Midnight, The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club, cover charge is five bucks. A blast of heat from the gaggle of horns onstage rushes out of the momentarily open door of the Kirby Drive nightclub, as a writhing mass of sweaty Friday-night humanity works it out on the dance floor. Dressed to the nines, saxophonist Grady Gaines and his band the Texas Upsetters are cooking up some nasty, big-beat blues.
As the song ends, the crowd erupts in yells and catcalls, whistles and wild applause. This scene could be reminiscent of Houston's blues heyday in the '50s and '60s, except that the audience is predominantly white and middle-aged rather than black.
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Dapper singer Patrick Harris, who resembles a smaller version of Snoop Dogg, waits for the noise to subside. "We love you and the Big Easy," he gushes. "It's people like you and clubs like this that make Houston the hottest blues town in the country."
More whoops and hollers...but what? Hottest blues town in the country?
Oldest blues town in the country might be closer to the mark. A cluster of Houston musicians continue to draw healthy crowds to their monthly or even weekly gigs well into their 70s and even 80s. Although the domestic audience for blues and R&B of this vintage has all but dried up except in a few major cities, those who are able to withstand the rigors of international travel still play to healthy audiences at clubs and festivals in Europe.
Gaines is 77, a veteran of Little Richard and Bobby "Blue" Bland's touring bands, as well as the historic sessions at the late Don Robey's Fifth Ward label Duke/Peacock Records. Milton Hopkins, whose cousin Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins received Houston's very first blues-related Texas Historical Marker in Third Ward last year (nearly 30 years after his death), is also 77.
Clocking in at 72 or 73, depending on which day you ask him, is Marion "Little Joe" Washington, the pint-sized guitar dynamo who is the blues' de facto emissary to hipster Houston thanks to his Tuesday-night residency at Montrose bar Boondocks. Had the Houston Press been foolish enough even to ask veteran shouter Gloria Edwards's age, we would hardly reveal it here.
The reigning dean of Houston's blues scene, Texas Johnny Brown, is 83. "TJB," as most of his friends know him, wrote one of Bland's biggest hits, "Two Steps From the Blues," during his long Duke/Peacock tenure. A fit man and a sharp dresser who often wears a little beret onstage that makes him look like the King of Cool, the guitarist still plays long, blistering sets that include his own hit songs like the monumental "There Goes the Blues" as well as subtle covers of choice R&B plums such as Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine."
Brown's recent Big Easy gigs have been masterful, wall-to-wall with dancers flipping and twirling each other, some young enough to be his great-grandchildren. His Quality Blues Band of Little Joe Frenchwood (drums), William Hollis (keys) and Larry Evans (bass) comes from the ranks of longtime bluesmen who remain active, a smattering that also includes bandleaders Eugene Moody, Don Kesee and George Brown, pianist Pee Wee Stephens, guitarist Pops Stewart, and drummers Jackie Gray and Gilbert Labba.
Not surprisingly, the number of local bluesmen who have recently retired or semi-retired due to advanced age, illness, or both, continues to swell: Guitarist I.J. Gosey, pianist Earl Gilliam and the current dean emeritus of the Houston blues community, 97-year-old Big Walter "The Thunderbird" Price, who once hammered the piano keys with the force of a hundred Fats Dominos.
However, the generation that was nurtured by all these Houston greats, as well as the many who have passed away, is going strong: Vocal powerhouses Trudy Lynn, Diunna Greenleaf and Faye Robinson, and guitar whizzes Sherman Robertson and Leonard "Lowdown" Brown. Just not always in Houston — these are the performers who travel regularly, and figure much larger abroad than on their home turf.
"Trudy Lynn, who started out singing with Albert Collins when she was still in high school, is just Trudy here in town," says Houston Community College professor and local blues scholar Dr. Roger Wood. "But on the world stage, where she is Miss Trudy Lynn, she is a force to be reckoned with. The same goes for Diunna Greenleaf and Sherman Robertson. Those three are out there kicking ass in the world at large, but their gigs here are just treated as other blues gigs."
