Meyer, district attorney Ramie Griffin, and police chiefs Garland B. Douglas of Port Arthur and J. H. Mulligan of Beaumont. In early 1962, 43 people were indicted on various vice and corruption charges. Port Acres was eventually annexed into Port Arthur, and empty fields now stand where nightclubs once rocked into the wee hours. The red-light districts of Beaumont and Port Arthur went the way of urban renewal or were left to deteriorate. In the late sixties the oil refineries began drying up, and Port Arthur became a working-class town with no jobs, creating a horrendous downturn that only recently appears to be letting up.
Still, it was fun while it lasted. At least the musicians think so, and the proof is in the grooves of Lone Star Shootout.