Do One Kind Favor for Little Joe Washington

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Photo courtesy of Ray Redding/TexasRedd
Little Joe Washington tears it up at the 2008 Houston International Festival.
I'm sad and grateful with tears for Marion Washington, better known by his nickname "Little Joe." I am grieving more deeply than I would have guessed for what was obviously inevitable, given his 75 years and his frail and failing health in recent months.

If you want to understand where this talented musician was coming from -- sonically and otherwise -- listen to some early Johnny "Guitar" Watson, another late Third Ward phenom. Check out that guitar tone, the raspy vocals.

Our Little Joe was original and unique; yes, he was, but he -- just like his mentor Joe "Guitar" Hughes -- was profoundly influenced by Watson. Little Joe was the last link in that lineage, the final articulation of a combination of sounds we will not hear again live on local (or other) stages.


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Little Joe Washington: The Stories Never End

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Photos courtesy of Ray Redding/TexasRedd Photography
Little Joe Washington at KPFT's Anniversary Party, April 2013
Houston is a little less of an action town today after Wednesday's passing of Little Joe Washington, the mighty-mite of the local blues scene. Washington's death is believed to be due to diabetic complications; he was 75.

I could prattle on here with the nuts and bolts of an overview of Joe's life: his birth on Velasco Street in Third Ward, his roots in the local scene here backing up guys like Albert Collins and Joe "Guitar" Hughes back in the day, his crazy days in the bars of El Paso and Juarez with pal Long John Hunter, his salad days in Los Angeles recording for Syd Nathan and Specialty Records, or his long slide into addiction and homelessness.

But screw it, I have better memories than that.


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Houston Remembers Little Joe Washington

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Photo by Marco Torres
Little Joe Washington made the rounds...he even stopped by our place once in a while.
Whenever someone important like Little Joe Washington dies, an easy way to gauge just how much impact they had on their community is to see what people were saying about them right before they passed. Enter social media.

In Washington's case, it was a site called Funky Blues Radio, an Internet station that uses its Twitter feed as a log to track songs played, and apparently went on a bit of a Little Joe kick Tuesday. After he passed, people far and wide paid their respects -- but not surprisingly, an overwhelming amount of them were musicians.


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Houston's Historic Starday Records: The Earliest Singles

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Handbook of Texas Online/Texas Historical Foundation
Houston businessman Harold "Pappy" Daily's sons Don and Bud founded Cactus Records in 1975.
In 1952, Houston jukebox operator and record distributor Harold "Pappy" Daily and Jack Starnes, Lefty Frizzell's manager, formed their own record label. A combination of both men's names, the tiny Starday actually began recording operations in Starnes' house in Beaumont and released its first 45, Mary Jo Chelette's "Gee It's Tough To Be 13" b/w "Cat Fishing," in early 1953.

Over the next five years, Starday went from a bedroom operation to one of the most important regional labels in the country. Along the way, it would serve as a regional springboard for the popular new craze known as rockabilly as well as a label noted for its roster of important regional artists and eventual national country stars.

Daily and Starnes released 16 singles in their first year of operation, and seem to have skipped over No. 8 and No. 13, as no information is available on those series numbers. Several of these were by the same artists, as it was not unheard of to release several singles per year to feed the bulldog that is mainstream radio. While only one of the tunes from the first year caused much of a ripple outside the Gulf Coast area, they do give a fascinating representation of the sounds that certainly filled local joints and radio stations, and also offer a measure of how much talent there was in the local market.


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The 25 Best Songs About Houston

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Ron Riering via Flickr
Lots of songs down here...
Bobby Bare, "I Can Almost See Houston From Here"
One of the great homesick songs, Bobby Bare infuses this one with downtrodden ennui as he pines for the warmness of his old hometown. Usually veteran Houstonians are forced to deal with some newbie from Portland telling us all the things that are wrong with the Bayou City, so this one is a refreshing twist; Bare pines to get back to his old hometown and leave the Denver cold behind. It also contains the drop-dead perfect honky-tonk realization: "Funny how much better I can see without my pride." WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH

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10 Houston Acts to See Before You Can't

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Photo by Mark Britain
Little Joe Washington
The passing of Texas Johnny Brown last year hit me and a bunch of people pretty hard, so the September 12 death of Crusaders pianist Joe Sample was another slap in the face that many of Houston's musical heroes are closer to the end than the beginning. The latest bad news is that bluesmen I.J. Gosey and Little Joe Washington, as well as monumental drummer, educator and community leader Bubbha Thomas, have been in poor health, although Little Joe's prognosis is looking pretty good if he maintains his dialysis schedule.

