As we laid out in the Houston Press cover story last year ["Old School," August 31, 2011], there's plenty of muscle and swagger in the Houston blues scene right now. While activity at clubs like the Big Easy, Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, Shakespeare's Pub and the Hideaway on Dunvale has seen an upswing in the past year or two, local blues fans will get a special treat Wednesday night when Jones Hall hosts some of Houston's living blues treasures in a first-of-its-kind performance.
Artists tapped to perform this tribute to the music of Houston's Third and Fifth Wards represent the crème de la crème of the local scene: Grady Gaines and his Texas Upsetters, Texas Johnny Brown, Milton Hopkins, Trudy Lynn, Ray Brown and a special finale by the Kashmere Reunion Stage Band. According to Society for the Performing Arts President June Christensen, the idea for the program, "Preserving a Legacy: A Tribute to Houston's Blues," has been germinating for a while.
"One of our directors, Karl Kilian from the Menil, gave me a copy of Dr. Roger Wood's book, Down in Houston, when it came out in 2003, and that book sat on my desk for years," she says. "I never filed it away, so it kept serving as a reminder because every once in a while, I'd see it and think we needed to do something with Houston blues. We just weren't sure what we should do."
Christensen found a kindred spirit in SPA Director of Development Priscilla Larson, who happened to be a friend of longtime Houston blues guitarist Milton Hopkins.
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"I grew up in Houston and loved the blues," says Larson, "but until I read Dr. Wood's book, I really hadn't understood what a unique, home-grown thing we had here."
According to Christensen, SPA finally determined that the best approach was to apply for a grant and tie the entire proposal to Black History Month. She says the directors brainstormed and, a couple of years ago, applied for one of the National Endowment for the Arts' "Access to Artistic Excellence" grants. Sadly, they got shot down.
"But the NEA people were very intrigued and supportive, and they kept coming back to us from time to time with ideas for how to tweak our application," adds Christensen. "So we resubmitted last year after updating our proposal with a series of educational community-outreach events that would culminate in the Jones Hall performance, and we were awarded the grant."
The original thinking, Christensen notes, was for SPA to bring in one big-name national star like B.B. King or Keb' Mo' for drawing power — Jones Hall seats 3,000 — but the Society eventually scrapped that idea.
"We finally concluded we have world-class talent here, and that the right thing to do was to feature Houston talent only," she says. "To me, this is the beauty of NEA's mission, because it became quite clear during the planning and grant process that NEA is keenly interested in helping communities spotlight their master artists."
One such master artist is Lightnin' Hopkins's cousin Milton, who was a touring guitar-for-hire for years before returning to settle in his hometown. The effusive Larson recalls Hopkins's long residency at the Reddi Room on Washington Avenue.
"Every time I see Milton, we talk about those days," she says. "Looking back on that scene, it was so very Houston, a mixture of races and cultural strata whose common denominator was a love of this soulful, unique music that is almost like an emblem for who we are here in Houston."
Hopkins was mowing his lawn when the Press caught up with him. Usually reserved, he is ecstatic about the Jones Hall show.
"There's such a few of us in my age group left, this is just like a dream come true finally for a certain group of us," he says.
Noting that onetime Little Richard saxophonist Grady Gaines and his group the Texas Upsetters are the evening's house band, Hopkins says he will be performing a Gatemouth Brown song during his spotlight. Brown was a longtime fixture on the Houston blues scene after making his big splash at Don Robey's historic Bronze Peacock nightclub in 1947.
"Gatemouth was one of my main mentors, so it only seems right that I play one of his tunes," says the 77-year-old Hopkins. "Back in the day, you didn't really know who you were talking to — he just seemed like another guy who played real well — but you knew if he showed you something, some lick or a chord, you were getting the real word."
The one thing Hopkins laughingly bemoans about the Jones Hall program is the length of his set.
"With so much music on the bill that night, it's a shame we won't have time to stretch and do any head-cutting and get after each other a little bit, like we used to do all the time in the clubs," he says.
But Hopkins applauds SPA's educational outreach programs during February — describing them as "tremendous" — and says he hopes a lot of young people come to the show.
"We need those kids," says Hopkins. "The music masters in the high schools weren't teaching this music for a long time. In the past, this line of music, this blues culture, was not taught or mentioned in school. It's very encouraging to see some young people start to take an interest."
International blues star Trudy Lynn, who regularly performs in Europe, says she has been "totally impressed" with SPA's effort to bring this program into being. She's "overjoyed," she adds, to see herself and her fellow musicians presented in such a prestigious venue.
"Last year when we all got together for that photo shoot for the Houston Press story, with a lot of us there in one room, it got me to thinking about what we'll be losing when the last of that great generation of blues players and singers passes on," Lynn says. "Really, something like this should've been done a long time ago, but better late than never."
Known as Houston's "First Lady of the Blues," Lynn notes that she'll be doing some original material during her portion of the show.
"I lived in Georgia for a while, and over there they seem to always be doing something for their artists," she says, "something to expose them to a wider audience, promote them."
Houston Blues Society president Boyd Bluestein calls the event a "unique, once-in-a-lifetime happening."
"We've worked back and forth with the SPA," he says. The Blues Society has helped underwrite several of the outreach events this month, explains Bluestein, such as the young blues players concert and Sonny Boy Terry's harmonica workshops.
"We're just so happy that this event is happening," he adds. "For those of us who love the blues and want to preserve Houston's blues heritage, to see this music come to the stage at Jones Hall is like a dream. To see it backed by an organization of the caliber of the Society for the Performing Arts is just icing on the cake.
"Now we just need Houston to come out for this historic night and make this a huge success," continues Bluestein, "so it can happen again."
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