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Hitting the Highs and Lows with Little Joe Washington

Little Joe Washington is up on stage, a five-foot-four-inch pencil of a man wearing a white blazer and clutching a black guitar he just got out of hock. It's Wednesday-evening happy hour at the Continental Club on Main at Winbern, and Little Joe is, if nothing else, happy.

"Hey, white girl!" he yells to the blond bartender.

"That's my name," she answers.

"Bring me a Wild Turkey -- no ice!" he demands.

The girl delivers the drink to his feet.

"That bartender is my sweet little angel," Joe says.

Then, he begins to play.

There are certain things you must know if you are going to watch Little Joe Washington play the blues. You should know that Little Joe has been called the following (depending on who you've asked): genius, addict, legend, joke. You should know that Little Joe is going to entertain you. And you should know that this entertaining might be done by his real, honest-to-God amazing blues-playing or by his onstage antics that include -- among other things -- playing with his teeth, his groin, his head; stopping a song in the middle when it has no place else to go; demanding money to play a request, then hollering: "I don't take any requests because I don't know what the hell I'm doing myself."

And there are things you must know if you are going to try to understand Little Joe Washington. First, that he grew up in the Third Ward blues scene and played with the established Texas legends: Albert Collins, Lightnin' Hopkins, Joe Hughes, T-Bone Walker, Johnny Copeland. Second, that he has lived much of the past 20 years as a marginally homeless man in a shell of a house and an abandoned car. Third, that there are several people in the African-American Houston blues scene who are tired of Little Joe and his signature habit of darting into blues clubs, playing for 20 minutes, passing his hat for money and then darting out again. And finally, you should know that there are people who love Little Joe so much that they have scored him this regular gig at the Continental and have even given him a place to live upstairs.

There, up on stage, is Little Joe Washington. His music, which is never rehearsed, borrows licks from Leadbelly and Albert Collins without his stopping to think about it. His body, which is painfully skinny, sometimes likes to roll on the floor in the middle of the set. The Continental Club crowd, which is mostly white, giggles at his stage presence and applauds generously. And Little Joe Washington sums it all up when he pauses suddenly and announces, "I was talkin' to T-Bone Walker and he says, 'Little Joe, play for yourself. Because it don't matter about anybody else.' "

It can be difficult to talk to Little Joe Washington. I try to, both before and after shows. Sometimes he slips out the front door before anyone can notice, or he is too busy nursing some Sunnybrook whiskey and smoking bummed Virginia Slims to get into a long discussion. He is amiable and funny, but when asked about certain events in his life, he answers, "That was a long time ago," or if he wants to be more specific, "That was 40 years ago." He does make a pointed effort to say his birthday is coming up, March 1. He will be 62 years old.

Little Joe's Continental Club crew has embraced him tightly. The gig, which Joe has had for the past five months, is regularly attended by one of Joe's main supporters, Reg Burns. Reg, a laid-back, friendly man who lives in West University and works for the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County, seems to have been recruited by Joe to act as a sort of manager, even though Reg shrugs off the title. He met Little Joe while hanging around different blues clubs, "where Joe would show up like a cool breeze that blows through town for a second or two." Reg loved Joe's cavalier style, his playing ability and the fact that "you never know what the hell is gonna come out of his mouth."

Reg used to just give Joe money from time to time, until he came up with the idea of taking a homemade tape of Joe's music and using his own CD burner to make CDs for Joe to sell at $15 apiece. All the proceeds go to Joe. He also had some blue-and-black flyers printed up for the Continental Club to tape to the walls. "Blues Legend Little Joe Washington," they read, right above a photograph of Joe. Reg, who has traveled all over Europe and the United States to listen to the blues, speaks of how much he loves Joe's playing. How sometimes it can even bring tears to his eyes.

"If we could just get Little Joe in front of a Chicago Bluesfest crowd, 60, 70,000 people, it would be magnificent," he says.

