Texas music is as diverse as its people. Nineteenth-century immigrants to Texas from the American South, from Mexico, and Europe, shaped a variety of sounds unmatched anywhere else in the United States. Southern blues and ragtime, Mexican orquesta, the waltzes and polkas of Central Europe, all took root, thrived, and were transformed into the rich musical legacy of the state. In this first segment of a new series on the legends of Texas music, the WWW Ranch, in cooperation with the Texas Music Museum, profiles eight Lone Star musicians, all influential in creating the unique sounds of Texas music.
THE EARLY YEARS: 1900-1930
The series begins at the turn of the century, when the first Texans emerged as songwriters on the national stage, recorded on player pianos, and stood as performers in front of primitive recording horns. Texarkana’s Scott Joplin helped create the ragtime style that ruled popular music in the early years of this century. In the twenties, a few Texans became best-selling, trend-setting recording artists. Vernon Dalhart and Eck Robertson were among the creators of country music, recording years before the more famous Carter family. Black blues singers Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sippie Wallace recorded some of the earliest “race” records and established an influential Texas blues tradition. In the twenties and thirties Narciso Martinez and Lydia Mendoza created a distinctively Tejano sound that lives on today. And finally, Bob Wills emerged as the king of Western swing. By the early thirties, nearly all of the dinstinctively Texas genres we know today, from Tejano conjunto to Western swing, were well established.
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Birthplace: Linden, TX
Influenced: Irving Berlin, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Taj Mahal
Other Sites: The Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation
Country fiddlers have always been plentiful in Texas, but the acknowledged early master was Amarillo’s Eck Robertson, who had the self-confidence to persuade a hard-nosed New York Victor Records exec to record him in 1922. His versions of the classic “Sallie Goodin,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and “Arkansas Traveler” were not only the first Country tunes recorded, but they also set the standard for decades to come.
Born in Delaney, Arkansas, in 1887, Alexander Campbell Robertson came to Amarillo, Texas, with his parents at the age of three. The persistent story that he skinned a family cat to make his first fiddle is probably apocryphal, but he did somehow manage to get expert on the guitar, banjo, and fiddle by the time he left home at the age of 16 to tour with a medicine show in Indian Territory before Oklahoma became a state. With the advent of silent films Robertson played at theaters dressed in Western getup and became known as the Cowboy Fiddler. In June, 1922, after an engagement at an Old Confederate Soldiers reunion in Virginia, Robertson persuaded fellow fiddler and former Confederate soldier Henry Gilliland, 76, to drive to New York City and record, although neither had been invited. Dressed in their reunion finery, Robertson as a cowboy and Gilliland as a soldier in gray, they persuaded the studio to record them practically on the spot.
When Victor released the recording of “Sallie Goodin” and “Arkansas Traveler” in September, 1922, it represented the first commercial Country recording ever. The following spring Robertson promoted his recording on WBAP in Fort Worth, which was also a first. Soon “hillbilly” bands were playing on radio stations from Chicago to Nashville.
Robertson’s remoteness from the recording capitals of the industry prevented him from making any further recordings until 1929, by which time the industry was reeling from the stock market crash. Although his local fame was great—he bested the young Bob Wills in many an Old Fiddlers contest—Robertson never built a national career on his “firsts.” His moment of glory in his waning years was an appearance in 1964 at UCLA. He died in 1975 in Borger, Texas. by Chester Rosson (April 1997)
Vernon Dalhart (1883-1948
Genre: Country Western
Influenced: all later country singers, Carl Sprague, Gene Autry
Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 recording for Victor of “The Prisoner’s Song” showed the young recording industry that Country music could be a commercial success beyond anything then imagined, eventually selling 25 million copies during the singer’s lifetime.
Born Marion Try Slaughter II on April 6, 1883, Vernon Dalhart took his country-western pseudonym from the towns of Vernon in north Texas and Dalhart in the Panhandle. Unlike many wannabes, Dalhart, who is now recognized as “the first singing cowboy,” was actually raised on the family ranch in Marion County. In the late 1890s, after his father was stabbed to death by a drunken brother-in-law, Dalhart worked summers as a cowboy in the Texas Panhandle, where he picked up many of the campfire songs and ballads that later appeared on his recordings.
Dalhart began singing publicly at the age of 12, but his road to country music was circuitous. Just before the turn of the century he and his mother moved from Jefferson to cosmopolitan Dallas, where his singing talent led him to the Dallas Conservatory of Music. Soon he was a paid soloist at the First Baptist Church. His music teachers, having imparted all the training they could, sent him off to New York City to pursue more professional instruction in 1910. Dalhart sang at churches and funeral homes for extra cash, as he pursued a career in opera. Beginning in 1912, he achieved his goal, gaining a bit part in Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West and later a leading role in Madame Butterfly.
But the new medium of the Edison cylinder discs also intrigued him, and in 1916 he made his first recording for Columbia, which led to an audition with Thomas A. Edison himself. For Edison Diamond Disc and later, for Victor, Dalhart recorded light classical and many other songs under dozens of pseudonyms and in various ethnic styles, including songs in Southern negro dialect.
But sales were slowing by 1924 when he decided to try out some “hillbilly” songs under the new pseudonym of Vernon Dalhart. His Victor recording of “The Prisoner’s Song,” a “B-side” recording paired with “The Wreck of the Old ‘97,” turned out to be his biggest hit, and Country music’s first million seller. Between 1924 and 1928 Vernon Dalhart was America’s best-selling recording artist, singing such classic songs as “Golden Slippers,” “My Blue Ridge Mountain Home,” and the defininitive national best seller of 1927, “Home on the Range.”
His success inspired others to try country and cowboy music, including another Texan, Carl T. Sprague, who in 1925 recorded ten songs for Victor. His version of “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” a song about the vicissitudes of working a herd of longhorns, sold some 90,000 copies (but see note below). Sprague earned the title “The Original Singing Cowboy,” and is credited with the igniting a national interest in cowboy songs.
The onset of the Great Depression brought an end to many budding recording careers, and Sprague faded from public attention until the 1960s. Vernon Dalhart lost much of the fortune he had earned in the stock market collapse of 1929, and record sales plummeted as well. Although Dalhart kept trying, often with clever topical songs, a comparable blockbuster eluded him. Under more than 100 pseudonyms he recorded nearly 1,000 songs before his death from a heart attack in 1948. All but forgotten for decades, Dalhart was honored at last by the Country Music Hall of Fame, which elected him a member in 1981.
Dennis Williams of Bryan, Texas sent us this comment. (8/1/02)
A 1965 RCA Victor Vintage reissue of “Authentic Cowboys and Their Western Folksongs” (LPV 522) includes sales figure of more than 900,000 copies for “When The Work’s All Done This Fall” in the album notes by western music collector and historian, Fred Hoeptner. Also, the figure appears in the following: White, John I. “Git Along, Little Dogies” (Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press, 1975) pp. 85, 191
Both the footnotes in White’s work cite the RCA Victor release of 1965 but I include them because getting that incredible figure past an editor twice in the same book should, and I emphasize should, increase the possibility that the number is accurate. White also uses this figure in the liner notes for Bear Family’s “Carl T. Sprague: Classic Cowboy Songs” (BCD 15456).
Jack Palmer of Battle Creek, Michigan sent us this comment. (10/27/99)
I don’t like to be picky, but I have researched Vernon Dalhart’s life for over 20 years and am writing a biography now. Your article on Dalhart is not bad but there are two serious errors.
1). Dalhart began using the Vernon Dalhart name instead of his real name, Marion Try Slaughter II, in 1911 when he first appeared on stage in “Girl of the Golden West.” It was not adopted for recording purposes, although other pseudonyms were.
2). His recording career was not slowing down at the time he recorded Wreck Of The Old 97 but was actually growing, albeit slowly. The Wreck and The Prisoner’s Song just accelerated his career. by Chester Rosson (April 1997)
Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929)
Birthplace: Coutchman, Texas
Influenced: Huddie Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”), Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, and every other white bluesman
Blind Lemon Jefferson made the earliest recordings of any Texas country blues singer. Between 1925 and 1929, when he died on the streets of Chicago in a snow storm, Jefferson made nearly 80 classic recordings for Paramount Records, each of which was said to have sold at least 100,000 copies, a legacy that influenced every Texas bluesman that followed him and even a young folk singer in the 1960s who called himself Bob Dylan.
Born blind in 1897 near Wortham, Lemon Jefferson’s only possible hope of making a living was as a musician, a course followed by several others, including Texas’s own Blind Willie Johnson. At the age of 15 he began singing and playing guitar on the streets of Wortham and Mexia, scraping together a meager livelihood at church picnics and country dances. By the age of twenty Jefferson had moved to Dallas, singing in the cafes, saloons and brothels of Deep Ellum. His talent was appreciated, and by 1918 he had made enough money to buy a car, hire a chauffeur, and take his act on the road to other big cities of the South and Midwest. In Deep Ellum he teamed up for a while with another great bluesman named Huddie Ledbetter, who was to become famous when he was rediscovered in the fifties as “Leadbelly.” The Red Light districts fostered the creation of such earthy blues classics as “Black Snake Moan” and “Mean Jumper Blues,” but Jefferson was also capable of such deep-felt spirituals as “See That My Grave is Kept Clean,” a tune revived by Bob Dylan on his first album in 1961.
In 1925 several northern record companies saw a market for “race” records and sent scouts into the South to discover new talent. Paramount Records found the 250-pound Jefferson in Dallas and lured him to Chicago, where he turned out song after song, almost all with his original lyrics. Some of his spirituals were also released under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates. In 1929 Jefferson was found frozen in a snowbank, the victim of an apparent heart attack. He is buried in the old Negro cemetary at Wortham, where his grave is marked by a Texas historical monument dedicated in 1967. by Chester Rosson (April 1997)
Sippie Wallace (1898-1986)
Birthplace: Houston, Texas
Influenced: many later female blues singers, including Bonnie Raitt and Marcia Ball
The great Blues singer Sippie Wallace was at the top of the black record industry and a star with a national reputation soon after recording her first songs in 1923. Earthy and sensual, she spoke honestly about love, sex, and its sorrows in such classics as “Woman Be Wise” and “Mighty Tight Woman.” But the death of a brother and her husband led her to fall back on gospel music as a solace. After decades of obscurity, Sippie Wallace came to the public’s attention again in the seventies through the appreciation and help of Bonnie Raitt.
Born Beulah Thomas in 1898 to a deacon of Houston’s Shiloh Baptist Church and his wife, Sippie began her musical career singing gospel and improvising on the church organ. But Sippie also loved the tent shows that came through town, and soon was asked to join in a chorus line. By 1916 she had traveled from Houston to Dallas, was a seasoned performer, and had graduated to singing solo ballads, fronting a band in Deep Ellum.
An older brother, George W. Thomas, was a successful pianist, songwriter, and publisher of new music in New Orleans, so later that year Sippie joined him there. It was the height of ragtime and the beginning of the jazz era, and Sippie perfected her craft performing alongside the future legends—Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and King Oliver. With the help and encouragement of her brother George, she moved to Chicago in 1923 and got an audition with Okeh Records. Her first effort, “Up the Country Blues,” was an instant success, followed by a string of others. In Chicago Sippie was joined by another musical brother, the jazz piano prodigy Hersal Thomas, who accompanied her on recordings before he was 15. Soon he was cutting his own solo recordings, including the well-known “Suitcase Blues.” His death at 16 from food poisoning was the first of a series of personal tragedies which led to Sippie returning for a time to the gospel music of her childhood.
Although Sippie Wallace recorded as a blues singer again in the late forties and went on tour to Europe in the sixties entertaining American servicemen, she rode back to the heights of her earlier acclaim on the crest of Bonnie Raitt’s popularity in the 1970s and 1980s; Raitt had recorded two Sippie Wallace songs on her first album, befriended her, then took the septagenarian on tour. In 1983 Wallace’s last album, entitled Sippie, was nominated for a Grammy. She died on her eighty-seventh birthday in Detroit, Michigan, November 1, 1986. by Chester Rosson (April 1997)
Narciso Martinez (1911-1992)
Birthplace: Reynosa, Tamaulipas
Influenced: all later conjunto performers, Bruno Villareal to Flaco Jimenez
Band Affiliations: duo with Almeida (bajo sexto); accompanist with Carmen y Laura and Lydia Mendoza
Narciso Martinez established a tradition of conjunto that endures to this day, playing a distinctive style of accordion accompanied by the bajo sexto twelve-string guitar. Although his first recordings date to the mid-thirties, his playing influenced scores of other musicians throughout Texas and the Southwest in a career that spanned six decades.
Narciso Martinez, the son of migrant farm laborers, was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in 1911, but his parents moved across the border the same year. The Mexican orquestas of the Valley of his childhood consisted of violin, flute, bass, and guitar, but wandering solo musicians also entertained on the accordion. In 1928 Martinez took up the accordion and began playing at dances to support the family he had just started with his wife, Edwina. About the same time his wanderings brought him into contact with the local German and Czech accordion traditions and Martinez absorbed some of their techniques and specialty dances, such as the schottische and the redowa. In 1935 he acquired a new two-row button accordion and a partner, bajo sexto player Santiago Almeida. He also began to play in a new style, concentrating on the melody and leaving the bass line to the bajo sexto.
The team’s first great success was a record for the Bluebird label, “La Chicharronera,” which has remained a standard of the conjunto repertory. Before World War II Martinez had recorded scores of songs, including “La Parrita” and “Los Coyotes.” After the interruption of the war, Martinez resumed recording in 1946 with Ideal, the first Tejano recording company. He accompanied many of the label’s singers, including Carmen y Laura, sisters who were to become the most popular Tejano singers of their day. He became known as “El Huracan del Valle” (the Hurricane of the Valley), a reference to his swift playing. But his audience of poor Mexican Americans could not support him just through the sale of records, so Martinez also served as a caretaker at the Brownsville Zoo. He toured on the dancehall circuit until the mid-1960s throughout the Southwest and as far away as Chicago before retiring from the road.
