I SEE U, Episode 95: Houston’s Emancipation Street Blues with Documentarian Drew Barnett-Hamilton

For a project originally intended to focus on Third Ward’s Eldorado Ballroom, producer Drew Barnett-Hamilton decided to dive deeper into the cultural history of the blues and capture Houston’s distinct role in defining this revolutionary sound in popular Black music on film.


From Left to Right: (Top Left- Blues Artist Gatemouth Brown, Bottom Left - Blues singer Jewel Brown, Center- When Houston Had The Blues Film Poster with Little Richard and Grady Gaines, Top Right - Blues singer Willie Mae Big Mama Thornton, Bottom Left - Blues artist Clifton Chenier and Lightin' Hopkins)


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Houston is home to the most successful musical talent in the world. But decades ago, the city was once the epicenter for the blues genre. Why has the city's blues history been neglected for so long? Stay tuned as host Eddie Robinson chats unguarded with acclaimed filmmaker, Drew Barnett-Hamilton. Her new documentary, When Houston Had The Blues, is currently touring the festival circuit with an astonishing goal of putting the city of Houston on the map as a major music city. The film explores the blues scene and culture from back in the day – from Texas bluesman and guitarist Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins; superstar singer Bobby "Blue" Bland; to renowned blues saxophonist Grady Gaines and influential songstress ‘Big Mama' Thornton – even rock pioneer Little Richard signed a recording contract with a label based out of Houston. Barnett-Hamilton takes I SEE U on a vintage musical journey that showcases the artists, the performance venues, and the Bayou City's unique role in defining this remarkable genre.


Full Transcript

Eddie Robinson: When we think of music cities, places like New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, or Chicago come to mind. But surprisingly enough, music fans have called the city of Houston the blues capital of the world.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: You used to walk down the neighborhoods and there were all the clubs and you’d hear the music.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: That’s what they always say about the Eldorado. Those windows would pop open and the sound would kind of come down and go out and be in the street and everyone would just kind of be around.

Eddie Robinson: I’m Eddie Robinson and stay tuned as we go on a vintage musical journey and explore the cultural history of the blues.

Eddie Robinson: Documentarian Drew Barnett-Hamilton joins us. To chat about her latest film, When Houston Had the Blues. We’ll unveil the city’s unique role in defining the blues sound, Dating back to the late 1800s, When slaves would express themselves through song. Oh yeah, I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.

Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U I’m your host, Eddie Robinson.

Eddie Robinson: She’s known for creating a documentary that describes a vibrant black music scene that never really received its due. Not many people realize today that the city of Houston was an epicenter for incredible blues music. And before there was Motown, two record labels in Houston were influential in shaping the course of American blues, gospel, soul, and R&B music after World War II.

Eddie Robinson: Artists like Bobby Blue Bland.

Eddie Robinson: Lightning Hopkins.

Eddie Robinson: Clifton chenier.

Eddie Robinson: Big Mama Thornton.

Eddie Robinson: All powerhouse performers who lit up the blues scene right here in Houston. Through a two hour journey. This woman breathes life into blues and how dozens upon dozens upon dozens of artists, including pieces of genres like zydeco music, all had bits of history in certain parts and regions of Texas. The film has been touring the festival circuit as of late and we’re so grateful to catch up with the executive producer of the documentary entitled…

Eddie Robinson: When Houston had the blues, we’re so excited and delighted to welcome documentarian Drew Barnett-Hamilton Drew, thanks so much for being a guest on I SEE U.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: What a pleasure. Thanks for having me, Eddie.

Eddie Robinson: And look, the film When Houston Had the Blues, directed by Alan Swyer is both remarkable and eye opening.

Eddie Robinson: As I’m watching the piece, I’m just overwhelmed. Not really knowing. So much history of the blues had its origins right here in the city of Houston and including record labels.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: What? I know everyone wants to talk about Barry Gordy, but there was a predecessor, you know?

Eddie Robinson: Exactly. I get the sense that, you know, this kind of history.

Eddie Robinson: Attached to Houston was buried on some level. And I wonder why, you know, when you think of music cities, you think of Memphis, you think of New Orleans, you think of Chicago, Nashville, Detroit. But why do you think for so long, Drew, we’ve celebrated these cities, but then neglected the musical

Eddie Robinson: accomplishments of Houston?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: You know, that’s certainly something we explore in the documentary, trying to answer in the film. I think the closest we got was that because it didn’t last. Because so many Houston artists ultimately had to make deals elsewhere, go to LA, go to Europe. You know, Houston didn’t allow the financial lasting power for a lot of these artists to keep doing what they wanted to do locally, which was such a shame, you know, especially after disco.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: But, you know, now you’re, you know, and since the nineties and recently, you are seeing more of a resurgence. You are seeing artists. That have stayed and kept it going. And, you know, that makes me happy for Houston, but it’s not getting easy. You know, they haven’t made it easy for them. And, and a lot of people have chosen to go to other cities to continue their career.

Eddie Robinson: That’s an interesting point. And do you believe, you know, Houston’s history of deep blues roots plays a role in why the city is still producing talented artists?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Absolutely. I mean, anyone that’s here, they know, you know, everyone that’s here. If they’re in the community, but I’m an eighth generation Texan.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I grew up very proud Texan. Our family is literally in the Texas history books. When I was in seventh grade, I saw my like great, great, great, great. So my grandmother, we were some of the earliest German immigrants in New Walden Texas before it was as far as I can tell before it was a state even. So we’re very proud.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I have a, I was like, I have my ink. I grew up, I didn’t know who Lightnin’ Hopkins was. You know, and like that should never happen. That shouldn’t happen. And I’m in my 30s researching a script about some mouth and I come across the Eldorado ballroom and to be honest the film actually started as An El Dorado Ballroom film.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I wanted to tell that story. And Anna and Clarence Dupre’s story and. It just became so much more when we started filming, and thank goodness for that, so. But it’s just…

Eddie Robinson: That’s interesting.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I think it’s very much forgotten, and a lot of the buildings are gone, and that history just isn’t there.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: You know, people don’t see it the same way if it’s just a historical mark. They’re not able to experience it themselves, and we just want more people to know that that’s there, and come to Houston and see it live, because that’s where you really get it. You know.

Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson and we’re chatting with documentarian Drew Barnett-Hamilton about her latest project, When Houston Had the Blues. It’s a film that captures the vibrant Black music scene of the blues genre. But the Bayou City never received the proper recognition that it’s due until now.

Eddie Robinson: You said 2018 was when you guys started. Talk to us about the process. What was it like for you to produce this documentary? You know, and what challenges did you all experience in putting this documentary together?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I mean, every doc has. It’s a process. It’s not like a feature. I, I’ve spent the last, you know, 16 years working in film and TV production, just, you know, TV shows, films, uh, not a lot of docs.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: So when I found this story and I started to do the deep dive about the Eldorado. I just was like, I have enough production knowledge. I’m just going to try and do this myself because this is a story I really want to tell. And so I called a lawyer. I had like some face at the time I was still on Facebook and I had a Facebook writers group friends and they recommended a lawyer just totally out of the blue.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And I met with this lawyer and I was asking questions about rights and like, how do I go about this? How do I start this process? He actually recommended that I talk to someone. He’s like a friend of mine who I work with. He is a director and he’s a big music guy and you need to meet this guy. And that turned out to be Alan Swyer, my wonderful, wonderful director and my dear mentor.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And I mean, Alan knows everything about music, film, TV. He’s He’s worked on everything from Baywatch to documentaries. I mean, he’s just so interesting, and he’s produced for Ray Charles. He’s, he was best friends with Solomon Burke. He just knows everything about music. I’ve never seen anyone stump him. And the second I met him, it was just like, we hit the ground running.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: We’re like, okay, who do we interview first? And I just started cold calling people. One of the people I have to give a big shout out to is Annie Eifler at Gulf Coast Entertainment, because I started noticing that a few of the artists we were interested in finding from the Eldorado era were like repped by Gulf Coast.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And so we interviewed Jewel Brown, Milton Hopkins, and Grady Gaines.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And I was living in LA. I was seven months pregnant with my second child and I was working as a production coordinator on American Horror Story Apocalypse.

Eddie Robinson: Interesting.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And he was just so generous and so wonderful and he played the saxophone for us and he told us his stories and we met with Milton at the Big Easy because we knew we wanted to really also feature the Houston spots that were still around.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: So the Big Easy is wonderful. And, and we went to Jewel’s home and once we interviewed those three, it was like, well, this is so much bigger. This is just, this is about all these musicians and honoring them and letting people know who they were.

Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we continue our chat with film producer Drew Barnett-Hamilton and her documentary, When Houston Had the Blues. We learned more about the challenges of shooting this film with legendary blues musicians of a certain age, while the pandemic was raging across the country. Several artists and participants of the film passed away during taping.

Eddie Robinson: Plus, we’ll hear details of how filmmakers were able to discover vintage video footage of Big Mama Willie Mae Thornton, and how she angrily admits on camera that singer Elvis Presley refused to work with her. Big Mama Thornton was the artist who originally recorded the song Hound Dog and turned it into a smash hit in 1952.

