When Little Joe Washington died last November at the age of 75, the legendary Bayou City blues musician left behind plenty of mementos. Many of them ended up in the collection of the new Houston Blues Museum, which recently purchased a permanent exhibition space in the Fifth Ward after years of fundraising efforts. There’s a guitar, a flannel shirt, a chair from one of Washington’s apartments, a copy of the musician’s final Dialtone recording, and a tire from one of the bicycles he famously rode all over town. But perhaps the strangest item in the museum’s collection is one of Washington’s actual teeth. “It came flying out of his mouth when he was playing a gig,” explained Sandy Hickey, one of the museum’s founders.
Washington is just one of the local musicians the museum will celebrate. Others include Texas Johnny Brown, Big Walter the Thunderbird, and Jimmy T-99 Nelson. “There’s so much blues history here in Houston that people don’t know about,” said singer Trudy Lynn, who grew up in the Fifth Ward, not far from the present site of the museum. “There’s a lot of great artists from here, but so many people don’t realize it, especially the younger generation. The kids need to know.”
Lynn, who recently returned from performing at the Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland, has loaned the museum historic photographs, 45s, a hand-sewn outfit, and an official proclamation from the late Bob Lanier declaring Trudy Lynn Day. The museum is still building out its space and has announced plans to open sometime in the next few months. “Houston needs a blues museum,” Lynn said. “Memphis, Nashville, all these other cities have them, and Houston deserves one too.”
At a celebration late last year for the museum’s benefactors, one of the guests of honor was renowned guitarist Milton Hopkins, who’s played with B.B. King, Sam Cook, Little Richard, and Marvin Gaye, and whose cousin, the late Lightnin’ Hopkins, inspired a generation of Houston musicians.
“It’s going to teach the kids coming up about what went on before they got here and about some of the people who were doing it,” said Hopkins. “Because there’s always going to be blues music, I don’t care what goes on. We just need to give them ideas about which way to go.”
Or, as Hickey put it, “Once you get the blues, your life will never be the same.”
Check houstonbluesmuseum.org for updates.