Maurizio Maurizi, writing in the January 2009 edition of Bluecity, designated their official publication by the Umbria Jazz Festival, named Ezra Charles and his "Texas Blues Band" as a highlight of the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival. Article is available online in Italian at www.bluecity.perugia.it
(Translated from Italian)
Texas Boogie, Gospel and an Entertainment Smorgasbord in Consolation for the Absence of One Great Bossa Nova
Even though I was displeased by the unexpected notice of the cancellation of the great Brazilian artist [Joao Gilberto], I went around the icy narrow lanes of the beautiful little city in Umbria like every year in search of those artists less famous to the general public but which the expert and careful eye of the artistic director Carlo Pagnotta every year succeeds in bringing to the public at Palazzo dei Sette for the benefit of the less informed but no less enthusiastic audiences that invade Orvieto as always in the days around New Year's.
Ezra Charles brought immediately a pleasing surge, mixing blues to boogie with a Texan flavor; a skilled pianist that began his early career by the side of Johnny and Edgar Winter, carrying a flag from the blues State of Texas, bringing a tested, rich band with a horn section that's two-thirds female; with Michael Seybold, a bravo guitarist with his own picking sound and with a rhythm section designed by Ezra for his own style and through his own special amplification (he's inventor of a special microphone for piano), preferring to carry the lines of lower parts directly on the piano. It was impossible to sit still while the shuffle they brought raged alternatingly from hot blues accents to the exciting sounds of the horn section.
Blues on the 88's
by Mark Williams
There is nothing quite as fun and infectious as listening to a seasoned musician talk about his roots and influences-the music that made him what he is today. Ezra Charles is that kind of musician.
Charles appeared April 2nd at Montgomery College-kicking off another round of the ongoing seminar series, "Blues Voices, Reflections & Revelations", presented in the Friends of the Blues in Montgomery County.
If you love deep-rooted, soulful American music, then this is the place to be every other Tuesday night. Musicians from all over stand up and share their unique musical experiences in story and song, taking the audience on what amounts to a journey through time, delving deeply into the musical melting pot -and unveiling a better understanding and appreciation of music made in America.
Ezra Charles is perfect for this kind of unique challenge; a singer-song-writer who, in the past 20 years, has become a shining light in Houston music, Charles wowed the home crowd with his baby grand and his natural Texan charm. He recounted tales of his musical youth in Beaumont, and the brushes with fame that made him a boogie-woogie piano pounder that could make Jerry Lee Lewis cry uncle.
Charles grew up in East Texas hanging with the Winter brothers, Johnny & Edgar-playing with them in a popular local band at age 14. Like most all teenage boys discovering rock & roll, Charles' ambition was to be a guitar slinger, but a teacher pointed out his natural ability for the keyboards. Wisely perhaps, Ezra left the guitar to Johnny. But, man, could that kid beat the piano into kindling!
After high school, Charles moved to Houston to attend Rice University, where he invented a piece of equipment that grew from frustration, but ultimately changed his musical life. "I needed it to be heard over the guitars," Charles says of the "piano pickup", a special microphone that brings out the sound of acoustic keyboards-no matter how much Fender amp distortion filled the air.
Keyboard king Elton John soon came a-callin' for the pick-up and that was it-Ezra Charles was now a player of sorts in the music business, but he was still a decade away from finding the true passion of his musical life: the Blues.
At age 30, Ezra Charles discovered that playin' the blues was his calling. During his presentation at Montgomery College, Charles spoke of his influences: legendary Texas soul men of the 40s & 50s like T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins -and ivory ticklers like Leon Russell and Professor Longhair, who showed Charles how to make the piano cry, wail and jump.
Professor Longhair is a classic (and tragic) blues tale: a brilliant pianist, Longhair (born Henry Roeland Byrd in 1918) made a series of blues and boogie-woogie recordings in the 40s & 50s, but was woefully overlooked; for years, his biggest claim to fame was influence on Fats Domino.
Professor Longhair struggled for many lean years before being discovered by a new generations of blues-philes. Charles recalls his first meeting with the Professor in the early 70s-at the Kool Jazz Festival at the Astrodome. Charles was there to install one of his piano pick-up mics for the Professor-and made a friend for life.
