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Wham, Bam, Thank You MAMH

The proposed Museum of American Music History could be the solution to our "image problem"

Houston's been hard at work on its image ever since we dug the Ship Channel. Mostly we've tackled the problem by importing culture from afar. Thus we have the symphony, the opera, that tarantula-like Miró sculpture downtown and the art museums. Such institutions are commendable, of course, but for Houstonians to suppose that they're going to attract tourists or win us style points is ludicrous. Art museums and the like are merely the default setting for culture in a modern metropolis. You have to have them, but they're not going to impress a visitor from Paris, or even Dallas.

But plans are in the works for a unique attraction that would wow 'em in France and the Big D. And best of all, we would be highlighting not 17th-century German fugues or the religious statuary of medieval Afghanistan but the blues, rock and roll, zydeco and country that bloomed in part right here in Houston.

A group of Houstonians led by financial planner Stephen Williams and Lizette Cobb, daughter of homegrown jazz legend Arnett Cobb, has recently unveiled plans for a 300,000-square-foot, $85 million-dollar Museum of American Music History to be located in downtown Houston. The plans include a 2,000-seat music venue, four virtual experience culture and heritage galleries, gift shops, rehearsal space and classrooms. About a quarter of the exhibit space at the proposed museum would spotlight Texans' contributions to American music. Such a museum, according to University of Houston economist Thomas DeGregori, would bring in $30 million to $35 million a year in tourist receipts.

Rather than dryly recite the history of American music, says Cobb, the museum would tell the history of America through the music that mirrored it. "Think about World War II," she says. "If you listen to the music of that era, they're singing about keeping your spirits up and winning. And then think about the influence the music of our servicemen had on the world. The French went crazy over jazz, and remember how the Nazis used to persecute kids who liked to listen to swing?"

Though the group has yet to make an official fund-raising announcement, the plans are already available at www.americanmusichistory.org. Right now, Cobb hopes that people will drop by the Web site and become contributors, but her main focus is collecting materials for exhibits. "People should become aware of the artifacts they may already have," she says. "Programs and albums… If they have some family members that have wardrobes and instruments and report cards…Anything they may have that would tell the story of this person's life, they need to start gathering 'em up and contacting us."

The plans recently won endorsement from the Smithsonian Institute, and the Texas legislature is interested in seeing such a museum built as well. In November 2001, House Speaker Pete Laney proposed a Texas Music Trail along state highways that would link up various attractions that dot the state, such as Lubbock's Buddy Holly Center and the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur. But the trail needs a hub, a main attraction, and that's what a major museum could provide.

Of course, museum supporters can't go looking to the legislature for money: The State of Texas is broke. Kevin Christian, chief clerk for the State, Federal and International Relations Committee, which would oversee the trail, recently told the Austin American-Statesman that "the music community is really going to have to decide for themselves where [the hub] needs to be. I'm sure the state's going to follow the lead of the private sector. Cities are going to have to jump out and take the lead on this."

That's right, folks. Houston's not the only city gunning for the project, but we are in the lead. Austin has no plan to compare with that of Cobb and Williams. That doesn't stop Austinites from thinking their city deserves the museum because, well, it's Austin. Despite all the hard work that Williams and Cobb have put into the project, the Live Music Capital of the World thinks that Houston landing such a museum would be a tragedy on the order of Barton Springs running dry.

"Do I think it should be in Houston?" asked Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson in a January 18 story in the Statesman. "No, I think it should be in Austin."

Racket would like to remind Benson that we're talking about a Museum of American Music History, not a Museum of Self-Promoting American Music Scenes.

Let's compare the two city's musical heritages, shall we? Austin contributed nothing to the American music scene whatsoever until shortly after LSD arrived on the UT campus in 1963. Seriously. A couple of years later, the first truly innovative band emerged from Austin: the 13th Floor Elevators -- also the last truly innovative rock band to emerge from Austin, until the Butthole Surfers came along in about 1982. (For the record, the Elevators recorded for a Houston-based label.)

Willie Nelson moved to Austin from Nashville in 1972, and the Cosmic Cowboy movement gave Music City a scare in the early '70s (just as Pasadena's Urban Cowboy craze did later in the decade). Austin's city fathers set up Sixth Street, and Austin City Limits set about propagating the myth that every cool Texas artist perpetually frolicked alfresco under the Austin skyline.

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.

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