Guy, Pipp & Lightnin'
Two brothers from Yonkers, and the spirit of a blues legend,
create a folk-music magnet in East Texas
By BRYAN WOOLLEY / The Dallas Morning News Saturday, August 6, 2005
CROCKETT, Texas – The rain started slow but is coming harder now, obscuring the statue of "Lightnin' " Hopkins across the street. Pipp Gillette is standing on the porch of the Camp St. Cafe & Store, watching the water splash, listening to its rattle on the tin roof.
Guy (center) and Pipp Gillette (left) warm up before a performance at the Camp St. Cafe & Store, where they perform about once a month.
"We're always a little afraid that some night we'll show up and nobody else will come," he says.
"Just Guy and me." He laughs, a little nervous. "This could be the night."
The Camp St. Cafe & Store is where Guy and Pipp Gillette – the Gillette Brothers – play and sing their blues, cowboy ballads and Celtic folk songs when they're in Crockett. They come in from their ranch near Lovelady, about 14 miles away, or maybe from a concert gig in Japan or Russia or a cowboy gathering in Nevada or West Texas. They play guitars, banjos, harmonicas, tambourines, bones, kazoos. They do a few vaudeville and minstrel show comedy routines.
And they sing, Pipp, 55, in a strong baritone, and Guy, 59, usually in harmony, in a pure tenor. They sing of cowboys dying on the prairie, of outlaws and horses, of lovers saying farewell, of hard times come knocking at the door. It's the main thing happening in Crockett every Saturday night.
The place is neither a cafe nor a store, but it has been both from time to time, and a few other businesses as well. Barbershop. Poolroom. In the days of segregation, it was at the center of Crockett's little black business district. It's a simple sheet metal building, typical of small-town East Texas in 1931, which is when V.H. "Hoyt" Porter, grandfather of Guy and Pipp, built it and rented it out.
Photo by Suzanne Gauthier Steed
The Gillette brothers saw to the creation of a statue of Sam 'Lightnin'' Hopkins for Crockett, Texas, where he played.
On some Saturdays back in the '40s, a musician would sit with his guitar on the sidewalk outside, or sometimes on a cane-bottom chair inside, and sing for the coins that sharecroppers and cowhands would drop into his hat. He was Sam "Lightnin' "
Hopkins, already amongst the greatest of blues singers but yet unknown to the world outside the Piney Woods.The Gillette Brothers
"We feel the spirit of Lightnin' in this place," Pipp has said. "Lightnin' is always here."
Pipp and Guy inherited the building and a few others along that block of Camp Street (now officially called Third Street) from their grandfather. Most had been vacant for a long time and were too decrepit to be saved, so the Gillettes removed them. But they renovated the old false-front tin building where Lightnin' had played, painted it red, and in 1998 opened it up as the Camp St. Cafe & Store, a place for music.
They ramrodded the creation of the bronze-colored concrete statue of Lightnin' – paid for by the Texas Commission on the Arts and private donors – across the street from the Cafe & Store. Local artist Jim Jeffries sculpted it. It portrays the great man as he probably appeared on Camp Street: hat and dark glasses, a simple chair, picking his guitar. He seems to be keeping an eye on the red building across the street. Tonight rain runs in dark brown streaks down his concrete self.
So on most Saturdays and some weeknights, somebody will be on Camp Street's tiny stage, playing blues, cowboy ballads, Western swing, bluegrass, Celtic – anything acoustic from any folk tradition. Listening will be maybe 100 to 140 people, white, black, old folks with creaky knees, young couples and their energetic kids, and regulars who drive from Huntsville and Dallas and Houston, up to two or three hours each way. Tickets cost $15 or $20, depending on who's playing.
On a recent Saturday, the Davy Crockett Dulcimer Society held a workshop and taught lessons for $2.
Michael Martin Murphey played on a recent Thursday night. The Sidehill Gougers and Pauline Reese and Band were at Camp Street in July.
Susan Gibson & The Moving Parts Band will play this month. So will Eric Taylor. So will Rusty Wier.
