Although King was beloved all over the world, and personified the blues for an overwhelming number of music fans who knew little of his onetime contemporaries like Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas or even Howlin’ Wolf, he had a special connection with Memphis. That’s where he hitchhiked in his early twenties and took guitar lessons from his cousin, country-blues godfather Bukka White, and worked at WDIA-AM, where he frequently performed on-air (earning the nickname “Blues Boy”) and worked as a DJ at the first U.S. radio station targeted to African-American listeners. A young Elvis Presley was a fan.
But King also had substantial ties to Houston, and starting in the early 1950s heavily populated his bands with musicians from the Bayou City. That relationship wouldn’t have existed without Don Robey, arguably the most important non-performing African-American music figure in Houston musical history, and certainly before the advent of hip-hop culture. A notoriously cutthroat businessman who also owned the Bronze Peacock nightclub in Fifth Ward, Robey is probably best known for the cluster of record labels he owned, most prominently Duke and Peacock. Although B.B. King never officially recorded for those, Robey also owned Buffalo Booking Agency, which sent King and his band out on the road to the tune of some 300 nights a year. Although the agency was run day to day by one of Robey’s closest associates, a woman named Evelyn Johnson, Buffalo definitely reflected the mogul’s thrifty, even miserly approach to making a buck.
“Buffalo Booking Agency was definitely the agency that made [King] a star,” says local music historian and Houston Community College professor Dr. Roger Wood, author of Down In Houston: Bayou City Blues. “Johnny Brown [a former Robey session player; later a local star in his own right as Texas Johnny Brown] said said the worst part was you’d be on the road and come back, and they’d bill you for the laundry for your uniform on tour.”
Robey had acquired Duke Records, and the many Memphis connections that came with it, around 1952 from a Memphis businessman named David Mathis. Duke’s roster included a man who would frequently tour with and become closely linked to King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Junior Parker, the soulful singer whose “Mystery Train” would soon be covered by Elvis.
“B.B. was part of that group, but Mathis hadn’t signed B.B. and he had signed these other guys who had never really made records yet,” says Wood. “Mathis had talent and vision, but he had no capital. Robey said, ‘Hey man, maybe you can partner with me.’ Robey put up capital, and within six months somehow bought Mathis out and moved the Duke label down here.”
King instead signed with the L.A.-based Modern Records, but Robey nonetheless stocked his touring band with Houston-based musicians. Chief among them was bandleader Bill Harvey, a Memphis native and tenor saxophone player who had moved to Houston and led Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s band before signing on with King. Harvey would choose his players the same way the other big bandleaders in town at the time did, Wood says, by hanging out at Third or Fifth Ward nightclubs like Club Ebony, Club Matinee or the Savoy Ballroom and scouting the big bands there for promising young talent.
“All of these places in Houston had full-time house bands that were big, with horns and stuff,” explains Wood. “So if you were putting together a band — I think it was because of the size of the city and this is pre-Civil Rights, the segregated neighborhoods with big, thriving hot spots — it was easy to find these musicians. There’s something about that whole Texas tenor, big-band sound…it wasn’t something that was unique to Houston but it particularly thrived here.”
One such young musician Harvey found was a young trumpet player by the name of Calvin Owens. Owens had joined one of Houston’s top big R&B bands, the Pluma Davis Orchestra, at age 17 and signed on with Harvey and King in 1953, Wood says. He spent four years on the road before going on to work with acts such as Archie Bell & the Drells (among many others), but in the late ‘70s, King invited Owens back to the group to take over as his bandleader.
It was in that role that Wood says he first saw Owens at a “Blues Summit” sponsored by Kool Cigarettes, appropriately held at the old Greenway Plaza basketball arena that is now Lakewood Church.
“It was like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King and Johnny Winter and Etta James, and it was like a six-hour deal,” he recalls. “I remember, because the only name I knew [at the time] was B.B. King. But I remember [in] B.B.’s set, a really sharp guy in a suit was directing the orchestra and playing trumpet. And then years later when I met Calvin and got his story, I realized that would have been Calvin.”
