HOW WAS THE HOUSTON BLUES SOCIETY STARTED?
How was the Houston Blues Society started? And why I am taking time out from my music and family life to clarify HBS's modest origins? Well, the truth is there are all sorts of silly stories and fibs out there that myself and a few others who are no longer with us might consider a disservice to the organization itself given it began as a historical preservation society to bring attention to Houston's underrepresented contribution to blues music. The myths and untruths also misdirect reality and neglect the people who in fact sacrificed taking time, effort and in some cases hard earned money to get HBS off the ground. We did this before the internet so it was a lot of hard grunt work.
As a blues musician and a person who has dedicated my whole life to playing this music, I never really took to BS or anything which wasn't genuine or authentic. The pretense surrounding the music industry always turned me off because I wanted what I did to be real. I always felt a blues musician needed to walk through the vortex of authenticity by searching out the real cats. I was inspired to come to a big city to play blues just like my harmonica heroes Charlie Musslewhite, Paul Butterfield and Paul Oscher - white guys who went to the Chicago clubs searching for opportunities to play deep blues I did that by performing and recording with the likes of Grady Gaines, Joe Hughes, Johnny Copeland, Uncle John Turner and literally many others. So starting from the top, if you cared about blues history and integrity, you would want the real honest to goodness story on how HBS got off the ground. I don't see how a genuine blues lover could accept anything less.
First, prior to HBS's beginnings, there was a lot going on in the 1980s that led to its creation. It wasn't done in a vacuum. It wasn't one person's vision. It wasn't in any way an original idea. And I promise no one in Houston knew exactly what the 100 plus blues societies that sprung up the 80s were doing except musicians who travelled.
In or around 1990, former Johnny Winter drummer Uncle John Turner dba'd the name Houston Blues Society. Unk was a smart man who knew blues history better than most and he lived his whole life as a working professional musician. But he wasn't part of the three people who started the process of the current organization. All he did was dba the name because he travelled as drummer for Mike Morgan and Crawl out of Dallas and also with former Houston guitar slinger Alan Haynes among others so he worked the industry where blues societies hired bands to perform, publishing newsletters promoting the artists and put them up for the night while they performed. Some blues societies had their own blues festivals but almost all hired bands and promoted them. Former KPFT Sunday morning dee jay Ertell Jackson had been trying to start his Texas Blues Association but it never got anywhere. We did try to include him but he never participated so I don't know much about what he wanted to do.
The same goes for Johnny Clyde Copeland, Joe Guitar Hughes and Jimmy T99 Nelson. I worked for Joe who was best friends with Johnny and they were highly aware blues societies were a huge and growing driver in the industry around 1992. T99 Nelson was regularly sponsored by the Columbus Blues Alliance because he was close friends with Christine Kitrell, a blues vocalist who recorded with Federal he toured with in the 50s with Johnny Ace. She settled in Columbus later in life but she and Jimmy stayed in touch. When I was researching how to put a blues society together, Jimmy personally gave me a few Columbus Blues Alliance newsletters, which were used as a model to create our own.
From the time I broke into the Houston blues scene in 1983, I was deeply embedded in it's music and culture. My soul purpose to go to a big city was to play blues with the "old black guys". And fortunately, I did just that. I would sacrifice anything to reach my goals and I promise I never had money in the early days. I was lucky to even have a car to drive. But I could always buy records and harmonicas it seemed.
