The Kids Understand

The air is thick with anticipation at the Blue Iguana as it grows late on a Thursday night. On-stage, a man tunes a six-string Fender, then sets it carefully on its guitar rack. Meanwhile, a pickup truck wheels around a corner to park near the club's side door, and a bucket brigade of volunteer stagehands unloads a drum kit. Soon enough, a flurry of applause erupts at the front door. Its cause? A short, slender black man dressed in a loud, hopelessly outdated neon plaid tie and sport coat, his gray hair curling out from under a battered straw hat, who comes striding quickly into the club. Little Joe Washington has arrived.

As Washington sits sipping on a shot of bourbon and a beer chaser, enthusiastic well-wishers decades younger than he is pump his hand and introduce him to their friends. When the drum kit is assembled, the guitarist sets his half-finished beer aside and struts like a bantam rooster to center stage. Washington picks up the Fender and calls out the first selection -- no song name, just a key and time -- and with no further warning, the room explodes. A savage, relentless chord progression sweeps through the Iguana. When Washington suddenly flips his guitar over and begins working the strings with his tongue, the mouths of the first-timers fall open in amazement. With a brutality that is painful to watch, Washington wedges his tongue between two coiled-wire strings and yanks the guitar down his face as the speakers scream a long slide-guitar wail. Washington flips the guitar back around to its regular position, sweeps off his tattered hat and arches an eyebrow at the crowd. "Little Joe," the regulars start chanting, "Little Joe ... Little Joe."

As Washington continues, a line made up mostly of women in their twenties forms in front of the stage. One by one, they drop bills in a hat and return to their tables as Washington sings, "They call it stormy Monday / I call it every day / The eagle flies on Friday / I walk a million miles a day."

Days later, a tall, dreadlocked college student joins in on a conversation about the Houston music scene. When the talk turns to guitars, he bursts out, "Man, there's this guy named Little Joe that's been playing over at the Blue Iguana ...."

When he finds out that this so-called hot new sensation has been making music in the city for close to a half-century, playing at one time or another with almost every legend to come out of the Third Ward, the reaction is one of surprise mixed with hometown pride.

"Damn," he says, shaking his head, "I didn't know Little Joe was from the Ward."

Bridging the gap between decades and cultures is hardly a new thing; it's the most important factor in the cross-pollination that keeps a scene alive, growing and changing. Rest assured, hippie musicians can amuse and educate for hours with firsthand accounts of what it was like to run the streets in the '60s with Lightning Hopkins and Juke Boy Bonner. And 30 years from now, when the second round of tattoos and tie-dyes have faded and blurred, there should be some classic stories beginning with, "There was this punk club on Richmond where this crazy guitar player named Little Joe Washington had a Thursday night gig. I never saw anything like it."

You can call Little Joe crazy. He's heard it before. The rough roads he's traveled over the years have taken their toll. About the only things Washington hasn't let slide are his talent and a circle of friends and admirers who care -- and worry -- about him. Still, they will be the first to admit that Little Joe's life is his life -- to live any way he wants. Sure, he's been marginally homeless for years, with barely a shirt on his back, let alone a guitar of his own. But seeing Washington play is a chance to study at the feet of a master. It's been that way for decades.

Grammy-winning guitarist Johnny Copeland, a lifelong friend of Washington's, puts it like this: "My music, Albert Collins' music, Joe Hughes' music -- when you listen to any of that, you'll hear some Little Joe. He had something to do with everything that we've done, from back when we were all coming up together right up to today."

That's an assessment that draws no argument from Hughes, who calls Washington "a raw, unchained, explosive talent."

"You can't relax for an instant when you're on the bandstand with Little Joe," says Hughes. "If you aren't paying attention every second, he'll lay some weird changes on you and go way, way out there somewhere, and you'll never catch up."

A more recent friend, bassist Michael Simon, become acquainted with Washington's lightning-quick unpredictability in the first few gigs he played with the guitarist at the Blue Iguana.

"Somebody brought Little Joe in; he got up on-stage and started doing things I'd never seen before," recalls Simon. "So I talked with him; told him I'd furnish a guitar and amp if he wanted to gig. Sometimes he gets mad at me because when he gets going, it can be really hard to keep up. I've been playing for 20 years, [and] I thought I could keep up with anybody. But when Little Joe hits me with that wild stuff -- it's not blues, it's not rock, I don't think you can put a name on his style."

Simon views his weekly gig with Washington as more than just a temporary partnership for himself and drummer Stevie Wilson. "The Blue Iguana is a good gig," he says, "but I'd like to see us take it a little farther and see where it goes."

Going much of anywhere is an unusual event for Washington these days. "I don't think Little Joe has ever lived more than two blocks from Shady's Playhouse at Elgin and Ennis, except when he was out in El Paso," Hughes explains. "His stepfather was a music teacher; that's how he learned to play so many different instruments so young. He was my first piano player, before Copeland and I started the Dukes of Rhythm. The Dukes had a great gig every afternoon at the old 411 Club on Milam. Little Joe would come with us and play whatever he could get his hands on. If we needed a piano player, he'd do that -- bass, drums, he's a great trumpet player."

Washington has played more shows than anyone could possibly count -- a few hundred of them in the early '60s, playing drums and keeping the beat behind Albert Collins at such legendary Houston clubs as Walter's Lounge and Leroy's Grill. Washington's polymath talents came in handy when another drummer, Bobby McClain, returned to town following a discharge from the Army. McClain soon became a fan of Collins, and was determined to play in his band. When the bassist position became available, Washington taught McClain the instrument. After just a few weeks of lessons, Washington had molded McClain sufficiently for him to join the band. It's a measure of Washington's teaching skills that for the next decade and a half, until his wrist was severely injured in a car wreck, McClain was ranked by his peers as one of the best bassists in Houston.

Another artist who benefited from his association with Washington -- though less eager than McClain to acknowledge his debt -- is West Texas guitarist Long John Hunter. After leaving Collins' band, Washington made his way to El Paso and across the border to Juarez, where a club called the Lobby cranked out the good times around the clock (and also provided unlimited free drinks to musicians, which Washington blames for at least part of his alcohol-related problems in later years). While in Juarez, Washington alternated sets with Hunter, whose career has seen a modest revival in recent years. Hunter has talked at length of the years he spent developing his individual style -- times when, according to Hunter, he was the only blues guitarist for hundreds of miles around.

When Washington is told of Hunter's account of those years, a look of very real pain comes into his eyes. "That hurts, man." he says softly. "I'm glad he's doing okay, but he doesn't even mention my name?"

Shame on you, Long John. You hurt the old man's feelings. There are players here in Houston who plan on spending the rest of their lives bragging about being good enough to almost keep up with Little Joe Washington.

Little Joe Washington performs at 10:30 p.m. Thursdays at the Blue Iguana, 903 Richmond Avenue. For info, call 523-

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Jim Sherman