Joe's backup band is made up of three guys who met Joe when he used to hang out and play at the now-defunct Blue Iguana club on Richmond: Mike Simon on drums, Paul DeCuir on bass and Chris Henrich on guitar. Chris, who does sound for the Continental, suggested Little Joe for the gig when manager Pete Gordon needed someone to fill the Wednesday-night happy-hour space. The band is a good fit for Joe, says Reg. They hang back, let him do his thing. To top it off, when the band and Pete discovered Joe was taking the bus from a northside apartment where he was crashing with a friend, they hooked him up with a room to live in above the club. Although Joe doesn't have a phone yet, Chris says the place is nice and big and even has cable TV.

"He was living in a real bad place and we hated to hear about it," says Pete. "He's fine up there, he's safe and warm." Pete says rent is not something that concerns him right now ("We're working that out"), and that Joe is the perfect tenant, slipping in and out "like a cat."

Reg Burns calls the club a godsend for Little Joe. He is aware, just as Joe's backup band is, of Joe's history with small blues joints in the Third and Fifth wards. And they know how some think Joe probably has a problem with drugs and alcohol. But for right now, the Continental Club just might be the best thing Joe's got going. The one thing that just might save him. That is, of course, if Little Joe wants to be saved.

Little Joe's biography has to be pieced together carefully, and pulling fact from legend is difficult. The folks at the Continental tell me what they can, but there are two sources I keep getting directed to: Houston's legendary blues guitarist Joe "Guitar" Hughes, who is Little Joe's cousin by marriage, and Roger Wood.

Roger Wood is one of those guys who, as a white teenager in Louisiana, listened to Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead and thought it was the coolest music he had ever heard. Until he discovered that the source of that music was even cooler. He began to immerse himself in the blues. A Houston resident for more than 20 years, Roger is a professor of English at Houston Community College's Central College and is publishing a book, Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues, on the city's blues scene, which birthed many of the legends who have played with Little Joe.

"I just hope Joe doesn't screw it up," says Roger with a laugh, referring to Little Joe's new gig at the Continental. "He's prone to wear out his welcome." But like so many people who have watched Joe play the blues, he too is captivated by Joe's style. Roger speaks almost reverently about Little Joe's ability to take a basic guitar riff, touch on a Negro spiritual like "Wade in the Water," mutate into a boogie blues and then throw in a line from Charlie Parker. And all of it, says Roger, "is not a conscious strategy on Joe's part. It's just stream-of-consciousness expressionism."

What Roger has been able to discover, from talking to Little Joe, Joe Hughes and other blues musicians, is this: Little Joe Washington was born Marion Washington in 1939. His mother, Erline Washington, was a beautician who sang in a choir. He never knew his father. An aunt and uncle who ran a soul food cafe and a barbershop on the corner of Beulah and Velasco in the Third Ward raised Marion. The family lived upstairs, and the building sat just a stone's throw from railroad tracks, across the street from Albert Collins's home, not far from Joe Hughes's house and down the lane from the second location of Shady's Playhouse, a major piece of legend in Houston blues lore. Basically Marion was born into a literal crossroads of Houston blues. Music surrounded him, "like the humidity," says Roger.

When Marion was a young boy, his uncle attempted to teach him the piano, and Marion took lessons from a woman down the street, but he preferred to teach himself. While still in grade school he would hear the sound of the Yates High School marching band rehearsing nearby. Following the beat of the band, Marion would practice keeping rhythm on anything that didn't move.

A man named Vernon Jackson ran Shady's, which moved to the corner of Beulah and Sauer from the corner of Elgin and Ennis sometime in the late 1950s. The gritty, come-as-you-are club with its red-and-white-checked tablecloths became Marion's classroom. After dropping out of Yates High School in the ninth grade (where he played trumpet in the marching band), he began to play and hang out there before he was old enough to be allowed in. His first professional gig was drumming for Albert Collins, his neighbor. At around the same time, Joe Hughes started dating Marion's cousin, Willie Mae. Marion, who quickly discovered taking down the drums after a gig left him with little time to go after the girls, started playing the guitar, just like Joe Hughes.

"I had just started making a little name for myself," remembers Joe Hughes, a soft-spoken gentleman who still kisses young women on the hand when they are introduced to him. "And he was always smaller, so we just started calling him Little Joe. And it stuck."

The days at Shady's and other local clubs were wild ones, with a hard-driving approach to liquor and music.

