Quality time... "It was absolutely fantastic," gushes Texas Johnny Brown, one of the more immovable veterans dotting the Houston blues landscape. It seems the 70-year-old singer/ guitarist is still giddy over the March 27 celebration thrown in honor of his new Nothin' but the Truth CD. By all accounts, the vastly entertaining hoedown left the Big Easy smoking.
But party or no party, Brown has every reason to be upbeat. The brassy, 12-track Nothin' but the Truth is the first recording by the former Duke/Peacock sideman to see light of day in over 40 years. In fact, even Brown himself has trouble remembering the last time one of his tunes made its way to the public: "We're talking about '65, somewhere along there," he says. "It's been quite a while."
The new disc features 11 originals, a few done up in stylish big-band threads à la B.B. King -- the sort of simmering, sophisticated grooves that straddle the fence separating juke-joint wailing and nightclub-slick rhythm and blues. The best tunes on Nothin' -- especially the insistent toe-tappers "Your House, Your Home" and "Stand the Pain," and the keyboard-drenched "Blue and Lonesome" -- tend toward R&B's staunch reliance on structure, melody and spot-on production values. That, says Brown, was the intention.
"It was one of the things that I always wanted to do," he says. "I wanted to keep it in the vein to where there's good blues to it, but if you want to get it as a feeling, you can also get it as a rhythm and blues thing."
Ably assisted by both former and current members of his Quality Blues Band, Brown recorded the album locally at Sound Arts and Sugar Hill studios, co-producing with drummer G.M. Godley and keyboardist Charles P. Rhinehart. Sadly, the latter passed away last year during the initial stages of the disc's production. Still, Brown credits Rhinehart as one of the album's primary inspirations.
A native of Mississippi, Brown's been living in Houston on and off since 1946, when he broke from the street-corner blues outfit headed by his father, Clarence, to strike out on his own. He settled in the Third Ward, where he made his name at a club called Shady's Playhouse. It was there that he met his longtime friend and band mate, piano-pounder Teddy "Cry, Cry" Reynolds. Late-'40s touring stints with Amos Milburn and intermittent recording sessions for Atlantic Records were cut short when Brown was drafted by the Army in 1950.
Upon his return to civilization, Brown picked up where he left off -- and then some. In addition to reconnecting with Milburn, the guitarist began working for arranger Joe Scott at Duke/Peacock. Then, he hooked up with legendary soul/blues crooner Bobby "Blue" Bland. It was while on the road with Bland as his lead guitarist that Brown wrote "Two Steps from the Blues," which turned into a decent hit for the latter. But in 1963, family commitments forced Brown to trade his ax for a time card. He worked various jobs before being hired as a forklift operator at Mandel-Kahn Industries, where he remained for 20 years, retiring in 1991.
Not one to stay idle and watch his life blow by, Brown put his newly acquired free time to good use, forming the Quality Blues Band and landing gigs everywhere from Holland to Norway to Los Angeles to Chicago. Around Houston, Brown and band -- which includes Godley, bassist Donald Owens and keyboardists Alvin King and Phil Blackman -- can be found on stage up to three times a week. (Saturday, they'll be downtown performing at Harlan's Bayou Blues.) And Brown shows no signs of slowing down.
"It seems that when you're sitting around with nothing to do, that's deterioration," he says. "I like to keep active."
Brand-new calling... Following what looked as if it might be a costly falling out with Warner Bros. imprint Warner Alliance, Houston's Caedmon's Call has rebounded in heavenly fashion. The opportunistic, Christian-skewed folkies just signed a long-term, multi-album deal with the Nashville-based Essential Records. The group will release its first Essential effort in late 1998.
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While the band's self-titled CD will continue to be available through Warner, Essential has retained rights to the band's independent catalog. And given that Essential is also home to the enormously successful Jars of Clay, Caedmon's may well be poised for similar crossover success. Say a prayer.
Etc.... Local indie rockers Rubbur will play their final show under that moniker Saturday at Fitzgerald's. According to singer/guitarist Davey McEathron, the band's core trio is itchy to "do something different -- maybe slow it down and do something more experimental." But that doesn't have to mean the threesome is breaking up. In fact, don't be surprised if you see them performing together a few months down the line -- same guys, different name. And hopefully, by then, they will have found a drummer who plans on sticking around.
-- Hobart Rowland
Have a comment, tip, compliment or beef? E-mail Hobart Rowland at Hobart_Rowland@houstonpress.com.