Today marks the last day of visitation before the King of Blues is laid to his final rest at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. On hearing the news of this music legend’s passing nearly two weeks ago, one could not help but pause and reflect on his storied career that made him synonymous with the blues and even extended his broad cultural imprint beyond music. Here at the University of Houston Special Collections, Houston and Texas History Archivist Vince Lee shared some of his ongoing work as part of a digitization project and its surprising connection to B.B. King.
The Texas Music Collection contains research files on the history of Texas music, with an emphasis on the musicians and record labels of the mid-twentieth century. There among the newspaper clippings, songbooks, and financial records, Lee points out, are promotional photographs of some of the most renowned musicians to call Houston home–including the late B.B. King.
King’s brand of the blues may always be associated with Beale Street and his deep Memphis roots, but the reasons why his photograph might show up in an archival box in Houston are likely less well-known. A recent piece in the Houston Press by Chris Gray is an excellent primer on the King-Houston connection and references the research of Dr. Roger Wood (author of Down In Houston: Bayou City Blues) on the role music business mogul Don Robey played in King’s connection to Houston.
Founder of Peacock Records, the Houston native Robey acquired Duke Records (previously based in Memphis) with the same business aplomb that marked his other interests and acquisitions, giving him easy access to a roster of talented Memphis-based musicians and industry connections. Among those connections was a young B.B. King. Though King never signed with Duke/Peacock, it was natural that the Houston-based Buffalo Booking Agency representing B.B. King (also owned by Robey) would help stock his touring band with musicians from Robey’s many record labels and with plenty of what Wood calls that “Texas tenor, big-band sound.” These tours, Wood argues, maximized B.B. King’s exposure to audiences and were critical in his professional success.
Materials from the Duke/Peacock label feature prominently in the Texas Music Collection and promotional photographs from the Buffalo Booking Agency are not hard to find. One promotional photograph for the B.B. King Unit features a very young-looking luminary flanked by his band, including vocalist Mildred Jones (booked exclusively by Buffalo Booking, Houston, TX, the fine print reminds us).
These promotional photographs, that also include other greats like Junior Parker, “Gatemouth” Brown, and Johnny Ace, are another example of the surprises found in the archives on a daily basis. As we remember B.B. King, we are also thankful to have these reminders of his career and legacy. Interested researchers may request the Texas Music Collection in the Special Collections Reading Room during our normal hours of operation.
Last month Arte Público Press and the University of Houston Special Collections came together to celebrate María Cristina Mena (1893-1965) in an event that honored her writings and highlighted the gift of her papers to our Hispanic Collections. Mena was an author probably most known for her children’s books and short stories, including some published in The Century Magazine and American Magazine from 1913 to 1916 (though she continued to write and publish up until just before her passing in 1965).
The event was held in Special Collections at the MD Anderson Library on campus. Honored guests Amy Doherty Mohr, PhD of Amerika-Institut at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich; José Aranda, PhD of Rice University, Department of English; and Carolina A. Villarroel, PhD of Arte Público Press and the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, served as panelists for the event which was moderated by Lisa Cruces, Archivist for our Hispanic Collections.
Some of the major themes in Mena’s works include beauty (and plastic surgery), language, stereotypes, and women and romance. In her stories, these themes were often used to explore aspects of the Mexican and American components of her Chicana/o heritage, especially the intersections in which these two components collided. Attendees had an opportunity to hear from a wide array of panelists, both local and virtual (in the case of Dr. Mohr who was able to join the conference from Munich), whose research interests were able to provide more context and definition to Mena’s writing, life, and place among the literary output of the 20th century. “Thrilled” with this new addition and its research potential, Cruces notes, “The Mena Papers offer a wealth of information ranging from insight on experiences of female authors in the early 20th century to the literary depiction of the Mexican Revolution abroad.”
Our thanks to all who helped make the event a success. The María Cristina Mena Papers, part of our larger Hispanic Collections, are available for research in the University of Houston Special Collections Reading Room.