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 Lady J Huston: Coming Home to Comeback - By Bob Baugh, July 2022

Lady J HustonThe National Blues Museum (NBM) Legends Room was packed for the Oliver Sain Tribute at the 2018 Big Muddy Blues Fest when a murmur ran through the room. An unknown woman had stepped on stage and was being waved over by the renowned saxophonist, Amos Brewer (R.I.P.), to join him at the mic. The lady with the dimple smiled, pulled out a pocket trumpet and proceeded to blow the crowd away. It was Lady J’s way of announcing she was on the comeback trail.

Lady J (Joyce) Huston was a stranger because she left town as a kid in 1980 to tour with Albert King. She would go on to become “The Queen of the Blues” in Las Vegas in the 2000’s. Growing up in a musical family in North St. Louis her mother, Loyce Huston, a single parent with five kids and a popular vocalist in the local jazz scene, was a big influence. So was Big George Brock who lived around the block. “As a kid, my friends and I would tag along behind his food truck dancing while he was playing that harmonica and singing the Blues,” Huston recalled.

Music was integral to Huston’s education. Seeing Ben Vereen as Louis Armstrong in a movie, inspired her to give the trumpet a second try: “I thought it would be an easy instrument having only three valves. Wrong. But I also thought it would be unique as I hadn’t seen a woman playing the trumpet before.” At Central HS she became concert band first chair, concert choir lead soprano, and marching band leader. Her academics and skills led to an early 1979 graduation where she was Valedictorian, voted Most Talented Female and won scholarships.

With money being tight in 1980 she took a hiatus from theory/composition, trumpet, piano, and voice courses at the University of Kansas. Her mother helped her secure a booking to sing with Johnnie Johnson, the real “Johnnie B Good.” Mama didn’t stop there. She took her to a sit-in with the acclaimed trumpeter, David Hinds. He saw she had the chops and recommended her to Frank Dunbar, Albert King’s music director and bassist who was looking for one.

Huston’s mother worried that her cute eighteen-year-old daughter was too young to hit the road with a bunch of gritty blues musicians. However, she knew and trusted Dunbar. “Lady J never knew but Loyce made me promise to look after her little girl, and I did,” he reminisced laughing. Her trumpet player/singer role soon expanded. “She stepped up,” according to Dunbar, “We had problems training replacements for musicians who got fired or left. There was a lot of that. We were using a tape player until Lady J began charting the band’s music. When my ticket got punched with King, she moved up into the music director position.”

Lady J Huston w Albert KingUnder Albert King,
a tough task master, the road grounded her in blues and performance standards that would become hallmarks of her career. She left the band in 1982 to study music at Howard University while occasionally playing with King. In the mid 80’s she moved to LA playing music while completing her BA in Business Administration. The bright lights life of Las Vegas beckoned. Huston began two careers there, a systems analyst for a Department of Energy contractor by day and an entertainer by night.

When Huston’s partner, Johnny Stewart, began touring with Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters she began sitting in at Vegas’ most popular Blues club, The Sand Dollar Blues Room. That led to a job, a fan base and a twenty five-year run: “I became a regular at the House of Blues lounge at Mandalay Bay, sharing headline billings in Jazz and Blues Festivals, an opening act for touring artists such as Bobby Blue Bland, Guitar Shorty, Lowell Fulson, and others. I began recording and appeared on multiple TV shows including “America’s Got Talent.” The “Las Vegas Queen of the Blues” title came from her years of high energy vocal/trumpet stage performances. A five-year string (2009-13) of Las Vegas Black Music Association Awards for Best Blues Band and Best Blues Performer culminated in Lady J’s induction into the Entertainment Consumers' Exchange & Fans Entertainment Hall of Fame.

Lady J HustonSadly, 2013 was the same year that long term health issues stopped Huston’s career in its tracks. “When the seizures came, I was told I should put my papers in order,” she said, “so I returned home for dedicated assistance and medical support.” Momma was there to help. One doctor discovered she was misdiagnosed with Lupus and another helped her allergy/auto immune problems. The recovery took years. “I focused on regaining my health and stayed under the radar musically performing occasionally at church,” Huston explained. By 2018 she was ready to play.

Huston’s Big Muddy sit-in led to her first comeback gig at the NBM. But she needed a band. Her old mentor, Frank Dunbar, was there to help. He was the bassist/music director of Hy-C and The Fresh Start Band which would win the 2019 IBC. Their reunion was a success: “When Frank pulled together alumni musicians of Albert King, I decided to
expand my show with a tribute to Mr. King. Our chemistry is like a battling brother and sister at times, we tease, joke, plan, plot, and he provides me words of wisdom from his vast experience on the St. Louis scene and abroad with national artists. I know he’s got my back and that gives me much comfort.” Dunbar would eventually leave Fresh Start and become Huston’s bassist and music codirector.

Lady J Huston, Frank Dunbar

It is a joy to watch The Lady J Huston Show. The band is tight with energy and musicality. The crowds love her variety of blues, R&B, soul, and jazz. Her chemistry and playfulness on stage with Dunbar brings smiles. Huston easily shares vocals and instrument solos with her excellent bandmates. Her trumpet and voice share equal billing in tying it all together. Her rendition of Summertime at a recent show was amazing. It began deeply blue but mid-way it became opera, then went to scat only to return to the blues at the end. Wow.

Lady J HustonHuston’s return included stops at Blue Lotus Studios. She charted all the music for the 18-piece Jazz Edge Orchestra on her cut, Hide-Away, for the St. Louis Blues Society 18 IN 18 CD. Her second, Corona You Make Me Sick!, was part of her public advocacy for vaccinations. That was the recording that got in the ear of
Earwig Records CEO, Michael Frank. Huston gave him a copy while networking at this year’s BMA. “When I saw him the next day,” she said, “he was singing the chorus to me.” An invite to Chicago followed as well as a recording contract.
Music journalist Bob Baugh
Bob Baugh

Huston is thrilled with the Earwig opportunity because “they have a deep passion for the preservation of Blues music and its artists.” Their first project is an album, Groove Me Baby. That title track is in release with another single scheduled for September and the album in February 2023.

Lady J says the mix of originals and covers will be “her style of music, an eclectic mix of Blues infused Soul and a sprinkle of Jazz.” She hopes it could be a nominee or winner of a major blues award or a Grammy.

Lady J is back on track. When you see her, it is easy to get lost in her sparkling smile, big dimple, stylish outfits, shiny trumpets, and supple voice. Behind it all is a born entertainer that never gave up and still has dreams. We know her as the lady who came home to comeback. www.ladyjhuston.com

This article was first published in Aug/Sept 2022 Big City Rhythm and Blues. bob.baugh@verizon.net

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