Eddie Robinson: The Elvis version was released three years later. I’m Eddie Robinson. Don’t move. I SEE U. We’ll return in just a moment.

Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also, please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U, I’m your host Eddie Robinson, and we’re chatting with documentarian Drew Barnett-Hamilton. Her new film, When Houston Had the Blues, is attempting to put the city of Houston on the map and solidify itself as a music city, proving to those who take the time to watch it that Houston is indeed the blues capital of the world.

Eddie Robinson: The film, directed by Alan Swyer, gives recognition to nearly every incredible legendary blues musician that performed throughout the city, at infamous ballrooms and lounges in Houston, to hole in the wall juke joints. It’s a very comprehensive two hour film that marks the history of the genre. And how it was able to reach across diverse cultures and music scenes throughout the South and onto radio stations nationwide.

Eddie Robinson: We continue our chat with Drew Barnett-Hamilton, who’s calling us from Sacramento, California. You know, you’ve developed this film into what I’d like to call a two hour audio and visual museum of the blues. And it’s a really comprehensive movie. It connects us to so many incredible artists, both Black and white artists, mind you, with clarity.

Eddie Robinson: And it has such insightfulness and first hand knowledge of many individuals who were there and witnessed the magic of this genre. Even remembering those who were featured in the film and passed away even, you know, while you were filming.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Yeah, it was, it was hard, uh, cause we lost Ms. Mabel at the end and Fufu, the second you meet every one of them, you just, it’s just so vibrant.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Their stories are so incredible. You just can’t not want to be a part of their world and, and fall right into it and hear everything you can and preserve every bit of history you can. I mean, it really was a challenge and we had to shut down. We didn’t film at all for a year and a half in the middle of the pandemic.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Yeah, we just didn’t want to risk. I mean, so many of the people we’re interviewing are 80 plus, you know, older or, or compromised or in some way, we didn’t want to take any chances. And we didn’t want to, you know, not that it’s bad, but we didn’t want to make this documentary over zoom because so much of feeling so personal is us being in these environments and seeing their photos and Their mementos and their environment because it’s more personal.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: You get a better sense of them. Like we got to go to Billy Gibbons house and hear him talk about why he loves lightning Hopkins. And he was comfortable doing it because he was in his place. And we really wanted to take our time and do it right. And sometimes that’s hard because The ultimate goal is just getting as many people to see it as possible and getting out there as fast as possible so that people understand what Houston had.

Eddie Robinson: Drew, what surprised you the most as you investigated, conducted research for this documentary, trying to locate, you know, many of these individuals, you know, but as you were going through the course of, you know, putting it all together, you know, what shocked you the most in putting this film together about the history of Houston’s blues culture?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Well, I think first and foremost, just it’s, it’s hiddenness, it’s buried, you know, and, and even finding people was challenging. It was not, there’s like with documentaries, especially there’s kind of a watershed where you interview someone and they say, Oh, if you talk to so and so and you say, Oh no, can you give me their number?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Do you mind letting them know what we’re trying to do? And, and, you know, you kind of just work said network.

Eddie Robinson: Okay.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And I watched a lot of YouTube videos.

Eddie Robinson: I can imagine.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Um, you know, just one of the most pivotal moments was kind of just a very fluke of a moment, which happens a lot. I think in docs we were going back here.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: We mostly finished at it We were mostly done filming and we were rewatching some cuts doing music clearances and selections and licensing and we’re trying to figure out big mama clips to use and We’re like, which Hound Dog do we want to use? So I’m going back and I’m watching all the hound dog before we go to license the one we want.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And I’d watch them a million times, these clips, and I watched one till the end and she finishes Hound Dog. And, and I’m, I’ve watched this clip a million times, but apparently never watched this last couple minutes. And it, that clip in the car, when she’s sitting in the car with Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And it’s just this candid moment that someone else… Captured. God bless other documentary filmmakers.

Big Mama Thornton (From Documentary clip): Well, he refused to play with me when he first come out and got famous. They wanted a big thing for Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley. He refused.

Big Mama Thornton (From Documentary clip): And it’s so much powerful to hear it directly from their voice, whoever it is.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: We had had a lot of people talking about Big Mama and why she didn’t get her due and Elvis did. You know, I mean Elvis got a truck that took him into the Astrodome and gave him a huge like concert and parade and Big mama had that eight years before him never got any of that But we didn’t know how to address that properly and that clip is Literally just big mama speaking her version of that and he can’t, he can’t do better than that.

Big Mama Thornton (From Documentary clip): And I, I’m so glad I can tell the world about it. Well, there’s one thing we’re going to do, we’re going to tell the truth. Well, that is the truth.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah, Drew, I, I thought that that was the best, one of the best features in that, uh, documentary and, you know, for those who haven’t seen the documentary, you know, we’re definitely not gonna let, you know, we’re not gonna tell everything, you know, but that scene in particular, you know, with Big Mama, you know, in the, in the backseat, you know, and it’s archived video.

