"My heart was always in the blues and soul music
and America just helped me to understand them better"
says the American Czech Joseph "Bobby" Houda, singer, guitarist, composer, arranger, producer and a music teacher.
As a young restless rebel and a rock-and-roll hero in his teens, Joseph "Bobby" Houda had moved around the Eastern Europe just to be able to make his music and to escape from political realities of a communist state. Eventually, in order to experience what the blues is all about, he disappeared in America for more then twenty years. Driven by his musical dreams, successes as well as failures, he set on a journey that led him from New York City to Midwest, Texas, Boston, Atlantic City and Philadelphia. An outstanding artist and a graduate from the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, Bobby has made his way from working as a warehouse-man, furniture mover and singing waiter to earning his living as an established professional musician. Two years after the coup d’etat in his native Czech Republic, already an American citizen at that time, he decided to return to his country of origin. Today, sixty years old, he lives in Prague but: "I must be crazy, I still have these walking shoes. I can’t imagine that I would settle down some day. I’m starting to behave like the local people, and find myself always complaining about something, getting angry over silly things and so on…", suggests a possible return to the United States.
Disappointment with the new Czech society
Bobby had a clear plan in his mind when he returned home after living in America for twenty years – to make it as a producer. Having had an experience with his Philadelphia based production company, it seemed to be an easy and logical decision. But soon came a real awakening: "I wanted to make recordings, write arrangements and do talent scouting like in America. But here they thought that I would only be giving them money and nobody had an idea what a producer’s work is all about ...", he describes his first disappointment. So he followed a suggestion of his former friends and musicians, picked up a guitar and become a rocker again. Today he has three albums to his name. The first one named "The Wanderer" is inspired by his life in America. But in a country where just dusting off some old hits and getting a new image would get one public and media recognition, his original songs did not make their way into the mainstream musical awareness. "The record had a good promotion and a critical acclaim, but nothing had happened. I was disappointed. Had something like this happened in America, I would certainly get some recognition. But it doesn’t work that way here. Whole business in TV and radio stations is run by old communist comrades who are just pushing their old friends without any regards for new and talented performers. They do not have respect for a hard work, they just sit in comfortable chairs and guard their positions. It never crosses their minds that one day they will die and nothing will remain of them. They just want to make easy money and do not concern themselves with what comes after." But Bobby does not get discouraged easily. He went on touring, teaching in the music school and preparing another album called "Voice of poets". This album features his old songs from the seventies that were banned by communist authorities and therefore never performed previously, as well as some new ones. "This time I didn’t go around record companies as much because I knew that these young guys would not hear my music anyway. They do not know that much about music, they just go around disco clubs and that is all they hear. After all, fame and recognition doesn’t matter to me as much. In the end, I’ve gotten together with guys form the independent publishing company ‘Kalendar Liberecka’ and they readily put my album out." And the very same company also backed Bobby up with another effort since then, his most recent blues album called "Blue Mood". And certainly, this is not the last word from Bobby Houda.
