Backbone of the B(l)ackbeat

by May 4, 2023

Herman Matthews (Jazz ’79) grew up in Acres Home on the Northside of Houston. While watching The Lawrence Welk Show as a six-year-old, he started showing an interest in the drums. It wasn’t long before he was hand drumming “Wipe Out” onto his desk at Durkee Elementary and driving his poor first grade teacher crazy in the process. She promptly delivered him to the school’s music teacher, if for no other reason than for self-preservation.

At age 11, Matthews started playing drums alongside his cousin, a guitarist, in their Uncle Allen’s blues organ trio. Several nights a week, Uncle Allen paid his nephews to play the blues and to help lug his B3 Hammond organ up and down the juke joint stairs night after night. Those muscles certainly came in handy later.

Like many in his family, Matthews was an athletic, sports-minded type. He ran track, played basketball, and, as a running back on his middle school football team playing both offense and defense, he actually beat OJ Simpson’s professional rushing record of 2,003 yards! “I had cousins who were amazing football players and I had a second cousin who was the defensive coach at UCLA, so football was the thing that I was going to do–along with music,” or so he thought.

Ann Cornwell Price, his middle school band director, was the first to warn him, “Herman, your heart is not into football anymore,” but he ignored her. When it came time to try out for Waltrip High School’s football team, he was surprised to learn that, over the course of the summer between middle school and high school, everyone had grown stronger and faster than him. At the tryouts, after attempting a tackle and falling flat on his face, he looked up into the stands and found Ms. Price’s head shaking in disapproval. He said to himself, “You know what? I’m gonna play music for the rest of my life.” From there, he went straight to PVA and auditioned at the last minute for Ed Trongone (Robert “Doc” Morgan’s predecessor and the Founding Director of HSPVA’s Jazz Department). “I guess they can say, ‘now the rest is history,’” he jokes.

In the fall of 1976, when Matthews began his sophomore year at HSPVA, students were allowed a minor discipline which often included arts “cross-over days.” This later evolved into an Interim Term where students could take elective “academic and life-skills courses for enrichment, work on art areas other than their majors, or participate in rehearsals for the upcoming all-school musical.” Matthews was classified as an Instrumental Music major with a minor in Visual Art but, as is the story with most PVA alumni, he is a man of many hidden talents.

In response to my question about how he came to find out about HSPVA, he mentions various connections: older cousins that attended PVA, an older girlfriend in PVA’s Dance Department, other participants in the mayor’s summer youth program, and friends in C. Lee Turner’s award-winning theatre department at M.C. Williams High School (now middle school). Because of the dancer he dated, he even took a few dance classes. “I ended up not dancing. I still do some art, but music is the main thing.” Of course, after learning about his #HealthyRoadWarrior blog posts and Lil’ Herman’s Old Fashioned Peanut Brittle, I took this opportunity to ask about his apparent love for cooking. He shares that his grandmothers played a big role in inspiring that love and adds, “it’s all a part of creating.”

His first year at the synagogue-turned-high-school was a busy one. Though playing the blues with his family had given him an opportunity to perform often, it didn’t pay the kind of money he knew he could earn outside of the Chitlin’ Circuit–a collection of venues that acted as a safe space for Black performers from the 1930s to 1960s.

Herman’s senior photo. Photos courtesy of Matthews.

Matthews started searching for ways to diversify. “The thing that was great about being in Houston was you had to learn how to play jazz, funk, soul, country, rock; you had to do everything in order to survive.” According to Matthews, although the city had great musicians, there weren’t a lot of them. Touring groups often hired PVA students to fill in the gaps. “I would go and play some of the percussion things for the circus that would come through. We were part of the Union,” he explains. He was just a teenager! But, as is so often the case with young talent, there usually comes a time when tough decisions have to be made between commitments to your art and your education. Even attending a school like HSPVA doesn’t completely remedy that dilemma.

Rather shamefully, Matthews recalls a decision he made the night of a jazz concert at the school. “I, being the principal drummer, was supposed to play this solo, but I also had a gig at this place called Cody’s. I was playing with the Paul English Group–which was a big fusion band in Houston–and the concert at school was running late, so I left to go play my gig.” Since Doc Morgan, Matthews’ jazz teacher, liked to share the emcee’s role with his students and have them introduce some of the songs, he missed Matthews’ presence in more ways than one. Without fail, he would always utter something to make Doc say, “I wish I could have seen Pat Bonner’s face when you said that.” Despite the brief lapse in judgment, he and Doc have stayed connected all these years. When Matthews was inducted into the HSPVA Jazz Hall of Fame at the 2015 DocFest, it was nothing short of a sweet reunion. 

“I was involved with just about every musical situation that was there at PVA,” Matthews remembers. He played in Young Performers, in senior recitals, and in several Happenings–some of them with Gospel Connection. Knowing this, I–not at all by accident–wore my BAN Legacy hoodie (featuring several Gospel Connection members) for our video call. As expected, the ice was broken before it even had a chance to form. “Let me see. The young man to your left? That’s Elias White, that’s my cousin! He was a vocalist,” he started. “Who else is all in there? Oh my goodness. That’s Gwendolyn [Tryon Ross]…” Until that moment, I honestly hadn’t realized how surreal it might be to see my classmates’ faces on some stranger’s shirt nearly 45 years out of context. His joy and excitement was palpable.

Playing at an HSPVA Happening. Photos courtesy of Matthews.

