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Ezra Charles and the Works

Recent Press Articles about Ezra Charles and The Works

Galveston County Daily News

Ezra Charles & The Works light up the night

By Greg Barr

Published August 20, 2004
GALVESTON - Like the other kids at his Beaumont school, Ezra Helpinstill was enamored by this cool new sound called rock 'n' roll. Chuck Berry riffs were the hip thing at James Bowie Junior High, and although Helpinstill had been playing piano since he was eight, he wanted to try guitar.

"But my fingers were just not right for guitar, it just kind of killed me," he said. "So the drummer said, 'Why not just stick to piano, because you already can play it?'"

Helpinstill - who adopted the stage name Ezra Charles in the late 1980s when he decided to be a full-time musician - is still sticking to what he does best, more than 45 years later. The other two kids who played guitar in his very first band, Johnny and Edgar Winter, did fairly well for themselves, too.

Charles may not think he always gets the recognition he deserves, but he has been one of Houston's most consistent - and persistent - entertainers, winning the Houston Press best keyboardist award five times since 1993, including this year. His seven-piece band, which performs a blend of blue-eyed R&B and piano boogie-woogie, is steadily booked at festivals and corporate events.

Charles said that being able to exclusively play his own music all these years has been the biggest reward.

"It's been a tough row to hoe, but as long as I can keep doing what I want to do, it's been worth it," said Charles. "I think that as an original music band you have to be able to completely recreate that CD sound on stage. When you're presenting original music, people lose interest if it doesn't come off as being perfect. I guess the fact that people have followed us for a long time says something."

Charles has made a point of recruiting the best musicians he could find for his band, The Works, in order to bring the studio quality of his six CDs to life. Trombonist Nancy Dalbey has been with Charles for 15 years, the longest of any band member. The newest member is Susan Goelzer, who took over in 2003 for Dalbey when she was on maternity leave, and stayed on after Dalbey returned.

Charles' honky-tonk R&B - kind of a Delbert McClinton sound without the earthy growl - has always featured smooth horn lines and quirky lyrical twists for some of his most popular songs, such as "Hurry Up and Love Me" or "Bolivar Ferry," a roadhouse romp about meeting a girl you know where.

Besides that song, Charles' most bizarre Galveston connection is that director Peter Masterson wanted to hire Charles and his band for his cheesy 1989 crime-slasher film "Night Game" shot in Galveston and Houston, starring "Jaws" lead Roy Scheider as a Galveston homicide detective. The film's box office take was a whopping $338,000. Charles wrote the theme song but they could not agree on a contract, so the song - still one of his most popular love songs - ended up on one of his albums instead.

There's no bass player in Charles' band because he plays the line himself.

"I always loved the bass," Charles said. "When I hear a song on the radio, I hum the bass line and it drives my wife crazy. Jerry Lee Lewis always had that strong left-hand thing, but I tried early on to play a piano note and a lower bass note at the same time. Playing the bass line really gives me control over the pulse and the drive of the band."

The noteworthy showmanship in Charles' act started in the late 1980s when he saw a late-night television commercial for car wax. In the commercial, lighter fluid was set aflame atop the hood of a car; Charles hauled his piano down to the parking lot of his apartment, squirted on the lighter fluid, tossed on a match to see what would happen, and has used the stunt in his show ever since.

"I have this footswitch with an igniter and we pretty much know how much lighter fluid to use depending on how high we want the flames," he said.

Charles has always been into gadgets - he has an electrical engineering degree from Rice University - and built his own customized piano and invented his own revolving stage riser, powered by a small electric motor.

He has also patented his own piano amplifier pickup - The Helpinstill - and sold one to Elton John after sneaking backstage at one of the British pop star's concerts. And Bruce Hornsby owns one of his custom pianos. Although Charles had much success with that part of his career, he wanted to be regarded as one of their musical peers, not a quirky inventor, leading him to his 1985 decision to form a band in Houston.

