Sammie Relford is making another comeback. The soul singer once enjoyed a long run as one of Houston's most recognizable and popular entertainers, drawing comparisons to past R&B greats from James Brown to Luther Vandross. Some of those were self-anointed, perhaps, but Sammie also had the crowds to back them up -- packed Saturday-night houses at the old Gallant Knight on Holcombe for years and years, and then more of the same at his own club, Sammie's at 2016 Main.
Now he's ready to do it all over again. He's not lacking in self-confidence, either.
"What I do is special," Relford says. "There's no more Marvin Gayes around. There's no more Otis Reddings around. And I'll take your mind mentally and make you think you're looking at these people. And make your day. If you're sad, I'm going to make you happy."
This Saturday night, Relford will start a residency at Club Pure on Main Street, after warming up on Fridays for the past few months. He also sang at last weekend's Run, Rhythm & Blues 5K downtown and says he will soon start a weekly at Third Ward's Bayou Blues N Jazz Cafe on MacGregor. Sammie was once one of Houston's most charismatic and dynamic entertainers before falling on hard times the past few years, but he's ready for another turn under the spotlight. Born ready.
"I prayed for this moment," he says. "I prayed for this moment. And it's just begun."
Sammie, who says he is 65 now, grew up in Houston's Sunset Heights neighborhood and got his first taste of fame by entertaining his elementary-school classmates at performances called "mayfates," where each classroom would put together a talent show. (Sammie excelled, he says.) But even before that, it was when he would mimic the spirituals he heard his mother singing that gave him his first clue about his destiny.
"When Mama heard that, she said, 'Sing, baby, sing,' Relford says, pronouncing the word sang. "She must have known I was going to be a grown man. I don't know how to do a computer. I don't know how to be a big-time lawyer. But I can sing."
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Sammie used to wait up at nights for his older sisters to make them re-enact their routines from various talent nights in local clubs, where by his teens he himself was singing with various groups and had long learned James Brown's famous "cape" act by heart. He loved the sound coming out of Memphis and traveled to Stax studios after finding the address on an Isaac Hayes album; Hayes's road manager agreed to give him an audition. By the time he was done, Black Moses himself was in the room.
"From the Apollo Theater to the Forum in Los Angeles to the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the greatest venues in the United States of America, I was blessed to sing in them though Isaac Hayes," Sammie recalls in the 2008 documentary Sing Baby Sing. "I was singing background and spent three wonderful years there. That's when I became a mature singer."
Relford returned to Houston and resumed singing in local clubs, also releasing a handful of albums and singles for labels like Space City USA and Judnell. Some, like 1979's We Are Stronger, 1974's "Mi-O-Mi" (recorded with a backing group called the Avengers of Soul) and Rooter to the Tooter (date unknown), remain available on the collector's market at prices ranging from $500 to $40. Often they are classified into right-on subcategories like "Deep Soul" and "Sweet Soul."
Sammie eventually landed a choice gig singing Saturday nights at the Gallant Knight, a converted house on the border of West U and the Medical Center. It was a classy joint where the crowds dressed up; the stage was more of an alcove, allowing the musicians to literally rub elbows with their fans; and the dancing hardly ever stopped. Before it was torn down in early 2007, the Knight lasted more than three decades as one of Houston's most reliable nights out for drinking and dancing, ranking it up there with Fitzgerald's in terms of nightclub longevity.
Sammie was its marquee entertainer, his sharp suits and sweat-soaked brow earning him a reputation as the city's most dynamic showman. His version of "Purple Rain" killed every time. (By his side for many years was the late Kim Yvette, herself a powerful gospel-trained singer and mother of Grammy-winning jazz/R&B musician Robert Glasper.) Sammie also hosted his own public-access TV show for a spell, and was just as dynamic performing at yoga classes or assisted-living facilities than at the Knight. When the Rockets won back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995, he and then-coach Rudy Tomjanovich were "like this," Sammie says.
"Remember when J.J. [Jimmie Walker] came on Good Times?" Relford remembers. "Me and J.J. did a show here at a place called the Music Hall. Calvin Murphy brought Rudy Tomjanovich to see me. Rudy fell in love with me. He said, 'Sammie, you and Hakeem Olajuwon are the two hardest workers I ever met.'"
Sammie grew so popular that he and a handful of investors -- mostly regulars of the Knight who were big fans of his -- decided to start up their own place. Sammie's at 2016 Main, a club on the ground floor of the high-rise condominiums beside the Pierce Elevated, opened in mid-2005.
The good times kept rolling, for a while. A decade ago, former Houston Press columnist Brian McManus, now the music editor at BuzzFeed, detailed Sammie's effect on an audience in a Nightfly column published in May of that year:
"White girls do their most free-swinging and sensuous Elaine Benes-inspired chicken dance," he wrote. "Frat boys with nary a baseball cap full of bent-billed rhythm get in on the act. All eyes face forward, while feet, hands, legs and arms flail any which way but loose. Relford is a mickey slipped in your drink. You lose your inhibitions."
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A documentary producer named Will Thomas saw Sammie at 2016 Main and convinced his friend Jarred King to do likewise. Once he did, King says, he thought the singer would make a perfect subject for a film because of "his energy, his passion, his stage presence."
"He owns the stage, and the throngs of people jammed into the club each time he performed told us there would be an audience," he adds.
"[Sammie] could be a performer in any modern era," adds Will Thomas. "He kind of has a timelessness about his showmanship. He sells it as good as anybody I've ever seen."
But Sammie was denied a happy ending when he fell out with his partners over money and walked away from 2016. He opened another place where the Red Cat Jazz Cafe stands now, then called The Real Sammie. However, at that point he only had enough money to keep it going for a few months. Relford may have been down on his luck, but he was still Sammie, and eventually his reputation got him another singing gig.
"Sammie as you know is famous," says Alex Mahmoud, who has owned Club Pure for about three years. "Everybody knows him."
One night, Mahmoud says, a group of high-powered lawyers and their wives walked into the club asking for Sammie. He wasn't there (it was raining), so instead the owner bought them all drinks on the house.
"The people know him and how he sings," Mahmoud says. "And then when we start, the people [will] come. But we need more."
Despite his tough luck after leaving 2016 Main, Relford is brimming with optimism about his new spot at Club Pure, backing it up with a healthy dose of faith that comes out in quotes like "He made me from alpha to omega" and "A lamb always gets slayed but recovers." After meeting him, it doesn't take too long before one realizes that telling Sammie he can't do something may not be the best of ideas.
"I normally don't tell people my age, because it's normally a mystery to them," he says. "Because they could not believe the energy I put out. I've been told, 'If we could bottle your energy, we'd be billionaires and sell it.'"
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