A Houston Icon Passes
Busking on the Bayou
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."
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.
Stax and Stax of Records
The Shakespearean Story of Soulsville, U.S.A.
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.
It got so bad that MG's drummer Al Jackson Jr. personally froze out bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn — a man he'd spent hundreds of hours on the road and in the studio with — because "someone else had said he was a racist." Stax needed help, badly.
That help came in the form of the 6-foot-5 frame of Al Bell, hired by Stewart to inject life into the studio. With a background in promotions and a passion for preaching, the whirlwind former DJ built up Stax with an ambitious expansion and marketing plan, wheeling and dealing with distributors, investors, other record companies, banks and influential music movers.
Soon Stax was back on track, selling more records than ever (often with new acts) and making a worldwide performing star out of staff writer Isaac Hayes, whose distinct bald/shirtless/gold-chained appearance and music got him dubbed "Black Moses."
It came at a price, though. Drugs, payola, spotty bookkeeping, and questionable hires (some with forceful, thuggish ways of getting things done) kept things on edge. R&B/Soul music was out, and suddenly, disco and dance music was in.
Overextended bank loans, lawsuits and countersuits, a general decline in morale, racial prejudice on the part of Memphis institutions, and Bell's high-living/high-flying style made it all come crashing down, with Bell being led away and the studio padlocked, taken over by creditors and becoming the subject of a federal lawsuit.
Stewart — whom Bell had bought out years earlier but who nonetheless returned to put up all his monies and possessions as collateral to help the studio — lost everything. He was eventually evicted, with his wife and three children, from the luxury home they lived in.
The Stax studio, record shop and offices — neglected for so many years — were eventually torn down and rebuilt to specification years later. They now house the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy.
The most important legacy of Stax — the music — not only remains, but is as vibrant as ever. Anytime the radio plays, or someone performs, "Green Onions," "Hold On, I'm Comin'" "Soul Man," "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," "I'll Take You There," "Knock on Wood," "Respect Yourself" or even "The Theme from Shaft," Stax lives again.
Make no mistake, Gordon's book is an amazing and important read. But it only makes you want to reach for the CD shelf to hear the music of Stax all the more.
And that's the best thing a book about music can ever hope to accomplish.
Ask Willie D
A reader landed a sweet gig overseas, but it's all work and no play.
Dear Willie D:
At 22 years old, I came straight out of college and landed a job in China with a technology firm that pays me 120K per year. I had to move away, leaving my girlfriend and family behind in Houston. It has been very hard on me because of the language barrier and because I didn't know a single soul when I arrived. I've been here for eight months and I still don't know anybody. So I have no friends. All I do is work and sleep.
The only American channels on TV in the corporate apartment I live in are CNN and MTV, but the MTV channel is in Chinese. The Wi-Fi connection works sometimes, but mostly not. I'm bored out of my mind. I miss my girlfriend and my family. I want to go back home but if I do, my mother and father will be disappointed. They think I'm Steve Jobs or somebody. What would you do in my position?
I would get that money.
Ask Willie D appears Thursdays on Rocks Off.
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