A Hard Case of the Blues

Roy Ames and his Home Cooking records have spread the sound of Houston blues around the world. Some local musicians are wondering why he hasn't spread more of the wealth as well.

Three months ago, Glendora Wilson walked home from work to find a blues fan standing on the porch of her Third Ward home. The fan was there to show her an ad in Living Blues, the world's most respected journal of African American roots music. It was an ad she might well be expected to have an interest in, given that it featured a recording by her late husband, songwriter Harding "Hop" Wilson.

Promoted in the advertisement was a CD that had caused a sensation in the blues world. Houston Ghetto Blues was only one of two known recordings by Hop Wilson, the semi-legendary composer of a song, "Black Cat Bone," that had been the nucleus of a Grammy-winning album by Albert Collins, Johnny Clyde Copeland and Robert Cray. Wilson himself had rarely been heard by blues fans; his first experiences with Houston's recording industry had so embittered him that he refused repeated opportunities to put his work down on vinyl, preferring the obscurity of playing neighborhood dives.

So the release of a fresh Hop Wilson disk might well be expected to be news. But less expected is whom it would be news to. Glendora Wilson looked at the ad placed in front of her with puzzlement. She was, to put it mildly, surprised to learn that her husband's last recording had been leased to companies on at least three continents since his death. No, nobody had asked her about it. No, nobody had told her about it. No, she had received "not one dime" for any rights to any of the music on the CD. No, she admitted, she wasn't sure that she had any rights to any of that music. But, again no, nobody had bothered to check with her about those rights either.

Given that the CD had been released by Rounder Records, a label with a long history in folk and roots music and a label generally regarded with respect, Glendora Wilson's ignorance about what was happening with her late husband's heritage might seem odd. But for anyone with much knowledge of the scuttlebutt of the Houston music business, a possible answer to the question of why Glendora Wilson remained in the dark could be found by looking on the back of a copy of Houston Ghetto Blues. Printed there is the simple declaration, "Original production by Roy C. Ames."

Ah yes, Roy Ames. He, too, has a long history in roots music. But as for respect... well, that's another issue altogether.

Roy Ames' name is one that, until recent years, was little-known outside of Houston. But the advent of digital technology, coupled with a trendy fascination with the roots of rock and roll, has made vintage blues recordings more accessible today than when they were first recorded. Fifteen years ago, the blues sections of most record stores consisted of a handful of LPs by the few artists who had "made it" to even nominal commercial success -- B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Billie Holiday, Albert Collins, Leadbelly. Today, as the baby boom generation matures, many are discovering the men and women who inspired Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, Janis Joplin and other "classic rockers." In Europe and Japan, where the interest in American culture goes much deeper than the popularity of Madonna and Michael Jackson, being a blues fan is a scholarly endeavor. Around the world, old recordings, remembered only by eccentric collectors, are suddenly big business.

CDs by generations of blues artists now fill entire aisles in stores that once made only a token effort to offer this uniquely American music. From deep in the vaults of major recording labels and small local studios, master tapes that were last used to create nearly forgotten 78's, 45's and LPs are taken out, dusted off, digitally remastered and released once again, this time on compact disk.

This rebirth of the blues has turned attention to Houston, the source of many previously little-known blues masters, and to Roy Ames, whose Houston-based Home Cooking records has become a hotbed of rediscovered blues music. According to local blues historian Aaron Howard, who last year wrote a short, laudatory profile of Ames for Public News, Ames has up to 8,000 master tapes stored at his home and office, tapes that contain performances by a plethora of Gulf Coast artists. With this vast reserve of master tapes to either put out on Home Cooking or lease to American and foreign labels, Roy Ames is currently one of the most successful people in the Houston music business. In addition to vintage and current recordings, Ames offers record stores and mail-order customers a wide selection of concert videos and posters, and does a lucrative business leasing the rights to archival photographs to recording companies for cover art.

Ames, a 57-year-old native of Beaumont, now lives and works in West University, where his Home Cooking records operates out of a postwar bungalow on Community Drive. He tools around town in a Jaguar, his signature car -- and a sign, perhaps, of how far he's come from his east Texas origins. Ames' history in Houston recording is long and, at least as he tells it, important. In many ways, he's a caricature of a common feature on the Gulf Coast music scene: the independent record producer who lets nothing stand in his way. Like a Huey Meaux or a J.D. Miller or, most famously, a Don Robey, Ames has been portrayed as a man who got unknown music out to the masses, even if he occasionally cut a corner here and there to do it.

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