Musical Marginalia

May 2000By , , , , , , and Comments

Clubs that changed everything

Jazz greats passing through El Paso used to cross the bridge to the original Lobby Bar in Juárez for a drink and a chance to sit in with Max Schumake’s house trio. In the sixties regular patrons like Bobby Fuller watched blues guitarist Long John Hunter swing from the ceiling with one arm as he played with the other.

Don Robey opened the Bronze Peacock in Houston’s Fifth Ward in 1945 as an upscale supper club where folks could dine and dance to acts like Louis Jordan and T-Bone Walker. As Robey’s ambitions grew, the club provided the name, the talent, and eventually, the site for his new label, Peacock.

Austin’s Continental Club has been open for so long—43 years—precisely because it’s a musician’s club. The venue has provided weekly stages to up-and-comers like Little Charlie Sexton and aged music veterans like Grey Ghost, Erbie Bowser, and T. D. Bell.

In the fifties the Tiffany Lounge in downtown San Antonio was headquarters to the city’s wild Tex-Mex R&B scene. Standing in the audience on many nights, alongside the dancers and gangsters, was a skinny teenaged Doug Sahm, grooving on the sound he would soon make famous.

Bandera’s Silver Spur Room sat on a Hill Country bluff overlooking the Medina River. Hank Thompson and Bob Wills kept dancers shuffling under the stars on the club’s outdoor patio, and in the early fifties, after Adolph Hofner’s weekly Saturday-night dance, the parking lot would be so full that cowboys would have to back their trucks down the crooked one-lane drive.

From the forties to the early eighties, the three versions of Lubbock’s Cotton Club hosted everyone from Benny Goodman and Elvis Presley to Joe Ely. The joint was Buddy Holly’s favorite hangout, and as he moved away from country music, it was where he learned what rock and roll looked and sounded like.

Behind the stage of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters was a painting of Freddie King with an armadillo bursting from his heart, onstage was everyone from Captain Beefheart to Mance Lipscomb to the Clash, and in the audience was a curious mix of cowboys and hippies. By the time the club closed, in 1980, the whole ur-slacker scene wasn’t so curious anymore.

The wide-ranging history of Dallas’ most famous dance hall, the Longhorn Ballroom, includes its 1951 founding by Bob Wills and its subsequent ownership by Jack Ruby; Blue Monday shows in the sixties, featuring black acts like James Brown; and the night in 1978 when Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious took the old honky-tonk’s stage with an earnest plea for drugs—“Gimmie a fix”—scrawled across his chest in Magic Marker. JOHN SPONG

Places Where History Happened

On a cold February 25, 1957, Buddy Holly and his group, the Crickets, piled into a car in Lubbock and headed ninety miles west to Norman Petty’s Studio in Clovis, New Mexico, just across the state line. Petty was an enterprising musician and producer whose main draw was that he charged by the session, not the hour. That night Holly would record “That’ll Be the Day”—a phrase he’d heard John Wayne utter in The Searchers. Seven months later, it was the number one song in the country.

On November 23, 26, and 27, 1936, at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, bedeviled Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson had the first of his only two recording sessions (the second would be in a Dallas warehouse in June 1937). One of the sixteen tracks he laid down at the session was the immortal “Cross Road Blues,” the plaintive song that alludes to Johnson’s trading his soul to the devil in exchange for prowess on the guitar.

It was in 1947 at I. M. Terrell High School in Fort Worth that young Ornette Coleman got kicked out of the marching band for improvising during John Philip Sousa’s “The Washington Post March,” leaving fellow bandmembers Dewey Redman and King Curtis Ousley holding their woodwinds. Coleman would go on to make history as one of the pioneers of the free jazz movement. Terrell High closed in 1973.

The Skyline Club in Austin was the site of the last performances of two country greats: Hank Williams and Johnny Horton. Also, they each died in a car wreck and were each married to the same woman, Billy Jean Jones, at the time of their death—Williams in 1953 and Horton in 1960.

On March 31, 1995, at the Days Inn in Corpus Christi, tejano superstar Selena was shot in the back with a .38-caliber revolver by her assistant, Yolanda Saldivar—a murder that proved to be as devastating to her legions of fans as John Lennon’s was to his. A television movie has been produced about the Lake Jackson native, and a Broadway musical is in production.

