Clifford Antone

ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, environmental activist Robin Rather, and others remember the legendary Austin nightclub owner who died May 23, 2006.

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

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