Eddie Robinson: Um, and she talks about how she didn’t receive a dime from Elvis, you know, while she was the first to record Hound Dog in 1952.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And then you hear from CJ too, cause CJ Chenier knew her.

Eddie Robinson: Yes.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: He had been on tour and he had met her and he had heard the singing and you hear him say it just the way she did and it rings so true.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Like, that’s the truth. Crazily enough. Big Mama, Willie Mae Thornton, is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And I love Dolly Parton. I love that recent gesture where she was like, I shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. Other people should be in before me. This is the exact spirit we’re going for. Like, we have a, a petition going.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: We’re trying to get the word out because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is word of mouth. So the more people talk about it, the better it is. But she deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Like, she is the Queen of rock and roll. She’s the king of rock and roll as far as I’m concerned.

Eddie Robinson: I’m curious as to what you know, what what you’re um, what why you know, you’re so passionate about that at or and let me ask this question In a better way.

Eddie Robinson: Do you think part of Big Mama Thornton’s forgotten history, was not only because she was black and a woman, but also she spoke her mind, and she was so self confident, and didn’t take much of the ish.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Oh yeah, people didn’t like a strong woman back then, I’m sure, let alone a Black woman. I can only imagine that I ruffled a lot of feathers and she was so beloved by every musician, you know, everyone heard her.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Everyone was influenced by her. There was this rawness, there was this emotion, like there was this passion and you can’t hear her song and think that Elvis is doing it any better.

Eddie Robinson: You’re listening to I SEE U. I’m Eddie Robinson and we’re chatting with documentarian Drew Barnett-Hamilton about her latest project. When Houston had the blues Big Mama, I mean, and then I’m, I’m curious as to like, you know, women like Jewel Brown think the Houston Chronicle has labeled her the Beyonce of her time.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And Third Ward all in a Third Ward, you know.

Eddie Robinson: Exactly Exactly.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Megan Thee Stallion, Solange, like they’re all these third world on that. Obviously I love Ms. Diunna Greenleaf, Ms. Trudy Lynn.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: There are these strong, powerful women that grew up watching strong, powerful women around them. God, Katie Webster, if only she had still been around. What a joy. Actually, I love to her daughter, Betty, who’s in the film and, and her kids. And they’re just so wonderful. And they are actually in League City where I grew up.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: So that was a funny little surprise too. Yeah. Cause like we got, you know, we brought him Shipley’s Donuts and La Madeline and like did the whole line yards and, and just hung out at our house and got to look at photo albums and God, Katie, I don’t understand why people don’t know about Katie.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: But you know what?

Eddie Robinson: And let’s. Let’s dive deeper and I think, you know, wink, wink, I think we kind of know why, but you know, sexuality in music, you know, as a child growing up in Mississippi myself, you know, I would sneak and check out records from my aunt and uncles. And, you know, and, and, you know, in the documentary, in your documentary, you know, Katie Webster is spotlighted for a very provocative song that’s even revered.

Eddie Robinson: But though not from Houston, another vocalist named Betty Wright, you know, going back to, you know, when I was growing up, I would listen to her song. You know, singing songs about intimacy and infidelity in the late seventies. You know, what was it about these female vocals?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Even Dinah Washington?

Eddie Robinson: That’s right. That’s right.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And they talked about stuff. And because you’re at the club, you’re having, you had a long day at work. Like, you want to let loose.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Songs are about all sorts of things. Songs are about violent, like, destruction, chaos. Lovemaking. Like, I don’t think, like, rock and roll has never shied away from that.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: We just don’t, we just pretend it doesn’t. I, I mean, I, I think if you heard some of those songs and people that were trying to be upset about WAP or some of these newer songs, like, you heard some of the stuff from the 50s? I don’t know. That stuff made me blush too. So I.

Eddie Robinson: But there was, I mean, and admit, and you can admit, I mean, I think some of the people that you feature in your documentary, They mention this, how it was, uh, Big Mama, Who really sort of, Opened the door and allowed this freedom, if you will, quote unquote, to allow these female vocalists to just thrive and express themselves so freely, so frisky, you know what I mean?

Eddie Robinson: Saucy. I remember one of them saying, you know, Katie Webster would have, uh, hot sauce in her bag. Similar to what Beyonce did in Formation and that.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: It was so hard not to cut that clip in somehow. I was like, this is my secret Beyonce shout out because I love her. But yes, Katie had hot sauce in her bag, right? You know, and they have that sassiness. I think all that stuff though, ties back into such a beautiful confidence.