At a 1947 gig at the Bronze Peacock nightclub in Houston, guitarist T-Bone Walker became ill onstage, dropped his guitar in the middle of a number, and dashed for the restroom. Twenty-three-year-old Gatemouth Brown leaped to the stage, picked up the guitar, and started to play and sing. The crowd loved it, but when Walker returned, he angrily grabbed the guitar. The song Brown made up went “My name is Gate, I just got in your town/You don’t like my style, I will not hang around . . . ” and became the popular tune “Gatemouth Boogie.” JORDAN MACKAY

Labels That Changed Everything

Arhoolie The search for down-home Texas music—rural and urban blues, zydeco and cajun, western swing and country, conjunto and orquesta, Czech and Polish polkas—begins with this El Cerrito, California, label.

Crazy Cajun From late-fifties swamp pop (Joe Barry) to sixties rock (Sir Douglas Quintet) and soul (Archie Bell and the Drells) to seventies country (Freddy Fender), Houston producer Huey P. Meaux cut so many gems that they’ll be reissued for years.

Starday/D Starday got its start with George Jones. After Houston boss H. W. “Pappy” Daily expanded the label to Nashville and got major-label distribution in 1957, he started D as an “audition” label for Texans like the Big Bopper, who would graduate to Starday if they broke big.

Duke-Peacock Houston impresario Don Robey’s combine of labels—America’s largest black-owned record label until the rise of Motown—was home to a staggering diversity: post-war blues, gospel, R&B, and rock and roll.

Falcon When major labels gave up on ethnic sounds after World War II, Arnaldo Ramirez went into business in McAllen, building the largest conjunto label ever. Freddy Fender’s Spanish-language covers of fifties rock hits (“Ese Sera el Dia,” a.k.a. “That’ll Be the Day”) were also popular.

Freddie Formed by singer Freddie Martinez in 1969 to release his own recordings, the label eventually added stars like accordionist Tony de la Rosa and top-selling norteño Ramón Ayala. Under Freddie Junior, the Corpus Christi—based indie withstood the nineties major-label raid on tejano acts.

International Artist Dose your everyday Texas weirdness with massive amounts of hallucinogenics and you have the sound of Houston’s sixties psychedelic label, which was run by Kenny Rogers’ brother Lelan and recorded acts like the 13th Floor Elevators.

LeCam A classic music-biz bottom-feeder, Fort Worth’s Major Bill Smith had his biggest success with teen schlock like Paul and Paula’s 1963 “Hey! Paula” (#1) and J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ macabre 1964 “Last Kiss” (#2). He also released Ray Sharpe’s Texas R&B bar-band anthem “Linda Lu.”

Sarg Luling jukebox operator and record store owner Charlie Fitch started the ultimate regional label in 1954, recording Hill Country and South Texas country and rockabilly artists like Doug Sahm, who cut his first record for Sarg.

Trance Syndicate From 1990 to 1998, Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey’s Austin label released albums by Texas rock bands (Dallas’ Bedhead, Houston’s Pain Teens, Austin’s Ed Hall) that other indies wouldn’t touch. JOHN MORTHLAND

Bigger there than here

The LeRoi Brothers The name of this roots-rock band’s forthcoming CD—Kings of the Catnap (due in July from Rounder)—says a lot about the particular skill its members have acquired after more than a decade of serious European touring. At first the Austin-based band played mainly in Sweden and Norway, but these days it tours France, Germany, England, and Australia as well.

Cotton Mather When they play a show in their native Austin, there’s usually standing room and then some. “I guess we don’t promote ourselves enough at home,” says lead singer Robert Harrison. No matter; in England, the pop rockers have others to talk them up, including the members of one of the most popular bands on the planet, Oasis, who have been singing Cotton Mather’s praises to anyone who will listen. The band recently opened for Liam Gallagher and the boys on several European dates; this summer it will cross the Atlantic and do it again at the Reading and Leeds festivals. Cotton Mather’s latest full-length album, Kontiki, is available in England on Rainbow Quartz and in America on Copper Records.

