There's an old saying in the music industry that you have your whole life to make your first album but six months to a year for your second. This is almost the reverse. Last year, when we started the Houston Music Hall of Fame to salute the 25th anniversary of the Houston Press Music Awards, the whole thing went from concept to finished product in about six weeks. This year we had an entire year to think about whom to induct.
That made it tougher in some ways, and easier in others. We kept our original rule of inducting only people who are still at least semi-active, but we expand our scope to include a former Houstonian still very much going strong at age 75 and a venue owner who is now a sort of godmother to two or three generations of local musicians. Other than that, our five inductees have little in common aside from the fact that their talents have seldom drawn widespread acclaim until now.
Besides the household name who last year put a song on the charts for his seventh straight decade, that is. But it is now our distinct pleasure to induct DJ Sun, Grady Gaines, K-Rino, Walters Downtown owner Pam Robinson (profiled separately) and Kenny Rogers into the Houston Music Hall of Fame.
His given name is Andre Sam-Sin, but DJ Sun fits the man much better. That word evokes warmth, light, heat, steadfastness -- remember "sure as the sun will shine," from Jimmy Cliff's great "The Harder They Come" -- and an enormous gravitational pull, all qualities that have made Sun such a linchpin of Houston's music community for the past 20 years. The only way it doesn't fit is that he has little interest in being the center of attention; he's as soft-spoken and humble a man as you're ever going to meet.
Sun is certainly a DJ, but recently he's become much more. A couple of years back, the Press ran an article about him that featured Sun in front of a floor-length bookcase crammed with vinyl LPs, which likely only scratched the surface of his collection. (Tens of thousands of records, we imagine, but six figures wouldn't be out of the question.)
Since 1995, he and his colleagues have sound-tracked Houston's Saturday nights with the adventurous and playful play-lists of their KPFT program Soular Grooves, venturing hither and yon to provide choice beats and mind-bending segues equally suited for dancing and chilling, depending on the listener's mood.
Last year Sun finally released his first full-length album, One Hundred, a double-length set as eclectic and soulful as one of his Soular Grooves installments, only portable. In November, he became managing partner of The Flat, which he helped christen by importing his Rocksteady Monday nights from Cafe Brasil in 2005, and invited various Houston visual artists, designers and food auteurs (i.e., his friends) to give the chic Montrose lounge a complete makeover.
By now he has totally revamped the Flat's musical calendar to program genres as far-flung as experimental jazz, cutting-edge soul, Texas rap and classic house, as delivered by a variety of local DJs. Prestigious visitors including Toy Selectah, Tony Touch and Digable Planets mastermind King Britt have come through from time to time to perform at Sun's behest as well.
And then earlier this year, Sun also assumed the booking duties for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Mixed Media soirees, bringing world-class electronic-music talents to the wildly popular monthlies. The move made perfect sense: Where else would an artist of this caliber belong besides a museum?
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GRADY GAINES Before the Beatles, the guitar's role as rock and roll's weapon of choice was not a foregone conclusion. Even the best efforts of Elvis's curled-lip sneer and Buddy Holly's Stratocaster reverb weren't quite able to beat back piano-pounding wild men like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Especially when, as Little Richard's band the Upsetters did, those guys had a tall, intimidating tenor saxophone player like Grady Gaines in their back pocket.
Gaines's budding talent had been encouraged by a sax-playing Fifth Ward neighbor of his and became responsible for one of the very first iconic moments in rock history. In the 1956 film Don't Knock the Rock (still playing on YouTube), he jumps on Little Richard's piano and knocks out a solo on "Long Tall Sally" that literally makes Richard look away.
"I heard it said once that Little Richard only allowed one person to upstage him in his career, and that was Grady Gaines," says Tom McLendon, owner of Houston's last remaining authentic blues venue, The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club, for 20 years. "Little Richard is keeping his seat and acting quite demure. Little Richard wouldn't have done that for many people."
Gaines is the last surviving member of an elite class of sax players known as the "Texas Tenors," a number that also includes Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, King Curtis, David "Fathead" Newman and a few others. These men blew a raw, humid tone that was rougher than big-band swing but could move a crowd better than bebop. It became known as R&B, rhythm and blues, a sound that was soon enough bleached into rock and roll.
"I think Grady is one of the great legends of American rock and roll," McLendon offers.
Little Richard experienced one of his periodic religious conversions and left the Upsetters around 1957, leading Gaines to a long career on the road behind the likes of Sam Cooke, James Brown, Etta James, Joe Tex and more. Back in Houston, as a member of the Duke-Peacock house band, he played on historic recordings like Big Walter's "Pack Fair and Square" single and Bobby Blue Bland's proto-soul 1961 masterpiece Two Steps From the Blues.
In more recent times, Gaines's versatility has kept him in demand at weddings and corporate events, on European tours, and at local venues like Third Ward juke joint Etta's Lounge, where McLendon remembers seeing him play in a combo also featuring the late Joe "Guitar" Hughes in the early '90s. He's still at it, though age and an ailing hip have slowed the frequency of his performances, and today the Big Easy is the only nightclub the 80-year-old Gaines will agree to play.
"As a matter of fact, I was going to call Grady today and see if I can book a date for him in December," McLendon says.
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K-RINO K-Rino first appears exactly 29 pages into Houston Rap, Peter Beste and Lance Scott Walker's heavily illustrated, hardbound 2013 oral history that, immediately upon its release, became the essential document of local hip-hop culture. As he usually is, the rapper is already firing on all eight cylinders.
