The Kids Understand

Local blues legend Little Joe Washington finds an unlikely fan base

The air is thick with anticipation at the Blue Iguana as it grows late on a Thursday night. On-stage, a man tunes a six-string Fender, then sets it carefully on its guitar rack. Meanwhile, a pickup truck wheels around a corner to park near the club's side door, and a bucket brigade of volunteer stagehands unloads a drum kit. Soon enough, a flurry of applause erupts at the front door. Its cause? A short, slender black man dressed in a loud, hopelessly outdated neon plaid tie and sport coat, his gray hair curling out from under a battered straw hat, who comes striding quickly into the club. Little Joe Washington has arrived.

As Washington sits sipping on a shot of bourbon and a beer chaser, enthusiastic well-wishers decades younger than he is pump his hand and introduce him to their friends. When the drum kit is assembled, the guitarist sets his half-finished beer aside and struts like a bantam rooster to center stage. Washington picks up the Fender and calls out the first selection -- no song name, just a key and time -- and with no further warning, the room explodes. A savage, relentless chord progression sweeps through the Iguana. When Washington suddenly flips his guitar over and begins working the strings with his tongue, the mouths of the first-timers fall open in amazement. With a brutality that is painful to watch, Washington wedges his tongue between two coiled-wire strings and yanks the guitar down his face as the speakers scream a long slide-guitar wail. Washington flips the guitar back around to its regular position, sweeps off his tattered hat and arches an eyebrow at the crowd. "Little Joe," the regulars start chanting, "Little Joe ... Little Joe."

As Washington continues, a line made up mostly of women in their twenties forms in front of the stage. One by one, they drop bills in a hat and return to their tables as Washington sings, "They call it stormy Monday / I call it every day / The eagle flies on Friday / I walk a million miles a day."

Days later, a tall, dreadlocked college student joins in on a conversation about the Houston music scene. When the talk turns to guitars, he bursts out, "Man, there's this guy named Little Joe that's been playing over at the Blue Iguana ...."

When he finds out that this so-called hot new sensation has been making music in the city for close to a half-century, playing at one time or another with almost every legend to come out of the Third Ward, the reaction is one of surprise mixed with hometown pride.

"Damn," he says, shaking his head, "I didn't know Little Joe was from the Ward."

Bridging the gap between decades and cultures is hardly a new thing; it's the most important factor in the cross-pollination that keeps a scene alive, growing and changing. Rest assured, hippie musicians can amuse and educate for hours with firsthand accounts of what it was like to run the streets in the '60s with Lightning Hopkins and Juke Boy Bonner. And 30 years from now, when the second round of tattoos and tie-dyes have faded and blurred, there should be some classic stories beginning with, "There was this punk club on Richmond where this crazy guitar player named Little Joe Washington had a Thursday night gig. I never saw anything like it."

You can call Little Joe crazy. He's heard it before. The rough roads he's traveled over the years have taken their toll. About the only things Washington hasn't let slide are his talent and a circle of friends and admirers who care -- and worry -- about him. Still, they will be the first to admit that Little Joe's life is his life -- to live any way he wants. Sure, he's been marginally homeless for years, with barely a shirt on his back, let alone a guitar of his own. But seeing Washington play is a chance to study at the feet of a master. It's been that way for decades.

Grammy-winning guitarist Johnny Copeland, a lifelong friend of Washington's, puts it like this: "My music, Albert Collins' music, Joe Hughes' music -- when you listen to any of that, you'll hear some Little Joe. He had something to do with everything that we've done, from back when we were all coming up together right up to today."

That's an assessment that draws no argument from Hughes, who calls Washington "a raw, unchained, explosive talent."

"You can't relax for an instant when you're on the bandstand with Little Joe," says Hughes. "If you aren't paying attention every second, he'll lay some weird changes on you and go way, way out there somewhere, and you'll never catch up."

A more recent friend, bassist Michael Simon, become acquainted with Washington's lightning-quick unpredictability in the first few gigs he played with the guitarist at the Blue Iguana.

"Somebody brought Little Joe in; he got up on-stage and started doing things I'd never seen before," recalls Simon. "So I talked with him; told him I'd furnish a guitar and amp if he wanted to gig. Sometimes he gets mad at me because when he gets going, it can be really hard to keep up. I've been playing for 20 years, [and] I thought I could keep up with anybody. But when Little Joe hits me with that wild stuff -- it's not blues, it's not rock, I don't think you can put a name on his style."

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