Heights neighborhood throwing party for 102nd birthday of music legend Huey Long


Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

April 23, 2006



Dee Bedford of Spring is window-shopping along 19th Street in the Heights, when she sees a cardboard sign on an easel that proclaims: "Music Legend: Huey Long."

She ventures inside Venus Hair, a tiny, kitschy beauty shop, and comes face to face with the living legend himself.

Holding court from an antique barber chair, Long, at 101, looks elegant in a pinstripe sport coat, crisp, button-down white shirt and tasteful coordinating tie. Long, the last surviving member of the original Ink Spots, a group that pioneered the genre of black vocal-group harmony, sets up shop here every Saturday afternoon, selling CDs, guitar instruction books and autographed photos. Ink Spots music blares from a CD player outside.



Bedford is thrilled.

"I just came out of the blue," Bedford says. "This is my first time in the Heights."

Bedford says her mother, who grew up in Philadelphia, was talking about the Ink Spots just last week. "She said they don't make music like that anymore."

Long offers to autograph a photo for her mother. Bedford says her mother will undoubtedly place the photo on her nightstand and cherish it forever.

"Her name is Doris, D, O, R, I, S. My mother is going to cry with happiness," she says. "and it'll make my dad a little bit jealous, too. They've been married 58 years.

"Can I get a hug? I know it's bold of me to ask for a hug as well as a picture. Was that too presumptuous?"

Long, kidding around, tells her it was a little bold but gives her a hug, anyway, before she leaves, holding the treasured photo.

The Heights has adopted Long. He'll be 102 on Tuesday, when the neighborhood is planning a party open to the public at M2 Gallery.

"I have lived quite an exciting life," Long says, "and I've been blessed to live this long."



Susan Venus, owner of Venus Hair, says she'd been cutting Long's hair for years before he literally landed in her shop permanently a couple of years ago. Before that, he had set up his display of photos and memorabilia in other Heights shops, and then out on the sidewalk in front of Venus.

"It got hot one day, and I kind of passed out," Long recalls. "I went into Venus, and Venus was real nice to me."

Venus called an ambulance and offered Long an air-conditioned spot just inside her door.

"I ended up coming inside with my exhibit," Long says. "I couldn't ask for a better place. I meet a lot of interesting people, a lot of fine people."

He pauses, opening a deli container. "Can you cut this for me?" he asks Venus, pointing to his pastrami sandwich.

"Certainly," Venus says.

Venus says she welcomes the energy Long's celebrity and warmth brings to her shop.

"It's such a trip having all these people come in all day," Venus says, "Between the clients and the people who come to see Huey, it's busy. It's fabulous. I hope to have him around forever. To think he's almost 102 and he's out selling his wares. It's a miracle."

He's a vital part of the Venus community, which is part Mayberry barbershop, part Alice in Wonderland, part Twilight Zone.



First, though, he needed to do some shopping.

"I played the ukulele, so I went to the store for a banjo with a pocketful of nickels," he says. "I paid on time."

The Louisiana Jazz Band, Houston's hottest band at the time, was later known as the Dixielanders.

Despite local success, Long soon moved to Chicago, playing in Al Capone's clubs and at the 1933 World's Fair backing Texas Guinan at the Century of Progress exhibition. "I was gone 70 years to Chicago and then New York, and I've been back in Houston for a quick 10 years."

By 1933, he had also switched instruments again, trading the banjo for guitar.

But before he left Houston for Chicago, his mother offered some advice he took to heart:

"It was like a different world up North," Long says. "It was very cold. My mother didn't give me a big lecture, but she said, 'Listen, you wear your long underwear and be a good boy.'"

So while some of his contemporaries wound up in a self-destructive fast lane of women, wine and song -- and worse -- Long concentrated on the song.

"Lots of things that are good to you, are not good for you," he says. "It's better to do things in moderation." He learned to tell stage-door groupies he had other plans. "I would beg off," he says. "I'd have an excuse ready." One of his fail-safe excuses? His wife was waiting for him.

He married Louise in 1931 and they had four children. His oldest, Huey Jr., died in the 1990s. Sons Shiloh and Rene and daughter Anita all live in San Jose, Calif. He was married a second time, to Thelma, in 1957, but he outlived both of his wives. His baby sister, Robertha Gaines, now in her 80s, also lives in Houston.

By early 1944, Long had formed his first trio with C.C. Williams at the piano and Eddie Brown on the bass, which performed at the Three Deuces Cafe on 52nd Street in New York. But by the end of that year, Ink Spot leader Bill Kenny persuaded Long to leave the trio and join his band. Long was an Ink Spot for a little more than a year.

It was a busy and productive period for the band. With the Ink Spots, Long recorded the tunes If I Didn't Care, My Prayer, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire, Java Jive, Street of Dreams, To Each His Own and others. On tour, the set list of hits rarely changed.

"You get a repertoire and you keep it over and over," Long explains. Kenny, the singer known for his high tenor vocals, gave the Ink Spots their unique sound, says Long, who sang the baritone part and played guitar.

After leaving the Ink Spots, Long took his own trio on USO tours overseas in the early '50s. He was also in an Ink Spots spinoff group that played for two years in California.