Eddie Robinson: Mm-hmm.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And that’s what women need more of, especially women of color that haven’t been seen and you know, there’s so many women that are carrying on this legacy of love for yourself, whatever you look like, and God bless that. Like more of that.

Eddie Robinson: Getting some love, which you are doing right now, which we love, you know, uh, check out our Instagram page on I SEE U. You’ll find Drew Barnett-Hamilton with a beautiful Houston Astros cap on.

Eddie Robinson: We love that. Thank you so much. Um, you also mentioned earlier the power of Zydeco and Zydeco music and its origins and influences, you know, very interesting watching the documentary. It talks about how Louisiana Cajun culture spread deeply into Port Arthur and eventually into Houston, you know, due to the close proximity of the regions being connected together.

Eddie Robinson: And, you know, Clifton Chenier, you know, born in Opelousas, Louisiana was, but was known as the King of Zydeco and Spent some time and I believe working in Houston, but why do you think Zydeco attracts audiences across so many generations?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Well, I think that, you know, they say it well in the film, like CJ talks about this, like Roger Wood talked about it.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Zydeco is cross generational. It’s just, it’s a family affair. You just want everyone involved. And, and I think there’s just such a like levity to it and, and a release, like you’re dancing, the music is hopping. It’s kind of changing. It has this jazz to it. It’s just like evolving with the rhythm. I, I think you can’t not listen to Zydeco and tap your feet on the twos and like enjoy yourself, you know, because and oh man, I just like that was some of the early stuff that really got me.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Interested in, in the depth of, of the documentary was watching some of the old blast blank films where he captured very early Verite footage of Lightnin’ and Clifton at some of those early LaLa’s. So before it was Zydeco, it was LaLa, and that was kind of just a more amorphous form where it was like, you know, drums, Zydeco, uh, accordion, and like, you’d have your. Washboard.

Eddie Robinson: Yep.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And a lot of people also, we didn’t even really talk about this in the song, but Clifton actually ingented that wearable washboard that you see today. Like, Clifton Jr. pretty much engineered that and made that. I mean, there was so much in the film we couldn’t even get to. Clifton is just, he just changed the game and, and he brought all that to Houston and it just kind of blended with other sounds and he really put the Zydeco name on it.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And Clifton Jr. is the one that made it go from Lala to Zydeco. And his son, CJ, is carrying that on and, you know, it, it’s just, he’s just so talented and He didn’t even want to play accordion. You hear him in the movie talking about how his daddy was like, don’t play the flute anymore. Don’t play the sax. I want you to play accordion.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I want you to be Zydeco and boom.

Eddie Robinson: Yeah. And you know, Marsha Ball makes a great point in, you know, singer, songwriter, musician, Marsha Ball, you know, she, in the documentary, she says Texas has been known. As a saxophone state.

Eddie Robinson: And I never really noticed or even thought about that. You know, I played the tenor sax, you know, in high school in Mississippi, but I only gravitated to it because I loved. Smooth jazz, you know, as even a little kid in high school, but she mentions the notion of New Orleans being this keyboard and horns, uh, city area, but Texas was guitars and saxophone.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I mean, I love that line. I know, right? I thought that was fascinating. Well, those Texas tenors, you know, you just, you had so many greats that went through here. You had Illinois Jacket.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: You had Arnett Cobb. You had John Wilkerson. You had Fahd Newman. And you had all these amazing guys. One of my favorite moments in the film. Is when Lisette Cobb, Arnette Cobb’s daughter, is talking about how one of the reasons I had that really unique Texas tenor, big honking sound was because, especially in the fifth ward, you had space to go out and play and you could go out into the prairie or the bayou and just be as loud as you want and kind of figure it out and play around a bit.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I just, I think that’s such a huge part of it, just this, this, and then, and then just went for it. And that, again, ties back to what I was saying earlier. The soul of the music, the vivaciousness of the music, when you hear it, it’s rawness. They’re not, they’re not trying to be polished, they’re not trying to be overproduced, like they’re giving you their heart and soul and you hear it.

Eddie Robinson: Coming up, we wrap up our chat with documentarian Drew Barnett-Hamilton. and find out more about her latest film, When Houston Had the Blues. We dive deeper into the stories of these amazing artists and performers, and discover that the people who were creating this remarkable music were just a few years out of slavery.

Eddie Robinson: And then later, the thrill is gone. What’s happened to some of those historic performance venues and landmarks that were speckled across Houston’s 3rd and 5th wards, juke joints of the mid 1900s? Now, just memories. Will we ever get to see a resurgence of the blues by you? And let’s hear from you. What do you think of the future of the blues genre?

