Henry "Blues Boy" Hubbard, an influential Austin blues musician whose career spanned more than six decades, has died after an extended illness. He was 85.
East Austin music venue the Skylark Lounge posted the news on social media over the weekend; Hubbard’s son notified the club of the musician’s death early Saturday morning, according to the post. Hubbard had played the Skylark Lounge often in recent years.
Born Feb. 16, 1934, in La Grange, Hubbard moved to Austin in the mid-1950s to work as a jet mechanic at Bergstrom Air Force Base. He soon began playing in popular East Austin clubs of the era, such as the Victory Grill and Charlie’s Playhouse. Hubbard and peers like W.C. Clark, who still performs regularly around town, and T.D. Bell, who died in 1999, energized the area’s music community.
His band, Blues Boy Hubbard & the Jets, helped to integrate Austin’s black and white communities as he continued playing through the 1960s and 1970s. On Monday, DiverseArts Culture Works founder Harold McMillan shared excerpts on social media from an interview he did with Hubbard 30 years ago. In the interview, Hubbard explained how "Now Dig This," a midcentury KTBC-TV show, helped make local audiences aware of East Austin’s burgeoning blues scene.
Younger white listeners who liked what they heard from the East Austin acts on the show "would come out to Charlie’s Playhouse, and then pretty soon when blacks got there, there weren’t any seats. That's where the whole thing started," Hubbard told McMillan.
Eventually Hubbard and his cohorts began playing downtown. The 1975 opening of Antone’s, which regularly booked Blues Boy Hubbard & the Jets in the club’s early years, gave them a jump start.
"They were right in there from the beginning," said Susan Antone, whose brother, Clifford, founded the venue. Hubbard, she said, was one of the first East Austin musicians Clifford booked at Antone’s. They also frequently backed up other local and touring musicians.
When Antone’s reopened in 2016 after two dormant years, Hubbard played the club’s new Fifth Street location in its first year.
"It was really important to me to have him in the new club," booker Zach Ernst said, "because he meant so much to Clifford and Susan and was a fixture of the original club downtown."
Hubbard continued to perform through his 70s and into his 80s at venues like the Skylark Lounge and was a regular participant in the annual Eastside Kings Festival. He influenced subsequent generations of Austin blues musicians, some of whom took lessons from him and others who saw him play at clubs like Ernie’s Chicken Shack.
Though Hubbard and other fixtures from that 1950s community occasionally toured regionally, national renown never came, in part because "almost all of those guys never gave up their day gig," McMillan said. "They had families, they bought houses, they raised their kids. They were smart enough to hang onto the jobs that gave them health insurance and retirement."