That Wood, author of 2003's definitive Gulf Coast blues history Down in Houston, can even say such a thing is testament to the high degree of musicianship among Houston's players, who have continued honing their onstage skills well after others their age have settled into retirement. Unless it comes from a job they held down concurrent with their musical pursuits, there is no retirement pension and often no health insurance for musicians, which in turn goes a long way toward explaining why many continue to perform so late in life.
The blues itself is looking a little long in the tooth these days as well. Last year The New York Times ran an interesting thought piece that suggested as a musical form, the blues can appear calcified and frozen because its fans simply won't allow it to change and evolve. Although their set list is the same at every show (more or less), Brown and the Quality Blues Band disprove this notion on a regular basis.
"Johnny had so much success because he is way more than a three-chord, 12-bar musician," Wood says. "His compositions have interesting bridges and intricate melody lines, and are much more like what you think of Duke Ellington sounding like than, say, Robert Johnson or Jimmy Reed."
Brown, adds the professor, "plays like a jazz guy but thinks like a blues guy, and that makes him something very special."
Especially to Inner-Loopers more likely to hang out at Poison Girl or Fitzgerald's than The Big Easy, perhaps no one represents the face of Houston blues more than Little Joe Washington. The diminutive guitarist with the wild-man visage is a familiar sight on the streets of Midtown and the adjacent Third Ward, often with his bicycle in tow.
Because of his eccentricity and bouts with homelessness and poverty — including earlier this summer, when he was forced to find new lodgings when his roommate became a full-time caretaker to her terminally ill sister — Washington has probably had more press than all the other blues elders combined, including a 2001 Houston Press cover story by Jennifer Mathieu (see "Hitting the Highs and Lows with Little Joe Washington," March 22, 2001).
What sets Washington apart from these others is his adoption by a younger audience. Brown and the others have their younger fans, to be sure, but play mostly for white, middle-aged, generally affluent crowds, while Washington's normal milieu is Boondocks, where he has a long-running residency on Tuesdays, as well as the Continental Club, where he recently began working a monthly happy hour on Fridays. Washington used to live above the Continental, and had a happy-hour residency at the club for many years that certainly brought him to the attention of a broader crowd than the other Houston blues giants normally attract.
And the fact of the matter is, Washington's sets are wild. Whereas Gaines, Brown and Hopkins sport a dignified, well-dressed stage presence, Washington barely seems to notice what he is wearing and gets up to all sorts of less-than-dignified shenanigans onstage, among them playing his guitar with his tongue or rubbing it on his private parts. He attacks his music like a rock and roller, which is undoubtedly part of his appeal to a wider crowd.
One man you will never catch rubbing his guitar anywhere near his crotch is Milton Hopkins. Always impeccably dressed, he was in Johnny Ace's band that Christmas Day in 1954 when the young star committed suicide while playing Russian roulette backstage at Houston's City Auditorium. Hopkins recently went to Memphis, where he received the Albert King award for best guitarist from the Jus' Blues Music Foundation, which also honored Hopkins's frequent stage partner Trudy Lynn with the KoKo Taylor award for best female vocalist.
Hopkins believes Houston is far from the best city for a blues musician to make a living. He knows too many people in other places, he says, who "have a nice house and a nice car and they don't do anything but play music. You can't do that in Houston anymore. So to me, saying Houston has the best blues scene in the country doesn't really wash.
"You can't make a living being a blues musician in Houston today," elaborates Hopkins. "There aren't enough gigs and there isn't a big enough fan base, so there's just not enough money in the blues to make a decent living without touring."
Beyond the current generation led by Lynn, Greenleaf, Robertson and Leonard "Lowdown" Brown, Hopkins doesn't hold out much hope for the blues. He's noticed the general decline of interest in the music as close as his own family, which has one of the most famous last names in blues history — certainly in Texas.
"Honestly, it's about history, and most people just don't seem that interested," he explains. "Back in the day, you had teachers like Conrad Johnson and Sammy Harris at the schools who gave a lot of guys a nudge in the right direction. I don't see that anymore.
