HOUSTON: Blues Fans Lose a Local Legend
by Abby Owen

Posted on 12/05/2009 by Monica Yasher

Blues Man Ozell 'Zee' Roberts Passes Good Friday 2009, Age 71, and he will be missed...

"In all our lives we meet someone who leaves an unforgettable impression upon us. Ozell “Zee” Roberts was such a man. Those of us who knew him marveled at the magic of his musicianship". ~ 'Traffic Jam' Tribute

I would like to thank his last band 'Traffic Jam' for some of the quotes and photos in my story.

Ozell has played with some of the greats including Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Clarence “Gatemouth" Brown, T-Bone Walker, The Manhattans, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Blue Bland, Red Fox, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Etta James and many others.

My own experience with Mr. Roberts came when I met him and subsequently got to know him from attending the Thursday Night Blues Jam at Spring Tavern, Spring Texas, over the Winter of 2008/2009. Little did I know I had precious time left to visit with my new friend between sets of aspiring or retiring blues jammers, so the rapport was easy and unaffected. He would be gone a few months later, on Good Friday. My overall impression of him was that of a gentle gentleman. I never heard Ozell resort to bad language or cutting remarks, or even react to some of the more crude jokes that used to fly around. We were in an 'ice-house' after all. It was a 'biker-joint' I had been told, before I decided to check it out for myself. I like to think he was not reacting to the bad language because he felt he was in the presence of a lady, and it was better to let it pass on by, so not to offend. This was how I knew he was a gentleman. The place was nothing to look at, but as I learned over time, many of Houston's leading musicians will stop in for the jam, knowing that some of the best-of-the-best musicians are likely to turn up to play a set, and will be appreciated for their playing. It often seemed like an 'after-party' of musicians just entertaining each other! The 'In' crowd.

Ozell had a way of making you feel that you were among royalty, that his very presence in the joint gave everyone more credibility. The first time I heard him play guitar, I was in heaven. I couldn't stop grinning from ear to ear, because until then I thought I had been witnessing a real show of talent with the other musicians there, until I saw Ozell play that is. There is no way to describe how good he was on that guitar. He truly was an artist. And it seemed his fingers barely moved! I didn't have much time, but didn't know it. The odd thing is, even though I barely knew him, on our last parting I was suddenly hit with the urge to give him a hug good-bye. After I hugged him, I felt awkward and thought to myself, "Now, why did I do that? I hardly know him that well." Ozell took my exuberance in stride, and softly smiled. That was the last time I saw him.

"We will never forget the amazement and wonderment we all felt as he ripped off an altered chord or a blazing guitar solo. His music was a heavenly embodiment of angels singing. His personality was a touching tribute to greatness and humility. He was a great man who exemplified simplicity and kindness."~ 'Traffic Jam' Tribute

Ozell, sad to say, fell into the familiar category of some of the older musicians who were never properly recognized or compensated for their artistry. That didn't stop him from sharing it with other musicians, and the community as a whole. He never complained about it, he just kept playing.

"Ozell left East Texas in the 60’s to play bass guitar", writes a family member. "Over the years Ozell played with so many well known artists. The only recorded [offering] of his work, that I am aware of, is on Lightning Hopkins’ "The Sonet Blues Story" recorded here in Houston, 1974. Even though he wrote his own music and would have loved to record his own work and live the good life, it didn’t happen for him, but it didn’t stop him."

People wonder, and I don't really have an answer, why in the Houston music scene there are so many cover bands and tribute bands, and not so many bands doing original music. Why aren't these guys honored with the fans and success they deserve? Here is an excerpt from an article written a few years ago by a local music publication the 'Houston Press’ that mentioned Ozell in these terms...

Houston Press - 05/05/05 "...And yes, to be a full-time musician in Houston does mean playing cover music. Just ask these groups how much they love to play "Mustang Sally" one more time. Blues legend Ozell Roberts, who has played with Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Etta James, has to play these cover songs to afford to buy his diabetes medicine. Even after this he can still be found at Shakespeare's Sunday jam session just to play for free for the love of music. Why must Houston musicians starve to do what they love?"


