Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish
No one man caused more harm to Houston's music community than Roy Ames, who passed away August 14 of natural causes at age 66 at his home in West University. Johnny Winter left town for the express purpose of getting away from him. Joe "Guitar" Hughes called him "the Texas music rapist." The shoddy CDs he released by talented musicians without their consent dragged Houston's reputation as a blues hotbed down in the gutter where he was so at home.
Child porn and Gulf Coast music and memorabilia were Ames's favorite wares to sell, and the way he went about peddling and acquiring both was not dissimilar. He coerced people into making the stuff for him and then sold it on the sly, legal consequences be damned. In both cases, his victims lost their innocence; they felt raped and soiled. Consider all that is decent in the world. Roy Ames was as far from that as you could get.
The list of musicians he was accused of ripping off includes Hughes, Winter, Freddy King, Juke Boy Bonner, Leonard "Low Down" Brown, Big Walter the Thunderbird, Pete Mayes, Jimmy "T-99" Nelson, Clarence Green, Arnett Cobb, Rayfield Jackson, Sonny Boy Terry, Lee Frazier, Big Roger Collins, Kinney Abair, Al Bottis, Tommy Dardar and Clarence Parker. What's more, in 1997 a federal jury agreed with the artists' allegations about Ames, and awarded most of the above more than a quarter-million dollars in damages.
For years, Ames had avoided such verdicts by exploiting the letter of the law and ignoring completely its spirit. He often set up recording equipment in local clubs and recorded original but uncopyrighted songs and released them on CDs in Europe and Japan. (If he did capture a song that was copyrighted, he would avoid paying royalties by simply changing the title of the song.) He frequently "lost" contracts for recording sessions, especially when he hoped that those he recorded were either dead by the time he released the album, or too poor or too ignorant of their rights to sue him.
Low Down Brown was a victim, and happily, Ames figured him wrong. In the early '90s, Ames and Brown arranged a demo session. Brown laid down five "scratch tracks" for Ames, sort of dress rehearsals for the real session to come.
"I met with him, and we didn't get around to talking about any business," Brown told the Press's Jim Sherman in 1994. "We went in and laid down four or five tunes. These were all original songs. It was just a rough sketch Roy did not want to come to contractual terms; he kept sidestepping the issue and everything. I just abandoned the project."
Imagine Brown's surprise when the admittedly third-rate demos surfaced on an internationally released CD (Texas Guitar Greats, Volume 2) a little while later. As related in Sherman's article, Brown called Ames and demanded an explanation. "I said, 'Roy, you're using my music and you're not paying me any royalties. I don't think what you're doing is right.' He said, 'Well, if you don't like what I'm doing, sue me.' And then he hung up on me."
And then Brown did sue him, and won. Another who did so was Jimmy "T-99" Nelson. Nelson retired from music in 1955, and hoped to make a comeback 15 years later. Nelson made some sides with a band that included Arnett Cobb and Calvin Owens with Ames in 1970. The album went unreleased for years -- Ames's priority in those days was Johnny Winter.
By the mid-'70s, Ames had other concerns: the first of several pornography busts and convictions. In 1974, he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Houston on a charge of conspiracy and ten charges of mailing obscene material. He was subsequently arrested on two counts of sexual abuse of a child and six charges of compelling the prostitution of a child, and in 1975 police raided his home and carted off literally two tons of obscene material. Four years later, the sexual abuse and prostitution charges were dismissed, but by then Ames was already in federal prison for other charges relating to sex offenses with minors and distributing kiddie porn through the mail. The upshot of all of this was that Ames was incarcerated from 1975 to 1986.
Nelson's album did not come out until after Ames's parole, and when it did, on the Japanese label P-Vine and the British label Ace, it was a very poor recording. Glaring errors abounded. A drummer's fluff was left in. Owens's trumpet was poorly miked. All could have been easily fixed, but Ames was never one for quality control. Nelson later discovered that the album, which Ames named Hot Tamale Man, was also available domestically on Ames's own Home Cooking label. On the jacket of that release, Ames wrote that the publishing on all of Nelson's songs belonged to Ames's Clarity Music.
