ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, environmental activist Robin Rather, and others remember the legendary Austin nightclub owner who died May 23, 2006.
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The Howlin’ Wolf was supposed to play Antone’s for a week, but Wolf passed in 1976. So, Antone hired the band, Wolf’s band, ’cuz I was in there. The band was Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang. We came, and Antone and me fell in love with one another, you know what I mean? Eddie Shaw paid me this little money—he didn’t pay me enough, and Antone put his foot down on him. Antone said, “Hubert, you can go back to Chicago if you want, but you’ll always have a home here if you’d rather.” And I stayed. I left and I went back to Chicago for just a bit but then I came right back to Antone’s and I stayed there. Man, I had a home. I could play, I could do anything. We were at the club every night, and he provided me a place there … in other words, I got one there now, anytime, down at that club for as long as I want. I was there for almost a year. I lived with Clifford a while because he wanted me to, but then he got me an apartment in Austin. With Clifford I’d eat and play and that’s all. He would pick up the bass, and I would show him something on the guitar. Me and him played all day. I lacked instruments, and he bought me instruments just like he paid for my house and food and everything.
Blues star Hubert Sumlin, originally Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist
There was a snowstorm that swept through Texas, this had to have been the mid to late eighties. Austin was frozen over, and there was seemingly no way to navigate through town. But it was an evening not to be missed; Roomful of Blues had been booked. I’d lucked out and landed in town before the freeze took over. I’d invited some friends from out of town and they too had made it into the city, and we were trapped at the Hyatt Regency hotel on Town Lake. We called all the cab companies and it was a flat, “No, everybody’s locked down, there’s no movement in the city.” I called Clifford and he said, “Well, the band came early to set their gear, everybody’s here, but the place is a little shy because of the weather. Where are you?” I told him we were stuck at the Hyatt. Clifford called and found a wrecker driver that had a snow plow—now why would you find a snow plow in Austin, Texas?—but Clifford plowed a path from the front door of his club across the Congress Avenue Bridge all the way down to the hotel. Somebody made an announcement on the radio: “If you can get down to Congress, then you can get to Guadalupe and go to Antone’s.” And it was the only place in town that made money that night. It was something else, truly amazing.
ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons
Clifford was a much more strategic guy than some people might realize. I was chair of SOS [Save Our Springs Alliance] and really grappling with some legislation that folks at the Capitol had passed; it was a bill called 1704. I went to Clifford as I often did with some of the bigger things I was wrestling with. Gary Bradley had actually approached me himself, but any conversation with Gary Bradley would have been perceived as an absolute sellout. Any lawsuit that SOS would have dropped at that time would have had a very limited effect. We didn’t have a lot of good options, and I went to Clifford real quietly and I said, “God, I’m really struggling with this. I really don’t know what to do. I can’t just roll over and let this happen, and on the other hand, Bradley kinda wants to negotiate something and I just can’t be doing that.” Clifford knew Bradley very very well, had known him for years. He felt that I could hold my own with Bradley, and he really encouraged me. He said, “You’ve really got to explore this; you’ll be sorry later on if you don’t. You don’t have good other options.” My feeling was that he had a similar conversation with Bradley—he did a little bit of matchmaking, is what he did. He saw the potential. So with much trepidation, I sat down with Bradley. I had resisted it but decided one visit wouldn’t hurt. And it actually went really well.
Austin environmental activist Robin Rather, former Save Our Springs Alliance chair
The most vivid memory I have about Clifford was testifying at his second criminal sentencing before U.S. District Judge James Nowlin. Clifford, his family, and his lawyer and had asked me to do that because I was well known to the judge. My argument was that based on his community and civic and philanthropic contributions to Austin, he demonstrated a community spirit, a community will, and a community way that many others didn’t. If Clifford hadn’t started the live-music scene here, Austin wouldn’t be on a lot of the maps and charts that it’s on today. Afterward, he hugged me and kissed me.