"This extremely loose set was recorded in Houston in 1974 and was originally released as part of Samuel Charters' Legacy of the Blues series that same year. It features Hopkins playing an acoustic guitar with an electric pick up backed by a valiant three-piece band that consisted of Ira James on harmonica, Larry "Bones" McCall on drums, and Rusty Myers and Ozell Roberts splitting time on bass. Ozell backs Lightnin' Hopkins on three albums that we know of."

Admittedly, there isn't a lot of information on Ozell Roberts when you search, as most of his glory happened on the road, or in clubs, back when there weren't recording devices around every corner. There was no 'YouTube' or 'MySpace' back in the 50s, 60s or even 70s! Most of what we have about Ozell is the human factor, the memories that people will carry with them of this great and extremely humble man, and it is the reason my story is made mostly of those things...

"All of us who played with him were elevated to a place beyond our own ability. His smile and softness endeared him into the hearts of everyone who knew him. If you knew him you loved him". ~ 'Traffic Jam' Tribute

Traffic Jam = Ozell Roberts: Guitar, Dave Corbett: Drums, Flash: Keys, Adam Aaron: Bass, Dan Carpenter: Sax.

Thomas Viviano had this to say, "I was blessed to perform with Ozell as the trumpet player in the band ‘Traffic Jam’. Ozell was a member of my band Cool Breeze. We played R&B and also Jazz. Yes sir. Not only could he play blues, he was great playing jazz on his guitar. Ozell was a pleasure to perform with. I will miss his talent for music and the humor he had while being around people."

Mark May, a well known Houston Blues artist had this to say. “He was just one of the coolest guys to be around musically. For one thing he was always in such a great mood he would lighten up the whole evening. He was probably the smoothest musician I’ve ever played with as far as he was real laid back, but it was real intense to listen to him play because he could just jump on the harp, or the keyboards, or y’know the guitar, bass. He played them all fantastically, and had this really cool voice. He was always fun to be around. He always loved good music. If he came out to the jam and didn’t want to play, he’d just hang out y’know, enjoy the music on his nights off, after a gig or anytime. He couldn’t get enough of it. He couldn’t get enough of music.”

Rhythm & Blues artist Papa Joe of ‘Papa Joe’s Ultimate Blues Machine’ said he’s been playing music for 60 years, started out in a blues club in 1952 called The Vee Jay Club in Simsport Louisiana. He plays trumpet, and also does vocals. “Ozell was a great blues artist. I worked with him many, many times and it was always a pleasure and a priviledge. He was the most humble, down to earth guy you’d ever want to meet. And really a super, super talent. Ozell was a good guitarist, a great bass player, a good vocalist...he could do it all.”

Miss Rita, local musician, music teacher and longtime friend of Ozell says, "We had so many good times and used to laugh so hard. He used to call me thumper and would do this hilarious impersonation of me playing the drums. One time we went to this Christmas party along with Suzanne Prats. Mike and Ray Charles were supposed to be there. Ray never made it so we ended up playing. Well, there was this guy there who looked and talked just like George Jefferson! Ozell always talked later about meeting that guy, how Ray Charles couldn't make it, but at least we got to meet George Jefferson! Ozell was one of a kind, one of my favorite people in the world. It was amazing, all the people and musicians who went to the hospital to see him when he was sick. He was really loved. It was a gift and honor for all of us to know him, hear him play, jam with him and have him as a friend."

Stacy Kriticos, a friend who was with him in the hospital during his last days said, "Ozell was a man of many talents. He was a great musician and a very talented painter. Ozell could take anything that was broken and turn it into a piece of art. He enjoyed teaching kids how to play various instruments and now those kids are successful musicians. Ozell would go to retirement homes to perform for the elderly and do the same for children. His friendship along with his music will be treasured forever."

It has been said that a person lives on in the hearts and memories that they left with others. Ozell, my friend, you have a lot of living left to do! We won’t forget you so keep on jammin’.

Copyright © 2009 Abby Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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