In the 1960s he opened a teaching studio in New York and has taught guitar ever since. He also wrote and arranged more than 80 songs for the chord-melody guitar style, which Long describes as a dying art. Long and his contemporaries used chords to carry the melody, rather than playing single string solos or riffs.

Eventually, about 10 years ago, he decided to return to his roots in Houston. His career is commemorated in the historical museum in Sealy and in his own Heights apartment, which resembles a music museum.

Long is unfailingly polite and diplomatic about most topics, including modern music and rap, which he describes as a form of poetry. "People put me on the spot sometimes and ask me about rap music," he says. "I try to let them know I'm a realist and I'm a musician. I tell it like it is. Music is a vibration of sound. And I respect anything that's making money. I like the idea of making money, and I'm not going to knock anything that's making money. And a lot of my people are into rap."



Huey Long's fan base

Many people who meet Long make an instant connection with him.

Tommy Gay, a 75-year-old Heights resident, stops in, too, on this Holy Saturday, wearing a bicycle helmet. His bike is parked outside.

"I want all those old favorites I heard as a kid," Gay says. "I heard Huey singing my whole childhood. He's a blue blood and a treasure. We're lucky to have you here in the Heights."

"I'm happy to be around good people," Long responds. "If you try to be a good person, you attract a lot of good people."

"Did y'all know the Mills brothers?" Gay wonders.

"Oh, yes, in the theatrical world, we were all friends," Long says.

Pat Malloy of Tuscon, Ariz., says he had been thinking of his father earlier in the day, before he saw Long's display, and came in to buy a CD. "A lot of connections will happen when you are thinking of someone who is deceased," he says. "The music is my link to my father. He was from South Texas, and he just loved the Ink Spots. My father saw him perform live."

Karen Robertson of Houston has an appointment at Venus Hair but she has also come to flirt with Long, bringing him an Easter card and a chocolate bunny. She jokes that she has finally found a boyfriend who may not be able to outrun her.

"So is it going to be a big party this year? Lots of dancing girls?" she teases him. "Is everything good? Are you happy?"

"I'm happy since I've seen you," Long replies.

"Well, I am a good-looking woman," she says. "And you're as popular as ever. When you're a handsome man you can't help but be popular. Are you staying out of trouble?"

"I have to. I'm over 100 years old," says Long, who sometimes walks with a cane but admits to no serious health problems.

Robertson says she has visited Long at his home, where he played piano and serenaded her.

"It's his good looks and his charm that got me hooked," Robertson says. "My aunties and uncles in Australia grew up with his music. That they are in Australia and they know who Mr. Long is is very cool."

Last year, Robertson says, she made Long a pineapple upside-down cake for his birthday. This year, though, she has to send her regrets. She'll be out of town on business.

For the record, although he doesn't mind flirting a bit, Long's heart belongs to Juanita Marco Richardson, "his lady friend" who still lives in New York. They've been close for 35 years.

While Long is delighted to talk to any interested visitors, he becomes particularly animated when he meets another musician or someone who knows something about the music of his eras. At 101, he can lay claim to more than one era.

Marji Messer, a jazz singer who moved to the neighborhood recently, says she grew up on Long's music. They become friends within minutes, and Long invites her to participate in his birthday party.

"I'd be honored to sing something for your party," she says. "You better rest because we're going to party all night."

She confides she is almost 53 herself.

"You are a young 53," Long says, "a very young 53."

"Did you see that?" Robertson asks, as Messer says goodbye. "He got 15 years younger, and his eyes lit up."

Local musician Susan Jackson relishes the opportunity to visit Long.

"Every time I sit down at the piano with Huey, I learn something amazing about theory and composition," Jackson says. "He's an awesome teacher and so patient. I also learn the history of musical styles throughout the years. And great stories about musicians hanging out with each other, stories about people like Thelonious Monk."

When asked for advice from musicians, Long is succinct: "Hone your craft and they will come to you."

Venus manages to keep working amid all the chaos of a Saturday afternoon. Near closing time, as stylist Jill Hernandez falls into a chair, exhausted, Venus offers to style Helen Harbridge's hair. She is always the last client of the day, being in no particular hurry to leave.

Harbridge, 91, a cancer survivor, hangs out at Venus every Saturday, too, sometimes chatting, sometimes watching the Hallmark Channel on a television in the back, sometimes passing out prayer cards.

"Being here is my therapy. And Huey Long is a great conversationalist," Harbridge says.

At 5:30, artist Anne Hernandez drops by to pick up Long, who is still finishing his lunch, due to constant interruptions. Hernandez provides him with round-trip transportation every Saturday to and from Venus.

But for his birthday celebration, Hernandez confides, his friends have hired a limousine. His daughter, Anita Long, will accompany him as well as a date, whose name he isn't ready to disclose.

"He is such a character," Venus says, as she takes a rare five-minute break. "He is a super salesman. And if no one is inside talking to him, he'll go out onto the street to find someone to talk to."

That's how Robertson met him, she says. "I was walking by and out came this hand and he goes, 'You know who I am? I am Huey Long.'"


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