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How Calvin Owens Brought Me Home

By Amy Murdock

Blues is the smell of smoke and barbeque, the low, dim flicker of neon piercing the collective darkness of a hushed room. Blues is the rattlesnake beneath the brush, the hissing sound of life - wild and full of venom - reborn in the strings of a guitar. I owe my love for the blues to the bronzed whip of nostalgia. When I moved from Houston to Los Angeles in 1998 I missed home with a stinging immediacy. Suddenly, and for no obvious reason, I became obsessed with the idyllic façade of the south, and began daydreaming about an aesthetic of which I had only partly known; creaking-wood porches and broad streets, banana trees and damp, tropical air.

Living in California created in me a longing for the depth, authenticity, and culture of my past. I missed the overall friendliness of the people, the slower pace of day-to-day life, and most of all, the music. Blues is home to me. The sound of the guitar, the image of a striking coal-colored man sitting on a porch or stage, sitting, eyes in painful squints, forehead wrinkled, the voice like liquid mercury, onyx stones, a magician’s silk cape, oozing onto the dusty floor, flooding the tables, chairs, staining feet, seeping out the front door and into the fragile liquid night.

A professor of mine once made a claim that all humanity can be traced back to Africa. If he was right, than this thing I feel for the blues and all of its trappings makes sense. Otherwise this connectedness I have with the music, the people, the stories, and the history of the blues is a bit confounding. I am, after all, a 30-year-old White girl from a middle-class upbringing. An English teacher living in West L.A. I’ve never been poor. I’ve never been hungry. But missing home has given me a taste of, and for, the blues. And now my longing for something real has turned into full-blown hunger. My journey of chronicling the blues began because of that hunger.

My first interview was with Calvin Owens, an internationally-acclaimed musician and blues innovator. Owens also happens to be from my hometown, back in Houston. The experience of interviewing him brought me closer to my roots than I ever thought possible. Calvin Owens lives in an attractive two-story on a street of attractive two-stories in a graceful, well-groomed neighborhood in the 3rd Ward. Though I had spent the first nineteen years of my existence in Houston, I had never ventured over to this part of the city.

Driving through Calvin’s neighborhood made me wonder if I realized I had missed out on some aspect of my city which was in fact a vital part of its make-up, an area composed of primarily African Americans – some thriving and some not – a community in every sense of the word, with a musical history comparable to cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and even Memphis. It took this interest of mine, and the lucky chance of having a contact to a famous bluesman to give me a new perspective on my native city. Houston’s history is stained with the magic blues, yet I had never known it. Blues brought me home.

When I met Calvin Owens he was sitting in his office staring at the monitor of his computer, blue reflected in the broad lenses of his glasses. It was nighttime, and the darkness looming on the other side of the window made the overhead light in his cozy work-space feel exceptionally bright. The air in the room seemed utterly electric, the musical instruments surrounding him waiting to come alive. When I entered the room his back was to me. He was sitting in front of two computers with giant musical keyboards connected to them. Owens was so deeply employed as I quietly stood over his shoulder, that it seemed as if he was speaking on the phone with someone, though he was not. The attention of this 75-year-old man on the black dots and lines flashing on the computer screen in front of him was so intense that it was as if the notes were engaging him in conversation, communicating with him some grand secret ingredient to the recipe of life.

I felt intimidated and nervous to speak with this legendary bluesman, this former band leader for B.B. King, who composed and arranged all the songs on King’s 1983 Grammy-award winning Jazz and Blues album. A man, who by most standards, should be enjoying retirement, and is instead continuing to compose and produce his own music, while organizing elaborate promotional campaigns and making plans to tour with his band. But as he turned away from the computer to shake my hand, the amiable smile on his face, coupled with his casual attire of shorts, Hawaiian shirt, and signature blue hat settled me instantly. I suddenly looked forward to our conversation with anticipation bordering on fervor. I was overwhelmed with the need to know this man’s story, what experiences led to the appointment of his nickname The Maestro, and how such electric energy as what emanated in that room could ever be contained.