In 1976 the documentary film Chulas Fronteras gave him proper credit for his pioneering role, in 1982 he was inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fane, and in 1985 a scholarly history of Conjunto style brought him critical attention. Arhoolie Records’ 1989 rerelease of some of his music elicited a Grammy nomination. In the meantime, Martinez retired from the Brownsville Zoo in 1977, and enjoyed a new and larger audience in semi-retirement until his death in June, 1992. by Chester Rosson (April 1997)
Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007)
Birthplace: Houston, Texas
Influenced: all later Tejano singers, including Selena
In 1928, at the age of 12, Lydia Mendoza made her recording debut in a San Antonio hotel room-studio set up by Okeh Records to record La Familia Mendoza (aka Cuarteto Carta Blanca), a powerhouse of traditional Mexican-American recording artists whose music has been enjoyed throughout the Southwest and deep into Mexico. Lydia’s signature song, “Mal Hombre,” has become an enduring classic on both sides of the border.
Lydia’s mother, Leonora Mendoza, was the musical head of the family. Leonora played guitar and taught the other family members to sing and play violin, mandolin, and percussion. When not entertaining, however, the family had to support itself by working as migrant laborers. The 1928 recordings brought a family windfall of $140, which enabled them to move to Detroit, their home base for several years of entertaining migrant workers and fellow Mexican Americans who had moved north during the Mexican Revolution.
Returning to Texas in the early thirties to play in San Antonio’s Plaza de Zacate, the family again were invited to record in 1934. This time, after the family recorded six songs, Lydia had the chance to record solo, accompanying herself on the guitar. One of the six songs cut was “Mal Hombre,” which became a hit throughout the Spanish-speaking parts of the U.S. As a result of that sucess, between 1934 and 1940 Lydia recorded just under 200 songs for the Bluebird label. Leonora organized a family variety show with Lydia as the featured solo singer and her sisters Juanita and Maria appearing as Las Hermanas Mendoza. La Familia Mendoza toured the Southwest and as far afield as Chicago in the years preceding World War II, but rationing during the war years brought a temporary halt to the family tours.
The touring and recording resumed after the war until the death of Leonora in 1952. During the fifties, Lydia Mendoza recorded for Falcon, Ideal, and Victor, acquiring the nickname “La Alondra de la Frontera,” the Lark of the Border.” Also popular in Mexico, she has sung publicly until quite recently, when illness has prevented her. Lydia Mendoza is truly a living legend of Tejano music. by Chester Rosson (April 1997)
Bob Wills (1905-1975)
Birthplace: Limestone County near Kosse, Texas
Genre: Western Swing
Influenced: Leon Rausch, Leon McAuliffe, Johnny Gimble, commander Cody, Asleep at the Wheel
Band Affiliations: The Light Crust Doughboys, The Texas Playboys
The Texas Playboys, under the leadership of Bob Wills, emerged as the most successful of a groundswell of young musicians who created Western Swing. The new sound was a patchwork of harmonizing elements borrowed from country string bands, jazz combos, German polka bands, blues singers, and ragtime, all pressed into service as a cohesive style of dance music. Before it was called Western Swing, some called it hillbilly jazz or simply country dance music, but it was the unique mix of cultures in Texas that made that sound possible.
Born in 1905 into a family of frontier fiddlers, James Robert Wills spent his early years on a farm in Limestone County, near Kosse. When he was eight, the family moved further west to the Texas plains. The son of an accomplished fiddler, Bob played his first dance at the age of 10. According to his biographer, Dr. Charles Townsend, he was influenced by the black blues singers he heard among his fellow workers in the cotton fields to play “fiddle music with the heat of blues and the swing of jazz.”
In 1929 Wills moved from his hometown of Turkey to Fort Worth, where he joined a traveling medicine show as a blackface minstrel. That work brought him into contact with the first member of his future band, guitarist Herman Arnspiger. The duo, calling themselves the Wills Fiddle Band, played north Texas dances and performed on their own radio show. In 1930 they merged with the brothers Milton and Durwood Brown to form the Aladdin Laddies, a transitional band that led them to station KFJZ in Fort Worth and the general manager of Burrus Mill, W. Lee O’Daniel. O’Daniel renamed the group the Light Crust Doughboys after the program’s sponsor, Light Crust flour, and the program was a success throughout the state, wherever it was heard. Other talented musicians joined the group, including singer and yodeler Leon Huff, steel guitar player Leon McAuliffe, and Bob’s brother Johnnie Lee Wills.
Within a couple of years Wills had moved on and formed a new group that he called the Texas Playboys. Eventually Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys found a home at Tulsa’s KVOO radio station and stayed for nine years, entertaining a vast swatch of the Southwest and gaining a national following through their 1940 recording of “New San Antonio Rose.” Among their classic songs that seem embedded in every Texans’ consciousness are “Faded Love,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” and “Panhandle Rag.” The last recording session for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1973 produced the Grammy award-winning For the Last Time: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the crowning achievement of Wills’s long career. He died in 1975 and is buried in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Bob Wills’ band members dispersed over the years, creating their own bands in the Western Swing mode. Among the greatest were Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies, which had great success before Brown’s death in 1936, and the enduring legacies of band leaders Leon McAuliffe and Leon Rausch, and the long career of fiddler Johnny Gimble. by Chester Rosson (April 1997)
THE SWING ERA: 1930-1945
At the start of the thirties Texas singers were still at the height of the blues craze, with Houston’s Victoria Spivey being a prime example, and Texas was developing its own barrelhouse piano style, with Alex Moore and others paralleling the developments in Kansas City and New York. But during the thirties enormous changes were taking place in the national music scene. Jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman were leading a transformation in popular music, and many Texas musicians were drawn to contribute their talents. Among the hundreds who made lasting contributions were Charlie Christian, who established the guitar as a valid solo instrument for jazz improvisation, and Jack Teagarden, perhaps the most innovative trombonist of his generation. Swing became the most popular form of music, and jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, born in Austin, was one of the greats in that genre as well.
At the same time Texans were at the forefront of Country music, furnishing singing cowboys Gene Autry and Tex Ritter to the movies and pointing the way to further developments, Al Dexterwas introducing the world to the honky-tonk blues. In the early thirties bandleader Milton Brown was refining the sound of Western swing, a memorable blend of country and jazz that still has proponents today. In 1939 the quirky talents of Red River Dave McEneryintroduced Country music to television at the 1939 World’s Fair. But beyond these national trends, traditional ethnic music thrived in Texas as well, with accordionist Santiago Jimenez, Sr., helping to solidify the conjunto style that has become such a popular factor in todays international music scene.
Victoria Spivey (1906-1976)
Influenced: Bob Dylan, Alberta Hunter, the blues revival of the 1960s
The grandly named Victoria Regina Spivey was a true queen of the blues in the early heyday of blues recordings, and she survived to become a legendary record producer in the 1960s. Both a composer and a singer, Spivey’s earthy, biting style attracted many young admirers of the classic blues in the early sixties, including the young Bob Dylan, who accompanied her in some late recordings. As the founder of her own recording company, she brought out of retirement another great blues singer, Roberta Hunter.
Victoria Spivey grew up in Houston in a family that produced several noted musicians, all trained in her father’s string band. Hardly twelve years old, she began playing piano with local bands in Houston before moving on to Dallas. From 1918 into the early twenties Spivey performed with several Dallas bands and singers, including Lazy Daddy’s Fillmore Blues Band and Blind Lemon Jefferson. By 1926 she had traveled to St. Louis, where she recorded her first composition on the Okeh label, the legendary “Black Snake Blues.” By this time, her sisters Addie (Sweet Peas) and Elton Island (the Za Zu Girl) were performing with her in a revue that played in vaudeville theaters from Texas to Michigan.
An appearance in the 1929 King Vidor black musical film Hallelujah increased her national popularity, and she eventually recorded and performed with Louis Armstong, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, and many other great blues artists of the era. Spivey recorded many songs, mostly her own compositions, until 1937, when changing tastes were bringing to a close the great era of classic blues recordings. Although she continued to perform in vaudeville-style shows throughout the forties, by 1952 she had largely retired.
In 1960 she made a comeback, writing new material that dealt with such contemporary issues as “drugs, violence, and deviant sex,” according to one commentator. In 1962 she founded the Spivey label and began recording several of the classic blues singers, including the wonderful Alberta Hunter. Although she accompanied herself on the piano, she also experimented with a ukulele, and Bob Dylan is featured as an accompanist on her first release on the Spivey label. She also contributed to the history of jazz by writing articles to various blues and jazz publications. Spivey performed frequently in New York City in the seventies until shortly before her death in 1976. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Whistlin’ Alex Moore (1899-1989)
Genre: Barrelhouse piano
Influenced: Many Texas barrelhouse and blues pianists
Although in 1929 Alex Moore was one of the first of the Texas barrelhouse piano artists to record and continue to play throughout the thirties, forties, and fifties, his stature as a classic barrelhouse performer went largely unacknowledged until the 1960s, when Chris Strachwitz began recording his work for the Arhoolie label. This led to a series of national and international engagements that firmly established Moore’s lasting contribution to Texas music.
Growing up in Freedmen’s Town in Dallas during the early part of the century, Alex Moore heard the ragtime and developing barrelhouse piano style played in the area’s many dives and whorehouses that nurtured so many other early black blues artists. After his father died, Alex dropped out of school during sixth grade to help support the family by doing various odd jobs. While working as a delivery boy he became interested in learning the piano, and picked up what instruction he could at stops along the way. During the 1920s he developed his own idiosyncratic style, borrowing from the blues, ragtime, boogie, and stride techniques made famous through recordings. He picked up the name “Whistlin’ Alex” for the self-encouraging sounds he made while playing.
In 1929 Moore traveled to a recording studio to do six songs for Columbia, and in subsequent decades continued to make a few recordings, which document his development. But Moore never was able to quit his day job, and continued to work until his retirement in 1965. In 1969 he traveled to Europe for a blues festival and made an album recorded in Stuttgart at a live concert, the popular Alex Moore in Europe. Many other festival appearances followed over the years, but Moore always returned home to Dallas, where he entertained at a local blues club. In 1987 he was the first African American artist to receive a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1988 he released his last recording, an engaging piece titled “Wiggle Tail.” He died of a heart attack early in 1989. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Charlie Christian (1916-1942)
Influenced: Established the electric guitar as a major jazz solo instrument, and influenced the development of bebop
As a young musician Charlie Christian burst upon the national big band circuit by crashing a Benny Goodman concert and playing in his own distinctive style a dazzling set of variations on the Goodman standard “Rose Room.” Goodman, immediately recognizing Christian’s extraordinary talent, hired him on the spot and added him to the elite Goodman Sextet. That national exposure led to instant recognition, with Christian winning Downbeat polls from 1939 through 1941. During his off-hours he also contributed to the emerging bebop style later championed by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Born in Bonham to a blind musician father who worked as a singer-guitarist, Christian grew up on the road in and around Oklahoma City. The story goes that he was too poor to buy a guitar of his own, so he built a makeshift instrument out of discarded cigar boxes. In the early thirties Christian had become accomplished enough to have acquired a manufactured guitar, for he was accepted into regional or territory bands, as they are called, led by such respected musicians as Anna Mae Winburn and Alphoso Trent.
By 1937 Christian was experimenting with amplifying his guitar to be heard above the noise of the audience and the other instruments. He was playing at the Ritz Cafe in Oklahoma City where jazz fan and critic John Hammond heard him in 1939. Hammond recommended him to Benny Goodman, but the band leader wasn’t interested. The idea of an electrified guitar didn’t appeal, and Goodman didn’t care for Christian’s flashy style of dressing. Reportedly, Hammond personally installed Christian onstage during a break in a Goodman concert in Beverly Hills. Irritated to see Christian among the band, Goodman struck up “Rose Room,” not expecting the guitarist to know the tune. What followed amazed everyone who heard the 45-minute performance.
Recordings followed, establishing Christian as a great jazz innovator as well as a first-rate guitarist. Late night sessions, for which he was constantly in demand, took a toll on his rather delicate health. Some of these sessions, recorded by a fan, have survived to show the beginnings of the bebop style in his playing.
By 1941 Christian was suffering from tuberculosis, but took no rest. At a Staten Island sanitorium musician friends continued to play, practically up to his death on March 2, 1942. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Jack Teagarden (1905-1964)
Influenced: jazz big bands from Paul Whiteman to Glenn Miller
Additional Link: A Tribute to Jack Teagarden
Extravagantly praised by some critics as the greatest jazz trombonist to date, Jack Teagarden was a legend from the time he emerged as a recording artist in the twenties until his untimely death in 1964. Famous for a relaxed and easy style that belied his formidable technique, Teagarden’s playing was admired by all but seldom imitated.
Weldon Leo “Jack” Teagarden was born into a remarkable musical family that produced three other noted jazz musicians, brothers Charles (trumpet) and Cub (drums) as well as sister, Norma Teagarden (piano). Jack’s father worked in the oilfield and played cornet as an amateur, but Jack’s mother, Helen, seems to have conveyed the musical spark to all her children. As a piano teacher and church organist, she started all off with piano instruction at an early age. Jack switched to the trombone by the age of 7, however, and soon he and his mother were playing duets to accompany silent movies at the Vernon Theatre.
After the father’s death in 1918 the family moved first to Nebraska, then Oklahoma City. Three years later Jack Teagarden left home at the age of 16 to play professionally with the well-known Peck Kelley band of Houston. Teagarden was already so proficient that Paul Whiteman, who was then recruiting in Texas, was ready to hire him and take him away to New York. But Teagarden opted to keep Texas as his home base, playing with several different organizations until 1927.
