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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."

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).

Yet Nelson envisioned something more, a complete album made on his own terms. At first there were setbacks. He bankrolled a 1996 session in Houston, but that project remains on the shelf. He has also endured a seemingly interminable legal battle over Roy Ames's 1992 CD release of old "T-99" material on the Collectables label.

Those disappointments have been significantly abated, however, by Nelson's full-force glee over his affiliation with local radio personality Nuri A. Nuri and former Roomful of Blues trombonist Carl Querfurth, his co-producers. Their three-way collaboration led to Rockin and Shoutin the Blues, surely to be a strong contender for a W.C. Handy Award.

In addition to Nelson's golden-era vocalizing and songwriting, the CD features the man many musicians regard as the greatest blues-and-jazz guitarist living in Houston: Clarence Hollimon. The Fifth Ward native's impeccably clean and melodic sound graced some of the finest recordings by Bobby Bland and Junior Parker, and he has worked on stage with everyone from Big Mama Thornton to Charles Brown to Carol Fran (his wife since 1982).

"Clarence is a helluva inspiration to me," says Nelson. "Clarence [during a studio break] was sitting in a corner with his legs crossed and his head down doodling 'When You're Smiling' on the guitar. I said, 'Hey, let's do that!' Š no music in front of me, no lyrics. From the head, you know." The result is a free and easy jazz-inflected jewel, one of several fine covers on the new CD. Featuring tasty chops on tenor sax, a brilliantly minimalist guitar solo and precision piano work, this upbeat number communicates Nelson's essential good cheer.

Along with Querfurth, the session band includes Roomful of Blues hornmen Richie Lataille and Doug James, plus other New England-based musicians. Querfurth describes the veteran unit as "a real comfortable group" that evokes "a jazzier kind of blues with a relaxed feel." Recorded in Rhode Island last fall, the CD includes fresh treatments of such chestnuts as "How Long Blues" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," plus a rollicking remake of "Boogie Woogie Country Girl."

But Nelson's additional lyrics on the closer, "Sweet Mr. Cleanhead," make it the choice cover of the bunch. In a swaggering display of macho sexual bravado, he raps about "hitting these six vitamin E's and four blue pills [Viagra]," among other updated references. He also warns women to "make sure you've got six condoms" if he's invited over. It's a comically boastful strut enlivened by sharp timing and delivery.

"Hurt Three Ways" is an original with a cool walking-bass line, while "New Shack Lover" peaks with a slightly tipsy keyboard romp, simultaneously raw and refined. But the lead track, "House of the Blues," is the new song most likely to get people's attention. A rocking shuffle, it's got all the essential elements: Nelson's poeticizing about "funky blues and Texas barbecue," tight horns, punctuated beats with smart fills between verses (especially some honking sax solos) and Hollimon's fluidly improvised riffs on guitar.

Backed by far-reaching promotional support from Rounder Records, Nelson's new CD will receive the widest distribution of any recording he has ever done. "I'm getting back in the groove again," he says. He's also making a featured appearance with headliners The Otis Grand All Stars at the Great British R&B Festival (Manchester, England) at the end of August and is working on details for a northeastern U.S. tour this fall. Indeed, '99 is a sweet time for "T-99."

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