Houston Music Through The Decades

Musical Instruments
Musical Instruments | © Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho/Flickr
Samantha Beckett

Music in Texas is vast and plentiful. The state has produced famous artists from a vast array of backgrounds spanning a wide variety of musical genres. Throughout the decades, Texas helped to evolve such genres as blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll, and even rap. Many of these influential artists have some connection to Houston, whether it is personal or professional. This article explores the music of Texas, and more specifically Houston, throughout the decades.


Texas blues, and ultimately its history, began early in the 1900s. During the 1920s, the recording industry in the United States was beginning to grow, and in Texas, Dallas was becoming a major hub for blues artists who wanted to get their material out to the public. One of the most famous blues artists from Texas during the 1920s was Blind Lemon Jefferson. He was an African American born to farmers in Coutchman, Texas. Jefferson was also born blind but overcame many obstacles throughout his life. One of these accomplishments was that Jefferson was the first male folk blues singer and guitarist to be recorded in Texas. ‘Black Snake Moan’ was one of the songs recorded by Jefferson in the 1920s.

The 1930s was a time of great sorrow and difficulty for people all over the United States. The Great Depression raged across the country, robbing people of jobs and financial stability as the economy was suffering with the stock market crash of October 1929. Texas was as severely affected by the Depression as was the rest of the country. Jobs were hard to find and many people had difficulties supporting their families and generally making a living. One country singer influenced by the Depression era made a big impact on Texans during this time. Woody Guthrie was originally from Oklahoma but left for Texas in the 1930s. Using the Great Depression and life in the Texas Panhandle as inspiration, Guthrie wrote the song called ‘So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.’ This song spoke about the pain everyone was feeling during this time period and became popular among Texans.


Blues music recordings started during the 1940s in Houston. One of the first recording studios started in Houston was Gold Star Recording Studio. Famous throughout the years for recording many famous and influential artists, the studio, today, is called Sugar Hill Recording Studio and still continues to record local, regional, and national musicians. When Gold Star opened in 1947, founder Bill Quinn brought in many African American blues artists to record in his studio. One popular artist, born and raised in Houston, who was discovered by Gold Star was Lightnin’ Hopkins. During his first recording session, Hopkins made a huge such a big impact on those in the studio that he was given his nickname ‘Lightnin’.’ The song ‘Automobile Blues’ was one of the songs Hopkins recorded during that first Gold Star recording session.


One influential Houston record producer of the 1950s was Don Robey, and he owned two record labels — Peacock Records, which he founded and named after his nightclub, and Duke Records. While not known for his abilities with business dealings, Robey did record many blues artists during the 1950s, such as Memphis Slim and Floyd Dixon. Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton was another of Robey’s clients. In 1952, Thornton recorded the song ‘Hound Dog,’ which would later be covered and made famous by rock ‘n’ roll singer Elvis Presley. Many blues artists influenced the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll throughout the years. ‘Hound Dog’ is just one example.


Music was evolving during the 1960s, especially rock ‘n’ roll. Folk music was having a greater influence on rock ‘n’ roll artists as well as pop music. Elvis Presley was still producing hits during the 1960s. Even foreign influence was starting to reach Americans in the 1960s through television. The British Invasion was a major turning point for rock ‘n’ roll. British rock ‘n’ roll music was making its way across the ocean and becoming extremely popular with Americans, with the The Beatles being the perfect example. They are one of the most well-loved bands in the United States, even today. In Texas, one music producer tried to combat the British Invasion with the Sir Douglas Quartet. Huey Meux capitalized on the British rock ‘n’ roll sound and conferred with San Antonio artist Doug Sahm to create a band with a Cajun-infused sound that had a lot of similarities to the British rock ‘n’ roll sound. Given a British sounding name, The Sir Douglas Quartet released their first song in Britain and became a hit at home in Texas as well as on the international scene. The song ‘The Rains Came’ was off their self-titled first album release in 1966.


No article about Texas, and more specifically Houston, musicians would be complete without discussing ZZ Top. The 1970s was when this legendary Texas group first signed to London Records, who also managed the famous rock ‘n’ roll group The Rolling Stones. During their time actually recording in Houston, ZZ Top produced two albums — ZZ Top’s First Album in 1970 and Rio Grande Mud in 1972. The song ‘Just Got Paid’ was featured on Rio Grande Mud. Rock ‘n’ roll music was blowing up across Texas and the United States during this time period; however, ZZ Top was much more blues oriented during the 1970s and did not get their signature rock sound until the group traveled to Memphis in 1973 and recorded the album Tres Hombres. After developing their signature sound, ZZ Top tipped their hats to their beloved Texas during the late 1970s with their Worldwide Texas Tour: Taking Texas to the People.


During the 1980s, punk music was beginning to move out of its ‘underground’ phase and into the more acceptable mainstream mix of music. Dallas was the first of the Texas cities to be hit by punk musicians — Sex Pistols played there and in San Antonio in 1978 — who were characterized by independent attitudes as well as doing every aspect of their music themselves. One of the first punk bands to arise in Houston was Really Red. They wrote, recorded, practiced and played their own music at Houston locations. While they might not have been the most popular punk group during this time period, Really Red shows the sounds of Houston punk in the 1980s. Their title song ‘Teaching You The Fear’ from their album of the same name was released in 1981. This punk movement was short lived, however, and was pretty much finished in Texas by 1984, and the Rock Against Reagan campaign slowly pushed punk back into the background.


The 1990s saw Houston rap came into existence. In 1986, James ‘Lil’ J’ Smith founded Rap-A-Lot Records. Lil’ J used his recording studio to push rap onto the Houston music scene in the form of the gangsta rap genre. While Lil’ J was a record producer, he was also a musician, and the group The Ghetto Boys was Lil’ J’s brainchild. The Ghetto Boys changed members often due to creative differences, but the group released many successful records during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when they changed their name to The Geto Boys. Rap-A-Lot Records and The Geto Boys influenced other artists, who liked the genre, into making music of their own. The song ‘Scarface’ is off their 1990 album release titled The Geto Boys.


During the 2000s, rap was continuing to become popular with Houstonians. One notable Houston rapper is Slim Thug who came out of Swisha House Records, started by Michael ‘5000’ Watts. Swisha House Records is also home to legendary Houston rappers Mike Jones and Paul Wall. In 2005, Slim Thug released his debut album Already Platinum. In this album, Slim Thug kept alive the work of legendary producer DJ Screw who started the ‘chopped & screwed’ movement and died of a drug overdose in 2000. Already Platinum has songs that use delayed beats and repetition that is characteristic of DJ Screw’s ‘chopped & screwed’ sound. One song that demonstrates this musical style is ‘Like a Boss.’


One of the most influential pop and hip-hop artists making music today is Beyoncé. She was born and raised in Houston, Texas. The girl group Destiny’s Child was formed in Houston and became a way for Beyoncé to get her name out there. Even after Destiny’s Child had broken up, Beyoncé continued to make music and broke out into her solo career. Through her time making her own music, Beyoncé has gained a popularity and cult following all over Texas, the United States, and even the world. While this pop diva may have become a musical sensation, she does not forget her Houston roots. Many of Beyoncé’s songs pay tribute to Houston and the town that helped launch her career. The song ‘Flawless’ off her most recently released self-titled album Beyoncé (2013) is a song in which Beyoncé’s Houston roots fly strong.
By Samantha Beckett

She is a foodie, baker, music lover, and Houstonian.

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