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Old School

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

To evaluate Patrick Harris's statement that Houston has the hottest blues scene in the country, the Press reached out to a few writers, public-relations people and blues musicians in Chicago, Memphis and Atlanta to take the pulse of those longtime blues strongholds.

Much like Wood's view of Houston, both Atlanta and Chicago seem to be in a similar declining arc: Fewer clubs catering to blues and a gradual attrition of significant musicians. Longtime Atlantan and former Allman Brothers/Capricorn Records PR man Mark Pucci describes a scene that seems almost like a carbon copy of Houston's, although perhaps with fewer quality old-school players.

"As far as Atlanta is concerned, thank God for Blind Willie's," he says. "They've been doing it for over 20 years and have a good built-in audience that comes out no matter who's playing, because they know they're going to hear quality music."

The dapper Texas Johnny Brown, author of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Two Steps From the Blues," is the local blues scene's elder statesman, still carving some deep grooves at age 83.
Miller Outdoor Theater Advisory Board
The dapper Texas Johnny Brown, author of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Two Steps From the Blues," is the local blues scene's elder statesman, still carving some deep grooves at age 83.
Grady Gaines (orange suit) & the Texas Upsetters' blues and R&B standards usually pack the dance floor at The Big Easy.
Lisa Rosato
Grady Gaines (orange suit) & the Texas Upsetters' blues and R&B standards usually pack the dance floor at The Big Easy.

The venue is in a nice area and is surrounded by other bars and restaurants, he adds, which brings in a lot of walk-in and tourist visitors, too. Pucci notes the Northside Tavern near Georgia Tech and Fat Matt's in Midtown as other blues bars with good local/area artists on a nightly basis.

Second-generation Chicago musician Nick Tremulis, whose father used to "smoke pot with Nat King Cole's brother," sees a lovable but dwindling scene from the heyday of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, Chess Records and Maxwell Street. He says Chicago's efforts to turn the blues and its oldest purveyors into a tourist attraction, although financially lucrative, are a double-edged sword.

"Chicago blues musicians make a good portion of their money playing for tourists or folks coming from out of town to catch a little fire of what they believe is the 'Home of the blues,' says Tremulis. "Maybe a quick look at it would have you believe that it's a money-making enterprise costume-party shell game of what it once was. But if you're looking for a scene, you ain't gonna find it.

"We have a tourist market here," Tremulis adds, "and thank God for that, because it means our local guys can play Buddy Guy's club — and Buddy always gets the pay right — and some other outlets around town once a month or so and make rent and buy medicine and food."

Chicago Reader and Living Blues freelance writer David Whiteis describes the Windy City as two distinct yet similar blues scenes and audiences, one mainly white and middle-class and a smaller, mainly black audience in a few old-school clubs.

Ironically, Whiteis describes the venues with primarily white audiences as tending toward "more traditional blues, meaning not just '50s-'60s postwar stuff, but music that's driven primarily by guitars and includes a lot of 12-bar shuffles. It often has a harmonica somewhere in the mix, and doesn't usually include what most people would call 'pop' songs."

"A lot of musicians complain they feel compelled to play the 'set list from hell' of 'Sweet Home Chicago,' 'Got My Mojo Working,' 'Woke Up This Morning,'" among others, Whiteis notes, when they play those venues.

Meanwhile, local bandleader Milton Hopkins says Memphis has "quite a few good venues and lots of fans spending money for the blues." (The Press reached out to music writers at Memphis's weekly Flyer and daily Commercial Appeal, but got no reply.)

Yet Hopkins also notes that during his recent brief stay in Memphis, where he and Trudy Lynn accepted their awards, he saw "a lot of guys who can stand around and talk about blues all night, but then they jump up onstage for a song or two, it's rock and roll or soul, but they don't really know the blues."

By all accounts, Hopkins's impromptu drop-in at Memphis's mostly black club Wild Bill's was a stunner, with the Houston bluesman upstaging the regular guitarist so badly that when Hopkins tried to leave the stage, the local hero said, "No, you just keep playing, I'm not going to try to follow that."

It seems Houston has as many quality old-school players and equally enthusiastic, although largely white, audiences as these three cities. Best blues scene in America? Open for debate, but Houston is definitely in the running, and gets extra points for not turning the blues into a tourist enterprise — even at local blues jams, there is no set list from hell.

It's probably been 40 years since the blues was "popular," at least in terms of radio airplay and record sales.

Alongside swing and rock and roll, blues and R&B were musically dominant from the '40s through the '60s, with songs and albums regularly crossing over to the pop charts. But the music's commercial clout (if not its influence) has been diminishing ever since. B.B. King last hit the Billboard Top 40 in 1974 with "I Like to Live the Love" (No. 28), and the last bona fide blues song to make the Top 20 was the Robert Cray Band's "Smoking Gun" in 1987.

Thanks to festivals and the patronage of blues-loving celebrities like House of Blues co-founder Dan Aykroyd (a.k.a. Elwood Blues), the blues remains a healthy concert draw, but even there the character of the music has changed alongside the color of its audience.

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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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