Eddie Robinson: Or, feel free to offer up a favorite of your local city’s dive bar or venue. What’s your go to spot to check out live blues in your area? Hit us up with an email. Talk at I S E E U show. org and follow us on Instagram. I’m Eddie Robinson. Our final segment of I SEE U comes your way right after this.

Eddie Robinson: If you’re enjoying this program, please be sure to subscribe to our podcast. I SEE U with Eddie Robinson. You can hear all the past episodes and be notified when new episodes are released. Also please take a minute to give us a review or comment. We love getting feedback from our listeners.

Eddie Robinson: This is I SEE U. I’m your host, Eddie Robinson. We’ve been chatting with Drew Barnett-Hamilton. Producer, writer, documentarian, 8th generation Texan, born in Austin but raised from age 5 in League City, Texas. It’s about 35 minutes south of Houston. While learning about the famous 3rd Ward performance venue, Eldorado Ballroom, in her 30s…

Eddie Robinson: She realized how significant the role Houston played in the lives of so many blues artists from back in the day. She reached out to her colleagues in the film industry and quickly realized this story was much bigger than The Eldorado. When Houston Had The Blues, a remarkable two hour film packed with vintage film clips, artist commentary, and performances that featured the best blues the Bayou City has been known for. Besides places like Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, New York City, or L. A., Houston was never really known as a music city. Until now. This history packed documentary is looking to change that narrative. We continue our conversation with Drew Barnett-Hamilton on a virtual call from Sacramento, California.

Eddie Robinson: The powerful historical nature of the origins of how it all began. And here you have this blues genre where only just a few years from being free from slavery did these people start producing this material, this music, and to think that, you know, you were just a few years from slavery, right? And knowing the significance of of the contributions, you know, those people made to music and being able to recognize this really is phenomenal because of, you know, those open spaces, the prairies and the ability to actually have these big voluptuous tones and sounds in these big spaces, you know, really says a lot about not only Texas, the environment to where many of these people were in.

Eddie Robinson: As they realized how free they were, you know, from slavery.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Well, you know, one of the things that’s really, it’s a, it’s a hard, it was a hard section of figure out how to tell that piece of it because. Obviously, it’s a complicated moment in our history, a pivotal and necessary moment. But these beautiful, thriving communities had freeways built through them, you know, and like, and had their communities broken up

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: because they didn’t have as much political standing power as River Oak. So the white neighborhoods. So that’s where the freeways went. You know, so in addition to their culture changing so drastically during integration, as Diunna points out too like having come out of slavery, then they’re going to do all that.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And then they’re further divided. You know, like, I love the way Roger talks about how heartbreaking it was when these, you used to walk down the neighborhoods and there are all the clubs and you hear the music. You know, and you just like, that’s what they always say about the Eldorado. Those windows would pop open and the sound would kind of come down and go out and be in the street and everyone would just kind of be around and those places started going away and you started getting air conditioning and you started getting TV and people just didn’t congregate in those communal spaces as much for that.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Time period. And, and I’m just really grateful to see some of that starting to come back. I hope it comes back more. Um.

Eddie Robinson: It’s great that we see in this documentary, the Eldorado, which is recently gone into renovations. Now, a venue that opened in 1939 in the heart of Third Ward down the street, there was, you know, the Ebony room, the Palladium Ballroom.

Eddie Robinson: And then you had Eddie’s Lounge, McDaniel’s Lounge on Scott Street, the Cinder Club, the Ponderosa, Shady’s Playhouse in 5th Ward, you know, with the 12 shotgun shacks.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Oh my gosh, those, those were so pivotal. Yeah, well, and those were all these boiler plates. You know, those musicians were meeting each other, like, you’d hear them talk about, oh, I went to an Arentt Cobb show, and it wasn’t just about seeing the show. It was all, Being around the other musicians and figuring out who you’re going to gig with. And I don’t think we ended up using it, but Willie Arnelis, who’s a Latino drummer, who grew up in Houston, he grew up down the street from Willie Nelson, who also was in Third Ward for a long time.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And he got his start like borrowing drum kits from people in Willie’s band and they would all play together. You know, it was just this very interesting thing. There’s one other piece of it that actually we didn’t get to tell in the film and a big part of it is just because there aren’t really people around to tell it.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: So I will disclaimer by saying this is to the best of my research that I was able to find out. But the founders of the El Dorado ballroom were a couple, uh, Ana and Clarence Dupree and From what I can tell, Ana was the real entrepreneur in the couple. I mean, they both worked really hard. He was a bellhop.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: He worked in a hotel for a long time. He’s a ballet. And then she was, she was a beautician. She ended up being so successful as a beautician that she was doing these house calls. It’s for women, white women in River Oaks. This was still during segregated times and she became so successful with her and her colleagues that the white women in the area who were beauticians were jealous and quote unquote unionized.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: So they made it illegal for the Black women to come and do their jobs in the white women’s homes. And, and you know what? A woman who faces that kind of defeat could have packed it up. You know, like, you, you do something like that, everyone would understand if you’re like, Well, that’s it. I’m gonna do something else.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: But instead, she opened a new beauty shop. She started making more money, she and her husband saved everything they could, they bought a movie theater, and they conceived of the Eldorado Ballroom, and Anna said she wanted it to be the class venue for Third Ward. She wanted to get James Brown and Etta James, and she did!

