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Home with the Blues

Joe "Guitar" Hughes has never strayed far from the town that gave him his sound

There was an urgency to Hughes' studies. His mother's death while Hughes was still in his teens had left him self-supporting and determined to earn a living as a musician. Pianist and guitarist Johnny "Guitar" Watson, who lived next door to Hughes at the time, offered to loan the struggling apprentice an electric guitar whenever a gig came up. Hughes soon became the utility outfielder of the local rhythm and blues scene. He was a popular choice among area band leaders when a need arose for a guitarist who could play "just about anything, with anybody."

Hughes was still dreaming of vocal stardom, though, and Little Richard and other luminaries inspired Hughes and his childhood friend Johnny "Clyde" Copeland to form the Dukes of Rhythm, a doo-wop quintet. They soon realized that small orchestras were where the money was, which left the Dukes with a problem: Copeland, although a gifted vocalist, couldn't play an instrument. But under Hughes' tutelage, Copeland soon developed a rare proficiency on the electric guitar -- although Copeland preferred T-Bone Walker to Hughes' hero, Gatemouth Brown. This difference of opinion resulted in the Dukes of Rhythm shows' becoming an ongoing "shootout" between the disciples of the two styles. In fact, the loyalty of the two to their icons occasionally led to harsh words on-stage that escalated into an unscheduled break so that the band leaders could repair to the parking lot for a quick round of fisticuffs.

Although Hughes, like virtually every Houston blues veteran, describes Duke/Peacock A&R virtuoso Joe Scott as "a genius," he never recorded for either the Duke or Peacock label as a solo artist. Not that he didn't try. But the results of his first recording session, at a studio in La Marque in 1956, left everyone involved, especially Hughes, dissatisfied, and the results were never released.

It wasn't until a couple of years later, when saxophonist and high school music teacher Henry Hayes started the Kangaroo label, that Hughes recorded and released his first two singles, "I Can't Go On This Way" and "Make Me Dance Little Ant." Unfortunately, the iron grip on the local industry by Duke/Peacock owner Don Robey guaranteed that the Kangaroo releases would receive limited distribution. More Hughes 45s -- put out by Charlie Booth's Golden Eagle and Gallant labels, Huey Meaux's Jetstream and Boogaloo, and Steve Poncio's Sound Stage -- followed, but through the 1960s and 1970s, Hughes supported himself through continual live performances. When the Dukes of Rhythm split up in 1964, a decades-long professional relationship with sax wizard Grady Gaines began as Hughes played for a while with Gaines' Texas Upsetters Orchestra. This in-demand backup band, which had played behind Little Richard, proved a further education for Hughes. When asked exactly who he played for in those days, Hughes replies with a laugh, "Well ... everybody."

Hughes then went on to join the wall of guitars behind Bobby "Blue" Bland, appearing on Bland's 1966 record, A Touch of the Blues. Bland's soulful rendition of Joe Medwick's ballads -- and bandleader Joe Scott's magic touch -- kept Hughes busy touring and performing through the 1960s. Changing tastes in music never derailed Hughes' determination to support himself and his family with his playing. When disco sent the blues into suspended animation for a few years, the best opportunities for live music employment in southeast Texas were in the area's cavernous country-music dance halls. Country guitar was what people would pay to hear, so country was what Hughes played -- and to this day, he is willing to offer a stinging, twanging on-stage rebuttal to anyone suggesting with a smile that black men play country the way white men jump. As Hughes has repeatedly remarked, "I don't know why they call me a bluesman. I'm a musician, and the blues is just one of the styles I play."

In Europe, though, it was the blues that people wanted to hear. Obscure local-label Hughes 45s began appearing on European-released blues compilations. The overwhelming response to Hughes' appearance at the Utrecht Blues Festival in 1985 resulted in his first full-length solo efforts on the Double Trouble and Munich labels. Texas Guitar Master, Craftsman, Down, Depressed and Dangerous and other European releases featured such Houston legends as guitarists Johnny Brown and Pete Mayes, pianist Teddy Reynolds and tenor saxophonist Wilbur McFarland in an echo of the drop-by-and-sit-in-with-Joe flavor of his long-running steady gig at Old Spanish Trail's Evening Shadows nightclub.

In Houston, Hughes is a continual part of the landscape, with frequent club dates at Billy Blues, the Big Easy, the Shakespeare Pub and Evening Shadows, where he sits in with Grady Gaines on Tuesdays. In Europe, he makes a bit more of a splash. He describes the response to his latest release, Texas Guitar Slinger, as "outstanding," underlining the European enthusiasm for horn-driven, keyboard-fueled, triple-guitar, Texas big-band blues. So next month he's off to Europe again for a monthlong tour from Spain to Scandinavia, with old friends McFarland and pianist Earl Gillium coming along for the ride. Joining this trio of veterans is -- in a rather unusual and welcome '90s twist on the blues -- a talented duet of female rhythm players, bassist Tanya Richardson and drummer Samantha Banks.

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