Blues scholars are happy to oblige when asked to get more specific on certain subjects. Take the theme of Texas blues, but bring a big plate to the buffet, please. Rob Cooper was not only a great Texas blues pianist, he represented a much more distinct style of playing not only from the state, but within the city of Houston as well, which in the early '30s was hardly the sprawling metropolis it would become half a century later. What is known as the Texas Santa Fe style of piano is not the result of a badly assembled map, but like many musical genre terms, a reference to locale, in this case the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. Back in the day, there were seemingly endless roadhouses and juke joints along the Santa Fe tracks, and Cooper was one of the pianists holding forth within.
The style he played was a mixture of flamboyant dance tunes, boogie that had the relaxed ambience of a shot of bourbon, enough ragtime to wake the sleeping drunks, and a heavy ratio of pure, low-down blues to shut the outlaws up. While Cooper and several other strange characters, such as Black Boy Shine and Andy Boy, made a few recordings of their playing in this style, many of the great Texas Santa Fe keyboard artists were never documented. The style can be further defined in terms of the Houston map, well beyond the train tracks. Of the four numbered segregated wards where blacks were allowed to reside, the Santa Fe style was known as music from the Fourth Ward. The well-known guitarist and singer Lightnin' Hopkins, on the other hand, was a Third Ward bluesman. George Thomas was an example of a famous Fifth Ward pianist, a style that was considered even more eclectic than the Fourth Ward, if such a thing is possible.
Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones chose the recording entitled "West Dallas Drag," originally cut by Cooper in San Antonio in the spring of 1934, as one of the stops on Bill Wyman's Blues Odyssey. Superstar side projects are hardly the only place to find Cooper's music, however. The piano style has undergone a variety of superb compilation and reissue treatments in several nations. In the '70s, a British firm went as far as to even call itself Texas Blues Piano, presenting tracks by Cooper, Shine, Pinetop Burks, and others on the label's very first release, entitled Santa Fe Blues. Besides straight compilations, Cooper appears on collections of sides by bluesman such as Joe Pullum and Alger "Texas" Alexander. ~ Eugene Chadbourne