Black History Month is always a great time to recall some of Houston's greatest musical innovators and leaders. Rocks Off will highlight some of them during the remainder of February.
At a local blues jam recently, Rocks Off was accosted by an irate informal media critic who wanted to know when we members of the working music press were going to have balls enough to tell the world rock and roll began in Houston. She was one of those passionate people you meet out and about in the course of everyday rat-killing - an avid supporter of the music scene, and no less annoying for that fact. Ironically, shortly thereafter, we became intrigued by two virtually unknown Houston women who helped shape the emerging face of rock and roll and rhythm and blues music. The first, Lola Anne Cullum, discovered not only boogie-woogie piano giant Amos Milburn, one of the fathers of rock and roll, but later also took Lightnin' Hopkins under her wing.
On the other hand, Lela Macy of Macy's Recordings was a Houston woman who, somewhat inadvertently, got in on the ground floor of zydeco, a hybrid style that coalesced in and around Houston and was first recorded here.
Both of these women - Cullum (???-1970) and Lela Macy Henry (1912-1991) are so obscure that, in spite of their important accomplishments and cultural contributions, we could not find photos on the Internet of either. The sad fact is that, except for scant mentions in various blues histories, these women have vanished except in the memories of a few old-timers like "Texas" Johnny Brown. Local music historian Dr. Roger Wood emailed the following off-the-cuff recollections about Lola Anne Cullum to us:
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Apart from the limited information that has been published about Lola Anne Cullum, my main source on her is the venerable local blues man "Texas" Johnny Brown. And he leaves no doubt Mrs. Cullum had a behind-the-scenes but huge impact on blues history. Johnny describes Mrs. Cullum - and it is always 'Mrs.' in his recollections of her - as a stylish, sophisticated African-American woman who was married to a prominent dentist. The Cullums were part of the educated upper-class of successful black professionals in 1940s-era Houston, which was not inconsiderable. By the end of World War II, the independent recording industry was really taking off, and some formerly obscure regional blues and early R&B performers were suddenly thrust into national consciousness - at least the national black consciousness at the time -because some talent scout hooked them up with an upstart label. In the case of Texas blues icons Lightnin' Hopkins (as well as his original recording partner Thunder Smith) and the great boogie pianist and singer Amos Milburn, Mrs. Cullum was that person. She was aware of the burgeoning music business nationwide, as well as the unmined talent performing in Fifth Ward and Third Ward venues. As a freelance talent scout for the Los Angeles-based Aladdin Records, she brought the label its two biggest stars, Lightnin' and Amos. She also served in a kind of managerial capacity as they launched the major phase of their careers.
According to Wood, Texas Johnny Brown, who played guitar in Amos Milburn's road band during the Aladdin years, actually had his nickname bestowed on him by Cullum to help distinguish the bluesman - who was actually born in Mississippi - from another singer on the circuit called Johnny Brown. British historian Mike Leadbitter tracked Mrs. Cullum down for a 1967 interview at her husband's office on Alabama Street. From him, we learn that Mrs. Cullum was born in Weimar, Tex., and had begun to take an interest in the local music scene as early as 1940, when she and her husband successfully lobbied radio station KPRC to begin to support local acts rather than feed the listening public a steady diet of nothing but national recording acts.
Of course, 1946 was the year she began to make scratch recordings of local musicians, sifting through talent in the Third and Fifth Wards in search of commercially viable artists. Shortly after her success getting Amos Milburn signed to Aladdin Records in Los Angeles, she met Lightnin' Hopkins and his partner, Thunder Smith, and actually drove them to Los Angeles in her car for their first Aladdin sessions.
During this trip, Hopkins wrote "Rocky Mountain Blues," and it was during those sessions that, according to legend, Mrs. Cullum assigned Hopkins and Smith the nicknames that would stick with them the rest of their lives. With her successes with Milburn and Hopkins, Mrs. Cullum formed her own management and booking company, but eventually discovered that she was being undermined by Don Robey, who was luring her acts away. Mrs. Cullum eventually removed herself from the music business. One telling note of how important Lola and her husband, Dr. Samuel Cullum, were not only to the local black music scene but also to local high society: Leadbitter reported in his book that in 1946, according to an article in the Informer, a local black newspaper, the Cullums hosted a society event at their house for blues giant W. C. Handy, who was in town to perform at Duke-Peacock Records owner Don Robey's famous nightclub the Golden Peacock. Only a couple of years later, in 1949, Lela Macy started an independent record label, Macy's Recordings. And as she was setting up her operation, she made one of the most important discoveries in Houston's forgotten musical history, Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow. A Jefferson Davis Parish transplant whose family settled in the Beaumont area when he was five years old, Garlow had grown up on la-la, the rural Louisiana music usually performed with only a button accordion and a washboard; la-la was one of the seedlings from which zydeco grew.
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According to Wood in his book Texas Zydeco, Garlow left his rural musical leanings behind when he heard the electrified urban approach of Texas blues pioneer T-Bone Walker, a superstar on the Houston scene in the post-World War II years. Garlow formed a band and traveled the so-called "Zydeco Corridor" from Lafayette, La., to Houston, where he became a popular regular on the local scene. Ms. Macy discovered him in a local club and signed him to a recording deal. Garlow's first 78 rpm for Macy's Recordings was titled "Bon Ton Roula." As Wood explains, this was another poor attempt at Anglicized spellings of Cajun patois. But regardless of the unsophisticated spelling, Garlow's song stands alongside Lightnin' Hopkins' recording of "Zolo Go" as one of the first times popular culture encountered the word for a new urban music that was spring up in Houston when he advises fun seekers to head out to the country "to the zydeco." Ms. Macy was only able to keep the label going three years, but she not only recorded Garlow's historic side, she also had a smash hit with "Wintertime Blues" by Houston blues singer/guitarist Lester Young. So, here we have two women who are virtually anonymous today but who were deeply plugged into local music culture during their lifetimes, not as performers but as women of substance, with the wherewithal, connections, and financial independence to make things happen.
Each in her way pushed blues music forward toward that evolutionary moment when rock and roll, the next phase in American popular music, would take over not only the U.S. but the world. For more information on Lola Cullum, see Mike Leadbitter's history, Nothing But the Blues. Although out of print, it contains the only known interview with her.