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Sunday, June 5, 2005

The big presence of Little Joe

The blues are blues wherever your home is

Special to The Japan Times

If the old saying that you can't play the blues until you have lived the blues is true, then Little Joe Washington should be a giant of the genre. The 66-year-old Houston native has certainly paid his dues. Some will say he is still paying them. He's marginally homeless and has been for 20 years or so, even though in the past five he's been rediscovered and celebrated as one of the last great working practitioners of wild-and-woolly Texas R&B.

News photo
Little Joe Washington

But Little Joe is also too set in his ways to pay much mind to what people think about him, and he's certainly immune to the lure of self-promotion. Since he doesn't even own a telephone, the only way to get in touch with him is through Eddie Stout, the owner of Dialtone Records, who acts as Little Joe's conduit to the world. Stout relays questions to Little Joe and then relays them back via e-mail.

True to his reputation, Little Joe is a man of few words, but he does make one thing perfectly clear: The blues isn't about sadness, at least not for him. "I try to take people's minds off the blues," he says in explanation of his hyperactive vocal and guitar style.

Though he pays tribute to Texas blues masters T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins on his new Japan-only album "The Blues Reality," Little Joe is adamant about not being beholden to anyone stylistically. "Nothing really," he replies when asked about what he learned from these two men, with whom he played in the 1950s. He cites only his uncle and his mother as musical influences. And as for Little Joe's hysterical singing style, it seems to be his and his alone. "I got my own thing," he says. "I don't listen to anybody."

Joe's whole career, in fact, has been characterized by a tendency to do what he wants, regardless of what others think might be best for him. Born Marion Washington in Houston, Little Joe dropped out of school in the ninth grade and started playing drums for blues great Albert Collins, who was a neighbor. Legend has it that he took up the guitar when he discovered that the time he took dismantling the drums after a gig left him little time to pursue girls. He earned the name "Little Joe" because he played mainly with Joe Hughes, who became his mentor and is much larger. (Little Joe is about 160 cm tall.)

The Houston blues scene was pretty wild in the 1950s, and Little Joe garnered a reputation as one of its most stylistically diverse guitarists, as comfortable with jazz as he was with jump blues and slow burners. He eventually left the city in the '60s and moved to El Paso, where he made a living playing the notorious Tex-Mex circuit for about 10 years.

Little Joe claims that his memories of this time are blurry. Many of the musicians who regularly played in Juarez and other border towns spent most of their days on the bottle. Little Joe slowly made his way to Los Angeles and along the way played with such R&B and jazz greats as Big Mama Thornton, Sonny Stitt, Wes Montgomery and The Platters, but eventually he decided to move back to Houston. "I was getting too drunk," he explains. "And I was there a long time."

Most of his friends and relatives in Houston were either dead or had moved away, and Little Joe first lived in an abandoned house and then an abandoned car. He earned money playing small blues joints, usually in impromptu fashion, and his local reputation is based as much on his disregard for protocol as it is for his chops. He would often show up at a club, talk the musicians into letting him use their equipment for 20 minutes (his guitar was in and out of hock for years), and then pass the hat. Depending on the size of the crowd, Little Joe could collect up to $100, which irked the other musicians, who were booked to play longer sets and usually didn't make that much.

Little Joe's wily attitude, which is probably as much of a survival tactic as his guarded self-possession is, informs his music. The wails that punctuate his high-tone singing are matched in terms of showmanship by guitar playing that utilizes his teeth, his feet and even the top of his dreadlocked head.

"I play every Thursday afternoon at the Zideco Cafe in Houston," he says, and thanks to Stout he's toured Europe and Japan. Reports from the live front, including last year's Fuji Rock Festival, where Little Joe performed several sets on different stages, indicate that Little Joe's manic style blows hot and cold, but when it blows hot it can burn your ears off.

"My music is music for the world, for everybody," he says. "It don't make no difference to me how many people are there. I love all people."

The inevitable question is: Has all this late success, relative as it is, done anything to change the circumstances of Little Joe Washington?

"I don't know," he replies. "I'm the same. I think I'm getting younger."

Little Joe Washington: June 16, 7 p.m., at Shibuya Club Quattro. Tickets 6,000 yen. For more information, call Smash at (03) 3444-6751.

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