"I come from a large family, but I can tell you that when we all get together, there are teenagers in our family that don't even know who Lightnin' is, who don't know that I play guitar," Hopkins continues. "So I don't see a lot of hope for this music going forward beyond the people who will still be attracted to recordings."
Even Wood, as big a booster of the Houston blues community as there is, admits that while the Houston scene is still fairly vibrant at the moment, taking a longer view means acknowledging that it is in decline.
"We still have a good number of high-quality shows going on, but it's no use pretending things haven't changed here," he says. "In 1994-95, seven days a week, you could find something solid happening at a wide array of joints. And don't forget, the whole Houston tradition of Blue Mondays was very much going full-tilt, and that has all but vanished.
"Now we're down to a handful of places putting on quality local blues shows, and that's mostly just Friday and Saturday nights," Wood says. "Other than that, it's mostly blues jams."
To evaluate Patrick Harris's statement that Houston has the hottest blues scene in the country, the Press reached out to a few writers, public-relations people and blues musicians in Chicago, Memphis and Atlanta to take the pulse of those longtime blues strongholds.
Much like Wood's view of Houston, both Atlanta and Chicago seem to be in a similar declining arc: Fewer clubs catering to blues and a gradual attrition of significant musicians. Longtime Atlantan and former Allman Brothers/Capricorn Records PR man Mark Pucci describes a scene that seems almost like a carbon copy of Houston's, although perhaps with fewer quality old-school players.
"As far as Atlanta is concerned, thank God for Blind Willie's," he says. "They've been doing it for over 20 years and have a good built-in audience that comes out no matter who's playing, because they know they're going to hear quality music."
The venue is in a nice area and is surrounded by other bars and restaurants, he adds, which brings in a lot of walk-in and tourist visitors, too. Pucci notes the Northside Tavern near Georgia Tech and Fat Matt's in Midtown as other blues bars with good local/area artists on a nightly basis.
Second-generation Chicago musician Nick Tremulis, whose father used to "smoke pot with Nat King Cole's brother," sees a lovable but dwindling scene from the heyday of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, Chess Records and Maxwell Street. He says Chicago's efforts to turn the blues and its oldest purveyors into a tourist attraction, although financially lucrative, are a double-edged sword.
"Chicago blues musicians make a good portion of their money playing for tourists or folks coming from out of town to catch a little fire of what they believe is the 'Home of the blues,' says Tremulis. "Maybe a quick look at it would have you believe that it's a money-making enterprise costume-party shell game of what it once was. But if you're looking for a scene, you ain't gonna find it.
"We have a tourist market here," Tremulis adds, "and thank God for that, because it means our local guys can play Buddy Guy's club — and Buddy always gets the pay right — and some other outlets around town once a month or so and make rent and buy medicine and food."
Chicago Reader and Living Blues freelance writer David Whiteis describes the Windy City as two distinct yet similar blues scenes and audiences, one mainly white and middle-class and a smaller, mainly black audience in a few old-school clubs.
Ironically, Whiteis describes the venues with primarily white audiences as tending toward "more traditional blues, meaning not just '50s-'60s postwar stuff, but music that's driven primarily by guitars and includes a lot of 12-bar shuffles. It often has a harmonica somewhere in the mix, and doesn't usually include what most people would call 'pop' songs."
"A lot of musicians complain they feel compelled to play the 'set list from hell' of 'Sweet Home Chicago,' 'Got My Mojo Working,' 'Woke Up This Morning,'" among others, Whiteis notes, when they play those venues.
Meanwhile, local bandleader Milton Hopkins says Memphis has "quite a few good venues and lots of fans spending money for the blues." (The Press reached out to music writers at Memphis's weekly Flyer and daily Commercial Appeal, but got no reply.)
Yet Hopkins also notes that during his recent brief stay in Memphis, where he and Trudy Lynn accepted their awards, he saw "a lot of guys who can stand around and talk about blues all night, but then they jump up onstage for a song or two, it's rock and roll or soul, but they don't really know the blues."
By all accounts, Hopkins's impromptu drop-in at Memphis's mostly black club Wild Bill's was a stunner, with the Houston bluesman upstaging the regular guitarist so badly that when Hopkins tried to leave the stage, the local hero said, "No, you just keep playing, I'm not going to try to follow that."