In the hour and a half we spent together, Owens spoke mostly of the future – his new album called The Calvin Owens Show (set to be released in October 2004), his hopes of performing and winning at the W.C. Handy Awards in 2005, and his wish to play, along with his twenty piece orchestra, with his good friend B.B. King once again. “As a matter of fact, I need to call him tomorrow,” he said off-handedly. “Music changed my life,” Owens says emphatically. “Without music I don’t think I would have gotten through high school. I never missed much of school because I was in the band. It scares me to even think about what I would have done if I hadn’t found music. I don’t remember every having any vision of doing anything, but I was always a very productive person

. It was just my mother and I. We were extremely poor, in fact we were too poor to live in the housing project, and I mean, that’s really poor. So like I had to do odd jobs---shoe shine boy, worked at the bowling alley, that kind of a thing. My mom was a Creole lady born and raised in New Orleans. She used to tell me stories of Louis Armstrong. So I had a little knowledge of him. He was the only musician I knew of because of her. He was a very famous trumpet player. In fact he was the most famous of all trumpet players in his day because he played notes and did stuff nobody had ever played before, and that kind of a thing. He was a very big man in my eyes. Still is.”

At thirteen Owens picked up a trumpet and never set it down, and with help from the school band, learned how to play and to read music. With equal parts talent and tenacity, Owens graduated high school and eventually joined a Vaudeville Show called the Brownskin Models, featuring chorus lines, comedians, dancing girls, and live musical acts. But the tour turned out to be a colossal flop. “It’s the only time I’ve ever been hungry in my life,” he says with the playful, hearty laugh I will come to know well.

Though the Vaudeville Show did not last long, by the time Owens returned to Houston his life had radically changed. He was broke, married, and a father of two. Desperate, Owens took up shop at the local pool hall in order to “hustle around…..like I see the other guys do.” But Owens was a trumpet player, not a hustler, and his efforts at hustling in order to make money failed.

However, his “sitting at the pool hall all day and all night” did pay off, and led to the first, and biggest break of his life. “One day this musician come in who was putting a band together to go to the El Dorado Ballroom on January 1, 1950, and he said: ‘Calvin, I’m putting this band together, would you like to join?’ And I said, ‘Well, alright’ and everything else is history from that moment on. Pluma Davis’ band was really a highlight of my life and nothing else will touch that, I don’t care what happens.”

In the 1950s and early ‘60s the El Dorado Ballroom was an elegant fixture in the Houston blues nightlife, a nightlife which had become something of a phenomenon in the 3rd and 5th Wards, and is a critical, though less well-documented, part of American blues history. Owens spoke of the place as though it still exists. “When you play at the El Dorado Ballroom you have to be one of the best, and when you played at the El Dorado Ballroom you was considered one of the best because the El Dorado Ballroom was very famous for having great bands up there. Playing there was like playing at the Apollo Theater in New York City. The first night I walked up those stairs to the El Dorado was one of the greatest, most memorable days of my life. I will never forget that day.”

There were two kinds of venues for blues musicians in Houston during the city’s heyday, and incidentally, two kinds of blues. The first kind of venue - the down-home, gritty blues - consisted of one man and his guitar, playing to hard-working locals in the former living room of someone’s converted home, a place for musicians to tell their stories, people to drink, and if so inclined, to dance. The second kind, venues such as the El Dorado, were more formal, with a full band featuring a popular vocalist, and a clientele dressed to the nines in stockings and suits, ready to begin their raucous night on the town with some live entertainment.

