Photograph by Jane Levine, Courtesy Texas Folklife.
BOWSER, ERBIE (1918–1995). Erbie Bowser, blues, jazz, and boogie-woogie pianist, was born in Davila, Texas, on May 5, 1918, the youngest of ten children. Bowser's parents moved the family to Palestine, Texas, when he was five. His father played the violin, and his mother played piano, violin, and accordion. Erbie began playing piano and singing in the church choir, as his musical parents expected. While still attending Lincoln High School he joined the North Carolina Cotton Pickers Review and began performing throughout the South during summer vacations. After high school he joined the Sunset Entertainers and toured Texas with the Tyler-based band, playing blues, jazz, and big band tunes. He soon toured Europe and North Africa with the Special Services Band, playing at USO shows in England, Sicily, Italy, and Africa. Upon his discharge from military service he worked as a brick mason, and then attended Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, for two years. His parents' death prevented him from finishing college. He married a woman from Greenville, Texas, in 1948. Around 1949 the couple moved to Odessa. There Bowser found a job with Midwestern Drilling Company, while his wife went to work at the local hospital. Bowser met guitarist T. D. Bell working in the oilfields of West Texas. The two began playing together with Johnny Holmes at nightspots in West Texas and New Mexico. Their musical partnership lasted five decades.
Bowser and his wife moved to Austin in the mid-1950s, so she could attend Huston-Tillotson College. In Austin Bowser began a twenty-year career with the National Cash Register Company. He also participated in jam sessions with musicians from nearby colleges, performed with fraternity bands such as the Sweetarts, and played solo at the Commodore Perry Hotel. When Bell moved to Austin around 1960, he and Bowser began playing together at the Victory Grill (owned by Johnny Holmes), the Club Petit, and Charlie's Playhouse. Eventually various combinations of Bowser, Bell, and such musicians as Roosevelt T. Williams (the Grey Ghost), Mel Davis, James Jones, Lenny Nichols, and Fred Smith became known as the Blues Specialists. Bowser and the Blues Specialists were regular fixtures on the Austin music scene throughout the 1960s and 1970s. After a hiatus, in the late 1980s Bowser and Bell returned to the stage. In 1991 they released an LP entitled It's About Time (Spindletop). Sponsored by folklorists and blues and jazz enthusiasts such as Tary Owens and by organizations such as the Texas Commission on the Arts, Bowser made national and international appearances, including performances at the Smithsonian Institution and Carnegie Hall. This return from semiretirement resulted in a revival of the Blues Specialists, and Bowser and Bell became regular performers at venues such as the Continental Club.
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Bowser credited the influence of his parents, his wife, and a high school music teacher, B. G. Bradley, for his success and his early interest in music. His wife of forty-seven years coached him through difficult songs, because, although he had an excellent ear, he could not read music. Bradley, who had played with Erskine Hawkins before becoming a teacher, encouraged Bowser to play from his heart. Other influences included Dorothy Campbell, Nat Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and the Ink Spots. During his fifty-year career, Bowser worked with many other fine performers, such as Jim Watts, George Rains, Mark Kazanoff, Ed Guinn, Jonathan Foose, Long John Hunter, Little Daddy Lot, Spec Hicks, and Marcia Ball.
Among the honors and recognitions extended to him are a proclamation of honor from the Texas Commission on the Arts and induction into the Austin Chronicle's Texas Music Hall of Fame. Displays and holdings honoring Bowser include biographical and charcoal portraits in the "Texas Piano Professors" exhibit at the Texas Music Museum in Austin and interviews and biographical sketches in the keeping of the Austin Blues Family Tree Project. Bowser died of cancer on August 15, 1995, at St. David's Hospital in Austin. His piano can be heard on such recordings as Tary Owens's Texas Piano Professors (1987); the Blues Specialists Liveset: January 15, 1989; Long John Hunter's Ride with Me (1992); and Blues Routes: Heroes and Tricksters (1999). The Blues Specialists continued to perform in 2008. Bowser was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2010.
Austin American-Statesman, August 16, 1995. Austin Chronicle: Austin Music Database (http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/AMDB/Profile?oid=oid:501230), accessed January 30, 2008. “Austin Music Memorial,” Texas Music Office (http://governor.state.tx.us/music/tour/austin-music-memorial), accessed September 7, 2015. Harold McMillan, "Hometown Cats: Interview with Erbie Bowser" (http://www.klru.org/Jazz/Jazz_hometowncats_bowserBio.html), accessed May 16, 2002.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Cheryl L. Simon, "BOWSER, ERBIE," accessed February 29, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fboan.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on September 8, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.