If you're a fan of old school rock 'n' roll and R&B, you've probably heard Houston sax player Grady Gaines wailing in the background on some of your favorite tracks. In his recently published autobiography, I’ve Been Out There: On the Road with the Legends of Rock' n' Roll, co-written with Rod Evans, the musician talks about his 60-year career backing up such headliners as Sam Cooke and James Brown. We chatted with Gaines about the way things were, life on the road and some crazy Little Richard stories.
Houstonia: We're sure you've kept your eyes and ears on all things musical in Houston. How has your hometown's musical personality changed in the last half-century?
Grady Gaines: Well, imagine the '50s. They played more blues and it was more popular. It was more mainstream. Four or five different types of music come out since that—the blues to the rock 'n' roll, the rock 'n' roll to soul, soul to hip-hop, and hip-hop to rap; that’s the kind of impact in Houston.
How did working with headliners like James Brown and Sam Cooke inspire and impact your own sound?
They both had good music, and one of them was funkier with the other. That’s the way to put it. Sam was smoother than James, and they both had two hell of a styles of music. That’s they way I looked at it. The impact they had on me helped me to play more different kinds of music.
You said “music didn’t have no color if you worked for a crossover artist like [Little] Richard.” How did rock 'n' roll change people’s viewpoints on race during that time in history?
When Little Richard came out with that style of music and when we would play shows, we would either have a barricade between the black and white or they would be on different floors. Sometimes they would put the whites upstairs and the blacks would be downstairs. But when we played, they would break the barricade and it would wind up being everyone on one floor. That was the impact back then.
While on an Australian tour in 1957, Little Richard announced to you and the Upsetters that he was quitting the business and becoming a preacher.
He would say he would quit the business and go to God. He had been telling us that for months, maybe a year, but for a while. He had been telling us and we never paid him no attention. We didn’t believe him in other words. When we was over there [in Australia] and he actually did it, in my mind I thought how we were going to keep on doing it.
The book cover is an iconic photo of you from the 1956 movie Don’t Knock the Rock. Why did you decide to jump on top of Little Richard’s piano, and what was going through your head at that moment?
We were all trying to make everything as exciting as we possibly could. When we were playing we got a good feeling. I got happy and just jumped on the top of piano. It’s still living with me today. I had no idea what it was going to mean to the public. It was a spontaneous thing when I did it. But I did it to try to make it be more exciting and make the show have more life.
You have performed in many places across the world, but what brought you back to Houston? What is like performing for Houstonians today?
I love Houston. I was raised and born here. I always did love Houston. For 35 years of traveling, I knew I would come back to Houston. It was a city that I loved, and I love playing for the people today. The way my band and I play today, we try to play whatever the crowd wants. We have a lot of crowds of people and they want different types of music. We play for weddings, in the park, for kids. I try to accommodate everyone. I think I’m a very good crowd reader to give people what they want. I give whatever crowd we're working what they wanna hear. We just lay it on them. It’s a good thing playing in Houston, and I love it.