Erbie Bowser, 1918-1995
blues pianist had been a fixture, along with longtime associate T.D.Bell and the Blues Specialists, at the Continental Club's Friday happy hour shows. But failing health had made his appearances less and less frequent in recent months, and on Tuesday, August 15, the 77-year-old bluesman passed away at St. David's Hospital.
1918. Say that year out loud, and imagine for a moment what the world Erbie Bowser was born into was like. Bowser grew up in Davila, Texas, teaching himself piano and singing in church choirs. While still in his teens, he joined a musical group, touring on the Southern circuit, and joined the Tyler-based Sunset Royal Entertainers after he graduated from high school. When he was about 24, Bowser took a job in Odessa with a drilling company, where he met the man who would become his longtime collaborator, T.D.Bell. Bell and Bowser worked the oilfields for some years, teamed up musically, and eventually made their way to Austin, to the Victory Grill.
Johnny Holmes' Victory Grill on East Eleventh Street was Austin's primary venue for what was then coyly known as "race music," and would remain so until the Seventies. The Victory Grill also gave Bowser a place to develop his "modern Texas piano style," which incorporated big band, barrelhouse, and Southern boogie-woogie into a very distinctive sound. But musical tastes are subject to the times, and by the early Seventies the times weren't very good to Bowser, his music, or his community. When Interstate 35 was finished being built, East Austin became physically divided from the rest of the city, and clubs like Ernie's Chicken Shack and the Victory Grill seemed light years from the progressive country sound Austin was becoming known for.
Still, what goes around does indeed come around, and the emergence of an organization called Texas Folklife Resources in 1985 helped spur interest in preserving the Lone Star State's artistic heritage and musical traditions. Programs like "Texas Piano Professors," an appearance at Carnegie Hall, and three albums revived interest in Bowser's music. Erbie Bowser was inducted (along with T.D.Bell) to the Austin Music Awards Hall of Fame in March of this year, and received a proclamation from the Texas Commission on the Arts for "significant contributions to the arts in Texas" last month.
So long, Erbie. You really were a treasure. - Margaret Moser