Lightnin' HopkinsTim Moore's FarmAll The Classic Sides
Interview Pt. 1 Overview
Lightnin' HopkinsZolo GoAll The Classic Sides
Thunder SmithBig Stars Are FallingLightnin' Special Vol. 2
Interview Pt. 2Blues Recordings
Leroy ErvinRock Island LineTexas Blues ( Bill Quinn's Gold Star Recordings )
L.C. WilliamsBoogie All The TimeLightnin' Special Vol. 2
Conrad JohnsonFisherman's Blues78
Interview Pt. 3Quinn, Hopkins, Blues & More
Henry HayesBowlegged Angeline78
Perry CainAll The Way From TexasTexas Blues ( Bill Quinn's Gold Star Recordings )
Lee HunterBack To Santa FeTexas Blues ( Bill Quinn's Gold Star Recordings )
Lil' Son JacksonHomeless BluesLil' Son Jackson Vol. 1 - Rockin' And Rollin' (1948-1950
Interview Pt. 4Evolution of Texas Blues Guitar
Lil' Son JacksonCairo BluesLil' Son Jackson Vol. 1 1948-1950
Joe HughesI Can't Go On This Way45
Interview Pt. 51950’s Blues/Kangaroo Records
Albert CollinsThe FreezeKangaroo Shuffle
Johnny CopelandDown On Bending KneesWorking Man's Blues
James DavisBad DreamsAngels In Houston
Bobby BlandDriftin' BluesThat Did It! The Duke Recordings Vol. 3
Interview Pt. 6Duke/Peacock
Jimmy McCracklinThinkI Had To Get With It
Junior ParkerMan Or MouseDuke Recordings Vol. 2
Junior ParkerCryin For My BabyDuke Recordings Vol. 1
Clifton ChenierI Am Going HomeClifton Chenier: The Anthology
Albert CollinsSnow-Cone IITruckin' With Albert Collins
O.V. WrightFed Up With The BluesTreasured Moments: The Backbeat Singles Collection
Interview Pt. 7Huey Meaux
Bobby BlandThis Time I'm Gone For GoodThe California Album

Show Notes:

Gold Star/SugarHill Studios is a Houston-based sound engineering and recording facility that started in 1941 and is still operating today. Over the years its founder and subsequent engineers have produced a multitude of influential hit records and classic tracks for numerous labels in a diverse range of popular genres. The inspiration for today's program is the book House of Hits: The Story of Houston's Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios written by Andy Bradley and Roger Wood. In addition to the music we also hear an interview that I conducted with Wood a few weeks ago.

Among the hundreds of Gold Star/SugarHill-affiliated artists, a brief sampling includes blues giants (ranging from Lightnin' Hopkins to Albert Collins to Bobby Bland), country legends (from George Jones to Willie Nelson to Roger Miller), early rockers (from the Big Bopper to Roy Head to Sir Douglas Quintet), seminal figures in Cajun and zydeco (from Harry Choates to Clifton Chenier), architects of R&B (from O. V. Wright to Junior Parker), pioneers of psychedelia (from 13th Floor Elevators to Bubble Puppy), the phenomenal Freddy Fender, song-crafters (from Guy Clark to Lucinda Williams), gospel greats (such as the Mighty Clouds of Joy) up to contemporary pop icons. Today’s program will of course focus on the studio's blues recordings.

From humble origins as Quinn's Radio Repair shop around 1940, studio founder Quinn built a recording studio and a record pressing plant, during the latter part of the WWII years. After a year or two of experiments and failures, he succeeded in getting the Gulf label off the ground in 1945, to be followed by the much greater success of the Gold Star label the following year. In 1948 “Lil’ Son” Jackson, became one of many blues singers to record for Gold Star. In 1946, Lil’ Son Jackson shipped off a demo to Bill Quinn, who owned Houston based Gold Star Records. Jackson scored a national R&B hit, “Freedom Train Blues,” in 1948. It would prove Jackson’s only national hit, although his 1950-1954 output for Imperial Records must have sold consistently, judging from how many sides the L.A. firm issued.

