Black History Month is always a great time to recall some of Houston's greatest musical innovators and leaders. This is our final installment.
Great Houston blues guitarists makes a long and storied list indeed, arguably headed up by Albert Collins, Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, "Texas" Johnny Brown and Sherman Robertson. However, according to local music historian Dr. Roger Wood, Joe "Guitar" Hughes was one of the preeminent yet least-known talents in any such grouping. Born in Third Ward, Hughes grew up near the corner of Beulah and Velasco, in close proximity to Albert Collins and Little Joe Washington. Hughes was one of the few bluesmen who never left town, living in the Bayou City his entire life with his schoolteacher wife "Mae" Hughes. Along with other relatively unknown greats like I.J. Gosey, Pete Mayes and Washington, Hughes was, for the most part, content to play close to home. His professional career began at 16 with a vocal group called The Dukes. When the group ran out of steam, Hughes changed the name to The Dukes of Rhythm and moved the format to straight-ahead electric blues. Second guitar in the band was Hughes' protégé, Johnny Clyde Copeland, who would go on to a huge career once he departed Houston for New York City.
By 1958, The Dukes of Rhythm were popular enough to become the house band at the legendary Houston blues mecca, Shady's Playhouse on Simmons Street near the intersection of Sampson. The gig put them on the stage with the biggest blues stars of the day like T-Bone Walker and Big Mama Thornton.
When Copeland left the band in 1963, Hughes took a job with Little Richard's former band, The Upsetters, after the rock and roll pioneer (temporarily) renounced secular music. Working with The Upsetters took Hughes on the road for the first time, usually as part of package tours with the largest regional blues and soul acts of the time.
After a couple of years with The Upsetters, Hughes moved to Bobby "Blue" Bland's band, then later on to support rising star Al "TNT" Braggs. Tired of the road and time away from his family, Hughes left Braggs in the early '70s and, while he didn't give up on performing, fell into obscurity among the numerous quality players working the Houston club circuit. Hughes's career was revived in 1985 when his former protégé Copeland asked Hughes to join him on a European tour. Hughes's few records had actually found a larger audience in Europe than in the U.S., and Hughes was received ecstatically on the Copeland tour, where he was billed a second headliner. Subsequently, Hughes went on to tour Europe regularly until very late in his life. Unfortunately, Hughes's recorded legacy is not as large as many other notable Houston bluesmen. He cut sides for several local labels in the '60s, but none of these ever broke out beyond the regional market. Following his career revival, he was signed by Holland's Double Trouble label, which issued Texas Guitar Master in 1986.
Hughes had a U.S. release in 1989 on Black Top Records, If You Want To See These Blues, which featured a blistering guitar duel with his longtime cohort Pete Mayes. It was during this period he added "Guitar" to his stage moniker.
Hughes continued to record occasionally and play regularly in the Houston area right up until his death in 2003. Wood says Hughes was one of the most reliable and consistent players in the area. "Once I'd written some pieces for outlets like Living Blues," recalls Wood, who profiled Hughes for the Houston Press in 1999. "I started getting these calls from authors and academic types who would just be passing through or coming into town to do research. And they'd always ask me to take them out, show them the blues scene.
"So my first option was always Joe. I'd call him and he'd say, 'Yeah, we're playing some little place,' so I'd head over there with my tourists in tow." "The thing about Joe, he could get pretty lax if no one was paying attention. Guys like him, they played so many gigs in so many tiny joints, there were certainly times they'd mail it in. But I'd come into one of these joints with a couple of outsiders, and all of a sudden Joe and those guys would just go crazy, perform some awesome stuff.
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"And there'd only be a handful of people to hear it. But that was why I always checked to see where Joe would be playing when those things happened, because I knew I could always count on Joe.
"And he never failed to deliver."