Old School

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

Outside elder statesmen such as King and Buddy Guy and their baby-boomer heirs such as Cray and Keb' Mo' (themselves rare within their generation), today the genre's top live acts — Jonny Lang, Susan Tedeschi, Joe Bonamassa — are white.

Their version of the blues, and the way most people recognize the music in 2011, comes filtered through the classic-rock stylings of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan. This is by far the most common type of music at Houston-area "blues" bars like Shakespeare's Pub, Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, the Hideaway on Dunvale and even The Big Easy, where the most popular artists include The Mighty Orq, Eric Demmer & the Sax Dawgs, Sonny Boy Terry and Rick Lee & the Night Owls.

But these places also welcome the likes of Texas Johnny Brown, who averages about one gig a month at Shakespeare's, as do Eugene Moody and Leonard "Lowdown" Brown.

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.

Besides its weekly blues jam at The Big Easy, the Houston Blues Society sponsors shows by local artists such as Little Joe Washington, Diunna Greenleaf and Milton Hopkins downtown at House of Blues about once a month.

These are the fruits of the "mutually beneficial network" of black musicians and white clubowners, promoters and audiences Roger Wood says sprang up in the early to mid-'90s. By then, the sun was already starting to set on the scene at black clubs such as Miss Ann's Playpen and C. Davis Barbecue, which hosted the talents of Clarence Green, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Jimmy "T-99" Nelson — all since passed — and the Thunderbird in their heyday. (Mr. Gino's in Sunnyside lives on.)

"I credit the Houston Blues Society, as well as the blues programming on KPFT and certain writers and scene promoters, with really assisting the solidification of the local blues community, black and otherwise," says Wood. "The larger fan base grew to appreciate the range and depth of talent readily available to perform on local stages. And the talent generally appreciated the newfound local notoriety — and gigs — beyond the black community."

But perhaps the biggest sign of the impact of Houston's blues community on the city at large has been the success of recent efforts to honor these musicians' contributions in a more permanent fashion. A little over a year ago, local blues fan R. Eric Davis almost single-handedly put together a campaign to obtain a Texas Historical Marker for Lightnin' Hopkins. The marker was financed entirely with private funding, Davis eventually bringing the Blues Society, the House of Blues and the City of Houston (in the form of an official proclamation) on board.

The Hopkins marker was dedicated in Third Ward last November; another, honoring historic nearby venue the Eldorado Ballroom, followed a few months later, after a similar fundraising effort by Project Row Houses. Plans for further memorials are in the very early stages. One, a Hollywood-style "Walk of Fame" bearing the names of past and present Houston blues greats, has already drawn the preliminary support of District I Councilman James Rodriguez.

Someday, that plan could even come to fruition. Maybe another one, yet to be formulated, will. If that happens, terrific. But for now, the names that future generations may only encounter embossed in a metal plaque on some downtown or Midtown sidewalk are probably playing this weekend on a stage somewhere close by, in person and very much alive.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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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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