Only a day before taping a 1980 TV special that would have been perhaps the biggest highlight in a rebounding career, Professor Longhair died peacefully in his sleep-the books closed on another Blues legend.
Charles spoke of playing in an anonymous house band for a boozin' Lightnin' Hopkins at Liberty Hall and a "50-thousand dollar piano lesson" from Leon Russell. These are the kinds of stories that forever change the way you hear that music.
Charles has made the Houston area his home since his college days. He lives in Bellaire, a suburb that Charles says has "the feeling of a small town/big city mix". He also has a regular Tuesday night gig there, at Kay's Lounge [Ed.Note: Now he's moved to Mojo Mama's every Tuesday.]
Next up in the seminar series is Texas Johnny Brown, scheduled to appear this Tuesday, April 16th. Texas Johnny's another blues man who's paid his dues: in the old days, Johnny toured with Bobby "Blue" Bland and Junior Parker and was a house musician at Houston's fabled Duke/Peacock Records. He was also honored at last year's "Big Mama" Thornton Blues Festival in Houston, named Artist of the Year.
The Friends Of The Blues will hold the seminars at Montgomery College three more times this semester after Tuesday night: April 30th, May 14th & 28th, culminating with a blues showcase at Papa's on the Lake on May 26th.
The big showcase is scheduled to feature the popular Charlie Parker Band, A.J. Murphy & the All-Star Revue Band and Matt Letty & the Heartbreakers.
Call for information on the blues players to appear at the upcoming seminars (and for info on joining the very cool Friends of the Blues) by dialing 936 273-7472.
Seldom is the Blues easier to find than when it's in your own backyard.
Ezra Charles & The Works light up the night
By Greg Barr
Published August 20, 2004
GALVESTON - Like the other kids at his Beaumont school, Ezra Helpinstill was enamored by this cool new sound called rock 'n' roll. Chuck Berry riffs were the hip thing at James Bowie Junior High, and although Helpinstill had been playing piano since he was eight, he wanted to try guitar.
"But my fingers were just not right for guitar, it just kind of killed me," he said. "So the drummer said, 'Why not just stick to piano, because you already can play it?'"
Helpinstill - who adopted the stage name Ezra Charles in the late 1980s when he decided to be a full-time musician - is still sticking to what he does best, more than 45 years later. The other two kids who played guitar in his very first band, Johnny and Edgar Winter, did fairly well for themselves, too.
Charles may not think he always gets the recognition he deserves, but he has been one of Houston's most consistent - and persistent - entertainers, winning the Houston Press best keyboardist award five times since 1993, including this year. His seven-piece band, which performs a blend of blue-eyed R&B and piano boogie-woogie, is steadily booked at festivals and corporate events.
Charles said that being able to exclusively play his own music all these years has been the biggest reward.
"It's been a tough row to hoe, but as long as I can keep doing what I want to do, it's been worth it," said Charles. "I think that as an original music band you have to be able to completely recreate that CD sound on stage. When you're presenting original music, people lose interest if it doesn't come off as being perfect. I guess the fact that people have followed us for a long time says something."
Charles has made a point of recruiting the best musicians he could find for his band, The Works, in order to bring the studio quality of his six CDs to life. Trombonist Nancy Dalbey has been with Charles for 15 years, the longest of any band member. The newest member is Susan Goelzer, who took over in 2003 for Dalbey when she was on maternity leave, and stayed on after Dalbey returned.
Charles' honky-tonk R&B - kind of a Delbert McClinton sound without the earthy growl - has always featured smooth horn lines and quirky lyrical twists for some of his most popular songs, such as "Hurry Up and Love Me" or "Bolivar Ferry," a roadhouse romp about meeting a girl you know where.
Besides that song, Charles' most bizarre Galveston connection is that director Peter Masterson wanted to hire Charles and his band for his cheesy 1989 crime-slasher film "Night Game" shot in Galveston and Houston, starring "Jaws" lead Roy Scheider as a Galveston homicide detective. The film's box office take was a whopping $338,000. Charles wrote the theme song but they could not agree on a contract, so the song - still one of his most popular love songs - ended up on one of his albums instead.
There's no bass player in Charles' band because he plays the line himself.
