A TRIBUTE TO BOSTON BLACKIE
Mon Nov 6 17:18:08 EST 1995
BOSTON BLACKIE was born Bennie Joe Houston, Saturday, November 6, 1943, Panola,
AL., and died at the age of 49 on Sunday, July 11, 1993, Chicago, IL.
Since not everyone on BLUES-L has a Web browser, I've taken the liberty of
posting this interesting story taken from the BLUES ACCESS Web site
<http://www.interactive.line.com/blues/ bluesaccess/>. Those who are
interested in hearing BOSTON BLACKIE, check out WOLF CD 120.847 :
BOSTON BLACKIE/OTIS SMOTHERS - Chicago Blues Sessions v. 1.
A story of Taildragger and Boston Blackie
by Sandra Pointer-Jones
The Delta Fish Market, on Chicago's West Side, is a popular place for the blues
crowd and a hangout for West Side musicians. The fish market sells fresh fish
trucked in from the South. It also has live entertainment performed on an
outdoor stage in the parking lot. At any given time, upwards of 50 to 100
people gather to listen to and/or play music. Just sitting in the parking lot,
even when it's closed, you can see musicians passing through, checking to see
who's hanging out and anticipating the relaxed camaraderie of a fellow player.
Just behind the open-air venue is the Woods Lounge, which has its own outdoor
stage. It was there, on July 11, 1993, that guitarist Bennie Houston, < age?>,
known in the Chicago blues world as "Boston Blackie," was shot and killed by
blues musician James Jones, the "Taildragger," 54.
The two musicians had known each other and performed together for almost 20
years in the tightly knit blues community of the West Side.
Taildragger, a Howlin' Wolf-styled vocalist who played guitar until an accident
hampered his playing hand, is widely known on the Chicago blues scene, where
fans love his audience-friendly performances in which he saunters through the
crowd, slithering up to women and singing his local hit, "My Head is Bald."
Guitarist Bennie Houston was a popular musician on the West Side, mostly
playing neighborhood bars and only occasionally turning up in the trendier,
less intimate venues of the North Side.
"He didn't have the range on his instrument in terms of his knowledge of the
instrument on the fretboard as much as, say, Jimmy Dawkins," remarks Michael
Frank, owner of Earwig Records. "But he had a sound that was a really deep
blues sound. He had his own tone and his own style. I'm sure it was influenced
by Magic Sam or Freddy King. He should have had some recognition because he was
a really fine guitarist."
But on the night of July 11, after performing at the Woods Lounge, Jones shot
Houston during an altercation near the stage.
Houston's brother, Milton, was performing at the nearby Guess Who Lounge when
he got word of the shooting. "Maryann, a friend, come got me and said,
'Somebody done shot Boston Blackie.' I said, 'Oh, Lord have mercy. Where did he
get shot?' 'Over at the fish market.' "
James "Taildragger" Jones was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison
for involuntary manslaughter in the death of Bennie "Boston Blackie" Houston.
He is serving a four-year term in some penitentiary in Illinois. Meanwhile,
[something about how the crime has left the blues community mystified as to how
such a thing could come about between two if its best-loved members]
y y y The West Side of Chicago is where artists like Magic Sam, Freddy King and
Otis Rush, among others, have honed their musical skills since the 1950s. In
this part of town the blues flourished like the many lush vines in a rain
forest; at one time as many as 200 clubs peppered the West Side community.
West Side bands, envisioning horn sections and keyboards they couldn't afford,
were forced to create their own versions of those sounds. The guitarist, for
instance, had to play hard, gritty, hold-it-down rhythm while still being able
to solo. This inventive tradition is the backbone of what is known as the tough
West Side sound even today.
Violence is a stigma that has haunted the blues since its beginning. Robert
Johnson, Little Walter Jacobs, John Lee (Sonny Boy I) Williamson and Scrapper
Blackwell were all murder victims. Chicago had more deaths by hand guns then
any city in America in 1993, including New York, Los Angles and Miami. Poverty
has a grip on the city's West Side community, and the artists that live and
work there have felt it.
