By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
The Vaughan Brothers-led, Caucasian-dominated blues scene had a run at the charts in the late '80s and early '90s. Along the way, semifamous bands like the Wild Seeds, the True Believers, Fastball, Trail of Dead and Timbuk 3 came and went and came back again. The city started hosting South By Southwest in 1987 and recently built a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
That's Austin's claim to fame, in a nutshell.
Houston, on the other hand, was already exporting blues singers to Chicago and New Orleans by the early 1920s. Houston's first blues star of the recording era, Fifth Ward native Sippie Wallace, cut her first sessions in Chicago in 1923. She went on to make records with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong and helped shape the style of the young Bonnie Raitt in the 1960s. Then there was Victoria Spivey, who accompanied Blind Lemon Jefferson in the early '20s, and after moving north, recorded and toured with Oliver, Armstrong and Lonnie Johnson.
By the 1930s, classic blues and jazz had evolved into swing, and Houston was again at the forefront. Houston's Milt Larkin Orchestra was one of the most popular bands of the day, every bit the equal of Count Basie's. Larkin's sidemen Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet went on to earn fame in the band of Lionel Hampton, whose 1942 recording of "Flyin' Home" is credited by some rock historians as the first rock and roll song of all time. They base that claim on the "rockin'" sax solo, which was first performed by Cobb, but first recorded by Jacquet -- both of whom were Houstonians.
If you can't accept a song without a guitar as the first rock title, Houston has another pony in the race. According to no less an authority than the late New York Times pop critic Robert Palmer, the first rock song was not the commonly accepted 1951 recording of "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston/Ike Turner, but instead Houstonian Goree Carter's "Rock Awhile," which Carter recorded in the Bayou City in 1949. And you thought Memphis was the birthplace of rock.
Not far from Goree Carter's Fifth Ward home, another form of music was being cooked up: zydeco. In his definitive history of the genre, In the Kingdom of Zydeco, author Michael Tisserand likens Houston's effect on zydeco to Chicago's effect on rural Mississippi blues. This was the place where Louisiana Creoles first heard blues musicians, an experience that transformed their Acadian music from what was then called la-la. And you thought New Orleans was the birthplace of zydeco.
Meanwhile, the recording industry started to pick up, with Don Robey's Duke-Peacock label leading the way. The records he made in the late '50s and early '60s -- with voices like Bobby Bland and Junior Parker singing songs by Joe Medwick and Texas Johnny Brown to the backing of Joe Scott-led bands -- stand the test of time better than virtually everything else from that era.
During the late '50s and early '60s, Houston was also busy exporting R&B artists to L.A. Charles Brown, a primary influence on Ray Charles, spent the first two decades of his life in Texas City. Houston's Percy Mayfield ended up penning "Hit the Road Jack" and becoming a great American songwriter. Johnny Guitar Watson, one of the architects of funk, spent his first 15 years in the Third Ward with friends like Johnny Clyde Copeland, Albert Collins and Joe Guitar Hughes. Grady Gaines led Little Richard's band through its peak period, and later Calvin Owens filled the same role with B.B. King. Little Esther Phillips, Katie Webster, Amos Milburn, Big Walter the list of R&B and blues stars could go on. Austin's blues "history" pales in comparison.
In late-'60s Houston, Lightnin' Hopkins took a young folkie named Townes Van Zandt under his wing. Guy Clark followed in Van Zandt's blues/country/folk wake, followed by Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. And it was out of that same Old Quarter/Liberty Hall scene that ZZ Top thundered. Most people outside of Texas think Austin produced all of those guys.
Yes, since then things have been a little slack for H-town -- save for acts like godfather of Dirty South rap Scarface and R&B platinum-sellers Destiny's Child. (It's a safe bet that Houston artists have outsold Austin artists hands down.) And, oh yeah, Pen and Pixel Graphics pretty much invented the bling aesthetic, and DJ Screw created a subgenre of rap
Sorry, Austin, the Museum of American Music History belongs right here.