The passing of Texas Johnny Brown last year hit me and a bunch of people pretty hard, so the September 12 death of Crusaders pianist Joe Sample was another slap in the face that many of Houston's musical heroes are closer to the end than the beginning. The latest bad news is that bluesmen I.J. Gosey and Little Joe Washington, as well as monumental drummer, educator and community leader Bubbha Thomas, have been in poor health, although Little Joe's prognosis is looking pretty good if he maintains his dialysis schedule.
All of this brought on some surveying of the local landscape and wondering how much longer some of our oldest artists have, and in turn the following list of artists that you need to get out and see while you still can. Nothing morbid here, just the cold, hard facts of time marching on. As Houston's Mike Stinson sings in one of his new songs, "Time is a relentless marching whore." Believe me, I'm on the front lines.
BEANS BARTON & THE BI-PEDS Pre-dating performance art when founded in the psychedelic late '60s as Bruiser Barton and the Dry Heaves -- they opened for Captain Beefheart when he swung through Houston promoting Trout Mask Replica -- the current incarnation played its first gig on the ides of March 1986 at Blythe Spirits. Barton recalls the band's high point as being selected for SXSW in 1988, and their low point as actually playing SXSW in 1988.
During their operatic stage show, Barton removes half a dozen costumes of the characters he portrays in his songs while sitting on a throne and singing, and paints when he's not singing. The Bi-Peds recently concluded a run of sold-out shows at Frenetic Theater performing Barton's The Sink Hole That Ate Spawn Lake, described as "a musicalamity in two acts," and will reprise the production there in January.
JEWEL BROWN Jewel Brown was winning talent contests at the Club Matinee while in junior high. She left Houston for L.A. before moving on to sing in Jack Ruby's Dallas nightclub. But the silky-voiced diva ditched Dallas when Louis Armstrong requested her to join his world-touring ensemble. After a decade with Satchmo, Brown began to sing at major venues in Las Vegas before returning to Houston, where she bought a beauty salon with her brother and later became an insurance broker.
Brown teamed with Milton Hopkins for the well received Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown album in 2012. Her singing appearances are rare these days and certainly not to be missed.
GRADY GAINES Few in the local scene can match Gaines' resume. Little Richard's original sax showman, the 80-year-old Third-Warder is one of the godfathers of rock and roll, also touring the world with Sam Cooke, James Brown, Little Willie John, Joe Tex and Jackie Wilson. Gaines picked up the saxophone after hearing a Louis Jordan record through the open window of a home when he was delivering papers.
Sixty years later, except for a five-year period driving a Skycap at Hobby Airport from 1980-85, he's made his living with his horn. Still in demand for parties and weddings today, Gaines next plays in public October 11 at Bayou City Art Festival and October 31 at The Big Easy.
List continues on the next page.
HORACE GRIGSBY An old-school jazz singer in the tradition of Joe Williams and Billy Eckstine, Grigsby was born in 1935 and graduated from Jack Yates High School. He began singing while stationed in Hawaii and, after 12 years in the Marines, moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career.
He returned to Houston in the late '60s and performed with Arnett Cobb, Jimmy Ford and the Cedric Haywood Big Band. While performing with Tex Allen's United Nations Sextet, Grigsby met pianist Bob Henschen, and they have worked together ever since, including an October 21 date at Birraporreti's.
MILTON HOPKINS Lightnin' Hopkins' younger cousin, Milton left Houston early on to work the road and is best-known for holding down the rhythm guitar slot in B.B. King's band for years. After moving back to Houston, Hopkins kept a longstanding residency at popular former White Oak joint the Reddy Room.
Besides his own gigs, in the past few years he has worked with Trudy Lynn, Jewel Brown, and Texas Johnny Boy. Next chance to see Hopkins, who turned 80 in January, is October 4 at the Big Easy.
LA MAFIA The granddaddies of Houston's Tex-Mex scene, La Mafia sprung out of the Northside in 1980 when Oscar de la Rosa and Armando Lichtenberger Jr. came together with the idea of creating something a little different. Their band became huge in short order, and is known today as the first Tejano band to master the logistics and currency issues to extensively tour in Mexico.
To date they have notched two Latin Grammys, two Grammys, and three record-setting performances at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to go with four No. 1 hits and 13 Top 10 singles. La Mafia has no shows currently on the calendar, but keyboardist David de la Garza's band Kosmic Latte performs frequently at Heights lounge the Boom Boom Room.
FITO OLIVARES Saxophonist Fito Olivares moved to Houston in 1977 and formed La Pura Sabrosura with his brothers Javier (vocals) and Jaime (keys). They finally broke through into the big time with the huge Tejano hits starting with 1987's "Juana La Cubana" (you know it, you just don't know you know it), then "La Gallina," "La Negra Catalina" and "Aguita de Melon" in the next few years.
They became immensely popular with a long string of hits on the Billboard Latin charts throughout the '90s, and were in high demand for club dates. Javier passed away in June 2012, but Fito and Jaime carry on. Their next gig is at the Northside's Escapade 2001 in November, though no firm date has been set yet.
List continues on the next page.
RUSTED SHUT It's not like these guys are septuagenarians, but Rusted Shut has been around a long time. In some senses the evil spawn of Mayo Smith's Red Krayola, Don Walsh's crew are now the godfathers of Houston noise-rock. Formed in 1986, the band delivers sludgy, grungy, paint-peeling distortion and torrential showers of aggression; they could easily be dismissed as a loud, lame gimmick if they hadn't lasted so long and if they didn't stay so pissed off.
And let's face it, if they weren't from Houston, where we actually understand and appreciate what bands like Rusted Shut do, they might have packed it in already. Watch the Rudyard's and Mango's calendars for these old Pik-n-Pak warriors.
LITTLE JOE WASHINGTON Another legend, Little Joe was born in Third Ward, where he learned to play trumpet in the high-school band. He also moonlighted in blues bands, first as a drummer before switching to guitar because "the girls all liked the guitar player, not the drummer." While playing in the joints of El Paso and Juarez he was discovered by the Champs, the group best-known for the 1958 instrumental hit, "Tequila." They took Washington to L.A. and recorded some sides with him there.
Drugs and alcohol wore the diminutive bluesman down, although these days Joe says his only addiction is KFC. After relocating to Houston, he was often homeless and for a while lived in an abandoned car on a vacant lot. His career was revived when the guys who ran Blue Iguana bought a pawnshop guitar and let Washington play every Monday, a residency that eventually graduated to the Continental Club. Recently Joe has been back in the hospital with kidney-failure issues, but if and when he returns to the stage, the best place to catch him is a Continental happy hour or Boondocks on a Tuesday night.
GENE WATSON One of the greatest ballad singers in country-music history, Gene Watson worked the clubs in and around Houston for a decade before (at age 32) his sultry, New Orleans-influenced ballad "Love in the Hot Afternoon" hit No. 1 in 1975.
Possessed of an unmistakable, perfect tenor, Watson has had two tunes go to No. 1, 23 in the Top 10, and 75 charting singles in his 50-year career. He still tours and appears regularly at the Grand Ole Opry, though he currently has no dates booked for the Houston area.
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism