Photo courtesy of Roy Gaines
Roy Gaines is always all dressed up, and he’s got a LOT of places to go! The W.C. Handy Award-winner will be performing at this year’s Playboy Jazz Festival, along with Robert Cray in a Tribute to B.B. King, and at the annual T-Bone Walker Festival, on the line-up with Eric Johnson and Keb’ Mo’.
The latter engagement brings things around full circle as T-Bone gave the young Roy Gaines a real career boost when he called him up to play on the bandstand with him in Texas.
Roy was known as “the 14-year-old sensation,” and would open his show with T-Bone Walker material, do some of his own songs, and close with a few Gatemouth Brown songs.
Roy remembers, “T-Bone dressed flashy, was good to everybody, and played all the big venues. If he knew someone was in the house, he would call them up and let them play a song on his guitar!”
"They Call it Stormy Monday" from Roy Gaines' I Got the T-Bone Walker Blues
T-Bone had heard about this young “sensation,” and wanted to see him. One night, he heard Roy was in the audience and called him up. The exposure gave Roy lots of work, and two years later, Roy moved to L.A. with a bass player named “La.La.” (Henry) Wilson.
He was followed to L.A. by his junior high school buddies, Stix Hooper, Wilton Felder, and Joe Sample. They had all been students under Sammy Harris, who had also taught Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb a generation earlier. The three future Jazz Crusaders were close friends with Roy and “La.La.” Wilson. “La.La.” became the Jazz Crusaders first bass player, and Roy made some of their early recordings, too.
"The Geek," featuring a guitar solo from Roy Gaines, from the Jazz Crusaders' Freedom Sound
Heeding Duke Ellington’s advice to Lou Rawls (“Don’t let them pigeon-hole you!”), Roy has had a diverse career, composing, producing, and performing his own music, as well as working with some of the biggest names in jazz and blues. He was one of the architects of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s sound, when Bland was with Duke Records in the early ‘50s. He worked with Coleman Hawkins, Jerome Richardson, Jimmy Rushing, Chuck Willis, and Ray Charles. His studio work led him to some unusual gigs, like going to Las Vegas with Harry Belafonte! And there is a film, made at a TV station in New Jersey, called “Jazz Party,” featuring Roy with Billie Holiday, Mal Waldron on piano, and Vinnie Burke on bass.
More recently, Roy worked on a video and CD, Early Days, with Paul McCartney, in which Sir Paul reminisced about how he got into the blues.
Roy Gaines with Paul McCartney, from Early Days
Roy is grateful to Quincy Jones for getting him into acting, too. Roy was working on a song with Q for The Color Purple. He was in the studio, and Steven Spielberg walked in. Evidently they’d been looking for actors, because Spielberg asked Q, “Will he do?” And Q said, “Yes!” So Roy got his SAG card, and appears in the film as a Juke Joint Musician. He also worked on the soundtrack with Q, and with him on The Lost Man and Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice. Roy's song, "You're Gonna Get Somebody Killed," is featured in Wild Horses, starring Robert Duvall. And Roy appears in How Many Roads, staring Sidney Poitier.
There have been a number of commercial acting appearances, too, for vodka and beers, phone companies, restaurants, financial institutions, and so on. Sometimes he appears as a working musician, other times, he has speaking parts, sometimes both!
Meanwhile, in 2009, Roy sank everything he had into making his dream CD, a big band blues album called Tuxedo Blues, inspired by the bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Gatemouth Brown. He even borrowed against his house and his car! He got swinging arrangements for a huge band of alternating players, including friends Joe Sample and Wilton Felder. The disc got great reviews, but didn’t seem to be inspiring bookings. But just as Roy was beginning to wonder if he was going to lose everything, he got an invitation to come accept the top musical award in France, the PRIX BLUES AWARD from the Academie du Jazz. In April of that year (2011), he was given a feature in Downbeat Magazine. Now he tours Europe regularly, playing to sell-out crowds in 1500-plus-seat venues in Belgium, Switzerland, and France.
He is excited about the upcoming Playboy Jazz Festival appearance, sharing the stage with Robert Cray’s band and slide-guitarist extraordinaire, Sonny Ladreth, in the tribute to B.B. King. He’s hoping soon to get his own big band booked at the Bowl.
But Roy is not resting on his laurels. He has a Nat King Cole project in the development stage. NKC has been a kind of hobby for Roy over the years. When he does small club bookings, he sometimes plays piano and sings some of Nat's songs. And when he's with his big band, he has some arrangements of things like "Calypso Woman."
From Tuxdo Blues, Roy performs "Reggae Woman (Calypso Woman)"
But now that his gamble has paid off, he has worked himself into a good position for retirement. However, he's in no hurry. After all, he's dressed for success, he may as well enjoy it!