That year Teagarden left for New York, expecting to audition for Paul Whiteman’s famous orchestra. Instead he ended up competing with Glenn Miller for a seat in another well-known orchestra of the day led by Ben Pollack. Numerous recordings with such greats as Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong followed, and in 1933 Teagarden signed to play with Whiteman for five years. Critics note that Teagarden’s jazz feeling brought a fresh sound to Whiteman’s rather stodgy style of white jazz. With that obligation behind him, Teagarden organized his own band in 1939, which struggled financially through the war years before folding in 1947. In the late forties he recorded with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars some of the cuts that form the basis for his continuing reputation. From 1951 on Teagarden led small groups that often drew on the talents of his other family members Charlie and Norma.
In addition to his trombone solos, Teagarden also sang in a sleepy blues style that is immortalized in such classics as “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “The Sheik of Araby.”
A heavy playing schedule and a fondness for strong drink are usually cited as contributing causes for his early death from pneumonia in 1964. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Teddy Wilson (1912-1986)
Influenced: Nat “King” Cole, accompanied Billie Holiday, played extensively with Benny Goodman, Benny Carter
One of the giants of the jazz piano, Teddy Wilson enjoyed a universal respect from his peers and lived to become an elder statesman of jazz. Wilson taught piano at the Juilliard School of Music from 1945 to 1952 and toured internationally with the best of his generation of musicians into the eighties. In a style most often described as “elegant” and “refined,” Wilson created some of the absolute masterpieces of jazz, working with such greats as Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Lester Young, and Benny Carter.
Texans cannot resist listing Teddy Wilson among their favorite sons, for he was born in Austin, although his mother and father (librarian and teacher, respectively) took him with them to Tuskegee, Alabama, when he was six. At Tuskegee Institute Teddy Wilson studied piano and violin and played clarinet and oboe in the band. Like so many other black musicians who left Texas when they came of age, Wilson, too, left Alabama at the age of 17 to pursue a career in the North.
By 1929 Wilson was in Detroit, apprenticing with Speed Webb. By 1931 he had moved to Chicago, where he found work with the likes of Erskine Tate, Jimmie Noone, and Louis Armstrong. On a 1933 visit to Chicago, jazz fan and empresario John Hammond heard Wilson play and urged him to move to New York, to join Benny Carter’s band. The legacy of these New York days live on in classic early recordings accompanying Billie Holiday.
In 1936 Wilson began touring with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa in the Benny Goodman Trio. Eager to try his hand at running his own big band, Wilson left Goodman in 1939 and struggled for a year before cutting back to a sextet. CBS studios recorded some of his most memorable sessions in the forties and fifties—both with the sextet and in the trio format. Critics also praise his 1956 recordings with Lester Young and his 1980 “Gentlemen of Swing” recording wtih Benny Carter as highlights of a long and vigorous career. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Gene Autry (1907-1998)
Genre: Country Western
Influenced: Singing cowboy-actors such as Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers
Other Sites: The Official Website of Gene Autry, America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy.
By far the most successful movie cowboy singer, Gene Autry starred in more than a hundred movies, wrote songs that have become perennial million sellers, and invested the proceeds in successful businesses that made him one of the wealthiest men in the movies.
But his life began far more humbly. Orvon Gene Autry was born the son of a poor tenant farmer in rural Tioga, north of Dallas. His father moved his family many times before settling in Ravia, near Ardmore in Oklahoma. A typical farm boy of the World War I era, Autry worked in the fields with his father and learned to ride a horse. His grandfather, a Baptist minister, taught him to sing, and at age 12 he received the gift that provided the means to his future success, a guitar. After graduation, Gene traveled with a medicine show for a short time before settling into a job as a telegraph operator at a Frisco Railroad train station. Between duties Autry played his guitar and sang country tunes, which is how he came to be heard by one of the great entertainers of the day, Will Rogers, who had stopped by to send a message. He suggested that Autry should try out singing on the radio.
Autry took Rogers’ advice and auditioned for—and landed—a job at KVOO in Tulsa as “Oklahoma’s Singing Cowboy.” An admirer of Jimmie Rodgers, Autry added yodeling to his repertory and in 1929 made his own first recordings for RCA. Those songs won him a spot on WLS Chicago’s National Barn Dance, which brought wider exposure. Then in 1931 came Autry’s first million seller, “That Silver-haired Daddy of Mine,” a duet with the song’s co-author, his father-in-law, Jimmy Long.
By 1934 Hollywood was interested, and Gene Autry took a singing bit part in In Old Santa Fe. That modest success led to a 1935 contract with Republic Pictures and Tumbling Tumbleweeds, in which he sang eight songs, including the title and his 1931 hit. That film launched him in a succession of profitable movies. In addition, in 1940 Autry also debuted his Melody Ranch radio show on CBS, which ran until 1956. Among Autry’s hit songs of this era, many of which he wrote himself, are “The Last Roundup,” “Mexicali Rose,” “Back in the Saddle Again,” “It Makes no Difference Now,” and “Be Honest With Me.”
In 1942 Autry joined the Army Air Corps and piloted planes in the Far East and North Africa until the end of the war, when he resumed his recording and movie careers. His Christmas recordings of “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1947) and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1948) became his all-time best sellers.
Meanwhile, starting in 1942, Autry began looking to his future as a businessman, buying radio stations and television stations when they became available. In the late forties he also formed his own movie production company, which made films and later produced television programs. All those holdings increased tremendously over the years. In 1962 Autry became co-owner of the newly formed Los Angeles Angels baseball team. At ninety and showered with various industry honors over the years, Autry continues to be a legend in his own time. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Tex Ritter (1905-1974)
Birthplace: Murvaul, Panola County
Genre: Singing cowboy
Influenced: Generations of movie-goers, for whom he became the Texas singing cowboy
Other Sites: Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville
Tex Ritter, as he became known in New York City in the early thirties, caught the public’s imagination as a true Texas-born, white-hat cowboy singer. Although Tex Ritter’s musical roots were East Texas Southern, he had credentials better than any of the other cowboy movie stars. In the twenties, Ritter had studied with folklorist J. Frank Dobie and John A. Lomax, the great collector of Texas Cowboy songs at the University of Texas, and he sang more authentic traditional Texas songs in his dozens of films than all the other singing cowboys combined.
Born Woodard Maurice Ritter near Carthage in northeast Texas, he attended the University of Texas from 1922 to 1927, where he was president of the Men’s Glee Club. More interested in music than law, Ritter left Austin without a degree and for a couple of years joined touring musical shows, visiting New York and Chicago. By 1929, however, he had broken into radio, and had found a steady gig singing the newly popular western songs over KPRC radio in Houston.
Like many other musicians of the era, however, Ritter realized that New York City was the place to fashion a career, so in 1930 he set out to try his luck at getting into a Broadway production. In 1931 he landed a supporting singing role in the very successful show Green Grow the Lilacs, the predecessor of Oklahoma, and became the Big Apple’s favorite cowboy. By 1932 Tex Ritter, as he was now billed, was the featured singer at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo and soon had a starring role on one of the city’s first Western radio programs, “The Lone Star Rangers,” where, drawing on his folklore training, he sang authentic cowboy songs and retold campfire tales. He also began recording, finding moderate success with the likes of the traditional “Rye Whiskey” and “Get Along Little Dogie.”
Hollywood came calling in 1936 when Grand National Pictures offered $2400 a movie for a series of B-Westerns. Made in as little as five days, films with titles like Song of the Gringo and Trouble in Texas led to a string of other singing cowboy movie contracts with various studios that continued through World War II. Over a nine-year period Tex Ritter appeared in more than 70 westerns and was one of the top money makers in Hollywood.
Toward the end of his movie career, Tex signed with the new Columbia Records in 1942, and had several country and pop crossover hits, including the memorable “Deck of Cards,” “Hillbilly Heaven,” and “You Two Timed Me One Time Too Often,” but it was his 1952 Oscar-winning soundtrack song for High Noon which assured his lasting fame. Other theme songs followed for faded television shows with a western theme, but Tex’s rendering of the Gunsmoke theme song is engraved in a whole generation’s memory. In 1964 he became the fifth person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 1965, when The Grand Ole Opry granted him life membership, he moved to Nashville.
Tex Ritter’s national and international tours continued into the seventies, and he was preparing for another tour when struck down by a heart attack in Nashville in 1974. His body was returned to Texas for burial near a childhood home in Port Neches. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Al Dexter (1902-1984)
Genre: Country Western
Influenced: All other “honky-tonk” singers from Floyd Tillman and Jim Reeves to Waylon Jennings
Al Dexter almost single-handedly established the concept of honky-tonk with his 1937 recording of “Honky Tonk Blues.” His 1943 release of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” brought him enormous fame, was recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters, and made him a wealthy man. It also encouraged the likes of Floyd Tillman to chronicle the hard-drinkin’, hard-loving lifestyle.
Clarence Albert Poindexter got the vision of honky-tonk while working as a housepainter. Longing to express himself, he assembled several bands in the early thirties to play his own music. As early as 1935 he was recording for Vocalion Records, but it was his “Honky Tonk Blues,” for the American Recording Corporation (ARC) that used the term “honky-tonk” for the first time in a song title. Al Dexter, as he was now professionally known, knew whereof he wrote, for in the late thirties he owned a honky tonk called the Roundup Club in Turnertown, Texas.
With the help of his ARC producer, Dexter arranged to record with Gene Autry’s backup band one of the early classics of the genre, “Pistol Packing’ Mama.” It remained at number one in Billboard’s charts for eight weeks and set Dexter up for a national tour. Other country number one hits followed throughout the forties, but none was ever so memorable again.
In the fifties Al Dexter opened his Bridgeport Club in Dallas, where he occasionally sang, but otherwise largely retired from entertaining to concentrate on his business interests. Singing about honky-tonking had made him a wealthy man. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Milton Brown (1903-1936)
Genre: Western Swing
Influenced: Bandleaders Bob Wills, Cliff Bruner, steel guitarist Bob Dunn, and modern Western Swing artists, including Asleep at the Wheel
Although a vocalist rather than an instrumentalist—unusual in a band leader—Milton Brown is now credited as one of the creators of Western Swing. Brown has long been seen in the historical shadow of Bob Wills, largely because he died in 1936, at the height of the Swing era, while Wills led successful bands into the seventies. Both had come to the attention of the public through the Light Crust Doughboys, but had gone their separate ways, Wills eventually forming the Texas Playboys and Brown his Musical Brownies. Today, scholars of the period say Brown arrived at the characteristic sound of Western Swing long before Wills arrived at a similar level of sophistication.
As a fifteen year old Milton Brown moved with his family from Stephenville to Fort Worth. He had a fine voice and as he matured, he longed to become an entertainer, but was forced to work days as a salesman for a cigar company. In 1927 he began singing for dances, backed by his twelve year old brother Durwood, but it wasn’t until he was laid off in the first big down-sizing of the Depression that he was able to consider making a living from his music.
The Brown brothers soon got together with fiddler Bob Wills and guitarists Herman Arnspiger and Clifton Johnson to play on radio as the Aladdin Laddies. When that job came to an end, future governor W. Lee O’Daniel set them up to advertise over the radio his Burrus Mill Light Crust Flour as the Light Crust Doughboys. Then came the series of disputes that broke up the band and set up Wills and Brown as musical competitors. So far the standard history.
But the crucial addition of Bob Dunn’s steel guitar to the Brownies mix of fiddles, banjo, bass, and piano in 1935 brought into focus the sound that Milton Brown’s brand of Western Swing was aiming for all along. The results of the new sound that Brown created can be heard in re-releases of some of the Brownies’ classics that feature Dunn’s exemplary playing. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Red River Dave McEnery (1914-2002)
Birthplace: San Antonio
Influenced: Saga songwriters
Red River Dave McEnery has had one of the longest careers in Country music, beginning in the early thirties, when he sang on San Antonio radio, and continuing today, health permitting, to occasional outings at folk festivals and on local television shows, where he is as likely as not to debut a new song he has written on some heated topic of the day. His classic song “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” has inspired many a would-be folk-singer and at least one short-lived annual festival, and with the recent publicity surrounding the efforts of a Texas aviatrix to recreate Earhart’s planned world-circling flight, a revival may be in order.
Red River Dave still lives in San Antonio, the city of his birth. Early on he learned to play the guitar, often strumming “Red River Valley,” the song that named him. His singing and his penchant for show business made him welcome on live radio broadcasts as far from home as Chicago and New York City. And in the mid-thirties his writing talents blossomed in the form of lyrics of historical and topical interest—“The Battle of the Alamo” and “Pony Express,” for instance. But in 1937 he came up with a memorable song that captured the national feeling of loss at the unexplained disappearance of pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart. When commercial television debuted at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, Red River Dave was there to broadcast live what is still his most famous creation, along with other country and western songs, both traditional and original.
In the early forties Red River Dave returned to San Antonio and broadcast his songs on Border Radio XERF, offering copies of his songbooks for sale as well. He also appeared in several Western films, including 1944’s Swing in the Saddle, which featured cameos by the Hoosier Hotshots and Nat “King” Cole.
But Red River Dave McEnery is probably best-known for his ballads written on the spur of the noteworthy news events. Among the topics covered in his songs over the years are the ill-fated flight of Gary Powers and the triumph of Apollo 11 as well as such gripping stories as Watergate and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. It remains for some future historian to piece together the possible Hispanic connection—topical ballads are a strong tradition on both sides of the Texas border with Mexico. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
Santiago Jimenez, Sr. (1913-1984)
Birthplace: San Antonio
Genre: Norteno Conjunto
Influenced: Many Texas conjunto players past and present, including his sons Flaco Jimenez and Santiago Jimenez, Jr.
Practitioner of an older, more European-influenced style of music, Santiago Jimenez maintained the tradition of the conjunto playing a large variety of dance rhythms, from polkas and mazurkas to waltzes, schottisches, and redovas. His use of the contrabass or tololoche on his early recordings led to the later standard introduction of electric bass in modern conjunto bands. In addition, many of his original compositions have become part of the standard repertory of contemporary conjuntos.
Son of accordionist Patricio Jimenez of Eagle Pass, Santiago Jimenez played two-row button accordion from the age of eight. During his teens he was a sideman for his father at bailes in San Antonio as well as rural dances all over South Texas. He learned a wide variety of traditional European dance tunes to please the Texas Czech and German audiences that hired the band. By the age of twenty he was playing live on San Antonio radio station KEDA. In 1936 Santiago recorded his first disc for Decca, two traditional songs he had learned from his father, for which he was paid the grand sum of $21 a side. When the Mexican Victor label offered $75 per recording, Jimenez gave them twelve songs that preserved some of his best work from the 1940s, among them the perennial favorites, “Viva Seguin” and “La Piedrera.”
All his life he worked as a janitor, supplementing his income with his music earned at dances around the West Side. Never traveling far from his birthplace (except for an eleven-year residency in Dallas during the late sixties and seventies) Santiago played regularly at El Gaucho, a club in the heart of West Side San Antonio. Thanks to such preservationists as Ben Tavera-King of Arhoolie Records (which released a 1980 recording of Santiago playing with his son Flaco and Juan Viesca) and the continuing careers of his sons, the characteristic style of Santiago Jimenez, Sr., continues to entertain today. by Chester Rosson (May 1997)
ROCK AND JAZZ: 1945-1960
World War II had an enormous cultural effect on Texas. Thousands of Texans served in the military and many more thousands came to Texas to train. When it was over, the music reflected the changes that the massive exchanges of information had wrought. T-Bone Walker was ready with his new kind of electric blues developed just before the war with which he had entertained the troops on his tours of army bases. He had settled in Southern California, and the rhythm and blues scene he fostered attracted other musicians from Texas, including Ivory Joe Hunter, who wrote hits that moved into mainstream American music, subtly changing perceptions of R&B. Meanwhile, the Memphis explosion of rock and roll ignited the imagination of young musicians in the Texas Panhandle, foremost among them Buddy Holly of Lubbock. Of course, not everyone took to rock and roll. In the post-war years Texas was also a strong contributor to the country music scene in Nashville. Hank Thompson and Floyd Tillman were the honky-tonking Texans who defined the genre in the late forties and fifties. Toward the end of the fifties Ornette Coleman set the jazz world on its ear with his raucous free jazz sound. In the very different world of classic music, Van Cliburn was an international success after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Among Hispanics in Texas, the post-World War II popularity of Orquesta-leader Beto Villa’s la onda tejana established a vibrant new form of latino music.
T-Bone Walker (1910-1975)
Genre: Electric Blues
Influenced: B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, and many others
In his ground-breaking book on Texas musicians, Texas Rhythm, Texas Rhyme, Willoughby Williams says flat out: “T-Bone Walker was the most important and influential musician in the history of rhythm and blues, and perhaps in the history of all its derivative styles, including rock ‘n’ roll.” He credits Walker with combining advanced technique on electric guitar with the standard blues combo of tenor sax, string bass and piano to produce the accepted format for R&B. Walker’s electrifying performance style also provided a model for the high-energy rock ‘n’ roll stage style that emerged in the fifties and forever changed American pop music.
Aaron Thibeaux Walker was born to play the blues. His mother, a guitarist herself, took him with her to Dallas, where young T-Bone was hired to lead Blind Lemon Jefferson through the streets to his gigs at the saloons and shady brothels of Oak Cliff. It was iterally at Jefferson’s knee that Walker learned to play guitar. About the age of 15 he left home with Dr. Breeding’s B Tonic Medicine Show as a dancer and guitarist, then toured the South with blues legend Ida Cox. As early as 1929 he cut his first record, “Wichita Falls Blues” (as Oak Cliff T-Bone), and in 1930 won a talent contest and went on tour with the flamboyant band leader Cab Calloway.
As the Great Depression deepened in the thirties, Walker found work with the big bands of the era, including the Texas band of Milt Larkin. But in 1935 he moved to Los Angeles, and his career blossomed as he tap-danced and played his way to fame at Club Alabam and the Little Harlem. Around this time he met Charlie Christian, whose solos on the electric guitar had brought the instrument new respect in the jazz scene. By 1936 he too was playing electric guitar, and began the transformation from blues to rhythm and blues. In 1940 he recorded the classic “T-Bone Blues” with the Cotton Club Orchestra in New York City, toured U.S. Army bases, and played Joe Louis’s Rhumboogie Club in Chicago, to which he would return year after year.
But T-Bone’s greatest success followed World War II, when he fronted his own band and began recording on the Black and White label. Many of his recordings reached the Hit Parade and have become classics, including “I’m Gonna Find My Baby” and “Call It Stormy Monday.” During the fifties his successful career continued at a slower pace. He recorded several hits on the Imperial and Atlantic labels and toured extensively, despite health problems caused by chronic ulcers. Throughout the sixties he was appreciated by young white audiences at blues, jazz, and other festivals both in the U.S. and abroad, and as late as 1970 won a Grammy for his album Good Feelin.
In 1974 Walker suffered a severe stroke which completely incapacitated him. He died March 16, 1975. by Chester Rosson (June 1997)
Ivory Joe Hunter (1911-1974)
Genre: Rhythm and Blues
Influenced: Helped establish the wide appeal of R&B in the fifties
Ivory Joe Hunter first made a name for himself playing blues on radio programs in Texas, but he found fame and fortune on the West Coast as a rhythm and blues vocalist, founder of the important Ivory and Pacific record labels, and a songwriter for both R&B and country genres. Several of his hits were also recorded by white artists who noticed the appeal R&B had for white teenagers at the time. Irritated with being cast as an R&B singer in the sixties, Hunter proved himself just as capable in the country field, especially as a songwriter.
Ivory Joe Hunter’s roots in East Texas were in the blues, but his natural inclination during the thirties was toward the music of Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. He sang with bands in the southeast Texas area and on the radio throughout the thirties, accompanying himself on the piano.
But in 1942 he moved to the West Coast and fell under the influence of the West Coast R&B scene that coalesced around T-Bone Walker. In 1945 he recorded his first song on his own record company, Ivory, acompanied by Johnny Moore’s group Three Blazers and Charles Brown on piano. But R&B was just one of his interests, even in this period, for he also wrote the country hit “Jealous Heart.” R&B continued to be his most appealing style, however, and in 1949 he signed with MGM and developed a ballad style of R&B that proved irresistible to the record-buyers. In 1950 Hunter had an R&B number 1 hit in “I Almost Lost My Mind.” (It was soon covered by Pat Boone, who made it an even bigger hit on the pop charts.) His “I Need You So” from this period was later a hit for Elvis Presley.
In the fifties, Ivory Joe toured extensively with a large band. His recording success continued with such standards as “Since I Met You Baby,” (covered again by Boone), and “Empty Arms.” But in the sixties he turned more and more toward country. His last album was titled “I’ve Always Been Country.” by Chester Rosson (June 1997)
Hank Thompson (1925-2007)
Genre: Country Western
Influenced: scores of singers, including George Strait, Clint Black, Garth Brooks
The quintessential Texas country singer in the late forties and early fifties, Hank Thompson created the sound—and much of the attitude—that makes each new song by George Strait, Clint Black, and Garth Brooks so resonant. Thompson’s style is a deft fusion of the most appealing Texas country traditions—western swing and honky tonk—an excellent fusion of Western swing danceability and honky tonk lyric and delivery.
Henry William Thompson was a lucky boy. When he was growing up in Waco he got to listen to a huge variety of music from the large collection of a friendly neighbor. All the great country singers were at his disposal—Vernon Dalhart, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family. On his tenth birthday he received a guitar, and set to learning what it was all about.
In 1942, while still in high school, he was knowledgeable enough, and musically talented enough, to have his own radio show on WACO-radio, “Hank the Hired Hand.” While serving in the navy during World War II as an engineer, he entertained his shipmates with songs. He was inspired to begin writing his own songs when he ran out of material.
Upon his return to Waco in 1946 he formed the Brazos Valley Boys, which became a local favorite. Tex Ritter heard the group and recommended Thompson to his record company, Capitol, in 1947. The resulting song “I’ve Got a Humpty Dumpty Heart” rose to number 2 on the country charts, auspiciously launching a national recording career. Between 1948 and 1974 Thompson had 29 Top Ten hits.
The songs that Thompson is most remembered for, however, were recorded from 1951 and into the early sixties, beginning with “The Wild Side of Life,” which was at the top of country charts for 15 weeks. “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” is another classic. Thompson was also a trendsetter in costuming, dressing his bandmembers—among whom were Merle Travis and fiddlers Keith Coleman and Curly Lewis—in Nudie designer suits. His firsts include the first country stereo album (1958) and the first country artist to record a live album (1961).
Thompson continued to perform and record throughout the seventies and eighties, reviving his 1959 hit “A Six Pack to Go” in a duet with George Strait. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989. by Chester Rosson (June 1997)
Buddy Holly (1936-1959)
Genre: Rock and Roll
Influenced: Innumerable rock artists form the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello
Additional Link: The Buddy Holly Memorabilia Web Page
Like a meteor that tracks across the night sky, Buddy Holly’s career was short and spectacular. His first rock ‘n’ roll recording was released in May 1957, and his life ended tragically in an airplane crash in early 1959, but in those few months Buddy Holly caught the attention of generations of rock ‘n’rollers. Technically, he pioneered in several ways: by writing his own material; by double-tracking his recordings in the studio; and by popularizing the standard rock lineup of two guitars, bass, and drums. But his appeal lies elsewhere, in the joy and drive of his songs.
Born Charles Hardin Holley, Buddy Holly was the youngest of four children, all of whom were encouraged to develop their musical talents. Buddy took up the acoustic guitar and taught himself how to play, following brief attempts to learn the piano and steel guitar from a teacher. While still in junior high school Buddy formed the nucleus of a band with a fellow student, playing western music and what was called “bop” at the time. Then in the fall of 1953 he and Montgomery got together with bassist Larry Welborn to play on Lubbock radio station KDAV.
The trio persevered through high school and made a few demos, which they sent off to Decca Records. In 1956 Decca offered Holly a contract as a country soloist, but his two releases made nary a ripple, and Decca terminated the contract. Holly and his friends returned to Lubbock but continued to open for touring bands at the Lubbock Youth Center.
One of those acts was Elvis Presley, who Holly later credited with moving the band toward rock ‘n’ roll. What Holly saw and heard that night must have struck him as something he had been wanting to do all along.
In February 1957 Holly and his band drove to Clovis, New Mexico, to make the demo recordings that would launch their rock ‘n’ roll fame. “That’ll Be the Day” caught the attention of New York-based Coral/Brunswick and the newly renamed Buddy Holly and the Crickets soon had a contract. “That’ll Be the Day” rose to number 3 by the end of the year. Others hits followed quickly, including “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!” “Maybe, Baby,” and “Rave On.” The Crickets undertook a whirlwind schedule of tours to Australia, Florida, and Great Britain, and television appearances on such shows as American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show..
In the summer of 1958 Holly did something hopelessly romantic: he proposed on his first date; Maria Elena Santiago of New York City accepted, and they were married in August. After a tour Holly announced in October that he was leaving for New York. The manager objected, and Holly reluctantly parted with the Crickets, who the manager had persuaded to stay under his management.
Due to financial difficulties that arose in the following disputes, Holly was obliged to go on the fatal February 1959 Winter Dance Party tour on which he died in a small plane crash that also killed singers Ritchie Valens, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and the pilot. by Chester Rosson (June 1997)
Floyd Tillman (1914-2003)
Birthplace: Ryan, Oklahoma, moved to Post, Texas at age of 3 months
Genre: Country Western
Influenced: Major contributor to the honky-tonk style, influenced many singers, including Lefty Frizzell and Willie Nelson
The youngest of eleven children born to a sharecrop-farming family, Floyd Tillman can’t call himself a native Texan—he arrived in Post, Texas, at the age of three months. But his musical life is Texas through and through. Tillman learned to play the banjo and mandolin growing up in Post, but turned to the guitar in his teens. In 1933, just 18 years old, Tillman joined the San Antonio-based classic German-Czech swing band of Adolf Hofner, one of the most beloved Texas dance bands of the time. The restless teenager soon left for Houston, however, where he found a job with the successful dance band of Mack Clark and tried his hand at songwriting. “It Makes No Difference Now” was deemed “too hillbilly” by the Houston sophisticates (though it was later a major hit for both Gene Autry and Bing Crosby). Tillman’s musical inclinations led him to audition as lead singer for the Blue Ridge Playboys, led by fiddler Leon Selph. Pappy Selph’s band had among its members some of the originators of the Texas honky-tonk style, including steel guitarist Ted Daffan (whose song credits include “Worried Mind,” “I’m a Fool for You,” and the perennial classic “Born to Lose”), and pianist Moon Mullican, who was later billed as “the king of the hillbilly piano players.”
Tillman served in the Army Air Corps during World War II then returned to front his own band in the Houston area after his discharge. But in 1944 he managed to work in a number 1 hit, “They Took the Stars Out of Heaven.” The post-war years proved to be the most successful of Tillman’s career as the songs he wrote became hits, not just for himself but for many others. “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” with its achingly slow waltz rhythm, is a honky-tonk dancing classic, as is his 1949 shocker “Slippin’ Around,” said to be the first country song to speak openly of adultery. “Slippin Around” was a million-seller for Tillman, but it was an even bigger hit for pop singers Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely. Over the years other country artists have covered it with great success, starting with Ernest Tubb and Texas Jim Robertson in 1950 to Mack Abernathy in 1988.
Although his last country hit was in 1960 (“It Just Tears Me Up,”) Tillman has done much memorable work over the years. His 1982 album Floyd Tilmann and Friends featured appearances by such past collaborators and admirers as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who have been influenced by his style, and as late as 1993 he played for a TNN special on The Texas Connection, which showed his skills to be undiminished by time. by Chester Rosson (June 1997)
Ornette Coleman (1930-)
Birthplace: Fort Worth
Influenced: Almost single-handedly created the Free Jazz movement.
