Joe Medwick Masters was born June 22, 1933 in the Third Ward section of Houston. Apparently his parents had been baseball fans, as his namesake Joe "Ducky Wucky" Medwick was a sensational St. Louis Cardinal outfielder. Even today Medwick the ballplayer ranks as one of the all-time greats, as well as possessing one of the more outlandish nicknames in baseball history.
In addition to being baseball buffs, Medwick's family was very religious, and it was in the church that Medwick did his first singing, often with Big Robert Smith, who re-enters the story much later. By the late '40s Medwick was singing professionally with The Chosen Gospel Singers.
Early in the '50s, Medwick hooked up with Teddy Reynolds (destined for fame as Bland's principal pianist) at the legendary Third Ward boite-de-nuit Shady's Playhouse. Shady's in the '50s was as fertile a blues breeding ground as any in the country. In addition to Medwick and Reynolds, other regulars there included Albert Collins, Johnny Clyde Copeland, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Johnny "Guitar Junior" Watson, Pete Mayes, Clarence Holliman, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and his brother "Widemouth", Elmore Nixon, Jewel Brown, and Joe Tex, all of whom lived at the time within a mile of the club.
Seduced by the "Devil's music" to be had at Shady's (as well as the Demon Rum that claimed him in the end), Medwick set aside his gospel yearnings in favor of the blues. Not that he wasn't completely shorn of his halo, as Reynolds recalled. "He used to sing 'Silent Night' every Christmas at Shady's Playhouse," Reynolds told the Houston Chronicle at the time of Medwick's death.
One of his first co-compositions with Reynolds ("Don't Want No Woman") scored with Bobby "Blue" Bland, and Duke-Peacock mogul Don Robey quickly snapped up both of the youngsters for his burgeoning record company. Reynolds related the story to Alan Govenar in Meeting The Blues: "I'd be on piano, he'd come to me and say 'Hey Teddy, I got some songs I want to put on tape. Let's go over to Mr. Robey'. So we'd catch the Dowling bus and go over to Erasmus and Lyons Avenue. Joe would hum the melody. He'd say, 'Teddy go like this here', and I'd play the melody along with him and he'd start putting words to the song. From the arrangements he'd hum to me I took it on form there and put the songs on tape. Next we hear them, it'd be Bobby Bland singing them or Junior Parker".
"Rent songs", Medwick called them. All he wanted in the way of royalties was enough money to pay the rent and keep the good times rolling. Robey, Medwick stressed years later, had always offered standard contracts on his creative output, but Medwick had demanded cash in hand. Interviewed just before his death about Robey's business practices, Medwick told a blues historian, "Don't you go writing no mean things about Don Robey".
Nevertheless, Medwick's willingness to part with his material so cheaply was dismaying to some of his songwriting partners. Johnny Clyde Copeland, starved of material for his first Duke session, turned to Medwick for some fresh tunes. "I didn't know nothin' about writing at the time", Copeland related in Meeting The Blues, "so I get (Joe) and we sit down after hours one night. We started writing a song called 'Further On Up The Road'. We finished the song that night and Joe went out to the studio the next day to submit the song to Mr. Robey because that was what Mr. Robey told me to do.
I said, 'You take it out there, I'm not going with you', because at the time I was married and I had little kids and my wife was working in the daytime. Well, when Joe got to the studio, Bobby (Bland) was cutting an album and they needed one more song, and that was it. I'm not identified on the record because Joe tied the record up with Mr. Robey, just as he did with every song. Joe sold Mr. Robey maybe five hundred songs, ten, fifteen dollars apiece, and he cut maybe five, but they were big hits. You understand what I'm saying?"
Some twenty years later with Eric Clapton's recording of that song, the "royalties" which in all likelihood had been consumed in a single Saturday night, could have provided Medwick with both extensive name-recognition and a substantial nest egg, for himself and Copeland both. But, alas, such was not to be.
In addition to his duties as a very-unofficial Duke staff songwriter, Medwick's chores also included singing demos for the functionally illiterate Bland. But Bland, fellow Duke writer Oscar Perry told me recently, fell out with Medwick for some now-forgotten misdeed so viscerally as to find himself unable even to listen to Medwick's voice. Those duties, the writing and the singing, fell then to Perry, and Medwick's run of luck with Duke was over by the late-'60s.
Medwick and Reynolds had a sideline going across town at Crazy Cajun studios, where Huey Meaux bought Medwick songs and released them under a bevy of aliases on an array of fly-by-night imprints. Thus Medwick's considerable vocal talent came to be as obscured as his songwriting career. It seems in retrospect to have almost been a deliberate course for achieving anonymity. It's hard, to say the least, for a musician to get the ball rolling if none of his songs or performances are ever released under his own name.
Drinking took its toll during the '70s and '80s, and Medwick languished in complete obscurity through the disco years. In the mid-'80s former Little Richard sax titan Grady Gaines came out of retirement and launched The Texas Upsetters, an old-school R&B band that still plays today. Medwick was tabbed as one of two lead vocalists for the combo, with his old friend from the gospel days, Big Robert Smith taking the other slot. Gaines signed with Black Top Records and released two albums, “Full Gain”, and “Horn Of Plenty”, on which Medwick and his songs could at last be heard identified correctly. Fate seemed to finally be smiling on Medwick but then he was stricken by liver cancer and passed away in 1992.
Another Houston bluesman sings Medwick's praises in unqualified terms. "He was right up there with Doc Pomus, Willie Dixon", said guitarist and Houston institution Jerry Lightfoot. "He'd just reach up in the air and pull a song out for you. We were sitting in Etta's Lounge one night and I had an idea for a song, 'Lost In The Shuffle'. I tore my cigarette pack inside out, and we wrote it in five minutes". "He was a nice man, but he was his own worst enemy", said Gaines at the time of Medwick's passing. "He just died from hard livin'".
John Nova Lomax, September 1999
Re-issue CD produced by John Nova Lomax