Austin attorney and former legislator Pike Powers
It was sentencing day. Judge Nowlin’s courtroom was packed to the gills with at least fifteen or twenty well-known musicians and a parade of people who showed up to testify for him about the sentence. After all, it was his second time, and there were mandatory sentencing guidelines in place that were pretty heavy. So there was this long line of people who wanted to say, “Hey, this is a guy who’s great for the community, this is a guy who’s given a lot. Don’t put him away for long.” I believe they only let twenty people speak, and then a number of us, maybe fifteen or twenty of us, went to Threadgill’s. Clifford was really really down—talk about dark, that might have been one of the darkest days he ever had. At this point the judge had heard all the arguments, but he hadn’t yet handed down the sentencing. So we went to Threadgill’s and everybody ordered. Clifford didn’t wanna eat anything, and he just sat there. I held his hand the whole time. He didn’t really wanna talk a whole lot, and everybody else was talking and trying to keep their spirits up. After a couple hours of that, toward the end of the lunch, he leaned over and said, “I wanna write my life story. People have been after me to do a book for a long time and maybe now it’s time.” He said it real quietly, and we’d never talked about it before. The specter of 20, 25 years was hanging over his head. I think we started that afternoon; it’s basically finished, it just needs a real good edit.
He was a man of his word. A handshake was all we ever needed, although I used a contract with other clients. He always did what he said, meant what he said. That’s the first thing about him. A man of honor—he really had an old-world sense of that. I don’t mean like a mafia don at all, I just mean his word was his bond. It wasn’t just payment of fees, which of course is near and dear to the heart of every lawyer. We are all diminished by his loss. He had a heart as big as a horse’s. When he told me what the facts were, what had happened, what he’d done, what he hadn’t done, what others had done, and what they hadn’t done, I could bank on it. That would be the truth. He didn’t ever try to hide anything from me. He never did want or ask that anything be done that wasn’t on the foursquare in his defense. We had legal defenses, we had factual defenses, and when it was obvious that either the legal defenses were not gonna work or would get overruled by the court, he’d go to the court and step up to the plate and say, “It’s my responsibility, here I am.”
The last one was toughest, because the stakes were so high and times had changed on him. When he was first involved with marijuana, everybody in the world was smoking it, and he just carried a little bit for friends. He never was a big-time dealer. But the times changed in that the federal government started blaming each person that was involved for the total amount of marijuana. So if you were just a small-time guy among a hundred people involved and you touched a load, not that you had responsibility for it, or bought it or sold it or anything like that, you could be held responsible for it. So he found himself, at the end there, basically having put some people together and then responsible for moving some marijuana—the government was gonna try to blame him for everything. Others both above and below him made deals. He held out because he just didn’t wanna lessen his own responsibility over the shoulders of somebody else. He helped a lot of people, and I guess he expected the other people wouldn’t try to shoulder their responsibility off on him, but they did. So when it finally came down to it, he had to go into court and take his medicine for it. Clifford testified, and he just said, “Okay, here’s what it was. Here’s what I did. Here’s what the people I dealt with did. Here’s the amount of money I made.”
Dick DeGuerin, Clifford’s attorney
Clifford had an incredible guitar collection, and it all wound up getting sold. He had collected guitars for a long time and had a lot of very sentimental ones as well as valuable ones. So the Gibson guy gave him two or three guitars that were really special, and a few months later, Clifford came back to him and said, “Now I hope you won’t get mad at me, but I met a kid who really needed a guitar so I gave him one of the ones you gave me.”
My husband [Antone’s house band guitarist David Murray] and I went to see him in prison on Christmas Day. People went to visit him all the time, but he didn’t want anyone to come on Christmas Day if they had kids, because he felt like Christmas was for the family. Our son hadn’t been born yet, so we decided we’d go. It was a freezing cold, rainy day, and we drove down there and we sat there. The guards had a list of who was checked out to come visit, but they would jack with Clifford, just to mess with him. That particular day they let me in, but they wouldn’t let my husband in. So my husband sat in the car in literally freezing cold rain for two and a half hours and wrote a song about Clifford. It was a little hard for me because I didn’t wanna be away from David, but it was a really good visit. Clifford wanted to know about everybody else. How’s this person? How’s that person? He wanted to talk about how my life was. And we talked quite a bit of politics that day. He loved to talk local politics, and he followed national politics. When he talked about himself, he focused on what he wanted to do when he was getting out. But he didn’t want to talk about prison at all because he didn’t want you to know about it.