At the end of the fifties the most controversial of jazz figures emerged from obscurity on the New York jazz scene. He was Ornette Coleman, a largely self-taught alto sax player from Fort Worth. He began playing in New York City clubs and releasing recordings that critics and musicians either praised extravagantly or just as adamantly condemned. He called his new music “free jazz,” and it relied on group improvisation of an intensity and complexity not heard before. To some influential critics, such as Gunther Schuller, Coleman’s music was the shape of things to come in jazz; to others it was cacophony. But whatever critics say, Coleman’s approach spawned a generation of free jazz improvisers that formed the avant-garde of jazz in the U.S. and in Europe for decades.
Coleman’s musical odyssey began in Fort Worth, where he took up the saxophone at the age of fourteen, playing in the I.M. Terrell High School band. Among the members of the Terrell High band were serveral musicians who would gain reputations in jazz, including Charles Moffett, Prince Lasha, and John Carter. About 1947, according to his friend and fellow band memeber Dewey Redman, he was kicked out of the band for introducing a bebop improvisation into a performance of The Washington Post March by Sousa.
This event proved prophetic as Coleman moved into his professional life after high school, rejected time and again for expressing his vision too freely. According to critic and biographer John Litweiler, Coleman made a spontaneous discovery while playing a standard tune with the Red Connors band in 1948: “…how to improvise without following the patterns of chord changes.” That discovery cost him his job. On a gig in Baton Rouge with the Clarence Samuels band, members of the audience were so incensed with his solos that they took him outside and beat him unconscious.
After a stint in New Orleans, where Coleman began to develop his theory of “harmolodics,” (his unique technique of melodic improvisation), he returned to Fort Worth and formed his first short-lived band with high school classmate Charels Moffett. When that effort folded, Coleman joined the R&B band of Pee Wee Crayton, which stranded him in Los Angeles.
Although attempts to fit into the LA jazz scene largely failed on this first encounter, Coleman made contacts that eventually paid off. He also used the extra time he had as an elevator operator to study books on harmonic theory.
Coleman’s first album, Something Else!!!! released on Contemporary, brought immediate recognition that a strange new talent had arrived, but it was not a commercial success. A second album Tomorrow is the Question! attempted to correct that problem, but is considered by most critics less successful artistically than the the next few albums, beginning with The Shape of Jazz to Come from Atlantic. The Atlantic albums excited the jazz world like nothing since.
Ornette Coleman’s prolific outpouring continued through the seventies, eighties, and nineties. He has continued to experiment with new formats, new sidemen, and has ventured into collaborations with classical musicians. In the eighties he made major contributions to his discography, including Song X, with Pat Metheny, and In All Languages, with his group Prime Time, while working with Fort Worth’s Caravan of Dreams jazz club. All Languages, with his group Prime Time, while working with Fort Worth’s Caravan of Dreams jazz club. by Chester Rosson (June 1997)
Van Cliburn (1934-)
Birthplace: Shreveport, LA
Genre: Classical piano
Other Sites: The Van Cliburn Foundation
At the 1958 First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Russia and the World found out what Van Cliburn’s teachers and fellow students at the Juilliard School had known all along: Van was ochen kharasho (very good). His Moscow triumph, both as the artist who won First Prize and as an audience favorite, continued when he returned to a hero’s welcome in the United States. Nothing quite like it had occurred in the small world of classical music before. His arrival in New York City was more like that accorded a certain British rock band in the sixties, and his triumphal tour continued from city to city. Van Cliburn’s recording that year of the winning piece, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, set a standard that has yet to be surpassed; the most popular classical piano recording ever, it has never been out of print.
Cliburn has always stressed the fact that he is a Texan. His father had a job in Shreveport at the time; and, as it says in his 1993 authorized biography by critic Howard Reich, “By the time Van turned six, the family had moved back where it belonged, to . . . Kilgore.”
So, how does one become an international-calibre pianist in Kilgore? By having the most amazingly gifted mom as a teacher. Rildia Bee Cliburn was not only a third-generation Texan, but a third-generation pianist who had studied in New York with a famous teacher who had studied with Franz Liszt, the super-star pianist-composer of the 19th century. And she was the only teacher Van Cliburn needed until he went off at the age of 18 to Juilliard, where he became the favorite student of the greatest piano teacher of her time, the Russian-born maestra Josefina Lhevinne.
Everyone described Van Cliburn as having a natural talent, but the hours of practice he put in were phenomenal. His fellow students at Juilliard told tales of his practicing until three in the morning. The results were impressive—between 1952 and 1958 he won all but one competition he entered, including the G.B. Dealey Award from the Dallas Symphony, the Kosciusko Foundation Chopin Scholarship, and the prestigious Leventritt, all before the age of twenty. At twenty he had played with the New York Philharmonic and the symphonies of most major cities (thanks to the Leventritt award). He also graduated with top honors from Juilliard.
Reviews were universally excellent, and Cliburn’s career seem launched, until a series of accidents and impending military duty side-tracked him in 1957. When his name came up for the draft, Cliburn cancelled all engagements (the Army eventually excused Van from service because of his chronic nosebleeds). Later, both parents were hospitalized (Rildia Bee with a broken vertebra and his father with complications from an auto-bus collision) and Cliburn went back to Kilgore to take care of them.
But the Tchaikovsky Competition jump-started Cliburn’s career again in 1958, causing an outpouring of American nationalistic pride and musical admiration that none of his previous wins had prepared him for. Moscow made Van Cliburn a celebrity, just as Liszt had been in the previous century. There was a tickertape parade in New York City, following a concert at Carnegie Hall that fully validated the Moscow win in the eyes of all who heard it.
Cliburn’s concerts over the next few years were spectacularly well-received, as were his further recordings of repertory ranging from Mozart and Chopin’s virtuoso solo music to a concerto by American composer Edward McDowell, as well as the standard Beethoven and Brahms. But the heart of his repertory has always been Russian, with the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos. All his recordings were artistic and commercial successes. Along the way he leant his name to Fort Worth’s quadrennial Van Cliburn Competition, which has caused the whole world to sit up and listen to scores of young pianists.
Van Cliburn retired from the concert stage in 1978, after a twenty-four year career that took him to all the great concert stages. His retirement was planned over a four year period after his father’s death in 1974 to have some time to himself and for his beloved aging mother. (They shared a Fort Worth mansion until her death in 1994.)
A White House concert in 1987 for the Gorbachevs and the Reagans led to speculation that Cliburn might return to the stage. That was finally accomplished in 1989 and has continued with concerts at measured intervals ever since, with recent concerts playing to sold out houses. by Chester Rosson (June 1997)
Beto Villa (1915-1986)
Influenced: All future development of the Texas Orquesta style, including the orchestras of Isidro Lopez, Balde Gonzalez, Chris Sandoval, and their successors
During the thirties and forties the Hispanic population of South Texas began to share in the relative economic stability brought about by local oil and gas discoveries and the dramatic increases in agricultural production in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Among the upwardly mobile shopkeepers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, musical tastes began to change as well. Surrounded by radio airplay of the big band sound of the Anglo culture, similar recordings with a latin flavor from Mexico and Cuba, and the local German and Czech dance bands’ polkas and waltzes, they were primed for the rise of the orquesta tejano, a big band that could play Texas latino music in a grander way than the three-musician conjuntos that had traditionally provided the entertainment for Mexican American dances (bailes) and quinceanero parties. Beto Villa was the first to organize just such an orquesta and popularize what would come to be known as la onda tejano.
Born into a prosperous and musical family (his father Don Alberto Villa was a tailor and part-time musician who was known around Falfurrias as el Maestro), Beto Villa as a boy of ten received a saxophone and some special instructions from his father: “Cuando toques, toca con gusto.” Apparently, the advice was taken to heart, for two years later he was playing in school bands and by 1932 had joined a group called the Sonny Boys, which specialized in high school dances. The music didn’t bring in enough money to support his family, however, so Villa worked as a butcher in a meat market.
Villa had to wait until the end of World War II to invent the kind of music that he wanted to play. In 1946 he approached the Alice, Texas, founders of the new Hispanic music label, Ideal, to propose a new kind of music that would combine elements of the Texas conjunto sound known as ranchero—which country people loved—with elements of the jaiton (hightone) orchestra music that appealed to city folk. Although skeptical, the entrepreneurs (Armando Marroquin and Paco Betancourt) finally agreed when Villa brought with him a more professional group of musicians than he had assembled at the time.
In the fall of 1947 the Beto Villa Orquesta recorded its first release, “Las Delicias” and “Porque te Ries.” Both were instant successes, and Ideal demanded that they record more immediately. Among the classics of Tejano music that followed was the “Rosita Vals.”
By 1949 Villa had upgraded his orchestra again with more and better players—all twelve had to be able to read music—and he took this excellent touring band across the Southwestern U.S. Due to his recordings for Ideal and the radio exposure they brought, Villa became famous not only in South Texas, but wherever Hispanic music was appreciated. Many of the standard repertory pieces of Tejano big bands originated with the Villa Orquesta, including the polkas “Monterrey” and “Victoria.” In 1954 Villa recorded with RCA, the first Tejano orquesta to achieve that national distinction.
Villa dominated the orquesta scene in Texas into the late fifties, gradually extending the range of music played to include the more exotic mambos and sambas of Latin America. It is significant that he remarked in his last years that his “musical peak” was in the sixties, when Perez Prado asked him to tour with his big band.
Ill health forced Villa into early retirement, but by the time of his death in 1986, he had long been recognized as “the father of Tejano Orquesta.” Many of his most typical recordings are still available on re-releases from Arhoolie Productions. by Chester Rosson (June 1997)
THE SOUNDS OF THE SIXTIES: 1960-1970
The sixties saw the greatest transformations in Texas music since the end of World War II. Of course, much went on as before, with George Jones carrying on the honky-tonk country style with a vengeance. At the same time, Gentleman Jim Reeves was pointing the way to an accommodation of Country and Pop, directing his music to a crossover audience. The relaxed sound of Trini Lopez expressed a benign new interest in folk music shaped into a palatable upbeat style with mass appeal. Bluesman Freddie King built on the deep traditions of black music in the blues even as a past master, Mance Lipscomb was teaching a new generation of young white people about that heritage. But Texas musicians were also there as singers, songwriters, and performers reshaping the country’s music in a variety of ways. Roy Orbison wrote and performed fateful ballads in a voice all his own that influenced a generation of rockers. And there were tragedies as well: Janis Joplin and singer-songwriter Roky Erickson helped shape the attitudes of the Hippie youth movem ent, and unfortunately became victims of the movement’s excesses.
Roy Orbison (1936-1988)
Genre: Rock and Roll
Influenced: the Beatles, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, many others
Roy Orbison’s life story is one of the strangest and most tragic in all of rock. His wide-ranging tenor voice and haunting ballads of lost love touched millions in the sixties and earned him the enduring respect of some of the greatest stars of rock, including the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. But after horrifying accidental deaths in his family Orbison’s career went into a near eclipse in the seventies, only to be revived to even greater heights in the mid-eighties, shortly before his own early death.
Roy Kelton Orbison was born in Vernon, but grew up in the small West Texas oil town of Wink. By age six he was learning to play guitar from his father and soon showed a precocious talent, performing on the radio and for school friends. While still in high school he formed the Wink Westerners, but didn’t get serious about music until he left for North Texas State College. There he met fellow student Pat Boone and backed him on guitar in an early recording. Boone’s quick success with rhythm and blues covers in 1955 was an object lesson. Orbison left college after two years, transformed the Wink Westerners into the Teen Kings, and began to tour West Texas.
On the strength of a recording of “Ooby Dooby” done at Norman Petty’s studio, Orbison and the Teen Kings received a contract from Sun Records. There his only success was a rerecording of “Ooby Dooby,” which was a hit in 1956. Deciding to concentrate on his writing talents, Orbison dissolved the Teen Kings and started composing songs, among them “Claudette,” a paean to his wife that the Everly Brothers made into a 1958 hit, allowing Orbison to buy out his Sun contract. In 1959 the Monument Records label offered a recording contract, and by 1960 the company’s international hits began to flow, nearly all penned by Roy Orbison. Between 1960 and 1964 Orbison produced the classics “Only the Lonely,” “Blue Angel,” “Running Scared,” “Blue Bayou,” “It’s Over,” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.” In addition, Orbison won influential friends: While touring England in 1963 he met the Beatles, who were great admirers of his work.
A series of personal tragedies began in 1966 when his wife, Claudette, died in a motorcycle accident. Two years later, two of their three sons died in a fire that destroyed his home. Although Orbison remarried in 1969 and continued to tour in the seventies, the hit records would not come. Health problems complicated the end of the decade, and in 1979 he had to have heart surgery.
Orbison’s popularity was renewed by singers such as Linda Ronstadt and Van Halen, who recorded his sixties songs in the late seventies and eighties, a 1980 duet with Emmylou Harris (“That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again”) that won a Grammy, and his 1987 induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. The next year promised a full renewal of his career, with the release of The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One, a collaboration with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne. But within a month Orbison was dead of a heart attack. A posthumous collection contained the last great song of Orbison’s career, “You Got It.” by Chester Rosson (July 1997)
Janis Joplin (1943-1970)
Birthplace: Port Arthur
Genre: Rock and Roll
A major talent in the San Francisco rock scene of the late sixties, Janis Joplin captured the imagination of a generation with her hard-singing performances and hard-living lifestyle. In her short career Joplin produced anthem classics of the hippie era of free love and psychedelia from “Piece of My Heart” to “Me and Bobby McGee.” But the passion that drove her was snuffed out by alcohol and drug abuse that ultimatley killed with an over-dose of heroin in 1970.
Janis Lyn Joplin grew up in a middle-class home in Port Arthur, the daughter of an engineer and a housewife, but showed early signs of an intense rebellion. In high school she began drinking heavily and partying with friends who liked to haunt the honky-tonks and roadhouses of southeast Texas and Louisiana. Unable to read music, and without any formal training, she began to learn her craft by imitating recordings of Odetta, Bessie Smith, and Willie Mae Thornton. After high school and a brief stint at Lamar State, Joplin left for Los Angeles to work, spending her spare time at Venice Beach hangouts. Joplin had a strong desire to create, however, and returned to Texas in 1962 to attend the University of Texas at Austin to study art.