"We were young, we were wild, we were unsupervised," he remembers. "Up at Shady's, we would put in on a bottle. The hardest thing -- we drank straight out of the bottle, by the way -- was getting your portion. You better get your portion, because it's not coming back. Little Joe used to love wine, because it was the cheapest thing to get."

Still teenagers, the boys in the Third Ward practiced "cuttin' heads," or essentially trying to outdo each other on the bandstand. Every time one of them heard something the other liked, he would try to incorporate it into his act and do it better or just a little differently. Little Joe's style, says Joe Hughes, was always markedly different.

"By him being so intelligent and so wise about music, it made him do something with the guitar that nobody else even attempted," he says. "He plays it like a horn, he plays it like a piano. He's one of a kind. You can let him on the bandstand and he's never gonna play the same thing twice."

Little Joe gained even more experience in his unorthodox style when he took off for El Paso sometime in the early 1960s. He stayed there, on and off, for about ten years, working such notorious haunts as The Lobby Bar in Juárez and the Club Society in El Paso. He and fellow blues musician Long John Hunter often would play seven nights a week, becoming famous for hanging from the rafters of the clubs during their acts. But it was there, in Juárez and El Paso, where Roger Wood thinks Little Joe first began to live a life some might consider too crazy, even for a blues musician.

"This is what he tells me," says Roger, "that that's when he got into trouble with substance abuse. He went there because he could work there and make a lot of money. Little Joe would get a pocketful of cash, and it was such a wide-open border town you were almost excused if you went on a bender and got wasted and didn't show up. That was almost expected. Little Joe's probably done just about everything we can imagine, but alcoholism really knocked him for a loop."

From Juárez, Little Joe traveled on to Odessa, Amarillo and Los Angeles, and continued living hard. His list of playing partners runs like a musician's dream résumé: Sonny Stitt, Wes Montgomery, Big Mama Thornton, the Ink Spots, the Platters and the Champs. Stuck in California, he got in touch with Joe Hughes to send him some money to get him back home.

But back in Houston, Little Joe discovered things had changed. His older relatives had died. Joe Hughes, who had made quite a professional career for himself, was living with Willie Mae in Missouri City. And the house where the barbershop and soul food cafe had once stood was now abandoned. The roof had caved in, the windows and doors were missing -- but Joe made a space for himself inside, lighting candles for heat and light. It was the only home he knew.

For money, Little Joe began to play small blues joints like Etta's Lounge, C. Davis Bar-B-Q and, more recently, Miss Ann's Playpen. During the late 1990s he began playing fairly regularly at the Blue Iguana, showing up on bikes he would salvage and fix up himself. But his style of playing gigs was as strange as the playing itself. Instead of trying to book himself, he would enter the club, talk the musicians into letting him play a 15- to 20-minute set -- often on borrowed equipment -- and then pass his hat for money before leaving to find another club.

"A lot of those places are tired of him," says Roger. "There's the perception that he hits and runs."

Roger got a sense of this resentment when he organized a picture for his book in January 1998. He and his photographer James Fraher, with the help of Reg Burns and others, coordinated a shot of more than 50 musicians in Houston who were part of the blues scene. When Little Joe arrived, unkempt and with his hair in knots, Roger quickly realized several of the musicians were frustrated with his presence, and surprised that he had even been invited. During the shoot Joe goofed off a bit and "created trouble," as Roger puts it.

"He was just being weird, and some people around him didn't appreciate it," says Roger. "He's kind of like the black sheep of the family. We're having this fine family portrait and the black sheep shows up."

Joe Hughes acknowledges Little Joe's reputation, but says there's some strange wisdom to it.

"Everybody thinks Joe is slow, but now, Little Joe's got more sense than a lot of the people I know," he says. "They look at him come in, play his guitar, pass his hat. If there are 100 people in there and they give Little Joe $1 apiece, that's $100 Little Joe's made in 15, 20 minutes, and he's gone on to the next place. But a lot of the guys feel raped, per se. Because they're gonna play for a while there. And they might make $100 and they might not. And they're kinda feeling like Little Joe is using them. But he wasn't using them. He was using his head, see what I'm saying?"

