When 62-year-old native Houstonian Clarence Hollimon died late last month, local blues and jazz culture lost more than just another gifted musician. It lost the player countless insiders considered to be the greatest all-around guitarist ever to emerge from the Fifth -- or any other -- Ward. And folks, given that this ward has been home to the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins, Albert Collins, Cal Green, Johnny Copeland and numerous other long-gone six-string heavyweights, that's quite a reputation.
The scene also lost one-half of what may have been the most widely traveled and recorded husband-and-wife blues duo in contemporary history -- in Houston's for sure. Billed as Fran and Hollimon, the partnership between Carol Fran, spouse (following their 1983 wedding) and vocalist, and Hollimon remained the guitarist's proudest affiliation (see "Love Supreme," October 21, 1999). This, from a guy who'd played extensively with the likes of Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Big Mama Thornton, Charles Brown, O.V. Wright, Joe Hinton, Dionne Warwick, Buddy Ace, the original Jazz Crusaders and many other stars of black popular music from the '50s through the '90s.
Gone now is the quiet guy whose ego-to-talent ratio was more lopsided than anyone had ever seen. It was just minuscule bits of the former, and gracious heapings, ever expanding, of the latter. Great vocalists especially loved to work with him, for Hollimon's genius wasn't conveyed via show-stealing solos or fretboard histrionics, but through economical and respectful collaboration. Jimmy "T-99" Nelson, who enlisted Hollimon's services for the former's W.C. Handy Award-nominated 1999 CD, Rockin' & Shoutin' the Blues (Bullseye Blues and Jazz), agrees. "Clarence had heard me before, and he knew what I was doing," says Nelson. "He said, 'When you sing a song, you don't come in on the note. You lay back on that note and then you attack that note, real soft.' Well, that's exactly the way Clarence would play that guitar for me. It was beautiful. And so rare."
Gone now is one of the most effective blues ambassadors of the past decade. During that time, Fran and Hollimon not only regularly played marquee concert halls in myriad European cities, as well as major festivals nationwide, they also logged hundreds of travel hours around the Lone Star State, performing concerts and serving in artists-in-residence programs sponsored by Texas Folklife Resources. The big irony: The duo rarely played a public gig in Houston, preferring to lay low on its home turf to save energy for touring and session work.
Gone now is the musician known, to his many friends and intimates at least, as Gristle. Hollimon's distinctive nickname was common knowledge among friends for scores of years, but no one's really sure of its origin. I've always assumed it had something to do with his short physical stature and wiry frame. You know, "no meat on his bones, just gristle." (For those who were never wise to the moniker, the guitarist provided plenty of clues, especially on the initial Fran and Hollimon release, Soul Sensation (Black Top). The most obvious was an instrumental track titled "Gristle," a rocking shuffle that showcased Hollimon's considerable musical dexterity, his ability to work solos on the low strings as well as the high. "Gristle" also was a single for ABC way back in the 1960s, recorded by Hollimon under the name the Hawks.)
But for those who still didn't get the connection, Hollimon spelled it out in one of his precious few vocal performances, a lighthearted autobiographical original titled "Box with the Hole in the Middle." He begins with a humble introduction: "My name is 'Gristle,' and I play the git-fiddle." He also refers to his guitar as a "starvation box," a term common among down-home blues players from an older era. (Incidentally, for Hollimon it was anything but. In truth, the only real job he ever had was playing that instrument, dating back to when he would skip class at Wheatley High School to do session work for Duke-Peacock Records. And despite some hard times, especially when he bottomed out from hard-core substance abuse in the late '70s, Hollimon ultimately earned a decent living with his guitar.)
There's also another song from Soul Sensation that tells a lot about Gristle, even if it doesn't use the word. It's the instrumental "Blues for Carol," a virtuoso display by a guy who blurred genre boundaries. Though it's a slow 12-bar blues number, it's also jazzy. Hollimon explores an expansive range of melodic and harmonic possibilities, stretching strings and holding notes, spinning out riffs without repeating the same licks over and over. It's a survey suggesting what several different guitarists, brilliant ones at that, might do with one song. But this is all laid down by a single amazingly fluent axman, whose style is characterized not by bombast or speed but by intelligence and diversity. More important to Hollimon, however, may have been the fact that the song was also a statement of love for his wife.
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The couple made a great team. They had just recorded their third CD together in January for the British blues label JSP, a session due for U.S. release later this month. Several people who've heard advance copies say it's the best Fran and Hollimon work ever. I'm still waiting on mine and reserving judgment. It'll be tough to compare to the likes of Soul Sensation, specifically the song "I Needs to Be Be'd With," which encapsulates the man and his wife better than any framed photograph of the couple.
The song features Fran in her sassiest persona, explaining: "This ain't no laughing matter no more / I've got to find me somebody for sure / 'Cause right now -- hey hey hey -- right now / You know I needs to be be'd with." It's quite a slangy yet powerful statement about female sexuality. After the second verse the diva shouts, "Play me something, Clarence," and he responds with a teasing, piercing, string-bending solo that suggests exactly the kind of nastily creative lovemaking the boss lady craves. She accents his instrumentation with exclamations such as "Have mercy!" and with a series of discreet groans, tasteful variations on the theme of sexual ecstasy. When he completes the first romp she demands, "Do it like that again," and he proceeds (musically speaking) to sex her up good.
This one tune is a potent and real testimony to the love affair between Gristle and the woman he affectionately dubbed Blabs. Yes, it makes me hurt for her loss. But it also reminds me that for all she has lost -- all we've lost -- with Hollimon's death, there's a righteous legacy, some choice Gristle, still to be savored.
In addition to 1992's Soul Sensation, Fran and Hollimon's catalog includes See There! (Black Top, 1994) and the forthcoming It's About Time! (JSP, 2000).