Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Houston Blues

Down in Houston
Bayou City Blues
By Roger Wood
Photographs by
James Fraher
356 pp 122 Duotones

Even though I've offered my written opinion on a couple of books here on the blog and I'm about offer up another, I really have no intention of becoming some kind of book reviewer. Peggy Ehrhart sent me a copy of her book and since there aren't many fictional stories themed around the blues, then I thought whoever reads this blog stuff needed to hear about her. While reading the Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock and just how much of my 'back in the day' days were being captured, I just had to share my impressions with anyone whom might relate. So, I'm not really going to call this or those real reviews.

Where Jan Reid's book gave an account the musicians that were relative to Austin's rise as a music mecca, Roger Wood's Down In Houston Bayou City Blues documents a past that established the city as a blues haven as important as Chicago or Memphis with just as much vitality. More than that, his book is a document to those that are still soldiering on in the city. So, I have to share this just to give Houston equal time and importance, in particular to how it is relative to my experience. Where the scene developing in and around Austin was bending genres and was overwhelmingly inviting to college age students and I was a willing participant to the party-on atmosphere, the blues in Houston was sorta operating out of earshot of us Anglo types. It was there, but we weren't. I grew up in the marvelous little coastal town of Brazoria, which was 50 miles south of Houston. When we got our driver's licenses in the late '60s, it was the bright lights and big city that lured us away--BUT we dared not venture into neighborhoods known as the Third and Fifth Ward. There was a lot of unrest along the racial divide during that period of time and those areas were absolutely not our turf. That was, though, where Houston blues was born, bred and nurtured. We had to wait for the blues to ease out of these neighborhoods and find us and it did, but until then, we went to places like the Love Street Light Circus and the Cellar, bought grape juice and pretended it was wine and listened to psychedelic bands, who sometimes jammed the blues. Quite frequently Billy Gibbons (of ZZTop) would bring his Moving Sidewalks to our teen dances and blow us away and he'd venture off into blues riffed rock for us.

Soul and R&B music was feeding the hit factories of the day back then. Garage bands had to play Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Junior Walker or get run out of the building. Roy Head and the Traits and B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs were trumping everyone in the region. Our prom committees booked the TSU Toronadoes, who were quite the R&B showstoppers, for both my junior and senior years. There weren't many of us listening to the blues back in those days. So, even though I had grasp what it was I liked about the blues vs R&B/Soul about that time and we were crawling around Houston looking for things to do, we darned sure were not about to drive along Dowling Street or Lyons Avenue looking for anything. Then Liberty Hall opened and Lightnin' struck.

I had actually moved off to college, but was back visiting the folks when a friend of mine told me that Lightnin' Hopkins was playing Liberty Hall (a venue that opened in 1971 and was an answer to Austin's music swagger--the Armadillo had nothing on them with their roster such folks as Waylon Jennings, Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, Bonnie Raitt, etc..). So, it took Lightnin' being enticed out of his neighborhood to expose me to my first real live bluesman. I didn't know what to think when he came out and had a seat in a folding chair and an assistant came out and strapped his guitar on him. I figured I'd missed him in his prime. I was wrong. He rawked the place. The Liberty Hall had two Lightnin' shows at 8&10pm and when my friend suggested that we hide in the restroom when they ran the first patrons out, I readily agreed to the risk. There aren't too many moments in life such that one, being able to witness greatness in two set. And this is actually where Roger Wood's book picks up--'bout time, huh?

Wood relates as to how he read a funeral notice for Lightnin' Hopkins shortly after he moved to the city in the early '80s to beginning teaching at Houston Community College. He was intrigued enough with the obit that he considered going to the funeral, but didn't and regretted it from that time forward. He quickly became aware of just how historically important the neighborhoods adjacent to his classroom were in nurturing some of the best blues musicians, and hence their music, that the genre had ever seen. He determined that it was his mission to find out what it was all about and share it with the rest of us. Like we all were, back in the day, he was a little leery about wandering around neighborhoods that may not be welcoming--even in this day and age. He sat his mind to it, though, and found that not being welcome was all in his mind as he began to frequent the modern day juke joints that were still hosting blues shows for the working class. He began to hang out in spots like Miss Ann's Playpen where bluesmen with national recognition, such as Sherman Robertson, would play when they were back in the 'hood.