Little Joe kept up the act. Then, sometime in 1997, the shell of a home that Joe had been living in burned down. Joe claims he doesn't know how it happened, but he wrote a song about it titled "Who Burned the House Down?" After the city cleared the rubble, Joe managed to roll an abandoned compact car onto the property. He slept and lived inside it. On especially cold nights, Joe Hughes would stop by with a quilt. A few times he took Little Joe back home with him. Roger thinks the loss of his house, what little was left, took its psychological toll on Little Joe. His only sense of place was gone. But Joe Hughes knows Little Joe is tough -- "nuts and guts," as he puts it. And despite his new digs at the Continental Club, the Third Ward will always be home for Little Joe.

"Every time I see him he's in the Third Ward," he says. "It's sort of like putting a rabbit in a briar patch. Most of the stuff we learned came from the streets. And those are the streets that we came from."

When the guys from Joe's Blue Iguana days helped score him the Continental gig, Joe Hughes was happy, because he thinks anything that gets Little Joe on the bandstand is a good thing. But he wonders how long Joe will stick around.

"I hope he don't [get tired] of it for a while," he says. "But that's just Little Joe, you can't pinpoint Little Joe. And he don't know which way he's gonna do nothing, so how could he tell you?"

At the Continental one night before his gig, I ask Joe about his time in Mexico.

"I've got some blue-eyed babies in El Paso, but I never once said, 'I do,' " he answers, laughing.

I ask him if he would come by Miss Ann's, one of the blues clubs he frequents, the following Monday. The owner, Bobby Lewis, has revived the tradition of Blue Monday, with a house band and lots of good food. Little Joe promises he'll be there early.

Then it's off to the stage, where he attempts to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his teeth. At one point he will stop playing the guitar abruptly, wander over to the piano with the guitar still in his left hand and play a lovely lick of something on the keys with his right. Then, back to the mike, where he sings the jingle "Things go better with Coca-Cola, things go better with Coke!"

On one Wednesday-night gig, Jerald Gray, a local blues musician who has known Little Joe since they were both teenagers, brings a drummer and tries to sit in with Little Joe's guitarist and bassist. Later, he will say he was invited, but no one seems quite sure how the show was arranged. There's only one thing that's certain: The show doesn't work. During a B.B. King song with Jerald on sax, Little Joe jumps up on stage, grabs a guitar and attempts to play it. Discovering it's out of tune, he puts it down, jumps off stage and begins to roll around on the floor, causing the audience to break out in laughter. Disgusted, Jerald leaves after just a few songs.

On the phone a few days following the gig, Jerald vents his frustrations.

"Little Joe is an old crackhead," he spits. "It's about time people stop feeling sorry for him. I am trying to get work. I don't know why he gets these regular gigs, because he does not have a show."

Although he admits he was hoping to use the Continental Club as an audition of sorts to get work he says he is sorely hurting for, he adds that he doesn't understand the support Joe gets.

"I've never seen him do anything constructive through the years," he says. "He never helps other musicians. He's a self-centered person that makes it impossible for people like me to get a chance."

The following Monday at Miss Ann's, Reg Burns and I wait for Little Joe to come around. The tiny club, at the corner of Alabama and Dowling, opened in 1996. Owner Bobby Lewis named the place after his seven-year-old daughter, who on this Monday is running around with a bright red bandanna in her hair until someone takes her home.

Bobby, who played with Little Joe in a group in the 1950s called the Jets, is not as angry as Jerald Gray when he talks about Little Joe. But he acknowledges the difficulties of letting someone like Joe in to play when he already has a house band set up. If he lets Joe pass the hat, he says, then everyone and anyone will think he can pass the hat too.

"He would come and pass the hat and think the money in the Blue Monday bucket was for him, and I'd say, 'No, it's for the Blue Monday musicians,' and then they'd all get mad at each other and I'd think, 'Oh, man.' " To solve the problem, Bobby now charges a $2 cover and has done away with the bucket.

Little Joe was always a hustler, says Bobby. But back when they played together with the Jets, Joe's favorite way to rip somebody off was by pool sharking. It was normal for the Jets to be left sitting on stage wondering where Little Joe had run off to. More than likely, he had decided to go break someone in a game of pool. So the Jets did many gigs without a guitar player.

