Cover photo © 2024 Jim Hartzell
When the list of nominees for the 2023 Blues Blast Music Awards came out, many blues fans were probably wondering about one artist who received two nods, one for Horn Player Of The Year and the other for New Artist Debut Album. When word reached saxophonist Eric Demmer, no doubt he had to chuckle a bit at the New Artist designation. In a career that extends across multiple decades, Demmer has had several high profile gigs including a lengthy stint in the band of Blues Hall of Fame member Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and more recently with guitarist Mike Zito. The acclaim for his So Fine project was well-deserved as it showcased Demmer’s impressive skills on the alto sax along with his songwriting ability.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Demmer’s family moved to San Antonio, Texas less than a year later, where he grew up.
“I think I was a blues player before I even played music. I remember being like five, six years old. We used to have this little accordion kind of sounding thing. It was like a little piano and it had push buttons on it, but it was like a little air compressor. And it was like electronic accordion,, I guess you could say because it kind of had that kind of sound, but it had all these buttons on it to give all these minor sounds. I would play it for hours of just hearing all these harmonies and all those bluesy notes, all those minor tones. Those sounds resonated to me, and they still do.”
At the age of six years old, his parents got him started on classical piano lessons, going so far as to buy a Baldwin Baby Grand piano. He kept it up for seven years, but his interest changed at the age of ten.
“It got to the point where piano didn’t seem all that cool. My older brother was playing drums in the junior high band. There was a kid playing sax, and it sounded really good to me. We got to be friends, which led to my parents deciding to get me my own alto saxophone. It just kind of took off for me. I learned music through the piano, but the sax was like a voice. I was playing it all the time, trying to learn melodies by ear and copy the sounds of the words people were singing.
“I also play tenor sax. As a matter of fact, if you listen on my album, there’s a lot of tenor solos on there. But when I play live the alto has just really stuck with me. I hear that pitch in my head and it’s just a part of me. I play with a bunch of guitar players. The alto is more like a shredding guitar thing. So I can play like more like a guitar player on the alto. And on the tenor, I play more like a tenor player. I also started playing baritone sax in high school. If I’m writing horn section charts now, I think of the baritone first, and then I’ll add all the other instrumentation. So I play them all, but the alto is definitely my favorite.”
Never thinking much of school, Demmer was constantly getting in trouble. He was playing in clubs at night during high school, leaving little time for study and homework. He would often arrive late for school after playing the night before in Houston clubs, and then driving back to San Antonio.
“I thought I didn’t need school. I was just going to play music. It got to where I pretty much failed the whole year. That was when I realize I needed to work hard to be able to graduate. I didn’t fit in well with the marching band because I would never play what was written on the page. I was always playing a harmony to it, or a melody against it. The band director would call me out about not playing the right thing. And I would say, yeah, but it sounds good, which would get the other band members laughing. The high school jazz band was pretty much the only schooling I had. Even then, for me, it was about creating melodies and improvising.”
One night his mother took him to a show. It was a memorable evening as he got invited on stage to play on a blues song plus some Elvis Presley material. The band was constantly doing toasts, so Demmer was frequently shooting beers with them. He still remembers that as the night he knew he was going to be a musician. That was also the night he started learning about sound systems, which he also found quite fascinating.
Eventually Demmer hooked up with that dance hall band called Morning, which was real popular in the 1970s decade in San Antonio. The band did a song called “Elvira,” that later gave the Oak Ridge Boys a monster hit record. He set his instrument aside to serve as the band’s roadie and sound engineer, a role he had for several years, although the band did let him sit in to play rock & roll tunes.
“When I was still in high school, there was a friend of my brother’s that came to me and said, man, you need to listen to this song. You need to learn how to play this song. And so he played “Sad Cafe” by the Eagles. And I started listening to it, and then all of a sudden, the sax came on.
“That changed my life. It was David Sanborn playing, doing the solo on “Sad Cafe”. And when I heard that sound, that just struck a chord in me. It just went through me and vibrated. I was so blown away at what he was doing, because he was playing high notes, he was playing that sound. That was my second pivotal moment, which made me want to play sax even more, and it really guided me. He’s really who I first started listening to. And then I started getting everything I could get my hands on that he played on, listening nonstop.