But the urge to sing was more powerful than the will to work on a degree. The Student Union’s Chuck Wagon provided an amateur outlet, but at Ken Threadgill’s gas station-turned-bar and grill, Joplin found a place to perform and a lifelong friend in the owner.
San Francisco lured her in 1963, and Joplin stayed in the Bay area until 1965, singing at the North Beach Coffee Gallery. She returned to UT to study—and to recover from a serious weight loss brought about by use of amphetamines.
In 1966 an offer to audition as singer for a new band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, drew Joplin back to San Francisco and propelled her almost instantly to stardom. At the the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 Joplin and Big Brother dazzled the audience and the critics with an unforgettable rendition of “Ball and Chain.” Their 1968 album Cheap Thrills led to international success for Joplin, if not for her band. A new manager urged her to find better musicians, but a constant flux in lineups of the bands, Joplin’s alcoholism, and a growing problem with hard drugs led to erratic public performances and a cooling of the critics’ initial infatuation with Joplin by 1969. I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama, featuring Joplin with a new group called the Kozmic Blues Band, received few raves. Recognizing she was having a problem coping, Joplin sought medical help for her dependencies.
By spring of 1970 Joplin had a new backup band that worked relatively well together. In the summer they toured with the Grateful Dead and began work on a new album that would be the crowning achievement of Joplin’s short career. Pearl contained the definitive performance of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and the song that might have served as Janis Joplin’s epitaph: “Get It While You Can.” Pearl was released posthumously in 1971 a few months after Joplin’s death by heroin overdose in October 1970. by Chester Rosson (July 1997)
Trini Lopez (1937-)
Influenced: Talented in many styles, but not much imitated.
In the mid-sixties the sounds of Trini Lopez’s pleasant, eclectic folk style permeated the pop radio airwaves; he had 13 hits between 1963 and 1968. A fine guitarist, Lopez added a fresh latin twist to established favorites. His relaxed, upbeat delivery of Pete Seeger’s revolutionary “If I Had a Hammer” was typical of this approach, and it proved to have the widest possible appeal.
Born Trinidad Lopez III in Dallas, Trini Lopez had a long apprenticeship in Texas before he headed off in 1962 to a brief period of fame and fortune in California. Lopez formed his first band at the age of 15 in Wichita Falls. In the late fifties Lopez was playing with the Big Beats when he made the acquaintance of another Texas musician on the way up, Buddy Holly. Holly recommended Lopez to his producer, Norman Petty of Clovis, New Mexico. Lopez had in mind recording an instrumental, however, and the producer wasn’t interested. But the encounter led to recordings for Columbia, Volk, and King recording companies, none of which attracted much attention.
In 1962 Lopez moved to Los Angeles, where he became a regular performer at a nightclub called PJ’s. Frank Sinatra heard him there and promptly signed Lopez to his new label, Reprise Records. The resulting album, Trini Lopez at PJ’s, was an immediate success and endured on the pop album charts from the summer of 1963 well into 1965. In the next few years Lopez produced album after album, many in the live nightclub atmosphere that showed his performing style to its best advantage. He also recorded for the Spanish and German language markets.
Lopez’s last Top 20 hit charted in 1965 (“Lemon Tree”), but his recording career continued at a slow pace into the seventies, and he performed in Las Vegas into the eighties. by Chester Rosson (July 1997)
Jim Reeves (1923-1964)
Genre: Country Crossover
Influenced: The first country crossover success story encouraged many other artists to try for a style with broader appeal.
One of the first country artists to break away from the stereotypical sequined cowboy image and cross over into the pop charts, Gentleman Jim Reeves had a carefully crafted image as a sophisticated country balladeer. Several of his songs (including “He’ll Have to Go” and “Four Walls” have proved to have a remarkably long life, surviving his death in 1964 by revivals for decades. His discography continues with many releases into the nineties.
Born near Carthage in East Texas to a farming couple, James Travis Reeves was raised by his mother after his father died during Jim’s first year of life. He grew up listening to Jimmie Rodgers records and imitating them on guitar. Reeves was also a fine athlete at Carthage High School and after graduation attended the University of Texas in Austin, where he played on the baseball team. He even tried minor league baseball briefly after college, but quit after a leg injury and became a radio announcer-disk jockey in Henderson in 1947.
Although he sang locally under a pseudonym (Sonny Day) and recorded a few songs on a small Houston label, his singing career didn’t really take off until 1952. By then he was at Shreveport’s KWKH and appearing occasionally on its Louisiana Hayride, when he was forced to stand in for Hank Williams. Abbott Records signed Reeves immediately and brought out two recordings that turned gold in 1953, “Mexican Joe” and “Bimbo.”
In 1955 Reeves joined the Grand Ole Opry and began recording for RCA. Under the tutelage of Chet Atkins, Reeves pitched his voice lower and turned to ballads. His greatest success followed in 1957 with the memorably echoing “Four Walls.” “He’ll Have to Go” is a classic from 1960 that was sung in a similar style, and it crossed over to number two in the pop charts. Among his innovations was the piano and strings backup employed on most of his later albums and occasional instrumentation that included such typically classical instruments as oboe and French horn. Pitching himself as “Gentleman Jim,” Reeves wore a black suit and tie.
Reeves’ success was international, with three tours to Europe. He was especially popular in Britain and South Africa, where he traveled to make a film titled Kimberley Jim, released in 1965. But Reeves career ended abruptly in 1964 when the light plane he was piloting went down near Nashville, killing him and his pianist-manager Dean Manuel. His body was buried in a two-acre plot on Highway 79 near Carthage. by Chester Rosson (July 1997)
Mance Lipscomb (1895-1976)
Influenced: A wide-ranging singer and the last of the great Texas country bluesmen.
Discovered by the larger world after Chris Strachwitz recorded him in 1960, Mance Lipscomb was a one-of-a-kind singer who knew and performed the whole of the traditional rural black music of East Texas. Equally at home with a gospel hymn, the blues, or a children’s game song, his gentle manner and clear singing style brought him audience affection and a belated fame that he had never sought.
Born Bowdie Glen Lipscomb, the son of a former slave who was a professional fiddler, Mance Lipscomb changed his name in honor of an old friend named “Emancipation.” Mance first learned to play the violin before taking up the guitar at the age of 11 to accompany his father. Until his discovery at the age of 65, Lipscomb had farmed nearly all his life near his birthplace of Navasota, performing at Saturday dances and family gatherings. He had a wife, Elnora, one son named Mance, Jr., and three adopted children to support with his farming efforts.
Soon after his first recordings were released by Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie label, Mance Lipscomb was in much demand among folk revivalists as an authentic folk singer of the old school. He appeared at numerous festivals and on college campuses, sharing anecdotes of his life and his philosophical insights as well as his wealth of some 350 songs. At club appearances he often shared the stage with young musicians eager to learn from him. Arhoolie brought out many recordings during Lipscomb’s lifetime, and his music continues to be in demand two decades after his death in 1976. by Chester Rosson (July 1997)
George Jones (1931-)
Influenced: Pervasive in country music, including Clint Black, Mark Chesnutt, Garth Brooks, and Randy Travis.)
George Jones might be called the embodiment of the honky-tonk cowboy singing tradition. Clearly the longtime master of the genre, his life has often reflected the content of his songs, complete with stormy marriages, bouts with drinking alternating with contrite drying out periods, pot shots taken at friends, and some fairly bizarre behavior (his stage appearances with the voice of Donald Duck, for instance). But throughout the personal difficulties he has produced a huge body of country music hits, many of them absolute classics. Out of some 150 of his songs that charted as hits over a recording career of forty years more than a dozen have been at number one.
George Glenn Jones was born in the heart of the Big Thicket to a working family in the heart of the Great Depression. His musical education began with listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and imitating Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. After a brief first marriage at the age of 18 followed by a three-year tour with the Marines in California, Jones returned to Beaumont and took a job as a disc jockey. He had done some entertaining in California and met Starday Records founder Pappy Daily of Beaumont, with whom he began recording. He also began performing with the Houston Jamboree. In 1955 he had his first record success with “Why, Baby Why,” followed in 1956 by three more Top Ten hits before the 1958 hit “White Lightnin” by his friend the Big Bopper finally hit number one.
Many more have followed over the years, including “Tender Years, “You Comb Her Hair.” “The Race is On,” “Love Bug,” and the all-time great “She Thinks I Still Care.” His disastrous marriage to Tammy Wynette in 1969 produced memorable duet albums (which have been a staple of his career generally, with the likes of Melba Montgomery, Gene Pitney, Johnny Paycheck, and even James Taylor). His 1980 song “He Stopped Loving Her Today” won him a Grammy as Country Song of the Year.
In 1992 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and continues to produce great country music. by Chester Rosson (July 1997)
Freddie King (1934-1976)
Genre: Rhythm and Blues
Influenced: Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and many others.
One of the great Kings of the Blues, along with Albert and B.B, Freddie King had a guitar style much admired and imitated by other bluesmen and rock stars of the sixties and seventies. Although he left Texas at the age of sixteen and built his career in the blues center of Chicago, King returned to Texas to live in Dallas in 1963, and in 1971 he made the first major live album recorded in Austin at the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Encouraged by his mother and uncle Leon King, Freddie learned to play guitar when he was six years old. He learned from the recordings of Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker as well. By the age of 16 he was ready for the nightclubs of Chicago.
There he learned from some of the masters of the Chicago Blues, including Playboy Taylor and Robert Lockwood. He began to make a living by his music in 1958, playing with the Sonny Cooper Band and Earlee Payton’s Blues Cat, and Smokey Smothers. In 1960 he formed his own band and went on tour in the U.S. and Europe. During the sixties he recorded on the King/Federal and Cotillion labels such classics as “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “I’m Tore Down.”
In 1970 he signed on with Shelter Records, a label associated with rock and blues songwriter-performer Leon Russell. Getting Ready for Shelter was one of his best album efforts, and it made his work known as a Texas master of the blues guitar. He opened the new Armadillo World Headquarters in 1971 and came back frequently for fundraisers to keep the doors open on that classic venue.
Freddie King died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 43, shortly after an appearance in Dallas. He is buried at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery in Dallas. by Chester Rosson (July 1997)
Roky Erickson (1947-)
Genre: Rock and Roll
Influenced: Sixties acid rock bands from Austin to San Francisco
As one of the founders of Austin’s first internationally known band, the 13th Floor Elevators, Roky Erickson helped to invent the sixties music known as Acid Rock. Singer and songwriter Erikson displayed an intensity and poetic, almost religious vision that inspired many musicians and imitators. But his early successes were cut short by drug and mental health problems.
Born Roger Kynard Erickson into the family of an architect, Roky joined the 13th Floor Elevators in 1965. The Elevators, reputedly named after the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, M for marijuana, openly advocated a path of enlightenment through drugs. Driven by a unique sound created by fuzzed out guitars, various percussion, and an amplified electric jug, the Elevators were truly awe-inspiring in their appearances around Austin. The groups’ first album on the International Artists label out of Houston was titled The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, and it quickly became a cult classic on college campuses at the beginning of the Hippie Era. Many of the groups best songs, including the electrifying “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” were written by the teen-aged Roky Erickson.
A second album, Easter Everywhere, was followed with a more restrained and universal message advocating enlightenment, but the political and philosophical message was lost on the authorities. The band became the focus of drug busts, and in 1968 disbanded. Erickson was arrested on drug charges in 1968 and opted for a stay in a mental institution. Unfortunately, he was sent to Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and returned to the outside world in 1971, after various treatments including electroshock therapy, a changed man.
During the seventies Erickson continued to play solo and formed a band called Bleib Alien, but most of the spark was gone. His 1980 album for CBS generated little interest. In 1990, after an arrest involving a misunderstanding with the U.S. mail, friends organized an impressive tribute album titled Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, which featured some 19 groups, including Z.Z. Top, R.E.M, and the Butthole Surfers performing Erickson’s best songs, simultaneously demonstrating just how good those songs could be. Erickson himself emerged in 1995 from his eccentric reclusive lifestyle long enough to produce an impressive album titled All That May Do My Rhyme, which held out some hope for his continuing life as an artist. by Chester Rosson (July 1997)
THE OUTLAW DECADE: 1971-1980
The seventies were a period of rebellion in Texas music—against the current national disco craze, against the syrupy, overwrought tendencies in the Nashville country scene, and against the status quo in general. The feeling was manifested best in the myth of the outlaws of country music, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in particular. Willie and Waylon and many other songwriter-performers, including Johnny and Edgar Winter in their rhythm and blues-derived rock, ZZ Top with their hedonistic Tex-rock, and Joe Ely in his personal vision quest, were forging their own personal statements rather than simply following the dictates of the national market. Insisting on their roots, they drew inspiration from traditional performers like Flaco Jimenez and Lightnin’ Hopkins, who have always generated an enhanced version of the types of music they were raised on, be it country, conjunto, or blues.
Flaco Jimenez (1939-)
Birthplace: San Antonio
Genre: Tejano Conjunto
Influenced: Helped bring international attention to Texas’ rich Hispanic music tradition.
Other Sites: The Official Website of Flaco Jimenez
Recordings of Tejano music have always had a following among Hispanics all over the United States, but the awareness of the larger audience was slow to develop until the 1970s. Much of the credit for the subsequent surge in interest must go to Flaco Jimenez. Flaco’s renown as an experienced master musician in the regional style caught the ears of Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records and exceptional blues guitarist Ry Cooder, which led to national tours and recording sessions on seminal albums. His subsequent recordings and collaborations took the sound of Tejano conjunto to an international audience.
