Press Articles about Ezra Charles and The Works
Galveston County Daily News
Ezra Charles & The Works light up the
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
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,
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
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."
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,"
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
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
He met his wife when performing at a club in the Heights.
On their first date, they ate at Thai Pepper and saw "Driving
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
BY TONYA PARKER MORRISON
SPEClAL TO THE AMERlCAN PRESS
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
"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,
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 family.to
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
review appeared in the San Antonio Express-News
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
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
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.