San Francisco attorney Daniel Ray Bacon has made it his life's work to assist the deserving underdogs of the world in getting their due. Raised in Gary, Indiana (where he learned early to love the blues after catching a Howlin' Wolf show), and a graduate of Baylor, Harvard Divinity School and the University of San Francisco School of Law, Bacon has spent the past 19 years representing the voiceless and the targets of bigotry.
Fitting then that he should be founder and CEO of a multimedia empire peddling West Coast and Texas blues. Even though the larger world of the blues is itself the strange fruit of several centuries of discrimination and disenfranchisement, the blues from the Lone Star State and their West Coast outgrowth have long faced bigotry from self-anointed snobs ever since Robert Johnson seized the nation's imagination in the 1960s. From then on, all blues not hailing from the South Side of Chicago and/or the Mississippi cotton fields have been regarded as mere regional copies of the Delta original. This, despite the fact that there is at least as much evidence to call East Texas the Birthplace of the Blues as there is for the Delta.
Bacon could help change that misperception. His Blues Express company is producing one-hour TV features and releasing CDs and DVDs, showcasing those on today's scene who he feels are underpraised. He's shining a bright light on the music of Texas-born Californians like Sonny Rhodes; former Houstonians Roy Gaines, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Long John Hunter and Frankie Lee; and current Bayou City resident the great Joe "Guitar" Hughes. He's also taping tributes to Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Albert Collins and T-Bone Walker, which are being tacked on the end of the TV features.
Though the seven TV documentaries Bacon has filmed have yet to air (he's in negotiation with BET at the moment), he has released his company's first two CDs. One is of the soul-blues singer Frankie Lee, a name unfamiliar to most Houstonians under 50. Born Frankie Lee Jones in Mart, a tiny town in the Texas blues heartland between Waco and Lufkin, the teenage gospel-trained Lee took up the blues, shed his surname and moved to Austin. There he was discovered by Ike Turner, and became one of Ike and Tina's opening acts. Between tours, Lee cut a few singles for the Peacock label in Houston, among them "Full Time Lover" (famously recorded by the Fab T-Birds in 1979), "I'm Making Love," "Hello Mr. Blues" and "Taxi Blues."
In 1965 Lee followed fellow Texan Albert Collins to California and became the Iceman's vocalist for six years. After parting ways with Collins, Lee collaborated with his cousin, another Third Ward legend by the name of Johnny "Guitar" Watson, whose house once backed up to that of Joe "Guitar" Hughes, who, as it happens, has an album out on the same label at the exact same time.
Bacon has been waiting a long time to record Hughes. "I met Joe in the early '80s out here at one of the blues festivals," recalls Bacon. "And I thought he was a perfect gentleman and an icon in my mind, and so when I decided to do my TV show, he was definitely one I had on my list."
Bacon's dream came to fruition (at least partially) in December 1999, when Hughes flew out to Frisco for the taping. He was joined there by an immensely talented band. Bacon remembers: "We basically put together a couple of people from Etta James's band [guitarist Bobby Murray, keyboardist Dave Mathews], a couple of people from B.B. King's band [bassist Leonard Gill, drummer Tony Coleman] and a couple of people [George Brooks, Mic Gillette and Marvin McFadden] from Tower of Power on the horns."
On the resulting CD, Stuff Like That, Hughes's spiky, growling guitar work slices through the smooth West Coast big band's currents like a cigarette boat through ocean swells. The truly great blues guitarists have a style instantly recognizable as their own. Think Albert Collins's wailing, Gatemouth's horn-inspired runs, Buddy Guy's jagged masterpieces. Hughes has long been in this company, his style at times recalling all of the above (and Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Lil' Son Jackson), but nevertheless one that's all his own. Also, a seldom-praised trait of Hughes's (and all the great Texas players) is his breathtakingly funky compings behind other soloists, especially here on "Ouchie Baby."
The tunes featured on Stuff are many of Hughes's staples, familiar to all who've caught his live show, such as "A Blues Song," "Pit Bull" and "If You Want to See the Blues." Then there's the tune for which Hughes tore a page out of old mentor Lightnin' Hopkins' book: "Going to San Francisco" was written just for the recording session -- the night before, in fact -- during the brief rehearsal Hughes had with the thrown-together band.
"I think they had a rehearsal time of 50 minutes," says Bacon. "Then it was a live shoot. It was amazing. These guys had never played together, and yet it all came together so great we decided to release it" as a CD.
Were Joe Hughes from Chicago, he'd be just as famous as Buddy Guy. It's that simple. All the nationally recognized greats from Houston (with Hopkins the one exception) have made their names elsewhere. As musicians, they were nurtured in the Bayou City, but they became a success by moving to Chicago (Collins), New York (Johnny Copeland) or Los Angeles (Watson.) Those who stayed, like Hughes, Pete Mayes, Texas Johnny Brown, I.J. Gosey and many others, have had to deal with the double whammy of playing a mere "regional variant," and living and working in a city with little or no musical infrastructure.
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Bacon knows the story. He also knows to trust his own ears and not what he reads from the major media centers and PR factories. "I think Joe Hughes is one of the last [great blues guitarists] and it's my goal to really push him out there and get him exposed to a much bigger audience."
If the first two CDs and the Blues Express Web site are any indication, Bacon and his acts have a bright future together. The Web site, www.bluesexpress.com, is slick and relentlessly informative, replete with biographies (slightly more extensive than they are sloppy), discographies and links to tour dates. The CDs are well put-together projects, too, complete with archival shots courtesy of the artists themselves. Hughes provided a shot of himself at two years old -- in a 63-year-old photo with his mother and numerous other friends and kin.
It's obvious that this album was a labor of love shared between the Texan Hughes and the Californian Bacon. But hell, for all Bacon is doing for our artists, we should draw up some kind of honorary citizenship for the guy.
At any rate, it's nice to see Texans and Californians cooperating over music instead of pointing fingers back and forth on energy policy. Maybe we should get Ken Lay and Gray Davis together for Blue Monday at Miss Ann's Playpen and see if they can work things out.