Old School

Musicians in their 70s and 80s are keeping Houston's traditional blues scene real.

Old School

Midnight, The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club, cover charge is five bucks. A blast of heat from the gaggle of horns onstage rushes out of the momentarily open door of the Kirby Drive nightclub, as a writhing mass of sweaty Friday-night humanity works it out on the dance floor. Dressed to the nines, saxophonist Grady Gaines and his band the Texas Upsetters are cooking up some nasty, big-beat blues.

As the song ends, the crowd erupts in yells and catcalls, whistles and wild applause. This scene could be reminiscent of Houston's blues heyday in the '50s and '60s, except that the audience is predominantly white and middle-aged rather than black.

Dapper singer Patrick Harris, who resembles a smaller version of Snoop Dogg, waits for the noise to subside. "We love you and the Big Easy," he gushes. "It's people like you and clubs like this that make Houston the hottest blues town in the country."

Left-right: Houston bluesmen Texas Johnny Brown, Little Joe Washington, Milton Hopkins, Eugene Moody, George Brown and Don Kesee have set the bar high for younger generations of guitarists.
Sherman Hatton
Left-right: Houston bluesmen Texas Johnny Brown, Little Joe Washington, Milton Hopkins, Eugene Moody, George Brown and Don Kesee have set the bar high for younger generations of guitarists.
Milton Hopkins and Trudy Lynn were recently honored with the Albert King and KoKo Taylor awards for best guitarist and female vocals, respectively, at the 2011 Jus' Blues Music Foundation's awards in Memphis.
Sherman Hatton
Milton Hopkins and Trudy Lynn were recently honored with the Albert King and KoKo Taylor awards for best guitarist and female vocals, respectively, at the 2011 Jus' Blues Music Foundation's awards in Memphis.

More whoops and hollers...but what? Hottest blues town in the country?

Oldest blues town in the country might be closer to the mark. A cluster of Houston musicians continue to draw healthy crowds to their monthly or even weekly gigs well into their 70s and even 80s. Although the domestic audience for blues and R&B of this vintage has all but dried up except in a few major cities, those who are able to withstand the rigors of international travel still play to healthy audiences at clubs and festivals in Europe.

Gaines is 77, a veteran of Little Richard and Bobby "Blue" Bland's touring bands, as well as the historic sessions at the late Don Robey's Fifth Ward label Duke/Peacock Records. Milton Hopkins, whose cousin Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins received Houston's very first blues-related Texas Historical Marker in Third Ward last year (nearly 30 years after his death), is also 77.

Clocking in at 72 or 73, depending on which day you ask him, is Marion "Little Joe" Washington, the pint-sized guitar dynamo who is the blues' de facto emissary to hipster Houston thanks to his Tuesday-night residency at Montrose bar Boondocks. Had the Houston Press been foolish enough even to ask veteran shouter Gloria Edwards's age, we would hardly reveal it here.

The reigning dean of Houston's blues scene, Texas Johnny Brown, is 83. "TJB," as most of his friends know him, wrote one of Bland's biggest hits, "Two Steps From the Blues," during his long Duke/Peacock tenure. A fit man and a sharp dresser who often wears a little beret onstage that makes him look like the King of Cool, the guitarist still plays long, blistering sets that include his own hit songs like the monumental "There Goes the Blues" as well as subtle covers of choice R&B plums such as Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine."

Brown's recent Big Easy gigs have been masterful, wall-to-wall with dancers flipping and twirling each other, some young enough to be his great-grandchildren. His Quality Blues Band of Little Joe Frenchwood (drums), William Hollis (keys) and Larry Evans (bass) comes from the ranks of longtime bluesmen who remain active, a smattering that also includes bandleaders Eugene Moody, Don Kesee and George Brown, pianist Pee Wee Stephens, guitarist Pops Stewart, and drummers Jackie Gray and Gilbert Labba.

Not surprisingly, the number of local bluesmen who have recently retired or semi-retired due to advanced age, illness, or both, continues to swell: Guitarist I.J. Gosey, pianist Earl Gilliam and the current dean emeritus of the Houston blues community, 97-year-old Big Walter "The Thunderbird" Price, who once hammered the piano keys with the force of a hundred Fats Dominos.

However, the generation that was nurtured by all these Houston greats, as well as the many who have passed away, is going strong: Vocal powerhouses Trudy Lynn, Diunna Greenleaf and Faye Robinson, and guitar whizzes Sherman Robertson and Leonard "Lowdown" Brown. Just not always in Houston — these are the performers who travel regularly, and figure much larger abroad than on their home turf.

"Trudy Lynn, who started out singing with Albert Collins when she was still in high school, is just Trudy here in town," says Houston Community College professor and local blues scholar Dr. Roger Wood. "But on the world stage, where she is Miss Trudy Lynn, she is a force to be reckoned with. The same goes for Diunna Greenleaf and Sherman Robertson. Those three are out there kicking ass in the world at large, but their gigs here are just treated as other blues gigs."
_____________________

That Wood, author of 2003's definitive Gulf Coast blues history Down in Houston, can even say such a thing is testament to the high degree of musicianship among Houston's players, who have continued honing their onstage skills well after others their age have settled into retirement. Unless it comes from a job they held down concurrent with their musical pursuits, there is no retirement pension and often no health insurance for musicians, which in turn goes a long way toward explaining why many continue to perform so late in life.

The blues itself is looking a little long in the tooth these days as well. Last year The New York Times ran an interesting thought piece that suggested as a musical form, the blues can appear calcified and frozen because its fans simply won't allow it to change and evolve. Although their set list is the same at every show (more or less), Brown and the Quality Blues Band disprove this notion on a regular basis.

