An Interview with brilliant bluesman Lewis Cowdrey, one of the original founders of the Austin scene

"Blues is hard but cheap. Challenging and available?"

Lewis Cowdrey:

The Best keep diamond of Blues

Lewis Cowdrey was born 1945 in Albuquerque, NM, is one of the original founders of the Austin blues scene. His band, Storm, featured a who's who of the Austin legends. Lewis is a world class harpman, vocalist, guitarist, and band leader.

He has been living in Wichita, Kansas for several years and playing locally. Lewis was based in L.A. in 1968 leading a Black Blues band featuring Pee Wee Crayton. He also worked with Johnny Otis on a belated recording project before returning to Lubbock where he met a young woman who admired his record collection (Angela Strehli) Strehli and Lewis Cowdrey formed the Fabulous Rockets. Lewis also was co-founder of STORM, a legendary Austin, Texas Blues band that boasted Denny Freeman, Jimmie Vaughn, Keith Ferguson and W.C. Clark.

His second 1994 CD on Antone’s, “It’s Lewis,” (debut was a year earlier) is probably the Best Texas Blues release of the last years. Unfortunately for Lewis, it was so good that it caused politics/jealousy to work against his career. Worked with bluesman Wichitan poet Wes Race. This brilliant singer/harpist from Texas believes he is “the white James Brown”, and he is!

Interview by Michael Limnios

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the Blues? What is the best advice ever gave you?

Not to evade the query, but I learned the rudiments of the music by myself, mostly, no help or teachers. Things were different then.  So, when I finally got around players who were way above me, no one told me not to do it like that, or do it like this or even don't do it at all. In fact some of the stuff I figured out was new to some folk who had records out; famous stars to me. For anyone at all, most particularly a young caucasian, playing blues music was considered useless, a sure-fire trip to the bottom. Stupid. People gave me this sort of advice all the time. Perhaps they were right and the joke is on me. Time will tell. Not much left at this point.

Best advice came from motorcycle racers I had known. Essentially, its OK to do something for fun or to express yourself or whatever, but it would be foolish to ignore the certain pain in your future. Don't like it? Go to Harvard or business school or junior college and become a brown-shoed square John citizen.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues and how has changed your life?

By learning to play this stuff better than adequately, I learned that I was capable of other things, in a bunch of other areas. On the other hand, learning music kept me from wanting to do a lot of other stuff. My ongoing problem (and excuse?)!!

"My philosophy is, if you call yourself blues, then play it like you mean it, make people feel it and understand your story. Never do less than your best. Otherwise, stay home."

How do you describe Lewis Cowdrey’s sound and philosophy about the music?

My sound can vary with what I am doing, who I'm playing with and in what capacity. (Maybe,...how much I'm making?? Hmmmmm.........) Oh well, anyway, I'm gonna sound and act different playing guitar behind a folk-blues artist than I would singing soul-blues in front of a go-go funk big band. When people call me to play, I ask them which Lewis they want: singer, harmonicist, guitar, roady, freaky loud lead, what? I can do a lot, but not all at once.

What I like most, today only, is standup singing over a funky, modern big beat with two tenors who double on flute and other reeds.  Tomorrow, who knows? Kazoo and 3 string guitar.  Still, whoever pays me can tell me what they want and if I can, I will.

My philosophy is, if you call yourself blues, then play it like you mean it, make people feel it and understand your story. Never do less than your best. Otherwise, stay home.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and songwriter? What does the blues mean to you?

First, thanks for phrasing this as you did. Aw, shucks. It might look like bragging to act like I thought it was really true. However, whatever level of expertise I have reached is not necessarily because of talent. Primarily, I try to solve problems. Music can be an interesting and engrossing puzzle. For sure I am stubborn and obsessed.

As to the meaning of the blues, that question is mostly too personal for me to respond. But, if I do my job well, when I sing the audience can understand how blues has touched me.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Best moment might have been reading the world wide reviews and responses to the Antone's record. Worst time was when no one at the record company bothered to read those reviews or attempted to capitalise on them. Close second would be never being paid for any of it to this day.