Quinn recorded several fine  blues artists who's records are largely forgotten including Conrad Johnson, Henry Hayes, L.C. Williams, Wilson “Thunder” Smith, Leroy Ervin, Perry Cain, and the most famous of the Gold Star blues artists, Lightnin’ Hopkins. While most of these artists are in a down home vein, notable exceptions include by Conrad Johnson's "Fisherman's Blues" and Henry Hayes' "Bowlegged Angeline" performed in an upbeat, fully orchestrated style. I want to thank Roger for send me these tracks which are taken from the original Gold Star 78's.

Hopkins’ first decade of recording (1946-1956), was a prolific period which found him cutting close to 200 sides geared for the black market on a variety of different labels. Between 1946 and 1950 Hopkins recorded primarily for the L.A. based Aladdin label and the Houston based Gold Star label.  Hopkins scored some hits for Gold Star including “Tim Moore’s Farm” which was an R&B hit in 1949, hitting #4 on the charts and the year before he hit with “T-Model Blues” which peaked at #8. Hopkins recorded some 50 sides for the Gold Star label between 1947 and 1950. Even after the Gold Star label went under, Hopkins continued to record at the studio, the results issued on a a number of other labels. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s Hopkins traveled around Texas, usually in the company of recording star Texas Alexander. The pair was playing in Houston’s Third Ward in 1946 when talent scout Lola Anne Cullum came across them. She cut Alexander out of the deal and paired Hopkins with pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith, getting the duo a recording contract for the Los Angles based Aladdin label. They recorded as “Thunder and Lightnin’”, a nickname Sam was to use for the rest of his life. Thunder Smith plays piano behind Hopkins on his first two sessions for Aladdin in 1946 and 1947, never achieving the success that Hopkins did. Hopkins backed Smith on a four-song session for Aladdin in 1946 with Smith cutting one session apiece in 1947 for Gold Star and in 1948 for Down Town. He reportedly died in Houston in 1965.

Bill Quinn at Gold Star Studios, 1960 (Photo by Chris Strachwitz)

The Gold Star label went under in 1951 when the IRS sued for back taxes. Quinn soldiered on, engineering for other labels that rented his studio, most notably Starday, Duke/Peacock, and D, and an endless number of smaller ones. Quinn sold the studio around 1963, and it eventually wound up being purchased by the infamous International Artists label. The label issued a number of notable psychedelic and rock recordings before going under in 1971

Of the Houston-based independent labels, Peacock emerged as the most prominent. Houston businessman Don Robey  founded Peacock Records in 1949. Robey expanded his recording interests by acquiring the Memphis label Duke Records. Through this acquisition Robey secured the rights to the stable of musicians who were then under contract to Duke. During the 1950's, Robey’s Duke-Peacock sound rose to national prominence, but by the mid-1960s, his business started to wane. The authors of House of Hits note that "few if any writers have noted that Robey conducted numerous recording sessions at Gold Star studios." Among the Duke artists who recorded at Gold Star were Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Buddy Ace and  Ernie K-Doe among others. Duke's subsidiary label, Back Beat, also saw sessions recorded at Gold Star by artists such as Joe Hinton, O.V. Wright and Roy Head among others.

Bobby Bland cut singles for Chess in 1951 and Modern the next year bombed and in 1952 for Duke. Bland entered the Army in late 1952 and his progress upon his 1955 return was remarkable. By now, Duke was headed by Don Robey, who provided top-flight bands for his artists. Most of Bland's blues sides during the mid- to late '50s featured the slashing guitar of Clarence Hollimon. Bland's first national hit was 1957's "Farther Up the Road." Later, Wayne Bennett took over on guitar, his fretwork prominent on Bland's Duke waxings throughout much of the '60s. Bland hit the charts often during this period with numbers like "Little Boy Blue", "Cry Cry Cry", "I Pity The Fool"and "Turn On Your Love Light" to name a few.

Junior Parker was an extraordinary blues singer and harmonica player who laid down some superb material over the course of a twenty-year career (1952-1971) before his life was cut short just prior to his fortieth birthday. Before 1953 was through, Junior Parker had moved on to Don Robey’s Duke label in Houston. It took a while for the harpist to regain his hitmaking momentum, but he scored big in 1957 with the “Next Time You See Me.” Parker developed a horn driven sound (usually the work of trumpeter/Duke-house-bandleader Joe Scott) that added power to his vocals and harp solos. Parker’s updated remake of Roosevelt Sykes’s “Driving Wheel” was a huge R&B hit in 1961, as was “In the Dark.” Parker continued to hit the charts through the 60’s with a mix of blues and R&B scoring with songs like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Annie Get Your Yo-Yo”, “Man Or Mouse”, “Someone Somewhere.”