As an aside here--my good friend Sonny Boy Terry decided to record a live album at Miss Ann's a few years ago and invited all to attend. As I said, even at this late date, some have a little trepidation about venturing over to such a place. Even though I was well into blues music by this time, most of the venues that I visited for my fix were own by white folks and inhabited by white fans. On the phone Sonny Boy told me, "Hey, their cool, if you're cool." That was enough for me. I invited my brother-in-law, who grew up in Houston, to come along and he wasn't sure at all if that was the part of town WE should be in, so he invited his bouncer size brother-in-law and before he was through, I had 6 grown men in my pickup truck with me. No one wanted to drive their vehicles down there. Bottom line is--it was all foolishness. EVERYONE was beyond cool and we had a fine time. I even discovered that I had left my truck doors unlocked with a cell phone or two left behind unmolested. So, there you go.

Wood enlisted esteemed photographer, James Fraher, to help him capture the Houston story as they hung with the locals at such spots as Miss Ann's Playpen, El Nedo Cafe, C.Davis Bar-B-Q, Shady's Playhouse, Etta's Lounge and the Silver Slipper. Fraher's photos have graced the covers, and illustrated articles for many publications, including the premier Living Blues magazine and his work here of blues artist captured at work and at home are of the highest quality. Together they reveal a slice of musical life that has existed for decades in one of the nation's largest cities, but has been virtually unrecognized and ignored by most of its population.

Wood spins tales from the mouths of those that witnessed the development of blues as it burst out of the Third and Fifth Wards of the city. Many of the musicians, that were still gigging around town while he was researching this book, played for and on recordings by such artists as Bobby Bland, BB King and Junior Parker. They relate tales of the road and in the studios of Duke-Peacock run by Don Robey, one of the few African-American owned recording companies in the 1950s. Of special importance is his interviews with the classy Evelyn Johnson, who ran Buffalo Booking Agency with Robey and managed artists such as BB. The stomping grounds of Albert Collins, Johnny 'Clyde' Copeland, Gatemouth Brown, Lightnin' Hopkins, Weldon 'Juke Boy' Bonner and Billy Bizor come to life within these pages and you can smell it.

The splendor and hey day of the Eldorado Ballroom is recounted by those that had the privilege to either play there or put on their finest threads and take a swing on the dance floor of one of the nation's finest musical venues booking the most popular African-American bands of the period. The club was the cultural centerpiece for a proud neighborhood and after years of neglect has been renovated for special events. It was the uptown to Shady Playhouse's lowdown, which also receives its due as a breeding ground for some of the best blues ever played. Sadly, many of the musicians that shared their history with Wood have passed in recent years, such as Joe 'Guitar' Hughes, Calvin Owens and Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson. That fact makes this document all that more important and valuable. These were all musicians whom recorded and toured the country back in the day when blues was boppin' and played for their people.

I mentioned how much I could relate to Reid's book because I lived around much of what he wrote he wrote about and actively participated as a fan. I also lived around much that is written here, but had no idea what was going on until they brought it to me. When us Anglos began attach ourselves to the attraction of the blues and the artists began to entertain in places such as club Hey Hey, the Bon Ton room, Fitzgerald's and Rockefeller's, we began to understand that the music was under our nose's the entire time. This is what Roger Wood brings to light and illuminates so brightly within the pages of his book. Once he ventured into the belly of the beast, he uncovered the remarkable sub-culture that had its roots in the beginnings of the music and he provides us with a greater understanding of the when's and where's of Texas blues. After reading through the pages, it is quite clear Houston absolutely has to be included when discussing, dissecting or analyzing cities that are important to the music or intertwined with its development.

I had the pleasure to meet and chat with quite a few of Wood's participants over the last couple of decades. Folks such as Texas Johnny Brown, Milton Hopkins (Lightnin's cousin), Jimmy 'T-99' Nelson, Big Roger Collins, Earl Gilliam,Joe Hughes, Calvin Owens, Big Walter Price and Jimmy Dotson were always willing to share their stories and insights. It is such a treat that their stories, tales and histories are so well documented. All Houstonians owe it to themselves to understand such a valuable piece of their city's cultural history and everyone else should grab a copy to grasp just why Houston should be mentioned in the same breath as Chicago, Memphis or even Mississippi. Anyway--

Check out http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/woodow.html for additional information. Roger Wood has also documented Texas Zydeco as well as he did the blues.


Unknown said...

I was so fortunate to have an amazing person take me to experience places like C Davis and Etta’s.... they, to this date are some of the best music experiences I’ve had.

Ricky Bush said...

I do wish I'd had the same experience of visiting those "real deal" blues joints. Missed out. Did catch Sonny Boy Terry recording "Live at Miss Ann's Playpen" at that venerable venue.