Houston has a lot of museums, but the city sorely lacks anything tangible that salutes its rich musical legacy. That's where we come in. In honor of the Houston Press Music Awards' 25th anniversary, the Houston Press is now creating our own Houston Music Hall of Fame.
In the future, the Hall will grow by five names each year, but this first year we're inducting an inaugural class of ten — ten of the most distinguished musicians and groups in the city's history. All ten remain active (or at least semi-active) performers who continue to call Houston home, and we're proud to have them all.
Asked in an interview two years ago to list her favorite female vocalists, Hall of Fame inductee Jewel Brown thought for a moment.
"Ella Fitzgerald, of course," she said. "And I love Sarah Vaughan. But I've got to tell you, this local girl, Yolanda Adams? Now that girl is a flat-footed singer."
Of course, Brown is correct. Adams is certainly one of Houston's most distinctive and mesmerizing native voices. The Sterling High School/Texas Southern University graduate is also a solid business success story, with a nationwide concert schedule, tremendous album sales and a syndicated radio program. The former elementary-school teacher and part-time model even finds the time to produce records and act occasionally.
Adams's rise to becoming the "Queen of Modern Gospel" is all the more compelling because her success took awhile. She recorded her first album in 1986 at age 26 while still teaching school and touring on the weekends, but didn't break through in terms of record sales and recognition until Mountain High...Valley Low. Released in 1999, the album became a double-platinum smash that earned Adams her first Grammy and went on to sell 10 million copies.
Her success can be traced back to her association with early producer Ben Tankard, who influenced her toward a combination of smooth jazz and gospel. By the time of her 1999 breakthrough, Adams was working with a variety of major pop music producers. Her lush, meticulous recordings have made her the biggest-selling gospel artist of the decade and resulted in a record four BET awards as Best Gospel Singer.
Adams trumped her recording success with a move into the gospel radio market. The Yolanda Adams Morning Show is now heard in 39 national markets. One regular segment of the program, Adams's "Power Points," evolved into her first book by the same title.
And although gospel-pop has been the linchpin of Adams's career, she's hardly a one-trick pony. No less than Aretha Franklin was wowed by Adams's rendition of "Spirit in the Dark" at the star-studded tribute to the Queen of Soul at the 53rd Grammy awards in 2011. William Michael Smith
Jewel Brown lives in the Third Ward in a house she helped her parents pay for. She also is part owner of a hair salon with her brother and has an insurance agency, and when meeting the jovial Brown in her office or casually on the street, there's no reason to suspect that one is in the presence of possibly the greatest singing voice ever to call Houston home.
The Yates High School graduate's story sounds like a fairy tale come true. Chaperoned by her mother, by age nine she was winning talent contests at the historic Club Matinee, where Nat King Cole counseled her not to pursue a singing career. To help with the family finances, she turned pro at 12 as featured vocalist at Galveston's Manhattan Club. In high school, she sang with her brother's band at Houston joints including Bar B Ranch and Shady's Playpen, and turned down an offer to tour with Lionel Hampton. She later moved to Dallas and sang seven nights a week in a club owned by Lee Harvey Oswald murderer Jack Ruby — until the day Ruby called her a "money-hungry bitch."
"I was packing that place night after night, and he didn't want to give me a raise," Brown says. "So I quit."
Shortly thereafter, her agent called with one strange question: Would she rather work with Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong? Brown chose Armstrong (it paid better), and had to drive her two-tone '57 Ford convertible back from Dallas at 90 mph to catch a plane to Boston that same night. She toured the world with Satchmo for seven years, buying exquisite gowns in the finest shops New York, Tokyo and Paris had to offer.
Brown then headlined her own shows in Las Vegas until 1971, when she abruptly retired to take care of her parents. And while she has largely been retired from singing ever since, Brown hasn't quite been inactive, either. The album she cut last year with Houston guitarist Milton Hopkins topped Press Music Editor Chris Gray's local best-of list, and the duo showcased at the 2012 Chicago Blues Festival. From time to time, Brown also sits in with New Orleans's historic Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And somewhere in all of that, Houston's grand jazz diva found the time to fly to Moscow for a private command performance for Russian politico Vladimir Putin. WMS