Ten the Hard Way: Introducing the Houston Music Hall of Fame
Houston has a lot of museums, but the city sorely lacks anything tangible that salutes its rich musical legacy. That's where we come in. In honor of the Houston Press Music Awards' 25th anniversary, the Houston Press is now creating our own Houston Music Hall of Fame.
In the future, the Hall will grow by five names each year, but this first year we're inducting an inaugural class of ten — ten of the most distinguished musicians and groups in the city's history. All ten remain active (or at least semi-active) performers who continue to call Houston home, and we're proud to have them all.
Asked in an interview two years ago to list her favorite female vocalists, Hall of Fame inductee Jewel Brown thought for a moment.
"Ella Fitzgerald, of course," she said. "And I love Sarah Vaughan. But I've got to tell you, this local girl, Yolanda Adams? Now that girl is a flat-footed singer."
Of course, Brown is correct. Adams is certainly one of Houston's most distinctive and mesmerizing native voices. The Sterling High School/Texas Southern University graduate is also a solid business success story, with a nationwide concert schedule, tremendous album sales and a syndicated radio program. The former elementary-school teacher and part-time model even finds the time to produce records and act occasionally.
Adams's rise to becoming the "Queen of Modern Gospel" is all the more compelling because her success took awhile. She recorded her first album in 1986 at age 26 while still teaching school and touring on the weekends, but didn't break through in terms of record sales and recognition until Mountain High...Valley Low. Released in 1999, the album became a double-platinum smash that earned Adams her first Grammy and went on to sell 10 million copies.
Her success can be traced back to her association with early producer Ben Tankard, who influenced her toward a combination of smooth jazz and gospel. By the time of her 1999 breakthrough, Adams was working with a variety of major pop music producers. Her lush, meticulous recordings have made her the biggest-selling gospel artist of the decade and resulted in a record four BET awards as Best Gospel Singer.
Adams trumped her recording success with a move into the gospel radio market. The Yolanda Adams Morning Show is now heard in 39 national markets. One regular segment of the program, Adams's "Power Points," evolved into her first book by the same title.
And although gospel-pop has been the linchpin of Adams's career, she's hardly a one-trick pony. No less than Aretha Franklin was wowed by Adams's rendition of "Spirit in the Dark" at the star-studded tribute to the Queen of Soul at the 53rd Grammy awards in 2011. William Michael Smith
Jewel Brown lives in the Third Ward in a house she helped her parents pay for. She also is part owner of a hair salon with her brother and has an insurance agency, and when meeting the jovial Brown in her office or casually on the street, there's no reason to suspect that one is in the presence of possibly the greatest singing voice ever to call Houston home.
The Yates High School graduate's story sounds like a fairy tale come true. Chaperoned by her mother, by age nine she was winning talent contests at the historic Club Matinee, where Nat King Cole counseled her not to pursue a singing career. To help with the family finances, she turned pro at 12 as featured vocalist at Galveston's Manhattan Club. In high school, she sang with her brother's band at Houston joints including Bar B Ranch and Shady's Playpen, and turned down an offer to tour with Lionel Hampton. She later moved to Dallas and sang seven nights a week in a club owned by Lee Harvey Oswald murderer Jack Ruby — until the day Ruby called her a "money-hungry bitch."
"I was packing that place night after night, and he didn't want to give me a raise," Brown says. "So I quit."
Shortly thereafter, her agent called with one strange question: Would she rather work with Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong? Brown chose Armstrong (it paid better), and had to drive her two-tone '57 Ford convertible back from Dallas at 90 mph to catch a plane to Boston that same night. She toured the world with Satchmo for seven years, buying exquisite gowns in the finest shops New York, Tokyo and Paris had to offer.
Brown then headlined her own shows in Las Vegas until 1971, when she abruptly retired to take care of her parents. And while she has largely been retired from singing ever since, Brown hasn't quite been inactive, either. The album she cut last year with Houston guitarist Milton Hopkins topped Press Music Editor Chris Gray's local best-of list, and the duo showcased at the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival. From time to time, Brown also sits in with New Orleans's historic Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And somewhere in all of that, Houston's grand jazz diva found the time to fly to Moscow for a private command performance for Russian politico Vladimir Putin. WMS
As profound as they are profane, the Geto Boys' lyrics explore politics, black pride and paranoia as much as (ahem) "Pussy, Weed & Alcohol" — but whatever the topic, the group is on that other level. During a recent Houston tour stop, no less than Ice Cube said Geto Boys had always been right there with his own gangsta-rap groundbreakers N.W.A.
