Houston area native Booker T. Washington White (c. 1904–1977) was one of the most expressive vocalists and powerful slide guitarists in the blues. A remarkable lyricist as well, he recorded such classics as “Shake ‘Em On Down” and “Fixin’ to Die Blues” between 1930 and 1940 under the names Washington White or Bukka White. An important influence on his cousin B. B. King, White enjoyed a second career as a performer and recording artist beginning in 1963.
White recalled, in a 1976 interview with Robin Mathis of Houston radio station WCPC, that he was born about five miles south of Houston on the farm of Willie Harrington. Various documents list his birth date as November 12, between 1900 and 1909, but the earliest census data suggest 1904. His father John White, a multi-instrumentalist who performed at local gatherings, gave him his first guitar and other local musicians taught him his signature bottleneck slide technique. He further developed his skills on guitar and piano during stays in Tallahatchie County (in the Delta) and St. Louis. At sixteen White married for the first of several times, but was soon back to rambling across the South and Midwest.
Recording agent Ralph Lembo of Itta Bena arranged for White to record his first blues and gospel songs in 1930 in Memphis. In 1937 White recorded a minor hit, “Shake ‘Em On Down,” in Chicago, but that year he was also sentenced for a shooting incident to Parchman Penitentiary, where John Lomax of the Library of Congress recorded him in 1939. After his release White recorded twelve of his best-known songs at a Chicago session in 1940. During the war he settled in Memphis and worked at a defense plant. In Memphis he also performed with blues legend Frank Stokes, among others, and helped his cousin B.B. King become established on the local music scene. After he began to tour and record again in the 1960s White, still a skilled and energetic performer, became a popular figure on the folk music circuit and traveled as far as Mexico and Europe. On May 27, 1976, White returned to Houston as the featured artist at the city’s bicentennial celebration. He died in Memphis on February 26, 1977.
Other notable singers from the Houston area include brothers Cleave (born c. 1928) and Clay Graham (b. 1936) of the famed gospel group the Pilgrim Jubilees, who were raised in the Horse Nation community. Otho Lee Gaines (1914-1987) of Buena Vista was the founder and bass singer of the popular vocal group the Delta Rhythm Boys. Milan Williams (1948- 2006) of Okolona was a founding member and keyboardist of the R&B group the Commodores, and wrote or cowrote many of their songs. Other blues artists from the area include vocalist Willie Buck (b. 1937) of Houston and guitarist C. D. Dobbs (1917-1993) of Okolona. The music of famous Chickasaw County native Bobbie Gentry (born Roberta Lee Streeter in 1944 and best known as a pop or country singer) borrowed heavily from soul and blues. In turn, her classic 1967 recording, “Ode to Billie Joe,” has been performed by countless African American soul, blues, and jazz performers.
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