"Good writing is usually about a good story that you can see in your mind as the words are sung. But great songwriting is often torture to get out."
Sonny Boy Terry: Houston Blues Blow
As the years go on and his resume deepens, Houston, Texas bluesman Sonny Boy Terry is now being recognized as one of Texas' - if not one of America's top harmonica players and devoted blues recording artists. But Terry wasn't always Sonny Boy and it didn't happen the way many would imagine. Born Terry Jerome in the unlikely place of Van Wert in northwest Ohio on the state line near Fort Wayne, Indiana, he picked up a harmonica as a teenager in the 1970s.
In 1981, after winter broke, a friend in Houston had a job for him, so Terry hit the road in a '66 Chevy Impala SS, his album collection and blues harps never looking back. He kept at it eventually meeting Johnny Winter's former and sometimes drummer Uncle John Turner. His first gig in Texas was with TC and the Cannonballs in 1983. TC was a legit Texas talent and a great way to break into the scene. They opened for The Fabulous T-Birds, The Nighhawks, John Hammond, Los Lobos, Robert Cray, Mighty Joe Young, The Sir Douglas Quintet, NRBQ, Paul Butterfield and just about everybody else it seemed.
After a year or so, Terry joined white hot and hard core local bluesman Jerry Lightfoot's band. They did shows with Jimmy T99 Nelson, Teddy Cry Cry Reynolds, Peppermint Harris, Sonny Tippet, Trudy Lynn, Pete Mayes, Joe Guitar Hughes, Grady Gaines and Big Walter Price.
In 1990 while Sonny Boy Terry was attending college, he hooked up with Lighnin' Hopkins protege' and jazz musician Kinney Abair. They also worked shows with genuine Louisiana bluesman, Jimmy Dotson, who recorded with Excello V-Jay and Slim Harpo in the late 50s. This led to Terry first trip to Europe, performing at Blues Estafette - Holland's largest indoor blues festival. In 1991 Sonny Boy Terry joined major blues legend Joe Guitar Hughes band where held his seat for nearly four years. Around this same period, Terry was deeply entrenched in Houston's blues scene. With the blessings of Joe Hughes, Johnny Copeland and Pete Mayes, Terry founded the 501(C)3 non-profit Houston Blues Society
Terry, when was your first desire to become involved in music, what does the BLUES mean to you?
I wanted to jam with my friends late in high school. One played acoustic guitar and one played rock and roll electric guitar so I took up harmonica. My dad played a little so I was able to get some pointers. Blues for me is the struggle coming from basically nothing to make something of my life. It’s about the ups and downs in life. It’s the joy as well as the sorrow. When I moved to Texas at 21 years old, I had no skills other than 5-6 years of playing harmonica.
What characterize Sonny Boy’s blues, how do you describe your sound and progress?
I figured out after listening to many contemporary greats, I could either be a second rate somebody else like Kim Wilson – who idolized – or try and do my own thing. So I really focused on the Houston sound. I still studied other players from around the country, but I specifically got into more Juke Boy Bonner, Lightnin Hopkins cousin harmonica man Billy Bizor. Plus I immersed myself in our blues culture, which has a deep history that includes Big Mama Thorton, Junior Parker and Duke Peacock Records. I also got to know Gatemouth Brown – musical genius – and while I never copped his style, I sincerely borrowed from his philosophy meaning that no matter what genre he played I was always fascinated that it always came out sounding like blues. Of course I played with Houston legend Joe Guitar Hughes for 4 years and I have at least jammed with nearly every known blues artist from Houston if we were alive at the same time. All these cats treated me like I was one of them and seemed engaged by my harmonica playing.
Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
I am not sure about that and I may change my mind because I have had a very rich career. Starting out here in Houston was interesting because I had a decent job when I got here but the economy caved and I was starving losing lots of weight sleeping on Uncle John Turner’s apartment floor on a kindergarden mat trying to make a career of it. Playing with Joe Hughes and getting started and running the Houston Blues Society for 4 years was a huge period of not only learning from a great bluesman but also right at the same time I was getting a huge education into human nature and the business of the blues. I was growing up as a musician and a human being. I lost what innocence I had left during that period. I also learned if I wanted to do this I had to make money.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician, and songwriter?
Doing my homework, studying the true greats. Having an open mind about blues when it comes to form and style. Learning at feet of the true legends. Also relationships with women always make for good songs. Good writing is usually about a good story that you can see in your mind as the words are sung. But great songwriting is often torture to get out. The ideas come from the universe but the rest of it is very hard work.
Are there any memories of all these GREAT BLUESMEN which you’d like to share with us?
