Cover photo © 2022 Elaine Hughes
In every line of work, there is hierarchy. Owners and management fill the top layers. Then come the people that actually make things happen, the workers who through generations have built up businesses and the American economy to a level that has been a model for the rest of the world.
The music business is no different. While there is a group of performers in every musical genre that command much of the attention, there is a large group of musicians who play plenty of local gigs when they aren’t out touring the country. Some musicians have the talent to achieve a higher level of fame but, for a variety of reasons, decide to stay close to home, with family often being the deciding concern.
Guitarist Robert Hughes has had more than a few opportunities throughout his decades-long career, many of which he let slide by to be around to help raise his children. But his passion for the music has never dwindled away. His contributions to the area music scene in Ohio have been recognized by his induction into the Columbus Music Hall of Fame, the Columbus Blues Hall of Fame, and the Nightclub Hall of Fame (4 times).
A chance meeting in 2007 gave Hughes the opportunity to take his music to a wider audience.
“There was a club here called the Blues Station. They had booked Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter), who I played with that night. The club booked a return date for Red. The day of show, I got a call from the club manager saying they would not be able to do the show with Red. They didn’t feel he would generate sufficient revenue. I don’t know why they called me, but I didn’t think that decision was very fair. I asked what they were going to pay Red, then I told the manager not to worry about it, that I would take care of it. I was happy to do that.
“When I caught up with Red before the gig, he mentioned that he wanted to play his old guitar at the show. He told me that it was an 1960s Harmony Stratotone, which is a cool guitar that people like Junior Watson play. When we opened the case at the club, I looked in at the small E string, which had a knot in it. It looked like barbed wire! The other strings were rusted. Red said the guitar had been under his bed since 1967.
“So 15 minutes before our start, we had to restring his guitar. He brought it on stage without tuning it, and started to play. In the middle of the song, Red said he was going to take the solo. I couldn’t believe he was going to attempt a solo on a guitar that wasn’t close to being in tune. Red took out his slide, hit the G string, and played the most beautiful slide solo I have ever heard. All he needed was that slide and one string. That was one of the biggest lessons I ever learned.
“At one point in the evening I saw singer Teeny Tucker come through the door. I knew who she was. When we finished the set, I walked over to her table to say hello, and asked what brought her out that night. She told me her father, singer Tommy Tucker, would take her to New Jersey for the summer. Red was her dad’s partner. He would come walking in big, tall, proud, with a big hat with a feather in it. Teeny said she didn’t go out very often, but she had to come by to say hello to Red.
“A few days later, Teeny got in touch with me to ask if I would play an upcoming show with her. That was that. It has been 16 years now that we have worked together. I sort of fell in to being her bandleader. Never had a lesson, and I can’t read music. Yet on her last album, we didn’t have backing vocalists. I was able to give Teeny five different parts to sing. I’m not sure how I know the parts, but I think it goes back to the days I spent listening to records, developing my ear. So I am the guitar player, the band leader, wrote the music for all of the original songs, arranged all of the music, played all the guitar parts on her four CDs on TeBo Records, and handled the overdubs and mixing. Teeny wrote the lyrics for all of the original material. My wife Elaine and I took care of the liner notes and photography for the releases. Elaine is a world class photographer. If I hadn’t decided to do the right thing for Red, I would not have connected with Teeny. Working with her has been a gift.”
Working with Tucker has allowed Hughes to tour internationally. Tucker’s last release, Put On Your Red Dress Baby, which the guitarist produced, garnered a 2019 Blues Blast Music Award nomination in the Traditional Blues Album category and Tucker was recognized with a nomination for Female Blues Artist. Tucker has also been nominated for four Blues Music Awards in addition to receiving a BMA last year in the Song Of The Year category for her touching tribute to her son, “All Out Of Tears,” which she wrote with Walter and Marie Trout.
The initial spark that ignited his life-long love of music came from a gift from his father..
“When I was eight years old, my Dad brought home a used short band radio, which he gave to me. I promptly put it in my bedroom. That night I was turning the dial, finding lots of radio stations that I had never heard. Suddenly I heard a sound that was just wonderful, coming from WLAC out of Nashville, Tennessee. The show was hosted by John R (John Richbourg) and sponsored by Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, TN, which at the time was the world’s largest mail-order record business. Other sponsors were Hadacol and Royal Crown Pomade Jelly. Being eight years old and Caucasian, I had no idea what either one of those might be, except maybe you put the jelly on toast!