"Nearly all the best blues players and folk singers have performed here," Pipp says. "A lot of them want to play here just because Lightnin' did. They want to be part of that history. They contact Guy and me, asking to play."
The Gillette Brothers play one Saturday a month. They charge only $10, plus $1 tax, on their own nights.
By 7:30, pickup trucks and SUVs are moving slowly along Camp Street, drivers squinting past windshield wipers. They park along the curbs, pile out and make a dash for the porch. The older ones trudge slowly, not bothering to unfurl their umbrellas, resigned to getting wet.
Not a chance
When Guy and Pipp Gillette moved to Lovelady in 1983 to take over their late grandfather's ranch, neighbors whispered that they wouldn't last six months. "That's what they told us later," Guy says. "In six months we'd be gone."
Houstonians (from left) Lucy Duston, Aspen Harris, Duane Duston and Jon Harris
arrive at the Camp St. Cafe & Store in Crockett, Texas, to see the Gillette Brothers perform.
Ranching is tough business. It's not something you just pick up one day and get on with. And these men were musicians, of all things, from Yonkers, N.Y., of all places. What could they know about the cow business?
But they were not strangers to the land where they were settling. Their grandfather, V.H. "Hoyt" Porter, began buying land near Lovelady in 1912 and combined the parcels into a ranch. He and his wife, Lucy Thornton Porter, were native to the area.
When their daughter, Doris, started to school, Lucy ran a general store in Lovelady, a tiny cotton-and-cattle town with a railroad through the middle. A lot of people, black and white, were living in the countryside then. Many were sharecroppers.
"Our mother grew up in our grandmother's general store," Pipp says. "She sold everything from groceries to boots to pharmacy stuff to toys. She sold a lot of notions and patterns and material for making your own clothes, which is what people did then. So she had fashion magazines around.
"One day she was looking through Vogue and saw an ad for a fashion design school in New York City. The Traphagen School of Fashion Design. She decided to study fashion design in New York. It was a brave thing for a country girl to do. She didn't know anybody up there. But she got on the train at Lovelady and went."
For her living, Doris got a waitress job. The restaurant busboy was a struggling actor named Yul Brynner, who eventually quit for a better job as a nude model at the Art Students League. Guy Gillette, a Minnesotan who was studying acting with Anton Chekhov's nephew Michael, got the busboy job. He was Doris Porter's future husband.
"When they married, they came to Texas, intending to ranch in partnership with our grandfather. But he was the kind of fellow that, well, you could work for him, but you really couldn't work with him," Pipp says.
The young couple's first child – Guy Porter Gillette – was born in Crockett. But their ranching experiment with Hoyt Porter failed. They moved back to New York and settled on Staten Island.
"Our father was acting," Pipp says. "He was in several plays on Broadway. But he had always been involved in photography, and he gradually left the theater and did more and more photography. He worked for Look and Collier's and other big magazines of the day." Several of his photographs – including one of his wife, in-laws and sons on the porch swing at Lovelady – appeared in Edward Steichen's great 1955 exhibit, "The Family of Man."
When Pipp was born on Staten Island, his parents named him William Pipp. The "Pipp" is after Pip, the character in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
In 1951 the family moved into a new cookie-cutter subdivision in Yonkers. The parents still live there.
"Summers we would come to the ranch," Pipp says. "Many times we drove down as a family. There were no interstates, so we drove through every little town between Yonkers and Lovelady. Other times, if our father had to stay home and work, he put the rest of us on the train at Penn Station and we got off at the depot in Lovelady. And there our grandmother would be standing.
"We rode horses all summer. We rode them all around. We would tie up our horses behind the store and go in and visit with our grandmother and have an ice-cold Delaware Punch or Grapette. Our grandfather would come in the middle of the day, and he would take a nap in the back of the store. Of course, if there was any work to do on the ranch, that's what we loved more than anything."
