WASHOUGAL — Maybe it was the pneumonia that hit organist Louis Pain a few weeks before the big gig. Maybe it was the unrelenting pressure of pushing his trio’s new, hourlong album toward release by deadline.Or maybe it was the french fries. “I sat there thinking, I knew I shouldn’t have eaten those f—g french fries,” said Pain, 66.
Whatever the cause, Pain found himself in unexpected pain one night in late March when he was onstage in Portland’s Pearl District, jamming away with his trio. There were about 20 minutes left in the set when Pain felt what seemed like sudden heartburn. “It wasn’t like Fred Sanford, ‘This is the big one!’,” Pain says. He finished the tune. He went outside and sat down, feeling queasy. Somebody checked his pulse and found it irregular. Pain’s wife, Tracy, stuffed him into their car and raced to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver.
He walked into the hospital and politely asked to jump the emergency department line because he might be having a heart attack; as soon as he said those words, “heart attack,” he felt like a racing car that pulls into the pit and is immediately descended upon from all directions by a fast-working crew.
The crew at PeaceHealth did a great job, he said, determining that he had indeed suffered a heart attack and quickly inserting two stents. Pain was told later that one of his arteries had been 100 percent blocked. It was the kind of heart attack doctors call a widow-maker, he said. Tracy, meanwhile, was asked if she wanted a chaplain to sit with her. “This has been much tougher on her than on me,” Pain said.
Pain learned that heart disease and its causes aren’t completely understood. A slender guy with low blood pressure, Pain used to think he was about as low-risk as you could get; but just being a male over 60 years old means that’s no longer true — obviously, he said.
“I got lucky,” he said. “Tracy saved my life.”
Pain grew up in an artistic San Francisco family that was deep into literature and hosted celebrity poets; he said Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly once brawled at his house. Pain loved to write, too, but when he heard the humongous sound of the Hammond B-3 organ swirling through a rotating Leslie speaker — on The Animals’ classic cry of soul, “The House of the Rising Sun,” and Bay Area great Leon Patillo playing a version of the grand “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme — he was electrified.
“The sound was so compressed, I just had the idea that this was something really, really cool,” Pain said.
Pain’s mother, the feminist poet Frances Jaffer, was the one who signed him up for lessons (and is the inspiration for the CD’s opening song, “Frances J”). Pain excelled at the complex, distinctive Hammond B-3, and he gigged for years in the Bay Area. He was the usually the only white guy in the band, he said.
But that life wore him down — the stress, the ubiquitous substance abuse, the showbiz dishonesty — so in his early 30s he moved to Portland, enrolled in college and studied history. He took a corporate editing job and quickly came to hate it, so Pain accepted a bandleader friend’s invitation to fill an empty slot in the Paul deLay Band.
“It’s where I belonged all along,” Pain realized, and he’s been playing music ever since — mostly with local stars like Curtis Salgado, Mel Brown, Linda Hornbuckle, LaRhonda Steele and the late Paul deLay, but increasingly as the leader of his own King Louie Organ Trio. He played an estimated 1,500 times at Jimmy Mak’s jazz club before it closed in 2016, and he’s been a regular at Portland’s annual Waterfront Blues Festival.
Until about 20 years ago, Pain said, he used to disassemble and lug all 250 pounds of his gargantuan Hammond B-3, plus 100 more pounds of Leslie speaker, to every gig. Nowadays, he said, his live weapon of choice is a handy electronic keyboard that weighs a few dozen pounds — but the swirling sound of the Leslie speaker is non-negotiable, Pain said.
Also non-negotiable: From now on, Tracy said, they’re hiring someone anytime her husband needs to move heavy equipment to a gig.
Pain hates to back out of commitments, but he’s had to cancel numerous gigs and lessons lately. His heart attack has resulted in a serious financial hit for the couple, they said.
They’re “grateful for the outpouring of love, prayers and support from our friends and family but especially from those from our hometown here in Washougal,” Tracy posted on social media recently. “Neighbors who’ve been helping us mow our lawn, bringing over food, making store runs … offering to help with his heavy equipment. We thank you!”
You can show some love at two upcoming Pain performances. The King Louie Organ Trio celebrates its new CD release, “It’s About Time,” Friday at the Salud Wine Bar in Camas; on June 2, the Crystal Ballroom in Portland hosts an all-star benefit for Pain (and for Caring Ambassadors, a nonprofit health-screening agency) featuring talents like Brown, Salgado, My Happy Pill and many more. Pain will play during that concert, he confirmed.
Louis and Tracy Pain moved to a Washougal hillside about 10 years ago, and immediately worried that their neighbors would start calling the police about the decibels pouring out of their big garage during rehearsals. But when they checked, they said, their neighbors were pulling up lawn chairs to listen, and suggesting that the band open some windows to let the music out.
A couple of years ago, Louis Pain said, song inspirations started coming to him about as fast as he could jot them down. He wound up writing 11 instrumental numbers; when fans remembered and requested them, he realized they deserved to be recorded.
He gratefully accepted an offer of free time at a friend’s new studio in Portland, and musically the project was nothing but a delight — but it also had more than its share of technical and logistical hiccups that slowed things down and stressed Pain out, he said. The finished CD got delivered to its release party in Portland with minutes to spare.
The title of the CD, “It’s About Time,” was intended to convey that three longtime Portland jazz-scene sidemen were grabbing some well-deserved limelight at last: saxophonist Renato Caranto (who’s played with everyone from Merle Haggard to Esperanza Spalding), drummer Edwin Coleman III (who’s played with Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers), and bandleader Pain on the Hammond B-3. (Other musical luminaries who guest-star on the album include drummer Brown and Tower of Power guitarist Bruce Conte, who mailed in some guitar overdubs from overseas.)
But, post-heart attack, “It’s About Time” seems to suggest something even deeper about life. “I really did put blood, sweat and tears into it,” Pain said. “I guess it literally just about killed me.”
If You Go
What: CD release party for “It’s About Time” by the King Louie Organ Trio.
When: 7 to 10 p.m., May 10.
Where: Salud Wine Bar, 224 N.E. Third Ave., Camas.
What: “Heart to Heart” all-star fundraiser for Louis and Tracy Pain and the Caring Ambassadors Program, which provides health screenings at the Waterfront Blues Festival.
When: 3 to 7 p.m., June 2.
Where: Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W. Burnside, Portland.
Admission: $15 in advance; $20 at the door
To learn more: Check out Louis Pain’s rich website and performance videos at www.louispain.com.