“But it was the music that got me, especially hearing B.B. King do “Three O’clock Blues”. John R would pitch buying the records from Randy’s, six records shipped to your door for $2.39 COD post-paid. I wanted those records, so I asked my father for the money. He quickly reminded me that we didn’t have money for such things. My job at home was to keep our coal furnace stoked, get the coal in the furnace, and help my Mother do the wash. We cleaned the clothes on a washboard, and had a wringer dryer, nothing automatic. Dad did tell me that when I got a job and earned the money to buy the records, I would certainly enjoy them. So I went out the next day and applied for a light paper route, delivering 29 newspapers.”
Once he got paid, Hughes would order records, getting the B.B. King tune that sounded so good, along with Little Walter’s “Juke,” and titles by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. His father helped out again, finding a old RCA record player with a red 45 rpm spindle that Hughes needed to play his new acquisitions. Equally important, a neighbor gifted him an old acoustic guitar.
“There weren’t any guitar teachers in the Columbus area that could teach me what I was hearing, so I needed the records to figure out what I wanted to know about the music. My Dad would tell the story about how I would listen to “Three O’clock Blues” when I went to bed. If you didn’t take the arm off the RCA player, it would keep playing the record over and over. I’d fall asleep listening to it, and when I woke up, I could start to find the licks I was looking for. It was like B.B. was there in my bedroom saying ,no, son, keep looking. It is on there somewhere. Of course, we didn’t have the internet or YouTube. I learned the licks by listening to the records, which I believe was great training for my ears. I was just doing the best I could to respond to something that moved me so much.
“That old acoustic guitar was hard to play. Of course, the sounds I was hearing were post-war electric blues. As time went on, one paper route turned into four, I was a caddy at the local golf course, and I sold programs at Ohio State football games. I saved every penny that I made to put into equipment and records. I wound up with an old Supro guitar, then I became enamored with a used 1954 Fender Stratocaster. I began buying and selling guitars, keeping the ones that I thought sounded great. At one point, I picked up a used Fender Broadcaster for $80 with serial number 0019.
“My first really big-time guitar that I saved for forever was a 1960 Gibson Les Paul. The minute I heard one, I knew that was the one. I was playing in a band getting paid $3 a night as the rhythm guitarist. Our lead guitar player was pretty good, but he drank so much that he often couldn’t finish out the sets. The other band members told me that if I learned to play the lead parts, they would make me the lead guitarist and pay me $10 a night. Two months later, I was moved up, and was able to save more money.
“I told Whitey, the owner of the local music store, that I was saving up for the Les Paul, and some day, if it is not gone, I am going to buy it. He asked me how much money I had saved. I replied that I had checked that morning, and had $202.50. Whitey said that if I brought him that money, and promised to pay him $10 every two weeks, I could have the Les Paul for $375. In those days, nobody wanted the Les Paul model. I played it for the next 32 years.”
“I still have a number of guitars but it has become uncomfortable to take them out on the road due to how expensive they have become. In 1998, I ran across the McCarty Hollowbody II guitar, made by the Paul Reed Smith company. The headstock says PRS, but the truss rod cover says McCarty. Ted McCarty was President of Gibson Guitar for 41 years. He invented the Les Paul model. Les Paul, the fine guitar innovator, had his name on it as an endorsement. Ted also designed and invented the Flying V, the Explorer, the 335, 345, and 355 models.
“When he took all of those designs to the Gibson hierarchy, he had one other model that he saved for last. He felt it was the best of class, with two f-holes, similar to the PRS McCarty. He called it his violin guitar. As the story goes, the higher ups loved all of the radical designs, except for the violin guitar. When Ted walked into the PRS factory at 91 years old, Paul asked him if there was anything he had wanted to do, but never got done, Ted replied there was, I have this design, at which point Paul said don’t tell me about it. I’ll introduce you to the guys, you build it, and bring it to me. We will put it out. When I strummed one in 1998, it was very similar to my reaction to discovering the Les Paul. The McCarty had the best sound I had heard in years. I own five of them, and have played about 6o total. To my ear, it is one of the best guitars of all time.”
