Ballad of the Unknown Urban Cowboy: Isaac Payton Sweat Part 1
In June 1980, the beautiful and the glamorous made their unlikely way to the sprawling Gilley’s honky tonk in Pasadena, Texas, to attend the premiere party for the movie Urban Cowboy. New York socialites squeezed into tight jeans and Hollywood types wore western shirts with silk scarves around their necks, and everyone spilled out onto the hardwood floor to dance. Many times that night, Gilley’s Urban Cowboy Band played the song “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and people shuffled their boots along the floor and yelled “BULL SHIT!”
Good times, but one thing was wrong with that picture. The guy who should have been singing the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” was nowhere to be found. Where was Isaac Payton Sweat?
In the early 1980s, Isaac Payton Sweat was known as the “King Of the Cotton-Eyed Joe.” He certainly had the biggest hit with the old song – whenever it was played, people from El Paso to Orange would shuffle out onto the dance floor. In the days after disco, the song would point the way to the next big fad that Urban Cowboy would embody. At the Winchester Club in Houston Sweat, with his Sweat Band (later called the Cadillac Cowboys), reigned as one of the city’s most popular performers.
There are many versions of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” out there, the song has been around since at least the 1940s. But as performed and recorded by Isaac Payton Sweat, the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” became a honky-tonk call to arms. Starting out the song like a square dance, Sweat invites dancer to “grab your partner and do-see-do,” then the fiddles and beat kicks in. This version was unique because it invites people to yell out “BULL SHIT” as they step lively. Then the music speeds up to get the dancers into a lather, then the song inexplicably slows down into a “Schottische,” a European folk dance. In that era, Schottische went with the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” like Lone Star beer went with barbecue – you didn’t ask, you just danced.
Sweat cut his popular version of the traditional “Cotton Eyed Joe” at the tail end of the outlaw country music movement of the 1970s. But he was frustrated first that the song, despite being a breakout regional hit, never earned him much money. And he was also disappointed that the song never really helped him break into the big time.
It’s not that Sweat was a novice in the music business: a native of Port Arthur, Texas, “Ikey” played banjo and guitar in his teens and joined a couple of rock bands while in high school. Even as he entered college at Beaumont’s Lamar College, Sweat played with a number of bands and finally linked up with schoolmate Johnny Winter in a band called the Crystaliers. In the late 1970s Winter, now a big rock star, invited Sweat to play bass in his current band and together they cut the 1978 blues-rock classic White Hot and Blue.
Touring the country with Winter, Ikey Sweat saw the music business shifting gears so he quit Winter, cut his hair and went country. He cut a version of the traditional “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and it became a hit after it was played on country radio stations in Austin, Dallas and Houston. But the hit record didn’t earn a penny for Sweat – he got no royalties because his manager at the time told him he cut the record for a flat, one-time fee. A year after Hollywood’s elite danced the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” at Gilley’s, Sweat finally re-recorded the song for a 1981 album with other attempts at dance hall hits and some of Ikey’s original country songs.
In the living room of his Houston apartment in the early 1980s, I interviewed Isaac Payton Sweat for the Port Arthur News. He was frustrated that no radio station would play his many followups to “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” he bitched about his then-manager fumbling the ball to get his version of the song on one of the two Urban Cowboy soundtrack albums and he bemoaned the royalties he never received from his hit record. But he was also upbeat: he planned to open his own club, “I.P. Sweat’s Cotton-Eyed Joe” and he played some of his original songs, including another planned dance hit, the “Joe Bailey Roll.”
Life seemed like it was finally beginning to look up for Isaac Payton Sweat in the mid-1980s. But before long it would take a dark, tragic turn.