In Houston, African Americans settled mostly in three segregated wards: the Third, Fourth, and Fifth. It was in the Third Ward where guitarist Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins accompanied his cousin Texas Alexander in the late 1920's, and where Hopkins returned by himself in the 1940's to play on Dowling Street. In Houston there were fewer opportunities for recording than in Dallas until after World War II, when several independent labels were started. The earliest to record blues was Gold Star, founded by Bill Quinn in 1946 as a hillbilly label to record Harry Choates. In 1947 Quinn decided to enter the "race" market by recording Lightnin' Hopkins. By the early 1950's, competition among independent record labels in Houston was intense. Macy's, Freedom, and Peacock (as well as Bob Shad's New York-based Sittin-In-With label) were all involved in recording local and regional blues musicians such as Lightnin' Hopkins, Gatemouth Brown, Goree Carter, Lester Williams, Peppermint Harris and Big Walter Price. 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 1950s, Robey's Duke-Peacock sound rose to national prominence, but by the mid-1960s, his business started to wane. 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. 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.
Today's show covers much ground and naturally two hours isn't long enough to devote to the vibrant Houston blues scene of the 40's, 50's and 60's. Future shows will take a more in-depth look at Houston labels like Duke-Peacock, Freedom, Macy's, Sittin' In With and Gold Star.
Hopkins cut some 50 sides for the Gold Star label between 1947 and 1950. Producer Bill Quinn opened Gold Star Studios in October 1941 in Houston. Originally, Quinn had called it Quinn Recording and focused primarily on country music artists, but, by 1950, he had rechristened it Gold Star Studios. In 1948, Melvin Jackson, better known as "Lil' Son" Jackson, became one of many blues singers to record for Gold Star. In addition to L.C. Williams, Wilson "Thunder" Smith, Leroy Ervin, and Perry Cain, the most famous of which was Lightnin' Hopkins. Hopkisn also cut around two dozen sides for the Sittin' In With label and its Jax subsidary in 1951.
By the time he was in his early twenties, Peppermint Harris then known as Harrison Nelson, Jr. was lucky enough to have found a mentor and friend on the Houston blues front in the form of Lightnin' Hopkins. When Harris was deemed ready, Lightnin' accompanied him to Houston's Gold Star Records. Nothing came of that trip, but Harris eventually recorded his debut 78 for the company in 1948 (as Peppermint Nelson).B ob Shad's Sittin' in With label was the vehicle that supplied Harris' early work to the masses, including his first major hit, "Raining in My Heart," in 1950. Sittin' in With was founded in 1948 by Bob Shad and was operated in NYC. The label recorded a number of Houston bluesmen in addition to Harris including Lightnin' Hopkins, Goree Carter and Elmore Nixon. Jade and Jax were subsidiaries of the label and also issued blues and R&B.
Among T-Bone's legion of disciples was Houston's Goree Carter, whose big break came when he signed to Houston's Freedom Records circa 1949. For his his first couple of side he was billed as "Little T-Bone." Freedom issued plenty of Carter records over the next few years, and he later recorded for Imperial/Bayou, Sittin' in With, Coral, Jade, and Modern without denting the national charts. Eventually, he left music behind altogether. Eddie's and Freedom were two intertwined labels; Eddie's was founded in 1947 in Houston while Freedom was founded the next year and distributed Eddie's releases. Artists on the labels included Little Willie Littlefield, L.C. Williams, Goree Carter, Big Joe Turner, Joe Houston among others.
Texas Johnny Brown began his professional career as an original member of the great Amos Milburn band known as the Aladdin Chickenshackers. Brown's picking is killer on early Aladdin recordings by both Milburn as well as Ruth Brown's first Atlantic sides. Atlantic allowed Brown to make a few recordings of his own in 1949. He didn't cut his first full-length record until 1998.
Lester Williams grew up infatuated with the sound of T-Bone Walker, whose style he emulated; after serving in World War II, he formed his own combo, and in 1949 signed on with the Houston-based Macy's Records. Macy's was founded by Macy and Charles Henry and was active from 1949 through 195, releasing records by Lester Williams, Smokey Hogg, Hubert Robinson, Clarence Garlow and others. Williams' debut single "Winter Time Blues" became a regional hit, although subsequent efforts were less successful. Williams moved to Specialty records and scored his biggest hit in 1952 with "I Can't Lose with the Stuff I Use." Williams' follow-ups failed to catch on, however, and by 1954 he was regularly performing on Houston station KLVL and touring throughout the South. He later recorded on Duke before one final date for Imperial in 1956. In the years to follow he remained a staple of the Houston club circuit, touring Europe prior to his death on November 13, 1990.
Clarence Garlow is best known for his 1950 hit "Bon Ton Roula" (French for "Let the Good Times Roll"), a rhythm & blues-laced zydeco song that helped introduce the Lousiana music form to a national audience. Garlow was born in Louisiana but raised in nearby Beaumont, Texas. In 1949 he put together a band, began playing jukes and dances in the Houston area, and signed a recording contract with Macy's Records. After Macy's demise, Garlow moved from one label to the next but never could repeat his former success.
