[JPL] Legendary Houston bluesman Calvin Owens dies at 78

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Fri Feb 22 05:59:22 EST 2008


Feb. 21, 2008, 6:46PM
1929 CALVIN OWENS 2008
Legendary Houston bluesman Calvin Owens dies at 78
Houston trumpeter and bandleader took blues and jazz to new heights while
working with B.B. King and other music greats
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Legendary composer and bandleader Calvin Owens, part of the blues bedrock in
Houston, died Thursday morning. He was 78.

The trumpeter died of kidney failure weeks after undergoing a second surgery
for liver cancer.

Nationally, Owens was best known for two periods of work as bandleader for
blues legend B.B. King, one of which resulted in a Grammy. Locally, he was a
major session player at the Peacock Recording Co. during its golden era in
the 1950s. Owens was a fixture on Houston stages for 50 years. He also lived
and worked in Europe for 12 years.

Nicknamed "the Maestro," Owens was a restless stylist who didn't limit
himself to one genre.

"He was a visionary," said country musician Johnny Bush, who worked with
Owens on two albums during the past two years. "He saw more in music than
just blues or jazz."

Owens told Roger Wood, author of the blues book Down in Houston, "Jazz and
blues are the same to me. People think of the trumpet as being a jazz
instrument, and it is. But it's blues, too. So even when I do jazz, it's
still the blues. I like to just think of myself as a musician."

Owens was born on April 23, 1929, and raised in the Fifth Ward by his
mother, a New Orleans native who had relocated to Houston.

"We were extremely poor, in fact we were too poor to live in the housing
project, and I mean, that's really poor," he told Amy Murdock in Touched by
the Blues, an anthology of stories about blues players.

He grew up on Deschaumes Street in the Sawdust Alley area, northeast of
downtown around Sumpter. Owens remembered the community fondly, later naming
record labels and production companies after Sawdust Alley.

As a kid, Owens shined shoes and worked in a bowling alley. He picked up the
trumpet at 13 and studied with the late, beloved music teacher Samuel H.
Harris, among others. After graduating Phillis Wheatley High School, he
joined a traveling vaudeville show.

Owens was also one of several local stars to make a name at Houston's
Eldorado Ballroom. When he first played at the venue is difficult to
pinpoint. He appears in a 1949 archival photograph; in Unsung Heroes, he
suggested it was around January 1950.

Established as a premier player in Houston, Owens began working with King in
1953. Though King was born in Mississippi and had moved to Memphis, his
roots in Houston were deep. As a young musician in the '50s he recorded
here, and he also signed with a Houston-based booking agency. Owens told
Wood of a camaraderie between Memphis and Houston blues musicians who would
travel between the two cities picking up regular gigs. It was natural that
King would court Houston talent for his band.

By 1957, Owens and King had parted ways. Owens worked different jobs around
Houston, including one at a Maxwell House coffee factory. He also fell in
with the Peacock Recording Co., where he developed talent and was a session

Those who heard Owens at the time suggest he was a fiery player.

"He was always first trumpet, no matter who he played with," Texas Johnny
Brown, a blues guitarist who crossed paths with Owens for years starting in
the mid-'40s. "You could say he was very brassy."

Local blues guitarist Pete Mayes, who played and recorded often with Owens,
said he first heard the trumpeter in 1960. At the time, Owens was playing
with Otis Turner's band.

"Let me tell you something about Calvin; Calvin loved to hit the high
notes," Mayes said. "That was what you would call his forté. He'd play them
notes above most other trumpet players."

Owens recorded with dozens of blues players, including T-Bone Walker, Amos
Milburn, Gloria Edwards and Junior Parker. He also worked frequently with
jazz artists such as David "Fathead" Newman and Arnett Cobb.

Owens' second tenure with King was as bandleader as well as soloist, from
1978 to 1984. He was a crucial contributor to King's Grammy-winning 1983
album Blues 'n' Jazz, an apt title for Owens' decades of music.

After leaving King's band, Owens settled in Belgium for more than a decade.
Owens returned to Houston in the late '90s and began to record prolifically
as a leader, starting with 1993's True Blue. As was his way, he continued to
make music without regard for genre. He recorded blues and jazz, sometimes
country, and occasionally hip-hop. He also worked in Spanish-language music,
translating a 1996 recording into Es Tu Booty two years later.

"He was a total inspiration," said Andy Bradley, chief engineer at Houston's
SugarHill studios, where Owens made more than a dozen recordings. "He was
always full of energy whenever he came over here. He was always looking for
another great singer, another great tune, another great groove."

Last year, Owens released La Mujer que Canta Blues, a collaboration between
his Blues Orchestra and blues saxophonist Evelyn Rubio. Owens and his
ensemble also released Houston Is the Place to Be last year.

Despite his cancer diagnosis, Owens continued to work regularly with his
Blues Orchestra. He and his band appeared on Bush's 2007 album Kashmere
Gardens Mud.

"I'd call him Mr. Owens," Bush said, "and he'd say, 'Don't call me that,
you're the same age I am.' But we had great fun together. His arrangements
were great."

When he heard the record, Willie Nelson decided to make an album of jazz-
and blues-based country music with Bush, Owens and singer Ray Price.

Nelson will release the album, Young at Heart, on his label this summer.

"Generally, jazz and pop musicians don't have much to do with what I call
hillbilly music," Bush said. "He was the opposite. This album is, more or
less, his brainchild. If Willie hadn't heard the blues things we did in
Kashmere Gardens Mud, this album wouldn't have happened."

Owens, who was married four times, was single at the time of his death,
though two of his former wives were with him at Memorial Hermann Hospice in
his last days. He's also survived by six children, five grandchildren and
two great-grandchildren.

Mayes said Owens "was a guy that loved people. And he loved his family.

"And he was one of the most outstanding blues musicians and arrangers of our
times. I'm sure he'll get his due credit after he's up in heaven. He was a
great man."

andrew.dansby at chron.com

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