A rebel since childhood
Music permeates Bobby’s entire life. As a child he was supported by his mother who wanted to become an opera singer. But the war, death of her husband in a Nazi concentration camp, and a child on the way had taken that dream away from her. And so, in that, she musically brought up her son. "When I was seven years old, we have moved from my native town Kladno to Korenov, a small village in the mountains called Jizerske Hory. You see, I was such a tiny undernourished war child. I did a lot of sports by then, like skiing, soccer playing and so on. Even though we lived in very bad times and under a real hardship, my mother somehow managed to pay for my violin lessons in the music school …", he recalls his first encounter with music. The real turnaround came at the age of thirteen when Bobby swopped a javelin for a guitar. He also exchanged his watch, which he won at the ski championship, for a small radio. "It has brought me closer to modern music. I started listen to the ‘Radio Free Europe’ and ‘Voice of America’ where they played the real blues and soul music. I would listen to it under the pillows until early in the morning." And so, an undernourished child started to become a little rebel. He would skip school when he felt like, he would smoke cigarettes and drink cheap wine. Once, due to a set of unfortunate circumstances, he even ended up
in a reform school. "That time my mother got ill and had to be hospitalized. There was nobody to take care of us. My sister was taken to a foster home and I ended up as a juvenile in a reform school. There was a lot of young kids that were quite violent, even thieves and murderers. I didn’t like it there, so, together with a group of other kids, we made a plan to escape to Poland. I knew the borders were not that far away, I used to cross it quite often in order to smuggle cigarettes to Polish soldiers and exchange them for pencils with pictures of naked girls on it, or for sunglasses. But our escape failed and we had to spend a few days in a solitary confinement. After about three months or so, when my mother returned from the hospital, it took her quite an effort to get me released form there." Bobby would refuse to subordinate himself to social rules and conventions even in his latter years. His studies in a guitar trade school in Cheb ended up badly. He almost lost all his teeth due to poor nourishment. "We would go to pubs and drink beer with big guys instead of buying food. We would attend school only whenever we felt like. There was no supervision and the director was a drunkard himself. When my mother found out what conditions I was living under, she took me out of the school immediately." An attempt to get me through an upholsterer’s trade school in Litvinov has failed as well. And so, as a seventeen years old teenager, Bobby begun to work as a real coal-miner in a coal-mining company ‘Vitezny Unor’ in Lom near Most in Western Bohemia.
The first musical successes
Bobby’s musical career started there in the coal-mines. Although he had formed his first band, playing the songs from the ‘Semaphore’ theatre, already in the eighth grade, and later played in a school band at the trade school in Cheb, his real fame, complete with a huge following of young girls, came when he formed a legendary group ‘Svitorka’. The name ‘Svitorka’ intended to parody the polka band of the same name. The group was sponsored by the trade union ROH, which had supported amateur musical activities at that time. "The band was divided into two sections. One of them played a heavy music, such as the Rolling Stones or Troggs, and the other part, consisting of smooth good-looking boys, played the Beatles or Kings." Soon the ‘Svitorka’ gained a great popularity among the kids of Northern Bohemia, and, of course, problems and banned performances followed soon after. For example, when they played at the school for the nurses, five hundred young girls got so wild, that the stage was covered by brassieres and panties after the show. On behalf of that, Bobby wrote like it. For a concert in the town hall the fans brought violins, smashed them to pieces during the performance and demolished the entire hall by the end of the show. "It was very exiting for us to get audience wild, but on the other hand, it drew attention of a police. We were prohibited to perform and police started to chase us around trying to cut off our long hair. One of the band members wouldn’t be allowed to graduate unless he would cut his hair, which he eventually did. But then he was ashamed to play with us because he wouldn’t fit our image." Because the times were full of contradictions, the ‘Svitorka’ band ended up being saved. "One official would prevent us from performing and another one would come to our rescue and would support the band. One enlightened president of the Socialist Youth Organization in Most suggested that if we join the organization we could continue playing without a problem. So, in order to shut the authorities’ mouth, we joined it."a song titled ‘Red Panties’. No wonder that the city’s authorities didn’t
A fool’s game
In the year of 1966 Bobby was recruited to serve in the military service in Pardubice. Again, he’s gotten lucky to be surrounded by good musicians. So he started a new band. "I’ve learned a lot in there. The military bandleader was a pain and very strict. But even though we could play rock music in civilian outfits, it somehow didn’t feel right to me. I started to think how to slip away from the military." He pretended to have a urological problems and played a fool’s game until the sent him to a hospital. He ran into his old friend, a musician Lesek Semelka there, who was trying to get out of the military service as well by faking heart problems. Although Bobby had to undergo three months of an ordeal in the mental institution in Bohnice, they released him from the military service obligation after that. So there he was, off the hook, doing all kinds of jobs and dreaming of a big musical career. His band ‘Svitorka’ had split up, so Bobby decided to conquer the capital city. "Prague in 1968 was something like New York or London for me at that time, the city where it was happening. You had to go to Prague if you wanted to make it." Enjoying freedom of metropolitan city he just lived as a homeless man, sleeping in the basements, night trains or friends’ cars. He didn’t have to hold a job and was not registered with the police. Very soon he formed a band called "Bobby and His New Society&q "It was the time of an absolute freedom, the police and state did not pay any attention to me. Unfortunately it did not last too long …" Bobby and his group began to make the name for themselves. They performed as an opening act for a popular "Primitives Group", which even offered Bobby to become their second lead singer. But then some of the members of this band had to leave the country because of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. And Bobby followed them after a few months as well. "I wanted to continue to play music, but I thought that the Russians would blow my head off if I would have played my guitar anywhere in there. And I have also known that I did not want to take any part in what was to follow, so I emigrated."
