Little Joe Washington
The talented but apparently hapless blues guitarist asks
Metropolis for cash to get his guitar out of hock
|The only substance
abuse I got is KFC chicken.
courtesy of Smash
Next weekends Japan Blues Carnival
sees titans like Buddy Guy gracing the stage. But in the shadows
of such legends, there are still plenty of unsung bluesmen
toiling away in semi-obscurity.
In Little Joe Washingtons case, the obscurity seems
to be partly self-imposed, because alongside the blessings
of a wailing blues guitar technique and suitably gravelly
voice, Washington is a difficult man to approach.
Rather than speaking directly over the phone from his native
Houston, for instance, Washington must be interviewed through
his label head, Eddie Stout of Dialtone Records. Dialtone
has released Washingtons work since his recent return
to recording after years of destitution, albums that include
the new The Blues Reality, distributed in Japan on P-Vines
Blues Interactions imprint.
Having been led to believe that Washington was still living
above Houstons Continental Club, where hed scored
his first regular gig in years, we learn that he seems to
have been ejected. They kicked me out, he says.
I was gone to Europe one time, and when I came back
they got into my place and cleaned out everything.
Stout explains that relations didnt sour with the club
itself but with Washingtons neighbors. They got
tired of the smells and all the roaches. Joe would collect
everything. I saw piles and piles of junk in his room that
he got mostly out of trash cans.
Born in Houston in 1939 to a single mother, Washington grew
up in the citys Third Ward, home to blues giants like
Lightnin Hopkins, whom he played with and sings about
on the new album. Informally adopted by an uncle who hosted
jam sessions in his café/barbershop, Washington was
playing drums with Albert Collins by age 15. In a few years
he became known as Little Joe for his attempts to imitate
local bluesman Joe Hughes.
Houstons blues scene is thought to have at one time
rivaled Chicagos, but Washington downplays it. Blues
has been here forever. No, nothing special about it.
Nonetheless, his apprenticeship with masters like Hopkins
and Collins was enough to set him on the trajectory of a professional
In the 60s and 70s, Washington scratched out a
living playing the southwest border region from El Paso to
Los Angeles and recording with small labels like Donna and
Federal. But as his official bio would have it, The
bad habits hed developed in the wide-open party atmosphere
of the border bars eventually made him an all-too-willing
victim of substance abuse.
By the mid-90s, Washington was basically homeless, first
camping out in what had once been his uncles barbershop,
then in a car on the property after the shop burned down in
1997. But after years of living hand-to-mouth and showing
up at blues clubs and passing around the hat, he was adopted
by the Continental Club and Dialtone.
As Little Joe enters his late 60s, things seem to be looking
up, with a regular gig, a record contract, and recent international
tours, including a spot on last years Fuji Rock Festival
bill. After years of partying, he says hes got his substance
abuse under control. The only substance abuse I got
is KFC chicken. The originalits softer.
And unquestionably, Washingtons playing is in fine form.
Recorded in Tokyo following Fuji Rock 04, The Blues
Reality has him blustering his way through a range of standards
and originals, keeping the energy high with a biting guitar
squall thats also fluid enough to drop hints of jazz
and standards into the mix.
In the grand blues tradition, Washington is a boaster and
a showboater. Hes earned the wrath of a number of veteran
blues musicians in Houston who accuse him of dropping in unannounced
to pass the hat (and steal the show), but hes equally
tart about them. The old ones play the hell out of my
stuff and steal my licks, he says.
He also adds that, despite his recent streak of relative success,
his financial status hasnt changed. I need some
money so I can get my guitar out of pawn. Send me some money!
Club Quattro, June 16. See concert
listings for details.
with METROPOLIS readers at http://forum.japantoday.com