"I always loved the bass," Charles said. "When I hear a song on the radio, I hum the bass line and it drives my wife crazy. Jerry Lee Lewis always had that strong left-hand thing, but I tried early on to play a piano note and a lower bass note at the same time. Playing the bass line really gives me control over the pulse and the drive of the band."
The noteworthy showmanship in Charles' act started in the late 1980s when he saw a late-night television commercial for car wax. In the commercial, lighter fluid was set aflame atop the hood of a car; Charles hauled his piano down to the parking lot of his apartment, squirted on the lighter fluid, tossed on a match to see what would happen, and has used the stunt in his show ever since.
"I have this footswitch with an igniter and we pretty much know how much lighter fluid to use depending on how high we want the flames," he said.
Charles has always been into gadgets - he has an electrical engineering degree from Rice University - and built his own customized piano and invented his own revolving stage riser, powered by a small electric motor.
He has also patented his own piano amplifier pickup - The Helpinstill - and sold one to Elton John after sneaking backstage at one of the British pop star's concerts. And Bruce Hornsby owns one of his custom pianos. Although Charles had much success with that part of his career, he wanted to be regarded as one of their musical peers, not a quirky inventor, leading him to his 1985 decision to form a band in Houston.
"The whole idea of playing piano always was in the back of my mind, and finally it convinced me," said Charles. "I wasn't a pickup builder, I was a piano player."
The American Press
Lake Charles LA
lnventions Helped Him Reinvent Himself
BY TONYA PARKER MORRISON
SPEClAL TO THE AMERlCAN PRESS
August 11, 2000
Just like ZZ Top, fellow Texan Ezra Charles (a.k.a. Charles Helpinstill) is bad and nationwide. In fact, for the multi-talented Beaumont native whose name is synonymous with Southern swing, the ties with one of rock music's most enduring acts are closely woven.
"That''s actually about the only song that I do that isn't mine," Charles said, referring to ZZ Top's"I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide." "I spent about six months trying to remake it into something that was my own. A lot of times, when we play that one at shows, most people don't even realize what it is until we get to the chorus. That's how different it sounds when we do it." Tickling the ivories in pursuit of musical nirvana may sound like a dream job, but Charles knows it takes hard work to be the best at anything.
"It's a 24-hour-a-day job, honestly," he noted. "I think the key thing is to be organized, though. I have the agents, the musicians, the promotional people, and the publisher and of course my wife -- they all help me keep things running smoothly. Last year, I was even able to go to a paperless office."
His wife, Susan, helps keep a lid on the insanity. She runs the Charles household, which includes their 3-year-old son, Jake, and a 2 month-old daughter, Chloe. The proud papa hates spending time away from his family, but such is the price of success. When he can be home, Charles relishes the opportunity to hear comments on his daughter's beauty and his son's ability.
"My son has been to quite a few shows," he laughed. "He's gonna be a far better musician than me. He actually plays drums- he has a real set we got him to use. He was always running in music stores and banging around in the drum department. We had to buy him an actual miniature set of real drums." Charles admitted his son's talent is enormous and unavoidable but still insisted that he would not expect the boy to follow in his footsteps.
"I'm gonna try to avoid pushing him in any direction at all. I grew up under the stigma of a family in which music was not viewed as an occupation, only as a hobby."
Charles has played for President Bush, and Saturday, Sept. 30, he will perform on the legendary "Live at the Liberty" program filmed at the Liberty Theater in Rosenberg. The venue, a converted movie theater built in 1917, housed the Rosenberg Opry before garnering an "Austin City Limits"-style audience for the live show. But despite all the professional successes that have come along since he first decided once and for all to pursue music at the age of 40, some of Charles' fondest memories are of junior high performances.
"Johnny and Edgar Winter were technically classified as handicapped because they were albinos and they have limited vision, so they went to James Bowie Junior High with me because it was only one floor. They had been going to special schools for the handicapped up until the year when they both entered junior high school. Johnny was in the ninth grade and Edgar was in the seventh grade. I was in the ninth grade as well; I'm the same age as Johnny Winter. They hit the school like a bombshell. They really moved out into the front because they were already skilled musicians." Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, Charles got a buddy of his who just happened to play drums for the brothers to get him an audition. They played together for a year, filling in for prom bands on their breaks. Then it was time to move on. "After that year, I went to French High School and Johnny went to Beaumont High School. I didn't really see them again for years and years. Obviously, though, that experience had a big impact on my life." Charles replays that experience every time he hears one of his own tunes, "Beaumont Boys," which gives credit to the talented performers who have walked the same haunts as the singer-songwriter-musician himself. The Winter Brothers represent the '60s and '70~; trumpeter Harry James, the '40's; and the Big Bopper, the 50s. In his earlier days, Charles took a degree in electrical engineering from Rice University and turned it into a stint at Texas Instruments, but then left after a few years because he had discovered his own inventions, including the "piano pickup," a microphone for his favorite instrument.
