Last of the Texas T-Bone Guitar Slingers:  Roy Gaines

What could Roy Milton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Joe Morris, Chuck Willis, Brook Benton, Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, John Hammond, the Jazz Crusaders, Earl Grant, Ray Charles, Della Reese, Stevie Wonder, the Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin, Diana Ross, Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte all possibly have in common?

At one time or another, every one of those stars and quite a few more utilized the talents of incredibly versatile Los Angeles-based guitarist Roy Gaines.  He’s played on film soundtracks, taken a late ‘60s side trip into calypso, done session work for Motown’s West Coast office, tried a Cole Porter chestnut on for size in the studio (complete with a swirling string section), waxed a Bob Dylan cover for a big New York label, and dabbled in country music with Hank Williams’ first wife Audrey.  Yet his albums over the last two decades, several of them issued on his own Black Gold Records imprint, make it abundantly clear that Gaines has never abandoned his Texas blues roots.  He holds T-Bone Walker’s immaculate fretwork especially close to his heart.

Born in Waskom, Texas, Roy Gaines started out playing piano in the style of Nat “King” Cole at an early age, and then switched to the guitar when he was 14.  An unabashed admirer of fellow Texan T-Bone Walker, Gaines met his idol as a youth and modeled his own playing after Walker ‘s groundbreaking style, later performing and recording with the pioneering electric bluesman.   

At 14 Roy met T-Bone at a local performance, and was even invited to back Walker onstage; dubbed “T-Bone Jr.”  Thereafter, he regularly played clubs throughout the Houston area before relocating to Los Angeles two years later.  There, Roy was tapped to join Roy Milton’s band, followed by a stint with Chuck Willis.  Additionally, he and Walker occasionally joined forces in the years leading to the latter’s 1975 death. 

Roy’s first exposure to show business came via his brother, Grady Gaines, noted sax player in Little Richard’s backing band the Upsetters.  Roy then started doing sessions for Houston’s Duke/Peacock Records before hitting the trail to Los Angeles.  Some of his earliest singles – the torrid ‘50s jump numbers he waxed for the Chart, Groove, DeLuxe, and RCA Victor labels, along with a handful of classics, he played nightly behind Chuck Willis during his days as the turbaned Atlanta blues shouter’s bandleader.   

In the fifties, while moving between LA, Houston and New York, he was a first call jazz and blues session man featured on various releases by Big Mama Thornton, Junior Parker, Bobby Blue Bland, Coleman Hawkins and Jimmy Rushing, the latter whose singing style is clearly a major influence on Gaines own virile, full bodied vocals.   In 1958 he appeared with Billie Holiday on Jazz Party, the singer’s last public appearance with pianist Mal Waldron and bassist Vinnie Burke.  Later work found the guitarist backing everybody from Ray Charles and Chuck Willis to Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Bobby Darin, The Everly Brothers, Diana Ross & The Supremes, and later even joining the Jazz Crusaders (later known simply as the Crusaders) appearing on two LPs in 1961.  In 1966 Gaines returned to Los Angeles and joined the Ray Charles big band. While with the band he wrote “No Use Cryin‘” for Ray’s hit album “Crying Time“.

Gaines work as a leader began with two albums for RCA Victor’s Groove subsidiary label in 1956, then on to the critically acclaimed Gainelining(1980) – his solo album, which sold well, but it was a decade later that he picked up a whole new career as a frontman with a long string of albums including Lucille Work for Me (1996)Bluesman for Life (1998), I Got The T-Bone Walker Blues (1999) and New Frontier Lover (2000), which made him a highly regarded figure on the international blues scene, earning him a W.C. Handy Award (and two other nominations) and a Living Blues Award.

But Gaines is just as much a jazz man, going back to the music’s early days when he was featured on a John Hammond promoted tour that also featured Count Basie with Jimmy Rushing.  Gaines’ experience also includes much work with producer Quincy Jones, playing regularly in the renaissance music man’s studio orchestra on numerous television and film scores, including The Color Purple (1985), and also appearing on screen playing the composer of “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)”. 

In 2009, Gaines (billed as Roy Gaines & his Orchestra) released Tuxedo Blues, featuring a full big band. Selections included “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister),” which Gaines originally performed in the movie The Color Purple.

In 2018 Roy played the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl with his 18 piece orchestra. Also in 2018 Roy did the Central Ave Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, the KSDS 88.3 live broadcast concert and the Legendary Blues Cruise with his 9 piece orchestra sporting 5 horns.

Since 2000 Roy has released 8 more records.   His latest release “Live at The Saturday Night Fish Fry” (2018) celebrates his life & times with the legendary T-Bone Walker and was sponsored by KSDS 88.3 Jazz Radio San Diego.