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Home with the Blues

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

On June 19, there was a fish fry at the Savoy Ice House on Dowling Street in the Third Ward. The occasion, of course, was Juneteenth, and the band playing on the sidewalk was making a joyful noise. Joe Hughes, standing in with some old friends, growled and shouted his way through a volley of familiar R&B standards, as the notes from his Fender bent and twisted their way through the dancing crowd in the parking lot and out into the neighborhood.

After turning over the lead, Hughes sat down with some acquaintances. Then a motion from the bass player caught his eye and drew him away. After a side-of-the-mouth exchange, Hughes nodded. When the song that was being played ended, the bassist unstrapped his instrument and handed it to Hughes, whose callused, muscular fingers began dancing an intricate jazz shuffle down the strings. It was not surprising to learn that Joe Hughes -- a man who has literally made "guitar" his middle name -- is on occasion also a world-class bass player.

Indeed, there's much about Joe "Guitar" Hughes that indicates the Texas double-shuffle is the pulse of his soul, the heartbeat that feeds the flights of fancy that his fingers and mind are prone to. In classic Texas bluesman fashion, Hughes -- who learned his craft alongside Albert Collins, who left Houston to head west, and Johnny Copeland, who bailed to head east -- is far more of a sensation in Europe than he is in his hometown. But of that trio of teenage pals from the Third Ward, it's Hughes' licks and lyrics that somehow sound the most like a street party on Dowling on a hot summer night.

Hughes' enthusiasm for the southeast Houston neighborhood in which he grew up can be infectious. When he talks about "back in the day," weed-covered lots materialize through the fog of time into shimmering, throbbing establishments of music, light and emotion. When his low, rhythmic voice tells of what it was like to hear Hop Wilson play, the beers in the coolers of the Live Oak Grove begin to clink together in time to the over-amped notes of a long-dead bluesman's steel guitar. Ask Hughes about the obscure, talented, self-destructive singer/piano player Elmore Nixon, and he tells of the time he saw Nixon walking down Tuam and refused to let him pass without singing a song. Few of the things never seen by most are as clear as the image of Hughes blocking the path of the tall, lanky singer until Nixon, laughing, began singing, "Mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread, shortnin' bread, shortnin' bread ...." Decades later, there's still amazement mixed in with the laughter in Hughes' voice as he says, "I'll never forget that."

The sum of the things that Joe Hughes will never forget is a large portion of what makes up Houston blues. On his latest CD, Texas Guitar Slinger, the title track is an autobiographical acknowledgment of a host of Houston guitarists who influenced the distinctive Hughes style. The line "Raised on Lightnin' Hopkins, weaned on Gatemouth Brown" is followed by references to T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Pete Mayes, Clarence Hollimon and Johnny Brown in a virtual Who's Who of Texas blues guitar. It's an old and familiar gambit in the blues, this comparison of the performer to heroes and peers, that has gained a certain cachet with the younger white artists who make up much of the ranks of a new generation of blues players.

Unlike these contenders-in-training, though, Hughes is not talking about strange sounds he heard on the radio. He's talking about people he knew firsthand. Growing up in the Third Ward in the 1940s was the bluesman's equivalent of being a Muslim born in Mecca -- what is a once-in-a-lifetime event for others was simply day-to-day life for Hughes. When he mentions Lightnin' Hopkins as an influence, he's discussing not the Hopkins of internationally distributed albums and tours with the Grateful Dead, but a street performer whose presence around the Third Ward was as omnipresent as the asphalt of McGowan Street. Hughes' childhood was, simply, one surrounded by music and musicians.

The instrument that eventually became Hughes' middle name was at first an afterthought. As a teenager, Hughes dreamed of becoming a balladeer, and he regularly performed popular vocal numbers at talent shows. Like most performers making their first few public appearances, stage fright was a factor, and Hughes decided the best cure for the jitters was to find something to do with his hands. Simple economics ruled out acquiring a saxophone, but dishwasher's wages enabled the 15-year-old performer to become the owner of an acoustic guitar.

That instrument soon became a permanent appendage as Hughes roamed the streets of his neighborhood studying now-legendary Third Ward troubadours. When night fell, Hughes would travel to the Club Matinee on Lyons Avenue. For touring acts and the stars of Houston's Duke/Peacock label, a visit to Houston meant stopping by the Matinee for an after-show dinner and sitting in on the jam sessions that often went on until sunrise. It also provided a teenage guitarist a chance to spy on the styles of such artists as T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom and Hughes' favorite talent -- then and now -- Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.

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.

Has a lifetime of playing the blues left Hughes rich and famous? Well, he'll admit to getting sort of famous at last. But rich? Hughes gives a visual description of his finances with a hilarious, dead-on, two-handed imitation of a cat struggling to hang onto the trunk of a tree. But even if Bullseye's release of Texas Guitar Slinger proves the biggest success of his career, it's a safe bet that Hughes and his guitar will still show up without warning here and there around the Third Ward. That, after all, is where he and his blues originate.

Joe "Guitar"Hughes performs at 9 p.m. Saturday, December 30, at Billy Blues Bar & Grill, 6025 Richmond Avenue. Tickets are $8. For info, call 266-9294.

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