Still thinking... It would be hard to top hearing the applause when I was acclaimed "soul brother" at the IL Club on 11th Street in 1968. I had sat in with The Untouchables and apparently did ok. Certainly that memory sustains me thru many battles.

Some music styles can be fads but the Blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Blues is hard but cheap. Challenging and available?

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of Blues?

It doesn't really matter what I think. People of today have to use what they find to do what they can. I won't care much about what I don't find up to my standards, but they may come up with something wonderful. Good luck.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Oh yeah, stuff happens all the time and nobody hears it. There's always people trying to do something cool. They probably don't play festivals from what I can tell, but I bet they're up to something.

You have traveling all around the States (New Mexico, Texas, California, and Kansas). From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the local blues scenes?

There used to be stylistic differences, but things seem to have changed a lot. The fact remains that not every act will draw everywhere. I would bet that there is way more going on than I know of. Lots more!

"People of today have to use what they find to do what they can. I won't care much about what I don't find up to my standards, but they may come up with something wonderful. Good luck."

Worked with poet bluesman Wes Race. Do you know why the poetry is connected to the Blues /Jazz culture?

I don't really have an opinion on this, other than the fact that everybody on the bottom has that fact in common and shares very little with the conventional culture of the corporate mainstream.

Are there any memories with Johnny Otis, which you’d like to share with us?

We met Johnny Otis fairly early during our attempts at stardom in Southern California. At that time we were dealing with agents and Lawyers and managers and musicians and advisors of all sorts.

Playing some in Cal, sitting in where possible, doing demos for various record companies and getting more experience at living on less. Wearing rags, eating nothing etc. In general tho, doing pretty well and expecting to record and tour nationally, just like everyone else in Los Angeles. Optimistic.

So... jammed some with Johnny and heard some of his stories and philosophy. A wonderful experience, to meet one of the real bright lights of the biz, just unbelievable. Then,... time went by, lots of musicians in our bands; zillions of miles on LA freeways, close calls with eager police, illegal to exist you know, get out of Cal if you know whats good for you; still wondering what drugstore to hang out in to get in THE MOVIES. Turned down all sorts of chances on the advice of our management and ended up with very little. Then Johnny offered to record us in his small studio and put something out on his label. Sounded like a great idea, so full speed ahead, writing and planning, you know. Well, not really, after a few sessions, Johnny got busy, blah, blah, blah, decided that he really didn't care for the girl singer, and so more nothing. But, man! I learned a lot! Wowsifers!! Dude! Maybe he was right about the girl?? Hmmm........

"Essentially, its OK to do something for fun or to express yourself or whatever, but it would be foolish to ignore the certain pain in your future. Don't like it? Go to Harvard or business school or junior college and become a brown-shoed square John citizen."

Tell me your experiences from L.A. worked with Pee Wee Crayton?

At some point a clubowner wanted us to play some dates and recommended that we call Pee Wee. We did and he agreed to play and bring a band. Yes! What a dream to have Pee Wee "After Hours" Crayton with us. Top Notch in every way.  I still tell guitarists to play like Pee Wee. His records, great as they are, in no way do him justice. On stage he was perfect. Entertaining and a model for me.

Out of those few shows we met another manager, Mr. Moneybags, and signed stuff, went to work on the singer chick's wardrobe etc. Looking up maybe? Also met a serious producer from Detroit who loved my version of Backscratcher (Thanx to Frank Frost and Spencer Perskin) and could see possibilities with me. Well, OK, yeah, here we go. All good apparently.

Well, maybe not. The agents who thought we could be booked lost interest for some unspecified reason and Pee Wee decided he also didn't like the girl singer. So, more nothing,  which I still got plenty of. Several years later, in Texas, another business person looked into our background and told me that the California agents told her that we were essentially too black to work with. Had we had some surfers in the band ok, but not like it was. Well! I couldn't be more proud. Pay off for all those years of practice and learning! Yessiree sir! Still,...no money. For me or Pee Wee. Much later on, Pee Wee played a famous club in Austin and while we spoke of the past he said, "Whatever happened to that girl, man, she couldn't sing at all?" This question, perhaps a bit harsh tho effectively true, caused the club owner to boil over, as the girl singer had been one of his long-term projects.  $$$$$$$$. So the greatest musician I ever worked with ended up on the wrong side of a powerful force in Austin music. I'm proud to have known him. He never played a bad note.