Calvin Owens The loyal following that the 71-year-old Houston-born trumpet player enjoys overseas may have something to do with the fact that he lived in Belgium for fifteen years, during which time he played some of the largest concert halls and festivals in Europe. Or it might be that he has worked—as a player, an arranger, a composer, and a conductor—with dozens of internationally renowned jazz and blues luminaries, including Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and B. B. King. “We’re gonna start working on the States now,” says Owens, whose new CD, Stop Lying in My Face (Saw Dust Alley Productions), is due out this month.

Calvin Russell For the past decade he’s been France’s hottest musical import: the Jerry Lewis of bluesy rock. His nineties albums on the French label New Rose sold tens of thousands of copies in that country alone, and the press there idolizes him, once calling him a revolutionary who “has principles and fights injustice, ignorance, and intolerance.” Is this the same Texas blues singer who used to play the tiny Austin Outhouse in the late eighties? Oui.

Omar and the Howlers Once a popular headliner in the state’s larger clubs, these days the blues trio plays lesser-known rooms, even in its hometown of Austin. But why should lead singer Omar Dykes care? “Europe feeds his family,” says the band’s manager, Kevin Wommack. When the band returns to Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, and Holland this summer—with The Screaming Cat, its new CD on the Dutch label Provogue—the crowds will surely be there too. EILEEN SCHWARTZ

Where are they now?

Sam the Sham The author of the most immediately recognizable count-off ever (“Uno! Dos! One-two-tres-quatro!”) went mano a mano with the Fab Four and lived to tell the tale: Backed by his mighty Pharaohs, the turbaned Dallas madman scored two number two hits (“Wooly Bully” and “Li’l Red Riding Hood”) in 1965 and 1966, respectively, at the height of Beatlemania. He went on to win a Grammy for best liner notes (Sam, Hard and Heavy) before dedicating himself to spreading the Word as a Memphis street preacher in the seventies under his given name, Domingo Samudio. But like fellow rock and roll penitent Little Richard Penniman, he has since re-embraced the discreet charms of his own distinctively secular oeuvre and can be found touring the country with the reconstituted Pharaohs.

Christopher Cross The San Antonio native (né Christopher Geppert) hit the music-industry lottery with his self-titled 1980 debut album, which went platinum, spawned five Top Ten singles (including “Sailing”), and netted five Grammys—a record for one recording. The following year’s hit, “Arthur’s Theme,” won an Oscar, but since then Cross’strophy case has not required further enlargement. His most recent release is last year’s Greatest Hits Live, and in addition to regular touring, he plays plenty of odd gigs; as he reported during an online chat last year, “I have to play a bar mitzvah with Mike McDonald on Saturday.”

Edie Brickell The Deep Ellum singer’s quirky onstage demeanor and art-school lyrics led record execs to pluck her from the midst of her band, the New Bohemians, and place her front and center. The result was the platinum-selling Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars and a 1989 Top Ten hit, “What I Am.” The group disbanded after a disappointing follow-up, and Brickell’s subsequent solo effort fared little better. But a New Bohs reunion is afoot—the singer and some of her erstwhile bandmates have been rehearsing new material in Dallas and on the Long Island estate she shares with her husband, songwriter Paul Simon.

Radish By the time the Dallas group’s first major label album came out in 1997, it had already negotiated one of the biggest deals in the history of recorded music and had been profiled in the pages of The New Yorker. Despite the buzz, Restraining Bolt sold a measly 16,000 copies and failed to establish singer-songwriter Ben Kweller and drummer John Kent, both sixteen, as the Next Big Things. They were promptly dropped by their label, though you can still find the album in some stores and at the band’s Web site, www.radish.rawks.com. JOHN RATLIFF

Myths true or false?

“The Yellow Rose of Texas” was written to honor Emily Morgan, a beautiful mulatto slave who kept Mexican general Santa Anna occupied at the Battle of San Jacinto while Sam Houston’s soldiers attacked. False.There may have been such an interlude, but the song—a minstrel tune first printed as sheet music in 1858—had nothing to do with it.

In 1949 members of a Baton Rouge audience—including some musicians—became so annoyed by Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman’s wild free jazz and unruly appearance (beard and long hair) that they took him outside, beat him senseless, and destroyed his saxophone. True.

