Robert Earl Keen Remembers John Vandiver

Written by April 18th, 2011 at 7:00 am

Rock and Roll Joe is a new web site from Chip Taylor that shines a light on under-appreciated musicians. In this exclusive preview, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen shares his thoughts on the late John Vandiver.

I grew up in Houston, Texas, in the the sixties and seventies. The Houston music scene at the time was healthy, albeit somewhat undefined. Lightning Hopkins, Houston’s most famous bluesman, was feeling his oats. The Thirteenth Floor Elevators had a national hit. And when you turned on your radio and heard “This is Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas, y’all. Put that hamburger down and let’s all do the Tighten Up!” Well…you had to do what the man said, and get to dancin’.

Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were writing songs there in the late sixties. Their presence gave way to a new and vibrant group of singer-songwriter folkies who emerged in the early to mid-seventies. Houston became a small haven for these young song slingers. Pool halls and beer joints abandoned their hardcore, country shuffle bands and started holding open mike nights. Don Sanders, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Shake Russell, Eric Taylor, and Lyle Lovett were among this throng of troubadours who played for tips and beer in the neon coated Gulf Coast nightlife.

I loved them all. However, my favorite was the bearded blues rocker, John Vandiver. Short and squatty with round wire rim specs perched on a happy red nose, John looked to all the world like the son on Santa. He played big fat hollow body electric guitars that bounced on his jolly girth and shook the rafters when he broke into “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy. He had a gentle speaking voice that turned into a golden megaphone when he belted out “Send Me to the Electric Chair” or “Saint James Infirmary”. His timing was atomic and the solos he played were melodic and rocking and unimaginable to me given that he played solo. John was equally magnetic when he fronted a band or was called up to lead a finale, but the magic was seeing one man make so much sound.

Vandiver was humble and gracious to other performers, whither he was giving a short history on the song he was about to perform or sharing the bill with national touring acts, he was more than generous. I remember seeing him open for Willis Alan Ramsey to a packed house. John started his set by explaining that he was the opening act and we could talk and scream to our hearts content while he was on stage. Then he paused and said, “Willis is the greatest thing going and you guys need to listen when he sings.” Of course as you can guess, John wound up doing three encores. So in the end it wasn’t just the music, it was the man and warmth and courage you could feel every time he took the stage.

John Vandiver was murdered in 1985 by some drug dealers who mistakenly thought he was involved in a high level cocaine operation. When they realized their error and wound up empty handed, the dealers shot John and slayed his girlfriend.

Shortly after the tragedy, John’s friend, guitar maker Bill Collings packed up his one man shop and dedicated his life to helping the police find John’s killers. Collings could not stand to see the case go dark. He worked tirelessly with the Houston detectives until eventually the assailants were apprehended and sent to prison. Bill reopened his guitar shop and within a few years was making some of the finest guitars in the world. He still makes them today. You would have to ask Bill, but I believe Bill found his calling and his muse in the musical life and tragic death of his dear friend, John Vandiver.

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