Howard Colbert grew up in the town of Lenoir, where he heard the sounds of clawhammer banjo and blues guitar, two local traditions. Howard’s grandfather and father played the banjo in clawhammer and frailing styles, respectively. Howard remembered his grandfather coming to visit and playing his banjo playing in the Colberts’ front yard. “Grandpa would get crowds of people in the yard when he played,” he remembered. “I was so proud of him.” His uncle Bill Colbert played the guitar, and Howard heard others, such as Charlie Mott, Clyde Ferguson, and Leonard Weatherspoon. “Leonard showed me the first blues stuff on the guitar,” Howard recalled.
Early in his life, Howard was drawn to the guitar. “Every time I heard someone playing the guitar, I thought it was magic,” he said. With help from family and Leonard Weatherspoon, Howard started playing in the early 1960s. “I took off from there,” he said. He remembered a regular walk home where he would pass by a jukebox. “If it was playing a song that I didn’t have, I would fly home to try and play it.” He also watched guitarists on television, such as Chet Atkins and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith.
In his first performance, at his eighth-grade prom, he performed “Little Girl with the Red Dress On” with some friends. “I got a big round of applause,” he said. Later, he would get together with Etta Baker‘s son Edgar, and he, Edgar, and Etta would meet at the recreation center in Lenoir to play music. Howard’s older brother Bill was living in New York, and put Howard in touch with Billy Bland, who had a current Billboard hit with “Let the Little Girl Dance.” Howard performed with him and lived in New York for a couple years.
He returned to Lenoir to help take care of his aging parents, and he stayed in the area. He enjoyed performing at local and regional venues. He was skilled on the guitar in several styles, including finger-picking, flat-picking, and slide. He also played a few tunes on the banjo, was a self-taught keyboard player, and performed as a bass player. In addition to blues, Howard was a fan of “country string picking.”
Howard made his first recording, Foot Hills Blues, with the help of the King Bees, a Todd, North Carolina, blues band with Rob “Hound Dog” Baskerville and Penny “Queen Bee” Zamagni.
Howard Colbert passed away in January 2011.