Gaines, Grady 1934–
Grady Gaines 1934–
Saxophonist Grady Gaines’s life reads like a history of contemporary popular music. Just out of his teens, Gaines joined the Upsetters, who gained fame as the backup band for Little Richard. Gaines and the Upsetters played on Little Richard’s biggest hit, “Long Tall Sally,” in 1956, and appeared alongside him in three rock-and-roll-themed films. After Little Richard left the music scene in 1957, Gaines recruited singer Dee Clark to take his place, and the Upsetters continued to tour the country. In the early 1960s the Upsetters became a regular touring and studio band for Sam Cooke, one of the best-selling R & B and pop vocalists of the era. After Cooke’s death in 1964, the Upsetters continued to find work as a touring band with acts such as Diana Ross and the Suprêmes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Jackie Wilson. On his own in the 1970s, Gaines continued to tour with Millie Jackson and Curtis Mayfield before declaring his retirement from the road in 1980. Five years later, Gaines came out of retirement and signed a contract with Black Top Records, and the resulting first album, Full Gain, appeared in 1987. Horn of Plenty followed in 1992, by which time Gaines had become a legend in his hometown of Houston, Texas. Declared Blues Artist of the Year at the city’s June-teenth Celebration in 1993, Gaines continued to appear regularly at Etta’s Lounge and other venues with a new lineup of the Texas Upsetters.
Grady Gaines was born on May 14, 1934, in the town of Waskom, Texas, on the Louisiana border. His family moved to Houston around 1943 and settled in the city’s Fifth Ward, a racially segregated neighborhood located northeast of downtown. Both Gaines and his younger brother Roy were budding musicians. Roy Gaines, three years younger than his brother, took up the guitar and was playing professionally by the time he was 14 years old. Grady Gaines also got off to a quick start as a professional musician. After taking music lessons at E. L. Smith Junior High School, the teen-aged Gaines became a recording session band leader for Don Robey, the major R & B promoter in Houston. Robey managed a successful stable of artists that included Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Johnny Ace. In early 1953 Robey signed singer Richard Penniman—performing under the name Little Richard—to a recording contract. The two men fought constantly, and in late
At a Ciance…
Born on May 14, 1934, in Waskorn, TX. Education: Studied music at E. L. Smith Junior High School in Houston, TX.
Career: Session musician and recording artist, 1952-, albums include: Full Gain, 1987; Horn of Plenty, 1992; Jump Start, 2002.
Awards: Blues Artist of the Year, Houston Juneteenth Festival, 1993; Best Blues, Best Horn Section, Best Funk/R & B., Houston Press, 2001 (with the Texas Upsetters); Local Musician of the Year, Houston Press, 2001.
Addresses: Management —Guif Coast Entertainment, P.O. Box 130026, Houston, TX 77219. Official website —http://www.gradygaines.com.
1953, fed up with Robey’s domineering ways, Little Richard dumped his contract after a second recording session and immediately began to look for a band to accompany him on the road.
Previously backed by the Gospel-influenced Tempo Toppers, Little Richard wanted a harder-driving R & B sound behind him. He convinced Gaines to form a new band, named the Upsetters, along with drummer Chuck Connors, pianist Wilbert “Lee Diamond” Smith, and a second saxophonist. “The other bands couldn’t compete,” Little Richard later recalled in The Life and Times of Little Richard, adding that “when it said ‘Little Richard and the Upsetters’ everybody wanted to come. We had a station wagon with the name written on it, and I thought it was fantastic.” The act became one of the most popular on the Georgia R & B circuit in 1954 and 1955. After cutting a demo record of “Tutti Frutti,” Little Richard secured another recording contract, this time with Los Angeles-based Specialty Records. The label released “Tutti Frutti”—a cleaned-up version of a song that Little Richard had performed live for several years—and the single hit the national Top 20 in February of 1956. Two months later another Little Richard single featuring Gaines and the Upsetters, “Long Tall Sally,” hit the top ten.
