Roosevelt T. Williams: The "Grey Ghost" Walks Again
By George Papajohn - 1989
you're down and out
In your pocket, not one penny
And your friends, you have not any
Roosevelt T. Williams, Texas' 85-year-old "Grey Ghost," knows these words to be true. He knows them the way he once knew the freight trains of the Southwest that carried him from one show to the next, the way he knows how to walk onto a stage, or into a club, or a houseparty or a roller rink, sit down at an unfamiliar piano and in no time have the place jumpin', the tips jar janglin'.
On this sultry San Antonio Sun-day, the piano is an electric Yamaha—not the acoustic one that had been promised—and Ghost's manager and friend, Tary Owens, the architect of the Ghost's unlikely late-life comeback, is a little nervous. The Ghost, though, is taking it in stride as he heads into the sunshine for the Bowie Street Blues festival stage.
"That's okay," he said. "I'll do the best I can. If they don't like it, they can put some cotton in their ears." That isn't necessary. By the time the Ghost plays "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out"—one of his favorites among the 300 or so songs in a repertoire the piano professor has built in more than 60 years of study—the early-afternoon crowd of 300 gathered on a grassy incline is his.
There's no tips jar, but after Ghost's one-hour stint as opening act, Owens sells all eight copies of Grey Ghost records he has on hand, and the newly won fans are lining up for Ghost's autograph. Not bad for a man who didn't have a record re-leased until he was 83, who saw national fame pass him by four decades before, who only three years ago was not only down and out but believed by many to be gone for good, a true ghost at last.
"People are treating me like I'm 28 or 29," be said, painstakingly scrawling his given name and his nickname on a record jacket. "Here I am been half ready for the grave., But I ain't goin' yet." Tary Owens was not the first white man, or even the first Owens, to try to bring the Ghost to a larger audience.
In 1940, folklorist William Owens discovered the Ghost playing at a roller rink in Navasota, Tex., recorded some of his songs, including an original called "Hitler Blues" and wrote about his find. Other publications, including Time, followed up, and Alistair Cook used "Hitler Blues", in a BBC report on the impact of the war on American music.
"We had made permanent the work of 4 genuine folk poet and musician," Owens, who is not related to Tary, wrote in 1983 in his book, "Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song."
|Piano men: Lavada Durst, Grey Ghost, Erbie Bowser. Photo by Clay Shorkey.|
But his attempts to promote the Ghost were unsuccessful. "He was a black blues singer and there was not much of an audience for a black blue& singer, I was told at radio stations," Owens wrote. "The waste of imagination? Of talent? No one cared the to give him a chance."
Part of Ghost's problem was his wide-ranging abilities. The same type of imagination and eclecticism that produced a blues song out of Hitler's pre-Pearl Harbor saber-rattling inspired Ghost to play the pop standards he was fond of as well as the old barrel-house standbys.
The Ghost related to William Owens that he had once been asked to perform on a radio show, but the radio station wanted him to sing a blues number, he preferred to sing "Stardust." Ghost sang "Star Dust" anyway and never was invited back.
Williams, who was born in Bastrop, in central Texas, Dec. 7, 1903, had taken to the road in the '20s to earn a living on the piano. He worked medicine shows, carnivals, country balls and roadhouses throughout Texas and other nearby states, and to make ends meet he took a variety of jobs: chauffeur, mechanic, compress worker, bootlegger, gambler.
It was in Smithville, Tex. he said, that he picked up his nickname. He preferred to show up at the last minute for a performance, usually on a freight train, wearing his fancy duds under a pair of overalls and then leaving the overalls at the side of the tracks.
"The day they was to have the dance," he said, "they'd be at the bus, the train. I wasn't on none of them. They got uneasy and about 30 minutes before it was time to play, I'd come walking 'down Main street and they saw me.
"'Where'd you come from?' "I said, 'That's all right. I'm here.' They said I was like a ghost come out of the ground. And before daylight sometimes I'd be gone."
His style of play blended an unmistakable elegance with a quirky, showering exuberance. He was called the "Thelonius Monk of blues pianists" because of his unorthodox right-hand techniques.
