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Old School

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

"Johnny had so much success because he is way more than a three-chord, 12-bar musician," Wood says. "His compositions have interesting bridges and intricate melody lines, and are much more like what you think of Duke Ellington sounding like than, say, Robert Johnson or Jimmy Reed."

Brown, adds the professor, "plays like a jazz guy but thinks like a blues guy, and that makes him something very special."

Especially to Inner-Loopers more likely to hang out at Poison Girl or Fitzgerald's than The Big Easy, perhaps no one represents the face of Houston blues more than Little Joe Washington. The diminutive guitarist with the wild-man visage is a familiar sight on the streets of Midtown and the adjacent Third Ward, often with his bicycle in tow.

Drummer Jackie Gray has kept time for Earl Gilliam, Texas Johnny Brown, the late Clarence Green and numerous other Houston blues greats.
Sherman Hatton
Drummer Jackie Gray has kept time for Earl Gilliam, Texas Johnny Brown, the late Clarence Green and numerous other Houston blues greats.
Pee Wee Stephens played on albums by the late Jerry Lightfoot. Today his Blues For 2 Band, with guitarist Pops Stewart, has residencies at Natachee's Supper & Punch and the Chicago Bar & Grill.
Sherman Hatton
Pee Wee Stephens played on albums by the late Jerry Lightfoot. Today his Blues For 2 Band, with guitarist Pops Stewart, has residencies at Natachee's Supper & Punch and the Chicago Bar & Grill.

Because of his eccentricity and bouts with homelessness and poverty — including earlier this summer, when he was forced to find new lodgings when his roommate became a full-time caretaker to her terminally ill sister — Washington has probably had more press than all the other blues elders combined, including a 2001 Houston Press cover story by Jennifer Mathieu (see "Hitting the Highs and Lows with Little Joe Washington," March 22, 2001).

What sets Washington apart from these others is his adoption by a younger audience. Brown and the others have their younger fans, to be sure, but play mostly for white, middle-aged, generally affluent crowds, while Washington's normal milieu is Boondocks, where he has a long-running residency on Tuesdays, as well as the Continental Club, where he recently began working a monthly happy hour on Fridays. Washington used to live above the Continental, and had a happy-hour residency at the club for many years that certainly brought him to the attention of a broader crowd than the other Houston blues giants normally attract.

And the fact of the matter is, Washington's sets are wild. Whereas Gaines, Brown and Hopkins sport a dignified, well-dressed stage presence, Washington barely seems to notice what he is wearing and gets up to all sorts of less-than-dignified shenanigans onstage, among them playing his guitar with his tongue or rubbing it on his private parts. He attacks his music like a rock and roller, which is undoubtedly part of his appeal to a wider crowd.

One man you will never catch rubbing his guitar anywhere near his crotch is Milton Hopkins. Always impeccably dressed, he was in Johnny Ace's band that Christmas Day in 1954 when the young star committed suicide while playing Russian roulette backstage at Houston's City Auditorium. Hopkins recently went to Memphis, where he received the Albert King award for best guitarist from the Jus' Blues Music Foundation, which also honored Hopkins's frequent stage partner Trudy Lynn with the KoKo Taylor award for best female vocalist.

Hopkins believes Houston is far from the best city for a blues musician to make a living. He knows too many people in other places, he says, who "have a nice house and a nice car and they don't do anything but play music. You can't do that in Houston anymore. So to me, saying Houston has the best blues scene in the country doesn't really wash.

"You can't make a living being a blues musician in Houston today," elaborates Hopkins. "There aren't enough gigs and there isn't a big enough fan base, so there's just not enough money in the blues to make a decent living without touring."

Beyond the current generation led by Lynn, Greenleaf, Robertson and Leonard "Lowdown" Brown, Hopkins doesn't hold out much hope for the blues. He's noticed the general decline of interest in the music as close as his own family, which has one of the most famous last names in blues history — certainly in Texas.

"Honestly, it's about history, and most people just don't seem that interested," he explains. "Back in the day, you had teachers like Conrad Johnson and Sammy Harris at the schools who gave a lot of guys a nudge in the right direction. I don't see that anymore.

"I come from a large family, but I can tell you that when we all get together, there are teenagers in our family that don't even know who Lightnin' is, who don't know that I play guitar," Hopkins continues. "So I don't see a lot of hope for this music going forward beyond the people who will still be attracted to recordings."

Even Wood, as big a booster of the Houston blues community as there is, admits that while the Houston scene is still fairly vibrant at the moment, taking a longer view means acknowledging that it is in decline.

"We still have a good number of high-quality shows going on, but it's no use pretending things haven't changed here," he says. "In 1994-95, seven days a week, you could find something solid happening at a wide array of joints. And don't forget, the whole Houston tradition of Blue Mondays was very much going full-tilt, and that has all but vanished.

"Now we're down to a handful of places putting on quality local blues shows, and that's mostly just Friday and Saturday nights," Wood says. "Other than that, it's mostly blues jams."
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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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