Thursday, March 18, 2010

Who Buried Harry Choates?

If you don't know the name Harry Choate (or Choates) let me briefly summarize his ethno-musical significance. He played the fiddle, the guitar and the accordion. He played a mix of French-Cajun music and western swing that changed the genre forever. He wasn't epicly popular like Elvis, he was more of a Ernest Tubb character who's musician ship and song craft influenced everything. He had a single "Jole Blon" a transformation of a traditional Cajun waltz into a swing dance tune that became a regional hit in 1946 on Gold Star Records. It was licensed to a few other labels for national distribution and hit #4 on the Billboard country music chart. But he was a so naive and drunk he sold the publishing rights to the song to Quinn Recording Studio for $100 and a bottle of whiskey. He never even owned an instrument.

His hometown is somewhat disputed as is his birth date. It's generally accepted to be Rayne, LA December 26th 1923. Other dates are as early as 1922, other places include Vermillion, LA. He was performing in bands by the age of 13. He played around New Orleans, Port Arthur, and Houston. He appeared on KOAI-TV in San Antonio. His career was on the upswing with or without the rights to his hit single.

In 1951 his band the Melody Boys, fell apart over Choate's constant drunkenness and missed concert dates. His wife divorced him. But that didn't slow down Harry, he kept touring and drinking. . Later that year he played on KTBC with Jesse James & His Gang. Jesse James and crew were a long running western swing band based in Austin. They formed before WWII and reformed after. Their program was sponsored by Pearl Beer.

Harry never left Austin. He was dragged into court for not paying child support. The judge found him in contempt and tossed him in jail. Three days later on July 17, 1951 he was dead at 28 years old. There are two stories of how he died. One version has him shaking from the DTs and banging his own head on the bars until he knocked himself unconscious, then falling into a coma then eventually dying. If you think that's a stretch the other version is that the cops beat his head on the bars and accidentally killed him. Witnesses claim there was a gash on his forehead. His autopsy intimated that he was beaten but attributed his death to liver failure. The family was so poor they could not afford to bring him back to Port Arthur for burial. More here.

Gordon Baxter, a DJ who'd been at KPAC since 1945 thought this was a travesty. He held a live fund-raiser and raised enough money to bring his remains back to Port Arthur. Choate was buried at Greenlawn Cemetery. KPAC was then the voice of Port Arthur College, today it's a Public Radio affiliate. The charitable gesture went well for Bax, he was Assistant manager of the station by 1954. Baxter died in 2005 at the age of 81. He was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. Why did Baxter do it? It might be partially that Choate was so popular. It might have been that Bax was a fan. Or maybe Baxter was just one of the good guys. More here..