Roger Wood passed along some terrible news this morning – Little Joe Washington is in intensive care at Ben Taub. Although the pint-sized blues guitar genius has cheated death on damn near a daily basis for the past decade, and climbed out of what seemed to have been his death-bed in 2001, this time the prognosis looks especially grim.
I can remember the first time I ever saw Washington.
It was 1997, and I had just come back to Houston after almost a decade away. It was at some show at the Blue Iguana, which was to close not long thereafter, before reopening as the Proletariat and closing again this year.
As was his wont, the elfin, dread-locked Washington “borrowed” a guitar and took the stage by storm. Although you couldn’t say he melded perfectly with the band, you could hear from his unique phrasing (which drew from jazz and classical as well as blues) and piercing, steel-melting tone that this little guy was a serious, serious player. When he got off the stage and passed around that shapeless, battered hat of his, it was a pleasure to drop a five-spot in there. And off he went into the night on his little Schwinn…Probably to another bar if he didn’t have enough money to get his head right in his hat already.
Repeat that ten, a dozen, 50 times over the years. There is probably no musician I have seen perform at more different venues than Little Joe – Miss Ann’s Playpen, Helios, Rudyard’s, Garden in the Heights, the Continental Club, the Big Top, maybe a couple of the spots on Washington.
I once took a friend of mine to Leon’s Lounge in about 1999, long before that joint gentrified almost beyond all recognition. The clientele that night was very rough – a racially mixed crowd of drunks, most of whom looked like they had just hopped off a Greyhound. A few of them were on stage in the back room, which was then bare of almost all décor, working their way through an abysmal blues jam. (A few of the bar’s customers would periodically slide out the club’s back door and fire up a few crack-rocks, in full view of everyone in the band area.)
In came Little Joe. Again, he didn’t meld with the band. (Hell, each member of that band melded only with music that could be heard by deranged elephants.) But again, you could hear that Little Joe Washington was the very definition of a legit bluesman in every note he played.
It was sad. With his old Third Ward buddies Albert Collins, Johnny Clyde Copeland, Johnny “Guitar” Watson gone, only Washington and Joe “Guitar” Hughes were still around to keep that old Shady’s Playhouse guitar vibe alive. Hughes by that point had mainly put his demons aside, regained his equilibrium and become well known on the national and international blues circuit, but Washington was known only to night owls in Houston, and that as “that little guy who came in and passed the hat.”
Washington was then living in the falling-down remnants of his boyhood home near the corner of Beulah and Velasco in Third Ward, with no running water or electricity. Eventually even that burned – Washington had nothing, then he even lost that. At about that time, Jennifer “Miss Pop Rocks” Mathieu penned an excellent cover story in the Press about Washington and his travails.)
But it was almost time for Washington to shine. He was sleeping in a junked car in his old house’s yard when his buddy Chris “Crease” Henrich helped him move in to one of the rooms above the Continental Club.
At roughly the same time, Reg Burns helped him land a record deal with Eddie Stout’s Austin label Dialtone. The resulting album, Houston Guitar Blues, won rave reviews not only here in the Press but also Texas Monthly and Living Blues. (Eventually, America’s foremost blues journal would sport a Roger Wood-penned cover story on Washington.) Stout helped Washington assemble a band and took him on the road, on the festival circuit here and also overseas. Washington eventually moved into a Third Ward house with all the modern conveniences, including, for the first time in decades, a working telephone. (Listed under his birth name: Marion J. Washington.)
That was when Wood caught up with him for his Living Blues cover story. In the article, Wood acknowledged that Washington had two distinct images. Washington’s detractors saw him as an obnoxious, attention-hogging, free-loading drug addict. Others, a camp which included Wood and myself, saw him as a free spirit and guitarist of immense talent and a man whose very essence was music.
Towards the end of his life, Townes Van Zandt once stressed to me that there were musicians and then there were truly musical beings, people who lived music every moment of their lives. Roky Erickson was in the latter camp, Van Zandt said, as in his view was the mountain dulcimer player (and LaMarque native) David Schnaufer.
No doubt Van Zandt would have said the same about Washington. Little Joe would bluster to Wood in the article that it was all about the money, but it reads like a macho pose when you see what he has to say next.
“But it ain’t about the money. A lot of people be thinking that, but it ain’t. I’m going to make music whether I get the money or not, anyway. The Lord gave it to me, so that’s why I’ve got to keep it going, man. I enjoy doing it.
“Man, music is something else. Music is a part of living. There’s some people will tell you that they don’t even listen at music. You ever heard of anybody like that? Do you believe it? Well, I don’t know what to say about that! That’s a bad situation, too. They’re not really living…I thank the Lord for everything I got, but most of all, for music.”
Thank the Lord for Little Joe Washington! – John Nova Lomax
Please post your favorite Little Joe Washington stories in the comments below: