Soul City: Unsung Blues Legend Joe "Guitar" Hughes
Black History Month is always a great time to recall some of Houston's greatest musical innovators and leaders. This is our final installment.
Great Houston blues guitarists makes a long and storied list indeed, arguably headed up by Albert Collins, Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, "Texas" Johnny Brown and Sherman Robertson. However, according to local music historian Dr. Roger Wood, Joe "Guitar" Hughes was one of the preeminent yet least-known talents in any such grouping.
Born in Third Ward, Hughes grew up near the corner of Beulah and Velasco, in close proximity to Albert Collins and Little Joe Washington. Hughes was one of the few bluesmen who never left town, living in the Bayou City his entire life with his schoolteacher wife "Mae" Hughes. Along with other relatively unknown greats like I.J. Gosey, Pete Mayes and Washington, Hughes was, for the most part, content to play close to home.
His professional career began at 16 with a vocal group called The Dukes. When the group ran out of steam, Hughes changed the name to The Dukes of Rhythm and moved the format to straight-ahead electric blues. Second guitar in the band was Hughes' protégé, Johnny Clyde Copeland, who would go on to a huge career once he departed Houston for New York City.
By 1958, The Dukes of Rhythm were popular enough to become the house band at the legendary Houston blues mecca, Shady's Playhouse on Simmons Street near the intersection of Sampson. The gig put them on the stage with the biggest blues stars of the day like T-Bone Walker and Big Mama Thornton.
When Copeland left the band in 1963, Hughes took a job with Little Richard's former band, The Upsetters, after the rock and roll pioneer (temporarily) renounced secular music. Working with The Upsetters took Hughes on the road for the first time, usually as part of package tours with the largest regional blues and soul acts of the time.
After a couple of years with The Upsetters, Hughes moved to Bobby "Blue" Bland's band, then later on to support rising star Al "TNT" Braggs. Tired of the road and time away from his family, Hughes left Braggs in the early '70s and, while he didn't give up on performing, fell into obscurity among the numerous quality players working the Houston club circuit.
Hughes's career was revived in 1985 when his former protégé Copeland asked Hughes to join him on a European tour. Hughes's few records had actually found a larger audience in Europe than in the U.S., and Hughes was received ecstatically on the Copeland tour, where he was billed a second headliner. Subsequently, Hughes went on to tour Europe regularly until very late in his life.