The Digital Journalist
Selected photos from Michael O'Brien's The Face of Texas.
© Michael O'Brien

Michael O'BrienWatch a video clip of Michael O'Brien discussing Roosevelt Thomas Williams.
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Roosevelt Thomas Williams/AUSTIN (1903-1996) - His fans knew him as the Grey Ghost; the nickname came from his penchant for suddenly materializing at a gig, then vanishing just as quickly. Roosevelt Thomas Williams, considered the last of the original barrelhouse blues pianists, spent years performing at clubs located along the Texas & Pacific Railroad line between Dallas and El Paso. He would hop a freight, wearing overalls over his stage clothes, jump out at the appointed town, stash his overalls in the bushes and steal to the gig under cover of darkness. When he finished playing, he would slip back to the depot, slide back into his overalls, then hop a train to the next town.

"I'm just like a ghost," he told his bewildered fans, who never saw him arrive or leave. "I come up out of the ground and then I go back in it."

Williams, who was named after Teddy Roosevelt, was born Dec. 7, 1903 in Bastrop, TX and raised in Taylor. During a music career that spanned over 75 years, he supported himself by laboring in the cotton fields and cotton gins, bootlegging, gambling,working as a chauffeur, and driving an Austin school bus. Though he had brushes with fame when he was younger, it wasn't until Tary Owens--who had earlier recorded a collection of Williams' songs--tracked him down at 83 that the Ghost came back into the limelight. Williams spent the next several years traveling in style to prestigious gigs around the country. The mayor of Austin declared Dec. 7, 1987 "Grey Ghost Day," and the following year he was voted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame.

But Williams is perhaps most famous for his regular happy-hour stint at Austin's Continental Club. When he was in his late 80s and early 90s, a whole new generation of fans flocked to the club to hear the first-generation Texas bluesman play and sing soulful tunes of a bygone era.

He spent the last year of his life in a nursing home, where he still enjoyed some of his old vices: eating barbecue, smoking cigars and drinking a daily beer or whiskey before settling down to play the piano.

"I don't ever give up," Williams once said.