Ballad of the Unknown Urban Cowboy: Isaac Payton Sweat Part 2
In the mid-1960s I had a paper route in my hometown of Groves, Texas, and every day it took me past this two-story, tar-papered building with a sign saying “The Black Kat Club.” Some days I’d hear loud, raucous music coming out of the wide-open second story windows. Sometimes it was the blues, sometimes it was a cover of a pop song, it always sounded great. One day I came by with my newspapers and the musicians were outside smoking cigarettes. One of them asked me if I would give him a newspaper, and I did.
As I handed it to him, I noticed this guy was the whitest man I had ever seen. His skin, his hair, his eyelashes, everything was pure white. There was another guy who looked just like him, too. “They’re albinos,” said one of the band members, “they’re okay. What’s your name, my name is I.P. Sweat.” To a 10-year-old kid, that name was even funnier than the two albino brothers named Johnny and Edgar.
Almost 20 years later, I would meet up with Isaac Payton Sweat again. He had tasted fame – but not fortune – with his regionally popular recording “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” Sweat really had not come far from the Black Kat Club near Port Arthur; he was a popular guy in Houston dancehalls but no place else. “Cotton-Eyed Joe” had only earned Sweat a few hundred dollars in royalties, so he sued his former manager. That case didn’t work out, and neither did the nightclub Sweat opened, “I.P. Sweat’s Cotton-Eyed Joe Club.”
Over in Louisiana, Cajun musician Rockin’ Sidney (Simien) had a breakout hit with “My Toot Toot,” and other regional musicians like Jo-El Sonnier and Zachary Richard were whooping it up with people like John Fogerty. Urban Cowboy the movie had created a fad and there were mechanical bulls everywhere. By the late 1980s country music had become a huge business – the Judds and Reba McEntire slicked up the music and the twang seemed almost like an affectation. People had stopped coming to Gilley’s, and the monster club closed in 1989.
Ikey Sweat was working hard, writing and recording new music. He cut a song called “A Redneck Is The Backbone of America” and a handful of other tunes, hoping to attract a major label contract. Inspired by the success of Houstonian Clint Black and San Antonio native George Strait, Sweat hoped to get airplay on country radio. He didn’t.
Sweat tried to sue radio stations in the Houston area for conspiring to keep him out of the spotlight, but that went nowhere. Frustration mounted for Sweat, and he even checked himself into a hospital for what he later said was exhaustion and depression. Sweat’s second marriage also seemed to be in trouble. In the spring of 1990, Isaac Payton Sweat filed a divorce petition against his wife Sharon but she apparently never got the papers.
On June 23, 1990, a gunshot rang out in the garage of Isaac Payton Sweat’s Houston-area home. Police found the singer dead from a gunshot wound through his left temple, and a .25-caliber pistol near his left hand. An autopsy found no traces of gunpowder on Sweat’s hands. The gun, some sunglasses and car keys were found near Sweat’s left hand but the singer was right-handed.
Sharon Sweat was indicted for murder and the case almost went to trial in 1992. Experts were set to testify that Isaac Payton Sweat could have been murdered, another would say that he most likely committed suicide. However the case against Sharon Sweat was finally dropped for lack of evidence before it went to trial. Many people, particularly friends and family of Isaac Payton Sweat, believe she got away with murder. The house where Sweat died burned down, and although authorities promised to investigate the case further nothing ever came of it. Country music became bigger and bigger, and artists who scrambled around Texas dancehalls in the 1970s and 1980s became international superstars.
Isaac Payton Sweat helped create the big “Urban Cowboy’ movement in the 1980s but never tasted any of the fame and fortune that others did. If you look on the internet you can find remembrances of Sweat by his friends and fans, and you can still collect some of his songs. If you listen closely you hear a talented musician at the top of his game, his voice full of youth and hope and the promise of good times. It is the voice of a long-gone era in Texas – a voice that, sadly, few people even remember.