By Tina Alvarez
For Tucson Blues musician George Howard, things couldn't get much bleaker in 1991. His wife of 11 years walked out on him and a week later his group of 10 years disbanded. In hopes of cheering himself up, he bought tickets to see Kenny Neal because drummer Kennard Johnson was in the band- a man Howard views as the best drummer in the business.
While driving home, as Howard was listening to Neal's interview on community radio station KXCI, Neal announced he would be having a guest drummer that night because Johnson had been called home for an emergency.
"And I was really bummed when I heard that," recalled Howard. "I wasn't going to go. I was going to sell my tickets."
When Howard got home there was a message on his answering machine from the show's local promoter, telling him to come down to The Rock because Kenny Neal needed a drummer. At this point in time, Howard had not played drums in six months and doubted if he could fit the bill, but he went to the club anyway.
The promoter gave him the song list from the previous night's show in Phoenix. "They had all these stops, these breaks, these crescendos and I'm going 'No way. I can't do it, I just can't do it. I'm not familiar with this music. It's just too involved, too intricate. I'm sorry.''"
As Howard was getting ready to leave, Neal pulled up. The promoter told Howard to wait and went to explain the situation to Neal.
"Kenny came over to me, in a very diplomatic and business-like way, and said 'Hey look, we're just going to have fun tonight. We're not going to do our usual stuff, we'll do your stuff. We'll play the straight one-four-five blues, some fast shuffles, some slow blues tunes. I'd really appreciate it if you helped us out because we're going to have to cancel the show.'"
The first set went great Howard recalled, but backstage he went off to a corner to sulk. Neal went over to compliment him, telling him he was a "great drummer." "If I'm anywhere in the country and I have to call somebody, I'm going to call you," Neal told him. Howard replied that he didnÕt have to patronize him and that he was more than willing to help out.
Neal, sensing that there was more to the picture then what met the eye, mentioned that he seemed really down and asked him what was up. During that break, they talked and Howard did his own verbal version of singing the blues. He admits that "Kenny really put a shot in my arm."
"Let's have some fun tonight,' Neal encouraged Howard. "Do me a favor, let's just forget about it. It's our party. I know you haven't had fun in awhile."
"Our second set we had a ball. Tore it up," Howard reminisced. "It was like I had been with the band the whole time. It was like I was on a different plane."
At the end of the set, Neal invited Howard to the next gig in Santa Fe and then asked him to finish out the tour with him.
"He helped me get back on my feet, which encouraged me to come back to Tucson and put a band together," said Howard.
... And that's how George Howard and the Roadhouse Hounds came about.
The band, which has been together in various shapes since 1992, consists of Jeff Masterson on bass, Bryan Dean on guitar, Richard Gomez on keyboards, and Howard on drums. Besides playing in Tucson, Phoenix and other Arizona sites, currently the band is performing Howard's original material and recording for an upcoming CD. Howard admits that the band does not follow the traditional blues pattern, although that was the style he learned first.
"We're going for the Robert Cray crossover," he described. "We can get away with rock playing the blues or vice-versa. I think it will open up more doors for us than the traditional sound.
"My heart's always been into traditional blues music," he continued, "but my direction is to write and produce more of my stuff. When I do this album I plan on doing half my stuff and some classics by the greats- but we'll do them our style."
Howard, who was born in Asbury Park, NJ, came to Arizona with his family in 1954. He grew up in Sierra Vista and recalled that there was only one radio station in town. A friend of his belonged to a record club in Europe and turned him on to the latest releases. He cut his teeth on the music of Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Leadbelly and Robert Johnson.
"This was about the time the Beatles were coming out and I'm listening to deep, hardcore blues," he recalled. "The blues I consider America's music, no matter how much America wants to deny it, sweep it under the carpet. It's funny that we have to have foreigners come back here to show us how cool our music is." Howard said he didn't understand groups like the Beatles, Dave Clark Five or the Herman's Hermits.
"Then the Stones came out and I went 'Yeah.' They were doing Robert Johnson's 'Love in Vain,' 'Don't Fade Away,' Bo Diddley. I didn't understand the bubblegum, popcorn stuff at all. I was more into that type of music, even the rock groups. Back in those days even the Yardbirds were playing the blues, Ten Years After, all those hot English bands, early Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck- that's the version of rock 'n roll I got into after listening to hardcore blues. Not only did I like their arrangements, but I also appreciated the fact that they were keeping it alive."
Even though he took piano lessons when he was young, he told his mother he wanted to play the drums. He played in the school's marching band, but hated it and quit, preferring to drum along with his favorite blues albums in his bedroom and take private lessons.
Howard's blues band is unique in that not only is he the drummer, but the lead singer as well. He developed his singing style by listening to Etta James, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, B.B. King and Muddy Waters. His singing career started off when Howard offered to temporarily fill in when the vocalist in one of the bands he played in left.
"I'd said I'd sing a little, so I wound up singing a lot," he laughed. "Drumming and singing comes natural only because I've been doing it for 10-15 years. It does take a lot of work and a lot of concentration. It's funny because I do get compliments on my drum playing sometimes, but the majority of it is the singing."
He prefers to keep his drumming technique on the simple side, thereby allowing his musicians to improvise when they deem fit.
"To me, less is more and it leaves a lot of holes for the guitar player, the piano player to fill in and they can play different rhythms, which is what my band does now," said Howard.
Howard's first band he played in was called Flow, then he was in the Breeze Band and later in the Subterranean Blues Band with noted Tucson guitarist Al Perry. Howard has also performed with John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush and Charlie Musselwhite.
For the upcoming album, to be called "Great American Blues You Can Use," Howard plans on shooting the cover. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 1974 with a degree in Photojournalism. Howard, who owns his own photography business, has enough flexibility to be able to do both comfortably, working days on photo shoots and playing music on the weekends and evenings.
"I want to incorporate some of the traditional along with the contemporary," he emphasized of the release. "I'd like to pick up a label. If I don't, then I'm hooking up with a couple distribution companies or putting it out myself."
Howard notes that audience response to the group has been enthusiastic, with people getting on the dance floor on the first number.
"That's just a reaction to the music," Howard said. "Blues doesn't always have to be a down thing, but it is a form of music that everybody can relate to because everybody has them. Nobody escapes it -- rich, poor, middle class, we all have the blues. Just reaching somebody is very rewarding to me, whether its their ears, their feet, their heart. There's no price you can put on that, none at all."