"We finally had to let him go, because he wasn't dependable," Bobby remembers. "He'd come to the next gig and we'd ask, 'Where were you last night?' and he'd say, 'I was shooting pool,' and we said, 'Well, you can keep on shooting pool, we don't need you no more.' "

Bobby worries a bit about Little Joe, just like most people who get to know Joe worry about him.

"He started this foolishness, getting involved with drugs," Bobby says. "I'm just speaking frankly. He just started going astray."

But as quick as he criticizes, Bobby compliments.

"He's a hell of a guitar player. Did you know he can play almost everything on the bandstand?"

Unlike at the Continental, where the crowd can sometimes be engrossed in conversation, the patrons at Miss Ann's sit and listen intently to the house band. For just a few dollars they buy setups and soda for liquor they have brought themselves, and at around 9 p.m. Bobby brings out big pots of black-eyed peas, chicken and rice.

Reg Burns leaves to go check up on Little Joe at the Continental. I wait for a while in case he turns up, but Little Joe never does.

It is 4 p.m. on Valentine's Day, and Little Joe is supposed to show up for an interview at the Continental. The best way to reach him, I've been told, is to throw some pebbles at his second-floor window and holler out his name. In the midst of my doing this, he pops out from around the corner.

"I've got to get me something to eat," he says.

At the Fusion Café just down the street, Joe sits down with a plate of pork chops, greens, two biscuits and rice. He picks at his food like a teenage girl on a diet, even though he is already more than skinny enough.

He apologizes for not coming to Miss Ann's on Monday, and says he was sick as a dog. He looks like he means it. His eyes are bloodshot, his nose is stuffed up, and he is the quietest I have ever seen him. There are certain times, Roger Wood says, when Little Joe lets you see only a mask. But sometimes, if you hang around long enough, you get to see the face: no persona, no jokes.

Joe tells me things about him I haven't learned yet. He was baptized at the Wesley Chapel AME on Dowling, but says he feels like he's in church every day ("Right here I'm in church just talking to you," he says, touching his heart). As a young boy he used to like to run away to hang out at blues dives and listen to different musicians. Once, he says, he was gone for two weeks and made his mother worry herself to pieces. But he always came back home. He says he has four daughters and one son, but he's not quite sure where they all are. He met one daughter, who lives in Los Angeles, as an adult. But he doesn't keep in regular touch.

At one point he had a nonmusical paying job -- he can't remember exactly when -- constructing booths at convention centers. After a six-by-six post fell on his head, he collected disability checks for a while. But mostly he was just glad he didn't have to work a job where he couldn't play music. After the accident, he says, "I was so happy. I could just get my guitar and play."

His time in Juárez and El Paso was wild, he admits, and working seven nights a week took its toll. But the crowds loved Joe. Joe, in turn, loved the alcohol.

"That alcohol near killed me," he says. "For a year I had to drink nothing but milk. Tequila, rum, I'm talking straight. Five in the evening and five in the morning." Now, he claims to have his drinking under control. Three shots and that's it, he swears.

He denies using crack or any drug but marijuana, claiming it's better than regular cigarettes. He has no problems with people like Jerald Gray. All he'll say about Jerald is that he's a damn fine player.

The gig at the Continental makes him happy. Reg Burns, he says, does more for him than anybody else. He doesn't think about what will happen next. That's not Little Joe's style. All he knows is that he loves playing music.

"I was raised up in the blues," he says, picking up a forkful of rice. "But I like jazz if I can get someone to play with me. I like the music, whatever makes the people take notice."

At the end of the meal, Joe gets a Styrofoam container to put his leftovers in. Most of his meal has gone untouched.

"C'mon, greens," he says, coaxing them into the container. "I've got to eat my greens." Then he informs me, "Greens are good for you."

There is something almost childlike about him as he uses his fork to push around his dinner. It's easy to see why some people like to look out for him, feed him and find him a place to live where it's safe and warm.

Back at the Continental, Joe has some time to kill before his show, so he sits at the bar sipping whiskey, smoking cigarettes and quietly singing, "I found my freedom, on Blueberry Hill…"

Suddenly he asks me to feel his forehead for a fever. He clearly has one. So he decides to go upstairs and take a nap.

