ABOVE: The legendary Morales Radio Hall sits in Houston’s Second Ward
The City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA) develops policies and initiatives that foster an environment in which art and culture flourish. In partnership with MOCA, local musicians and historians gathered at Morales Radio Hall Aug. 30 to discuss mentorship in music. Equally as important as the discussion was the setting; the choice of venue is significant, as it has a long and rich history.
Felix and Angela Morales established the Morales Funeral Home in Houston, TX, in 1931. In a time when funeral homes were largely owned by whites and many Hispanic funerals occurred in garages, the Morales family broke the mold. According to their website, they were the first Hispanics to win a contract from the Harris County Commissioners Court to bury indigents. In 1942, Mrs. Morales became the first woman in Harris County to earn a mortician’s license.
But the couple made history in other ways when they founded Morales Radio Hall in 1946. As Morales Memorial Foundation Board Member Adrian Nieto explains: “This building served as the broadcast facility in Houston for the Houston radio station KLVL in the mid-70s to the mid-90s,” he said. “It’s historic because KLVL was the first full-time Spanish language radio station. It was established in 1950 on Cinco de Mayo by Felix and Angela Morales. Cinco de Mayo is a big holiday, mostly here in the United States, but it’s also Mrs. Morales’ birthday. So, they’re considered broadcast pioneers.”
When the station officially hit the airwaves on May 5, 1950, it was groundbreaking. Nieto shared: “Before that, the Spanish-speaking community in Houston had no information, no news. They didn’t know if there was a hurricane, that a man had landed on the moon, that the president had gotten shot. So it was a major source of news, information and entertainment.” Like the funeral home, the music hall is still standing over 70 years later.
The panel featured recording artist and Forward Times’ very own Lenora; singer-songwriter Michele Thibeaux, who has opened for luminaries like Erykah Badu and EPMD; legendary musician and drummer Jose Martinez; and Chicano music historian Isaac Rodriguez (best known as DJ Simma Down). In 2015, Rodriguez founded Tejas Got Soul, a DJ concert series highlighting Tejano music in Houston. The panel discussion doubled as a deep dive into a treasure trove of Houston music history.
Donnie Houston of the wildly popular Donnie Houston Podcast served as the panel’s moderator and asked the panelists, “How did you find your mentors – or did they find you?”
Lenora affectionately revealed “My first mentor would be my mama – I’m named after her, the OG Lenora.”
Lenora “Doll” Carter was the General Manager of Forward Times while her husband and its Founder Julius Carter served as its CEO/Publisher. But Mr. Carter died of a heart attack in 1971. “The building was bombed, presumably from running a story about things that we sadly still run today — about injustice, calling things out. My grandfather had a heart attack because of the stress of that. And my Mama took up the mantle and became the publisher of Forward Times at just 29 years old — a young widow with two young daughters running a business and never missing a beat.” Lenora was inspired by her grandmother “being a young woman boss and juggling multiple things.”
Michele Thibeaux recalled one late mentor who “literally pushed me – and I mean with two hands – pushed me on the stage and forced me to learn how to freestyle,” she said. “He literally made me get on the stage and sing ‘Killer Joe’ and I didn’t know it. But these musicians are looking at me like, ‘You know you got to hurry up, right?’”
“My biggest mentor was my father – and a tough one. He gave me my first break to play music,” Jose Martinez recalled. “And as I played with him, he would never really say, ‘Hey, you’re doing good.’ On the contrary, he would say: ‘I don’t think you’re ever going to make it.’ And I would say: ‘I’m gonna show him.’ And that’s what motivated me even more. Finally, a few years later, I got the pleasure of showing him ‘Hey! Here, look what I can do.’”
“I went on to play with orchestras, and they became my mentors. I learned a lot from bandleaders, ‘cause they were 30, 40, some 50 years old — and here I am, 12 and 13,” Martinez remembered. “I’m thankful for all of those who mentored me and gave me a chance.”
Isaac Rodriguez cited Gus Garza, who worked at KLVL from 1968-1971. He played a variety of Tejano music during his one-hour show, three days a week. “He had a show on KPFT (90.1 FM) called ‘Bailando en Tejas” for about 20 years. Every Saturday night, he would play old Tejano and Chicano music.” He focused on Houston, which piqued the interest of Rodriguez, a fourth-generation Houstonian. While working at KPFT, he introduced himself to Garza, whom Rodriguez credits for “schooling me on everything I needed to get me going.”
Rounding out the conversation, Donnie Houston asked how mentors inspired the panelists creatively. Lenora cited Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson Jr., known as “Beanz” of the production duo Beanz n Kornbread and one-third of popular musical trio, Khruangbin. “Beanz is a person that reminds me, in the midst of all of his personal success, that in the creative process, as well as my day-to-day life: The numbers don’t matter. Don’t look at the numbers; you’ve got to look at the impact and every chance you get, be a little more honest. I think that’s the biggest takeaway in my creative process from [Beanz] is just really focusing on impact instead of impressions,” Lenora said.
Thibeaux remembered working with a producer named Russell on a song called “Skydiving.” “For him, it was really about ‘the song comes first.’ I take that with me. No matter what song, no matter what track, no matter what instrument you are playing, just honor yourself. And when you honor yourself, you’re honoring your gift. And when you honor your gift, you’re honoring God.”
When asked about meaningful ways that the panelists have returned the favor to their mentors, Rodriguez shared that he preserved their legacies by keeping their music in rotation. “These guys were making music on their own record labels. Chicanos, Mexican kids playing soul music, playing rhythm and blues, but also playing the music of their parents – conjunto and Tejano music. They’re as Texan as anything else.” (Conjunto is a Texas-based genre that employs accordion and a 12-string guitar.)
Rodriguez and his partners from Tejas Got Soul also put together a tribute to honor their legacies. “I was kind of like the record nerd that went and found them. But we got these guys back on stage after so many years. One of my mentors, Oscar Villanueva, hadn’t performed in about 40 years, and we put him back on stage right here at the Morales Radio Hall. We closed the street down and we had a big block party. And we took about three or four guys from his era and learned their songs, and we threw a concert free for the community.”
In a moment that seemed to quite literally bridge the gap, Rodriguez continued: “We gathered some of the best musicians in this network and that day we also got Archie Bell (lead singer of the legendary Archie Bell & the Drells group) to come out as a surprise guest. These guys grew up in Fifth Ward. They grew up side by side with the African American community, you know what I’m saying? So, we had to embrace that.”
In honoring and embracing their mentors, the panelists revealed themselves — along with some pivotal Houston music history.