West Side clubs are often small dark places, neighborhood bars where the
audiences are at least vaguely familiar with one another and musicians are
well-known in the community. There are no rock-tinged solos, no Las Vegas
choreography. Competition among artists and bands is fierce. The desire to be
recognized is strong, and pride is a thick cable that can be snapped as easily
as a dry twig. It is in the context of this intense competition and solid but
fragile pride that Taildragger Jones killed Boston Blackie.
y y y After the incident, when this reporter asked Jones why he shot Houston, a
peer and a man that he had known for almost 20 years, he said Houston was
jealous after he was barred from the Delta Fish Market because of a
knife-wielding incident. "We worked together some years here at the Fish
Market, but last year he pulled a knife on a girl and was barred from here. I
could still work here, but he couldn't." (Milton Houston, guitarist and brother
of Bennie Houston, calls those knife allegations untrue. "Boston ain't cut
nobody in his life," he says.)
Jones says that Houston plagued and pestered him. Just before a scheduled
summertime bus tour of local blues clubs that included the Delta Fish Market,
Jones and Houston had a telephone conversation which Jones remembers ending on
"Blackie called me up and said, 'Why don't you call me up (onstage)?' I said,
'Davis (Oliver "Fishman" Davis, owner of the Delta Fish Market) said he don't
want you on his property.' He said, 'It's your show.' 'But this is this man's
place. I can't control that.' He said, 'You honky-lover. You got these white
boys playing, and black boys supposed to be making this money.' I said, 'I hire
whoever the hell I can get along with.' So he says, 'If I can't play at the
Fish Market, you can't play at the festival.' I said, 'You can't stop me. My
name is just as big as yours.' "
Felix Wohrstein, a longtime friend of Houston, says Houston did have the power
to stop Jones from performing at the prestigious annual Chicago Blues Festival,
held each spring in Grant Park.
"Boston played at the festival in '91, and he was hired to play there in '93,
to do, like, a Fish Market jam session. He would lead his band and have guest
singers and guest musicians," Wohrstein said. "He got, like, six people to be
guests: Vern Harrington (guitarist) and a few others. On the brochure
Taildragger was advertised to be a part of that. But he wouldn't accept the
money that they decided on.
"But when it came time, a couple days before the festival, Boston told me that
he (Taildragger) was asking around, 'Are you going to the festival?' He made it
clear that he wanted to be on as part of the deal. So Boston let him come on.
He let him perform, but he wasn't contracted to perform."
Jimmy Dawkins, one of Chicago's great guitarists, is a friend and colleague of
both Jones and Houston. Dawkins is also on the Chicago Blues Festival
Committee. He confirms that Jones was contracted to perform at the festival but
wasn't satisfied with the details.
"Taildragger was in the contract," Dawkins says. "He was doing what he was
supposed to do. But he wanted more money."
Jones performed, but he says the set was marred by heckling from Houston, and
that he had to go through unconventional channels to get paid for his
"We go to the blues festival. He (Houston) do two numbers. Little Wolf do two
numbers. Vern Harrington and I go up, and while I'm trying to sing he's up
there bugging me, saying, 'You ain't got nothing coming. The city hired me;
they didn't hire you.' I just kept on trying to sing. Before we left the fest
he walked off and didn't pay nobody."
Dawkins explains the policies of the committee and the role of the bandleader
when hiring a band.
"If Jimmy Dawkins gonna come in with his band, or Otis Rush or whoever, then
the check is always made out to the leader. Boston Blackie was the leader. He
can hire Taildragger or bring him in, as they agreed to, as one member of the
show. 'Dragger just didn't want to work for him. To my understanding City Hall
sent out checks to each of the musicians again."
Wohrstein adds, "The city was mad at Boston for being a messy dealer and having
to pay extra money, or maybe they figured Boston cheated him (Jones), but he
was never contracted to perform. Boston just let him sing a couple songs to
make him happy to be on the festival. He paid everybody else their money. So
Taildragger put Boston in bad with the city. Barry Dolins (city coordinator of
the Chicago Blues Festival) told me he was never hiring Boston Blackie for the
y y y The feud between the two men raged on. In the wake of these events, what
was once a mild rivalry often ignited into moments of heated anger. After the
embarrassment of being heckled at a festival where blues fans came from all
over the world, did the sting of hurt pride ignite Jones into further action?
And now that Houston had a clouded reputation with city planners, what could he
do to clear his name?