"I've got my own style, all but my left hand," Ghost said. "The rest of it is my own. I took music—it didn't have no oomph in it, no kick in it, you know, just straight music—and when you play it, you put them hot licks in there in certain places and make the people feel like jumpin' if they're dancin'."
The Music Died
By the late '40s, after being a Houston club regular for 18 months, the Ghost was ready to settle down, and he moved to Austin, Tex., not far from his hometown. He began driving a school bus, a job he held until his retirement in 1965. After two failed marriages, he was living alone.
That same year, Tary Owens, who had grown up with Janis Joplin grid was a folklore student at the University of Temkin Austin, sought out the Ghost to make field recordings. Ghost, who was all but retired then as a musician, also played at the 1965 Austin Blues Festival before drifting back into obscurity.
Owens, intent on his own musical career, set off for the San Francisco area, where he was a bass player and road manager for various bands and where he and Joplin became immersed in the drug scene.
"I was a heroin addict for upwards of 15 years," Owens said. "I started out doing real well, making money playing music in a music career, and I ended up being a street junkie, a strung-out street junkie."
With no place else to go, he made his way back to Austin and with the help of Narcotics Anonymous kicked his habit in 1983. He was selling water treatment equipment, content to be making a living and resigned to a life outside of music.
The Ghost, meanwhile, still was practicing occasionally on the organ in his house. And legend has it that he revived his vanishing act, showing up at clubs without notice through the late '70s, a period he doesn't discuss with any specificity. He also was returning to his old haunts in central Texas, but in-stead of performing he sold old clothes out of his car.
Haunting a Hermit
Then came a 1986 blues exhibit at the Barker Texas History Center in Austin that showcased Tary Owens' field recordings of the Ghost and others from two decades before. Owens was surprised to see how revered his work was; he was just as surprised that the Ghost was being spoken of in the past tense. Hadn't he seen him around town?
Owens decided to track him down and take him to the exhibit. Finding him was one thing, getting him out of the house was a different matter.
"At first he didn't remember me," Owens said. "And I came back the next day and we talked some more and I wanted him to go see this exhibit of his music. And he kept saying he was sick. He'd become such a hermit living by himself. He was kind of waiting to die.
"After about a month of me going by every day, finally on the last day of the exhibit, I got him out of the house. And he went over to the exhibit and he was flabbergasted that anybody remembered him or remembered his music."
A year later, Owens released 12 of those 1965 recordings as the first record on a new independent label he,, had formed named Catfish Recoges (P.O. Box 43g44, Austin, Tex., 78745).
By this time, much to Owens' amazement and delight, the Ghost had again abandoned retirement.
Soon he was playing regularly at the Continental Club in Austin and was basking in the spotlight at the famous Antone's. Last year, he made his first trip to Chicago, for the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and made his debut at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
A 'Pocketful of Lonesome'
If his skills had eroded, the Ghost has regained them during his three-hour club stints and his frequent road trips. Only the day before, playing San Antonio, he had returned to Austin from two nights in Abilene, and he'd be back in Abilene to play a charity fundraiser there the next week.
He travels by car now, usually Owens' Toyota pick-up. Where once he soothed his throat with a blend of whiskey and dissolved peppermint sticks, now he sucks a lemon before going on stage.
And there's big crowds to greet him, the biggest of his career, and autographs, and some extra money to supplement a meager pension from the school district' and maybe go toward a new used car to replace the unreliable '78 Chrysler Newport he's been cursing of late.
To the Ghost it must seem exciting, familiar and odd all at the same time.
"It don't bother me," he said. "In fact it's good for me because you can get a pocketful of lonesome, and that'll do you more harm than anything."
A new Catfish release is out, "Texas Piano Professors," from a 1988 session that featured the Ghost, who plays "Hitler Blues," and two other Austin-based musicians, Erbie Bowser and Lavada Durst, known as Dr. Hepcat.
Ghost is still not quite a national sensation, and it's unlikely he ever will be. Recently yet another opportunity slipped away when the Ghost was offered a shot at playing for a few seconds during a Kenny Rogers special. But the song was dominated by synthesizers and syrupy sentiment, and the Ghost said you'd have to have "a computer brain" to play it.
What matters is that he has a stage again, and that his favorites—"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You," and "Lonesome Traveler"—again are-being heard.
"Those songs are all true," he said.