Joe “Guitar” Hughes, blues singer and guitarist, son of James Hughes and Harriet Hughes, was born Joe Maurice Hughes in Houston, Texas, on September 29, 1937. Starting at age fifteen and continuing for most of the next fifty years, Hughes performed professionally in a variety of Houston venues, small and large. There he developed the musical skills and stage presence that earned him critical acclaim, recording opportunities at home and abroad, and featured appearances at national and European blues festivals.
Though a native of Houston’s Fourth Ward, Hughes spent most of his formative years residing and performing in the adjacent Third Ward. There Hughes met many famous blues guitarists—including Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, Albert Collins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Texas Johnny Brown—whose playing styles he gradually absorbed (along with that of T-Bone Walker, whom he first heard on recordings) and synthesized into his own hybrid blend.
In 1952 Hughes founded the Dukes of Rhythm with Johnny Copeland and Herbert Henderson; that group later added James Johnson and, through the mid-1950s, regularly played Galveston venues such as the Woodlake Inn, Arlie’s Groovy Grill, and others. From 1958 through 1963 Hughes worked mainly in the Third Ward, anchoring his own band seven nights a week at Shady’s Playhouse.
In 1958 at Houston’s Gold Star Studios (which later became SugarHill Recording Studios), Hughes made his debut recordings, released on a 45-rpm single on the Kangaroo Records label owned by local musician and producer Henry Hayes. From 1963 through 1972 Hughes also recorded for various other producers and released singles on labels such as Gallant, Golden Eagle, Jetstream, Boogaloo, Sound Plus, and S.B.I.
In 1963 Hughes first toured beyond the region as a guitarist with the Upsetters, a group (led by saxophonist Grady Gaines and later known as the Texas Upsetters) that backed various featured artists (such as Fats Domino and the duo Sam and Dave) in a nationally-popular revue. From 1964 through 1966 Hughes played lead guitar in another band that toured the United States with star singer Bobby Bland, followed by a similar stint from 1967 through 1969 when he accompanied singer Al “TNT” Braggs.
Following a period of relative obscurity from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, Hughes re-emerged beyond Houston in 1985 with a featured appearance onstage at the Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht, Holland, for Blues Estafette, an annual event at which he ultimately performed at least six times through the subsequent fifteen years. His success with European audiences reinvigorated his career, leading to additional festival appearances overseas and in the U. S., as well as his most productive phase as a songwriter and recording artist.
In 1986 Hughes recorded tracks for the Double Trouble label (a Dutch label) for Texas Guitar Masters, an album in the LP format featuring Hughes and fellow Houston blues guitarist Pete Mayes. In 1987 Hughes released his debut solo LP, Craftsman, on the same label. That same year he also issued his album Movin’ On in the cassette-tape format for the Rollin label, followed by This One’s for You on the Estox imprint in 1988. The highlights of Hughes’s recording career comprise the five solo albums he released on CD for various labels: If You Want to See the Blues (Black Top Records, 1989), Live at Vredenburg (Double Trouble, 1993), Down & Depressed: Dangerous (Munich Records, 1993), Texas Guitar Slinger (Bullseye Blues, 1996), and Stuff Like That (Blues Express, 2001). He was also featured in two documentary films—Battle of the Guitars (1985) produced by Alan Govenar and Third Ward Blues (1999) by Heather Korb.
Following a brief marriage in 1955 to Ella Louise Joseph, in 1961 Hughes met and married Willie Lee (Mae) Hudgins, his wife for the last forty-two years of his life. Hughes fathered seven daughters and two sons. After suffering a heart attack, Hughes died at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston on May 20, 2003. He was buried in Hudgins Cemetery in the Hudgins Settlement near Bay City, Texas.