By George Douglas Lee
One night a few years ago, I dropped in at the late, lamented Bobbie’s House of Spirits to hear the open mic jam. Joe Pena was there playing Oye Como Va and Black Magic Woman with the Tomz Katz Band. He saw me. When they stopped, and to my surprise, he called out, “George Lee is in the house.”
I shouted back, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Joe Pena, the Granddaddy of Galveston Rock and Roll!” And the name stuck.
Anyone who frequents the local clubs has probably seen and heard Joe Pena. Joe is a legendary guitar figure on the island. He began playing in the sixties at the long gone, legendary Christi’s Beachcomber. That’s where Joe began playing the hits of the day like, “Gloria,” with a cheap Catalina electric guitar and amp purchased at the former Western Auto store on 25th street, now a vacant lot.
His parents moved to Galveston from the Valley and Edna. Joe was born on the island. He grew up in a large family, and a musical one as well. His father learned to play accordion from Joe’s grandfather. Joe learned enough to get by on accordion, but his love was guitar.
While in high school, at Stephen F. Austin Junior High, he put together a band of his peers. They played parties, talent shows and other events, as they were still too young to play in the bars.
Not everyone in his family was happy with Joe’s newfound talent. “My mama tried to get me to stop playing the guitar. But I never did. One day, I got so mad at her, I smashed my guitar to pieces,” he laughingly recalls.
Joe joined the army to pursue his education, and get away from his mother’s influence. When the Army transferred him to Germany, his desire to play guitar followed him and resurfaced as he became the lead guitar player in a band composed of other army personnel.
Now able to afford better instruments and equipment, the urge to perform was intense. Rock n’ roll was exploding, like millions of others, Joe was hooked by the Beatles.
The Army sent him around the world and throughout the U.S., and preferred that he become an expert mechanic. He was often assigned to the armored divisions.
His time in the Army eventually came to an end and he moved back to Galveston. But the guitar playing didn’t stop. He played bass. He played keyboard. He played in disco bands, Tejano bands, dance bands and any group that had a need and could use him.
Then he met Tom Flores at the Albatross. Tom’s band had lost their guitar player so Joe filled in. With Joe on lead guitar, the Tomz Katz band became a well-known, rock solid band, featuring Michael Quast on trumpet and guitar, playing a diverse mix of rock, blues and Latino. Citing his musical influences, Joe includes Jimi Hendrix, Beatles and Santana, whom he idolizes.
Tomz Katz Band featuring Joe Pena began hosting open mics at local clubs. Probably their most prolific open mic stints were at the now closed Bobby’s House of Spirits. They continue to appear around the island though, playing at the Poop Deck, Crow’s and Rosie’s.
“I enjoy doing the open mic jam sessions. I enjoy it because I can play and I can watch, learn, and enjoy other people playing.”
He has a workmanlike approach to his singing and playing. Preferring to accompany the singer gives Joe a chance to pull out some of the classic guitar hero bits, like flipping his Stratocaster over his shoulder and playing it behind his back, or turning the guitar backward, and picking the strings with his teeth. It’s classic rock from the sixties. The only thing missing is the lava lamp projected on the screen behind the band.
Joe thoroughly enjoys the open mics. He loves to observe and learn from other musicians. Joe’s mind is an encyclopedic catalogue of songs. He can accompany the new, young musician playing in front of his first audience to an experienced musician showing off his chops.
“I like to see young musicians doing their thing. Like to see them play, have a good time, enjoying it, and enjoying themselves doing what they do.”
“The best part of hosting an open mic jam is the hospitality,” said Joe. “It shows the musicians that we are here to have fun and jam, and that’s why you came. We want you to come jam. We didn’t want you to come to listen to me play all night, or anybody play all night. We came to give you a chance to be the star. It’s your show, y’know!”
Fifty years of playing guitar, bass and keyboards, from Galveston to Europe, throughout the U.S. and back to Galveston again, has honed Joe’s music with a quality and sound not found on any computer generated playlist.
Joe’s advice to the next generation of Galveston musicians, “Don’t let anyone tell you ‘don’t do it,’ or you ‘shouldn’t do it.’ I tried to give it up, but I guess it was just in me,” Joe said, smiling. “Be yourself, do what you think you need to do. To me, it’s just getting better all the time.”
As this is being written, Joe is probably hosting an open mic jam some place in downtown Galveston. Come on down. Joe Pena is in the house!
For more info, go to www.facebook.com/joe.pena. To see where he is playing, see our Gig Guide.
You can listen to my interview at Electric Theatre Radio Hour at www.georgedouglaslee.com. Click on the Radio Hour button.