Houston Music

Third Ward Treasure Jewel Brown: "I've Seen 'Em All"

Along with Lightnin' Hopkins's cousin Milton Hopkins, Houston jazz diva Jewel Brown heads north to Chicago this weekend, where she and Hopkins will entertain folks with their new album, Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown.

The festival is paying tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins since this would have been his 100th year had he lived.

Ms. Brown, at one time the singer for no less a band than Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, has been in semi-retirement, although she still takes the occasional choice gig. Check this week's print edition of the Houston Press for our in-depth feature on Ms. Brown.

Rocks Off: What is your feeling about the festival paying tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins this year?

Jewel Brown: It's a wonderful choice, and so deserving. I've been all over the world and I can tell you Lightnin' Hopkins is one of the most recognized Houstonians out in the larger world. His fame is truly worldwide.

RO: Did you ever meet him, work around him?

JB: No, I never met him, but when I was very young and my mother was driving me up to talent shows and things in the Fifth Ward, we would sometimes see him sitting on a certain corner and Momma would tell me, "That's Lightnin' Hopkins." So I knew who he was, but I was never around him.

RO: That was such a beautiful arrangement of his tune "I'm Leaving You Now" on the new record.

JB: Didn't that turn out well? Milton and the band really found a nice groove on that one, but it still sounds very much like Lightnin'. I think he would be happy if he heard it.

RO: You've lived in Third Ward your entire life. What are some of your vivid memories?

JB: I remember my daddy walking all the way to Harrisburg to work every day and back every night, walking the railroad tracks to work. He worked so hard to make ends meet. He'd go without shoes so we would have some. And I remember how bad I felt when he'd come home from work and his hands would be bleeding.

He was in maintenance of the heavy equipment at Brown & Root. When he retired, they hired three men to replace him. I'm not complaining, you understand; that's just how it was.

RO: What did your mother do?

JB: My mother was a natural seamstress. I remember her telling my daddy, "Brown, if you could get me a sewing machine, I could make the kids' clothes and save us some money." And daddy took 50 cents and he went to bet on what you'd call the numbers. He bet a nickel at a time, on the last one he won.

He took that nine dollars and bought momma a Singer sewing machine. And she became a fabulous seamstress. I'd be playing and she'd say, "Jewel, come over here," and she'd take a piece of cloth and hold it up and look at me. And then she'd tell me I could go play. The next thing I'd know, she'd say, "Try this on."

She didn't need a pattern -- couldn't afford one. She was really amazing. Of course, it got to where people knew her, so she made some outside money. Just helping daddy any way she could.

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William Michael Smith