In 1991, after playing around town with blues and jazz guitarist Kinney Abair and Louisiana bluesman Jimmy Dotson for a few years from 1989-1991, I got hired by true Texas blues Joe Guitar Hughes legend to play harmonica as his regular sideman. I started dating aspiring filmmaker Heather Korb around that time and she was in the process of raising money by hook or crook to make a short film on Joe Hughes, Johnny Copeland, Gatemouth Brown and Albert Collins called 3rd Ward Blues. She and I went to a nightclub in Houston Southpark area called Evening Shadows where Joe was performing. I sat in that night and Joe really loved my playing and started hiring me for jobs. We worked often in all kinds of clubs, festivals, ice houses and private events. Joe was arguably the top bluesman in Houston at that time, an energetic major league guitarist and he had loads of material to hold the attention of patrons. To me I had the best gig in town. We travelled to Europe, all over Texas and occasionally to places like Denver. At Christmas time in 1992, his best friend Johnny Copeland wanted to come home for the holidays to spend time with relatives and old friends so Joe and Johnny set up a regional mini tour with Joe's working band to back back up Johnny. Former Houston pianist Floyd Phillips lived in Harlem, NY and regularly toured with Johnny so he made the drive to Texas with him in Johnny's van.
These were the most fertile times for me up to that point in my career and traveling with two greats like that performing for mostly black audiences was the best experience I could imagine. It was beyond my wildest dreams. While driving to shows, Johnny and Joe would talk about Houston needed a blues society. They felt it was going overdue and both got hired by blues societies - Johnny did often. Johnny said Houston had the Juneteenth Blues Festival and it was wonderful but it was an African American Celebration. As an artist trying to make a living he thought Houston needed a blues festival that was focused on what the current industry was about, which was an all inclusive blues festival for everybody. He was a professional so you need to understand his perspective and still to this day, I feel he was right. Joe talked about Houston having a blues society that would exchange Houston artists for artists in other cities providing work and creating a larger audience and work for Houston players. In providing this background information, you need to realize how inspired I was at this time. At the ned of this tour, Johnny invited me to go to Memphis to record with him for his Catch Up With The Blues record. That record featured Gatemouth Brown, Joe Hughes, and Lonnie Brooks - all gulf coast legends.
After the tour, I started talking to my girlfriend Heather Korb and Kathleen "The BluesBroad" Kern, who had a popular blues program on KPFT radio every Sunday morning. Heather was already making a film and Kathleen considered herself a blues historian of sorts. I was known for promoting and organizing blues shows and an occasional benefit. I had a little degree in communications so along with my bully pulpit as the best sideman gig in town, I could organize to some degree and write a mean press release.
Now, mind you there had been talk about starting some sort of blues society in Houston for a few years now and Houston's blues scene was getting press in books and the local papers. Joe, Clarence Holliman and Grady were making records on the Black Top Records imprint. The year prior Joe Hughes organized a huge benefit at the Silver Eagle on Reed Road to help Pete Mayes get a prosthetic after getting foot amputated from diabetes. It must have drew 400 people and and the entire blues community white and black performed. In fact I honestly say, that night showed me what we could do in bringing the scene together.
Heather, Kathleen and I started having lunch together after Kathleen's radio show on Sundays at the A La Mexican restaurant in Montrose for several Sundays in a row. All of us were blues history buffs. Kathleen wanted to do a blues in schools program like harmonica player Billy Branch was doing in Chicago that was getting rave reviews in Living Blues Magazine. I'm not sure I every can honestly say she had a blues society in mind at that point but she was definitely all in if it included a Blues in Schools. We certainly needed her. I always felt she could be the front person for the organization. I never set out to be president or anything like that. I was a young worker bee who was just about promoting the scene I was part of.
On Sunday afternoons, I played with Joe in Acres Homes at his cousin's ice house Ray's Lounge. On Monday, we hosted a blues jam at Evening Shadows and on Tuesday the same club owner Ms Johnson hired us to play Tuesday at Club Matinee (Not the legendary venue from the 50s) right down the street just off 288 on Old Spanish Trail. I had organized a benefit there a few months earlier and it was a success but mostly we were struggling to get crowds and musicians after doing a gig down the street the night before. I sure didn't want to lose the gig I made 60 bucks on a Tuesday night (50 for the gig and Joe gave me ten extra for the use of my PA). Truly almost in desperation, I decided we could promote a Houston Blues Society kick off night on Tuesday February 23th. Yes, it was all enlightened self interest. Promoting it was hard work as was all the figuring out how to start a blues society, but I was naive yet determined to do this.
