Little Joe Makes It Big

Once down and out, Joe Washington is now up and coming.
Deron Neblett

In early March, Little Joe Washington was fresh out of a weeklong stint at Ben Taub Hospital, and it was anybody's guess as to whether the hard-living blues musician was headed down the path to perdition or local celebrity.

Leave it to Little Joe to take both roads at the same time.

It wasn't that long ago that Joe, who grew up in the legendary Third Ward blues scene and played with the likes of Albert Collins and Lightnin' Hopkins, was a homeless man darting into clubs to steal the show from more settled musicians (often on a borrowed guitar). But since his debut at the Continental Club's Wednesday-night happy hour (see "Hitting the Highs and Lows with Little Joe Washington," by Jennifer Mathieu, March 22), Joe has set up several regular gigs around town, performed at the African-American Arts Festival and played at Austin's Continental Club. And there are even plans to record Joe on the nascent Project Row Houses label.

"I would say the biggest news is that he hasn't screwed it up," says longtime friend Tommy Nix, who videotapes Joe at almost every one of his Wednesday shows in hopes of making a documentary about him.

Although pal and sometime manager Reg Burns says Joe's health is better than ever, the diminutive 62-year-old musician still drinks Wild Turkey, bums cigarettes and dabbles in God knows what else. And his blues shows continue to be a marriage of great music and bizarre behavior. On one recent Wednesday night, Joe announced, "I'm not drunk, I'm just drinking," picked out "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his teeth on the guitar, rubbed it against his crotch and then played a really lovely version of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me."

The crowd loved it.

"He's real, he's authentic," says Andrew Malveaux, the Project Row Houses special events director who wants to record Joe. "A lot of people get caught up in his antics, but he really is a masterful musician. He runs circles around a lot of people."

Until the professional CD deal is worked out, Reg has been tracking down Little Joe's three 1963 recordings on the Federal and Donna labels. Reg discovered one single, "Bossa Nova and Grits," after an Internet search revealed a New Jersey DJ had played it on his radio show in 1997. Burns contacted the DJ, who sent the 45 to Houston. Reg played it for Joe -- who hadn't heard the recording in nearly four decades -- and Joe "started grinning from ear to ear," says Reg.

But it's the small things that prove Joe's life might be stabilizing. Joe recently got his own phone installed in his rent-free apartment above the Continental. Before that, the best way to get in touch with him was to throw rocks at his window and yell his name until he popped his head out. Reg says Joe also has talked about getting a driver's license, but admits the day Joe gets behind the wheel is the same day Reg will buy a bus pass.

Joe says the important thing is that he can make his music work on stage.

"I play my music for the world," he says. "Music that's pleasant for the ears. And that's the whole story, baby."

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