All of this brought on some surveying of the local landscape and wondering how much longer some of our oldest artists have, and in turn the following list of artists that you need to get out and see while you still can. Nothing morbid here, just the cold, hard facts of time marching on. As Houston's Mike Stinson sings in one of his new songs, "Time is a relentless marching whore." Believe me, I'm on the front lines.


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UPDATED: Liberty Hall Founder Michael Condray Recuperating After Brain Surgery

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Photo courtesy of Bob Novotney
Michael Condray (far left in white t-shirt) and the staff of Family Hand
UPDATE (April 11, 2:15 p.m.): According to Lonnie Brantley, Condray will be released from ICU this afternoon.

I last saw Michael Condray five years ago at his home outside Porter. I was working on a story about his legendary Houston venue, Liberty Hall, where Bruce Springsteen found his first success in Texas and where a budding guitarist named Billy Gibbons would occasionally work out. Condray loaned us some significant photos for that article.

One of the quiet giants of Houston's music scene in the late '60s and '70s, Condray is in Hermann Memorial Hospital following an emergency brain surgery to relieve pressure Wednesday night, according to an email from his friend Lonnie Brantley.

Brantley added that Condray is suffering from both brain and lung cancer, and is in dire condition. Informal vigils are planned for this weekend.


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Field Notes on Houston Music, 1830s-1920s

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Terrific flights over ponderous elephants, poster for Forepaugh & Sells Brothers, ca. 1899
Around Tin Pan Alley-era Houston, sheet music was exchanged for the most part among music fans and aficionados, versus the then-fragile but burgeoning cylinder records (phonographs). Sadly, the true sound of musicians who improvised has been lost, but from street musicians to the thoroughly classical, here's the rest of what I heard.

The first dramatic theater performance in Texas took place in Houston on June 11, 1838. Back in that day, these performances were generally most popular.

One of Houston's first stars was Madame Thielman, née Louise Ehlers, a German opera singer and universal favorite. Houston newspapers showered her with compliments, and she toured Houston and the world in the mid-to-late 1830s.


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The Rice Hotel Speakeasy: Houston Music During Prohibition

Note: This is Part 2 in a series that timelines through bits of the first century of Houston's nightlife until about the start of what was found to be Houston's oldest running bar.

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Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
Rice Hotel dining room
The Rice Hotel (now the Post Rice Lofts) is located where the first capital of the Republic of Texas once stood. The Rice Roof at the Rice Hotel was one of Houston's top dance clubs among local elite and whatnot for some time.

By the time Prohibition came about in the early 1920s, the Rice Roof was where much of Texas' elite supposedly kept their private stocks of alcohol in individual cabinets. The Rice Hotel Dining Room Orchestra played here as well as several jazz "territory bands." One such group was Peck's Bad Boys, an influential local group led by Houstonian John "Peck" Kelley. They never recorded, though they were said to be largely popular while remaining generally ahead of their time. They possibly played at the Rice Roof and at college nights at the Lamar Spanish Dining Room, too.

Prohibition-era nightclubbing in Houston was said to happen in speakeasies made out of houses located in the Neartown area along present-day Westheimer, better known today as Montrose.


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Gunfights and Ragtime: The Houston Music Scene of 100 Years Ago

Note: This is a two-part series that timelines through bits of the first century of Houston's nightlife until about the start of what was found to be Houston's oldest running bar.

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Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
City Hall and Market House, 1904
For the first century since Houston's birth in 1837, happenings of music and revelry were advertised word-of-mouth. Music journalism generally consisted of classical reviews, and most of those who could chat about those times have passed, making it harder to find what's left today.

What's left are library reserves of research volumes alongside torn pictures and captions tucked and scattered throughout a small variety of nice, browned scrapbooks. Looking through dozens of those, this is what we found.


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