A black cowboy named Dayton Owens worked for Mr. Porter. He let the boys ride with him as he worked and taught them some cowboy skills. They loved him. Many years later, Guy wrote a tune called "Ridin' With Dayton," which captures the rhythms of Mr. Owens' horse traveling the lanes and fence lines of the ranch.
So the boys from Yonkers were no strangers to ranch life. When Guy finished high school, he spent the summer working for his grandfather. The following year, he got a cowboy job on Watt Mathews' famous Lambshead Ranch near Albany, Texas.
Blame the Beatles
On the evening of Feb. 9, 1964, Pipp – at home in Yonkers – and Guy – in a motel in Albany, Texas – were watching the same TV show.
They saw the Beatles sing on the Ed Sullivan show. They say it was a life-changing event.
"Pipp and I were always interested in music," Guy says.
"We used to sing the old cowboy songs and grew up listening to the records of
Hermes Nye and Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie. But neither of us played an instrument at that point.
"I learned how to play a few chords on the guitar from friends there in Albany.
When I got back to Yonkers in the fall, Pipp was already playing the drums. Before long, we had a group.
"Pipp was still in high school. I started taking some classes at the New School in Greenwich Village, just stuff I liked, like history and English and some film courses they had, and photography. Because of our father, I had always been interested in the theater,
and an actress friend of mine got me into the Neighborhood Playhouse."
The Gillettes put together a band called the Roadrunners. One of Guy's fellow students from the Neighborhood Playhouse became their lead singer. Her name was Diane Keaton. "She used to sing Aretha Franklin tunes and Jefferson Airplane," Guy says.
"It couldn't have been better preparation for her," Pipp says. "Her first real job out of the Neighborhood Playhouse was in Hair, the crazy rock musical. That's exactly what she had been doing with us: crazy rock. Hair is where Woody Allen saw her."
"So Pipp and I take full responsibility for launching Diane Keaton," Guy says.
From 1968 to 1983, they played the coffeehouse circuit up and down the East Coast and through the Midwest. They made two albums and a few singles. "Whatever kind of music we were playing at the time," Guy says, "it always had Southern, bluesy roots. The lyrics we wrote were about Texas and Louisiana. We finally figured, 'If we're going to continually sing about Texas, why don't we go down there and sing about it.' "
Their grandparents were dead. The people who were leasing the Porter family ranch had allowed the fences and buildings and pastures to deteriorate. "Being in New York, we couldn't oversee it like we should. Moving down here was a scary decision, but it turned out perfect for us."
Almost 14 years ago, Guy married a Texan named Cathi Stas, from Wheeler. They have a 9-year-old daughter, Dorcie. They live on the ranch in a little yellow frame house that used to be on Camp Street. Pipp, a bachelor, lives nearby in a weathered board-and-batten shack. Between and behind the houses, the Gillettes built a big cook shack and common room where the eating and visiting and music-playing gets done.
It could be a ranch from 100 years ago. There's even no air-conditioning. "Guy and I feel we're living the cowboy life, the life we sing about," Pipp says. They're scholars of the music they sing and can talk for hours about its origins and history without repeating themselves.
It's 15 minutes short of Showtime. Suddenly the Camp St. Cafe & Store is filling up. People are settling at the tables. Others wander along the walls, looking at the autographed photos of the many musicians who have performed there. In a secluded corner hangs a big picture of the Gillette's with '70s haircuts and Diane Keaton. A few of the shots, unrelated to music, are portraits that their famous father made: poet Carl Sandburg, Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie.
In a glass case near the door, Gillette Brothers CDs are for sale. So are duck decoys (some carved by Pipp) iron skillets and Dutch ovens and cornbread pans, kazoos, harmonicas and penny whistles, statues of Davy Crockett, and "Lightnin' " Hopkins T-shirts and recordings.
Soda pop and candy and popcorn are at the concession stand.
Everything's right. Guy, 7 feet tall in his 10-gallon hat, moves to the microphone and sings "Summer Rain,"
Pipp following on harmonica. It's a full house. Lightnin's spirit is somewhere about.