The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/music/1996-07-26/532322/

End of the Line

The Passing of Grey Ghost

July 26, 1996, Music

The long, gnarled, nimble fingers that raced, danced, and jumped across countless battered upright barroom pianos are still. The cracked, soulful voice that rasped out the blues to generations of listeners is finally silent. The Grey Ghost is gone, and with him an era. He was the last of the barrelhouse piano players, a first- generation Texas bluesman. And as Tary Owens pointed out to the crowd at the Continental Club on the occasion of Ghost's last appearance there, "You'll never hear this kind of music again."

Ghost passed away quietly July 17 at Heritage Park, a nursing home in East Austin where he spent the last year of his life. He had suffered a fall on July 3 (not a stroke as was widely reported), which left him largely unable to speak, eat, or drink. Through his final days, a steady stream of friends kept a vigil by his side. And just three nights before his fall, Ghost gave his final concert when he sat at an organ at the nursing home, playing and singing continuously for two hours. As the night nurse helped him back to his room, she asked him what he'd been doing. "Having a good time," he beamed.

He was born Roosevelt Thomas Williams in Bastrop, Texas, December 7, 1903. He was named after Teddy Roosevelt, and at one time in his life, carried the nickname "President." After the early death of his father, Williams moved to Taylor, a major rail and cotton center, where he was raised by his mother, stepfather, and two sisters.

Barely into his teens, Williams began picking up some basic musical training at school and would spend his afternoons at friend Baby Van's house, practicing on Van's piano. Williams was influenced by the music he heard around him, picking it out by ear on the piano. Central Texas was a melting pot of musical styles, mixing African-American, Mexican, Anglo, German, Czech, and French traditions. Williams absorbed all this, especially the music he heard pouring out of the juke joints he was too young to enter. Later, he would be influenced by the likes of Charlie Dillard, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Count Basie.

With only a rudimentary background of training, but blessed with a good ear, Williams was able to develop his own style, one that has been hard to label. Because of his unorthodox style, he was once dubbed the "Thelonius Monk of blues players." As Williams once explained, "I plays with my right hand and let the left hand do what it want to." Even into his nineties, playing for a happy-hour crowd at the Continental Club, a shot of whiskey and a lemon set out before him, fans would watch, fascinated, as he drove and pushed the rhythm like a jackhammer, offhandedly throwing in rolls and flourishes with his knuckles.

After leaving school, Williams continued to develop his skills and style while supporting himself by working in the cotton fields and cotton gins. By the Twenties, Williams was becoming accomplished enough as a musician to move to Waco in search of better gigs and opportunities. He began performing at house parties, carnivals, medicine shows, road houses, juke joints, and barrelhouses. During this period, his mother died, and Williams took to the road. Like hundreds of other itinerant musicians who followed the cotton crop, Williams rode the rails all over the Southwest, and into Louisiana, Oklahoma, West Texas, and New Mexico.

"I liked riding the freights," recalled Williams. "I'd find a train that was stopped and climb into an empty boxcar. I wore my overalls over my clothes: I'd find something to put under my head for a pillow and lay back for a smooth ride. I'd rather ride the freight cars than the passenger trains. It wasn't hard to get around if you knew the schedules." Riding the freights in this fashion earned him the nickname that finally stayed with him, the Grey Ghost.

"I'd hop a freight to Smithville to do a job. I'd wear my overalls over my stage clothes, and then take 'em off and stash 'em in the bushes. People would be down at the train depot or the bus station to meet me, but they wouldn't find me. I'd just appear at the gig. Then I'd slip away afterwards to catch a freight. People would ask me `Man, where'd you come from? We never see you arrive and we never see you leave.' And I'd say, `I'm just like a ghost. I come up out of the ground and then I go back in it.'"

During the Depression Thirties, Grey Ghost augmented his music career with a variety of jobs, including bootlegging, gambling ("I'm good at Coon Can and poker"), and working as a chauffeur. He was also a healer of sorts, having picked up some folk medicine from his medicine show work. Also during this period, he survived a number of brawls, muggings, shootings, knifings, and general run-ins with the law. Williams recounted one episode in which he was involved in a three-way running gun battle where, miraculously, no one was seriously injured. "I guess the good Lord was watching out for me."

