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Monday, September 28, 2009

Texas Alexander of Richards, Texas

Dear blog reader. I know, this is another long one. But it may be the most complete and coherent article ever written about this old neighbor of ours. Texas Alexander lived, loved and sang passionately, as if he was in a struggle for life or death. In some cases, he was. Believe it or not, there will be blues enthusiasts all over the world that will welcome this long overdue attention, paid to our own...

Texas Alexander was born in Jewett, Texas but was raised by his grandmother Sally Beavers in Richards, along with his brother Edell and their cousin Willie Mae Proctor. He spent much of his latter life in Grimes County, calling Richards home until his death. Born Alger Alexander on September 12, 1900, by 1923 he began to sing at local gatherings and was discovered by pianist Sammy Price. Soon Alger became one of the first bluesmen to make it as a vocalist, cutting records as early as 1927 for Okeh Records in New York.

Okeh had high expectations for Alger, and hired the legendary Lonnie Johnson to back him up on guitar. Later he was teamed up with Eddie Lang. He belted out his lyrics in the style of the old southern field hands, and helped to preserve the slave traditions of work songs and field hollers. He was also recorded in San Antonio and Dallas studios, backed instrumentally by Dennis “Little Hat” Jones, Carl Davis, and later the Mississippi Sheiks and other “who’s who” Blues musicians at the time. A peer of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s, he performed with him often in the legendary Dallas “Deep Ellum” district.

Yet in between, he worked as a railroad section hand, and was considered a powerfully muscled he-man by anyone who met him. Local people around Leon and Grimes Counties remembered him as a short, very dark little man, with a very tender voice and an open smile. He was married but his first wife died. Living and working on the railroad track in Richards, Alexander could hop a train and make a gig in Dallas in just half a day. This was the accepted mode of travel for early bluesmen.

Texas travelled all over Texas on the blues circuit until appearing one day in the autumn of 1927, at a picnic in Normangee. His cousin Sam “Lightnin’ Hopkins, then just a teen-ager, remembered that he stood up in the bed of a pick-up truck during a sandlot baseball game between the boys of Normangee and Leona. As he began to bellow and sing from the bowels of the earth, everyone’s attention was drawn to the parking lot. Soon the ball and the bat were dropped, and the crowd gathered around the local vocal sensation. Hopkins remembered his stunning wheels for a Black man in those days, “the longest, old ugly car,” a new Cadillac, that they rode around to gigs in, as soon as Texas discovered the youngster could pick the guitar. Lightnin’ Hopkins had sat on the knee of Blind Lemon Jefferson during church socials as a little boy, but got his first pay for playing the guitar as a teen-ager while backing up Texas Alexander in little Texas towns like Crockett, Grapeland, Buffalo, and Centerville.

This scenario was repeated many times during Alexander’s career. Thomas Shaw, Ruby Doke, Dan Lewis, his cousin’s Joel Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims, and Alger’s brother Edell all did a stint as Texas Alexander’s guitar man. By 1934, they thought they were ready for the big time, and Texas, 23 year old Lightnin’ and another cousin, a 17 year old harmonica player named Billy Bizor set out for Houston to light up the blues scene. But they broke up when Texas was recruited to record again, this time in Ft. Worth with the Sax Black Tams. The dynamic string duo of Willie Reed and Carl Davis also recorded with him, helping to create perhaps his best releases ever. Popular and energetic, he got many offers and opportunities. Texas even provided vocals for the elite King Oliver and his band in New Orleans.

Now in his prime, in 1935 Texas Alexander teamed up with another Texas prison blues legend, J. T. “Funny Papa” Smith, known then as “Howlin’Wolf,” the original one, and they toured together for several years. Smith had done time in Huntsville, for murder, and this may have been the most explosive and dangerous couple of entertainers to ever take the stage at once. The music had to be primo in such circumstances. Mysteriously, Smith fell off the blues radar after that, and was never seen again.

In 1939, Alger Alexander recruited a young sideshow guitarist while singing his way across Oklahoma. Only twenty years old, Lowell Fulson said good-bye to his family and struck out for the adventure of a lifetime, that ended up being the beginning of his own blues odyssey. Fifty years later he told a British blues magazine his story, which had long since been lost to the winds of west Texas. Lowell candidly spoke of his mentor, of the path they shared for a very formative year of his life, and the nature of his partnership with one of the fathers of Texas blues.

Fulson may have left us with the most informative first hand memories of the most elusive legend of Grimes County; Little, seemingly insignificant facts and observations that finally help make Texas Alexander more than a blur in our past. Even though they are the faint recollections of a big-eyed kid as he accompanied a blues superstar, they may teach us valuable insights to the enigmatic bluesman who left us little else to go on.

Alexander had been married, to a second wife and living in Leon County, in Normangee, Texas. Word on the street in Ada, Oklahoma was that the intimidatingly husky Texas blues star was a wanted man. But he was deliberate and polite, and was a man with a mission. Fulson had just picked up the guitar, in fact his uncle’s, and had earned a chair at the local sideshow in Ada, when Texas Alexander swaggered in one day and offered him a substantial raise to follow him to west Texas. The young guitarist must have had a promising sound, but the veteran vocalist was never picky about his musicians, having been known to carry a guitar wherever he went in hopes of finding a decent musician who could accompany him at the next gig. “You can make at least ten dollars a night going with me,” he bragged in a commandingly deep voice.