“I know I used to drive my mother crazy, but I just had to do that. And then I started listening to Tom Scott, who was another great sax player. One of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid was Starsky and Hutch. There was sax on there and I found out it was this guy Tom Scott, who was like “the” rock and roll sax player back then in the 70s and 80s. He played on a Ricky Lee Jones song, what was the name of that song? I can’t remember right now, but it was Tom Scott playing the tenor sax solo. One band I played with at that time did a lot of Rolling Stones tunes, and I got into Bobby Keys, who was the big sax player for the Stones for a long time. Soon I was branching out to different sax players and never had a teacher, never had anybody like that tell me that, oh, I should do this.
“David Sanborn was the guy that started it all for me musically. Later on, I got to be friends with him. which still to this day blows me away, that I got to be good friends with one of my idols. He came out and saw us when I was on tour with Gate, opening for Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden. That was the first time that David heard me play and then I saw him again in Houston. I got to play with him in Montrose, Switzerland at the Jazz Fest when I was playing with Gate.”
In 1988, Demmer decided to make a permanent move to Houston. He was spending more time there, so it seemed like a natural move.
“My grandmother had left some money for the kids to go to college. So I decided to go to Houston where there was a recording school. I’d already been a sound engineer, working sound for a couple of different sound companies trial by fire, just getting out there doing it. And it’s funny, because as soon as I moved here, I started getting work back in San Antonio. I ended up being more of an engineer at this time. I ran sound and did all the PA set up. I really got into being an engineer and working for sound companies.
“Then I got introduced to the Lone Wolf Management people, who were working with Clint Black. I ended up going out on tour with Clint as an engineer. It wasn’t a long time, but when I was out, when we first got started, was when the his album Killing Time was just starting to take off. I got to Clint out there doing it while I was doing all of this sound work, and suddenly I knew I wanted to play sax full time. That’s where the blues music really started for me.
“I was playing and learning all the guitar player licks. I used to sit down and listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan , and I would solo over all of his stuff, learning to play every note that he played. I started playing about around a bunch of guitar players like Clarence Green, we had Guitar Slim, and other older black musicians that were playing here in Houston. They took me in, loved to have me play with them, and I certainly learned a lot.”
About a year after he stopped working with Black, Demmer got a call informing him that multi-instrumentalist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was coming to town, and was in need of a saxophone player. The saxophonist had heard of Brown, who had a lengthy career playing a wide variety of music.
Demmer went to the show, which was on the 4th of July, in the pouring rain. He met Brown’s road manager, who escorted him back to meet the multi-instrumentalist.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I’ve got my sax in my case, and I’m ready to go. I didn’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m ready to do something. I get introduced to Gate, who cocks his head back and starts looking at me head to toe, back and forth. And he just looked at the manager and said, get this MFR out of here. Actually, he said, get this big motherfucker out of here.
“The road manager goes, man, sorry, you know, not gonna happen. So I’m standing there wondering what just happened? I didn’t get it, so I left. And then about four months later, I got another call, same situation, Gates needs a sax player, want to come out?
“So I go, and the same thing happens, he looks at me, head to toe, and he goes, oh, not this guy, get this big ass motherfucker out of here, I don’t want to deal with him, this is getting really irritating, I’m getting mad, and I leave. So another three or four months go by and there’s a famous club here called Billy’s Blues. They had a big jam there every Monday night that I played at regularly. My apartment was literally 30 seconds away from this club.
“Things were good – I was teaching, playing with guitarist Mark May, doing just fine. We went out and partied hard the night before, so I wasn’t feeling too good. I get a phone call letting me know that Gatemouth is at Billy’s Blues, and wants me to play. I was like, no, I’m not doing that again. But being that I was so close, I drove over. Everybody that knows me was at the club, and they also knew Gate. I go in to see him, and Gate goes, Oh hell no, not this guy, get this big motherfucker outta here, I don’t wanna deal with him.
“There was a woman there named Rose, who all the guys wanted because she was the “it” girl back in the 50s. She had seen me play, so she went over to Gate and said, let the boy play. Gate goes, I ain’t gonna do nothing, he ain’t getting up there. And Rose goes, Gate, let the boy play. So, Gate goes, okay, he can play, but I ain’t getting up there with him. And as soon as he gets through playin’, he’s gotta leave. He can’t even be here. And he’s tellin everybody this. And I’m really angry at this point. I’m just like, screw this guy. So the band starts playing. I get up there, and I start wailing. Next thing you know, Gatemouth gets up there on stage. And he starts playing.
