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.

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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.

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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.

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Melissa E Noble
Melissa E Noble

This conjures up my memory on Xmas day I would drive out to Pete Mayes Double Bayou oldest juke joint in Texas in the woods in 4pm Pete started the gathering and Joe Hughes would come and play.. It was a faboulous moment in time to experience. I feel very lucky to have been able to have over a few years. And still have the photos in real film. The ceiling was so low I could touch it in places. My dance partner's name was PeeWee, a very tall cowboy frome the area ..You could not have made a movie scene better than this.


A few omissions in an otherwise dense and much welcomed blog feature. Add to Houston's premiere Blues guitarists Clarence Gatemouth Brown (also a neighbor of Joe's in the Third Ward) and the truly unsung Clarence Holiman. And lest we forget Hughes' not-just-a-side-man local keyboard legend and bandmate for years Earl Gilliam, who also chose not to leave Houston. I wasn't around then but their aggressive and exciting on-stage musical bantering, trading 4's, 12's what have you.are legendary. Sure wish I had been seen that! Thanks for the great series!


Thanks for not forgetting our (blues) heroes, Joe was also a friend, when I met him in the mid 1980's and after that several times 'till the late 1990's, a real gentleman!

Brittanie Shey
Brittanie Shey

I really loved this series and am sad to see it end.

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