It seems Houston has as many quality old-school players and equally enthusiastic, although largely white, audiences as these three cities. Best blues scene in America? Open for debate, but Houston is definitely in the running, and gets extra points for not turning the blues into a tourist enterprise — even at local blues jams, there is no set list from hell.
It's probably been 40 years since the blues was "popular," at least in terms of radio airplay and record sales.
Alongside swing and rock and roll, blues and R&B were musically dominant from the '40s through the '60s, with songs and albums regularly crossing over to the pop charts. But the music's commercial clout (if not its influence) has been diminishing ever since. B.B. King last hit the Billboard Top 40 in 1974 with "I Like to Live the Love" (No. 28), and the last bona fide blues song to make the Top 20 was the Robert Cray Band's "Smoking Gun" in 1987.
Thanks to festivals and the patronage of blues-loving celebrities like House of Blues co-founder Dan Aykroyd (a.k.a. Elwood Blues), the blues remains a healthy concert draw, but even there the character of the music has changed alongside the color of its audience.
Outside elder statesmen such as King and Buddy Guy and their baby-boomer heirs such as Cray and Keb' Mo' (themselves rare within their generation), today the genre's top live acts — Jonny Lang, Susan Tedeschi, Joe Bonamassa — are white.
Their version of the blues, and the way most people recognize the music in 2011, comes filtered through the classic-rock stylings of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan. This is by far the most common type of music at Houston-area "blues" bars like Shakespeare's Pub, Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, the Hideaway on Dunvale and even The Big Easy, where the most popular artists include The Mighty Orq, Eric Demmer & the Sax Dawgs, Sonny Boy Terry and Rick Lee & the Night Owls.
But these places also welcome the likes of Texas Johnny Brown, who averages about one gig a month at Shakespeare's, as do Eugene Moody and Leonard "Lowdown" Brown.
Besides its weekly blues jam at The Big Easy, the Houston Blues Society sponsors shows by local artists such as Little Joe Washington, Diunna Greenleaf and Milton Hopkins downtown at House of Blues about once a month.
These are the fruits of the "mutually beneficial network" of black musicians and white clubowners, promoters and audiences Roger Wood says sprang up in the early to mid-'90s. By then, the sun was already starting to set on the scene at black clubs such as Miss Ann's Playpen and C. Davis Barbecue, which hosted the talents of Clarence Green, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Jimmy "T-99" Nelson — all since passed — and the Thunderbird in their heyday. (Mr. Gino's in Sunnyside lives on.)
"I credit the Houston Blues Society, as well as the blues programming on KPFT and certain writers and scene promoters, with really assisting the solidification of the local blues community, black and otherwise," says Wood. "The larger fan base grew to appreciate the range and depth of talent readily available to perform on local stages. And the talent generally appreciated the newfound local notoriety — and gigs — beyond the black community."
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But perhaps the biggest sign of the impact of Houston's blues community on the city at large has been the success of recent efforts to honor these musicians' contributions in a more permanent fashion. A little over a year ago, local blues fan R. Eric Davis almost single-handedly put together a campaign to obtain a Texas Historical Marker for Lightnin' Hopkins. The marker was financed entirely with private funding, Davis eventually bringing the Blues Society, the House of Blues and the City of Houston (in the form of an official proclamation) on board.
The Hopkins marker was dedicated in Third Ward last November; another, honoring historic nearby venue the Eldorado Ballroom, followed a few months later, after a similar fundraising effort by Project Row Houses. Plans for further memorials are in the very early stages. One, a Hollywood-style "Walk of Fame" bearing the names of past and present Houston blues greats, has already drawn the preliminary support of District I Councilman James Rodriguez.
Someday, that plan could even come to fruition. Maybe another one, yet to be formulated, will. If that happens, terrific. But for now, the names that future generations may only encounter embossed in a metal plaque on some downtown or Midtown sidewalk are probably playing this weekend on a stage somewhere close by, in person and very much alive.