Owens, on more than one occasion during our conversation, made a point of aligning himself with this latter kind of blues venue, and this alignment obviously symbolized to Owens something much more profound than a simple difference in atmosphere. To Owens, receiving recognition for his abilities means demanding nothing but the highest of standards from himself and his band. Performing at places he calls “little honky-tonks” is simply out of the question. He has worked too hard, paid his dues, and dedicated his life to honing his craft to play anywhere less than magnificent. Just as a painter would prefer a museum to a coffee shop, so does Owens prefer a polished, well-carpeted hall to present his music, his art.

Within three years, Owens built up a reputation of being one of the best trumpet players in Houston. In 1953 the Buffalo Booking Agency, the agency also responsible for booking bands out of Memphis, was based in Houston at the time, and asked Owens if he would like to come lead the band of the commercially successful B.B. King. Owens naturally jumped at the opportunity. For four years Owens toured with King, until King, as he had done prior to hiring Owens, fired everyone in the band, including Owens.

In 1957, Owens returned to Houston and worked as a quality control technician for Maxwell Coffee while working nights for the A & R Director of Peacock Records, attending Texas Southern University, and playing at the El Dorado Ballroom. Twenty-one years of this mind-boggling schedule elapsed, and though Owens did maintain a musically-centered lifestyle for the next two decades, he chose not to elaborate about this period of his life during our conversation much at all. Considering how critically important recognition and success are to The Maestro, I didn’t find it too surprising that Owens would de-emphasize a phase of his life in which recognition and fame remained an ambition rather than a reality.

Owens’ frenzied routine continued until 1978, when King rehired Owens, asking him once again to put together a band for him. Owens simply couldn’t say no, so together King and Owens toured the world for the next six years. During his years touring with King, Owens says he felt he had reached the pinnacle of his career, singling out a stint of playing at the Apollo Theater in New York, an event he recounts with periods of sudden laughter, the sound of which strikes me for its innocent, almost child-like appeal.

“The first time I went to New York working at Apollo theater, I think we stayed for a couple weeks. By the time we left, I was thirty, forty pounds lighter. I’m waiting for the lights to go out but they never went out. And all of a sudden you get out of the theater, it’s after twelve, you go downtown to some clubs, and you know blah, blah, blah then come back to the hotel, you know drinking and partying, and next thing you know its time to go back to work, which is twelve o’clock the next day. You jump up, you take a shower then you play those five-six shows a day and then you do that same thing over and over again, which is really insane looking at it now, but being in New York for the first time and playing at the Apollo theater, nothing beats that, you know.”

Though playing at the Apollo was a highlight of his career, and Texas his home, Owens felt more appreciated as a musician overseas. “The audience loved us. It was really something. In Europe the blues is considered art, and they’re more appreciative about that stuff. As a matter of fact, they know more about you than you know about yourself basically. We did twenty-eight days in Russia. This was during the Soviet Union thing, you know. Look behind you, people be following you. You weren’t allowed to go here and go there. At that time in order for you to be able to buy tickets you have to have earned merits, like on your job. And in order to buy tickets you got to have so many points. And if you don’t have enough points, you can’t buy a ticket. So you got all these people who want to buy tickets to see B.B. King, and they can’t. There were riots in a couple of places.”

But King wasn’t the only one in the band causing a commotion. “A lot of musicians call me The Maestro, right? That’s where the tag got put on me. The wife of one of the Philharmonic Orchestra directors, she so was so elated seeing me conduct the band that we had, right? She would say: ‘Oh, Maestro, you’re just wonderful’ and somewhere, that just hung on me, carry it along with me even today.” Around the time King won the Grammy for his Jazz and Blues album in 1983, Owens decided it was time to move on. The decidedly chaotic mixture of partying, performing, and working for someone else had taken its toll.

