Houston is a sprawling metropolis of subdivisions and strip centers that retains a strong cultural hub. But this "cultural hub" has actually become more of a cultural sprawl. Especially music-wise, neighborhoods outside Loop 610 are often seen as culturally sterile, though some elements of Houston's more developed, inner-city culture have spread.
I was recently speaking about these things with my grandmother, who grew up enamored by the blues.
She moved to Houston from Chicago just as Shakespeare Pub was opening up. For those who don't know, Shakespeare's (as it's commonly called) is a bar located about 20 miles west of the loop. The interesting part is, it was opened for the purpose of being the first live outlet for blues music in the Houston suburbs.
I grew up around the area where Shakespeare's is located, but hadn't thought of its significance until just recently. I thought it was just another venue, but it led me to wonder what other oft-overlooked local blues venues are in fact steeped in Houston music history. Below are a few of the most prominent of these places and how they fare today.
1. THE SILVER SLIPPER The Silver Slipper is considered to be one of the last live traces of Frenchtown, a part of Houston where many Creoles relocated after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. This Creole influence led to the Silver Slipper being one of the birthplaces of zydeco, and the late Clifton Chernier, also known as the "King of Zydeco," first performed here.
This bar still prides itself to be one of the hottest blues, soul and zydeco spots around.
3717 Crane, 713-673-9004
2. ELDORADO BALLROOM From its opening in the 1939 until the early 1970s, Eldorado Ballroom was a jazz and blues hot spot, and considered the launchpad into fame for Houston-bred Sam Lightnin' Hopkins (though he was said to prefer playing grittier joints). It hosted both local and nationally acclaimed artists including Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, B.B. King, and many more.
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The venue eventually closed down as music tastes among young folk changed. But, lo and behold, The Eldorado Ballroom was put in the hands of Project Row Houses and re-opened in May 2003. This historic nightclub is now available to rent for events. It's no longer a full-time blues joint, but received a Texas Historical Marker in 2011.
2310 Elgin, 713-526-7662
3. ETTA'S LOUNGE The heart of Houston blues indeed resides in the Third Ward area. But unlike Eldorado Ballroom, which is more on the outskirts of the neighborhood, Etta's Lounge is in the very heart of Third Ward, and serves a mean catfish sandwich.
Etta's remains up and running years past its glory days (at least aesthetically), and although it no longer features headlining blues and soul acts, last we heard the back-room area continues to host weekly blues jams on Sunday evenings.
5120 Scott, 713-528-2611
4. EARL GILLIAM'S DOGHOUSE (Tomball)
You can't quite visit this venue just outside Houston anymore because not only has owner and blues pianist Earl Gilliam passed away, but the Doghouse was also a part of his very own home. Gilliam is pictured here behind his "Doghouse," which was directly behind his own house. It was a popular local makeshift blues venue on Sundays equipped with much food and celebration for many years up to Gilliam's October 2011 death.
5. DOUBLE BAYOU DANCE HALL Upon looking up the origins of the well-known bar The Big Easy, I ran across the most interesting origins of the Double Bayou Dance Hall. Texas blues guitarist Pete Mayes started his musical career at this dance hall and managed it for the rest of his life.
Double Bayou Dance Hall began as just a platform with chicken wire. As it grew in popularity, it was eventually secured under a wooden ceiling.
This dance hall ran technically just outside of the Chitlin' Circuit from 1945 to about the mid-1950s, though big names such as T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, Percy Mayfield, Lightnin' Hopkins and Albert Collins still made several stops there due to its lively reputation.
The venue sustained much damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and was further affected by the passing of its longtime steward Mayes that same year. A movement is underway by the Chambers County Historical Commission to restore and preserve the site as a tourist attraction.
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Eagle Ferry Road, Anahuac, 409-252-4335