by Shaun Treat
This September marks the crystal anniversary of the Denton Blues Festival, one of our community’s many music events. In celebration of this landmark fête, here’s a look back at a Denton legend who for four decades was a major force of bringin’ the Blues to Denton.
Tom “Pops” Carter (1919-2012) was a well-known and much beloved mainstay of the Denton music scene for decades, but his beginnings read like a page outta Delta Blues mythology. Born June 6th along the Louisiana banks of the Red River in a long-vanished Bossier Parish cotton town, a precocious 10-year-old Carter began sneaking out to hear the tent pole blues shows that would drift through Shreveport. When he and his friends were about to be tossed from one show by gruff tour roustabouts, a bluesman, whose name has been lost to time, intervened. “You let them kids stay,” Pops remembered the old musician growl that hot night, “They’s gonna sit here by the stage and get schooled in th’ blues.” Young Tom Carter was lucky enough to be exposed to the sounds of traveling legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly and T-Bone Walker.
He despised picking cotton in the family fields and received frequent beatings from his daddy for sneaking off, so the wily teen packed a pillowcase and hitch-hiked to Houston. Living with an aunt and uncle while working menial daytime jobs, Carter quickly became a fixture in the vibrant blues scene of Houston’s Third and Fifth Wards within a few years. His first band, The House Rockers, began by playing in the streets outside the hot clubs but Carter was soon jamming onstage with the most prominent bluesmen of the era. Lightnin’ Hopkins became a huge musical and personal influence. Hopkins even introduced Carter to his first-cousin, Minnie Lee. It was no surprise that the two hit if off right away. “She was telling me about all these men who done her wrong,” Pops later recalled, “and I said, ‘Mama, I can treat you better’n that.” By the time Carter died a widower at age 92 after being married three times, it was Minnie Lee, who he always called ‘Mama’, that he considered the greatest love of his life. Carter would perform in Houston’s blues clubs during the 1940s and 50s alongside luminaries such as B.B. King, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Freddy King, and Little Milton.
Despite his musical notoriety in Houston’s blues circles, Carter still had to cover the bills. When a good-paying construction job drew him to Denton in 1969 he was smitten by the energy and creativity of the music scene, and preferring the small-town intimacy of Denton, Carter decided he didn’t want to live anywhere else. By now, almost fifty with a lifetime of musical experience playing with blues legends, Carter came to be known as “Pops” by the campus musicians who frequented his circuit of local pub gigs during the 70s and 80s. Over the next four decades, ‘Pops’ Carter became a one-man institution of Fry Street’s music scene as a friendly mentor and jam companion to two generations of Denton musicians. Among the many future talents that ‘Pops’ influenced were Robin “Texas Slim” Sullivan, The Baptist Generals, and a young Stevie Ray Vaughn, who used to travel from Austin to the dive bars of North Texas State University when making a name for himself. Always dressed to the nines, flirty with the foxes, and singing into the rafters, the smokey-voiced ‘Pops’ electrified audiences with his smiling disposition, high-energy onstage dancing, and trademark “Hey Hey Now!” callback that made him a mainstay for years. ‘Pops’ passion was the blues, but he never hesitated to sing with rock, jazz, or punk bands when asked. “He was a local icon,” recalled one festival organizer, and while acts “were whittling about, he wanted to be on stage.” Forming his own band Pops Carter and the Funkmonsters in 1990 when he was 70 years old. The group offered a uniquely Denton fusion of blues, roots, soul, and funk with a festive campus music vibe. “The music was in him,” Funkmonsters From Outer Space member Clarence Pitts grins; “He brought the energy every time he performed. He never did stop.”
It was 1997 when accountant John Baines became chairman of the Denton Black Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of the Denton Blues Festival. After having tried to establish their own banner community event with African-American Jazz and Gospel, the newly formed group rented a sound system and solicited volunteers to put on a Blues program “held together by prayer, chewing gum, and a shoestring.” That, and a favorite Denton Blues icon. “We had Pops Carter the very first year,” Baines recalled in 2005; “Then one year we didn’t have him, and the community got on our case. So we always make it a point, as long as Pops is alive and able, for him to play the festival. He’s a local legend.” True to their word, ‘Pops’ played alongside revered Blues headliners such as Tyrone Davis, Sam Myers, Denise LaSalle, Smokin’ Joe Kubek, Johnnie Taylor, Bobbie ‘Blue’ Bland, and Jimmy Ray Vaughn well into his 80s. “I open up for them guys every year,” Pops proudly noted of his endowed Blues Festival spot; “Its been good to me and good for everybody.” Indeed, the Denton Blues Festival is still today one of our community’s biggest and most anticipated events of the year, one of the best in Texas.
Yet aside from his unquestionable musical influence on Denton, ‘Pops’ Carter was by all accounts notoriously charitable to acquaintances and strangers alike. “He treated everybody like they were family or close friends,” insists ‘Texas Slim’ Sullivan; “He was certainly someone that didn’t have an awful lot, but he would share anything that he had.” In a 2008 short documentary titled Pops Carter: Keeping The Blues Alive, Carter spoke of giving meals and supplies to people in need. “I believe in helping people if I can. If I can help them, I’ll help them,” Carter told the filmmakers; “I was taught that you can’t live in this world by yourself.”
In 2011, Denton mayor Mark Burroughs recognized Pops' many decades of contributing to local culture and community by declaring June 5 “Pops Carter Day.” Although formally “retired” for years before his oft-rumored passing, ‘Pops’ Carter made irregular appearances into his 90s as the spirit moved him, ambling in on a cane, which became impromptu “happenings” by text message or social media invitation only when he was sighted onstage. It was just such a spontaneous appearance that we last saw ‘Pops’ at Riprocks on Fry Street the September 2011 evening before moving to Houston to live with his son Tommy. The farewell song of his set was the James Brown tune “I feel good,” fittingly enough, which he crooned in his own unique style swaying in a chair, beaming with glee. He passed away the following April but that’s how we remember him, physically feeble yet as vocally powerful as ever, inspiring a parade of booty-shaking from a cheering standing-room only crowd. Sadly, not unlike the blues travelers of old who inspired him, ‘Pops’ didn’t leave much recorded music behind when he was buried alongside his sweetheart Minnie Lee. The Denton Blues Festival is a grand continuation of ‘Pops’ Carter’s legacy, a yearly celebration of the Blues ambassador of Denton who for 40 years was as essential to our local music scene as a B flat.
Back in The Day is an ongoing WDDI contribution from Shaun Treat, an assistant professor in Communication Studies at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc Treat has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of the fine folks with the Denton County Historical Commission and local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past.