I wrote a hand written charter of sorts based on the ideas I got from T99 Nelson Joe and Johnny, Kathleen and Heather along with research I did about what other blues societies were doing. What was unique about us was we were making it specifically about Houston because we weren't Lincoln Nebraska. Our concept was that of a historical preservation society as well as promoting our contemporary scene. But by and large I was winging it.
So there we were. It was official. We were going to start a blues society. I put together this group of prestigious individuals who said they would show up. Some did and some didn't but I had their names on the publicity none the less. I took the application from the Milt Larkin Jazz Society and use white out to cover up their logo and changed a few things. Guitarist and friend Allison Fisher helped me with that. Someone recommended music fan Linda Nealy, who I didn't know well at all at the time to help with typing and printing. My close friend who had always done art work for my promotions and gigs, Marty Migliaretti created a logo based on the Antones' Records logo with Little Walter on the coin except he used Lightnin' Hopkins to represent Houston. I took his design to Buffalo Printing in the Heights and they made 50 black tee shirts for me for 300 dollars. For 20 bucks we could sell a membership that included a tee shirt you got on the first night and a charter membership card that we mailed. We sold all the Tee shirts and got 60 memberships the first night. I got my 300 dollars back and we raised 1200 dollars. I asked Hamilton Loomis' father Mike to handle the money and he opened a bank account at Nations Bank the following morning under the Houston Blues Society name. The following morning Jimmy Dotson, the Moe Hansum Blues band, Kathleen and myself did our very first blues in schools - a one off event at a middle school in Fort Bend County where Kathleen was living at the time. After that memberships started coming in the mail regularly. We put applications in music stores and clubs around town and frankly, it all the sudden became and easy sell. Kathleen was pushing it on her radio show, I was plugging at gigs with Joe and the newspapers were all covering the organization. I set it up so if you wanted to be a charter member, you had to sign up before June 19th that year. That is why HBS has elections on or around June 19th to this day written in the bylaws.
Yes, we started a blues society but this should be a lesson on how not to start one. We had a name, tee shirts, bank account with seed money and one blues in schools under our belt. But we didn't have our non profit status which I knew we needed to get sponsors and funding. I asked for volunteer help on the applications so folks filled out the application. I had planned on having TALA (Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts) do the legal work for us but an attorney named Lou Linden had signed up and said on his application he was willing to help with legal work. Kathleen Kern was friends with Charlie White who was active with the volunteer political organizations offered to assist with bylaws so I took his number from the application and gave him a call. He was great help but he wasn't there at all at the beginning. I never met him in my life. He really helped with board ideas, election processes and bylaws stuff that he knew from his his political activism. I knew neither of these men until after we got going. He worked with Lou Linden to get out bylaws and articles of incorporation. There was a lot of day to day hands on work being done. Some of it was very hard work and laborious. I don't think that is something people understand. People like Linda Nealy, Myself, Joe Kotarba, Jerry Tomlinson and Marty Migliaretti were right in the middle of all that. I know it was full time job for me for 3 years. And lets be real here - without determination and pure guile, HBS would have never happened.
Weekly, I would organize little informal committee meetings with 6 or 8 of us at places like Hoi Poloi on 6th street walking distance from my apartment and a few other places convenient for me because I really didn't have much money to drive around town. We evolved into having informal little blues society events at my gig with Joe Hughes on Monday nights at Evening Shadows, where we eventually held our first election that June. In other words until we actually had elections, any meeting was one I organized. Nothing happened unless I was leading it. After elections we stopped doing activities involving my gigs with Joe Hughes. We set out to make a community organization
Later that month we published our first newsletter featuring T-99 Nelson on the cover printing 1000 and passed them out all over the city in clubs, music and record stores. If you were a charter member, we mailed them to your house. We held our first event following the official elections at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar featuring T99 Nelson, Pete Mayes, Joe Hughes and Texas Johnny Brown. 15 year old guitarist who now plays with Texas legend Steve Earle Chris Masterson opened the show. We actually paid everybody, made money and sold more memberships. We were off to the races!