The first attempt to conquer the world
And so Bobby found himself in Switzerland. And as luck would have it, again, he met good musicians and formed a rhythm-and-blues band consisting of Czech émigrés. But their music did not mean much to the local public. In order to make a living, Bobby had to take a day job moving furniture, and performed in pubs on the weekends. He obtained a political asylum without a problem but it turned out not to be so helpful to him because he didn’t feel comfortable in Switzerland. There came also his first experience with drugs. "Drugs didn’t do any good to me. I was totally out of it. I also kept getting the news that nothing major had happened in my country, that the music continued to play on and Russians were staying away from it. A friend of mine told me that a famous group ‘Flamingo’ was looking for a front man and had asked about me." Despite all the danger he decided to pack up, and returned to Prague after about a year. An explanation that he spent his time abroad curing his health problems seemed good enough to the communist officials upon his return. But in the meantime, the drummer of ‘Flamingo’ has emigrated and everything has changed for Bobby again. He joined an experimental jazz group the ‘Benevolent Orchestra’ and left for a tour of Eastern Germany that lasted two years. "We weren’t too successful in Czechoslovakia. We had problems to get good instruments, so we tried our luck in Eastern Germany. It was quite different over there. We had work playing the clubs and big concerts. Everything that we couldn’t achieve at home became possible there. Despite its oppressive regime, Eastern Germany remained quite open towards its youth. We were quite free to play what we wanted and made much more money than even doctors over there."
An exemplary father and a balladeer
But even a wild man like Bobby had to settle down sometimes. Occasional trips from Germany to Liberec, his hometown at that time, ended up in parenthood. He got married and moved to the city of Brno. He made living playing nightclubs as well as teaching in a music school later on. Walks in the park with his little baby brought him inspiration and he started to write and perform his own songs again. "I became a sort of local folk music star overnight …" But he was not about to bend to the pressures of the communist system. In time his marriage begun to break down and his performances were banned. His music and lyrics did not fit into the style of socialist realism. "I realized that I would either become one of them and would be engaged in a similar way like for example the group ‘Olympic’, or as those who have signed themselves over the the regime in order to be left alone. I had a choice to be a loyal servant and be able to perform, or to become rebellious. Most likely they would kick me out of the job anyway and I might end up somewhere on the street. And I did not want to be such a hero … " he admits. He traveled to Belgium to visit his sister in 1975 and did not come back from his trip. The path to return has closed. He was divorced from a distance, and sentenced to prison due to an illegal stay abroad.
From Belgium over the ocean
Bobby had settled quite quickly in Belgium. At first he worked with a popular local singer who imitated Elvis Presley. Then, after a successful audition, he joined the band which backed up an American soul singer Arthur Conley, "…what meant a lot to me and I have learned a great deal from them …". This started a period of Bobby’s touring around the Western Europe. But he didn’t qualify for a political asylum. He traveled with a Czech passport that he preferred not to show anywhere. He would cross borders by hiding under the blanket in a car, or on foot and away from the main border crossings. Lured
by the blues and soul music, he applied for a permission to emigrate to the United States. Paradoxically, it was the Russian Tolstoy Foundation that helped him to emigrate to America. "They told me that since I am a Czech citizen, to them I am like a Russian, like one of them and that they would help me. Meantime, Czech organizations did not give a damn about me."
