Curley Mays:  Biography

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San Antonio, Texas, where old Spanish architecture meets concrete, glass and steel, is one of the most pleasant cities in the United States in appearance.  It is centered around its mecca, the fascinating Alamo.  Just a few blocks away, a story below street level on the River Walk, gondolas loaded with tourists float past scores of restaurants, clubs and specialty boutiques rising above the banks of the winding San Antonio River.

East of the downtown area, across the tracks in the older black section of town, is Curley Mays' house, a few blocks from one of the old main drags, Cherry Street.

Curley is an earnest, thin man who comes from a musical family.  In addition to his famous uncle, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and first cousin Phillip Walker, there is singer and drummer James "Widemouth" Brown; Gatemouth's other brother, Wilson "Gapmouth" Brown, who Curley said was not a singer; Phil's younger sister Violet; Curley's younger brother Winfred Mays (a jazz guitarist who still lives in Beaumont, Texas); and Curley's father, Jessie Mays, who played unamplified guitar in small clubs, and said Curley, had a sound like Muddy Waters.  Somewhere in this picture, Gatemouth's guitarist Pete Mays and bassist Willard Mays, also fit in.

Born in Maxie, Acadia Parish, Louisiana (out from Crowley) on November 26, 1938, Curley grew up in Beaumont, Texas. Inspired by the success of Gatemouth, Curley took up the guitar at age 14 or 15. He never learned to read music, and plays by ear.

Curley Mays in high school

Curley Mays
circa 1954

Curley's first public appearance was at a street dance in Beaumont when he was about 15.  He appeared at the local Chaney's Club while he completed 10th, 11th and 12th grades at high school in Beaumont.  He finished school in 1957.  By l958, Curley had moved to Dallas, where he was booked by Howard Lewis through 1960.  Curley recalls working with Jerry Butler and Jackie Wilson's drummer, sometime in 1958.

Dissatisfied with progress under Lewis' wing, Curley joined Etta James' group in the latter part of 1959 and stayed with her until 1963. During this time. they based  mainly in Chicago, but they spent a great deal of time on the road, touring the U.S. and performing one-nighters.  A studio group was used on her albums, however, and Curley did not record with her. At that time he was also booked by Universal Attractions, and appeared in his own right in the Curley Mays Show, in which he  intrigued audiences with his repertoire of guitar tricks.

The three years with Etta form one peak in Curley's career:  He appeared at the Apollo Theater in New York in two separate shows.  One included Etta, Curley, Jackie Wilson, and the Duals; the other featured Etta and Curley with Joe Henderson and the Isley Brothers.  With Etta's band when she and Curley appeared at the Hideaway Supper Club in Los Angeles were: Plas Johnson, Clifford Scott and Robbie Robinson on saxes, Bert Kendrix on organ, and Wayne Robinson on drums.  Jo-Jo Adams was also featured.   Curley also recalls working with saxman Garneil Cooper at the Palladium Ballroom in   Texas.

After leaving Etta's band, Curley appeared at Seguin, Texas in August 1963, before spending a few years based in Houston. By February 1964 he was appearing at Ray Barnett's Cinder Club on Dixie Drive in Houston, with Carolyn Blanchard and Lobi-Siki, a one-legged torch dancer.  In April '64 JET magazine ran a picture of Curley together with Barbara Lynn, and in July he was still at the Cinder Club, this time with Carolyn Blanchard and Joy Ann Tobin.

Around that time, Curley made a tour of Oklahoma and Texas with the Five Royales. He also opened for James Brown, Willie John, Tina Turner, L. C. Cooke (Sam Cooke's brother), comedians Clay Tyson (later with James Brown) and Redd Foxx, the Nicholas Brothers, Billy Eckstine, Fats Domino, Ruby and the Romantics, Nat King Cole and others.

Curley also traveled extensively with the Houston-based band Julia Jones and the Rivieras.  He was still based in the Beaumont-Houston region in 1965, when Beaumont DJ "Boogie" Belton arranged publicity for him in the Forward Times of Houston.  In February, Curley was back at the Cinder Club, this time with Mickey Mosely, Sandra Smith and Little Rickey Williams.  Later in the year, Curley played Las Vegas in a show featuring the Nicholas Brothers, Sally Blair, Steppin Fetchit, and Mimi Delores (of FBI fame).

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Curley at home in
the '60s

In 1966, Curley struck out as far north as Montreal, Canada before returning to Texas. This time he concentrated on San Antonio, appearing at King Arthur's Court on the North Side and Johnny Phillips' Eastwood Country Club.  Curley's band at the Eastwood at that time was Herman Adams on tenor sax, the late Chester Douglas (also on tenor), "Ralph" on electric bass, Mary Parchman on organ, and Sokol Richard, who later became Ike and Tina Turner's drummer.

Like a number of other Texas bluesman, Curley played rock and Country Western songs for his audiences.  Although his personal preference is for the blues, long stints at the Eastwood Country Club (where the audiences were predominantly white) markedly shaped his song list.  For example, he played "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Easy Lovin'," "Cotton Fields" and "Oh, Susannah."  Curley's blues and soul repertoire included "That's What Love Will Do," "Two Steps from The Blues," "Do What You Set Out to Do," "Where Did Our Love Go" and B.B.'s "I Don't Want a Soul Around My Door."

Curley interrupted his stay at the Eastwood in 1968/69 and returned to Houston, again appearing at the Cinder Club.  But he came back to San Antonio, where he and his wife, Lula Mae, had a son in 1970.  Curley was planning a tour around the state and possibly further for the summer of 1972 but was in the meantime still at the head of the Eastwood house band, "The Brothers Seven," on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

During one '70s Eastwood show, Curley played a Fender Stratocaster in his act, which lasted about 30 minutes. When he first came onstage, he warmed up with some guitar tricks.  While singing "How Blue Can You Get" he bent the bottom four strings up about halfway up the neck, then let them go singly, still keeping them in tune.  Having won the crowd's attention, he sang a slow, then usually a fast blues, before going into the most unusual part of the act.  Curley took off his shoes, revealing that he wore socks with the toes cut out of them. He then played the instrument with his toes!

Curley Mays, 1970s

Curley in the '70s

Depending on the mood of his crowd, Curley ended his blues segment with a slow or fast blues. The next part of the act found him in cowboy hat, singing a Country Western medley, followed by a Spanish set (in a sombrero, of course).

Curley had more up his sleeve:  if the audience wanted pop or soul, he would it sing it. There were other tricks, too, such as making the guitar sing ("false" or "fake" singing, as he called it), playing it behind his head, and so on.

After a long period of retirement, Curley has begun frequenting San Antonio blues spots, listening enthusiastically and intently, and sometimes, with a great deal of encouragement, even sitting in for a song or two with several local bands.  Curley recently dusted off his classic Strat and performed for his boss' retirement party.  Fans who remember him from the glory days of the Eastwood look forward to his comeback.

-- Adapted from a '70s article by Bob Eagle of Australia

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