In Memory of Calvin Owens
" Calvin Owens Dies Age 78
Editor's Note: It is always a very sad day in the BluesWax offices when we lose a member of our Blues family. Today we look back at someone that, from the launch of this publication, has been an important part of what we do. Calvin Owens was one of the first to come on board as an advertiser with us and became more than just a customer. He added validity to what we were trying to do and believed in us from the very beginning. Never mind his incredible talents as a musician and bandleader; Calvin Owens was a great man whom we here at BluesWax will never forget. Even in his passing, Mr. Owens was thinking of others; in lieu of flowers for his memorial Calvin has asked that donations be made to the Sawdust Alley Music Preservation Foundation in Houston, Texas, which he established as a perpetual 503(c) to aid in the education, preservation and furtherance of Big Band orchestration with our burgeoning musical youth. Contributions should be sent to Sawdust Alley Music Preservation Foundation, P.O. Box 885, Houston, Texas 77001.
Thank you Mr. Owens for believing in us. We will never forget you.
The brilliant arranger, trumpet player, and record label owner Calvin Owens, who was a cornerstone of Houston's music scene, passed away last week. He was 78. Owens was suffering from liver cancer and, after several unsuccessful surgery attempts to remove tumors, he never recovered from his most recent procedure a few weeks ago.
Owens possessed an impressive resume that spanned over fifty years and he is most known for his two stints of work with B.B. King in the 1950s and again in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Owens' later work with King resulted in the Grammy-winning Blues 'n' Jazz from 1983, where the trumpeter was responsible for all of the arrangements. Often referred to as "The Maestro," Owens never limited himself to just Blues, he was an excellent Jazz composer and instrumentalist and played on Hip Hop, Latin, and Country recordings.
I was fortunate to have had the pleasure of knowing Calvin Owens, he was one my first radio interviews over eight years ago. Owens was always a gentleman who would consistently tell great stories that he loved to share, not only about his own musical experiences, but also about the many other great musicians he admired. On a relatively recent trip to New York City in the fall of 2004, Owens was part of a band assembled to launch the Elwood's Blues book by Dan Aykroyd and Ben Manilla. Besides Elwood, this kick-butt band also featured Hubert Sumlin, Michael Hill, Jerry Jemmott, David Maxwell, Blue Lou Marini, and Bettye LaVette Even Mose Allison dropped by to play and sing on a few tunes. This was captured and aired at Sirius Satellite's network and I have to say that Calvin's featured song was one of the highlights of that very special evening.
Back to the beginning Owens honed his chops playing in Houston's very active club scene and joined the B.B. King Band in 1953, a gig that lasted for four years. After his tenure with King, Owens returned to Houston and took a day job at the Maxwell House Coffee Factory, which allowed him to get back to clubs and keep his chops together. During this period The Maestro also worked at Peacock Records with Don Robey, where he worked as an A&R staffer as well as a session player.
Twenty years later Owens got a second call from King and went back on the road (over 200 shows annually!) and also recorded with King until 1984. But King was not Owens' only claim to fame, as he also worked with many Blues stars like T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, Big Joe Turner, Junior Parker, Johnny Copeland, and Otis Clay. Owens also had an obvious penchant for Jazz, as he also worked and recorded with many top-shelf sax greats like Arnett Cobb, David "Fathead" Newman, and Wilton Felder of the Crusaders fame.
In the mid 1980s, Owens moved to Belgium where he started his own band, but some ten years later he returned back to his home in Houston, Texas, where he recorded a string of CDs on his own label, Sawdust Alley. Highlights included Another Concept, True Blue, That's Your Booty, The House Is Burning, and several others. My favorite is True Blue, which had guest appearances by Johnny Copeland, Fathead Newman, and his old boss, B.B. King. By all means, when you can, check out the title track "True Blue," which has amazing horn charts and a fantastic trumpet solo by Owens, plus it also features some wailing B.B. King on guitar, who sails over the very identifiable signature Owens horn charts. Personally, I adored True Blue so much so I used it as my closing theme song on air at WFDU for several years.
Just this past year the tireless Owens released La Mujer que Canta Blue with Evelyn Rubio and his Blues Orchestra, plus Houston Is the Place to Be.
Despite his cancer diagnosis, Owens continued to work with his Blues Orchestra. And most recently was working with yet another genre with Country music legends Willie Nelson, Ray Price, and Johnny Bush, where he did the arrangements for his big band, which backed the three Country legends. Willie Nelson was so impressed with the songs that he suggested that Bush and Price make a full album with Owens and his orchestra.
Tommy Castro, who also worked with Owens, had this to say, "Calvin Owens was one of the nicest people I ever met. He had incredible energy and a creative spirit. It was an honor to work with him and a pleasure to know him."
He used to tell me that fifty years from now we will be hanging out together listening to his songs! What a character and a sweetheart! I will close this testament to his life with the very same words Owens would always use to end his parting conversations, "Toot-a-loo, baby."
Bob Putignano www.SoundsofBlue.com