Sugar Hill Studios sent out a press release minutes ago announcing the passing of trumpeter Calvin Owens, who led BB King’s band through much of its glory period. The native of Fifth Ward’s Sawdust Alley section, who also played with Big Joe Turner, Archie Bell, T-Bone Walker and Johnny Copeland, was 79.
Also known as “The Maestro,” Owens worked professionally in Memphis and as an A&R man for Peacock here in town and as an arranger for A&M records in Los Angeles. His career spanned the eras from working as a ballyhoo man for a traveling minstrel show to hip-hop – in 2006 he made a rap album called Say Boy How You Do That Thing? He also crossed the language divide, recording Spanish-language songs with singers Norma Zenteno and Evelyn Rubio and the rapper Valdemar. Through it all, his bread and butter remained the brassy big-band, densely-textured jazz-blues that was once the city’s trademark sound. Check out albums like True Blue and The House is Burnin’ for examples, not to mention his all-encompassing creative vision. Even if everything he touched was rooted in the blues, he loved crossing genre boundaries, and not just with hip-hop and Latin styles. “H-Town Frenchtown Getdown” finds him going zydeco, for example. Whatever style he threw in the blender, he maintained it was still “our music,” by which he meant Houston music.
“You know I’ve straddled the lines musically,” he told Dr Roger Wood in a 1998 Living Blues interview. “I’m not a typical blues person. I choose to do blues because of my association with B.B. King, and I was best known for that. I figured I could come up with a concept that no one else had, and that’s what I do. So even when I do jazz, it’s still the blues….During the days when I was a young man, we just played music. And we would play the jazz things, what the beboppers used to be playing, and we would play what the blues singers were doing also, with the big band arrangements. It was our music, you know, and we were happy to be playing it.”
Owens had fans all across the musical spectrum Willie Nelson and Johnny Bush were big fans: Bush hired Owens to arrange and perform the song “Free Soul” on his 2007 album Kashmere Gardens Mud and enlisted him for the same services for three more songs on his next album. On that record, Ray Price as well as Nelson and Bush will handle vocals.
BB King once said of Owens, “[Calvin] has the respect of all the master musicians. Calvin’s a master himself.” Little Milton once said “Calvin has always impressed me as one of the main maestros with that big sound.”
Sugar Hill’s Andy Bradley said, "My heart is heavy with the loss of one of the most talented musicians and a very dear friend. Personally and professionally, I will miss his enigmatic spirit. May his memory live on through his resplendent music."
At the close of his interview with Wood, Owens said he hoped to reenergize the blues scene in Houston. “Because I know how the music was in Houston and I’d like to bring that back,” he said.
I had just moved back to town at that time, and KTSU was spinning his “True Blue” for many of their sound-beds. It sure felt like the city’s pulse had not missed a beat in the ten years I had been away. – John Nova Lomax
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