Thirty years before Patrick Swayze pranced across the silver screen, kids along the Gulf Coast and in South Texas were dirty-dancing to the sound of pounding pianos, descending horn riffs, and sentimental lyrics. The dominant musical motif was the triplet-a cluster of three notes performed in the time it takes to play two-and couples were belly-rubbing to the beat on dance floors from the Tiffany Lounge in San Antonio to the Big Oaks Club across the Sabine in Vinton, Louisiana. Today triplet classics like Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” still seduce those who remember their lilt and swagger.
Two who remember them well are Austin musician Doug Sahm, a walking history book of Texas musical styles, and Clifford Antone, Texas’ blues impresario. Together they have paid tribute to this overlooked regional style with Juke Box Music, a soulful album of the rhythm and blues persuasion that Sahm recorded on the Antone’s label. The new LP represents a comeback for the singer, who hasn’t put out a record in the U.S. for six years. As a tribute to the beat both he and Antone love, Sahm’s working nickname for the album was ‘Triplets for a Dying World.”
Though today Antone, 39, is known all over the country as the man who helped deliver the blues from obscurity, fifteen years ago he was a lonely urban pioneer with one consuming passion. His infatuation with the blues started when he discovered that the Fleetwood Mac and Cream songs he loved were actually written by Chicago blues masters. As an outlet for his love, in 1975 he opened a nightclub under his own name on Austin’s then-unfashionable Sixth Street, featuring nothing but the then-unfashionable blues. Try as he might, though, he just couldn’t get other people on the blues wavelength. Local heroes like Willie, Jerry Jeff, and, yes, Doug Sahm crooned their cosmic cowboy songs to overflow crowds in honky-tonks while Antone shook his head in disgust-as often as not, blues pioneers couldn’t fill the seats in his own club.
“I don’t listen to jazz and I don’t listen to rock and roll and I don’t listen to conjunto very much,” he says. “I’m a blues man. Period. There’s no play in me.” Antone kept importing the blues masters to his club so that young upstarts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds (Antone’s original house band) and Stevie Ray Vaughan could absorb their influential styles. By putting the two generations together, Antone catapulted the T-Birds and Stevie Ray to stardom and indirectly sparked a nationwide blues revival. After two moves, his club now seems permanently ensconced in its current location close to the University of Texas campus. Through it all, Antone has never given up on the blues.
With a taste for oversized suits and gangster fedoras, the burly Antone fits his chosen role of blues godfather. Add to his calculated look the less-celebrated fact that he spent about a year in prison in 1986 following a conviction for felony possession of marijuana, and there’s no doubting his blues credentials. In 1987 the Blues Foundation in Memphis gave Antone’s club one of its Keeping the Blues Alive awards. Further recognition in the form of a Grammy nomination came this year for harmonica master James Cotton’s Live From Antone’s, issued on the two-year-old Antone’s label.
Years before Antone