Jones explained that Houston approached him and offered to pay him the money he
did not receive at the festival. But Jones refused to take it, which made
Wohrstein says he witnessed an argument between the two men. Houston wanted
Jones to return the check to clear his name with the city. "The weekend that he
got shot, I was there and I was talking to both of them. They were arguing."
The two men bickered almost constantly whenever they ran into each other. Jones
recounts that Houston often would inquire about the check and started a series
of threats that he began to feel Houston would carry out.
"One Friday he got in behind me. I ran in the fish market. He got in behind me
with a knife. Wanted to cut me, so I run. He asked me, 'Show me where you got
the check.' I didn't have no papers on me," Jones says.
"So that Saturday morning when I left home I put the receipt up over my sun
visor in my pick-up. So I was sitting talking with some guys (at the fish
market), and here he pulls up. He's got a pipe with some tape on the end of it.
I said, 'Hold it. I done got paid, OK. You don't owe me nothing. I don't owe
you no money. You don't owe me none, so why don't you leave me alone? Other
guys got a check and you ain't fighting them.'
"He said, 'They wouldn't have got no check if it wasn't for you. You think you
smart. That's why I'm gonna whip your ass.' I said, 'Man I can't take no
whipping.' I ran in the fish market and called the police. When the police come
they just told him to leave me alone."
y y y By the weekend of July 10 things had escalated into a situation that, on
a hot summer Chicago night, would end in death.
Taildragger Jones performed at the Woods Lounge on July 11. He remembers
sitting on the stage afterwards when Houston showed up.
"I look up and there he (Houston) was, right up on me. He said, 'You black
motherfucker. You called the police on me. I'm gonna fuck you up good.' It
scared me because he was somewhere watching. He was barred from here (the fish
market), he was barred from the lounge, but he's out there watching. Well, he
seen me by myself, so he was running to get me.
"When I look up this man is up on me. I couldn't get up. I couldn't think of
but one thing. I've seen him cut his own brother. He cut his own brother right
here at the fish market. I know he'd shoot you and I know he'd cut you. So what
else could I do? It shocked me.
"It was dark out there. I was sitting down out there on that bandstand, and he
could have grabbed my feets and snatched them out from under me. He'd have had
me. He was gonna jump up there and whip me in style. I don't know what was on
his mind. But when I looked up, that's what I seen was in his face, and I just
closed my eyes and pulled my pistol and shot."
y y y Given that Taildragger and Blackie had been friends and performed
together over the years, Jimmy Dawkins feels that things just got out of
control that night. "It was an issue that should have been dead from its
inception. It just went on and on until it ended in violence. He (Jones) didn't
mean to do that. Him and Boston was good friends, real good friends. We all
are. We right here in the same pot. It was just that 'Dragger happened to have
a gun on him. Boston had been harassing him, and Taildragger had called the
police. The police had took a knife or stick or something from Blackie. But it
was just wolfing and going on. Aggravation just led to him getting shot.
'Dragger felt threatened. 'Dragger is not the fighting type. He felt sometimes
that people had took advantage of him because he didn't fight. Boston would
fight if he had to."
Others suggest that Houston, though short-tempered, wasn't the killing type
either. Michael Frank, owner of Earwig Records, was beginning to build a
friendship with Houston at the time of his death, with plans of perhaps
"He was always nice to me. I know he had a hot temper D he got angry kind of
quick D but I was never exposed to that," Frank says. "I've seen Taildragger on
the scene as much as Blackie. My own experience was that of the two of them,
the way they treated me and the way they treated other people, Blackie treated
people better than Taildragger. That's my own impression; it's a very limited
impression. It seemed to me that Taildragger had a meaner streak in him,
especially when he was drinking."
The murder of Bennie Houston was not, as it may first appear, a case of two
uneducated drunken blues men, or just another murder statistic. It had to do
with the continuing struggle of life we all face: the scramble for that $10,000
contract; the pressure to present a proposal that could yield a million-dollar
deal; the anger at a colleague that has scuttled a pet project. The tragedy is
that now neither of them are part of the blues scene here.
"He (Jones) and Fishman (Davis) was at my house the day before he reported to
prison. 'Dragger felt sorry about it," says Dawkins. "The mistake was having a
gun, because we gonna show our knife or show our gun, but we don't want to
shoot someone. He had the gun, and both of them was drinking. They argue all
the time, so that's nothing. It was having that gun, that was it. That was the
big mistake D a deadly mistake."
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