Ponty Bone, masterful Texas accordion player, dies at 78

Ponty Bone died Friday at age 78. Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman 2009

Ponty Bone, one of Texas’ best-known accordion players for decades and a key member of the Joe Ely Band during the 1970s and ’80s, died early Friday after an extended struggle with a rare neurodegenerative disease. He was 78.

Born Harry DePonta Bone on Oct. 9, 1939, young Ponty began taking accordion lessons at age 5 in San Antonio.  After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1957, he headed to Lubbock to study architecture and art at Texas Tech University. In 1962 he married Sarah Wade of Lubbock; they had twins, Rachel and Samara, in 1964.

That same year, Bone met Jimmie Dale Gilmore at a party, presaging Bone’s long association with some of Lubbock’s most renowned musicians. Bone and his family moved to Phoenix in 1965 and started a band there called New Moan Hey, but they also kept in touch with Gilmore and his pals Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, who’d stop in Phoenix to visit en route to California in the late 1960s.

Bone and his family moved back to Texas in 1971, settling in Slaton just southeast of Lubbock. He almost ended up in Austin then; in an interview with Chris Oglesby on the Virtual Lubbock website, Bone said he almost joined blues band the Storm with Jimmie Vaughan and Lewis Cowdrey, but got a surveying job in Lubbock and decided to stay.

The house in Slaton became a hot jam-session hub for Lubbock musicians. “We used to go over to his house and bring our friends and play music all night,” Ely recalled on Friday. Bone also began to play regularly at Lubbock’s famed Cotton Club with Tommy Hancock’s Supernatural Family Band.

When Ely got a record deal with MCA a few years later, he asked Bone to join his band. Bone played on Ely’s first four solo records and toured the world with him; journal entries on Bone’s website provide significant detail about the shows they played during those years.

Bone’s playing was a key part of the Ely Band’s sound. “When the guitars were too heavy, Ponty would just lighten it up with an accordion run,” Ely said. “He was the effervescence of the band; he had that sparkle on top, like when you pour a Topo Chico into a tall glass.”

Bone moved to Austin with the Ely Band in 1980. He debuted his own outfit, Ponty Bone & the Squeezetones, at the Aus-Tex Lounge in 1982, and that became his primary focus after he departed Ely’s band in 1983. The Squeezetones released a handful of albums, played Austin clubs regularly, and toured both regionally and internationally.

Bone continued to perform and record with countless Texas artists over the next couple of decades. Well-versed in Tex-Mex music from his San Antonio upbringing, he was also quite versatile in other accordion styles. “He had an incredible backlog of musical knowledge,” said guitarist R.C. Banks, his longtime friend and frequent collaborator.

“He knew all those old German dance songs,” said Ely, whose 1970s archival album “Full Circle,” due out next month, includes Bone’s playing on songs such as “Joe’s Cryin’ Schottische,” based on a traditional European dance form.

Singer-songwriter Christine Albert recruited Bone to play French music with her in the late 1980s, leading to his appearance on her 1992 “Texafrance” album. “Ponty always added soul and character and gave us a little counterpoint,” Albert said. “What I really remember and cherish was his personal support; he always made me feel like I was on the right track.”

Bone had heart surgery in 2015, and in 2016 he was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a debilitating condition akin to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. He attended his induction into the West Texas Walk of Fame in 2016; last year, Austin venue Antone’s held a fundraiser to help with his medical expenses.

Survivors include daughters Rachel Bone, Samara Bone and Leah Derton, all of Austin; stepson Josh Bone; and five grandchildren: John, Jessie and Janie Scott; Sharee Bone; and Lexie Derton. A memorial service is being planned, family members said Friday.