"The whole idea of playing piano always was in the back of my mind, and finally it convinced me," said Charles. "I wasn't a pickup builder, I was a piano player."

+++Bellaire Buzz, October 2002 Issue

Ezra Charles-Bellaire's Piano Man

by Heather Saucier

When Ezra Charles performs, he wears red and blue suits, spikes his blonde hair, and sets the fiberglass top of his piano on fire. His piano spins on a turntable he invented as he belts, "Hurry up and love me 'cause I just keep getting uglier all the time." The song, a humorous medley of bad pick-up lines, is his most requested.
Those who come to see Ezra Charles and the Works, a six-member band, perform in local night clubs expect the extravagance. It goes with the music, a sound so eclectic that it has never been categorized.
"My music is an autobiography. I tell the whole story of my life through songs," said Charles, 58, first-time father of two, sitting in the rehearsal room he built in his older Bellaire home.
In other words, from the time he played in bands as a teen-ager in Beaumont through his high school, college years and beyond, Charles picked up pieces of country and westem, Big Band, rock n' roll, blues, swing and boogie-woogie and incorporated them into six cds. The lyrics tell his stories, from a ride on the Bolivar Ferry to cheesy pick-up lines he may have tried once or twice.
David George, Charles' former audio engineer and road manager, first heard him play in Austin in the late '80s. "Even for people who were not big Ezra fans, there was no way you could sit and listen to his music and not tap your feet," George said. "He always got you up and moving.
Dancers have followed him for years, said Debbie Reynolds, owner of Discover Dance, who encourages her swing and jitterbug students to attend his performances. "He's one of the few people smart enough to honor the crowd," she said.'The dancers love him."
Yet, despite the fact that more than half his audiences buy his cds at performances, that he has opened a concert for Lyle Lovett, that 95.7 KIKK-FM has played his songs, and that he performed at Houston Rockets games for three seasons, Charles continues to search for the big break desired by all in the entertainment business. "lt's the driving force in life on all levels. My motivation is not for money. It is for recognition."
Charles came close years ago when he invented the Helpinstill, a piano pickup that bears his legal last name. It allows a piano to be amplified at concerts without using a bouquet of microphones. He snuck backstage at an Elton John concert and convinced the sound technician to try it. John played "Tiny Dancer" and the crowd went wild.
"I'II never to this day know how I pulled that off," he said.
When the band bought the device for $400, Charles wrote 150 letters to famous keyboard players, including a letter in brail to Stevie Wonder, and began a business that put his electrical engineering degree from Rice University to use. (Charles, by nature, is an inventor and has patented five music-related creations.)
The business blossomed until he allowed his co-owners to solely manage it in the early '80s. Frustrated, he changed his name from Charles Helpinstill to Ezra, a name given to him by Neil Young whom he met "hobnobbing," and decided to become a professional musician at 39 years old. He got a nose job. "You don't want to make a bad first impression if you're an entertainer," he said. He invented the piano turntable and set his piano ablaze to spice up his show.
He repurchased the patent rights to the piano pickup and began selling it again.

Over the years, he has tailored his tunes for blues, swing and country and western movements. He sang like Jerry Lee Lewis, then Willy Nelson, even trying to wiggle into country and western clubs. But "country people look at me and they just know I'm not country," he said. "My whole career I've been searching - what is it that I really am musically?" he asks.
Having spun through multiple genres of music, perhaps he has finally found the answer. Charles admits, "I have always been a blues man at heart." Growing up in Texas, he has country in his soul as well. Add a touch of boogie-woogie and that is the sound that's selling about 2,000 cds a year at performances. "Every time we play now it's like a live cd. I'm just having a ball," he said. One reason may be because Charles allows his band members to have musical input, said drummer James "Jimmy" Morado. "I could come to him with an idea and he'll take his sledgehammer out, and I take my sledgehammer out, and we'll hammer it. If it works, it works," he said. "He lets us add our flavor."
Another reason could be a new family with his wife, Susan, 38. Charles is father to a 5-year-old son, Jake, and 2-year-old daughter, Chloe.

