It has been one of the most debated issues in American popular music: Can a white man play the blues?
Well, actually, it's also one of the most outdated and ludicrous questions that players like Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Gregg Allman, Roy Buchanan and Stevie Ray Vaughan have long since answered. A query of greater importance to Houston blues guitarist Hamilton Loomis is this: What happens when a musical child prodigy grows up?
The answer, at least for Hamilton (who, as an entertainer, goes by his first name only) is just as clear: You grow, you expand, you move on. It's all part of the larger plan for the 23-year-old singer/ songwriter/guitarist (and recent grad of the University of St. Thomas), who's a familiar face on area nightclub and regional festival stages. With two records already released and a third in the planning stages, Hamilton (a.k.a. "Hambone") is eager to break into the national spotlight and hopefully take his place among other current blues wunderkinder like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
The question now is: Will he?
"The direction I've been going in for the [upcoming] CD is a more funk-based sound with some in-your-face horns and more aggressive guitar," says Hamilton. "But it will still have direct melodies that people can sing along with. That's my goal, at least: to have that directness and still be able to get your butt moving." And it's not just an idle boast from an artist who wants to throw in some surface influences just to say they're worldly. Hamilton's fretboard chops and strong, confident singing on the bluesier tunes on his last CD (1996's collection of originals and covers, Just Gimme One Night) are appealing, but his soulful material, which is more Jamiroquai than Jonny Lang, is where he really shines.
"I listened to all sorts of music growing up, but the things I liked most were blues and old soul," he says. "I've always loved the blues but never desired to just duplicate what the old masters have done. Who can improve on that? And also, being 23 and white, I'm not the most credible bluesman. And I've never claimed to be."
No, but Hamilton has at least one fan in his corner whose opinion might matter, a bricklayer in the foundation of rock and roll itself, Bo Diddley. After a then-teenage Hamilton played for the Gunslinger between shows at Houston's now-defunct Rockefeller's seven years ago, Diddley asked the boy up on stage during the second set to jam. A friendship has developed over the years. The two frequently share stages (most recently a couple of weeks ago in Port Arthur) and recording studios. Diddley contributed to a song titled -- what else -- "I Know Bo Diddley" on Hamilton's 1992 self-titled debut.
"My nervousness was overpowered by excitement, and I leaped on the stage. I didn't even use the stairs," Hamilton says. "He gave me a huge break and [continues] to give me a huge piece of spotlight when he doesn't have to." This is an extreme understatement considering that Diddley is not exactly known for his humble ego and musical generosity. "To have someone be that way who's not only an originator of rock and roll but a longtime idol? That's wonderful."
Hamilton also mentions Diddley's main piece of advice: Do something different. Which is perhaps the main reason Hamilton eschews a pure blues sound to one that also incorporates the vibes of many other genres. Hamilton's music, at least on Just Gimme One Night, is blues at its most orderly. His crisp, clean and uncomplicated single-note picking and brief solos would probably receive an A at St. Thomas for execution, although the professor would probably ask for more work on creativity. And while Hamilton's compact, neat voice is not convincing as the boastful lover or strutting peacock he tries to be on tracks such as "Ain't Nobody," "Temporarily Insane" and the title track, he shows much skill, and potential, as the soulful, sad-eyed, pleading crooner of "Gotta Give a Little Bit" and "A Woman Like You."
In the years since the CD's release, though, Hamilton has wisely frayed his edges a bit through a combination of countless hours on stage and personal development. Hamilton delivers a rawer, more diverse show than his choirboy looks might indicate in old publicity photos or on the Just Gimme One Night CD cover. And that's why he's so anxious to get a new record out on the streets, one that's more reflective of where he's at today. It's as if he has heard the skeptics and beaten them to the punch: "Okay, that's great playing for a kid. Now show me what Hamilton, the grown man, can do."
Whatever it is he does, Hamilton wants to be in it for a lifetime. Even he admits that without the support and tasteful record collection of father Mike and mother Jane, he might have chosen a completely different career path. A longtime bassist and vocalist respectively, the elder Loomises not only encouraged Hamilton's musical aspirations (buying him a drum kit at four, piano lessons at five and a guitar at eight), they formed a short-lived group with him, Family Affair. All this while other kids his age were buying Guns N' Roses records and playing Super Mario Brothers.
"There was not a day that went by -- and I do mean not a day -- where there was not music playing in the house," says Hamilton, who notes that at age 11 he traded in a three-wheeler motorbike for a four-track recorder. "And they've always been extremely supportive and helped me. And now, they're just like any management team. They allow me as an artist to concentrate on the music. I've really got it good."
Still, every burg in this country is home to at least one working microphone and dozens of local heroes who never make it past the city limits with their music. Despite close-knit ties to Houston's blues community, clubs and slew of KPFT radio programs, there's nothing that really indicates that Hamilton can make it beyond the Bayou City. Nothing, that is, to the average clubgoer. For Hamilton, though, there is something. It all goes back to the advice he got from Mr. Diddley: doing something different.
Hamilton credits his stint at St. Thomas (where he majored in music and communications) with opening him up to new ideas. There, it was jazz, not blues, he studied and performed for a grade. "[Jazz work] improved my playing, and I tend not to stay in one key anymore as a result of that influence. The jazz world is very different [from blues]. And I learned a lot of cool guitar chords that I have been sticking into my songs."
As of yet, there is no title, release date or any finalized tracks for the next CD, but Hamilton is plotting it quickly in his head while continuing to hone the raw material in concert -- and maybe even pick up a few ideas in the blues harmonica class he teaches locally.
"I just want people to be able to hit the shuffle button on the CD player and every song is killer," Hamilton says of his upcoming CD. "That's what I want to express. And I really believe that blues is all about expression, not just sadness."
Hamilton performs Saturday, June 26, at 9 p.m. at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond. Call (713)266-9294.
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