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Since the mid-'90s, he has also been busy defying the mainstream recording industry. Via independent productions on his own label, Owens has released four CDs that showcase his playing, composing, arranging, orchestra directing and singing, as well as his knack for effective collaboration with special guests. His latest, Another Concept, is "more of a jazz thing," he says. And he promises there's still more to come.
Given his resume, Owens ought to know a thing or two about the music business. He's been part of it since the 1940s. As a teenager he left the Fifth Ward neighborhood known as Sawdust Alley (thanks to byproduct from a nearby mill) and joined the traveling "minstrel show" of Leonard Duncan and His Harlem Revue. Later Owens also toured with the Brown Skin Models Revue and played locally at places like Sid's Ranch, the Casino and the swanky Eldorado Ballroom. During that era he performed behind such stars as T-Bone Walker, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, Amos Milburn, Big Joe Turner and numerous others.
But the affiliation that would, for many years, define his career began in 1953 when he joined Bill Harvey's band backing a hot, young guitar player and singer named B.B. King. Through 1957 Owens toured with that group, becoming B.B.'s first music director. But four years of constant traveling coupled with artistic differences culminated in a "no hard feelings" breakup. "Actually I got fired. He fired all the so-called 'bebop' musicians out of the band in '57, and I was one of them," Owens explains.
However, following a 20-year stint back home (that included studio work as A&R director for Houston's Duke-Peacock Records as well as release of some instrumental singles on the Memphis-based Klondike label), Owens was eventually reunited with King. From 1978 until 1984 Owens again anchored the horn section and served as bandleader backing the world's most famous blues artist. Together they toured the globe, cut several albums and made various television appearances. And gradually Owens experienced an awakening.
"I really became aware of myself when I went back to work with B.B. King in 1978. Because I put his new band together.... I had 15 minutes to open up the show, and I never played nobody's music but my own. And the people, the response was so fantastic, it made me realize that something was there, that I had something to offer to an audience."
Despite abundant critical and commercial success on stage and in the studio (including the Grammy-winning 1983 album Blues 'n' Jazz, for which he wrote all the arrangements), Owens grew discontented with his role in King's musical empire. That frustration, coupled with the cumulative effects of incessant substance abuse, ultimately left Owens feeling "just sapped."
Then one day in the L.A. airport, hung-over and waiting to catch a plane to another B.B. King show, Owens impulsively quit, walking away from what many of his horn-blowing peers considered to be the prime gig in the business. "All the things had accumulated up to that point, and I decided it was best for me to go home. So I did.... I wanted to do things better, start over."
To facilitate his rebirth, Owens didn't stay long in Houston after his return. "It was a lot of not-good things in the environment for me," he explains. "I was still partying, just spinning my wheels." Instead, he moved to Brussels, Belgium, where he married Sarah Send, whom he now lovingly identifies as "the architect of this brand-new person that I am."
With Sarah's help he eventually gave up booze and drugs and embraced a health-conscious vegetarian lifestyle. He also began to concentrate more on his writing, took voice lessons and established his own 18-piece band for work on-stage across Europe and in the studio. By the mid-'90s Owens had conceived Sawdust Alley Records and released two CDs under his own name, True Blue and That's Your Booty, both featuring several guest artists and the Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra.
Then in late 1996, after 12 years in residence abroad, he decided to bring it all home. "Belgium offered me peace, a place and motivation to clear up all the deficiencies that I had accumulated in life," Owens reflects. "But now for the process to continue, I had to come back here, my home, where my music begins."
The return to Texas eventually led to the third Sawdust Alley recording project. Featuring Houston singer Norma Zenteno backed by Owens's big band, Es Tu Booty is essentially a remake of selected tracks from That's Your Booty in Spanish translation, combined with some new compositions and guest appearances (including one by Latino rapper Valdemar). Like the previous Sawdust Alley CDs, Es Tu Booty offers a potent synthesis of blues, jazz and other forms. But the Spanish influence marks a new phase in the evolution of Owens's sound.