The drummer on “Paralyzed,” the maniacal 1968 single by Lubbock’s Legendary Stardust Cowboy, was a one-armed Indian. False. It was Fort Worth’s T-Bone Burnett.

Johnny Ace killed himself playing Russian roulette backstage at the Houston City Auditorium during the intermission of a show on Christmas Day, 1954. False. It wasn’t Russian roulette. Ace had been waving his seven-shot .22 around and had aimed and pulled the trigger at least twice at others, including his girlfriend, who sat on his lap. Then he stuck the revolver, which he knew had at least one bullet in it, to his head and pulled the trigger. It went off. According to singer and witness Willie Mae ”Big Mama” Thornton, when Ace realized he was going to die, “that kinky hair of his shot straight out.”

Roy Orbison left his glasses on a plane when touring England in 1963 and was forced to wear his prescription sunglasses the rest of the tour—onstage and off—thus inaugurating his hipster look. True.

At age fifteen Bob Wills got on his horse and rode forty miles, from Turkey to Childress, to hear Bessie Smith sing. True.

Lubbock native Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica. True. McClinton was on tour with fellow Texan Bruce Channel in England; Lennon’s band, the Beatles, was opening.

The Big Bopper, on a 1959 tour with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and others in the freezing Midwest, got the flu and, being a truly big bopper, had a hard time sleeping on the small tour bus seats. The Beaumont deejay persuaded Waylon Jennings, who was playing bass in Holly’s band, to give him his seat on the prop plane Holly had chartered to take his band to the next town. Not long after takeoff, the plane crashed, killing everyone on board. True. Jennings’ last words to his friend Holly were, in jest, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” MICHAEL HALL

Deejays Who Changed Everything

Lavada Durst The accomplished barrelhouse pianist, a.k.a. Dr. Hepcat, began his radio career in the forties on Austin’s KVET-AM. Speaking in rhymes, he perfected the patter that became the standard for disc jockeys everywhere and published a dictionary of his slang, The Jives of Dr. Hepcat.

Manuel Davila One of the first Latino broadcasters to play Texas acts instead of the more popular Mexican ones—on KUKA-AM in San Antonio—he went on to operate KEDA-AM, Radio Jalapeño, until his death, in 1997. His son Ricky (a.k.a. Guero Polkas), is making sure that the station remains a showcase for conjunto music.

Skipper Lee Frazier The sound of black Houston for more than three decades, he exposed African American music to a larger audience on radio station KCOH-AM.

Jim Lowe His deep-bass voice and low-key presentation on the nightly “Kat’s Karavan” show on WRR-AM in Dallas turned a generation of white kids on to the blues in the fifties and sixties.

Misty Originally the Frontier Girl on Fort Worth’s KXOL-AM (and one of the only women in a male-dominated field), she began broadcasting in Lubbock in 1956, soothing South Plains ears with “Music With Misty.” She currently works the evening shift on Lubbock’s KDAV-AM.

Wolfman Jack Born Robert Smith, the greatest American disc jockey of the Top Forty era honed his howling style in the early sixties across the border from Del Rio in Ciudad Acuña on XERF-AM, the Big X, whose 250,000-watt signal (five times the power legally allowed in the U.S.), blasted R&B and rock and roll throughout most of North America.

Bill Mack For more than thirty years the Midnight Cowboy—heard on WBAP-AM in Dallas—Fort Worth and five other stations across the country—has been playing Texas-centric country music to a nationwide trucking audience. In his spare time he composes hits such as “Blue” (LeAnn Rimes).

Joe “the Godfather” Anthony The San Antonio veteran played non-mainstream music for two generations of South Texans. In the fifties and sixties he hosted the “Harlem Hit Parade” on KMAC-AM; in the seventies, on KMAC and its sister station, KISS-FM, he generously exposed listeners to heavy metal, cementing the Alamo City’s reputation as the Detroit of the South.

The Big Bopper Known for his romping, stomping rock and R&B shows on KTRM-AM in Beaumont in the fifties, Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr., was the first deejay to become a recording star in his own right, charting in 1958 with “Chantilly Lace.” One year later, he died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly. JOE NICK PATOSKI

Characters Who Make Noise

Bongo Joe Also known as George Coleman, this beloved street entertainer wowed crowds in Galveston, Houston, and San Antonio with his proto-raps, “character” voices, whistling, and drumming on 55-gallon oil drums. He died last December, leaving only one album, 1968’s George Coleman: Bongo Joe.

