Houston Highwayman

Local Jimmy "T-99" Nelson sets the blues straight

If Jimmy "T-99" Nelson could have foreseen it, he might well have adopted another nickname, something with a lower number. Known for almost half a century by the "T99" moniker, the big-voiced blues singer is tickled to realize that the year '99 is unfolding as something extra special for him. Just a coincidence, or some numerical mysticism at work? No one's sure. Either way, the longtime Houstonian is basking in contentment, given the August 10 release of his major label comeback, Rockin and Shoutin the Blues, on Rounder Records' Bullseye Blues imprint.

If it took some harmonic convergence of 99s to restore him to the national spotlight he commanded long ago, so be it. Nelson's just glad to have a second start. "I never really left the big time, 'cause every time you see me on stage I've washed my feet and changed my socks, and I'm as sharp as a Harlem sissy," he says with a laugh. "But I've been blessed to have another shot at it, you know."

Well aware of the rewards and pitfalls of the music profession, the smiling octogenarian with the catlike eyes ultimately can't help but love the bluesman's life. In one of the four originals featured on his new CD, he explains why. Following a brief piano introduction, his lone voice croons the title line: "Oh, how I'm going to miss show business." Then a funky brass band promenade kicks in, complete with New Orleans-style piano trills. Nelson sings: "I'll miss the one-night stands / Playing town to town / The many friendly faces and the hecklin' clown / Racing down the road to make the gig on time / The highway patrolman and the soul food sign."

Onetime cement finisher who took his nickname from Texas Highway 99: Jimmy "T-99" Nelson.
Onetime cement finisher who took his nickname from Texas Highway 99: Jimmy "T-99" Nelson.

The song's genesis goes back many years to when Percy Mayfield (the onetime Houstonian known widely as "the poet of the blues") triggered the idea by talking about giving up. "Percy and I worked together on that one," says Nelson. "We would hang out, bullshit together, and one afternoon [following a disfiguring car accident] Percy said, 'I'm just going to quit show business,' and I said, 'Ah c'mon, man, your voice is there.' " Nelson developed the lyrics to remind Mayfield — and himself — that the bluesman's life has its little pleasures.

"All the musicians will understand that," he says, then quotes another line: "Like, 'the backstage smoke before the show goes on.' You know, the cats would smoke a little weed or something. All of that's show business."

Near the end of the image-rich song, Nelson speaks directly to his audience: "Bless you for hanging with me and my sound / Listening and dancing and letting your hair down / Watching you from the bandstand while the blues is hot and slow / We're doing another slow drag just before you go." Over a bottom-heavy beat, the band cakewalks the number to a rousing finale, concluding with Nelson's softly spoken, "So long. Bye-bye."

Yet for many listeners Rockin and Shoutin the Blues is not a farewell but an introduction to one of the last of the great blues shouters. Nelson's signature hit, "T-99 Blues," (named after a highway formerly known as Texas 99) rode high on the Billboard charts for 21 weeks back in 1951. Featured appearances nationwide soon followed. He played venues such as the Apollo Theatre. The next year he scored big again with "Meet Me with Your Black Dress On," and the large-framed vocalist seemed primed for major stardom.

But a dispute with his label, Modern Records, occurred when the owners, L.A.'s legendary Bihari Brothers, chose to devote all of their resources to promote their latest discovery, a young hotshot guitarist from Memphis. "They went down and got B.B. King and recorded him, and that cat hit five in a row, man. And that was the money, right there, so they put me down, dropped me like a hot potato," says Nelson.

Though Nelson recorded for numerous other companies, he could not duplicate the phenomenal success of "T-99 Blues." That disappointment, combined with his growing distaste for the "Jesse James contracts" that dominated the R&B industry, prompted him to get out.

"That's how I ended up settling in Houston and going into the construction business," the Philadelphia-born singer says. "I was booked here at the [Club] Ebony, over on Dowling, and I didn't want to leave because people were so nice. So I decided to stay here and joined the laborers' union, Local 18." As a mason tender, Nelson later made good money forming concrete walls for a massive, long-term project: the Astrodome.

The combination of steady paychecks and marriage to his late wife, Nettie, caused Nelson to put down permanent roots in the Third Ward. Though he still sang sporadically, he essentially dropped out of professional music, forsaking a calling that dates back to 1941 (when in a California nightclub he saw Harlan Leonard's Kansas City Rockers and met Big Joe Turner, his role model and mentor).

But by the late 1980s Nelson had comfortably retired from the Hartney Construction Company. And when his wife passed away, he refocused on his singing career. He had never ceased songwriting, so he possessed fresh material. He also had cultivated an instinct for reinterpreting standards the "T-99" way. That combination, plus his past reputation for tastefully swinging the blues, led to major festival appearances (and guest shots on a few CDs).

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