Awesome Men Throughout History: Esquerita
This week’s column is the natural consequence of leaving my iPod on shuffle for a six-hour drive home from a friend’s wedding in Connecticut. I have a lot of music on that thing, and occasionally lose stuff in there that I then have the pleasure of rediscovering months or years later. Can you believe I’d forgotten how good ZZ Top was? Shameful, but true.
Anyway, we’re veering off topic a bit. I was leaving New Jersey (thank god) when Esquerita’s voice came rasping out of my speakers, and I immediately kicked myself for not writing a column about him sooner. He was way too good, and crazy, to be as obscure as he is now, so let’s give this Awesome Man his due.
Esquerita’s real name was Eskew Reeder Jr., so I’m assuming the stage name was a mash up of his real one. He was born in South Carolina in 1935, and grew up listening to gospel music and teaching himself how to play the piano. He later struck out on the road with a gospel group called the Heavenly Echoes, which opened his eyes to touring and recording. After the Echoes disbanded, Esquerita struck out on his own, working the Dallas-New Orleans circuit and almost single-handedly elevating the idea of “camp” into an art form.
When I say camp, by the way, I’m not talking about the one you went to every summer. Camp is also a term for, and here I’ll quote from Pop Matters, “ostentatious expression, usually featuring extreme affectations and theatrical effeminacy.” It’s the best kind of obvious bad taste, in other words, and Esquerita was a master of it; he had a six-inch pompadour in the early 1950s – not to mention the brocaded shirts, full make-up, and rhinestone sunglasses – and this was before anyone had ever heard of Little Richard.
Speaking of, the relationship between Esquerita and Little Richard is up for debate among the rock ‘n roll nerd community. No one’s exactly sure who influenced who, although it’s rumored that Esquerita gave Richard some tips on both piano-playing and stage performance. But then again, Little Richard had records out before Esquerita did, so who knows. Point is, they knew each other.
Actually, Esquerita’s best recordings came from his stint with Capitol Records, who signed him after deciding that they needed their own version of Little Richard. Say what you want about Capitol’s business savvy (they’d also signed Gene Vincent as their version of Elvis, so they didn’t exactly have a great track record at that time), but Esquerita’s work for them holds up as some of the rawest, most belligerent music from that period. If Little Richard was edgy, Esquerita was feral.
Unfortunately, there was only room for one crazy gay black piano player, and Little Richard got there first. He also had the Upsetters, the best touring band of the 1950s, something Esquerita lacked (at one point, it was just him and a drummer on the road). Esquerita faded from the business, although he did play piano for John Hammond at one point, and was working as a parking lot attendant when he died of complications from AIDS in 1986.
So, you might be asking what made Esquerita so awesome. The answer, aside from his bravery as a performer during the homophobic and racist 1950s, is that his music was great and deserved a wider audience than it ever got during his lifetime. People like Esquerita are rare in this world, and if anyone ever took what were seen as weaknesses in his heyday and had fun with them, it was him.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.