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And they built that entire Eldorado building themselves. They leased the bottom out to black owned businesses like Caldwell’s who made suits for all the musicians that came into town. I mean, they didn’t just make it for themselves. They made it for their community and they welcomed the community in and and that was the place everybody wanted to be.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Like the white people were sneaking in there too, you know, like that. I just I feel like that’s one thing I should have learned in my history class just like everything else about Houston.

Eddie Robinson: It’s I SEE U, I’m Eddie Robinson, and we’re chatting with film producer Drew Barnett-Hamilton about her latest project, When Houston Had the Blues.

Eddie Robinson: Love him or hate him, you know, Don Robey, um, what was, what was the energy? Around this gentleman in your mind as you were talking to all these artists, you know, and it was, it’s just such a great nugget in the film where you talk about Little Richard and The Tempo Toppers.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Oh, yeah.

Eddie Robinson: He had a few sessions over at Peacock Records. Don Robey, founder and producer of War Peacock. You know, tell us more about the energy around him.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Yeah, so yeah, as you mentioned at the top of the show too, you know, in Houston you had these record labels, like you had Sugar Hill and you had Duke Peacock.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: So, Don Robey was half black, half Jewish, and, uh.

Eddie Robinson: And all gangsta.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And, oh yeah, all kinds of gang Like, you hear some of the stories too, like Milton talks about how he rolled up in his Big boat of a Cadillac and Milton was like playing on his porch and Milton thought it was a cop or something when he got out.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: He didn’t know what was going on. Uh, you know, there’s, he just had this, um, very…

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Very clear presence. Everyone talks about it, and like, yeah, if you made a deal with him, like, you stuck to it, you wouldn’t go back on your word with a guy like that, because he would burn you. You know, some people had a great experience with him. They never had issues. They got paid on time. It was fine.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Other people… He might have gotten some other writing credits, or he might have put his name, and he got the royalty. There’s definitely a lot of mixed feelings about Don Robey. One of the things I love the most in his stuff, I mean, there’s some really interesting photos of him, and… He was obviously a big character, but he had this ad that we show briefly in the film and it’s like him with a fork and knives over a cowboy hat and the line, the tagline is, if it ain’t a hit, I’ll eat my hat, you know, sort of stuff like that, where it’s just like, really, he was just like very out there and, but he knew, I mean, he had an ear for that talent and it wasn’t just him, it was Evelyn Johnson.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I mean, we had this partner in crime. So Evelyn was known more for running Buffalo Booking Agency, which also managed Bobby Bland and for a while, B. B. King and, and a lot of the Chitlin circuit legend. And so Evelyn’s doing all that and helping start the record label that for me was one of those buildings.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I was one of the most sad to see gone in the fifth ward on Erastus Street. There used to be a beautiful building that looked almost like a church, you know, and had this vaulted ceiling and for a long time, I had to scour eBay just to find the Duke Peacock book. There’s this beautiful book with all these old photos of the, and all the records, every discography, I mean, so many albums, even like Joe Hinton’s Funny, which is Willie Nelson’s big song.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: That was a Duke Peacock. It was actually, it was actually Backbeat, but that was part of it too. Okay. You know, there’s so many big hits. And then, yeah, that, that eventually converted over into some of the white audience, like some of those guys like Roy Head. You know, and B. J. Thomas. That ended up carrying on a lot of that sound into the white audience. Um, but that all came back to Duke Peacock and that was long before Barry Gordy. You know, there was a black record label owner before Motown for sure. Miss Mabel, Dr. Mabel, she was a Raylette. She was in that whole Motown scene, but she knew everybody way before because her brother Little Willie John.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Was who the Upsetters ended up with and they, I mean, they all traveled the circuit together. So there’s some really interesting crossover in that world.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Yeah.

