When longtime saxophone legend Grady Gaines thinks of Sam Cooke, his aged, raveled voice softens.
"Sam Cooke was one of the most beautiful people that I ever worked for," Gaines says from his home in Houston. "In every way. Being nice, being there for you. He was just a wonderful person."
Gaines also has nice things to say about Fats Domino ("Fats? He's just a wonderful guy"), and "Texas tenor" sax pioneer, Illinois Jacquet: "I knew I wanted to play the saxophone when I heard him play. I wanted to be just like he was."
Gaines has nothing but good things to say about Otis Redding and Jackie Wilson, too. And he even gives a thumbs-up to the notoriously difficult James Brown, who Gaines says was a "real nice person" when the two worked together in the early '60s.
Gaines, with his band, the Upsetters, backed a number of R&B giants over the years. He honked his horn and shouted with some of music's most distinctive voices on stages ranging from backwater Delta juke joints to sold-out European concert halls, and he recorded sides ("Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Twistin' the Night Away") that rank near the top of rock 'n' roll's all-time hit list. Gaines has a lot of memories, and he prefers to hang on to the better ones. The best involve the most flamboyant, the most volatile and one of the most successful early rockers of them all, the self-anointed "True King of Rock 'n' Roll," Little Richard.
"Richard's my main man," Gaines says. "He's the one that really helped me get out there first."
Indeed, before Gaines met the fiery Richard, he was the high school leader of Grady Gaines and the Houserockers, a Houston-area band that backed the likes of Johnny Ace, Bobby Bland, O.V. Wright and others at Don Robey's legendary Peacock Record Company. When Richard blew into town as part of a group called the Tempo-Toppers, Gaines took no time in hitching on with the act. He figured the little pompadoured freak howling and jumping around behind the piano was the future of rock 'n' roll.
"Oh, yeah, you could see it," Gaines said of Richard's potential. "He just had it from the git-go. And my style of playing and his style of singing and playing, it just seemed like it was meant for each other."
Gaines describes his style in those days as a "funky type of honking." It was a sound that Richard liked so much he eventually made Gaines and the Upsetters his personal backing band. And there was more to Gaines' style than just the noise he made with his sax.
"I'd run all through the audience, on tables, go outside, all around the building," he says, laughing. "That's the one thing Richard really liked about me. Because he'd do a lot of wild stuff and so by me, being the bandleader, doing a lot of wild stuff with him, that would pull everyone onstage into doing wild stuff, too, and it made for a lot of entertainment."
It also made for a lot of hit singles, along with world tours and appearances with Richard in three early Hollywood takes on rock 'n' roll, including the Jayne Mansfield flick The Girl Can't Help It, and Don't Knock the Rock, which featured Gaines wailing wildly on top of Richard's piano. Gaines calls the films "a special thrill, because at the time there wasn't too many black groups in films. To me, I thought that was extraordinary."
Working with Little Richard was extraordinary, too, up to the time Richard shocked the world in 1957 with the first of what would be many retirements.
"He had been telling us for years that he was going to quit and go to God. He was going to become a minister," Gaines says of the eyelined man of God. "But he talked all the time and carried on with jokes, so you'd never know if he was serious or not. But when we played a tour of Australia, we were on a bus that was on a ferry, and Richard all of a sudden started pulling his rings off his fingers and throwing 'em in the water.
"He was saying he was gonna quit and he was gonna cancel his tours in the States. The other saxophone player and myself, we tried to stop him, tried to get hold of some of those rings, but he manhandled us. He was just pulling 'em off and throwing 'em out there one at a time."
Gaines and his fellow Upsetters regrouped, first working with Little Willie John and then teaming with Sam Cooke until Cooke's death in 1964. Stints with Otis Redding (Gaines led the first backing band Redding took on the road), Jackie Wilson and James Brown gave way to more infrequent gigs in the '70s, backing Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and others. By 1980, though, Gaines was becoming a memory. Work was slow and Gaines was slowing down, too.
"I just got tired," he says. "So I came back home here to Houston. I just laid low and got me a little ol' job."
Gaines settled for a series of jobs, ranging from security guard to van driver for a Holiday Inn, to working as a skycap for United Airlines. Gaines looks back on the decidedly nonmusical gigs with little regret.
"I made a lot of money doing those things," he says. "And so I just put my horn up. Didn't touch it for five years. Put it in the attic and didn't touch it at all. It was a decision I made and I'm not really sorry that I made it. It gave me a chance to pull myself together. Traveling the way that I traveled, the things you have to go through when traveling all the time, the wear and tear--I think the break did me good."
But by 1985, Gaines was yanked out of retirement, first by Sam Cooke's old manager, who happened to recognize Gaines at the Houston Airport and asked the saxman what he was doing lugging bags around, and then by Milton Hopkins, an original Upsetter, who talked Gaines into joining his band. That led to Gaines getting the Upsetters going again, which led to an increasing number of gigs around Houston, including a series of shows with the popular Roomful of Blues. Gaines went on to release an album, 1987's Full Gain, which collected critical acclaim for its big-sounding, grandstanding, rock 'n' blues revue songs. His most recent release, Horn of Plenty, is garnering applause for being more of the same, with added doses of East Texas/New Orleans energy.
Gaines' postretirement years are proving to be almost as busy as his days of hoofing it up with the R&B elite. His unofficial manager, Greg Gormanous, says Gaines recently wowed a crowd of more than 20,000 in Long Beach at a Little Richard reunion show. The highlight of the evening, according to Gormanous, was when the 63-year-old Gaines jumped on top of Richard's piano, just like the good old days.
"We knew he wanted to get on top of that thing, and we thought we'd have to help him up with a chair," Gormanous says. "But when they started playing 'Long Tall Sally,' he bolted up there like a running back."
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Gormanous says that even Richard was humbled by the way the audience took to Gaines.
"He said, 'Grady, you took my mind back when I didn't know nothing,'" Gormanous says. "He goes, 'You and Milt and the guys taught me everything.'"
Gaines chuckles over the way his career's taking shape again.
"I don't know, things just seem to happen to me," he says. He adds that there's not much he would change if given the chance. "I wouldn't change nothing, really. Other than maybe if we could've got some hit records on our own, like all those acts we were playing behind, helping them get hits. I would change that. But I still enjoyed it. I was riding on their glory, and they were all wonderful to me."
Grady Gaines is scheduled to perform on Sunday, November 16, at the Phoenix Blues Society's "Hornucopia" show at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 7 p.m.