Fast forward to 1980, when Hughes had the opportunity to open a show with B.B. King as the headliner, an amazing milestone on a journey that started as a little kid hiding out in his bedroom trying to learn guitar licks. Hughes became friends with his hero, and now stays in touch with the director of the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Mississippi, King’s hometown, an experience that, according to Hughes, is like spending a day with Mr. King.
Hughes kept expanding his musical interests to other artist like the Bind Boys of Alabama, Rev. C.L Franklin, and the Soul Stirrers in addition to many blues artists. What moved him was music that fell into the blues, R&B, and soul categories. Eventually he formed a band, which was good enough to make an appearance on a local TV show called Dance Party.
“We played stuff like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry tunes like “Thirty Days,” Wee Wee Hours,” and “Maybelline”. When I was 16 years old, I went to Sun Records in Memphis, where I met Marion Keisker, who was Sam Phillip’s assistant. There was a gentleman, Dewey Phillips, sitting on her desk telling her a joke. (No relation to Sam Phillips, Dewey was one of the original rock ‘n’ roll disc jockeys.) I was told I could look through stacks of returned records. I was able to buy them four for $1.00. I came onto Sun Records a bit late, but I soon learned about the early blues records by Little Milton, Big Walter Horton, and Johnny London. I loved the sound of Sun records immediately. I also liked the rockabilly guys like Elvis Presley, Billy Lee Riley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. I worked my back to the records Sam made with B.B. and Howlin’ Wolf, who Mr. Phillips called his greatest discovery. Over time, I collected the complete Sun Records catalog.”
In 1960, Hughes received an invitation to join Ronnie Taylor and the Upsetters, who had a regional R&B hit at the time. Another early group was the Soul Searchers, a band of white musicians with a lead singer that sang very much like James Brown. In the mid-1960s, he was in band that did a tour with a stop in Chicago.
“While we were there, I ended up going to Pepper’s Lounge, where I saw the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitar, Nick Gravenites on keyboards, Sam Lay on drums, and Butterfield on vocals and harmonica. After hearing them, I gave notice to the band I was with, and hung around Chicago trying to pick up on things. I was knocked out by what I heard.
“When I returned to Columbus, I formed the area’s first white blues band called Hughes Blues. In 1969, we recorded a version of Jimi Hendrix song “Stone Free,” released on the Ironbeat label. Later on, I recorded and produced a group called the Supremes, a five man group who had recorded for Johnny Vincent’s Ace records label. They had done a beautiful, classic doo wop song called “Just For You And I” that might have bubbled up into the Top 100. It is well-known in doo wop record collector circles. They had copyrighted the name “Supremes” in 1969 in Florida.”
Soon Hughes was hired as the designated house guitarist for a local club, the Sugar Shack, which booked many major artists coming through the region. He was on call to fill in as needed. Bob Seger played the club a number of times, including one night when Seger called Hughes to the stage to play with him. Further down the road, the guitarist was invited to be the house guitarist for a Milwaukee venue, but he decided to stay put in Columbus.
“Around 1969 or 1970, I was in Miami Beach playing with Joey Dee and the Starlighters. Led Zeppelin had just finished a concert at a place called the Image. John Paul Jones, the bass player for Zeppelin, asked me and Joey’s organ player if we would jam with him the next night, which we did along with John Bonham, Zeppelin’s drummer. My tastes eventually evolved to more soul blues than just straight Chicago blues.”
When he is not playing music, Hughes and his wife Elaine are professional photographers. He has several degrees in Photography. His work has been exhibited at Epcot Center in Florida and at the Columbus Museum of Art. The quality of his pictures can be measured by his 17 Kodak Gallery Awards along with 12 Fuji Masterpiece Awards over the years.
Looking back, Hughes takes pride in what he has accomplished, and feels he has remained steadfast in following a vision that was formed in his early years.
“I feel I have spent a lifetime in a passionate pursuit of excellence. When I was eight years old, I heard B.B. King. I told my parents that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When they asked what, I said that I wanted to be a guitar player. Of course, my parents didn’t look very happy after that announcement. My dad commented that I could enjoy music my whole life, but I should keep my options open when it came to making a living. I looked at him saying, Dad, you don’t need to look so sad. I want to be a professional guitarist. How many eight year old kids have that dream, and actually get to be one in life. I feel I am a truly blessed man who has lived a wonderful, wonderful life.”