With different membership and a different spelling, the group debuted around Houston in 1986. Those "Ghetto Boys" petered out after lukewarm 1988 album Making Trouble. But when Houston natives Willie D and Scarface came aboard to join Jamaican-born Richard Shaw — better known as Bushwick Bill, a dancer in the previous lineup — something clicked. Released in 1989, their album Grip It! On That Other Level was quickly picked up by Rick Rubin's Def American and slightly reworked into 1990's Geto Boys. That record's censor-baiting content made national headlines and briefly got the Getos dropped by their distributor.
The next year's We Can't Be Stopped took things even further, both with its cover art — Willie D and Scarface wheeling a gunshot Bushwick into the Ben Taub ER — and with unlikely Top 20 hit "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me." And without ever meaning to, they found an entirely different audience due to Mike Judge's expert use of two songs in his 1999 cult cubicle comedy Office Space.
After 2005's The Foundation, the Geto Boys had all but called it a day until they reunited earlier this year at Houston's Free Press Summer Fest and embarked on a successful nationwide reunion tour. (They atoned for Bushwick's FPSF absence with a free hometown show a few weeks later.) And for the past several months, Willie D — who says he has much bigger plans for the Geto Boys in the months ahead — has even been dispensing a different sort of street knowledge in a weekly advice column on the Houston Press's own music blog, Rocks Off. Chris Gray
Walk into any bar or restaurant around these parts where Spanish is the primary tongue, and if that place has a jukebox, you'll find something by La Mafia. Without fail. But as "supergroups" go — and La Mafia most certainly is — they're a quiet one. They've got a quarter-century of gold and platinum records, Grammy awards and sold-out tours, but La Mafia keeps a low profile around their hometown even as a generation has grown up with their music.
Founded in 1986 by Houstonians Oscar de la Rosa and Armando Lichtenberger Jr., La Mafia put out a well-balanced mix of glossy, synthesizer-laden pop, modernized dances such as cumbias, and heartfelt balladry. Lead singer de la Rosa's smoldering good looks didn't hurt, but La Mafia has always been one of the most versatile bands around, freely mingling norteamericano styles with more traditional Mexican music and becoming the first Mexican-American band to develop a sizable fan base in Latin America.
After breaking through with 1991's Estas Tocando Fuego, between 1992 and 1995, La Mafia sent four songs to the top of the Billboard Latin singles chart — "Me Esta Enamorado," "Vida," "Me Duele Estar Solo," "Toma Mi Amor" — and through 1998, another six into the Top 5. Both 1996's Un Millón de Rosas and 1997's En Tus Manos won Grammys for Best Mexican-American/Tejano Music Performance; since governing body the Recording Academy created the Latin Grammys in 2000, La Mafia has won two more — Best Tejano Album in 2006 for Nuevamente and Best Grupero Album in 2005 for Para el Pueblo.
In 2011, Billboard ranked La Mafia at No. 21 on its list of the Top 25 Latin artists of the past 25 years. It's safe to say they're quite a bit higher among Houstonian fans. CG
Since their first "let's try this" gig in 1994, guitarist Jose Rodriguez and vocalist/percussionist Felipe Galvan have been assaulting stages and ears as Los Skarnales in one form or another and become perennial Houston Press Music Award winners. If there is a Houston sound, in fact, it's the sound Los Skarnales makes with full horn-laden, drum-crazed force.
The band has seen numerous personnel changes over the past 20 years — Umbrella Man's Nick Gaitan and Roberto Rodriguez are alumni, as are Ryan Scroggins and Beans Wheeler of Trenchtown Texans, and the Suffers' Pat Kelly, while longtime member Nestor "El Tiburón" Aguilar has been described by Galvan as "our fifth Beatle" — but the macho-punk pachuco front and full-on ska/cumbia/rockabilly/punk assault has stayed much the same as the band unfailingly excites crowds.
Former Houston Press music editor John Nova Lomax compared the band's monumental 2005 album Pachuco Boogie Sound System to the music of European Manu Chao: "As Chao is to the EU, so these vatos rudos are to NAFTA," he wrote. "Rockers from Montreal to Mérida all have something to love here."
The fact that Galvan's father was one of the first Texas singers to cop the Beatles thing and take the British Invasion south to Mexico City should come as no surprise. Having grown up in the business, Galvan is a dynamic, even frenetic front man, capable of pulling all eyes his way even before the music explodes.
While locally they bounce between Fitzgerald's, Walters and the Continental like pinballs, Skarnales also logs some serious miles, playing several times a year in Monterrey and Mexico City, where they are so revered their merch is bootlegged. They are also regulars in the Austin and San Antonio scenes, but home is Houston, where exuberant throngs of rough-and-tumble Skarnales fans loyally turn out with flash-mob foresight wherever the band sets up.
