Some musicians transcend their field and become something more. Joe "Guitar" Hughes, who passed away on May 21, was one such. Hughes was a Houston icon, a local treasure, a monument to the Third Ward blues scene that was impoverished mightily the day he died.
In a way, he was a latter-day Lightnin' Hopkins -- when you talked about the Houston blues of the last 20 years or so, you talked about Hughes. If you had music-loving visitors from out of town who wanted to know what Houston music was all about, you took them to watch the man in the tailored jade-green suit with the salt-and- pepper hair sing his heart out, shout "Ouch-ee baby!" and pick the strings off his Fender.
Like Hopkins, Hughes preferred to stay in Houston, even though he could have had greater stardom had he moved elsewhere. Many of his childhood neighbors and bandmates left town to become big names. Johnny "Guitar" Watson went to L.A. and became a star twice -- first as a B.B. King-style bluesman and later as the pimp-rolling, funky "Gangster of Love." Albert Collins also went to L.A., and later to Chicago, and wound up appearing in beer commercials with Bruce Willis. Johnny Copeland moved to Harlem and became the blues' foremost ambassador to Africa and won a Grammy with Collins and Robert Cray.
"He saw his buddies go on and achieve stuff, and he knew he could have done it, but he stayed," says Roger Wood, the author of the definitive Houston blues history book Down in Houston and a Press contributor. "I remember he used the metaphor of a nest: He liked his nest, he wanted to stay in his nest, and he didn't see any point in flying too far from his nest. He was a native, he lived his whole life here, he knew these neighborhoods, and this is where he made his music."
Joe Maurice Hughes was born in the Fourth Ward in 1937 and moved to the Third Ward four years later. He never knew his father -- "They told me he was bein' buried the day I was born," Hughes said in a 1998 interview with Living Blues. Hughes's mother, Harriet, worked as a domestic, and Hughes said that sometimes the family (which also included two other siblings) went hungry. Eventually Harriet remarried, and Hughes's stepfather fostered in the youngster a love of Lightnin' Hopkins.
"On weekends, he'd get his bourbon and sit by the Victrola -- if baseball wasn't on," Hughes remembered in the LB interview. "I watched him play Lightnin' Hopkins and, according to what song he's playin', he'd sit there and cry. Get full of his bourbon and cry."
Hughes grew up in Jim Crow Houston. At first he didn't know anything was wrong -- his contact with whites was limited. The full weight fell on his shoulders one afternoon when a white man called him a nigger at the park. "So I called the chief of police on him," Hughes told LB. "But the police chief say, 'Well, that's what you are.' So I just hung up the phone. This is where the thing started setting in."
When Hughes was 15 he took a job washing dishes at Bill Williams's restaurant. With his second paycheck, he bought his first guitar. "It was a bad choice," he said. "It was the prettiest guitar you ever wanted to see. It had a beautiful pinkish golden color, but I didn't have sense enough to play it till after I bought it. It didn't have good sound at all."
Hughes's first band was a trio called the Dukes of Rhythm, and Wood says that the band brought a punklike approach to its blues and early R&B music. That is to say, none of them knew how to play a damn thing, but that didn't stop them from starting a band. "It was real haphazard -- Herbert Henderson started out on guitar and ended up being the drummer. Johnny Copeland started out as the drummer and ended up on guitar. Johnny couldn't keep time on drums worth a crap and they got frustrated, so Herbert said, 'Hell, I could do that,' and he ended up having a long career as a drummer."
Another thing about the Dukes of Rhythm that was reminiscent of the Sex Pistols was the fact that they liked to fight each other. ("Dukes" could as well have referred to fists as to royalty.) In a 1987 interview with blues historian Alan Govenar, Copeland -- like Hughes an amateur boxer in his younger days -- discussed this aspect of the band.