Back row: Ed Trongone, Principal Norma Lowder, Warren Sneed, Herman Matthews, Doc Morgan. Front row: Nancy Moser and Erika (Ford) Johnson. Spring 1978.

Center, playing at an HSPVA Happening. Photo courtesy of Matthews.

“All the dark things… I tend to forget if there were any at all during the time that I was there, only because I really had a great time.”

When Matthews was invited to audition for the U.S. Air Force’s Airmen of Note as a high school senior, he was excited about the prospect of being in such a prestigious jazz ensemble and achieving a higher rank in the service than his father. Auditions were around the time that he would’ve started college, but Doc assured him it was a worthwhile opportunity and had even arranged for him to prepare by playing with the Houston Jazz Society for several weeks before audition day. Unfortunately, a previously unknown issue with his back kept Matthews from being able to accept the Air Force gig when it was finally offered to him. Since it was too late to accept his scholarships to Berklee College of Music or Indiana University, he decided to just keep gigging in Houston and see where that took him. “Well,” he says, “I fell into that trap of making great money and working with great players and I never went to school.”

By the late 80s, his good fortune started to run short. “I literally went from a band that was playing six nights a week to packed houses to playing an hour outside of Houston at a Holiday Inn to four or six people.” On the drive home from that gig, he decided that he wanted to move to L.A. A few days later, he got a call from a saxophonist he had met while playing in Texas State University’s Big Band: Kirk Whalum. Coincidentally, Whalum called asking him to join his band and move to L.A. but, since Whalum didn’t have any gigs on the horizon, Matthews opted to stay on the grind in Houston. “Deliver me from a man that doesn’t work,” his mother always used to say. Eventually, Whalum invited him again to join his band which, this time, had ample work on the books.

In 1988, he moved to L.A. He arrived just a day before his two-night run with Kirk Whalum at The Baked Potato, a prominent jazz club Matthews notes is “still, even today, one of the choice places for musicians to play.” The house was packed both nights. Just by being “The Groove Guy” in the right place at the right time, he scored a handful of auditions–one with Al Jarreau–and his next two touring gigs. First, was with jazz fusion keyboardist Bob James (who Whalum was a sideman for at the time); next, with “Footloose” singer Kenny Loggins (whose bass player had dropped in on a session Whalum was doing with George Duke). From those gigs stemmed tours with Richard Marx, the Isley Brothers, and eventually, Tower of Power.

On the set of Bel-Air.

Warren Sneed (Jazz ’77), Matthews, Doc, and Everette Harp (Jazz ’79).

eft to right: Coco Jones (Hillary), Olly Sholotan (Carlton), Akira Akbar (Ashley), and Jabari Banks (Will).  Photo by Erik Carter / Teen Vogue

With musician and Houston club owner, Scott Gertner (Jazz ’77).

eft to right: Coco Jones (Hillary), Olly Sholotan (Carlton), Akira Akbar (Ashley), and Jabari Banks (Will).  Photo by Erik Carter / Teen Vogue

With actor/singer Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band.

Playing with Tower of Power (TOP), a Bay Area funk band known for hits like “What Is Hip?” and “You’re Still a Young Man,” was “a dream come true,” says Matthews. In fact, he and his close friend, saxophonist Everette Harp, had played a TOP song entitled “Squib Cakes” at their HSPVA senior recital in the Denney Theatre. They had Doc play and sing on it as well. Despite his respect and admiration for the band, he says he “caught hell” for seemingly trying to sound like David Garibaldi, the band’s original drummer. Still, he enjoyed his time with the band and even wrote a few songs for their 1997 Rhythm and Business album. Just a few weeks ago, he subbed with the band again for their performance at Blue Note’s Napa Summer Sessions.

Somehow, between tours with TOP, Kenny Loggins, “It’s Not Unusual” singer, Tom Jones, and a long list of other notable acts, he managed to get married and start a family. He confesses that it was a challenging time, trying to set a wedding date and be present for the birth (and childhood) of his first and only child. “Literally, I would leave one tour and go to the next and then I’d be gone for another six weeks […] I have friends who were on the road more than me, and their kids have grown up to hate them. It’s not quite that bad with my son. We are great friends now.”

Given the title of his 2007 album, Home at Last, I wondered if, by that time, the extensive touring had made him homesick. It hadn’t. “I love the road,” he admits. “I love staying in hotels where other people are making up my bed. I love room service or, as my son would call it, ‘food on a tray.’ I love that lifestyle.” When asked to record the album, he wasn’t sure what kind of album he wanted to make; but, when the pen started flowing, he had himself a blues record. “I had this attitude about the blues after leaving Houston that I never wanted to play it again because I was just over it.” After nearly two decades of playing just about everything but the blues, he returned home at last.

These days, he spends more time at home in California and with his own blues-based rhythm and soul band, Phatback, Earl & Me. He also teaches a performance class at the Los Angeles College of Music. “I’m teaching them how to play a song. I’m teaching them to play in a way that the lead singer won’t want to turn around and throw the microphone at them. Dynamics, feel, that sort of thing.”

“I’m trying to teach these kids not to be the best drummers that they can be but the best musicians that they can be. I feel that that’s what Doc was trying to teach me… the maturity of playing.”

With Brent Carter, then-lead singer of Tower of Power. Photo courtesy of Rodney Harrison.

Ned Albright (Home at Last producer), saxophonist and close friend Everette Harp (Jazz ’79), and Matthews.

With David Garibaldi on the Tom Jones/Tower of Power Summer Tour. Photo courtesy of Matthews.