"Ever since black people came to this country from day one -- even before we came -- there was always a conspiracy, if you want to use that word, to destroy us," K-Rino says. And that right there is what trips a lot of people up. Rappers just aren't supposed to talk about stuff like that, not when the politically minded likes of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were selling respectable numbers of records, and certainly not today.
But back in those years is also when K-Rino (born Eric Kaiser) went from winning rap battles at Sterling High School to co-founding the South Park Coalition, Houston's first true and arguably still most important rap collective. The late DJ Screw was an SPC alumnus, as are Dope-E, Ganksta NIP, Klondike Kat, Z-Ro and probably five dozen others. (Among today's better-known Houston rappers, the Mo City Don is probably K-Rino's biggest booster.)
"There are stories about him and Ganksta NIP battling on street corners with like lightning and shit," says Optimo Ram, also one of K-Rino's main local champions via his Internet portal Optimo Radio. "It's all dramatic."
By Ram's reckoning, between group SPC efforts and solos, K-Rino has released some 30 albums, from Comin' Out Doggin' in the late '80s through more recent works The Maven, Annihilation of the Evil Machine and last year's Plantation Rebellion; he released four albums in 2008 alone. But the way K-Rino delivers his messages is equally astonishing. He manipulates words, syllables and rhythms in ways that his would-be peers aren't even capable of.
"There's a song called "Perpetual Ascension" [that] gets harder and harder, and he's hitting you with these metaphors about being in outer space, punching you into another dimension," says Ram. "Nobody raps about stuff like that.
"He has [another] song called 'Two Sides to a Story,' where each bar is two different stories," he continues. "The first part of the bar is a story and the second part of the bar is a different story. So one's like about a spaceship, and one's about getting robbed in the hood."
In 2009, the Press' Shea Serrano called K-Rino "a genius who happens to be a rapper." But you'll never hear that from him. K-Rino may be the most gifted MC in Houston history, but he's easily the most humble as well. A devout Muslim who still lives in South Park, abstains from drink and drugs of any kind and, Ram says, loves little more than a good game of hoops, K-Rino shuns media attention and pretty much anything else that comes with stardom -- including, tragically perhaps, the big sales someone of his immense talents perhaps deserves.
"He's such a humble and good person," Ram says. "But if you measure him against anybody else, he's just way better when you break down what hip-hop is -- lyrics and the beat and all that kind of stuff. He is scientifically better than anybody. There's nothing like it." [Note: this section has been modified after original publication to correct Ram's name and the titles of "Perpetual Ascension" and Comin' Out Doggin'.]
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KENNY ROGERS By now it's safe to assume that Kenny Rogers will forever be associated with "The Gambler." Judging by a new Geico commercial that has been making the TV rounds, he's more than happy to keep singing it until the dealin's done. But 35 years ago, it was just one more entry in a winning streak of No. 1 hits that also included "Daytime Friends," "Love or Something Like It," "You Decorated My Life," "All I Ever Need Is You" and the Lionel Richie-penned "Lady," which turned out to be almost as big as "The Gambler" but spawned fewer TV movies.
Kicking off that incredible run was "Lucille," the 1977 song that won Rogers a Grammy and a CMA award. But one of his biggest fans wasn't having it: Rogers's country music-loving mother, who also happened to be named Lucille.
"The very idea!" the now 75-year-old singer recalls her saying in his 2012 autobiography, Luck or Something Like It. "What are people going to think when they hear about your mother leaving her family to run off to some bar?"
Rogers became a country star relatively late in life, after a circuitous career that wound back to the talent contest he won as a boy at Houston's long-gone Yale Theater and the doo-wop group he joined while at Jefferson Davis High School, the Scholars. Though Dick Clark supposedly claimed no memory of it, Rogers also appeared on American Bandstand in 1958 with a solo tune, "That Crazy Feeling," that had recently been picked up by a national record distributor.
He spent years playing bass at the city's finer ballrooms and supper clubs with popular jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Trio and auditioned for a spot in one of the biggest folk-pop groups of the '60s, the New Christy Minstrels, from a pay phone in the lobby of the old Houstonaire Motor Inn. He got the gig. Soon a power player in the L.A. scene, Rogers even secured a record deal for a young singer/drummer from deep east Texas named Don Henley and his group, Shiloh.
But there was one more card up Rogers's sleeve before he really hit the big time. After founding his own group, the First Edition, Rogers came across a waking daydream of a song that had been written by fellow Houston native Mickey Newbury, with the mouthful of a title "Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)." A spot-on example of the pseudo-psych sound in vogue at the time, "Just Dropped In" turned out to have a huge shelf life -- it hit the Top 5 in 1968 and still gets recorded today by the likes of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. Then came "The Gambler," the acting, the photography (Hillary Rodham Clinton once sat for a portrait by him in the White House), the chicken-restaurant chain, the Seinfeld episode, the short stories, the plays and the symphony tours. Damn.
Last year alone, Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, appeared at both the UK's Glastonbury and California's Stagecoach festivals, and received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at last November's CMAs. He returned to the charts around the same time with the well-reviewed album You Can't Make Old Friends, while the title track made him the rare artist to put a single on the charts in seven different decades. Just as in that Geico ad, Kenny Rogers isn't folding anytime soon.
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