Elmore Nixon was a Houston pianist was acted as a sideman for labels like Gold Star, Peacock, Mercury, Savoy and Imperial between 1949-1955. In the 1960's he backed Lightnin' Hopkins and Clifton Chenier on record. He cut close to two-dozen sides under his own name for labels like Sittin' In With, Peacock, Mercury, Imperial and Savoy.
In 1947, Gatemouth Brown's impromptu fill-in for an ailing T-Bone Walker at Houston entrepreneur Don Robey's Bronze Peacock nightclub convinced Robey to assume control of Brown's career. After two singles for Aladdin stiffed, Robey inaugurated his own Peacock label in 1949 to showcase Gatemouth on record. Gate stayed with Peacock through 1960. Assisted by business partner Evelyn Johnson, Peacock's roster grew with both blues and gospel artists. By the end of 1952 they had released singles by over fifty different artists. It was this year that Robey acquired Duke Records.
James 'Wide Mouth' Brown was Gatemouth Brown older brother. He cut his only record, "A Weary Silent Night" b/w "Boogie Woogie Nighthawk", in 1952 issued on the Jax label.
Big Walter Price was born in Gonzales, Texas in 1914, pianist Big Walter started he music career in 1954, recording for labels like T-N-T, Peacock, Goldband and others.
Slide guitar blues with an Elmore James flavor played on an eight-string table (non-pedal) steel guitar was the trademarked sound of Houston blues legend Hop Wilson. Strictly a local phenomenon, Wilson recorded fitfully and hated touring. After his discharge from the Army, he decided to pursue a serious career as a blues musician, performing with Ivory Semien's group in the late '50s. Wilson and Semien recorded a number of sides for Goldband Records in 1957. Hop Wilson didn't lead his own sessions until 1960, when he signed with the Ivory record label. Wilson only recorded for the label for two years — his final sessions were in 1961. After 1961, Wilson concentrated on playing local Houston clubs and bars. He continued to perform in Houston until his death in 1975.
Teddy Reynolds, blues pianist, songwriter, and singer, was born in Houston on July 12, 1931. He debuted in 1950 for the Sittin' In With label and cut sides for Mercury in 1958. Reynolds's did his most prolific and enduring studio work as a regular session player at Duke and Peacock Records. Starting in 1958 and lasting into the mid-1960s, he played piano or organ on classic sides by Bobby Bland and Junior Parker, with whom he toured constantly in a popular twin-bill revue for almost three years.
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 1950s 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. he cut his own sides for labels such as C & P, All Boy, Aquarius, Bright Star, Lynn, Pope, and Golden Eagle.
Houston was homebase to a remarkable cadre of blues guitarists during the 1950's among whom was Joe Hughes. He 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.
Albert 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 began soon began performing in these same clubs. He led a ten-piece band, the Rhythm Rockers, and cut his first single in 1958 for the Houston-based Kangaroo label, "The Freeze." The single was followed by a slew of other instrumental singles. All of these singles brought Collins a regional following. After recording "De-Frost" b/w "Albert's Alley" for Hall-Way Records of Beaumont, TX, he hit it big in 1962 with "Frosty," a million-selling single. He recorded for other small Texas labels in the 1960's, including Great Scott, Brylen and TFC.
Johnny Copeland's first gig was with his friend Joe "Guitar" Hughes. Soon after, Hughes "took sick" for a week and the young Copeland discovered he could be a front man and deliver vocals as well as anyone else around Houston at that time. Copeland and Hughes fell under the spell of T-Bone Walker, whom Copeland first saw perform when he was 13 years old. As a teenager he played at locales such as Shady's Playhouse — Houston's leading blues club, host to most of the city's best bluesmen during the 1950s — and the Eldorado Ballroom. Copeland and Hughes subsequently formed The Dukes of Rhythm, which became the house band at the Shady's Playhouse. After that, he spent time playing on tour with Albert Collins during the 1950's. He began recording in 1958 for Mercury, and moved between various labels during the 1960s, including All Boy and Golden Eagle in Houston, where he had regional successes with "Please Let Me Know" and "Down on Bending Knees," and later for Wand and Atlantic in New York.
Pete Mayes played guitar with greats like Junior Parker and Bill Doggett. He has fronted his own band, the Houserockers, for 40 years. Mayes owned and maintained the historic Double Bayou Dancehall, which once served as a regular venue for Amos Milburn, Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Joe Turner, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and scores of others. It was there that Mayes, then just 16 years old, first heard T-Bone Walker who became a major influence. During the next 20 years, he often worked with Walker and made the acquaintance of many other bluesmen who would later come to fame, most prominently Joe Hughes. Mayes' discography is slim with just three full-length albums and cut just a handful of singles in the 1960's.
Juke Boy Bonner caught a break in 1947 in Houston, winning a talent contest that led to a spot on a local radio outlet. He journeyed to Oakland in 1956, cutting his debut single for Bob Geddins's Irma imprint before jumping to Goldband Recordsin 1960. He cut his best work during the late '60s for Arhoolie Records, accompanying himself on both guitar and racked harmonica as he weaved extremely personal tales of his rough life in Houston. A few European tours ensued, but they didn't really lead to much. Toward the end of his life, he toiled in a chicken processing plant to make ends meet. Bonner died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1978.