The success of “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” sent the Upsetters on an endless round of touring with Little Richard in 1956 and 1957. Gaines and the band also appeared in three movies that featured Little Richard: Don’t Knock the Rock in 1956, and The Girl Can’t Help It and Mr. Rock and Roll in 1957. The final film featured Little Richard’s hit “Keep A Knockin,’” which contained Gaines’s most notable contribution on the saxophone. But the intense touring schedule came to an abrupt end in 1957 when Little Richard decided, in the midst of an Australian tour, to leave rock and roll and devote himself to preaching as a minister.
The Upsetters, whose members had formed tight bonds while on the road with Little Richard, decided to remain intact as a group and recruited Dee Clark to replace Little Richard as their lead vocalist. The reputation they had built with Little Richard paid off, and the band continued to play premier venues across the United States. In his 1986 memoir, R & B superstar James Brown recalled the Upsetters’ reputation when he described his trepidation at making his own first appearance at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater in 1959: “The Upsetters, fronted by Lee Diamond now, were on the show, too, and I knew they could play,” he remembered.
When Dee Clark found success on his own as a solo star with hits such as 1961’s “Raindrops,” Gaines relocated to Los Angeles and became part of the regular studio and touring band for R & B singer Sam Cooke, who also enjoyed a series of crossover pop hits from 1957 onward. During his time with Cooke, Gaines played on two of the singer’s biggest hits, the top-ten “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Bring It On Home To Me,” both released in 1962. Tragically, Cooke was shot to death at the Hacienda Motel in south-central Los Angeles on December 11, 1964, allegedly after breaking into the motel manager’s office in search of his female companion, who was later described as a prostitute.
Following Cooke’s death, Gaines and the Upsetters toured as the backup band for some of the biggest acts of the 1960s, including Diana Ross and the Suprêmes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Bo Diddley, Etta James, and Jackie Wilson. In the 1970s, based once again in Houston, Gaines toured with the backing bands for Diana Ross, Millie Jackson, and Curtis Mayfield. With fewer venues featuring live R & B music during the disco era, Gaines decided to retire from the road in 1980. As it turned out, his retirement was premature, and five years later he was again working full-time as a musician.
Gaines rebuilt his fan base by playing at clubs such as Etta’s Lounge in Houston, and in 1987 he released the first album under his own name, Full Gain, for Black Top Records. The release kicked off a renaissance in his career and Gaines was once again in demand at R & B venues in the United States and Europe. In addition to contributing cuts to various Black Top compilations in the early 1990s, Gaines released Horn of Pienty in 1992. The following year he was honored as Blues Artist of the Year at Houston’s Juneteenth Celebration, an event that highlighted the city’s African-American history.
After re-forming the Upsetters—now known as the Texas Upsetters—Gaines became a fixture on the revitalized R & B scene in Houston in the 1990s. Still active after more than 50 years as a professional musician, Gaines’s schedule was packed with regular Sunday-night performances at Etta’s Lounge as well as numerous other venues in Houston and elsewhere. His itinerary for December of 2002 alone included 20 scheduled concert and television appearances, a testament to his continuing popularity and vitality. In late 2002 Gaines also announced the release of his third album, Jump Start.
Full Gain, Black Top, 1987.
(Contributor) Gulf Coast Blues, Volume 1, Black Top, 1990.
(Contributor) Black Top Blues-A-Rama, Volume 4, Black Top, 1990.
Horn of Plenty, Black Top, 1992.
Jump Start, Gulf Coast Entertainment, 2002.
Brown, James, with Bruce Tucker, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986.
Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin Books, 1993.
White, Charles, The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock, Harmony Books, 1984.
Whitburn, Joel, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, Billboard Publications, 1996.
Wolff, Daniel, with S. R. Crain, Clifton White, and G. David Tenenbaum, You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, William Morrow and Company, 1995.
Texas Monthly, September 2002.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
Grady Gaines (Official artist web site), http://www.gradygaines.com
Houston Blues Society, http://www.houstonbluessociety.org
Jazz Internet, http://www.jazzinternet.com/boulderblues/gaines
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