He met his wife when performing at a club in the Heights. On their first date, they ate at Thai Pepper and saw "Driving Miss Daisy."
They soon discovered family life for the first time. Charles mows the lawn and cooks. Susan cleans and stays with the children, taking Jake, who is following in his father's footsteps, to dnrm lessons. A lot has changed since the children, Charles said. "Being single is like a boat sailing on the water," he said. "When you have children, it's like throwing the anchor in." But life is good in all its simplicity. "lt's just a great life that we have," Susan said. "We love living here. We joke that someday we'll be the only house on the block that's not a big, brick one, but we'll still be here."

Heather Saucier is a free-lance writer in Houston.

The American Press, Lake Charles LA, August 11, 2000

lnventions Helped Him Reinvent Himself

Just like ZZ Top, fellow Texan Ezra Charles (a.k.a. Charles Helpinstill) is bad and nationwide. In fact, for the multi-talented Beaumont native whose name is synonymous with Southern swing, the ties with one of rock music's most enduring acts are closely woven.
"That''s actually about the only song that I do that isn't mine," Charles said, referring to ZZ Top's"I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide." "I spent about six months trying to remake it into something that was my own. A lot of times, when we play that one at shows, most people don't even realize what it is until we get to the chorus. That's how different it sounds when we do it." Tickling the ivories in pursuit of musical nirvana may sound like a dream job, but Charles knows it takes hard work to be the best at anything. "It's a 24-hour-a-day job, honestly," he noted. "I think the key thing is to be organized, though. I have the agents, the musicians, the promotional people, and the publisher and of course my wife -- they all help me keep things running smoothly. Last year, I was even able to go to a paperless office." His wife, Susan, helps keep a lid on the insanity. She runs the Charles household, which includes their 3-year-old son, Jake, and a 2 month-old daughter, Chloe. The proud papa hates spending time away from his family, but such is the price of success. When he can be home, Charles relishes the opportunity to hear comments on his daughter's beauty and his son's ability.

"My son has been to quite a few shows," he laughed. "He's gonna be a far better musician than me. He actually plays drums- he has a real set we got him to use. He was always running in music stores and banging around in the drum department. We had to buy him an actual miniature set of real drums." Charles admitted his son's talent is enormous and unavoidable but still insisted that he would not expect the boy to follow in his footsteps. "I'm gonna try to avoid pushing him in any direction at all. I grew up under the stigma of a family in which music was not viewed as an occupation, only as a hobby." Charles has played for President Bush, and Saturday, Sept. 30, he will perform on the legendary "Live at the Liberty" program filmed at the Liberty Theater in Rosenberg. The venue, a converted movie theater built in 1917, housed the Rosenberg Opry before garnering an "Austin City Limits"-style audience for the live show. But despite all the professional successes that have come along since he first decided once and for all to pursue music at the age of 40, some of Charles' fondest memories are of junior high performances.

"Johnny and Edgar Winter were technically classified as handicapped because they were albinos and they have limited vision, so they went to James Bowie Junior High with me because it was only one floor. They had been going to special schools for the handicapped up until the year when they both entered junior high school. Johnny was in the ninth grade and Edgar was in the seventh grade. I was in the ninth grade as well; I'm the same age as Johnny Winter. They hit the school like a bombshell. They really moved out into the front because they were already skilled musicians." Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, Charles got a buddy of his who just happened to play drums for the brothers to get him an audition. They played together for a year, filling in for prom bands on their breaks. Then it was time to move on. "After that year, I went to French High School and Johnny went to Beaumont High School. I didn't really see them again for years and years. Obviously, though, that experience had a big impact on my life." Charles replays that experience every time he hears one of his own tunes, "Beaumont Boys," which gives credit to the talented performers who have walked the same haunts as the singer-songwriter-musician himself. The Winter Brothers represent the '60s and '70~; trumpeter Harry James, the '40's; and the Big Bopper, the 50s. In his earlier days, Charles took a degree in electrical engineering from Rice University and turned it into a stint at Texas Instruments, but then left after a few years because he had discovered his own inventions, including the "piano pickup," a microphone for his favorite instrument.