"It was copyrighted, too," Nelson says. "It was all over Japan. I didn't get a dime out of it. I didn't blame him -- it's just a matter of business to try to recoup some of this money. He should have let me know, but like I said, it's just a matter of business, so I have no hard feelings against him."
Nelson eventually collected $2,000 as his part of the settlement of the class action suit. "It went towards my session," he says. "Every penny I make goes toward another session. I'm bringing out T-99 and Black Dress II on my own label. I'm sorry to hear that he passed away.
"He tried," he adds cryptically. "But he didn't make it."
Nelson won't explicitly speak ill of the dead, but he will let his interviewer do so and agree with what is said. Racket puts forth the thesis that Ames all but ruined Houston's promising blues scene of the 1960s. "He did. He did," he says. "He was stealin'."
Nelson says he joined the class action not so much for himself, but for the younger guys and those who hadn't yet enjoyed the commercial success he had won in the 1950s. "I had been a big star before I got to Houston," Nelson says. "'Cause 'T-99'" -- the song from which he takes his nickname -- "went all the way around the world. And I went all the way around the world. It didn't make any difference to me if [Ames] made a few bucks, you know, because I was getting my name put back out there again, see? I didn't mind, but I didn't like the way he went after those other guys who never had the chance to have their music be as big as 'T-99,' you know? When your music is big, you don't have any hard feelings about somebody beating you out of a few dollars. It's just a few dollars."
Not everyone is so charitable. Johnny Winter, for one. In Sherman's article, Winter called Ames "the worst" and added that "this guy has screwed so many people it makes me mad to even talk about him."
"I know, Johnny Winter and all them, they're salty on this cat, man, and they tried to sue him, but he was smart and they couldn't get to him," Nelson says. "If they had copyrighted their material, they could have gotten money. Joe Hughes, a lot of other guys, they didn't copyright their stuff, see? In a court of law, you've got to have ownership."
The 75-year-old Nelson has survived from the era of 78s to that of MP3s, and was recently rediscovered by none other than Elvis Costello, who played a recording of Nelson's "I'm Sure Gonna Miss Show Business" at the end of every concert. Undoubtedly, though, there are elements of the biz that Nelson won't miss.
"You try to get in show business, 'cause you think it's glamorous, but it's cutthroat," he says. "I tell everybody, 'Copyright your stuff. Put it in your mother's name, sister's name, somebody's name or somebody will steal it from you."
Meanwhile, the fate of the heirless Ames's undoubtedly extensive though ill-gotten archive is up in the air. Ames once claimed to have more than 8,000 tapes of Gulf Coast blues and rock, not to mention posters and other memorabilia of a pedigree as dubious as that of his tapes. Ames was peddling posters of a Double Bayou Dance Hall show in the 1950s headlined by T-Bone Walker, with Joe "Guitar" Hughes listed as a supporting act. Hughes told Sherman that the posters were phonies, that he never played Double Bayou with Walker and that he didn't even use the "Guitar" nickname until the 1980s. "I called him, and he tried to convince me they was real, like I was supposed to be Winnie the Po-Po or something," Hughes groused to Sherman.
Ames tried to impress the importance of his archive on Houston blues scholar Roger Wood, who met him at the Big Easy in 1994. "He came because we were photographing Ivory Lee Semien, one of his artists," Wood remembers. "Once he figured out that we weren't a threat to his artist, once he figured that we were little magazine guys, not guys trying to make records, he just started gushing about all the stuff he had, all the important memorabilia. I didn't let on that I knew who he was; I acted like I had never heard his name. He was really trying to impress me with his story of his hoard of unreleased, unpublished historically significant stuff that he had. I don't know if it was true or not."
Wood says the experience was eerie. For years, he had heard tales of Ames's villainy, and here he was in the flesh at the most popular blues club in Houston. "It was weird," he says. "The club was full of people. He walked through this club, and probably at least half the people there would have spat upon him had they known it was him. But none of us knew what he looked like. The evil twin in my head told me to run out there and yell, 'Hey! That's Roy Ames!' And see what happens to him in the parking lot, you know?"
If Roy Ames somehow weaseled out of his ticket to hell, he's no doubt up there in blues heaven bootlegging the celestial jam.
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