Are there underage punks and teenage girls trying to sneak in or presenting fake I.D.? Most certainly. Does ganja smoke waft through the crowd? What do you think? Will there be a fight? It's a good bet. After all, it's Houston's band. WMS
Early Houston punk rock was very much a boys' club, dominated by the likes of Legionaire's Disease, Really Red and AK-47. Mydolls, though, preferred the sharper angles and pointed sentiments of post-punk groups like Wire and the Raincoats. Besides shunning the battering-ram approach of most drummers in the era's burgeoning hardcore scene — personified in Texas by Austin's Big Boys — Mydolls' rhythms were much more fluid. They were also relatively unusual in that singer Trish Herrera's vocals were always mixed right up front for all to hear. On songs like "Soldiers of a Pure War," she had plenty to say.
Founded in 1978 by Herrera and Dianna Ray, Mydolls were originally joined by Linda Younger and Herrera's cousin, George Reyes; they quickly became regulars at legendary Houston punk/New Wave club The Island. With a handful of 7-inches and one EP on Heights-based C.I.A. Records, they made influential friends like The Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson and squeaked "Savage Song" onto a 1983 Sub Pop cassette-only compilation. They even appeared in a scene set in a seedy Houston bar near the end of Wim Wenders's 1984 film Paris, Texas, performing the song that much later became the title of a post-breakup career-spanning anthology, "A World of Her Own." Mydolls originally disbanded in 1986.
But only a few months after A World of Her Own was released in 2008, Mydolls reunited for the local Noise and Smoke Festival and stuck around. (Sadly, Ray's wife, Kathy Johnston, who joined the band after the reunion, passed away in September 2011.) These days Mydolls don't play often, but the members have been heavily involved behind the scenes in annual teen camp Girls Rock Camp Houston. Mydolls were one of the highlights of the Island reunion weekend last November, and are scheduled to play at inaugural Austin women-in-music conference MEOW in October.
And who knows after that? Not bad for a band that never even released a full-length album. CG
J PAUL JR. &
THE ZYDECO NUBREEDS
One part super-smooth R&B crooner, one part country zydeco thoroughbred and all rebel, J Paul Jr. has thoroughly modernized the frenetic Creole dance music Clifton Chenier pioneered and perfected in Houston. Born Paul Grant, the Conroe native known these days as "Tha Rebel" has been a musician since childhood, but was raised in the church, and had actually never heard of zydeco until one day he happened to be at a music store and met Step Rideau.
The leader of the Zydeco Outlaws, still one of southeast Texas's most popular zydeco bands, auditoned the young drummer and hired him on the spot. After three years as an Outlaw, J. Paul started the Nubreeds in 1994, and began blending hip-hop into the group's sound. That action caused some older purists to turn up their noses, but won the Nubreeds hordes of younger fans — including Houston rapper Slim Thug, who guested on "We Run This" and "Welcome 2 Da Trap."
Along with the silkier "Love in the Stable," those songs helped the Nubreeds' latest CD, 2011's Rebel IV Life, clean up at the 2012 Zydeco Music Awards. J. Paul routinely clocks numbers in the hundreds of thousands for his YouTube videos, astronomical for a zydeco act — but not, perhaps, for someone known in the zydeco world as "the man who changed the game."
Just as prolific in concert as on record, with Rebel IV Life marking their 11th CD-length recording, the Nubreeds are now one of the top draws on the Texas and Louisiana trail-ride circuit and draw thousands of people to remote Louisiana spots like Opelousas and Ville Platte. They're just as popular at Houston establishments like Fifth Ward's Mr. A's Club and Clayton's Club in Greenspoint, where the Nubreeds blow it out every Tuesday night without fail. CG
At 75, Joe Sample is a Houston legend, but a hard-working one. Fifty years on from departing Houston for L.A. and 40 years on from the Crusaders' groundbreaking jazz-funk album Pass the Plate, Sample is still touring the world, much in demand as a keyboardist and composer. His most recent travels have taken him to Montreux, Switzerland, and concert halls across Italy.
Sample moved back to the Clear Lake area ten years ago, and now spends most of his time at home working as artist in residence at his alma mater, Texas Southern University. There, he fronts the Joe Sample Select Orchestra and works on special projects as well as performing with his small ensemble, the Creole Joe Band, which includes such luminaries as C.J. Chenier and Ray Parker Jr.