Roky Erickson Once the lead singer for Austin’s intense 1960’s psychedelic rock group the 13th Floor Elevators, he was arrested for marijuana possession in 1969 and pled insanity to avoid a prison term. The subsequent electroshock therapy further unhinged a mind already in disarray, though he continued to record brilliant if nightmarish material.

Jandek A reclusive Houston musician who has released 28 haunting, decidedly lo-fi albums since 1978. This summer, look for a tribute CD featuring members of Sonic Youth, Sebadoh, Pavement, and Half Japanese.

Daniel Johnston Like Erickson, Johnston battles mental illness, and his home-taped cassettes—and later, professionally recorded CDs—have grabbed the attention of alternative-music lovers nationwide. His painfully honest songs of love and hate have been covered by artists like Yo La Tengo and Mary Lou Lord.

Gerry Van King Austin’s famous bass-playing busker has sung his Funkadelic-inspired tunes on the streets for fifteen years. Last March he put out his first full-length CD, The Cause of It All; this summer he’ll be the subject of a documentary, Gerry Van King (The King of Sixth St.).

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy The alter ego of Lubbock’s Norman Odam incorporates Old West and space themes into his lyrics, and in concert he dances spastically around the stage, sometimes stripping down to his underpants. He is best known for his 1968 hit, “Paralyzed,” but he’s still got it: Last October he released his first CD in eight years, Live in Chicago, and in March he played to a large, somewhat bewildered crowd at Austin’s South by Southwest.

The Singing Psychic In addition to her work as a private detective, Dallas’ Frances Baskerville appears on various shows, including Howard Stern’s, crooning her predictions about celebrities and politics. Her recorded work is as strange as it is hard to find, ranging in subject from world peace to JFK and UFOs.

Al Strehli, Jr. The songwriter is considered one of Lubbock’s very best by, among others, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who has covered him on several albums. Now living a hermitlike existence in a Colorado cabin, Strehli is reportedly writing choral music scored for brass and string sections. KATY VINE

Heroes behind the Scenes

Bill Arhos In 1974 he had the bright idea of putting musicians in front of a live audience, turning on the cameras, and getting the hell out of the way. The result was Austin City Limits, whose 25-year run has introduced the world to cosmic-cowboy rock, western swing, conjunto, zydeco, and other evidence that Texas is the world’s richest musical melting pot.

Alan Lomax Few figures better represent the eclecticism of Texas music than the son of folklorist John A. Lomax. He made his life’s work the collection and preservation of Texas and American folk music, and the astounding variety and richness of his field recordings continue to inspire musicians and music fans.

Huey P. Meaux The onetime barber from Winnie had a talent for matching a voice with a song, and it made him the most powerful producer in Texas and Louisiana. The Crazy Cajun produced hits by Doug Sahm, Lightnin’ Hopkins, George Jones, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Freddy Fender, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others.

Casey Monahan Texas was the first state to open its own music office, in January 1990, and Monahan has been its only director. Working under three governors, the former music journalist has tirelessly promoted the state’s music and musicians, helping artists understand the intricacies of business and government, and helping business and government speak the language of art.

Norman Petty The producer’s open mind and background in hit-parade pop allowed him to be the kind of visionary for Buddy Holly that George Martin was for the Beatles. Musicians from all over the Panhandle came to Petty’s little studio in Clovis, New Mexico, including Roy Orbison, Buddy Knox, Waylon Jennings, and Carolyn Hester.

Luis Silva In the twenty years that the Tejano Music Awards have been given out, he has won the songwriter of the year award eight times, but his dominance of the genre runs much deeper. He discovered and championed Mazz in the seventies and La Mafia in the mid-eighties and helped introduce the synthesizer to their music, thus creating the modern tejano sound.

Bill Ham The archetypal heavy-handed, tightfisted band manager turned a Houston boogie band into the biggest rock act in the world (ZZ Top) and a Houston lounge singer into a country superstar (Clint Black). The secretive Ham also owns Hamstein Cumberland Music Group, one of the largest independent music publishers in the world. MH, JR, JS, KV

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