That night at happy hour, Little Joe is dragging. The guys in the band have to go upstairs to get him to come and play. He does the whole set sitting down on the piano bench, with none of his signature tongue-playing or unexpected outbursts. Perhaps because it's Valentine's Day, the crowd is small. But despite feeling sick, despite the lack of audience, Little Joe plays one of the best sets he's played in weeks, floating from one influence to another until it sounds like no one else but Little Joe. Still, Reg Burns seems a little worried.

"I don't think I've ever seen him sit down through a whole song before," he says from his seat at the bar. "It's like watching a sick little puppy."

It is just a few days before his March 1 birthday, and Little Joe Washington is in the hospital. Reg had shown up on a Friday evening at the Continental to check out I.J. Gosey playing happy hour, and he knew Little Joe was still ailing. So Reg figured he'd throw some rocks at the back window, call out his name. Little Joe came down the stairs, said, "Hey," and Reg Burns took one look at him and decided he looked terrible.

"Emaciated, even for him," he says.

So he got Joe into his car and hustled him to Ben Taub Hospital. They waited in the ER for an hour or so, and then eventually Joe got an IV. He hadn't been keeping anything down for a week, Joe said. It was decided that Joe should be checked in for more tests, and he got a room on the sixth floor.

Joe is sharing the room with three other men, but he's the lucky one by the window with a fine view. He says he spends most of the time sleeping, curled up in a fetal position under a white blanket. His legs shiver. A navy-blue ski hat that he sometimes wears rests precariously on top of his shoulder-length dreads. Sometimes, in the middle of dozing, he opens his eyes suddenly and as wide as they will go, then closes them and drifts back off.

"I'm not happy or unhappy, I'm just cold," he remarks.

On the food tray by his bed are the remains of Popeyes chicken that Chris the guitarist has brought by, and some unopened cartons of milk. Reg delivered him a chocolate milk shake, which Joe devoured. Little Joe shuns the hospital food.

One of Little Joe's doctors, Liz Han, says they want to observe him and do more tests, but they can't keep him if he doesn't want to stay, of course.

"He's quite willful," she says.

When the doctor isn't there, Little Joe asks me for a cigarette, which I don't give him. When the man in the bed across from Joe asks for one too, Little Joe leans in as best he can and says conspiratorially, "These guys -- they're alcoholics."

Then Joe wonders if his bass player Paul will come by, and maybe bring a chessboard.

"You play chess?" I ask.

"Checkers too," says Joe, like it's a well-known fact.

Joe promises that when he leaves the hospital, he's going to clean up his act and not drink anymore at all. He'll just play his guitar. After he promises he starts whining in that Little Joe way that only makes you want to deliver whatever it is that he is asking for.

"Won't you please bring me some sweet potato pie?" he says, dropping his head against the pillow. His skinny frame pops out of the blankets like a stick figure, all lines and right angles. I tell him I worry about him, but he just shoots me a wicked grin and says, "Don't worry about me, I'm cool."

A week later, Little Joe is discharged from the hospital. Chris picks him up, takes him back to the Continental. Reg Burns stops by with fruit. The band decides they will play the following Wednesday, if Joe is up to it.

Wednesday arrives, and the backup band is on stage playing, but Joe isn't. It's almost 7 p.m., and Joe probably should have started a half hour earlier. Reg says Little Joe is copying James Brown's style of making the backup band play a few songs before deeming the situation worthy enough for him to take the stage.

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"Pretty soon we'll need a cape," says Reg.

Suddenly, from the back corner of the club, Little Joe makes his appearance. He's dressed in a fitted black jacket and a white hat, and he's clutching a cigarette. He struts up on stage and grabs his black guitar. The band has put a barstool on stage for Little Joe to rest on, but he uses it only half the time, preferring to saunter about as he plays. The music sounds tight, and Joe's guitar playing is excellent. It is as if Joe was on a vacation in Tahiti, instead of a bed at Ben Taub.

After just a handful of songs, Joe stops abruptly in the middle of a tune and without explanation puts his guitar down and walks off the stage. His bandmates look at one another, and drummer Mike Simon approaches the microphone.

"I guess we're taking a break," Mike says as Joe makes his way to the bar. "But let's hear it for Little Joe Washington! Back from the dead!"

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