Remembering Little Joe Washington, Houston's Last Real Bluesman

Little Joe Washington at KPFT's Anniversary Party, April 2013
Little Joe Washington at KPFT's Anniversary Party, April 2013
Photos courtesy of Ray Redding/TexasRedd Photography

Note: this Christmas, Rocks Off is remembering some prominent members of Houston's music community we lost this year.

Houston is a little less of an action town after Little Joe Washington, the mighty-mite of the local blues scene passed away the afternoon of November 12. Washington's death is believed to be due to diabetic complications; he was 75.

I could prattle on here with the nuts and bolts of an overview of Joe's life: his birth on Velasco Street in Third Ward, his roots in the local scene here backing up guys like Albert Collins and Joe "Guitar" Hughes back in the day, his crazy days in the bars of El Paso and Juarez with pal Long John Hunter, his salad days in Los Angeles recording for Syd Nathan and Specialty Records, or his long slide into addiction and homelessness.

But screw it, I have better memories than that.

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The first thing I remembered when I heard he had passed was a night eight winters ago, when we stopped at Leon's Lounge for a drink a few days before Christmas. The place was completely empty, it was bad weather and no one was out, but suddenly in the back room we heard someone playing the old grand piano that used to be back there before the space was remodeled. I took a look and saw it was Little Joe.

We took our drinks back there, pulled some stools up to the piano, and sat our drinks up there. When he finished the tune he was playing, he asked if the lady I was with had a request. She said, "White Christmas." He proceeded to play the coolest, jazzy version, singing all the verses with more soul than anyone ever put into that old chestnut.

When he finished, she laid a $5 bill on the piano and thanked him. His face lit up. He jumped up, put his coat on, took the bill, said thank you, got on his bike and rode off into the night. Things seemed pretty right with the world.

Mark Bishop, one of the owners of bygone local bar the Blue Iguana, recalls the first time he ever saw Washington: "He came into the bar, and he had a stolen bicycle," he says. "The wheel fell off. He told me he could play music, so I said how about Ray Charles' 'Mess Around?' Joe ripped it up."

Blue Iguana, the spot where Little Joe Washington's comeback began
Blue Iguana, the spot where Little Joe Washington's comeback began
Photo by Rich Hornbuckle

So Bishop and his partners Rich Hornbuckle and Byron Zarabi set up a Monday-night residency for Washington and bought a pawn shop Strat they kept at the bar -- because otherwise Washington would pawn it. That residency and that guitar are probably the two most important factors in bringing Little Joe's career back to life. And with Washington and Jay Hooks holding court two nights a week, the Blue Iguana really was blue back in those days.

When the Continental Club opened, it wasn't long before owner Pete Gordon did Joe and the community a solid, not only giving him a happy hour residency at the club but also a clean room to stay in over the bar. Washington was always hanging around and became almost like a mascot for the club.

A few years back, Boondocks owner Shawn Bermudez found a spot for Washington at his club when Washington had no other prospects. Washington's crazy antics and style caught on with the hipster set, so the past few years Joe played a Tuesday-night residency at the bar, within walking distance for me. One night not long ago, there wasn't much of a crowd, but there stood Dr. Bud Shafer, the head of the Texas Heart Institute, drink in hand having the time of his life.

Little Joe at Chris Gray Day in January 2012
Little Joe at Chris Gray Day in January 2012

Kevin Blessington (drums), Chris Henrich (bass) and Buck Becker (guitar) made Little Joe a labor of love, backing him up without any compensation whenever the need arose. They knew it was good for their souls, and their Tuesday-night residency shows at Boondocks the past few years were at times legendary. Renowned heart surgeon Dr. Billy Cohn, who not only played trombone with Joe but ran interference for him in the medical community, put together a smoking horn section that made Joe even more of force. Houston will never witness anything like those gigs again. Period.

When I first started DJing at Leon's a few years back, Joe would always come by on his bike and listen to a few records. I'd buy him a shot -- he liked shots -- or a Jack and Coke, and he'd tell me stories about hanging upside down from the rafters playing guitar in joints in Juarez or about the wild old days with his cousin Joe Hughes.

Of course, all the while he was letting the ladies who were around take care of him and fawn over him. Joe liked the ladies and the ladies liked him. One of them told me today that what she remembers most about Joe was that after all the stuff he'd been through, he still loved life and wasn't bitter. And his stories were funny. Too true.

One great memory of Little Joe was when Chris Gray and I were working on a cover story about Houston's blues heritage in 2011. We scheduled a photo shoot at the Big Easy on a torrid hot Sunday afternoon. Little Joe and Texas Johnny Brown kept cracking the room up with one liners, just messin' with each other. And Jackie Gray, one of the most beautiful people ever, came over and draped his 6' 6" frame around Joe, gave him a huge hug and said, "Joe, it's been too long." Yeah, that one choked me up a bit. H-Town, baby.

Another precious memory was Joe sitting in with Los Skarnales at the Continental Club one night. Those vatos got the old man up there behind the keys and he loved it. He probably hadn't played with a band that powerful in years and he just looked like he was going to self-combust. Of course, he got offstage and passed the hat in the audience while the band played on.

Yes, he could be a problem to handle at times. I recall several years ago when he won the Houston Press award for best blues artist, he came up, got his award, and then commenced into one of the craziest, expletive-filled rants in the history of show business. Four or five minutes went by and no one could get him to stop or relinquish the microphone. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Finally his friends Allen Hill and David Beebe convinced Joe to hand the microphone back to the MC and come off the stage. We never made the mistake of giving Joe a microphone at a Houston Press event again. But none of us who were there will ever forget that night, either.

Story continues on the next page.

 

Little Joe, seen here at iFest 2008, enjoyed playing guitar over his head.
Little Joe, seen here at iFest 2008, enjoyed playing guitar over his head.

A lot of people did what they could to help Joe, like his old friend Art Dietz who drove him to and from gigs the past few years and did his best to look after Joe's well-being. Art was the one who knew what time the gigs started. Robert Kuhn, a young harp player from Galveston, often assisted Dietz or filled in for Art to get Joe to and from gigs. That kid treated Joe like a sensei.

Beautiful soul Jomonica Phoenix, a Florence Nightingale of the blues scene, was usually the first to visit Joe in the hospital, tout a gig he had, or help him gather rent money. She had taken Joe some food Monday and found him so weak she called 911. These are the tasks that fall to angels of mercy like her.

Joe counted on other friends like Eddie Stout of Dialtone Records in Austin, who recorded Joe and got him gigs in places like Tokyo; Dr. Roger Wood, who also helped Joe with gigs and always had a $20 bill when Joe dropped by Wood's office at HCC. Miller Outdoor Theater operations director Reg Burns was one of Washington's guardian angels; he helped manage Joe a bit just to keep him straightened out when Joe first started a real comeback.

One final footnote: I suspect that Joseph Marion Washington is the only person in history to have the Mayor of Houston proclaim a day in his honor and to be given a citation for riding on the Metro rail without a ticket in the same year.

I could go on, but what's the point? The last few years have been tough, but Little Joe is finally out of his hand-to-mouth misery. As Gene Okerlund posted on her Facebook page, "It cheers me up a bit to think how many Little Joe stories can be told all over Houston tonight."

Too bad Washington won't be playing "White Christmas" for us this year.Thanks for the beautiful memories, little man. You were a true diamond in the rough.

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