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MACY’S 5009; AUGUST 1950



After starting out guns a blazing, with a two-sided gem that included his first hit, a blues track, and his most potent rocker on the flip side in the waning days of 1949, the future looked bright for Lester Williams, surely the one of the few acts in either field who’d attended the prestigious New England Conservatory Of Music.

But now just a few months down the road he was facing a stark truth that a good many uneducated musicians wind up figuring out as well… success is fleeting.

Maybe it was his dual stylistic pursuits which cost him a more concentrated devoted following, or perhaps it was the limitations of being on a small independent label who had trouble getting the records heard in every corner of the country, or it could just be that with so much competition appearing as the 1950’s began, in both blues and rock, he might have simply gotten lost in the shuffle.

And so now with his shot at national glory in the rear view mirror Williams starts to settle in as a regional star with a record that seemed tailor made for such a fate.


Talkin’ About Houston, That’s Where I Hang Around
Certain regions of the country have unique musical preferences and for much of the 1950’s and 60’s Texas was a proponent of the blues.

But it wasn’t so much the Delta blues derivatives like those who traveled North during the 1940’s for factory work during the war, taking with them the down home blues into places like Chicago and Detroit, but rather this was country blues with some West Coast jazz thrown in… a hybrid sound that helped make the Gulf Coast region a fertile ground for many artists who were all but unknown just a few states away.

With the advent of rock music in the late 1940’s, born in New Orleans perhaps but conceived in the clubs of Galveston and Houston where Roy Brown first hit upon the formula and sang it over the radio in 1946, the mix of styles for those coming up in this area at the time was hard to elude and made for some stylistic uncertainty where more than a few artists were concerned.

Artists like Lester Williams who sang the blues (the flip Mary Lou was pure blues) and sang rock ‘n’ roll as well. But unlike most rockers at the time he remained largely guitar oriented, whereas other parts of the country tended to largely eschew that instrument as a focal point of their rock arrangements, making these records sort of outliers in many ways.

But while history may have chosen to slot him as primarily a bluesman for convenience sake, the dominant presence of horns and piano on songs like Texas Town give away their rock allegiances as does the overall spirit of the record.

Though Williams may be borrowing the musical DNA of surrounding areas, he’s leaving no doubt as to where his heart lays in this ode to his hometown of Houston and all it encompasses – both musically and socially.


Standin’ On The Corner
Though it’d be hard to describe this record as containing a “hit sound”, that doesn’t mean it’s not a catchy and distinctive sound right from the start as the guitar opens by playing a shuffle rhythm while the piano chips in with a subtle boogie. When the horns start moaning in response it brings together lots of different strains of music for you to digest before we even hear from Williams himself.

As always Williams’s voice is fairly odd, he’s got a high pitched nasal tone which is exacerbated by the fact he’s so careful about getting his diction as smooth as can be. Maybe the best way to put it in layman’s terms is he sings with his tongue as much as his throat, choosing to focus on enunciating the words more than projecting them.

Because of that it can take awhile before you get acclimated to his style, but once you accept it then there’s always a lot to appreciate. His lyrics, which are always pretty colorful in setting a scene, come across as more personal because of this delicate delivery. Unlike those who equate volume with impact, Williams knows that caressing his words in a softer manner will get listeners to edge closer to hear what he’s telling them.

Here he’s crowing about his Texas Town, in the process throwing some shade at New Orleans and how their larger cultural status causes the inhabitants there to brag excessively about the Crescent City. Of course to counter that Williams is doing the same thing about Houston – and in a manner that makes it seem like he’s grasping at straws to find a way to top them, such as when he says he’d rather go to a rodeo than Mardi Gras – but while his declarations might reveal a slight inferiority complex being worked out in verse, he’s at his best when confining it to more personal touches, such as the girls he knows in town.

What’s good about those lines are how wonderfully trivial they are – his telling us about the girls on the corner who DON’T drink wine, as if this is a rarity found only in Houston – which shows that it’s rarely the town itself that shape his (or any of our own) positive impressions of a place dear to our hearts, but rather your experiences in that town.

That brings this down to a very human level and as a result you don’t have to be from Houston, or take sides in this throw-down between Gulf Coast metropolises, to enjoy the record.

When Williams starts to softly yodel during the break it’s so disarming that you assume that it’s leading into something more explosive, sort of getting you to drop your guard before he starts slashing away on the guitar, but instead he’s just caught up in the moment, expressing the kind of off-handed joy he’s feeling in a very natural and unpretentious way.

It’s doubtful that the Mayor of the city was going to be erecting a statue for Williams because of his tourism sales pitch, but it winds up painting a pretty inviting picture of an otherwise nondescript city in a state known primarily for sweltering heat, giant mosquitoes and a litany of culturally oppressive public policies that we’d normally want to steer clear of.

A lone song like this one might not be enough to get you to head down there for a fun weekend, but you probably wouldn’t scramble to come up with a contrived excuse just to get out of going either.

Sweet And Lovely
With such a subdued arrangement backing Williams it’s bound to give non-locals the impression that the one thing Houston doesn’t have is a vibrant music scene. Though nothing could be further from the truth – the clubs in the Fifth Ward during this time were legendary for their shows and a very popular stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit for major artists – it’s hard not to be won over by such a different low-key take on the environment down there.

Aside from its role in setting the scene during the intro the guitar vanishes into the ether for the rest of the track, further removing this from any overt blues connections. The piano’s rhythms have the kind of loose-knit vibe to them that would soon work its way across the Gulf Of Mexico and find favor in Jamaica while for the most part the horns are providing just a faint melodic bed for Williams to ride on.

After his yodeling interlude though we do get saxophone – probably Conrad Johnson’s alto – that starts off with a louder squawk before sliding back down into a glassy solo that is faintly hypnotizing without fully pulling you under.

Honestly, it’s probably the drummer who captures your attention the most, not because what he’s playing is difficult or particularly flashy, but merely because he’s so insistent throughout Texas Town with that clattering train-like rhythmic beat he’s laying down that you wind up focusing on it because it’s so reassuring to your senses.

It’s a modest sound for a modest record, perfectly fitting for the mood Williams is determined to create and whether it’s at all indicative of Houston’s nightlife or overall atmosphere probably is irrelevant, because chances are this is a nicer scene than ever you’ll find there for real.


All Up And Down Dowling And Out 9th Avenue
Though the habit of using song topics and lyrics to blatantly curry favor with a local constituency tends to be rather shallow and transparent in most cases, you don’t quite get the feeling that Lester Williams was just seeking a cheap roar of a crowd while playing on the bandstand with songs like this.

For starters it’s not anthemic in nature and thus has no moments where an audience would respond with a rousing cheer at the drop of a familiar reference. Though there definitely is evidence of a good-natured rivalry with New Orleans, it’s hardly very forceful or confrontational… which come to think of it might be why this Texas Town will always take a back seat to the city across the state lines.

But that’s also what makes this record easier to appreciate. It’s gently coaxing you to give it a visit rather than aggressively insisting on it.

Because of that soft-sell it wasn’t the kind of thing that was likely to get Lester Williams noticed by those outside the region, but it let those around Houston know that he was perfectly content to stay close to home and bask in the simple pleasures of the city, showing off his civic pride and giving the feeling to everyone within earshot that he was one of them and when they were around he knew he was among friends. In turn for that devotion the city would supply him with years of faithful support whenever he dropped in a club to play his music even as his brief national notice faded in time.

In the end that turned out to be a pretty equitable deal for all of them.


(Visit the Artist page of Lester Williams for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)