"I've always been a T-Bone Walker person. Joe Hughes was always into Gatemouth Brown, and we'd have guitar battles and fist battles, too, all kinds of battles. We used to be on stage and he'd say something I didn't like and I'd say, 'You'd better not step outside.' Of course, he'd put the guitar down and we'd go outside and he'd say, 'Say it again!' and we'd fight, then go back inside and start playing again. We were just kids. It wasn't really a fight. It was playing around. We didn't have intelligence enough to know that we were messing with these people's money. We were once locked up in Galveston for being on the streets too young, and we were at the jailhouse fighting."
Both men got better in this pressure cooker of a band. Hughes was a few months ahead of Copeland, and as soon as Copeland would master Hughes's skills, Hughes would learn some more. "He was my teacher, and you always want to beat your teacher," Copeland remembered. Eventually, Copeland split amicably from the Dukes of Rhythm to front his own band, which became the house band at the legendary Shady's Playhouse, the low-key Third Ward bar that provided a counterbalance to the more uptight clubs like the El Dorado and Club Matinee.
A few years later, Hughes succeeded Copeland at Shady's. "Shady's was short-shirt, come-as-you-are, whatever," Hughes told Wood a few years ago. "The El Dorado was a tie and jacket, dress up Here [at Shady's] you could come in and hear anything. But you wouldn't hear no Lightnin' at the El Dorado "
That was the way the unassuming Hughes was. "I didn't like the El Dorado. You were welcome, but I'm just a down-to-earth guy," he told Wood. "I can fit in at the White House, or I could fit in at the garbage dump, in the sewer -- and get along with anybody along the way. I'm not going to look down at nobody from down at the garbage dump because I'm 'up here' at the El Dorado Be who you are, wherever you are, you know?"
Hughes always claimed to have difficulty being his own man on the guitar. He maintained that when he started out he learned other players' styles too well to have developed one of his own. He was too modest -- Hughes was one of the few guys going recently who was instantly recognizable. His slashing, stinging solos on his trademark Fender proclaimed his name just as clearly as the "Joe 'Guitar' Hughes" he had emblazoned on his guitar strap. He sang in a rich voice with a dark timbre, and the songs he put that voice to ranged from the starkly autobiographical "Put the Crack Down" to the darkly humorous "If You Want to See the Blues."
Early in his stint at Shady's, Hughes met Willie Mae, who became his wife of 42 years. "I was a hell of a ladies' man until I met Willie Mae," he told LB. "She tore my little playhouse down, and I don't mean Shady's, either."
"Through the whole arc of his career, she's been there influencing his decisions, and I think she influenced him to do the things that were best for his family," says Wood. To Wood, the story of Willie Mae and Joe was the story of A Love Supreme, which was the original title of Spike Lee's movie Mo' Better Blues.
"Denzel Washington plays a saxophone player in the film, and he has to choose: What is the love supreme? Is it to totally sacrifice everything to your artistry, is it to be the great trumpet player you know you can be? Or is it to sacrifice everything to your family? In the climactic scene of that film, they're playing the song "A Love Supreme," and you're watching these images of that guy with his kids. The film ultimately says that this guy makes the decision for family, and in some ways there's less ego involved -- instead of saying, 'Hey, I'm the artist -- to hell with everything else.' "
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Hughes made that same decision. "I don't know what kind of father or grandfather Joe Hughes was, but I think Willie helped Joe have a kind of value for that, and there's a certain nobility to it," says Wood. "I know he knew he'd sacrificed a lot. But he also had something: He had a great wife basically his whole life. That's part of who Joe was -- when I think about Joe and who he is, and the fact that he is the ultimate Houston guy of our time -- that's got something to do with it.
"Pete Mayes does Houston a lot and Texas Johnny Brown does Houston a whole lot," says Wood. "But with Pete you think of Double Bayou, and Texas Johnny is Houston by way of Mississippi. Clarence Hollimon was Houston, but he was gone a long time. Joe never left -- he was comfortable with that in some ways, but he knew he paid for that."
"I got a saying," Hughes told LB. "Happy is where you find it. And wherever it is you find it, you better enjoy it."
For parts of six decades in Houston, happy was where Joe Hughes was playing. And we certainly did enjoy it.