Heir to a family tradition of accordionists going back to his grandfather Patricio, “Flaco” was named Leonardo by his parents, but as a performer quickly became known by his nickname, which means “skinny”. The young Flaco started out in the early fifties accompanying Don Santiago on the bajo sexto, the foundation instrument in the conjunto band. Together they recorded the local standard “Los Tecolotes” in 1955.
Soon thereafter Flaco formed his own band to play on radio KEXX as Leonardo Jimenez y su Caparoles. At the end of 1955 the sixteen-year-old Jimenez and fellow teenage musician Henry Zimmerle were recruited by the more experienced Mike Garza and Richard Herrera for a band that became known as Los Caminantes. Los Caminantes already had a regular program over radio KCOR in San Antonio and played at clubs throughout the area, but the band really took off after acquiring the services of the two young musicians. In May 1956 Los Caminantes first recorded on the local Rio label and gained a Thursday evening slot on San Antonio’s Channel 41, KCOR-TV. Within two years they were San Antonio’s favorite Tex-Mex band.
By 1958 Flaco realized he could make it on his own and left Los Caminantes to record on the same label that featured his father’s band. Popular enough during the sixties to make a good living playing largely around San Antonio, the young accordionist remained purely a local phenomenon until the seventies, when a string of recordings brought him international attention. San Antonian Doug Sahm, busting out of the Sir Douglas Quintet mode, tapped his talents for his 1973 album Doug Sahm and Band on which he played alongside Dr. John and Bob Dylan. Soon thereafter musical chameleon Ry Cooder recognized the energy of Jimenez’s style, took him on tour, and featured his accordion on the highly successful Chicken Skin Music (1976), as well as the albums Showtime (1976), The Border (soundtrack to the historic film, 1980), and Get Rhythm (1987). Meanwhile, Flaco’s solo talents led to recordings that have become benchmarks of Tejano music, starting with El Principe del Acordeon in 1977, and continuing with Flaco Jimenez y Su Conjunto and, with his brother Santiago, Jr., El Sonido de San Antonio (1980). The eighties saw further collaborations with Sahm, Cooder, and Linda Ronstadt as well as solo albums directed at a world audience, such as Tex-Mex Breakdown. In 1985 Flaco participated in the tribute album Homenaje a Don Santiago Jimenez, dedicated to the memory of his father, who died in 1984.
The nineties dawned with the classic collaboration of Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers, and Doug Sahm on The Texas Tornados, a huge international success, which was followed by the Tornados’ Zone of Our Own in 1991 as well as further work for Arhoolie Records on Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio and other albums.
Today, Flaco Jimenez continues to record and tour internationally with universal respect and appreciation, both for his unique talent and the tradition his playing represents. by Chester Rosson (January 1998)
Willie Nelson (1933-)
Birthplace: Abbott (near Hillsboro)
Genre: Progressive Country, Pop
Influenced: As a songwriter, created hits for many of Nashville’s greats and paved the way for many other serious songwriters in country music.
Other Sites: Willie’s Place
More than perhaps any other country and western artist, Willie Nelson can honestly claim “I did it my way.” From the early sixties Nelson impressed Nashville by writing a string of hits—most performed by more conventional artists—then left for Austin in the seventies, where he put together a progressive country cohort of “outlaw” exiles to remake country music in a more personal, less clichª-ridden way. Incidentally, Austin became a mecca for live music, and the recording industry found a new source for talent in Texas. In Austin, Nelson was able to pursue an interest in acting, make some memorable albums, and launch a series of annual family-style “picnics,” to which he invites the public. Nelson has become a colorful celebrity citizen of the capital city.
Raised in Abbott (Hill County) by their grandparents after disruption of the family by parental desertion and death, Willie and his sister Bobbie both developed an early interest in music. They sang gospel songs at the local Baptist Church, but true to the rural Texas spirit, Willie also played guitar and wrote cheating songs by the age of seven. At ten, Willie was playing with a local bohemian polka band. Pianist Bobbie’s marriage to fiddle player Bud Fletcher led to Willie joining his brother-in-law’s band at the age of 13. About the same time, he also revealed a lifelong fondness for singing duets, when an engagement with the king of western swing, Bob Wills, presented a first opportunity.
Willie Nelson spent his late teens and early twenties playing the honkie-tonks and dancehalls of central Texas, and in 1952 got married to a woman of Cherokee descent. Always on the move, the Nelsons spent time in San Antonio, Fort Worth, even Washington state, before returning to Texas to live in Houston. But as Nelson struggled to make a living as a beer-joint musician and sometime songwriter, his marriage began to founder and was eventually dissolved.
By the late fifties Nelson was ready for Nashville, but without the means to make the move. To finance the trip he sold rights to two songs to the owner of a Houston music school where he taught guitar: “Family Bible,” which soon became a hit for Claude Gray, and “Night Life,” which was later a huge hit for Ray Price. Once in Nashville, toward the end of 1960, things began to improve for Nelson. On the verge of starvation, Nelson was hired as a staff songwriter by the influential Pamper publishing house, which was co-owned by Ray Price.
By 1961 three of his songs—“Crazy,” sung definitively by Patsy Cline, “Hello Walls,” sung stalely by Faron Young, and “Funny How Time Slips Away” sung adequately by Billy Walker — were such big hits that they crossed over to the pop charts, an almost unheard-of phenomenon at the time. On the strength of these successes and a few demos, Liberty Records signed Nelson as a soloist, despite his unorthodox, bluesy style of singing. Willie’s first hit was a duet with his future wife Shirley Collie, which was quickly followed by his Top Ten solo “Touch Me.” He also joined Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, taking up the bass for a time.
The year 1963 was a red-letter one for Willie, he married Shirley Collie, and was taken onto the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. He also began appearing regularly on Ernest Tubb’s syndicated television program. However, despite a contract with RCA overseen by Chet Atkins, who produced several of his albums (the best being Yesterday’s Wine), Nelson could only manage two more hits over the rest of the decade. By the end of 1970, RCA had dropped his contract, Shirley Collie had left him, and his Nashville home had burned. Nelson decided to return to Texas.
Back home, Nelson saw the possibility of developing a new audience, especially after appearing at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. Growing his hair long and dressing in a casual style that was worlds away from the rhinestone glitter of Nashville, Willie was able to relax and express himself. Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, a longtime fan, took notice of the new Willie and signed him up for his company’s new country music division. Willie Nelson’s first of several concept albums, Shotgun Willie, was an artistic success that sold well when it was released in 1973, despite its lack of obvious hits. Phases and Stages in 1974 was also a critical success but didn’t further his career.
That long-awaited recognition came after Nelson’s switch to Columbia in 1975, when he produced Red Headed Stranger, which became his first number one hit, eventually selling a million copies. Meanwhile, RCA had compiled the famous Wanted! The Outlaws album, which featured Willie, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser as rebels in the interest of “progressive country,” a concept that the public embraced by the millions. Combined, the two albums served to launch Willie Nelson. The Troublemaker, a gospel album that Willie had recorded at the same time as Shotgun Willie, was also released in 1976 and added to his mystique, as did 1978’s Waylon and Willie.
But in 1978 the release of Stardust, a collection of classic American pop songs, made it clear that Willie Nelson’s appeal was more than that of a country singer with rock inclinations. The sales soared to four million copies over the next two years, and Nelson became a bonified pop music icon.
As the seventies progressed, Nelson also got into the production of mass gatherings at the enormous Fourth of July extravaganzas, followed in the eighties by the Farm Aid concerts to help embattled farmers. Movies seemed the logical next development to his fame, with 1979’s The Electric Horseman (featuring “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”), being perhaps not only the first but the best of the lot.
Superstardom has also allowed the indulgence of Nelson’s love for singing duets. Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Leon Russell, Julio Iglesias, Ray Price, Hank Pierce, Faron Young, and many others have all taken their turns alongside Willie. A contretemps with the IRS—to the tune of $16 million in back taxes—threatened to put Willie in the poorhouse in 1991, but he persevered by offering a mail-order collection that was lapped up by fans. The matter was settled in 1993.
Willie’s romance with the public continues: he played the role as the songwriter alongside Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro, in 1997’s movie Wag the Dog, has become a fixture at the Ozark Theater in Branson, Missouri, and has released further albums of pop standards. It seems like the older he gets, the more Willie Nelson takes on. by Chester Rosson (January 1998)
Sam “Lighnin’ Hopkins (1912-1982)
Influenced: Blues guitarists throughout the world
Other Sites: Profile of Texas Blues Legend Sam “Lighnin’ Hopkins
One of the most prolific of blues recording artists was Houston’s Lightnin’ Hopkins. In the sixties and seventies, Hopkins brought a special form of country-urban blues to the growing white audience of blues fans across the U.S. and Europe. His guitar style, which ranged from the dogged repetition of traditional country blues to dead-heat ferocious boogie was appreciated by connoisseurs, but it was his poetic spontaneity—the creation of vibrant images of a lifetime of experience—that touched and amazed everyone who heard him. Born in rural East Texas, Sam Hopkins was raised with a blues heritage. He learned to play the guitar from his brother John Henry, and a cousin, Alger “Texas” Alexander, a role-model whose style of singing (recorded on the Okeh label of “race records”) young Sam learned to imitate.
Sam Hopkins’ long career might be said to have begun around 1920 when he climbed onto the platform at a church social in Buffalo, Texas, and picked up the blues beat along with the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson. Jefferson stopped abruptly and yelled, “Boy, you got to play it right!” Sam accepted the admonishment as encouragement, and spent much of the next two decades practicing his art wherever he could, for whatever people would offer. Drinking, women, and the blues were his life, and traveling the small towns and big city night spots with Texas Alexander, Hopkins honed a natural poetic genius that transformed his rough life into art.
After a stint in the Houston County prison farm in the mid-thirties for what biographers ambiguously refer to as his “excesses,” Sam Hopkins moved to Houston where he teamed up with a piano player named Wilson “Thunder” Smith, a pairing that called forth the nickname “Lightnin’,” which stayed with Hopkins for the rest of his life. The two soon left Texas to find a recording contract in Los Angeles. Aladdin, a “race records” label, gave them a small contract, but they found they couldn’t make a living in LA. Thunder and Lightnin’ returned to Houston, where Lightnin’ recorded his first modest hit, “Short-haired Woman,” on Gold Star. Although many other recordings followed—a total of 43 for Aladdin alone between 1946 and 1948, and 48 for Gold Star—with the notable exception of “Shotgun Blues,” which went to number five on Billboard charts in 1950, they met with little interest from buyers. Not until the blues revival of the late fifties and early sixties did Hopkins’ music see the wider exposure that catapulted him from a local favorite in the black neighborhood blues clubs of Houston and East Texas into a sought-after recording artist and opening act for such rock bands as the Grateful Dead.
The first step in that process occurred in 1959, when Sam Charters recorded Lightnin’ for Folkways, producer of his first album, The Roots of Lightnin’ Hopkins. Soon thereafter, Chris Strachwitz heard Lightnin’ in a Houston club and decided to found a new recording label, Arhoolie (Hopkins’ early recorded material done for Gold Star is available on Arhoolie). In less than a year, Lightnin’ was introduced on the folk circuit, playing to a young, appreciative white audience at the University of California in Berkeley. Houston radio deejay and folk enthusiast Mack McCormick took up Lightnin’s management and arranged tours that culminated in the early sixties at Carnegie Hall, where he performed concerts with the likes of Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Beginning in 1960 Lightnin’ also made a series of recordings for Prestige-Bluesville, as well as recordings for many other labels, including Arhoolie and Verve, many of which have been rereleased on CD. Highlights of his subsequent career include his 1964 trip overseas with the American Folk Blues Festival and the invaluable prize-winning documentary film by Les Blank, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins in 1968.
By the seventies, Hopkins was an established blues master, touring Europe and appearing in a command performance before the Queen of England. He continued to record, but after a 1970 auto accident, Hopkins preferred to play in the small Houston clubs he knew so well. According to one biographer, Lightnin’ had recorded at least 85 albums by the time of his death from throat cancer in 1982. by Chester Rosson (January 1998)
Billy Gibbons (1949-, Houston)
Dusty Hill (1949-, Dallas)
Frank Beard (1949-, Houston)
Genre: Electric Blues
Other Sites: ZZ Top Home
Although all the ZZ Top players were born the same year, the band came to life with the seventies. By far the most successful Texas group over the next two decades, ZZ Top has had more than $200 million in box office receipts and sold around 50 million records in a career that now extends into its 28th year.
Lead guitarist Billy Gibbons was the catalyst of the group. Son of a bandleader and a mom who doubled as an executive secretary, Billy was a guitar prodigy. By eighteen he had a successful single release, “99th Floor,” and had also released an album. In 1967 his band the Moving Sidewalks was opening in Houston for such hot national acts as the Doors and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. But toward the end of the decade, Gibbons and a couple of musicians from the Moving Sidewalks broke away to form a new band they called ZZ Top, whose name evoked associations with legendary Blues singer Z.Z. Hill and Zig-Zag roll-your-owns.
After getting off to a rough start with a southern boogie-and-blues recording that went nowhere, Gibbons acquired a couple of new partners in Dallasites Frank Beard and Dusty Hill, drummer and bass respectively, from the band American Blues. About the same time the newly staffed ZZ Top acquired its current manager, Bill Ham.
By February 1970 the group was ready for its first gig—at the VFW Hall in Beaumont, a typical venue, as it turned out, for the next couple of years. Not that the band ever lacked for exposure. They averaged more than 200 appearances each year, rocking the teen-packed houses with the powerfully amplified electric blues-boogie style that became their concert trademark. Toward the end of that year, London Records brought out ZZ Top’s First Album, which was modestly well received at the time. But the fans loved their Rolling Stones-knockoff hit single “Francine,” taken from the second album, Rio Grande Mud, which was released in 1972.