As the authors note, "a few of the hit records made at Gold Star studios by artists linked to Robey ended up being released on labels that he did not control. A prime example of that seemingly unlikely scenario is the song "Think", written and performed by Jimmy McCracklin. Released in 1965 on the California based Imperial Records, it went to number seven on the R&B charts and number ninety-five in the pop category. …"Think" was actually recorded independently by McCracklin in Houston, where he made use of both Robey's in-house studio on Erastus Street and the Gold Star facility across town."

Lightnin' Hopkins inside Gold Star Studios, 1961

Concurrent with the growth of Peacock Records, a new generation of Houston-bred rhythm-and-blues musicians began their careers, but were not recorded by Don Robey. Houston was homebase to a remarkable cadre of blues guitarists during the 1950’. These musicians included Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Joe Hughes, Clarence Green and Pete Mayes. Playing at the Club Matinee, Shady’s Playhouse, the Eldorado Ballroom, and other nightspots around Houston, these musicians emulated the music of T-Bone Walker and eventually developed their own distinctive performance styles.

Joe Hughes crossed paths with Johnny Copeland’s circa 1953 when the two shared vocal and guitar duties in a combo called the Dukes of Rhythm. Hughes served as bandleader at a local blues joint known as Shady’s Playhouse from 1958 through 1963, cutting a few scattered singles of his own in his spare time. In 1963, Hughes hit the road with the Upsetters, switching to the employ of Bobby “Blue” Bland in 1965. He also recorded behind the Bland for Duke and Al “TNT” Braggs from 1967 to 1969. Hughes cut the numbers "I Can't Go On This Way" b/w "Make Me Dance Little Ant" at Gold Star for the tiny Kangaroo label. The label was formed in the late 50's by the above mentioned Henry Hayes with label doing their recording at Gold Star.

In addition to Hughes, Albert Collins also made his debut for Kangaroo. Collins started out taking keyboard lessons but by the time he was 18 years old, he switched to guitar, and hung out and heard his heroes, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins in Houston-area nightclubs. Collins  soon began performing in these same clubs. He led a ten-piece band, the Rhythm Rockers, and cut his first single in 1958 , “The Freeze” b/w “Collins Shuffle.” “The Freeze” became a regional hit and went on to serve as Collins' signature song throughout his career. Collins  returned to Gold Star in April 1965 for at least two sessions. The same year Collins’ first album was released, The Cool Sounds of Albert Collins, a collection of singles (the album was reissued later as Truckin’ With Albert Collins). To fill out the album at least three new numbers were recorded at Gold Star including our selection "Snow-Cone II."

Clarence Green was a versatile guitarist and a stalwart of the Houston scene who fronted a number of popular bands, the most famous being the Rhythmaires, between the early 1950's and his death. He started out around 1951 or 1952 in a group that called itself Blues For Two. Throughout the next decade the band’s personnel changed often; some of the more well-known members, at various times, included fellow guitarists Johnny Copeland and Joe Hughes. Green also did regular session work as a guitarist at various studios, the most notable being Duke Records, where he backed artists such as Bobby Bland, Joe Hinton, and Junior Parker. Green cut two singles for Duke at Gold Star in 1965 and 1966.

In 1964 Lightnin’ Hopkins took Chris Strachwitz to see his cousin, Clifton Chenier perform. Strachwitz agreed to record Chenier and they went to Gold Star in February to record. The session resulted in the first 45 for Strachwitz’s new label, Arhoolie and the following year he recorded a whole album of material. The session yielded the album Louisiana Blues and Zydeco with many of the songs also issued as 45’s.

Record hustler Huey P. Meaux, who had recorded the Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About a Mover" at Gold Star in '65, bought and refurbishing the studio in 1972, naming the studio SugarHill. SugarHill became Meaux's home base for his Crazy Cajun Music label where careers of Texas legends Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm and many more were launched.

Listen to the Roger Wood interview (edited, MP3, 45 min)