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Music: Ventura County | ROCKTALK

Beyond the Basic Blues

After five decades, a tenor sax legend is reaping the rewards of musical dedication.


Joe Houston has been around the block. In fact, he was there when it was being built. After five decades on a never-ending road trip, the tenor sax legend will play at 7:30 p.m. Monday at cozy Cafe Voltaire, 43 N. Palm St. in Ventura. For five bucks, this show is a real deal, and you can find out why they call him "Mighty Joe" Houston.

Houston's last album, a sterling example of truth in advertising, is called "The Blues & Nothin' Else" on Shattered Music. There are five Houston originals on that one, plus some rockin' covers of blues classics such as "Flip Flop Fly" and "Red Rooster." Houston's gritty been-there-done-that vocals set this one apart from those sleep-inducing basic blues.

Houston left Austin, Texas, when he was a teenager and moved to Chicago, where he joined the blues scene. He eventually hooked up with boogie-woogie piano god Amos Milburn and later joined Big Joe Turner's band for a few years.

In between, Houston has played with Nat "King" Cole, Ray Charles, John Coltrane and about everyone else in the music business.

Houston had plenty to say during a recent phoner from his Long Beach home.


How's the blues business?

The blues is just sturdy. It's always there. It used to be there'd be all these rock 'n' roll clubs; now there's a lot of blues clubs. It's big right now, especially in Europe because it's America's music. I sort of think of blues and country music like sisters and brothers. They're America's music, and blues is the first music from America.

Why do you think the blues are so popular in Europe?

Those people see those old westerns, and there's a guy sitting on a stump in the middle of the night under the stars playing a harmonica, not a guitar.

How did you hook up with Amos Milburn?

I was playing with Gatemouth Moore, and we were playing the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and it was cold. They were ready to head back to Cleveland, but I didn't want to go back to the snow. My mom lived in Houston and I wanted to be close to her, so I went there and started playing around--I didn't know nobody.

When I met Amos, he said "Hey Joe, get yourself a tenor [sax] and you've got a job." I had been playing alto sax, and I told my mom I had a job so she bought me a tenor sax. I saw all the great ones, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, but Amos Milburn played the best boogie-woogie I ever heard in my life.

How did you end up with Big Joe Turner?

I was with this girl that sang with Duke Ellington, and one of her friends told me about a three-month gig in Corpus Christi [Texas] with Big Joe Turner. I told them to send me a train ticket because I wasn't taking no bus. I told the cab driver, "Next time you see me, you'll be paying to see me." I ended up staying with [Turner] for four years. He had a hit ["Shake, Rattle and Roll"] within three years, and I had a hit ["All Night Long"] in four.

What would you tell young musicians?

Practice and play. That's all I can say.

Tell me about "The Blues & Nothin' Else."

First, I made a record with [the Rolling Stones'] Mick Taylor, and the label guy calls and tells me he wants me to make a rock 'n' roll record. I said, "Man, you're defeating your purpose. Goodbye." The next day, he calls me back and tells me I can do what I want. I like the people at this record company. They're aggressive but they're nice people, too. The last record is about a year old now, so I'm going to make a new album in July. Hey, if I can pull it off, I'm a hero.


Someone's brain is working overtime coming up with all these festivals, seemingly one every weekend. It never ends, and this Sunday at noon it's Cajun Festival II at the Lobster Trap Restaurant in Oxnard.

If the weather is sunny, the festivities will be outside on the lawn--otherwise, it's inside the Bayou Room. Providing the soundtrack will be those rockin' Realtors in Acadiana, now augmented by Teresa Russell on guitar and Phil Salazar on fiddle. Also on the bill are JT & the Zydeco Zippers out of Santa Barbara.

The venue is at 3605 Peninsula Road in Oxnard. Besides the music, there will also be a Cajun buffet. Call (805) 985-6361.


The Big Green House, which became Smokey's, then a few other things, then Joe Daddy's, is now the Santa Clara House. The place still has the blues on weekends and real root-beer barrels near the front desk. On Friday, it's Randy Rich & the Ravens, and Saturday, Rick Reeves will do blues and classic rock. Music starts at 9 p.m. at 211 E. Santa Clara St. Call (805) 643-3264.

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