Ask an outsider what Houston is known for and you might get a wisecrack about traffic and mediocre football. Ask a Houstonian the same question and they will rattle off about rodeos, oil companies and, frankly…mediocre football. While one hundred people might answer that question one hundred different ways, few are likely to mention the blues. The Bayou City is many things: a diverse metropolis, an international travel hub, the home of Beyoncé. It is also a key figure in the history of the American blues, and in greater part, of black music.
Behind the Charity Baptist Church, a short drive northeast of Downtown in Houston’s historic Fifth Ward, there sits an empty lot. What once stood on that lot was of immense historical value. THE BRONZE PEACOCK should have been a protected landmark, and perhaps in Memphis or Chicago it would have been. But Houston has been late to honor its blues history. Don Robey opened the Bronze Peacock nightclub in 1946. In its heyday, the club was vital to black culture and post-war prosperity. Robey later turned the club into the headquarters of Duke-Peacock Records. Before the rise of Detroit’s Motown Records, Duke-Peacock was the largest black-owned record label in America, spawning legends such as Big Mama Thornton and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Big Mama’s hit song “Hound Dog” has been recorded over 250 times since 1952, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Although Don Robey and his empire are arguably the focal point of Houston’s blues lineage, the city’s contributions to the genre predate Peacock by more than two decades.
In the first years of the 20th century, George Thomas settled his family in Houston. They would soon become a prominent blues family. Most notably, Beulah Thomas, who gained national recognition as Sippie Wallace. In the 1920s Sippie played with the likes of Louis Armstrong. Though her initial career was short-lived, she later resumed playing thanks to the folk revival of thev1960s, and was eventually nominated for a Grammy. Another acclaimed Houstonian was Victoria Spivey, of the famous Spivey family. Her recordings date back to 1926, and her track “Black Snake Blues” is a bona fide blues standard. Unfortunately, many musicians of the era were forced to leave Houston to pursue careers in cities with more established music industries. New Orleans, Chicago and St. Louis laid claim to the careers of countless Buffalo Bayou musicians.
Perhaps the most iconic and widely recognized Houston blues man of the century was country blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins. The Houston legend made a name for himself with his distinctive finger-picking style and slurred southern vocals. Hopkins has been described as one of the last true blues artists, with contemporaries such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Although he played professionally since the 1930s and was nationally discovered in 1946, Hopkins was not introduced to integrated audiences until 1959. Another beneficiary of the ’60’s folk revival, Lightnin’ made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1960, and went on to record a number of classic blues tracks, including his most popular hit, “Mojo Hand.”
The men and women of the Houston blues era are indispensible to the city’s cultural legacy. Their work inspired Texas music icons such as ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The blues of the mid-century became the rock n’ roll and R&B of the ’70s and ’80s. Today, Houston’s blues legacy can be found in the music of soul and indie-rock acts such as The Suffers and The Tontons, and is perhaps best represented by the city’s vibrant hip-hop culture. This remains a city that breeds musical talent and respects those who chose to stay. Though most of its blues landmarks have been lost to time, the spirit of the bayou blues lives on through the music and the people of Houston.