Gloria Edwards was born in Houston’s Fifth Ward, today a section notorious for having Houston’s meanest streets. Though not perhaps as storied a blues neighborhood as the nearby Third Ward, the Fifth nevertheless has its own blues tradition that would be the envy of many a city. The first blues singer from Houston to record, Sippie Wallace, was a native daughter, and the legendary steel guitarist Hop Wilson is also associated with these hardscrabble environs between downtown and the Ship Channel.
Edwards’ clan was extremely musical. Edwards’ mother was a blues singer, her grandmother a veteran of the minstrel circuit, and her great-uncle was the pianist at a silent movie house. Edwards’ grandmother lived above a juke joint called the Little Red Rooster, and Edwards recalled sneaking down the stairs to watch her mother sing with the renowned Houston pianist “Big Walter the Thunderbird”. Calvin Owens, a trumpeter de luxe and future B.B. King bandleader, was another early influence and also a father figure.
Edwards began to dream of a blues career on summer visits to the Texas-Louisiana border town of Orange. Much of her family lived there, and this wing of Edwards’ family was just as musical, if not more so, as their cousins in the Fifth Ward. There, at age six, she gave her first concert. Though her debut was of gospel music and in church, there was plenty of blues in the town of Orange. “ …Every year they would have the street dances,” she told Living Blues magazine in 1997. “And they would have Widemouth [Brown] on one end and his brother Gatemouth on the other. It would be like zydeco, you know, and dancing blues, up and down. I used to watch people like Big Willie Mae Thornton….and I had this big dream of being a blues singer.”
This was a dream that was to meet stiff resistance in the form of her stern grandmother. Back in Houston, Edwards was singing in a church across the street from a night club when she caught the ears of two very musically distinguished gentlemen. She recognized one of them at once as Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, the other, Little Junior Parker needed an introduction. Parker asked her if her inclinations ran beyond singing spirituals, and Edwards recalled telling him, “Yeah, I sing a lot of blues, been singing blues all my life, without my grandmother knowing it….”
It would have been amazing if her grandmother was really as in the dark as all that, for Edwards also recalled often strutting back and forth on their front porch, clutching a toy microphone, and belting out the blues to accompany their neighbor’s saxophone. These impromptu performances must have been quite effective, for she even won grudging acclaim from her grandmother. Edwards recalled one day overhearing her say, “You know, I don’t like that girl doing it, but that girl can really sing some blues”, but family-sanctioned performances were still to be of gospel only.
While in high school, Edwards and friends began sneaking out to blues shows at the local Club Matinee. Edwards finally worked up the nerve to audition, singing “My Man Is An Undertaker, He’s Got Coffins Just Your Size”, which so impressed the club owner that she was soon given a regular gig there singing with Pluma Davis’ (songwriter of Gatemouth Brown’s classic ”The Okie Dokie Stomp”). But this was a false start; granny soon found out about this carry-on and put a stop to it.
Soon thereafter, the blues-loving, rebellious girl found herself attending a Baptist seminary in the little east Texas town of Crockett. Her roommate there was the sister of yet another Houston legend - Joe “Guitar” Hughes, today the reigning king of Houston blues guitar. Edwards recalled that on breaks from school she would often stay over at the Hughes home, one in which a decidedly more rocking ethos prevailed than at chez Edwards. Hughes often hosted jams that were attended by Johnny Copeland (and many other of the Bayou City’s blues notables), and he was impressed enough by Edwards’ singing to ask her to tour with him. The next summer, Edwards took up his offer and accompanied Hughes, Clarence Green, and an older female vocalist named Patience Valentine on a brief tour. The tour failed to provide Edwards with much, if any, financial gain, and soured her on the concept of touring.
Zydeco king Clifton Chenier then took Edwards and Valentine out on the road with his band, with even worse results. At least with Hughes, the girls had made it back to Houston. With Chenier, however, Edwards and Valentine wound up stranded in Alexandria, Louisiana, and had to have Edwards’ father send for them. On returning to Houston, Edwards, no doubt chastened by these disastrous sorties, wed and settled into hometown gigging. The husband, a jealous type, disapproved, and once more a family member prevailed upon her to give up the blues. She settled into domesticity for several years and had children, but kept her dreams alive.
“It was always in my mind, (so we had) no peace at home,” she recalled. “So then we divorced, and I met my second husband, who was a musician.” More specifically, a jazz musician, under whose tutelage the somewhat raw Edwards distilled away some of her more rotgut-like elements into a smoother-to-sip brand of blues. But she had never seen much wrong with the gutbucket stuff to begin with. “I worked on Sundays during that time, to keep my soul and my roots together, over at the Silver Slipper….That was like blues, classic R&B, a little zydeco stuff.” The Silver Slipper gigs led her to Nelson Mills, her third and current husband, and finally a legitimate tour which she recently recalled as the best experience of her life, opening for Joe Tex and others.
On returning to Houston she hooked up with Texas Johnny Brown and dived in to gigging around Houston, then in its golden age of blues. “Those days are gone,” she recalled. “But those were great musical days for me… It was very competitive, and much more than it is today. There must’ve been at least 25 bands - six-piece, seven-piece, eight-, nine-piece bands- working around Fifth Ward, Sunnyside, Third Ward, and further south. We sure did work. Didn’t even know about a daytime job.”
It was about that time that her good friend Esther Phillips arranged for her to demo some songs, and in the process Edwards became curious about cutting some tunes of her own. Johnny Copeland introduced her to Huey Meaux, and the results you hold in your hand. Meaux sold her contract to Cincinnati’s King Records, which soon thereafter folded. Meaux extracted Edwards’ contract from the rubble, but no more sessions were forthcoming, and Edwards and Meaux fell out.
Today, Edwards is active on a Houston scene that also includes many of the cast of characters from the above biography. Joe Hughes and Texas Johnny Brown have both made recent comebacks, and as you will hear in these grooves, Edwards is a very well-deserving candidate to join them in the fruits of career resurgence.
John Nova Lomax, April 1999