An appearance that year at the University of Houston’s football stadium drew 38,000 fans to hear the band share the stage with Blue Oyster Cult, the Doobie Brothers, and Savoy Brown. The sheer size of the audience showed the group what was possible, and became a harbinger of even bigger crowds to come. The group’s next album, 1973’s Tres Hombres, with its raunch-rock boogie “La Grange,” finally made the band known to, if not beloved by, the rock critics. It also made possible the 80,000 attendance at ZZ Top’s next big shindig at the University of Texas’ Memorial Stadium in Austin in 1974, a rough and raucous gathering that ended rock concerts at the stadium for the next 25 years. Although ZZ Top had been on the road practically from the group’s inception—Tres Hombres proceeded to sell a million copies and the next two albums Fandango! and Tejas did the same —it became clear that ZZ Top was ready for a really big tour.
For almost two years (1976-77) ZZ Top was on the road with its World Wide Texas Tour, an unparalleled rock extravaganza that sought to take the icons of Texas—including a menagerie of longhorns, brooding vultures, and a buffalo—to the world. And the crowds came in unprecedented numbers, with ticket sales of more than a million.
After a long rest during which all three band members went their separate ways while their manager severed relations with London and negotiated a contract with Warner Brothers, the group reunited in 1979. During the interim Gibbons had experimented with electronic music and more lyrical modes of expression, in the interest of expanding the band’s approach and potential appeal. The result of the transferred collaboration was Deguello, the most adventurous album to date, an effort which also went platinum.
With Gibbons and Hill sporting the impressive beards they had nurtured during their break, the band lost no time taking to the road again with the “Hot Rod Tour,” which lasted from late 1979 through most of 1981 and extended the band’s new sound to Japanese and European audiences. El Loco, an album with more experimentation, followed in 1981 with disappointing sales.
But 1983 brought Eliminator, ZZ Top’s monster album, which sold 5 million copies that year and eventually 11 million in the U.S. alone. One thing that may have made the huge difference in sales was the string of clever videos that promoted the album on MTV. When 1985’s Afterburner turned out to be a comparatively slow mover, ZZ Top took another long break before releasing Recycler in 1990. Although not nearly the hit that Eliminator turned out to be, Recycler kept the band in front of the public. In 1993 they were able to arrange a five album, $35 million contract with RCA, under which ZZ Top has produced two respectable album efforts since, 1994’s Antenna and 1996’s Rythmeen, which Texas Monthly ’s Joe Nick Patoski called “the band’s best in a decade.” Still one of the best concert tickets around, ZZ Top continues to draw big crowds worldwide. by Chester Rosson (January 1998)
Johnny and Edgar Winter
Johnny Winter (1944-)
Birthplace: Leland, Mississippi
Other Sites: Johnny Winter’s Official Web Site
Edgar Winter (1946-)
Other Sites: Edgar Winter’s Official Web Site
In the late sixties and early seventies, Johnny and Edgar Winter were the quintessential white boys of the blues, their pale faces and white hair contrasting eerily with how completely they had absorbed the idiom of the great black bluesmen. Early in their careers they received praise and attention from East Coast music critics, unlike their Texas compadres, ZZ Top. As Johnny and Edgar both received recording contracts and pursued their separate careers, Johnny overshadowed his younger brother commercially, but both siblings had strong followings among blues-rock aficionados and continue their recording and concert appearances today.
Something of a wunderkind musician, Johnny Winter first played clarinet (his orthodontist objected) before picking up his father’s ukulele. On dad’s advice he switched to the guitar at the age of eleven. Johnny was introduced to the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf by a Beaumont deejay who befriended him and passed on some blues licks. Soon Johnny began showing up at the black rhythm and blues clubs around Beaumont, sometimes asking to sit in.
In 1959 Johnny formed his first band, Johnny and the Jammers, utilizing the talents of his younger brother Edgar. At local Gulf Coast Recording they recorded a single, “School Day Blues,” which had some local airplay, the first of many others under various pseudonyms. Edgar Winter was progressing much along the same track, playing piano and later taking up the saxophone, both instruments essential to the pop, rhythm and blues, and jazz that Edgar would later play as a pro, first with his brother and then on his own. After a brief stint at Lamar Tech in Beaumont, Johnny took off for Chicago to take in life in the big city, listen to the Chicago blues masters, and to play the current “twist” rock in a friend’s band called The Gents. But by 1963 he was back in Texas, playing and recording with a series of bands with interesting names like Johnny Winter and the Black Plague, It and Them, Insight, and the Traits, sometimes with his brother Edgar. These years showed steady growth, with Johnny Winter releasing several local hits and appearing in the Houston area as a warmup for national acts. Meanwhile, Edgar opted for college and played with a college jazz band toward the end of the sixties.
The pivotal year for Johnny was 1968, when he was playing regularly with bassist Tommy Shannon (who would later join Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble) and John Turner in a trio called Winter. Winter recorded a demonstration disc at a studio in Austin that was later released as The Progressive Blues Experiment. After an article in Rolling Stone praised the recording, Johnny received a six-figure contract and released his “debut” album, Johnny Winter, in 1969. Edgar rejoined the band for the spate of appearances that followed. Besides club dates, Johnny was booked into all the major festivals, including Denver, Newport, Atlantic City, even Woodstock (though he didn’t appear on the Woodstock albums), and the Texas Pop Festival. His more rock-oriented album, Second Winter, was also issued that year. The seventies opened with Johnny playing with a new lineup, including former members of The McCoys and guitarist Rick Derringer, and was billed as “Johnny Winter And.” All the albums were commercial successes.
Edgar Winter was also making a name for himself, impressing audiences with his singing as well as with his sax and keyboard work. By 1970 he, too, had a recording contract, had split from his brother’s band, and had produced a first album that carved out a measure of artistic independence, titled Entrance. That album enabled Edgar to form his own touring group, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, which resulted in the well-received album of the same name, released in 1971. The next album however, a live album titled Roadwork, was the swan song of White Trash. After the group’s breakup, Edgar put together the team that produced the two million-selling They Only Come Out at Night, which contained the hit single “Frankenstein,” a perennial crowd-pleaser that appeared in the movie Wayne’s World II.
Though at this point both the Winter brothers would have seemed to be doing quite well, Johnny Winter was in fact facing a serious health problem, addiction to heroin. After the 1971 release of Johnny Winter And, Winter took a two-year break to recover before returning with Still Alive and Well. The next several albums wavered noticeably, but an international tour and 1976’s Together (with Edgar Winter) put him on the right track. About the same time Johnny took time to help out his old hero Muddy Waters by producing and arranging a series of albums that restored the elder bluesman to the level of his glory days. That exercise seemed to prime Johnny Winter for two of the best albums of his career, Nothing But the Blues (1977) and White Hot and Blue (1978).
After their own glory days in the seventies, both Winter brothers seemed to slow down, putting out fewer albums and touring less. Both found their real strengths in the blues-rock spectrum, with Johnny gravitating toward the blues and Edgar toward rock. Edgar, ever the innovator, was one of the first artists in his genre to use the synthesizer to the fullest, both in his recordings and on the concert stage. Johnny has steadily held to the electric blues-rock style that his fans crave. Among his later albums, 1984’s Guitar Slinger and 1991’s Let Me In stand out. Edgar Winter’s 1996 album, The Real Deal, was his most ambitious in years, bringing together many of the artists with whom he had collaborated throughout his career, including Rick Derringer, Leon Russell, and, of course, brother Johnny Winter.
Both Winters continue to tour today, with loyal fans critiquing the latest concerts on the Internet, voicing concerns about Johnny’s health, reassuring each other that the brothers are at the top of their form (or maybe just below), and some making extravagant claims for their heroes. Not bad for a pair of rockers who started out in their early teens and are now well into their fifties. by Chester Rosson (January 1998)
Waylon Jennings (1937-2002)
Genre: Country Western
Other Sites: The Official Site for Waylon Jennings
Waylon Jennings was the original outlaw of country, and the first to tire of posing as a bad boy. But the outlaw image served to make Waylon Jennings a media personality and star, just as it did Willie Nelson. His record sales skyrocketed with the release of Wanted: The Outlaws and made possible a lengthy career that continued into the nineties until ill health forced him into semi-retirement.
Jennings was no newcomer to the music scene when he led the so-called Outlaw rebellion against the Nashville country music establishment in the early seventies. In fact, although Ernest Tubb was his boyhood hero as he was growing up in Littlefield and Lubbock, Buddy Holly was the friend who produced Jennings’ first recording, “Jole Blon,” in 1958. Son of a dancehall guitarist, Jennings was hired to play bass with Buddy Holly’s Crickets on the ill-fated tour that ended Holly’s promising career. Jennings gave up a seat on the doomed plane to the Big Bopper.
For a time after the crash, Jennings went back to Lubbock and took a job broadcasting but soon returned to music. He moved to Phoenix and formed a group, the Waylors, which played regularly at the Phoenix Club for two years, starting in 1964. The gig led to a first album, Waylon Jennings at J.D.’s and a second unfocused folk, pop, country, rock album titled after the Bob Dylan song “Don’t Think Twice” it contained that was just good enough to get the attention of producer Chet Atkins at RCA.
Waylon’s luck—and experience—paid off with his first country music recording for the label, “That’s the Chance I’ll Have to Take,” which made the country charts. With 1971’s Singer of Sad Songs, the melancholy tendency in his voice was used to good effect. But as he continued to have hits in the heavily arranged style of Nashville in that period—“Love of the Common People” and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”—he grew dissatisfied. He was living a lifestyle, complete with long hair, which was a disputed option for a country star at the time. But the main issue was over control of production, which included the selection and arrangement of music. Jennings discovered the songs of Kris Kristofferson and included them on The Taker/Tulsa (1971). He also liked Billy Joe Shaver’s songs, putting them on Honky Tonk Heroes (1973).
By some accounts, the persona Jennings projected in such songs as “Ladies Love Outlaws,” and “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” combined with album jacket photos of Jennings’ dark clothing and deeply lined face, led directly to the outlaw image of the RCA collection Wanted: The Outlaws. Others see it all as a marketing ploy. Whatever the truth of the matter, the 1976 album went platinum, a first for a country music album. Featuring the talents of Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, it also represents a turning point from Jennings’ driven career to a more relaxed period of music-making among friends. A series of Waylon and Willie collaborations was followed by further collaborations with Kris Kristofferson, and that other man in black, Johnny Cash—all of which sold well. Other projects that might not otherwise have been possible under the old Nashville restraints include the autobiographical A Man Called Hoss (1987), The Eagle (1990), and the wonderfully funny, Too Dumb for New York City—Too Ugly for L.A. But if Waylon was an outlaw, he also had a gentler side, which came out in such songs as “Luckenbach, Texas,” and the song that questioned, “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?”
In 1993 both Johnny Cash and Jennings had heart attacks and arranged to recuperate in adjacent hospital beds. They also announced that they would not be working together as the Highwaymen in the future. Chester Rosson (January 1998)
Joe Ely (1947-)
Other Sites: Official HomePage of Joe Ely On Line Since 1983
Widely regarded in Texas as the most unjustly ignored rocker-songwriter of his generation, Joe Ely has been praised by an international critic as “one of the most completely realized artists in popular music in the nineties.” Appreciated by live music fans across the state (especially in his childhood hometown of Lubbock and his current hometown of Austin), Ely has had a good reputation among critics, but his records have sold mostly to Texas fans. In recent years, he has branched out a bit, collaborating on movie soundtracks for Meat Loaf and John Cougar Mellencamp. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the lack of attention elsewhere.
Joe Ely grew up in Amarillo and Lubbock, putting together his first band at the age of 13. He dropped out of high school at 16 to see the country—and Europe, as it turned out —working as an itinerant musician and at whatever odd jobs turned up.
With some of the wanderlust knocked out of him by the early seventies, Ely was once again back in Lubbock, where he got together with friends and fellow songwriters Jimmie Gilmore and Butch Hancock in a group they dubbed The Flatlanders. Some of their music was recorded, but just a couple of songs were released at the time. When nothing came of the recordings, and the group dispersed, Ely decided to form a new band with Jesse Taylor on guitar, Lloyd Maines and Steve Keeton on drums, and Gregg Wright on bass, with accordionist Ponty Bone sitting in. The band soon got a contract from MCA and recorded three albums: Joe Ely (1977), Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978) and Down on the Drag (1979). All regarded as musical successes by the critics, these albums also failed to attract the public in sufficient numbers outside of Texas. Fortunately, with the growing appreciation of Joe Ely’s talents, all have been re-released on CD. All three are made up laregely of the songs created by the members of the Flatlanders: Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock, a pattern that has continued throughout Ely’s career.
In 1980 the band grabbed the attention of the British band the Clash, which picked Ely and friends up as an opening act and took them on tour across the U.S. and back to England. Although constantly praised as a fine live band, Ely and crew just couldn’t get the recordings to move. Fronting a reshuffled band, Ely had even more critical success with 1981’s Musta Notta Gotta Lotta which should have sold well on the strength of the clever title alone. A 1984 album, Hi-Res also languished, perhaps because of the strong conceptual element that was originally intended to be conveyed at least partially by an accompanying video.
A new band made up of Ely, David Grissom, Jimmy Pettit and Davis McLarty developed a tight playing style that can be heard on the 1987-88 recordings Lord of the Highway and Dig All Night packed with songs written by Ely. And things began to look up for Ely and the band after the release of Live at Liberty Lunch (1990), which gave records fans a chance to hear what all the talk of Ely being best heard in live concerts was all about. The album also impressed MCA to sign up the act once more, and the subsequent releases have been relatively good sellers. Letter to Laredo, a 1995 release, promises to be a classic.
Although superstardom still eludes Ely, recent collaborations with Meat Loaf on his film Roadie and with John Cougar Mellencamp on his film Falling From Grace have been a solace, and led to song deals for other movie soundtracks for producers and directors including George Harrison (Pow Wow Highway) and Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer). Chippy, a CD taken from the stage musical written and performed by friends Ely, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Robert Earl Keen, Wayne Hancock, Jo Harvey Allen, and Jo Carol Pierce, was a 1995 labor of love that all involved put their hearts and souls into, only to receive a lukewarm response from theater audiences back East. by Chester Rosson (January 1998)