New York City and the first American encounters
Thanks to the Tolstoy Foundation, Bobby Houda arrived to New York City in the fall of 1975. They put him into a cheap Manhattan hotel full of prostitutes, drug dealers and junkies. "I didn’t know what to do. I was scared and alone in a totally different world. Then I went to a party given by a Czech community, and the only thing I’ve heard was about how they strangled some Czech guy there and cut the throat of another one …", he describes his first impressions in America. It was a very strong cup of tea for him, so, on a recommendation of the foundation he decided to familiarize himself with the language and environment of the New World away from a big city. They sent him to Nebraska, where he ended up working on a farm all day, and sometimes for a hamburger and a coke only. In spite of that Bobby was trying to break in as a musician. At first he tried his luck in a local club on Monday night’s ‘Open Mike’ shows. He became a regular performer and when local musicians took notice of him they invited him to a recording studio. But there was no chance of even considering a professional career in Nebraska. "So me and my friends packed up our belongings one evening and traveled down south to Texas in hope to work and live there …". But even the stay by a Texas seaside did not last long. A bad experience with drugs caused a fast departure from Galveston. "We ran into a gang of black guys with golden chains around their necks and their bodies covered by tattoos, and they took us to a party. My friend from Czechoslovakia tried some drug and became very paranoid about something, like they want to kill and eat us or what. So we promptly jumped into our car and left for Houston, leaving our stuff in a motel. I knew what was going on because I’ve already had a few bad trips behind me myself, so I acted quickly and took a refuge in a church for a while." Bobby’s long time dream about studies in Berklee College of Music began to take a concrete shape in Houston.
"I had up to three jobs at one time. I worked as a singing waiter also. I waited on tables first and then I changed a shirt and went back to sing a song. And then back to change and wait tables, and change and sing, and again change and wait and so on …", he tells his story with a smile today.
A waiter with a Berklee’s diploma in his pocket
Finally he could leave for Boston and enter the Berklee College of Music in 1978. He studied guitar performance, composition, arranging, voice and played in ensembles. ‘Simply something form each. I was supposed to become a professional musician who is able to play anything, sight-read the charts, write music for the theatre and film, write arrangements for big-bands etc." Bobby also encountered an event during his studies, which almost ended his dream. He was attacked by punks at a party and they broke his arm so severely that he couldn’t move it for a whole year. A guitar that brought him to Berklee had to go to a closet. "It was a shock for me. I was in a hospital getting over the operation, and wondered what to do next. But then I’ve realized that music is not only about playing a guitar and I’ve focused on writing music and singing." Even though the life of a student, which consisted of going to school in the daytime and working nightshifts as janitor was not easy, Bobby graduated from the school after four years. The thought of a great life as a musician with a Berklee diploma in his pocket had faded before it could take any solid form. "I was one of millions who wanted to make music, be the best and rich and famous. But even the most talented guys and much better than I were lucky to get a job as taxi drivers in Boston." Bobby tried to make it in spite of that. One of the problems he ran into concerned a racial issues. He had put together a big show band and arranged the music for it. They went on to perform and after about six months the band split up. The band consisted of white and black musicians what was not cool in certain American clubs at that time. "I even had a Japanese guy and a white girl in the band, and that was quite unacceptable." The band’s failure, big concentration of musicians and therefore not enough opportunities had so discouraged him, that he abandoned his ideals and gave up on playing. He took a job as a maitre’d in a French restaurant. And because it happened to be one of the top restaurants in the US, it was often frequented by big celebrities. Thus Bobby met for example Ringo Starr, Rick Ocasek and like and had an opportunity to give them his demo recordings in hope that someone would take notice. "I have come to realize that all is about connections in America." But the job in the restaurant didn’t further his career. After two years of a comfortable life with a steady income, Bobby took yet another shot at making it as a musician.
