Last year, Tejas Got Soul hosted Early Chicano Sounds of Houston, an all day event which featured a panel discussion, storytelling booth and live performances culminating into a block party at the historic Morales Radio Hall in Houston’s East End.
The event spotlighted some of Houston’s biggest names in Chicano music including Manuel Mendiola, Jesse Casas and the late Oscar Villanueva, highlighting our city’s impressive contribution to the brown-eyed soul movement.
Tejas Got Soul planned on hosting a second event in 2020 but due to COVID-19, they have had to adjust their approach. This week the group is launching Tejas Got Soul 2 focusing on another Houston legend, Marky Lee.
On Thursday August 27 they will release a performance and interview featuring Lee with local musicians Nick Gaitan and Roberto Rodriguez III recorded at the historic D&W Lounge. The video can be found on their Facebook page and the organizers will hold a live watch party.
With last year’s event and their constant work, Tejas Got Soul has brought new life and awareness to an important part of our Houston’s musical landscape that could easily have gone undocumented.
“I just want these guys to see that they were a part of something special and that they are appreciated because we can’t let this music die out, not only for ourselves but for our city, the culture and our children,” says Isaac Rodriguez co-founder of Tejas Got Soul.
Rodriguez and fellow local musician Nick Gaitan started Tejas Got Soul as a DJ group focused on spinning and preserving the often hard to find records of our citiy’s Chicano artists. The two would search the LP’s for names and addresses trying to locate the many Houstonians who contributed to important recordings.
Their collective vision grew into last year’s event and years of documenting stories from the musicians firsthand to be archived in the city of Houston’s Public Library “Musica!” exhibit and the University of Houston’s special collections. Tejas Got Soul has gone on to grow in numbers and recently was granted a National Endowment For the Arts grant to continue their important work.
“There’s no place better than Houston to tie it all together,” says public folklorist and team member Pat Jasper. “You can connect a lot of dots if you bring all these musicians together, but Houston is a place where Archie Bell, The Mystics and Steve Earle were basically here at the same time.”
“Being from Houston, there’s something really from the soul about doing this research. It’s an extra honor to be able to back these guys up,” says Gaitan.
“Say you’re not familiar with Chicano and the whole movement or you don’t identify as Chicano, well if you’re a Houstonian, this is also Houston history so you can identify with this that way,” explains Rodriguez.
This year they turn their attention to Marky Lee. “He’s got enough work under his belt to be the only person up there on that panel,” says Rodriguez.
“He did a lifetime of work that we are acknowledging. We want to say, thank you for being at the forefront of Chicano music and never giving up on it and just doing what you did because it was amazing, he still performs to this day.”
Lee started his long career playing accordion with his father as a young boy. He recalls how at the age of five his father gifted him an accordion for Christmas and the two stayed up all night playing “Silent Night,” a song he says his mother and sisters grew tired of hearing that holiday.
His father played bass in many different genres from country to conjunto and brought young Lee along for the ride to help him read the road signs and get to the venues.
Lee describes how his father would encourage him not only to sing along with the songs on the radio while in a car, but more importantly to try to harmonize with the voices coming through the dial.
“That’s how I learned how to sing, you’ve got to harmonize first,” says Lee. He went on to learn how to play the trumpet and formed part of The Mystics, one of Houston’s early Chicano brown-eyed soul groups. One day the band found themselves without a singer and the band pulled Lee to take center stage. After that, Lee says he put his trumpet away and focused on singing.
In a career spanning more than five decades, Lee has rolled with the changing tides of popular music and sang every genre necessary. He counts soul giant James Brown as his idol and describes how recently he finally met another Houston legend Archie Bell who mistook Lee’s voice on the PA for that of Brown’s.
“In Houston, to be a good musician, vocalist and showman, you would have to do a lot of soul music or rock and roll. The Chicanos, we went with soul, James Brown, BB King, Otis Redding, stuff like that and if you didn’t do that, a lot of Chicano places wouldn’t hire you,” explains Lee.
Younger Chicanos like Lee knew that they had to mix up their set lists to include not only the Chicano music popular with their parents’ generation, but also the more modern sounds of the time in order to fill large venues like the historic Pan American Ballroom.
“That’s why I got hired in 1967 with a big band, Augustine Ramirez, to sing soul music, nothing but soul. I recorded a lot of soul songs with that band but I really didn’t get a lot of credit because it says on the records it says ‘Augustine Ramirez featuring Marky Lee’, so a lot of people thought it was Augustine singing the songs, but it wasn’t, it was me.”
Lee describes how Ramirez was considered the “Elvis Presley of Chicano music” earning the title, “Because he used to play guitar and sing. He really didn’t play nothing of Elvis, but a lot of young people thought he was sexy.”
“I didn’t get credit but it’s all right. I was young, stupid and dumb and I really did it for excitement and cause I loved it, I love it,” says Lee wholeheartedly.
Though Lee’s father always encouraged him to learn to play various genres, a lesson Lee also tries to pass on to younger players, he never let his son forget his roots and often reminded him of the power of conjunto music, where his career began.
Lee went on to sing with The Hometown Boys, the first tejano group to be inducted into the West Texas Walk of Fame in Lubbock, and in doing so made a full circle back in his career.
With The Hometown Boys, Lee returned to venues he had played with his father, this time with his own son. “My autograph was still there on the walls so I told my son, ‘Look, this is where I started. Put your autograph right here by my name.’ so some of the places that my dad played and I played when I was young, my son played when he was young. That was crazy.”
In all of his years performing, Lee’s strongest instrument remains his unique and strong voice. He describes how he is often asked to explain the difference between singing conjunto music and soul music saying, “To me it’s no difference. You really have to let it out of your heart. Any kind of music, you gotta let it out with all your heart and all your might and that’s the way I sing every night, like it’s my last show.”
Lee once again is returning to where it all started with his first installment of Tejas Got Soul 2 and the three artists took it way back to the early conjunto sounds. “It was really exciting to me because I really heard the talent of Nick doing the upright bass and it reminded me of my dad playing beside me.”
Lee also shares a connection with Rodriguez III who as a young man was brought on stage by The Hometown Boys to play accordion.
“It was very emotional too,” says Lee. “To me when I was singing, I felt like crying. It’s all about the feeling. I could hear my dad in the background and my dad always told me you’re always going to come back home and I did with The Hometown Boys and then doing this with Nick and Robert, I could hear my dad say you’re going to come back home.”