By Larry Morrisey, MAC Deputy Director
Singer, keyboard player and arranger Melvin L. Hendrex, Jr., better known by his nickname “House Cat,” passed away on December 19, 2019, in Jackson.
Born in Jackson in 1949, Hendrex grew up in a musical family. His father was a gospel singer who performed in a professional group and his sister is singer Dorothy Moore. He was deeply shaped by church music. He fondly remembered going to church choir rehearsals with his grandmother and the strong voices of the choir members.
While he had a solid base in the church, he was also drawn to the blues. In a 2010 interview, he remembered sneaking out of his house at night and walking to the neighborhood nightclub. He would stand on top of a freezer outside the club’s back door in order to peek in a window and watch a local blues band perform.
Hendrex grew up on the edge of Jackson State University’s campus and attended the college’s laboratory elementary school. His childhood friend and classmate Adib Sabir recalls that they were regularly taken to concerts on campus, exposing them to many different kinds of music. Hendrex was noticed for his strong voice by junior high and was a member of the choir at Jim Hill High School.
Hendrex left Jackson in 1972, working as a musician in Georgia and later Florida. He spent six years in Florida, touring around the state as well as performing on cruise ships. He also played with soul blues legend Benny Latimore while in the state.
Returning to Jackson in 1978, Hendrex got a job as the keyboard player in the touring band for the Texas bluesman Z.Z. Hill. Hill had recently signed with Jackson’s Malaco Records, where he had a career resurgence with a number of hits, including the soul blues anthem “Down Home Blues.” Hendrex worked in Hill’s band until the singer’s untimely death in 1984.
After Hill’s death, Hendrex began working with singer Bobby Rush, who had relocated from Chicago to Jackson to be closer to the southern R&B touring circuit. He toured throughout the world with Rush and also worked short stints with many other blues and R&B stars, including Bobby Bland, McKinley Mitchell, and Tyrone Davis. His tenure in Rush’s band tragically ended in 2001. While driving to Florida for a show, the band’s bus crashed and Hendrex was seriously injured. “I broke everything but my back and my smile,” he recalled. Hendrex spent a year in the hospital recovering from his injuries.
While physical problems kept him from returning to the road as a touring musician, Hendrex refocused and began connecting with musicians around Jackson. He mentored younger musicians, worked on recording projects in a local studio, and played gigs around central Mississippi. Despite his physical challenges, Hendrex kept a positive spirit and was always focused on his next gig or project. “He walked through that stuff like nothing,” recalls his friend Adib Sabir. “He had an indomitable spirit.”
Hendrex also got involved with the Mississippi Arts Commission. He received a Folk Art Fellowship grant from the agency in 2002 and was a member of MAC’s Artist Roster during the mid-2000s. He also presented at one of MAC’s Mississippi Whole Schools conferences and was a frequent and welcome visitor to the agency offices.
Although he was rarely at the front of the stage, Hendrex was an important part of the Mississippi musical community. He was also a great example to other artists on overcoming adversity and remaining focused on his work. “House Cat lived on his own terms,” Adib Sabir explained. “He was a musician from day one. He was born to do it.”
Photo credit: Francoise Digel