In 1984 Owens “fired himself” from the band and moved to Belgium in order to “clean up” his “deficiencies.” This dramatic move was a turning point in both Owens’ professional and personal life, and in fourteen years of living in Belgium Owens found the peace for which he had been searching. He became his own boss with the creation of Sawdust Alley Productions in 1985, named for the industrial part of Houston where he was raised. In addition, Owens met and married his second wife, a local Belgium woman. By the time he moved back to the states in 1998, Owens’ vision of an orchestra of musicians who wore tuxedos and shined shoes and played only in large venues, had become a bronzed reality in his mind. Though the creation of his orchestra was his ultimate goal, Owens’ ambitions of redefining the blues never waned. Working with Norma Zenteno, Owens produced the first ever blues album in Spanish called Es Tu Booty, which he redid in English (That’s Your Booty.) In 2000 Sawdust Alley produced Stop Lying in My Face, comprised of two CDs, one solely blues, the other, fused music with artists rapping over his blues arrangements. Sawdust Alley also released The Best of Calvin Owens and The Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra.

In recent years, his dream of building a top-quality, nothing-but-the-best orchestra, and taking the blues to Duke Ellington-inspired heights is finally becoming realized. It has been a long road of set-backs and exhausting hours, extending into days, weeks, years, decades of “cleaning up deficiencies”, and everything he has worked for seems to have led to this moment. That Owens is tasting the sweetness of his victory is apparent once he begins describing the support he has already received for The Calvin Owens Show. Hard-won pride accompanies his every word, and the impressive physical strength carrying him through his self-set, back-breaking schedule redefines what it means to age. But that’s not to say that time and pace of life haven’t conspired against him.

So I am very grateful to be where I am today. I’m playing better than I have in my whole life.” After an hour and a half my conversation with Calvin Owens ended. He walked me to the front door of his house where there were many framed photographs hanging on the wall of the entryway. I recognized one of the photographs as being B.B. King and his tour bus, which is, among blues enthusiasts, somewhat famous. In the photograph, twenty or so men are lined up against a narrow, metallic gray bus. A very young B.B. King stands at the front of the line of men, beaming into the camera. I made a comment to Owens about the fact that the men in the photo look almost animated, their faces lit-up with big, blissful smiles. Owens explained that during the ‘50s, it was unheard of for a Black musician to have his own tour bus, and B.B., along with his band, felt an abundance of giddy-like joy for their atypical success.

I watched as Owens stepped forward into the special little light which shined just above the notorious photo. His attention seemed thoroughly occupied. I wanted to document the moment somehow because it seemed especially significant. But really it was not. A man was simply looking back on the memories of his life and acknowledging them with well-earned satisfaction. The moment was a brief one. When he turned to face me once again, the smile was still there, and though nothing externally has changed, I sensed that something within him had shifted, his mind no longer on the past. He gazed upstairs, toward his office, as if being summoned. Though I knew it was time for me to go I wanted to remain, to thank the congenial man again for sharing his memories with me. I wanted to package him in an air-tight seal, pack him in my suitcase and take him back to the west coast with me. I wanted to somehow capture the velvet voice recalling the compelling features of his life - the days of playing at the Apollo Theater in New York, causing riots in Russia, a lifetime of struggles and successes, traveling the world, playing with B.B. King, and entertaining thousands of fans.

I wanted to know what it was to live with such an engaging and defined passion, to have found truth in all the ups and downs accompanying that passion, and to have taken the truth, the hurt, confusion, and pain and made something beautiful, to have created harmony out of the rhythmic aching discord of life. As I left Calvin Owens and walked into the humid, tropical evening of the city in which I was raised, I realized I had found the story for which I had been searching, and that story was interweaved with my own life, certainly the path laid before me. My passion is the blues, my future telling the stories. Blues is home to me. Blues is the feeling of safety, of relaxation and letting go, of getting out from hiding underneath the underbrush and reaching into the darkness, into the hissing, venomous liquid night, reaching without knowing, feeling safe and seeking danger. Blues is the location, the thrill of having found the spot, of not knowing but being assured, reaching into the void and pulling back something solid and real and true in its magical significance.

Read more Blues Heroes Stories
from the bookTouched By the Blues

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