"I never really stopped playing in bands, but I wasn't really a full-time musician for the next 10 years or so. I started my own company and invented a bunch of stuff that has to do with pianos and got to hobnob with a lot of famous performers because of that. I was lucky enough to sell the I first one to Elton John. Then, it was just a matter of going around and saying,'This is what Elton John uses; do you want one?' . "This was a full, big business during the '70s. At the end of that decade, technology moved on, and I was more and more disappointed with the fact that even though I hobnobbed with stars, I wasn't accepted as one of them. I was a technician. So, I got out of that business and became a full-time musician in 1985 and adopted the name Ezra Charles." When he sold a pickup to Neil Young's band and the singer couldn't remember Charles' first name, although they used his last name to describe his new invention, Young had the answer. "He said he believed my name was Ezra, which is probably just the most outrageous name he could think of. I knew that other people I'd admired had used their first names for last names and then taken on entirely new first names, so I decided to do that as well." The genres he represents may have changed with the times from swing to techno and back agaln -- but Charles' determination to remain an entity in the music world never waivers. "It took years and years for my realize I was serious about this and I was going to do it full time. Eventually, of course, they had to come around. Also, it's a lot more acceptable when you're successful. It erases a lot of doubts. If I was starving to death, they would tell me, 'See, I told you it wouldn't work! " ·

Ezra Charles plays at 10 p.m. today, Aug. 11, at Dagastino's Bistro.


The following review appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on 11/2/98:

Ezra Charles Band merges musical art with showbiz

The bandleader's name is Ezra Charles. The piano player's name is Ezra Charles. The lead singer's name is Ezra Charles. The band's name is Ezra Charles. In what might well come as a giant surprise, the Ezra Charles Band is no one-man show. Friday night, Houston's Ezra Charles Band lured 182 paying customers to Cibolo Creek Country Club to witness the sextet's rollicking, superbly-crafted, original fusion of Bayou City R&B, New Orleans-inspired second line funk, South Louisiana swamp pop, sultry blues, barrel house boogie woogie and plain old rock 'n' roll.
With Charles center-stage at a piano of his own invention, the Helpinstill electric baby grand, the band put on a cooking clinic, showing time after time, song after song, that show time and sharp music; art and glittery show biz, can coexist. In his pursuit of musical fun and excellence, Charles is aided and abetted by the horn section of Nancy Dalbey, trombone, trumpet, vocals; Jennifer King, trumpet, vocals; Damon Sonnier, saxophone (Sonnier replaced longtime Charles sax-partner Earnest Potts, who recently hit the zydeco road as part of Chubby Carrier's Bayou Swamp Band); and a pair of Alamo City products, drummer Brian Goldberg and guitarist Mike Seybold.
From the opening notes of "88 Answers to the Blues," the Charles crew had the crowd's ears wide open as the group worked through songs from four albums, including the brand new "Texas-Style," a live offering.
Using songs such as the swinging "Beaumont Boys," an ode to Texas' Golden Triangle musicians; the slow-grooving love song "I Wanta Be Around Her;" and the swamp-pop "To Touch the Rainbow," the Charles band showed off chops and energy to match.
Save for a solo piano romp, "Ezra's Boogie-Woogie," Charles Band songs are models of creativity and clever, punch-heavy arrangements. While Seybold, the ever-kinetic horn section and Charles have both the talent and the energy to roll out chorus after chorus of hot solos, much of the beauty of the Charles band comes from its use of ensemble work.
Like the music produced by the fabled Stax/Volt records acts and the equally influential Duke/Peacock artists, the Charles Band uses short solos, well-placed horn accents and call-and-response type interplay among the guitar, the piano, the drums and the horns to create songs that are seamless group efforts.

- Jim Beal Jr.

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