The lifelong musician took up piano at age five, studying under renowned classical pianist Curtis Mayo. By the time he was in high school, Sample had formed the Swingsters, predecessors of the Jazz Crusaders, with fellow Wheatley High School students Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder. Also while still in high school, Sample augmented his experience and his wallet by working on the road with master song stylist Ivory Joe Hunter.
But it was Sample's go-for-broke move to Los Angeles in 1960 that led to worldwide fame. After a decade of hard bebop-style playing and albums, the Jazz Crusaders dropped the "Jazz" part of their name and dropped Pass the Plate in 1971, forever altering jazz and popular music. Suddenly, from Zaire to New York City to Paris, the world was the Crusaders' oyster.
Yet each member of the band had other goals and career aspirations, and they began to work as L.A. session musicians. For his part, Sample played and recorded with an amazingly diverse list of performers, from Joni Mitchell to Diana Ross, Tina Turner to Willie Nelson.
Today, besides his busy touring and teaching schedule, Sample is pushing forward with a labor of love — an attempt to stage a theatrical musical based on the life of Sister Henriette DeLille, a New Orleans nun currently being considered for canonization by the Vatican as the first black female saint. WMS
Working in a Houston body shop by day and singing in honky-tonks at night, Gene Watson became an overnight country-music sensation in 1975. After a decade of independent releases, Capitol Records picked up his independently recorded album Love in the Hot Afternoon, its title track a sultry R-rated ballad that quickly went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. With its bluesy bow to New Orleans and quite specific postcoital lyrics, there had never been a country music hit that sounded like it. Women swooned and men were glad they did.
But not only was Watson on fire, Houston itself was the epicenter of live country music during this period, with a dozen clubs that could hold more than 1,000 boot-scooters apiece. With heavy support from Houston radio stations, Watson reeled off a string of singular late-'70s and early-'80s hits — "Paper Rosie," "Where Love Begins," "Should I Go Home (or Should I Go Crazy)," "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You" and signature song "Farewell Party" — that kept him constantly on the country charts. All told, he's sent six songs to No. 1 and 23 into the Top 10 among his 75 charting singles. His "Fourteen Carat Mind" remains a must-play standard for hundreds of cover bands.
In spite of all his success, Watson never moved to Nashville. As he approaches 70, he prefers to reside in Humble, where he owns a body shop. His vocal prowess is intact, as evidenced by his stellar 2009 album A Taste of the Truth and his 2011 duets album with Rhonda Vincent, Your Money and My Good Looks. Watson remains as active as ever, playing everything from county fairs in North Dakota to country-music festivals in Ireland, where he is a huge draw.
With the recent passing of George Jones, it is actually possible to say — with no disrespect to Ray Price, Willie Nelson or Johnny Bush — that Watson, known in the industry as "The Singer's Singer," is now the greatest pure vocalist left among working, Auto-Tune-free country singers. WMS
ZZ Top stands for Houston. The band's ad for the city's tourism bureau occasionally airs on local TV back-to-back with KHOU's spot that brags how the station "stands for Houston." It's easy to get the two mixed up, but really, it's no contest.
Almost perfectly, ZZ Top mirrors Houston's four-decade ascent from bluesy relative backwater to global force, with an estimated 50 million worldwide album sales. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted the trio in 2004 (ex-labelmate Keith Richards gave the speech), dubs them "Texas's foremost cultural ambassadors." The Texas Legislature beat the Hall to it by almost two decades, proclaiming ZZ Top "Official Heroes for the State of Texas" in 1986.
But for a band that once brought live armadillos onstage for the "Worldwide Texas" tour, they're no bearded cartoon. All the flashy duds, fuzzy guitars, hot rods and leggy video models wouldn't have endured without a musical foundation of pure Texas granite.
Billy Gibbons folds the blues mojo of his hero Lightnin' Hopkins into a gearhead's aptitude for technology. Dusty Hill attacks his bass strings like Motown great James Jamerson used to and yelps lead on some of ZZ's biggest party-rockers like "Tush." Drummer Frank Beard plays as intricately as any jazzman, behind a kit that looks as if it was designed by NASA. Ever upgrading, last year the band reworked DJ DMD, Fat Pat and Lil Keke's "25 Lighters" (a favorite of the late DJ Screw) into "I Gotsta Get Paid," the single that helped latest album La Futura give them their highest-ever debut on the Billboard album charts.
And then, at Bonnaroo this past June, ZZ Top followed top-billed headliner Paul McCartney with a two-hour set that drew some of the Tennessee festival's best reviews. Precious few bands about to celebrate their 45th anniversary would mark the occasion by touching every part of their catalog in the middle of the night, let alone do it directly after a Beatle. But it's exactly the sort of thing ZZ Top would do. Ah-how-how-how-how. CG
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.