Owens passed away in 2009 and left King’s orchestra in 1984, but also during his tenure he wrote all the arrangements for King’s 1983 album Blues N’ Jazz, which won a Grammy. One of the saxophonists on the album is another of the great Houston big-band leaders, Arnett Cobb.
“That title, Calvin was into…I don’t know if you want to call it blues or not, but drawing from the big-band tradition, these big fat horn charts with real orchestrations,” Wood says. “It isn’t just B.B. and the guitar and a bass.”
Another great Houston blues musician to have spent several years with King is Milton Hopkins, cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins and a great rhythm guitarist in his own right. Hopkins, who grew up in Fifth Ward and was once bandmates with Houston saxophone great Grady Gaines in the Upsetters, played in King’s group between 1971 and ’79.
“He’s a great rhythm guitarist, [where] if it’s a three-chord song and you want it to be sophisticated, he can put all these microsteps in between and really jazz it up,” says Wood. “I think that’s what got him in B.B.’s band, because B.B. [did] not play chords.”
“[King’s] only request of me was that I stay out of his way musically,” Hopkins told Lee Hildebrand of Living Blues magazine in 2009.
After I understood what that meant, there was no problem. We played totally different styles. He played very few chords, so there was not going to be a conflict there. I keyed off whatever keyboard player he had. That was the way I survived. I never had one minute’s problem with him.Hopkins, who broke a long recording drought with 2012’s eponymous album with Houston blues diva Jewel Brown, also appears on another crucial piece of the King/Houston discography: King’s 1974 joint album with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Together Again For the First Time…Live! Also in the combined band are another couple of Houstonians who were longtime side men with Bland, keyboardist Teddy Reynolds and bassist Hamp Simmons. Two songs in the set, “Don’t Cry No More” and “That’s the Way Love Is,” are credited to a songwriter by the name of Deadric Malone, an alias Don Robey had set up in order to collect songwriting and publishing royalties.
“A classic album that any fan of Houston blues, Duke/Peacock, should hear,” offers Wood.
More recently, King’s bandleader was another Houstonian (and another trumpet player), James “Boogaloo” Bolden. Bolden recorded the 2013 album No News Jus’ the Blues while on hiatus from touring with King, but was still leading the orchestra when King was finally forced to retire last fall due to his declining health. The TSU grad spent four years in Duke Ellington’s orchestra in the mid to late ‘70s before joining King’s band in 1980. He was recruited by none other than Calvin Owens, whom he had known since age 17, Bolden told Living Blues.
I think what prepared me for it was playing with Ellington because B.B. and Ellington were very much the same demeanor. They both were considerate of the musicians. You’re not just a sideman; you know with him. You know you’re an intricate part of the group and your part fits in with what he does to make it [the] B.B. King, you know, orchestra. You’ve seen both and sometimes we call it orchestra and sometimes we call it band. It’s not really a difference as far as we can see it, you know.Certainly there have been others. In Down In Houston, Wood lists drummer Sonny Freeman; trumpeter John Browning; guitarist Leon Warren; and Eugene Carrier, whom Wood notes is the gentleman in the captain’s hat noodling at the keyboards while King jams with U2 in Rattle and Hum. After checking his notes, he also comes back with tenor saxophonist Richard “Dickie Boy” Little, pianist Connie Mack Booker and vocalist Mildred Jones, who toured Russia with King’s band in 1979. These musicians served with King at different eras and for different lengths of time, but each one did his or her small part — and a few of them not so small — to make King’s sound one of the most recognizable and enduring signatures in music history.
“I know this from years in the classroom at HCC Central, with students from all over the world who don’t know the musical references that would be obvious to you and me,” Wood says. “They don’t know what you’re talking about, but they all knew B.B. King was a blues musician. Somehow it was just one of those things that whether you were a fan or not, or [even] if you listened to the blues, you somehow knew he was the blues guy.”