Five Houston Music Landmarks Out-of-Towners Should See

A lot has gone down under the awning of SugarHill.
A lot has gone down under the awning of SugarHill.
Photo courtesy of Casey Waldner/SugarHill Studios

Let's face it: for all its many virtues, Houston can be a lousy tourist town. The Ship Channel and the Med Center don’t quite scream “fun family vacation,” and the Galleria can burn through any visitor’s travel budget in a hurry. So when company comes a-calling, Houstonians are often left to our own devices to play tour guide. And while a good restaurant crawl may be easy enough to put together, Houston being one of those recently minted “regional food capitals” the local media can’t remind us about enough, the challenge gets a little more complicated if your guests have music on their minds. Just to make it extra difficult, we're leaving off any establishments of the bar or nightclub variety – you never know, your visitors might prefer to turn in early. If nothing else, that could make an excellent Part 2.

We’ve reached an age in which the idea of physically owning the music they listen to is completely absurd to a growing number of people, and yet Cactus Music has never been more important to Houston’s music fans than it is right now. It’s not just the ongoing resurgence of interest in vinyl that’s keeping the doors open, although you’d be hard-pressed to find many of the LPs in the boxes lining the store on iTunes. What makes Cactus special is its belief that music is important, that music still matters, a philosophy shared by those who work and shop there. And besides, buying a CD or LP is only one of the many reasons to go there — maybe it’s to get an “I’m Not Moving to Austin” T-shirt, or take in one of the periodic art shows like the “Texas Me” poster exhibit that opens this Saturday, or to enjoy one or more of the several in-store performances per weekend, or perhaps an autograph session. Houston is blessed with a number of other brick-and-mortar record shops who have also admirably ridden out the digital revolution, but Cactus is the flagship. And if they don’t have whatever you may be looking for in stock, the ever-helpful staff will gladly point you to one of their neighbors across town.

Find It: 2110 Portsmouth,

Ideally, you’d steer sightseers away from anything as mundane as a school, particularly if kids are in tow. Aside from being bluntly reminded of all they’d come to escape — sleepy early mornings, sluggish school zone traffic, nightly homework — a school is just not that exciting. Unless it’s Kashmere High School, which was the stomping grounds of the late Conrad O. Johnson, one of Houston’s best-known educators. Johnson, known as “Prof” to his students and any Houstonian who knows anything about music, helmed a wildly successful competition band at Kashmere. During the 1970s, the band was almost unbeatable in local, regional and national competition thanks to a vibrant stage show and Johnson’s detailed orchestration of the funk songs they performed. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the band swept 42 of 46 events during that time. After Johnson left the school in the late 1970s, he continued to teach Houston musicians through the still-running Summer Jazz Workshop. Here, Johnson focused on his first love, formed by rubbing elbows with fellow musical contemporaries like Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. Out-of-towners would have had their curiosity stoked by the highly-lauded 2010 documentary Thunder Soul, which told the story of Kashmere Stage Band alumni reuniting for one last show for Prof’s 92nd birthday, just two days before Johnson died.

Find It: 6900 Wileyville Rd.,

Five Houston Music Landmarks Out-of-Towners Should See
Photo by Matthew Keever

Even with its long and distinguished musical history, Houston is somewhat short on true icons, but Lightnin’ Hopkins absolutely fits the bill. Gifted with the ability to practically write a song on the spot, Hopkins combined candid stories of his rural upbringing near Crockett with a jazzy, idiosyncratic guitar style to reign as one of Texas’ top bluesmen long after he passed away in 1982. His influence eventually grew worldwide, but after some studio time at L.A.’s Aladdin Records in the late ‘40s, Hopkins became so ensconced in Houston he was known as “The King of Dowling Street” and hardly traveled outside the city until the 1960s; closer to home, he left a lasting impression on ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Townes Van Zandt, among those musicians lucky enough to absorb his knowledge firsthand. The lack of a public memorial for Hopkins was long a sore spot within Houston’s blues community, but a fundraising campaign several years in the making ultimately convinced the Texas Historical Commission, which unveiled an official state historical marker in Hopkins’ honor in November 2010. The plaque rests on the grounds of Project Row Houses near Dowling and Francis streets, a Third Ward intersection that will now forever be known as “Lightnin’s Corner.”

Five Houston Music Landmarks Out-of-Towners Should See
Photo courtesy of Casey Waldner/SugarHill Studios

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For just about anywhere else, the nickname “Abbey Road of the South” would be a case of wishful hyperbole at best. For Houston’s SugarHill Studios, located behind Produce Row at the foot of Brays Bayou, it’s an understatement. For an exhaustive history, see Roger Wood and Andy Bradley’s 2010 book House of Hits, in which you’ll find a host of names who have recorded there since 1941 — George Jones, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddy Fender, Lucinda Williams, Destiny’s Child and Frank Black represent just a handful. But SugarHill is very much a going concern, and as such is only available to visit by appointment whether or not you plan to record there, as George Clinton, Ledisi, and Lee Ann Womack have done in recent times. But you need not even get in your car to visit SugarHill, either: the studio and Houston’s ZenFilms have also partnered on the intimate performance series Live From SugarHill, which in the course of nearly 40 episodes has featured Houston gnashers We Were Wolves, Wilco side project the Autumn Defense, and ex-Dokken axeman George Lynch’s Lynch Mob, among others. The latest, a deluxe 90-minute set by reclusive but prolific avant-garde sage Jandek, went live last month.

Find It: 5626 Brock,

There aren't many landmarks celebrating ice in the tropical climates of Houston, but Johnny Dang & Co. is one. The fine custom jewelry created by Dang — a.k.a. TV Johnny — has been celebrated in song and worn by celebrities of all sorts (why yes, that is a signed autograph of pop star Katy Perry thanking Dang for "keeping me fresh" on the store's website), but especially those from the hip-hop community. Dang's piece de resistance is the diamond-encrusted grill, popularized by his associate Paul Wall, but there's more bling than can fit in a mouth at TV Johnny's, which is why snapshots of Dang with Drake, Rick Ross, Snoop, Lil Wayne and others dot the online site. No true hip-hop enthusiast would leave the city without at least peering into the store or getting a selfie in front of its sparkling jewelry cases. Presently, Dang & Co. operates from a single retail store in PlazAmericas Mall, but a second is due soon on Richmond Avenue.

Find It: PlazAmericas Mall, 201 Sharpstown Center,

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