Lewis second 1994 CD “It’s Lewis” (debut was a year earlier) is probably the Best Texas Blues release of the last years.

Are there any memories from Fabulous Rockets and Storm, which you’d like to share with us?

The Fab Rockets started in the Fall of 1967 and The Storm ended in August of 1975. There are lots of stories the, but honestly, I haven't thought about them much since 1975. Perhaps there will be a chapter in my memoirs.  I worked very hard trying to achieve the near impossible. You had to be there and in truth, most of the crowd and some of the players were too out of it to remember. Those two bands represented Low Down blues to a lot of people, some went to jail, or straight to the devil, or were erased from the history books, or occupy the last dark row of oblivion, or remain answers to unasked questions. Many are dead and gone. Others are millionaires. Neither band sounded anything like pop music of the day or ENGLISH BLUES.

Some people, of course, really took a lesson from The Fabulous Rockets. Anson Funderberg stole "the Rockets" name (and quite a bit else as well) then The Thunderbirdies took Fabulous. The most fabulous parts of the Rockets were Jesse Tough Taylor and James Genius Kirkendahl and Lafayette Forquay.

Once at The One Knight an older black fellow came up and rubbed my skin; said he had never heard that stuff from anyone of my apparent color and wanted to know for sure. Many, many, many folks played for The Storm over the five years I was involved. Some went on to play a large part in RootsRockBluesTexasMusic, as if it had been their idea. Not too sure about that but time has proved that no one actually cares enough to thank any of those who helped put Austin on the map.

Of course at the time, I was only thinking of the goals I had set, basically to hear good music that meant something to me and play it if possible. For brief moments that actually happened. Wow!

Texas Storm Co.: Lewis, Sally, Diana Ray, Paul Ray, Ed Vizard, Doyle Bramhall, Jimmie Vaughan, and Jeff Barnes. Texas, Early 1970's 

Which memory from Austin Blues family at 70s makes you smile? Of all the people you’ve meeting, who do you admire the most?

I just don't remember many smiles. Reasonably cheerful but strictly business. Doubtless there were some; maybe someone will remind me.

I admire many folks for their musical skills, Martin Banks was certainly one of the very best of the ones who ended up in Austin. He had played with Ellington, Basie, Mingus, Sun Ra, Motown studios, Apollo House Band, Larry Harlow, everybody. He still played the low down blues when asked.

What are the reasons to become 70s Texas blues gang, a legendary generation that left its mark through the years until now?

Bear in mind, I only speak for myself, but what seems most important, we didn't invent the music or play it better or anything like that. Thanks to African-Americans in the New World, the genre had already been well-proved. We came along and did our best not to ruin a source of great beauty. We never lived up to our forbearers, tho we tried.

Others outside of a small group of people, heard of what we were doing and I guess it made sense to them to try it as well. After a short while it ceased to be unique to hear neo-blues artists virtually everywhere. Now its a cliché of sorts, worse luck for old-timers.

Another factor is everyone seemed to move to Austin at the same time, so there were all sorts of people and interests there when it had previously been mostly frat-rock and boring stuff. Had we not done what we did, someone else would have done what the times called for and made music anyway.

"After a short while it ceased to be unique to hear neo-blues artists virtually everywhere. Now its a cliché of sorts, worse luck for old-timers."         

What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the 50s rock and roll and 60s blues rock era? 

Started not to answer this, but, selfish I guess, I miss being the cream in the coffee, the only white face in the crowd when I went to shows and dances. Still, you can't go back and nostalgia is an illness.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Give it up while you still can. Or, listen to Bird & Diz, T-Bone Walker, Sarah Vaughn, Bobby King, Left Hand Frank.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? 

Most interesting period--tomorrow and its possibilities.

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?

No chance of going back to anything for me. Always forward.

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Maybe anything where I was young and beautiful and looking good! Coming down from pole vaulting over the mike stand and landing on my knees still singing?? Continuing to sing with blood on my face after hitting Lance's cymbal edge wise? Still have the scar.

What is your music DREAM?

My dream would be to occasionally get paid for playing.

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