Better to be a producer
Following an advice of one of his professors, he set off to the Atlantic City, which was just beginning to arise as something like Las Vegas of the east-coast. He expected to find more opportunities for musicians. At first he made his living as a bellboy, waiter, or with other odd hotel jobs. He joined the ‘Musician’s Union’ and waited. "Being a member of a union I was allowed to take only substitute job in the first year. The long timers had more rights to work then younger members. One became a full member only after a two years waiting period." At the same time, Bobby was getting familiar with a job as a producer. This work made such an impression on him that he decided to stop performing again. "I started with young black singers, taking them to recording studios, writing arrangements for them, supervising and helping them to make demo recordings. Then I said to myself – why should I strive to get into the bands all the time only to work for nine months at the best and live on a bus when I could be working in recording studios, here is something that I would like to do." And so he moved to Philadelphia where he formed his own production company "Houdaphone". In order to get some relief from his student loans, he took a teaching position in a music school in a black section of the city, even though it meant putting his own life at risk sometimes. "The city is divided into various sections. One corner of a street is controlled by one gang and an opposite corner by another one. Whites wouldn’t enter a black section and blacks the other way around. I was afraid to drive to the school. My car had broken down once and I had to take a bus. At one point all white people got off and black people got in. It felt strange, since I was the only white person on the bus and they were giving me looks as if they would be thinking ‘ you are lucky that you are on the bus otherwise we’d slit your throat’. Scared to death I made it to school anyway. But I had to go back home in the evening. As I left the school building and walked to the tram station, a guy came to me and said: " Listen, we know that you are a teacher in this school. But you better cross over to the other side of the street because this territory belongs to the gang from a nearby pizzeria. You’ll be alright over there because it is our side." So I walked over and when I saw the Although his production company did good in the beginning, it had to close down its business, mainly because of finances and rise of a digital technology. Then Bobby heard the famous speech of the new Czech president Vaclav Havel to the American Congress and made new plans. "I knew if things wouldn’t go well for me in the Czech Republic, I could return to America anytime."
Madness in the heart
Bobby has returned to Prague two years after the Velvet Revolution. Thanks to his American passport doors would open everywhere. "Mainly in bars," he says laughing, and then continues quite seriously "I was like Alice in Wonderland, and it took me about three months to get used to this place. I began to notice flyers that would say something like ‘we want to work like in socialism but live as well as capitalists’. I knew that it wouldn’t have a happy end. I wouldn’t get a loan even to buy new strings in America, and here they give millions to everybody just like that. Then people go spending like mad, buying houses with swimming pools, and forget that they should build factories and give jobs to people first." Despite of all, Bobby remained here. He lived with his wife in Liberec for some time, and recently they relocated to Prague. He works as a music teacher, writes music and performs around the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. He has recorded three albums already and has many plans for future projects. Not even a serious illness, that threatened his life recently and forced him to pause in his activities for quite some time, has stopped him. "I had a brain stroke and inflammation of nerves. I was not able to move at all. I’ve got over it somehow, but anyway, the cure is for a long run. I have seen people in a hospital that would give up on it. It’s obvious, they will end up in bed again. They can’t move and lie there as a rotting cabbage. Even though I am not well, I’m still trying to realize my plans. The last three songs that I have recorded on my last album were done while on chair. Every time I think that I can’t go on, as if some light strikes me or what, I pull myself together and just keep going." If Bobby wins his fight with a disease, he plans to return to Berklee to get his degree so he can teach in American schools. And, with his mischievous smile, he discloses that when he’ll be over sixty he would still like to work in some place for at least ten years to make money for a comfortable retirement. Besides, he is already getting together a material for an album featuring his live recordings, and new ideas for "maybe one more good commercial record. And to be modest… because I like it, I would also love to make one jazz record with a big band. After that, I don’t care what comes next."
Written by Zuzana Galova