Fulson was smitten and soon they were in west Texas, cruising in Alexanders’s big new car, on tour with a lady blues singer known only as “Bessie.” She was passed off facetiously as “Bessie Smith,” but Fulson’s faint description of her seems to fit the ghost of another Texas blues phantom, Bessie Tucker, who was as free a spirit as ever haunted the dives and juke joints of Texas. The young musician never asked questions, and did not even suspect any kind of relationship other than music business, and soon the mysterious woman named Bessie was gone, and the two were soaring the landscape in search of an audience and another day’s meal. According to Fulson, they never had trouble finding either.

Fulson remembered Alexander as a solitary man, brooding and almost non-communicative, except when it was time to sing. Then the stocky singer came to life, and he became a different person, glib and confident, and took command of the room. He was fair with the young musician, but never indulgent, and doled out cash as it was necessary. He seemed to think he was protecting Fulson from wasting his share. But there was little for an Oklahoma Negro to do in the Texas desert anyway, and plenty of pitfalls in an unpredictable landscape of hardship and racism. “He was like a father, a bodyguard,” explained Fulson. Alexander always warned him to mind his own business and stay in his room. Hopping from one strange place to another, Alexander seemed to be preoccupied and detached, and Fulson began to long for home cooking. Finally he was picked up by police for loitering, and put in jail, and Texas came after him like the wrath of god… “You’ve got my boy in there… my boy. I’ve come to get him out!” The Police were glad to oblige.

But too soon the ride of a lifetime was over, and authorities took Texas Alexander to jail. In 1939 Alger was convicted for murdering his wife and sent to prison. Little could young Lowell have known that Alexander was on one last tour while he evaded arrest. The history is very fuzzy here, but Fulson explained that Texas had found his wife with another lover and killed them both with a hatchet. He never saw Alexander again, but Lowell Fulson became a Texas blues guitar legend in his own right.

Texas Alexander went to prison and served around three years for murder at the Ramsey Unit. Like Huddie Leadbetter, aka Leadbelly, Texas used his music talent to gain favor with the Warden and ultimately obtained a parole by the Governor. Getting out for good behavior had drawbacks, especially if you had a hard time behaving. By 1942 Texas was back in prison, probably for violating the terms of his parole. Here again, the records are a bit fuzzy, but Lightnin’ Hopkins explained that Texas had released a vulgar song which no doubt enraged even his defenders, as well as the Parole Board, and he was put in jail for a song called the “Boar Hog Blues.” The song was full of erotic and suggestive phrases, and was banned from radio play. But Texas continued to perform the song, especially when pressured for it. In a strange tangle of small town intrigue, some old hometown enemies from Jewett were in Dallas and successfully conspired to get Texas arrested, perhaps for public lewdness. He is believed to have served another year, and perhaps more in prison, as his cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins explained, for “singin’ them bad songs,” and then beaten severely and released. When he arrived at Hopkin’s home, “…he couldn’t get in without crawlin’ in.”

Most of the next nine years were spent on the streets in Houston sealing his fame, performing with cousin “Lightnin” Hopkins, by then claiming the undisputed title of “King of Texas Blues.” They were known to spontaneously begin performances on street corners or while riding in buses, singing for tips just like the good old days. Houston legends say sometimes they would board a bus and start playing, and the passengers would quit getting off of the bus, and the bus would just cruise around… except to stop for beverages. In 1950 Texas made one last record in Houston, under the Freedom label, accompanied by Buster Pickens of Hempstead on the piano, and Benton’s Busy bees. Texas began to tour some with Melvin ‘Lil Son” Jackson. Albert Collins, another distant cousin, met him at a family reunion picnic in Leon County, but age and hard living had taken its toll. Collins would later blow the lid off of electric blues guitar, and become the last of this remarkable family blues dynasty to make music history.

But the good old days had gotten up and went, and Alger found himself suffering from a terminal case of Syphilis. He went home to Grimes County to wait out his painful demise at the home of his grandmother. Locals said that near the end of his life, he could barely get a few steps from the front door.

Texas Alexander died in obscurity in Richards in 1954. The newspaper never even mentioned his passing. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Longstreet Cemetery just across the county line. Today, there is no trace of this man, his life or his music, other than some obscure Internet websites. There is only one known photograph of him in existence, and it is a very poor one. Because of his tragic mistakes and crimes, his groundbreaking career in American blues was almost buried with him. Few people in Richards, Texas have ever heard his name, and even fewer around the area where he lived and sang. Yet in spite of his flaws and local obscurity, several albums of his music have been released all over Europe. Blues collectors in England are familiar with Texas blues, and one of the first Texas bluesmen, and recognize his name thousands of miles from where he learned and plied his trade.

The old 78 RPM records that he released in the 20’s and 30’s bring impressive prices on Internet auctions, and his works have been rereleased as CD’s. Regardless of his tragic life, his songs have afforded him lasting fame and thus immortality. Somewhere in the world, right now, someone is listening to him sing the blues. Perhaps across the ocean, and decades later, in a foriegn land, the memory of Alger Alexander has found a measure of grace.

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