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10 comments
Miri22
Miri22

Great commentary on the blues scene here and elsewhere. Really appreciate the update. Read Woods wonderful blues histories which were good sources of info on Texas & Louisiana blues stars. I second the motion for a sidebar of Houston players and locations. Would be a blessing. Good job and thanks.

VonKleinstadt
VonKleinstadt

Big applause for this wonderful story, but it's long overdue, considering that we've lost so many Houston Blues artists in the last few years; I especially miss Joe 'Guitar' Hughes.

There's so much soul, struggle and history that goes into this music (guess that's why they call it the Blues), yet it's taken for granted by 98% of Houston. On the other hand, a brighter side sees many Europeans and Asians ending up at The Big Easy, due to these artists talking up the Houston Blues scene while touring, and specifically the one club that's nurtured it for 15 years.

I hope the younger generation of Houston will give the Blues a try for a night or two. Once you get it, it's contagious and never leaves you. It moves your bones and connects your soul to our past.

Martin Miglioretti
Martin Miglioretti

One reason the blues artists and audiences are thinning out is because there are more musical genres and sub-genres than in the previous century. Hip-hop is the prevalent music of choice for young urban artists and markets where the blues used to stand. Boomers lace their songs with post-modern blues, funk and delta, while diversity and specialization in roots music is finding new niche markets. Houston's music scene is equally diversified and well populated, but must be written to include the approximate area from Galveston north to Conroe, east to Anahuac and west to Sealy. Plenty of paying venues, and an exploration will yield young and old bands of all races playing blues, rock, rap, soul, funk, rockabilly, roots country, zydeco and all sorts of alternative mashups that show the confluence of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast. All this considered, few cities in the world can match H-Town as a source for blues-based popular music, hip-hop and American roots music.

OldSchoolRules
OldSchoolRules

Oops, I meant C. Davis BBQ - I.J.'s standing Sunday gig for years.

OldSchoolRules
OldSchoolRules

Oh, and no mention of the nascent Houston Blues Museum, which I'm sure we'll all hear more about as they further develop. Hats off to those dedicated volunteers who made it happen! It takes a village...

OldSchoolRules
OldSchoolRules

Without seeming ungrateful for the coverage of Houston’s Blues scene, I have to comment. It would have been nice to have invited Earl Gilliam, I.J. Gosey and Big Walter “The Thunderbird” Price to at least have had the honor to sit in the group picture. While a tip-o-the-hat was given to Big Walter’s playing style, nothing was mentioned of the singular and tireless talents of recently retired I.J. Gosey and Earl Gilliam. Gilliam was playing up a storm until his lungs gave out but can still play circles around any Blues organist, not to mention all the middle-aged and young Blues players he’s mentored over the years. Gosey had the longest-standing regular Blues gig (first at CC’s BBQ, then The Ponderosa and, lastly, at Gino’s) until he had a stroke (most probably on stage) and his clean style never wavered. Special events are still being held in their honor. They’re retired but not gone, for God’s sake. Still very much a living inspiration to many players and devout fans who make it out to honor them.

There are other omissions from "the old guard": Sparetime Murray, Curly Cormier, Ardis Turner, Carol Fran, Barbara Lynn and several others. Not to mention many “next generation” players who keep the scene alive: Steve Krase and The In-Crowd, Little Terry Rogers, Jonn Richardson, Rich Del Grosso, Curtis King, Luther and the Healers, Fred Arceneaux, Mike Stone, Evelyn Rubio, TC and the Cannonballs, Teri Greene, Blues rockers like John McVey and Mark May, the xylophone maniac Cinco Calderon, to name just a few. Also, Sonny Boy Terry plays Old School Blues. These are but a few. But they deserve mention to be sure.

A comprehensive list of Houston players and clubs would be a nice sidebar. Not too late!

Thanks for the article – let’s just not forget that it’s a big and mighty Blues community that could have fizzled out years ago. So, thanks to those who’ve been smart enough to go hear what you can WHILE you can.

Richard Bush
Richard Bush

I don't think Eric Demmer nor Sonny Boy Terry could ever be placed in a "blues rock" bag. Sonny Boy was a founder of the blues society and played in Joe "Guitar" Hughes' band. Eric Demmer blew his horn with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. They've paid their blues dues.

Dr Rick
Dr Rick

Viva the Houston Blues Scene, the Houston Blues Society, KPFT, the Press, local club owners and patrons who support the blues and live music in Houston. Essentially any night, be it at a blues jam or show, you can hear authentic world class evocative music up close and personal for nothing or close to it. By the way, IT'S OK TO TIP!

Jessedayton
Jessedayton

The Houston blues scene was such an important part of my life when I lived in Houston in the 80's & 90's....the Road Kings used to play w/ Johnny Guitar Brown, Grady Gaines, Milton Hopkins and many many others at Rory Miggins Local Charm Club on Telephone Rd and Etta's Lounge...the east side blues scene of Austin and the old Deep Ellum scene in Dallas never had ANYTHING on the Houston blues scene which has always been one of the best in the country...I still listen to KPFT 90.1 Nuri-Nuri blues show online on Sundays when I can....great article...Houston should be so proud of this legendary heritage.

thanks, Jesse Dayton

Bella Adela
Bella Adela

Appreciate this article, thanks. Made some great points and did your research. I just want to point out that, maybe especially in Houston, the blues is not simply black or white, it is also brown. There are numerous Latino/Mexican American blues musicians helping to keep the blues alive and gigging here on a regular basis, including me. I do hope our rich blues scene continues to thrive, have great hopes that it will, and that we always remember our teachers in the blues that you profile here. Thanks again, y'all!

 

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