Blues For Food, the annual November food drive at Shakespeare Pub, has racked up some pretty impressive numbers in its 25 years. This Sunday starting at 2 p.m., dozens of Houston musicians will gather to sing for other people's supper, with either at least one nonperishable food item or a reasonable cash donation the only price of admission. The event's beneficiary, the Houston Food Bank, has to date received an estimated 150,000 pounds of food and additional $100,000 in donations from this one long afternoon of wall-to-wall music. Math nerds will note that those totals average out to 6,000 pounds (or three tons) of food and about $4,000 per year, all from volunteer labor.
“You look at what we’ve done through the years, it’s pretty impressive,” says harmonica-blowing Houston bluesman Sonny Boy Terry, who has been at the helm of Blues For Food for 15 years. “It’s a small blues bar, you know, and it’s just us. We don’t have any corporate sponsors or advertising budgets or anything like that. We’re doing it all.”
Terry took over from Big Roger Collins, the late Houston blues singer and DJ who passed away in the fall of 2000, leaving Terry with just a few weeks to pull everything together. Collins also had a crack-of-dawn shift at KPFT-FM, and Terry remembers him cooking at his barbecue pit outside Shakespeare's all night, then heading over to the radio station to promote the food drive. Blues For Food's early days, he recalls, was something of a “big, beautiful mess.”
“It was just kind of a crazy madhouse thing,” Terry says today. “[Collins] would make this big, massive pot of gumbo with all different kinds of mysterious bones and meats and things in it. But it was real cool. He’d bring it in there and that pot would be sitting in there all day.”
When Collins was in charge, he also printed up flyers and distributed them in areas like Third Ward and Sunnyside. To stock the bandstand, he called on his musician friends, some of whom, Terry notes, were pretty obscure to most Houston audiences. Better-known names who played in the past have included Pete Mayes, Joe “Guitar” Hughes and Little Joe Washington long before his Continental happy-hour days, as well as zydeco musicians like Wilbert Thibodeaux.
“The music was really cool,” recalls Terry. “I always played with Joe Hughes; I was playing with Joe back then. But [Collins] would invite Ashton Savoy, and a lot of these guys that a lot of people just didn’t know about. He kind of pulled them out of the woodwork, you know?”
These days Terry says he tries to run a pretty tight ship, with the help of the approximately 100 volunteers (counting the musicians), which mostly leaves him the unenviable task of booking the performers and figuring out the stage times. A raffle and silent auction help raise additional funds; last year a cigar-box guitar featuring the likeness of Lightnin' Hopkins went for nearly $1,000. (A similar prize this year honors Albert Collins, Terry says.) It takes about six weeks to fill up the afternoon, he notes; with a few exceptions, artists are granted a half-hour onstage. Terry asks that they arrive an hour early and prepare to stay an hour later than their announced time, and otherwise be flexible in case a spot suddenly comes open.
“They’re my peers, first of all, so I don’t want to aggravate ‘em,” he says. “But I want ‘em to be there and I want ‘em to feel good about doing it. And everybody lines up. There’s bands clamoring to play Blues For Food.”
In order to “sweeten the pot,” as he says, Terry usually asks a couple of out-of-town guests to perform each year. Baton Rouge singer/guitarist Larry Garner, a member of the Louisiana Blues Hall of Fame, sat in at one of Terry's gigs a couple of weeks ago and agreed to play the food drive. Also in town will be Austin bassist Erin Jaimes and her band, with ace jump-blues guitarist Chris Ruest sitting in.
But performers come out of the woodwork at Blues For Food. People may say yes after the posters and other advertising tools are made, Terry notes; he's expecting one of those, Billy Pittman — guitarist in Jimmie Vaughan's Tilt-a-Whirl Band — this year. Whoever else shows up, and some bigger names could well be there, the nucleus of Blues For Food remains a core group of local acts who play the food drive year in and year out.
Although this year will miss past standbys like Mojofromopolis and John McVey, who broke up and moved to Austin, respectively, still on board are the Mighty Orq & the Unusuals, Rick Lee and the Nite Owls, Zydeco Dots, Dave Nevling and the Blues Kats, and Miss Trudy Lynn fronting the Steve Krase Band. Terry himself, scheduled to perform shortly before 6 p.m., will be joined by Rich DelGrosso and Jimmy “Louisiana” Dotson. Besides that, he says he'll be focused on keeping the line moving.
“I’ve done these benefits [in the past] where you sit around all day and never play,” he says. “And then they go, ‘Well, it’s a benefit; it’s a good cause.’ But you still feel bad you didn’t get a chance to play. There are people who come there to see you, and they don’t get a chance to see you.”
As the food drive draws to a close, Terry traditionally cedes his hosting duties to the “World Famous Blues Jam” hosted by the Shakespeare's Sunday-night house band, Spare Time Murray and the Honeymakers. Terry, who says he sometimes “turns into a pumpkin” and goes home before the jam, says the place is nonetheless always packed with people who played earlier, other musicians who didn't and the inevitable special guests who just happened to drop by hoping to perform in front of a packed house.
“The jam is crazy,” Terry says. “Spare Time’s a legend; he’s played with everybody. He knows how to do it, and Screamin’ Kenny [of the Hightailers] has been around forever. They’re great musicians, so they always run a good jam. [Sunday night] is a pretty popular jam around town.”
Since its inception, Blues For Food has been one of the most important days of the year for the local blues community, not just because of its charitable goal, but for its spirit of fellowship and friendly competition among musicians. KPFT, which continues to air blues-related programming Sunday mornings and afternoons, has also been key to Blues For Food's continued success, Terry notes.
“KPFT you can keep plugging and plugging and plugging and plugging on there, and people show up,” he says. And all-day blues…you’re gonna hear about Blues For Food.
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“It’s a real big deal for everybody, and everybody’s positive, everybody chips in,” adds Terry. “I do a lot of gigs where it feels like I’m herding cats, but for Blues for Food, it’s never like that. Everybody is really super.”
BLUES FOR FOOD 2015 SCHEDULE
Stage times approximate & subject to change
2 p.m.: Bourbon St.
2:45 p.m.: Mighty Orq & the Unusuals
3:30 p.m.: Annette Metoyer & the Guyz
4:15 p.m.: Erin Jaimes Band feat. Chris Ruest
5:15 p.m.: Larry Garner
5:45 p.m.: Sonny Boy Terry Band feat. Jimmy "Louisiana" Dotson & Rich DelGrosso
7 p.m.: Trudy Lynn feat. the Steve Krase Band
8 p.m.: Zydeco Dots
8:45 p.m.: Dave Nevling & the Blues Kats
9:30 p.m.: Rick Lee & the Nite Owls
10 p.m.: Spare Time Murray's World Famous Blues Jam
Blues For Food begins at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 8 at Shakespeare Pub, 14129 Memorial. Please bring a nonperishable food item or cash donation ($10+ suggested).