Barrelhouse piano player, singer, and songwriter, Roosevelt Thomas Williams, was born in Bastrop, Texas, on December 7, 1903. After the death of his father, Williams went to live with his mother, stepfather, and two sisters in Taylor, a major cotton and railroad center located about fifty miles north of Bastrop. As a young man, Williams attended school and worked in the cotton fields by day and at night was drawn to the music he heard coming from the local juke joints. Although too young to enter these bars, Williams absorbed a variety of musical influences and, blessed with a good ear, spent many hours at the home of his friend Baby Van, picking out the melodies on Van’s piano. Williams received some rudimentary music training at school but basically taught himself to play. The melting pot of African-American, Mexican, Anglo, German, Czech, and French traditions that all contributed to Texas music influenced the musical style Williams developed as his own. The influence of jazzmen such as Charlie Dillard, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Count Basie combined into Williams’s own unique style and earned him the title, the “Thelonius Monk of blues players.” This mixing of styles and his free-form improvisation would mark Williams as a unique and influential musician in this own right.
During the early 1920s, Williams moved to Waco and sought more opportunities to further his musical career. He lived there for a few years, but after his mother died Williams perhaps no longer felt the need to stay in Texas. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Williams lived a nomadic life-style, riding freight trains around Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. He followed the cotton harvests, entertaining black migrant workers and performing at house parties, medicine shows, carnivals, juke joints, and barrelhouses. His habit of appearing, as if from nowhere, to play an engagement and then disappearing just as suddenly, eventually earned Williams the permanent nickname “Grey Ghost.”
During the Great Depression, Williams continued his musical career but also engaged in more unsavory activities such as bootlegging and gambling, leading to run-ins with the law. He survived fights, muggings, shootings, and knifings during this period. Williams was once involved in a three-way running gun battle in which he almost lost his life, but he later commented, “I guess the good Lord was watching out for me.”
In 1940 Williams had a brush with international recognition. William A. Owens, a Texas folklorist and writer, discovered Williams playing at a skating rink in Navasota, Texas. Owens made a field recording of Williams playing a song he wrote, “Hitler Blues.” Excited about this find, Owens played the song for everyone he knew. Newspapers picked up the story, which ultimately appeared in Time magazine. British historian and radio commentator Alistair Cooke played the song on the BBC in a segment focusing on World War II’s impact on American music. Owens archived his field recording of Williams at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University and also included ten pages focused on Williams in Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song (1983), the third volume of Owens’s autobiography.
After decades as an itinerant musician, Williams settled in Austin in the early 1950s and worked a full-time job as a bus driver for the Austin Independent School District until he retired in 1965. He continued to play at local clubs during those years, including Fat Green’s and the legendary Victory Grill, a venue for blues players in East Austin, run by Johnny Holmes, a friend of Williams since 1933.
In the mid-1960s, Williams was recorded again by another folklorist, Tary Owens, a student at the University of Texas and not related to William Owens. A grant from the John Lomax Foundation funded Tary Owens’s efforts to record a variety of blues and other roots musicians in and around Texas. He recorded a number of Grey Ghost songs, which are included in Owens’s collection of field recordings and archived at the University of Texas. For a time Grey Ghost returned to performing at some folk festivals and made stage appearances with Texas musicians such as Mance Lipscomb and Janis Joplin. Once again, however, he returned to retirement and obscurity from mainstream music for the next twenty years.
The Barker Texas History Center (now the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History) at the University of Texas put together an exhibit in 1986 on Texas music. Tary Owens happened into the archive and discovered that the exhibit featured some of the musicians he had recorded in the 1960s, including Roosevelt Williams. The exhibit referred to Williams as “the late Grey Ghost,” which Owens knew was a mistake. Owens wanted Grey Ghost to see the exhibit so he went to the Ghost’s home in East Austin, and, with persistent coaxing, Ghost eventually agreed to accompany Owens to the archive. Surprised and heartened by the enthusiasm and recognition of his music that the exhibit generated, Grey Ghost agreed to allow Owens to book several concerts for him. Grey Ghost was eighty-four years old at the time and embarked on another career in music with Owens as his manager and producer.
Although Williams had been playing piano since he was a teenager and performing for most of his life, he never had a commercial recording of his music. In 1987 Owens’s record company, Catfish Records, released Grey Ghost, a resurrection of the field recordings Owens made in the 1960s. The album spanned Grey Ghost’s career from the 1920s to the 1980s and included a variety of styles ranging from barrelhouse piano and minstrel music to pop and jazz, all of which reflected Ghost’s wide-ranging talent and eclectic musical sensibilities. A second release from Catfish Records in 1988, Texas Piano Professors, spotlighted the talents of three of Austin’s piano players—Grey Ghost and two of his longtime friends, Erbie Bowser and Lavada Durst (Dr. Hepcat). As his manager, Owens booked concerts for Grey Ghost in Austin and other venues in Texas, as well as the New Orleans Jazz Festival and the Chicago Blues Festival. The mayor of Austin designated December 7, 1987, as “Grey Ghost Day,” and a year later readers of the Austin Chronicle voted Grey Ghost into the Texas Music Hall of Fame.
In the last decade of his life, Grey Ghost continued working and stayed as busy as ever. In 1991 he completed another album, this time for Spindletop Records, and kicked off the annual South by Southwest music festival in 1992. He appeared in films and in National Geographic magazine in an article on Austin. Austin’s Huston-Tillotson College granted him an honorary doctorate in music. He became most well-known locally from his weekly happy hour gigs at the Continental Club where he played for almost six years. Grey Ghost also played at Antone’s and other Austin clubs where a whole new generation of music fans came to appreciate his unique and immense talent. On the occasion of the his last appearance at the Continental Club, where Ghost performed on his ninety-second birthday, Tary Owens told the crowd, “You’ll never hear this kind of music again.” In 1995 illness and a fall confined Grey Ghost to Heritage Park, a nursing home in East Austin. Although in declining health, he continued to play and sing for residents at the home and entertain in the style he had done his whole life. Grey Ghost died on July 17, 1996.
The importance of Grey Ghost in the history of music, particularly the Austin music scene, was significant. He was the last of the Texas barrelhouse piano players, performing music in a style rarely heard anywhere else. His unique style inspired many and influenced other musicians, such as Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan and W.C. Clark. On March 30, 2008, Grey Ghost was one of the first ten inductees into the Austin Music Memorial. This award honors individuals who made important contributions to the development of music in Austin. Engraved plaques to these individuals are located in the Long Center for the Performing Arts on the City Terrace, which overlooks Lady Bird Lake and the Austin skyline.