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F. Carter Smith Portfolio

Recapturing Lightnin'

Saturday was proclaimed "Sam 'Lightnin' Hopkins Day" to honor the city's most famous bluesman nearly 30 years after his death in 1982.
A sharecropper's son, Sam built a guitar at age 8 by cutting a hole in a cigar box, nailing on a plank and stringing it with wire. He performed for pennies and dimes until he was drawn to Houston in the late 1930's. He played dance parties and gin joints, the sidewalks and even on city buses. "He loved to drink and play dominoes and shoot dice. Oh, that was his game", recalled cousin and guitarist Milton Hopkins who performed after the dedication of the state historical marker.
In 1960 he played Carnegie Hall with Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. He opened for the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones, and performed a royal command performance before the Queen of England. Hopkins was a major influence on the playing of singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. The morning after a performance in Houston's Liberty Hall, a Daily Cougar writer and a young photographer were invited into Sam's apartment for an interview by his daughter Annie Mae Cox, pictured, right. He wouldn't let me use flash and there was only a single lamp burning as we talked with the shades drawn. Here was a man, a legend of country blues, who reluctantly talked about his new fame, discovered by a young white audience searching for the roots of rock and roll. My photos were not great. We did learn that he recorded many hundreds of songs, insisting on $50 cash up front per side, a mere hundred bucks for a 45-RPM record, including his future songwriting royalties. 
His granddaughter Bertha Kelly loved to visit. "You could always find him in his big Cadillac parked in front of the liqour store on Dowling Street, his doors open, chatting to passersby." Annie May and her children, along with a great granddaughter attended the ceremony. We chatted and posed in front of the marker. My daughters also enjoyed the morning, listening to live music, visiting the Flower Man's house across the street and lunching on barbecue. Howling Wolf made an eerie appearance through the voice of bassist King Dino. And across the country, Bob Dylan was beginning his current sets, bopping away at “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” its gruff veneer gave a surprising nod to Mr. Hopkins' song “Automobile Blues” from which Dylan drew the inspiration. Lightnin' was a man set free by his music, free to tell us his stories. Goodnight, Sam.
(Thanks to the Houston Blues Society, Eric Davis, Marty Racine and the Chronicle.)

My Second Texas World Series


As you know by now, the Texas Rangers lost the World Series to the band of misfits, the San Francisco Giants in five games. I got to cover my first World Series for MLB.com when the Astros were swept by Ozzie Guillen's Chicago White Sox in 2005. That first series was closer than most remember as all the contests were decided by one run. Things might have turned out different if our best two pitchers, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, had not been limited by a sore hamstring and rain on Chicago's South Side. Still, it became the first World Series played in Texas, and a lasting memory for all who attended.

Flash forward to 2010, and the Rangers were headed to the big show after beating the best two teams in the American League, Tampa Bay and the New York Yankees. The Giants won their division on the final day of the season to "sneak in" to the playoffs. Their bunch of rag-tag parts and stellar pitching defeated the defending champion Phillies to earn a trip to the Series. I am sure that FOX TV was hoping for a better marquee matchup to boost ratings. I was happy for the outcome, and the work it brought. Texas had no answer for the Giants pitchers who mostly silenced the bats of the leagues best hitting team.

Edgar Rentería, at age 35, was the unlikely hero with a three-run home run off ace Cliff Lee. It was the second World Series-winning hit of his career, having singled home the penultimate run for the Florida Marlins when he was a 21-year-old rookie. Thanks Edgar for this lasting memory and my second opportunity to visit a winning locker room while covered in plastic to shield my camera as best as possible from flying champagne.


The Hurricane I Couldn't Avoid

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to chase Katrina up the Gulf coast. As it's path veered up the coast, I feared this Cat5 storm would be the big one. Some compadres in the news biz headed to New Orleans before it hit. I doubt many were prepared for the madness to come. When the levees broke, it became Louisiana 1927, just like the Randy Newman song. When the news reports grew bleaker and the roads were closed, I would have had no luck getting in.

I viewed tornado devastation in east Texas and happened to spend the night in the Orange City jail, guest of the captain on duty. The city was in the dark with little contact to the outside world. The station had emergency power and frozen dinners. The Press (me) was welcomed to share.

After transmitting some photos via a dial-up modem connection (using their land fax line), the Captain checked in with his buddies on AOL, relieving some fears. One tiny prayer in a world turned upside down.

                Astrodome, September ©2005, ©2010 F. Carter Smith


Two days later I had made it back to the safety of home and family. Then the Astrodome was declared home to 25 thousand-plus evacuees from the Superdome (I tend to call them refugees - survivors of a war zone). Hurricane Katrina had hit home. 

Another call comes in from a London newspaper. Some British college kids had arrived in the French Quarter the night before the storm. After a night of partying the group found themselves out of their hotel and in a not-so-quiet corner of the Superdome, fearing for their lives. One kid texted his dad, a metropolitan police officer who caught the first plane to Houston, the evacuees' assumed destination. A reporter and I met Pete Henry as he got off the jet. His son had texted again and we headed towards Dallas' Reunion Arena. In the wee hours we finally caught up with the bus at a staging area 30 miles east. My camera witnessed a truly great father-son reunion. The stories of lawlessness in New Orleans were heard first-hand as I drove them home, stopping only for Tex-Mex and a different slice of America.





Looking Behind the Curtain, A Private Man


The Wizard leaves the field at Minute Maid Park to little fanfare after pitching his final inning Saturday night.

When Roy Oswalt joined the Astros 10 years ago as a middle reliever, I thought "how unfortunate to have the same last name as the lonely gunman who shattered our collective American dream in 1963". Soon after, I learned he pronounced his name OHS-walt, not OZ-walt. What a relief! Today, the owner of the Houston team, Drayton McLane, Jr. picked up $11 million in spare change and negotiated a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies to send one of the best arms in our history (plus the extra money) to the Phillies for a young pitcher and two minor leaguers. Two months ago, Roy approached the owner requesting a trade to take him away from the barren land that has become the 2010 Astros. He even gets to keep the tractor that Uncle Drayton gave him for pitching the team to a big playoff victory and a trip to the 2005 World Series. Oswalt reportedly enjoys the solitude of driving the John Deere and cutting the grass on his farm in Weir, Mississippi. He's no city boy, so don't expect any huge changes in his life, just maybe the elusive World Series ring that his personal fortune cannot buy.


Happy Birthday (suit), America!

In 1974, I was attending a friend's graduation at the University of Colorado, when the School of Business was announced. At that moment, a student clad in only his tennis shoes and acedemical mortarboard streaked the stage in search of something besides his diploma. I grabbed my Nikkormat 35mm camera with zoom lens and manually fired three frames. After the ceremony, I contacted an editor at the Rocky Mountain News who told me he would take a look at my first freelance submission. This picture ran full page across the front of the next morning's edition. The Denver Post bought the other two frames for the afternoon paper. United Press International picked up the photo and sent it over the UPI newswire for which I was paid an additional $10. It was later published in "Life Magazine's Year in Pictures" for a feature on the streaking fad. For that, I received no additonal compensation, aside from jump-starting my career in photojournalism.

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