In 1940, Williams had his first brush with fame. Folklorist William Owens discovered Grey Ghost playing at a skating rink in Navasota, where he made a field recording of Ghost doing one of his songs, the "Hitler Blues." Owens was excited about this song, playing it for everyone he could. Soon, newspaper articles were mentioning Williams and the song. After a story appeared in Time Magazine, British historian and radio commentator Alistair Cooke used the song in a BBC piece on the impact of World War II on American music. The recordings Ghost made for Owens in 1940 still survive, stored at the University of Texas, Barker Texas History Center, and Texas A&M University. Williams' fame was short-lived, though, and he returned to a life of drifting and odd-jobbing, slipping back into obscurity.

Tired of travelling, Williams took a full-time job as a bus driver for the Austin Independent School District, retiring in 1965. Explained Williams, "You get old, you get tired of things you used to care for. You age and you want kind of a peaceful life."

However, even a steady job couldn't keep Ghost from performing. During these years, he still kept active, performing regularly at Fat Green's and the Victory Grill, run by Johnny Holmes, a friend of his since 1933. The Victory Grill was a showplace for blues players, hosting many national acts through the years.

After his retirement in 1965, Grey Ghost had another brush with fame when Tary Owens (no relation to William Owens) recorded a collection of Williams' songs, which, through some exposure, lead to gigs at folk festivals and onstage appearances with performers like Mance Lipscomb, Janis Joplin, and Robert Shaw. Then, like a ghost, Williams vanished again.

Another 20 years went by before Tary Owens was able to track down Ghost and bring him back into the limelight at the age of 83, his energy and abilities still intact. It was at this time, when most of his contemporaries were already in their graves, that Grey Ghost's career really took off. He began travelling again -- this time in style -- to prestigious gigs around the country. Owens released the 1965 recordings on his Catfish label and recorded Texas Piano Professors, which included Lavada Durst and Erbie Bowser, as well as Ghost. The mayor of Austin declared December 7, 1987 "Grey Ghost Day," and a year later, voters of The Austin Chronicle's Music Poll voted Williams into the Texas Music Hall of Fame.

In recent years, Williams kept busy and elevated his profile even higher by recording another album for Catfish in 1991, kicking off the annual South by Southwest Music Festival in 1992, and appearing in films as well as in National Geographic, which did a spread on Austin in 1990. But he became most well-known locally for his steady happy hour gig at the Continental Club, where a whole new generation came to admire this old timer who was "the real thing." Hunched over the piano, he seemed lost in his own world as he sang blues songs and standards of a bygone era, many written by himself.

Williams continued to perform regularly until the spring of 1995, when he was admitted to Seton Hospital, suffering from uremic poisoning, prostrate cancer, and a hernia. He then broke his hip in a fall at Seton. Though all of this probably would have killed anyone else his age, Ghost was strong, and survived. "I don't ever give up," he stated. Following a series of operations, there came a long convalescence in which Ghost learned to walk again, and gained back 20 pounds that he'd lost. In July, 1995, he entered Heritage Park, where he would spend his final year. Though confined to a nursing home, he wasn't ready to quit. He still enjoyed eating barbecue, smoking cigars, and enjoying a daily beer or whiskey before sitting down to play the piano. ("A little something for my throat," he'd explain.)

With the help of friends, Williams still managed to get out and about a little, showing up for Johnny Holmes' birthday party at the Victory Grill, and performing at a benefit at the Doris Miller Auditorium in September, where he received a standing ovation. He also attended the funerals of his old friends and label mates, Erbie Bowser and Lavada "Dr. Hepcat" Durst. Ghost performed publicly for the last time at the Continental Club last December, on the occasion of birthday number 92. The Asylum Street Spankers were warming up the filled-to-capacity room when Grey Ghost was brought in through the back door. The Spankers left the stage, and when Ghost was brought on, the club became respectfully hushed. He performed a short and rather shaky set, but all eyes were riveted on him and all ears strained to hear the voice weakened with age -- one that still evidenced an indomitable spirit. As he blew out the candles on his cake, Ghost thanked the crowd for coming. "You make me feel like I'm somebody," he announced.

Roosevelt Williams leaves behind a daughter, two granddaughters, three great grandchildren, and seven great, great grandchildren. He also leaves behind countless friends, fans, and admirers, as well as a tradition and era that we will never see again. n

Dave Hooper is a local singer-songwriter who was a friend and companion to Grey Ghost in the last 15 months of his life.

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