By Dave Miller
Probably one of the hardest working entertainers
in the Houston area, “Mean” Gene Kelton has been not
only one of our favorite guitar players and vocalist, but he and
his wife Joni have become long time friends as well. Gene even gave
me the honor of writing the liner notes for his latest CD. So when
Craig asked me to do a feature story on Gene, I jumped at the chance.
Peggy and I first met Gene at a Sunday afternoon jam
on a boat in Clear Lake called the Flamingo, when I was publishing
the sister paper to North of the Border called Southern Exposure.
Even though he didn’t have his entire band, we were impressed
by his enthusiasm, guitar licks and strong vocals. A few weeks later,
we made a special trip to Port Neches to see Gene and his two sons,
Sid and Jamie as the Die Hards playing in a cool little hole-in-the-wall
bar and danced the night away. Since then, we’ve seen Gene
in every kind of honky tonk, beer joint and dive that you can imagine,
from the Balinese Room in Galveston to local favorites like Tut’s,
Borski’s and Howling Coyote as well as the now closed Cactus
One of the coolest things about Mean Gene Kelton and
the Die Hards is the large following of enthusiastic fans he has
managed to build over the years. But first, let’s go back
to his roots and find out who he really is.
Born in Booneville, Mississippi to a mother who sang
gospel music on local radio stations and a father who was a professional
gambler, pool shark and bootlegger, his early days were a replay
of Robert Mitchum’s “Thunder Road” movie. His
mom divorced Gene’s dad when Gene was six years old, and they
went to live with his grandfather, a sharecropper on a cotton plantation
in Charleston, Mississippi, near Clarksdale. Weekends were spent
at Elmer Green’s place, a general store and bait shop, with
a dirt-floored juke joint on one side where whites and black alike
danced the Slop and the Dirty Dog to down home blues while eating
a Moon Pie and sippin’ on a RC Cola.
His mom remarried, this time to Bob Allbritton, a
guitar player for rock and roll singer Harold Jenkins, who later
changed his name to Conway Twitty and became a country singer. They
always had a house full of musicians playing early rock ‘n
roll and the radio was always on, giving Gene plenty of exposure
to all types of music. When he was ten, his mom bought him his first
guitar, a Sears Silvertone, and he learned to play imitating the
blues players he had heard at Elmer Green’s earlier.
They moved to Texas about this time, living in Bellaire,
about six blocks from where I had lived ten years earlier. Later
they moved to Dayton, where Gene formed his first band, the Moven
Shadows. A serious motorcycle wreck at age 17 laid him up for a
while, but he practiced guitar in his hospital bed. After this he
played with several cover bands until he got married.
Like a lot of us old rockers, marriage changed the
equation and he gave up music except for his cherished Silvertone
guitar. He tried a variety of jobs, from salesman (selling cemetery
plots door-to-door), to truck driver and oilfield worker. After
a divorce, he moved to Baytown and worked as a DJ at radio station
KBUK (where I had been a DJ ten years earlier) and sold ads for
the station. After leaving the radio station, he began playing for
tips at clubs in Baytown and added a drum machine. He was playing
4-5 nights a week and made a good living at it.
He moved to Nashville in 1986 and did quite well playing
around town there, but moved back to Baytown a few years later.
In 1990 he put together a band but went through what he calls “the
worst of the worst” bass players and drummers. Eventually
he got it right when he teamed with bass player A.J. Fee, one of
the best in the area, and drummer Russell Shelby to form the Gene
Kelton Band. About this time Stevie Ray Vaughn was making the blues
popular with audiences across America and blues bands were easy
to book in local clubs. Besides the Friday and Saturday shows, they
hosted Sunday afternoon jams at Frankies in Baytown and Michaels
in Texas City.
In 1993 he began publishing Texas Blues magazine with
statewide distribution. Then a divorce cost him all his material
things, but he got to keep the rights to his songs. He went to Nashville
in 1994 (and we went to see him on our way to Boston) but eventually
came back to Texas a year later. About this time, the band, now
called the Love Buzzards (from a line in a Kentucky headhunters
song) was playing at the Flamingo Café on Clear Lake and
they played outside on the deck in the hot sun all afternoon. Fans
told Gene that they were die hards for playing so long on the hot
deck, thus the new name for the band.
Due to jobs and family demands, players came and went.
For a while sons Sid and Jamie played with him as well as Terry
Dry, and Gene’s brother Ray. In fact, there have been so many
Die Hards over the years, they are having a reunion this month at
Fenders in LaMarque on the 5th and at the Howling Coyote on the
26th. You north side fans be sure to come to the Coyote for this
one. The band cut a demo with some of the more popular songs and
Gene gave one to Joe Montes who played it on his show on KPFT a
couple of times. Listeners called to ask where they could buy a
copy, so Gene raised enough money to do a complete CD and released
it in December of 1999.