“I’m still fuming. What Gate would do with people that he hadn’t played with before, he would start playing all these real fast licks, trying to say that I can do this, but you can’t. So I just started playing the same thing that he played. I played it right back at him. He tried to trip me up and play something really fast and fancy, and I played it right back at him. Finally, he just looked at me and started laughing, leaned over to me and goes, “I’ve got to be in San Antonio tomorrow. I need you to come play sax with me.” So we go to San Antonio, I do the same thing because I don’t know what else to do. I didn’t know what to play, didn’t know any of the songs at the time. I just was playing.
“Then Gate tells me he is working on the new album, and wants me to play on it. I got on the bus with him, drove back to Houston, got on the bus with him, drove to Lafayette. We were at Dockside Recording Studio for about three or four days, working on the new album. At the end of that, he goes, “Well, I can only take one horn player with me. I would like for you to be the one to come out on the road with me”. And so, that’s how I got my start with Gates. And I was with him until the end, saw him about a week before he died. It was just so crazy, you know, the third time was a charm, he finally let me play, and then I played with him for 12 years. And it was great.”
Demmer first met Mike Zito in 2001. He was playing with Gatemouth Brown at the Beaumont Blues Festival. Zito played a slot earlier in the day.
“I remember Mike asking if he could talk with Gate. Joe Krown, our long-time keyboard player, told him no, Gate doesn’t want to see anybody. But somehow Mike did manage to speak with Gate. Fast forward to around 2016, when Mike came to play a gig in Houston. His drummer that night was Todd Stark, who also plays guitar and owns a restaurant called Bayou Cafe. He would often back Zito on local gigs. A few months later, Todd invited me to play with Mike at the Cafe. That went well, we started hanging out, and did some Thursday night shows at the Bayou Cafe when Mike was not out touring.
“We’ll start playing, harmonize together, and it’s all natural. Nothing’s ever been worked out, but, you know, I’m basically playing guitar licks , so it just fits together. And I tell you what, Mike is one of the funniest guys. He’s a kid at heart, and just a guy that you want to be around. He’s got this magnetic personality. You just want to get stuck to him and never leave. And I was also playing with Jonn Del Toro Richardson, another guitar player based out of Houston, who is really involved with the annual International Blues Challenge, held annually in Memphis by the Blues Foundation. So between Mike and Jonn, plus my own stuff, I’ve been working a lot.
“Mike got the record company started, Gulf Coast Records. So I talked to him about how I wanted to get an album out. So he said, let’s do it. So we got it out in 2022, and it’s been doing well. I was just talking to them about putting another one out here soon. We’re already starting to work on it. I can’t say enough about Mike. Everything he does is gold, everything he touches just does really well. He has been the springboard to getting me back out there like I was when I was playing with Gate.
Demmer is quick to praise his fine band for all they do to make him sound good, for their fine contributions to his album, and for their help in connecting with audiences at every live show.
“My main guy is Hugo Rodriguez, my guitar player. He and I pretty much wrote most of the material on my CD. We’ve worked real well together over the last six years. Then Dennis Delfino is on bass guitar. He was originally from Ohio, moved to Houston many years ago, and then now is living in Florida in West Palm Beach. His playing did a lot for my CD, the bass is just so well done on there. Dennis is very creative. HDree was a drummer for at least 20 plus years before he even picked up a bass. So he has a great feel because, of being a drummer, he knows where the bass should lie.
“I have several drummers that I use. Dre Jackson is the one who recorded most of the songs on my CD. Jordan Almes was another drummer that played a couple songs on my CD. That’s the core band, basically. And then I have two keyboard players that work with us when schedules permit. One is Randy Wall, who plays with guitarist Ally Venable, so he’s out on tour with her a lot. The other guy is Barry Seelen, who is a Hammond B-3 organ guy. He used to back the soul singer Mighty Sam McClain, and when he was living in Connecticut, he backed the great saxophone player Greg Piccolo.”
No doubt that Demmer is excited about the reception for his album, and for his live performances. It has been a long road, but he is glad to finally get some recognition for his own efforts.
“It’s taken years to get back to where I’m back out playing on the road. Hopefully over the next few years I can put more music out and be a part of the blues family like when I was with Gate. He died in 2005, and then I got out of the scene and out of the way. Now I’m ready to do it for me instead of playing behind somebody else
“But putting this album out, I’m like a new guy, even though I’ve been around for a long time. Nobody knows who I am, even though I was around playing 20, 30 years ago. But everywhere we go now, people love us when they hear the band. So hopefully the doors will open a little bit and I can keep getting my name out there. I play hard, something that was instilled in me, to play your heart out, play like you mean it. Don’t hold back! And that’s the way I play.”