Eddie Robinson: And I’m sure that, you know, if you took every last story of these incredible artists, there’s a movie. You know, there’s an incredible story to tell.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Every one of them. Look at a movie like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: How much you see just in that one short amount of time. I mean, and I think, yeah, every one of these Houston artists has a whole movie in them. I mean, Katie, for sure. Gate Mouth Brown. I mean, you don’t get better characters than that. Um, you know, and, and like these, some of these guys with all these tricks, like Guitar Shorty would do flips.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: You know, and he learned from Guitar Slim. You know, you have a lot of these guys that would do these moves, and like Albert Collins, and, and Albert King with their crazy, like, how they move their guitars and play them backwards I mean, there’s just so many cool little… You know, moment like that, that I had no idea that you could do that.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I mean, guitar was one of those guys that like taught Jimi Hendrix some of his tricks and nobody knows guitar’s name, but they all know Jimi’s name. So we’re here for Guitar.

Eddie Robinson: Do you think that the blues and the genre in and of itself would have a resurgence? What do you think the future looks like?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I think that it’s hard for music to stay in one place. You know, music’s always evolving and changing based on taste and technology and whatever. So you do see the dichotomy of like some of the modern Joe Bonamassa artists versus some of the more traditional artists. And for me, like, I’d rather still see it be more traditional. Now I’m not getting anything else.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Like, I love… Certain modern iterations, like, I’m a huge Gary Clark Jr. fan.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And I think you wouldn’t have a Gary Clark Jr. If you didn’t have the blues in Texas. Because look, like, he’s so much in that Albert King, Albert Collins era. But he still has this kind of country to him that’s like kind of Gate Mouth vibe. I think that it’s natural for it to evolve and change a little.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: But God, it’s… There’s somebody coming up that we can play guitar, fiddle, like Gate Mouth. I would go see them every time, you know.

Eddie Robinson: Of all the accomplishments, Drew, that you’ve personally made as a filmmaker, as a producer, as a mother, what lessons have you learned about yourself thus far?

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: The tough one. That’s the tough one. I would say it’s kind of me as all of those pieces. A lesson I had to really relearn probably during and after the pandemic was just to listen to myself and my voice and not try and filter it through other people’s expectations. And for me. It can be really scary to embrace who you are, and, you know, you want to hold back sometimes, or not go full tilt.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And for me, I realized I was compromising myself when I was doing that, and this story helped me realize how much I care about… Music and telling other people’s stories. I always joked I’d never do docs. Uh, and I just, I know, I just, I was like, oh, that’s boring. I was like, yeah, yeah, it takes too long. So it was just reminding myself to trust myself and to believe in that piece of me that is scary.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: I’ve heard it in a million different ways, but like, do something scary every day or do something that pushes you. I think that was an Eleanor Roosevelt quote. I’m not trying to take credit for that one.

Eddie Robinson: Okay.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: But, there were pieces of this film that were really scary to get or to ask for, or people that were scary to call.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Took me a long time to… Yeah. And, and then when you’ve read all this and, and you’re trying to get into that world, and look, I’m like a white girl from the suburbs. I was the last person most people expected when they, when they, like, see my name and they meet me. It’s not always who they expect. So, for me, it’s like, I can’t be guided by anyone else’s expectations.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And, just gotta do what excites me. Do what makes me feel good. And for my kids too, that’s a huge lesson. Like, God, I couldn’t be more proud of this movie because I got to meet all these amazing people. I got to help share a little piece of their world with others. That’s great. That’s great.

Eddie Robinson: This documentary, you’ve certainly started to give the city of Houston. It’s due. As it relates to the role it’s played in this remarkable blues genre. So thank you for that.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: About damn time.

Eddie Robinson: It’s about damn time. That’s right. Documentarian Drew Barnett-Hamilton. Thank you so much for being a guest on I SEE U.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: Eddie, it was wonderful. Thank you so much. I love the show and thank you to everyone at Houston Public Media.

Drew Barnett-Hamilton: And just appreciate everything y’all are doing too.

Eddie Robinson: Our team includes technical director, Todd Hulslander, producer. Laura Walker, editors, Mincho Jacob and Jonmitchell Goode. I SEE U is a production of Houston Public Media. Follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our podcast, wherever you listen to or download your favorite shows. I’m your host and executive producer, Eddie Robinson, and I feel you. We hear you. I SEE U.

Eddie Robinson: Thanks so much for listening until next time.


This article is part of the podcast I SEE U with Eddie Robinson

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Eddie Robinson

Eddie Robinson

Executive Producer & Host, I SEE U

A native of Mississippi, Eddie started his radio career as a 10th grader, working as a music jock for a 100,000-Watt (Pop) FM station and a Country AM station simultaneously. While Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus had nominated him for the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991, Eddie had an extreme passion...

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