Blues icon Pops Carter looks back on a lifetime of music.
by Elizabeth Smith
Denton Live Jully-December 2010
A whisper runs through the crowd. People nudge their friends and nod at the elderly but energetic man making his way around the room. He sports a white fedora and an ivory three-piece suit with black pinstripes, a snappy contrast to his chocolate brown skin. Chains and medallions adorn his neck. There’s a ring on every finger. He pulls a red bent pipe from his pocket and takes a few puffs, the smoke blending with the white tufts of hair on his chin. He grips a cane for balance and a hand towel to wipe the sweat from his brow. A performer on stage catches sight of him making his way around the bar and grabs the microphone: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our Denton blues legend. Pops Carter has just entered the building.”
Even at 91, Pops never turns down an invitation to perform with a fellow musician. He climbs the stage and takes a seat on a barstool. He revels in the attention. “All right,” he calls to the cheering crowd, then he launches into a set of Mississippi Delta blues that really gets the room moving.
Pops Carter is a fixture on the Denton club scene, having played alongside musicians as varied as the blues greats B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan as well as Denton’s own modern polka group, Brave Combo. It only takes a visit to Ruby’s Diner on the Square or the Fry Street bar, Cool Beans, to realize how embedded his image is in local music history. He is a familiar face at clubs such as The Boiler Room and Dan’s Silver Leaf. He’s performed at the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival in the spring and the Denton Blues Festival in the fall. Brian “Beerman” Houser, a friend and fellow musician, calls Pops the “common denominator” in the “constant revolving door” of young musicians on the
Denton music scene.
Most of his audiences have no idea of his history: One of 16 children, he ran away from his home in Louisiana at age 14 to escape a future in the cotton fields. He worked various jobs, even as he toured on the R&B circuit. In Denton, while working as a custodian at the University of North Texas, then called North Texas State College, music found him again. For all the jangly jewelry, the sassy talk to the ladies, he has lived a modest life, loving one woman, pursuing his music. It’s his authenticity as a blues man that sets him apart from the rest, however, and has made him a Denton institution. “The great thing about Pops is, in this music town of egotistical musicians — they’re persnickety about everything — Pops is the exact opposite,” says Brian. “He’s
the real thing.”
For the last 20 years, Pops has sung lead vocals for the Funkmonsters. At first it didn’t seem the perfect collaboration. Pops sat in with the band several times to sing the only blues song they knew at the time – B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone.” But in 1991, lead guitarist Chris Tracey suggested Pops join the group and the Funkmonsters quickly picked up his mellow style. “All I have to do is sing a few words, and they can pick up the rest,” says Pops.
Brian, a country singer who sings his funny anthems (and drinks bottles of beer given to him by fans, hence the “Beerman” nickname), has performed with Pops countless times over a couple of decades. He recalls with a chuckle how often Pops would “crash” his Beerman gigs and join him on stage. Even after years of performing together, country mixing with blues, they have never rehearsed. “That’s okay. You just follow along,” Pops would say to his friend, who would momentarily panic before choosing a key.
Age has not stopped Pops from making the rounds and staying out later than men half his age. In June 2009, he celebrated his 90th birthday with a bash at The Boiler Room that drew so many fans the crowd spilled out of the bar and into the restaurant upstairs. Ever the ladies man, he handed out roses to the young women, asking them to be his date for the night. “Pops has been one of those performers who’s been able to draw college kids as well as the 30 to 40ish people that come in to see him perform,” says Tim Trawik, a partner at The Boiler Room who met the man he calls his “black granddaddy” back in 1991. “I think it has to do with the fact that he [has been] so active in the scene, especially on Fry Street.” Fry, an early incubator of Denton musical talent, is home to some of the city’s most laidback hangouts today.
At home away from the adoring crowds, Pops seems frailer, more forgetful – which by no means curtails his love of telling a good story. The walls of his house are a shrine to blues music, with photos of himself and friends and idols plastered everywhere. Pops’ love of blues began, he says, as a child in Shreveport, where his father owned a small cotton farm. He was born Tom Carter on June 6, 1919, the second to youngest out of 14 brothers and two sisters. As a boy, he carved his first guitar out of a cigar box, but they were so popular he kept giving them away. At first he didn’t have any interest in music. He wanted to be a dancer. “I wanted to be something my family wasn’t. My whole family [was] musicians,” says Pops.