Joe Hughes was a truly bad ass guitar player at a Freddie King/T Bone Walker level. He and his wife Willie Mae treated me like a musical son. On the road I roomed with Joe and his wife. Johnny Copeland was very kind towards me. For me, I always wanted to go to the city and play with the black blues players. And I did. They always treated me as if they took great pride in mentoring me. People who write about blues sometimes want to make it about race and I totally get that. But all these guys treated like I was one of them so I never doubt myself when it comes to real blues credentials. I was always led to believe I part of the whole thing.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best moment was probably recording with Johnny Copeland on his Catch Up with the Blues Album. Johnny was best friends with Joe Hughes so we went to Memphis and got to hang out and record with Gatemouth, Joe Hughes, Lonnie Brooks, Copeland, and the Memphis Horns. The worst was probably and I am not trying to sound negative but president of the Houston Blues Society was really hard towards the end. I had ran it for 3 plus years it was all volunteer. But we (and I emphasize WE) won a Blues Foundation award for best blues society in 1996 so it validated all that hard work. So even though it was tough dealing with everything at the end, God never leaves us with a negative. I was able to move on knowing the impact of not just mine but also everyone’s else’s work.
Why did you think that Texas Blues, continues to generate such a devoted following?
Well, Texas is huge so we have all kinds of blues here and we borrow from any style of blues there is. The state is loaded with first class guitar slingers. Plus Johnny Copeland, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Vaughn were great ambassadors for the music. Personally, I am an advocate of Houston blues and try to give it its own name and brand because so often Houston’s blues history falls through the cracks. I feel we are unique with a profound heritage.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell from the “studies” with Houston's black blues community?
One time I gave Mighty Sam Mclain, who was living in Houston in the early nineties a ride home after a show and he passed out I my front seat. I was driving around Cashmere Gardens (a known black residential community) trying to wake him up. I starting get a little nervous but eventually I woke him up and dropped him off. When I played with Joe Hughes, we had a blues jam residency in South Park just south of Houston’s renown Third Ward. The owner wanted to help Little Joe Washington – a very good blues musician but someone who likes to clown around on stage. She bought him a Tux and kept a guitar in the office for him to use. Little Joe would get upon stage, do his thing sorta R rated and act like he was stripping on stage. He started taking off his tux scaring all of us. But it turned out he had his street clothes on underneath.
What advice would you give to aspiring Texas blues musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the blues craft?
Go right to the source. Listen to what your heroes listened to. Never cheat the music. Work at a job to finance your music if you have to but regardless take care of your business as well as your craft/art. Take the advice Uncle John Turner gave me.
Which memory from the road with the blues makes you smile?
Kinney Abair in Belgium. We had an off day so the promoter had us stay in a Japenese style automated motel.
No attendant and it was make like a plastic shell. When you went to the bathroom, the whole room self-cleaned after you walked out. Well Kinney Abair was in the bathroom doing his business and walked only to realize his wallet had fallen out so he immediately went back in only to get sprayed by the self cleaning deal. Hilarious.
What advice Uncle John Turner has given to you and would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from him?
Uncle John was a great mentor and for a time we were very close. He was another who took pride in bringing me along. He always told me if someone told me I was putting on too much of a show while in a band, it was time for me to look for another band. He always made it real clear how important it was for a white blues musician to know ten times as much as the next guy. To him, as a white boy playing blues you needed to be a musicologist and a historian leaving no stone left unturned. He’s correct. You need to be immersed in the culture as well as being intellectually learned.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?
Less is often best. A rest is a note too. It is much harder to play with simplicity than technical expertise. James Harman says it’s a conversation not an argument.
Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most?
BB King. I have actually met several US presidents. BB King is the most regal human I have ever met. He is all that.
You had pretty interesting project Houston Blues Society, where did you get that idea?
HBS was something Joe Hughes and Johnny Copeland wanted to see get going but it wasn’t an original idea by any stretch. It had been bantered about for years. I worked for those guys and they completely inspired me. Making it about Houston blues was I suppose my idea. I wanted to see the city put on the map. But overall, I took many ideas from research except Blues In Schools which blues dee jay Kathleen Kern wanted to see become a reality. Making it about Houston though was a no brainer because of what was going on at the time. Other people have their own stories but most of them weren’t there or weren’t there until later. I do know in fact my other mentor Uncle John Turner had submiited a “DBA (Doing business as)” for a Houston Blues Society. But I was not aware of that at the time. That is a weird irony. So again, the idea was there. Because I had a bully pulpit playing with Joe Hughes and was willing to do the work, I took the ball and volunteered to be the ramrod. I just try to give the truth and honor as many people as I can so the true history of how it all got started in genuinely preserved. I get very disappointed when I hear made up stories because it not only hurts my legacy, but also everyone’s else’s who deserve mentioning and that includes people who no one knows who they are. I am not actively involved anymore but I will the new people right now are doing a wonderful job and having lots of fun helping blues. You can tell they have big hearts and they work hard. I can’t say enough good about them.
Do you know why Johnny Winter and SRV’s riffs are connected to the Texas blues rock?
Well, because both are actually from Texas and both used rock to reach a broader audience. I can’t really say but I am guessing Hendrix had a pretty big impact on both. But again in Texas, we aren’t an isolated culture. We borrow from anywhere we choose and make it Texas. I will say I lament too much rock in blues. The old stuff swings more and is much tastier and diverse. Too many old classic rockers like being dazzled by that style and I know it’s a driver in the business. If you aren’t SRV or Johnny Winter – both who I always loved seeing live, it sounds watered down. Historically, blues musicians aspired to have their signature sound. Just listen to Albert King or Albert Collins, or BB King. You can it’s them from the first note they play.
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