So I am being as honest I can. I was always the driver of HBS from the very beginning. I never set out to be any president but I ended up serving three years after running the deal for 6 months before any type of election. I had always promoted Kathleen Kern to be president from jump street because I kinda thought she would be a good figurehead. But I didn't really know her situation very well and everybody felt I needed to do it. We were a rubber stamped first board because we were doing all the work. We started out as a working ad hoc informal committee that eventually became a board of directors. I became president because I was pushing the whole deal into existence. All the original board members were people I knew and solicited their involvement or they were people I called based on their interest in helping out from their membership application.
I don't like to show any disrespect for anyone publicly, but I felt a deep need to set the record straight on HBS's origins. My hope is to laud everyone's contributions because it was free work and that alone should be respected. I don't go around calling people liars but that is the sort of talk that gets thrown my way. Some of the stories I hear and read about are hurtful and dishonest or perhaps just wishful thinking. And none of it adds up. It's nothing but generalities and half truths. Heather Korb gets no recognition or mention whatsoever. Without her, I doubt I would have had the confidence to push it all through. Kathleen's had a huge impact with her feeling about blues education and passing the music on to school children. She did a lot plugging it on her radio show. But I honestly don't remember her desire to do anything but blues in schools. That was specifically her deal. As we moved forward Linda Nealy made it all happen with her computer work and she was there helping me do things I didn't have the ability or means to do with computer and word processing work. She was there before the Club Matinee event. Allison Fisher helped me too. My close friend Marty Migliaretti gave us a gorgeous logo and an image we could market. I was inspired completely by Joe Hughes and Johnny Copeland's desire. No one else. You could almost say I was their front man for their cause. I knew of Uncle John Turner's DBA and consider him a huge mentor and someone I owe my start on the Houston blues scene to. I loved Unk! But he was never involved. Its just a coincidence he dba'd the name! Still, he had the name before anyone else and he knew what a blues society was all about. The gossip I read and hear about are barely recollections with no details by people who weren't remotely embedded in the Houston blues scene at the time use nothing but a bunch of flowery talk. It was hard work for charity. It took elbow grease and rose from the guts of the blues scene here in Houston. It was about SACRIFICE!
Anyway this is a true story. Anyone who claims otherwise has deep seated issues as far as I'm concerned. I'll work to clean this page up to make it read better and offer more details and links to individuals. I just don't appreciate anyone claiming they were the chairman of the board on their Linkedin page or making bold assertions it was one person's vision because it's insulting. If you weren't there, you don't know. I was there and I know. If you have a problem with that, come to me and I will tell you what I really think. I have facts and details. I wish I could ignore it all but I cant. I put my whole life into this music. Once again, Joe Hughes and Johnny Copeland inspired me to get HBS off the ground. There were wonderful contributors everywhere just like the organization still has today. But everyone was following my lead. You could easily say, I was the front guy for their agenda. I had definite plans to work with TALA (TEXAS Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts) to help with the legal stuff once we raised enough money but it was more convenient to get help from those who signed up for a membership.
So why do I care about all this? Because people are making up fibs with my name involved and the silliness ignores people those who were there from the beginning. I'm not out there to do harm or make stuff up. Please everyone, consider integrity above anything else. And lets talk about about Houston's real blues history.
I'll write on this more as time goes on. I hope to share my thoughts on Jerry Lightfoot impact on myself and the Houston blues scene because much of his work inspired HBS. We just bottled it and marketed it. Also author Alan Govenar was writing and making documentaries about Houston blues in the 80s. I've already mentioned Heather Korb and Uncle John Turner but also music critics Rick Mitchell and Marty Racine from the Houston Chronicle were doing superb work reporting on Houston's under represented blues scene.