A Houston Icon Passes

Rest in peace Don Luis, the "Old Violin Man" of southeast Houston.

Busking on the Bayou

Chingo Bling: "Don Luis truly touched people's lives."

Qui cantat laudem, non solum cantat, sed et amat eum quem cantat. (He who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing for.) — Saint Augustine

In every town, no matter how large or small, there are certain characters who become icons of their community, many times without the explicit desire to be so. Last week, the town of Houston lost one such individual. His name was Luis Cruz, or more respectfully, Don Luis. But for the many who would see him playing his trusty, aged violin on the corner of Woodridge Drive and the Gulf Freeway, he was simply and affectionately known as "The Old Violin Man."

Don Luis, Houston's "Old Violin Man," played at the corner of I-45 South and Woodridge for many years.
Michael Luster/EastwoodPhoto
Don Luis, Houston's "Old Violin Man," played at the corner of I-45 South and Woodridge for many years.

Cruz passed away on January 28 while he was hospitalized at Bayshore Medical Center in Pasadena. He lived to the age of 90. He is survived by his wife, Emilia; six daughters; four sons; and several grandchildren.

Don Luis entertained and inspired countless motorists on his street corner, where he endured many steamy summer days and frigid winter chills, all for the love of music. Always sporting his signature cowboy hat and wide smile, he sang and played for whatever tips he was handed in the short time between red lights.

One of his countless admirers is hometown rapper Chingo Bling, who expressed his condolences on his official Facebook page as follows:

RIP to Don Luis. He played his violin with a smile almost every day at the intersection of Woodridge and 45 south. For free. Because he loved it. Of course he received tips but he didn't need the money. Don Luis truly touched people's lives just by being himself and doing what he loves. How powerful is that?! He wasn't worried about winning a Grammy, MTV, Facebook "likes" or radio play. He played from a pure place and you could feel it in his smile and presence. I must say that this man has inspired me tremendously. I grew up a block away with dreams of Grammys and radio play. I had it all wrong. Don Luis knew the right way. Not by chasing anything, but by simply being yourself and doing what you love... NO MATTER WHAT. Right there on the corner of 45 and Woodridge Don Luis had LIFE figured out. He found his JOY and he was spreading it one smile at a time. To me he's made it bigger than any other "superstar" out there. Thank you SUPERSTAR for showing us HOW TO LIVE.

Rest in Peace, Don Luis. You will be missed.

Get Lit

Stax and Stax of Records

The Shakespearean Story of Soulsville, U.S.A.

Bob Ruggiero

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion
By Robert Gordon, 384 pp., $30

It's a story that any novelist or screenwriter would find fantastical. A white middle-aged banker and part-time country music fiddler with a hankering to get into the business convinces his older sister (and her skeptical husband) to mortgage their house so he can open a recording studio.

Then the pair buy an abandoned movie theater in a downtrodden area of blacker-than-black Memphis, build said studio and also an in-house rec­ord shop. And from that studio came some of the most treasured ­music of the '60s and '70s, heard around the world.

Stax Records would ultimately put its name on some 800 singles and 300 albums from 1960 through 1975, launching the careers of dozens of performers including Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MG's, Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Luther Ingram, Albert King, The Staples Singers, the Bar-Kays and many, many more.

While Rob Bowman's previous Stax bio, Soulsville, was fine on its own, Gordon's take goes deeper, building on that effort and those of other writers with a heaping helping of original research and interviews.

The history of Stax is really split into two eras: the first, with Jim Steward and his sister Estelle Axton's familial and casual hands on the wheel, featuring an open-door studio that led to many record deals. Race-mixing was taken for granted, despite the potential dangers. When Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler came to still-segregated Memphis to meet with Stewart, the group had to be led through the hotel's back entrance and hidden in Wexler's room.

And then there's the second era, and Redding. The label's biggest star of the Mark I era first arrived at the studio as the driver/roadie/valet of another performer, and only after constantly pestering the Stax staff did he get a one-off chance to audition. His 1967 death in a plane crash at age 26 came just as his career began cooking.

Stax's handling of production, distribution, sales and promotion was unique as well; it farmed that work out to Atlantic Records, leaving the independent studio to concentrate on the music. Things changed drastically in 1968, though, when the Atlantic relationship dissolved, along with the revelation that Stewart had inadvertently signed away the company's entire back catalog, leaving the record label with nothing.

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis kept Stax, and the city, on edge. Soon, musicians were getting shaken down in the parking lot, and the label was criticized for its racial integration and lack of involvement in the Black Power movement.

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