One of Pops’ – or Tom’s – favorite tales is of the time he met his idol, B.B. King, during a performance in Shreveport. He says he and a friend snuck under the tent behind the stage to watch their hero play, but they were soon spotted and nearly kicked out. B.B. let them stay. “Young man, you sit right here and you get all the earful you want,” the King told him. “You might be a musician one of these days.” The way Pops tells it, the blues legend “took [him] under his wing,” gave him the nickname of “Peanut” because he was so small and even walked him home after the show.
Back on the cotton farm, Pops says the Carter children woke up before dawn and worked the fields until sunset. But rather than spend hours picking cotton from the bolls and prying stickers from his fingers, young Tom preferred to sleep, which earned him several whippings from his father. After one whipping, Tom decided that his cottonpicking days were over, and at age 14, he stuffed everything he owned into a pillowcase, jumped out his window and ran away from home, headed for Houston to live with his aunt and uncle. “That wasn’t for me,” he says, “’cause I figured my hands was for something else instead of cotton picking.”
Even as a grade-schooler, Tom had to work to help support himself. He threw papers on a newspaper route, but music ensnared him so he formed a 10-piece band that played outside clubs and even landed a few paying gigs. He was a cook – a skill his mother taught him early – at the Rice Hotel in Houston for 10 years. (He never used a recipe book, just a lot of spices, he says.) But eventually he tired of the constant heat from the stoves lined wall-to-wall and left the hotel to tour the country with his band. At a stop in Memphis, he says he visited B.B. King’s Blues Bar and B.B. invited him up on stage to sing with him.
Music wasn’t much of a living, however. Over the years, he took odd jobs, working on the railroad, at a slaughterhouse, and a grocery store to name a few. In the late ’60s, a construction job lured him to Denton. He was working as a custodian at North Texas when he met some music students and learned about the city’s music scene. He soon became a familiar face on Fry Street, singing with several short-lived bands and even once with Dallas guitar great Stevie Ray Vaughan. Pops pays tribute to Stevie Ray nearly everyday by wearing a worn blue bandana that reads “SRV October 3, 1954 – August 27, 1990.”
These days, a handful of close friends keep an eye on Pops, including Calvin Littrell and Chris, the Funkmonsters guitarist. Though he’s a blues man at heart, Pops and the band are thinking about working on a jazz album with more upbeat music. Most days, however, he can be found at home, cleaning and cooking for himself, smoking his pipe, and petting his black-and-white cat Miss Kitty. Though surrounded by years of photos with the likes of B.B. King and his musician friends in Denton, he takes special solace from the large framed picture of his late wife, Minnie Lee. “I look at her picture and she take all my blessings, and the kitty comes and lays on my lap,” says Pops. “All that sorrow part is taken away.”
The showman on stage proves to be an unpretentious philosopher at home. Pops says singing the blues with the band is good therapy. “You might be hurting when you go play but when you get started playing, you don’t feel it,” he says. “You don’t feel it at all.” Though he dons a mass of chains around his neck to perform, at home he confides that underneath those snazzy outfits, he wears a rosary – every day. A Catholic, he wears the rosary even in the shower and jokes that he’s afraid to take it off because it might break into pieces. “This stands for something,” he says, touching the brown beaded necklace. “The others, I call jewelry.”
In his first performance since his 90th birthday party, Pops braved drizzling rain and cold weather to perform for an auditorium full of students at Strickland Middle School as a part of a Black History Month celebration earlier this year. Donning his cream suit and the usual armor of jewelry, he and his right-hand man Chris joined the blues band Baloney Moon for the show. As the curtains parted to reveal the main attraction, the girls’ step team shouted in unison, “Yay, Pops!” and the sixth, seventh and eighth graders cheered. “How y’all doing?” he asked before launching into three songs, including his favorite that he wrote himself, “I Need You to Love Me.” His final word of advice to his new young fans? “Keep on doing what you’re doing. Someday you’ll be something,” he says. Trust the boy who fled the cotton fields and found a pastime that lasted a lifetime.