"I never really stopped playing in bands, but I wasn't really a full-time musician for the next 10 years or so. I started my own company and invented a bunch of stuff that has to do with pianos and got to hobnob with a lot of famous performers because of that. I was lucky enough to sell the I first one to Elton John. Then, it was just a matter of going around and saying,'This is what Elton John uses; do you want one?' . "This was a full, big business during the '70s. At the end of that decade, technology moved on, and I was more and more disappointed with the fact that even though I hobnobbed with stars, I wasn't accepted as one of them. I was a technician. So, I got out of that business and became a full-time musician in 1985 and adopted the name Ezra Charles." When he sold a pickup to Neil Young's band and the singer couldn't remember Charles' first name, although they used his last name to describe his new invention, Young had the answer. "He said he believed my name was Ezra, which is probably just the most outrageous name he could think of. I knew that other people I'd admired had used their first names for last names and then taken on entirely new first names, so I decided to do that as well." The genres he represents may have changed with the times from swing to techno and back agaln -- but Charles' determination to remain an entity in the music world never waivers. "It took years and years for my family.to realize I was serious about this and I was going to do it full time. Eventually, of course, they had to come around. Also, it's a lot more acceptable when you're successful. It erases a lot of doubts. If I was starving to death, they would tell me, 'See, I told you it wouldn't work! " ·
Ezra Charles plays at 10 p.m. today, Aug. 11, at Dagastino's Bistro.
The following review appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on 11/2/98: Ezra Charles Band merges musical art with showbiz
The bandleader's name is Ezra Charles. The piano player's name is Ezra Charles. The lead singer's name is Ezra Charles. The band's name is Ezra Charles.
In what might well come as a giant surprise, the Ezra Charles Band is no one-man show.
Friday night, Houston's Ezra Charles Band lured 182 paying customers to Cibolo Creek Country Club to witness the sextet's rollicking, superbly-crafted, original fusion of Bayou City R&B, New Orleans-inspired second line funk, South Louisiana swamp pop, sultry blues, barrel house boogie woogie and plain old rock 'n' roll.
With Charles center-stage at a piano of his own invention, the Helpinstill electric baby grand, the band put on a cooking clinic, showing time after time, song after song, that show time and sharp music; art and glittery show biz, can coexist. In his pursuit of musical fun and excellence, Charles is aided and abetted by the horn section of Nancy Dalbey, trombone, trumpet, vocals; Jennifer King, trumpet, vocals; Damon Sonnier, saxophone (Sonnier replaced longtime Charles sax-partner Earnest Potts, who recently hit the zydeco road as part of Chubby Carrier's Bayou Swamp Band); and a pair of Alamo City products, drummer Brian Goldberg and guitarist Mike Seybold.
From the opening notes of "88 Answers to the Blues," the Charles crew had the crowd's ears wide open as the group worked through songs from four albums, including the brand new "Texas-Style," a live offering.
Using songs such as the swinging "Beaumont Boys," an ode to Texas' Golden Triangle musicians; the slow-grooving love song "I Wanta Be Around Her;" and the swamp-pop "To Touch the Rainbow," the Charles band showed off chops and energy to match.
Save for a solo piano romp, "Ezra's Boogie-Woogie," Charles Band songs are models of creativity and clever, punch-heavy arrangements. While Seybold, the ever-kinetic horn section and Charles have both the talent and the energy to roll out chorus after chorus of hot solos, much of the beauty of the Charles band comes from its use of ensemble work.
Like the music produced by the fabled Stax/Volt records acts and the equally influential Duke/Peacock artists, the Charles Band uses short solos, well-placed horn accents and call-and-response type interplay among the guitar, the piano, the drums and the horns to create songs that are seamless group efforts.
- Jim Beal Jr.
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