The rest, as they say, is history. The CD did very
well, and a couple of the songs became instant classics, and are
played frequently on KPFT today
Probably the most popular song on the CD (named “Most
Requested”) is the infamous “My Baby Don’t Wear
No Panties”. Playing at a bar in Baycliff in 1988, one girl
who had a few too many, got on a table and took her shirt off. One
guy yelled at her, “that ain’t nothing, my baby don’t
wear no panties”. Gene was playing “Mean Mistreater”
at the time, so he just started making up words and ended up with
a song. Eventually, he ended up with the current version, and fans
began yelling “How do you know?” after each chorus,
an audience participation event that adds to the fun.
The second most requested song is “The Texas
City Dyke” compiled from all the jokes Gene had heard all
his life about the landmark fishing dike.
Realizing that people respond to songs with sexual
innuendos, he was able to craft this comical tune into a real crowd-pleaser.
He found that by starting a song with the phrase “She’s
got tattoos on her titties” that customers in bars tended
to stop whatever they were doing to listen. It took him several
years to get the verses just right, and after un unpleasant experience
in 1999, he added the last verse about Fat Bob, and it stuck. In
a similar vein, “My Blow Up Lover”, which was co-written
by Bob Allbright makes light of another funny subject.
Gene picked up his nickname “Mean Gene”
after being told he plays a mean guitar by another blues musician.
Thus the title to his second CD, “Mean Guitar” in 2003.
Gene asked my to write the liner notes for this one, which was a
real honor for me. They are currently working on a new double CD
called “Cajun Thunder” and have a live CD called “The
Lost Sessions” they are selling at shows now.
A recent addition to the band is Monica Marie on vocals.
Formerly with Monica Marie and the Blues Cruizers, Monica’s
husband Tony Lee was put out of commission last year for a bout
with cancer (thankfully, he is back in action and plays with Monica
and Gene frequently), and that band broke up. Gene offered Monica
a spot singing with him and the guys, and she is now a feature of
Of course, the real brains behind this legend is “Even
Meaner” Joni, Gene’s petite but potent wife. Joni does
the booking, media, web site, marketing and fan relations, and running
the record company, Jam Bone Records. They were one of the early
bands to take advantage of the internet, and at the height of the
MP3 revolution, they had over a million downloads of their songs
on MP3 sites.
The upcoming Die Hard reunion will also feature local
band Brother 2 Brother, which boasts 3 former Die Hards. One of
these is Norm Uhl, who used to do the News. Now he does the Blues.
Norm Uhl is a fixture in Local Television serving as an on air reporter
for nearly 15 years on Houston's CBS affiliate and The Texas Network.
He reported live on such major stories as the Waco Siege and the
Fall of the Berlin Wall, and over his career filed stories for NBC,
ABC, CBS and CNN. The award-winning journalist is perhaps better
known for his humorous features, including "Norm at Work,"
where he featured the working men and women of Texas, often giving
their jobs a try.
While in the hectic news business, Norm had to put
his music on the back burner but once he left the news business,
blues was one of his first endeavors. Norm played keyboards and
harmonica with Gene Kelton and the Die Hards for two years, which
is where he met drummer Kevin Reed and Bass Player Mike “Lowboy”
Leubner. Norm, Kevin and Mike are the founding members of Brother
Another band appearing at both reunions is Steve Rangel
and 2nd Wind. Originally formed in 1997, 2nd Wind is the primary
musical project of bassist/vocalist "Hollywood" Steve
Rangel. A product of the Los Angeles/Hollywood hard rock scene of
the 80's, Steve followed a growing interest in blues music all the
way to Austin, Texas in 1992. After performing regularly in the
"Live Music Capital of the World" for 5 years, he relocated
to Houston and, in addition to his duties as 2nd Wind frontman,has
enjoyed long stints with Matt Leddy and The Meatcutters and Mean
Gene Kelton and The Die Hards.
An accomplished performer with 24 years of experience,
"Hollywood" Steve Rangel combines his love of 50's and
60's music with his hard rock roots and love of Texas blues to create
a true variety band that appeals to a broad audience and has established
2nd Wind as a respected entity of the Houston music scene. "Hollywood"
and the band are proud to be a part of the Gene Kelton reunion shows.
"I appreciate the past and focus on the future," Steve
says. "These shows will give us an opportunity to do both,
and we are thrilled to be asked to participate."
Another local favorite band, the Shadowcasters will
also be at the Howling Coyote reunion, as three of the current members
of that band were former Die Hards. Bass player Dan Workman, drummer
Carl Owen and keyboard player Dennis Watson all worked with Gene
at one time or another.
So, there you have it. The amazing thing to me, as
I visited with Gene, was the paths we crossed over the years. Though
he is ten years younger than me, he followed my path from Bellaire
to Baytown and we both raced motorcycles, just ten years after I
was in the places mentioned. Small world. Plan now to come to the
Howling Coyote on Sunday, June 26th for the show of a lifetime.
We’ll see you there.