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Rock Critic Confessions

Posted by mcorcoran on February 8, 2019

Notes on a rock critic life

I had this reputation for reviewing shows I didn’t actually see. Normally, a music critic would fight that sort of character assault, but I played it up. Rock n’ roll bad boy. Like preachers, music critics are in the myth biz.
In truth, it only happened twice, both times in Chicago. One was a popcorn offense- a local band promoting their new release with a pre-show Jagermeister party. This was 1990 and I’d never had the chilled liqueur before that tastes like licorice. After about six shots, I said “Are you sure there’s booze in this?” At least that’s what they told me. I was assisted to the couch they had in the dressing room at Lounge Ax to nap it off until show time.
I woke up to see the members of New Duncan Imperials toweling themselves off, with clumps of powder blue tuxedos on the floor. OK, no problem. They gave me the set list and told me a few of their antics and no one was the wiser when my 10-inch review ran in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The second time was much worse. It was the next year and my drinking had gotten way worse as I was on the outs with The Love of My Life #3. Got a call one day with a question that my mind answered “Fuck, yeah!” while my mouth said let me check my schedule, why, yes, I am available that day. “Do you want to review the Neil Young concert in Chicago for Rolling Stone magazine?”
This was back when Rolling Stone really meant something. And Neil was hot again with “Ragged Glory,” the album with Crazy Horse, topping many year-end lists. This was the tour with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion opening. You dream about reviewing Neil Young for Rolling Stone. And it was big money for me.
It didn’t matter that I was only moderately familiar with Mr. Young’s oeuvre. I brought my friend Dave Suarez, who knew every burp. We were a couple of lunks in the crowd, drinking beers during the opening sets. When it was my turn to get more, right after Sonic Youth, I was in this massive line (thinking “Five dollars for a fucking beer!”) when my old friend from the Continental Club Terry Pearson walked by and did a double take. He had left Austin to be Sonic Youth’s sound man. “Hey, man,” he said after we hugged, “we’ve got beers backstage and the band is not big drinkers.” I had the full-on “Rolling Stone reviewing Neil” pass, so I just followed him back there.
OK, you’re way ahead of the story, but you’re not wrong. One Heineken became six or seven. I got along pretty well with Lee Renaldo, who took photos of my John-John tattoo, and I knew Steve Shelley from Debbie Pastor, while The Couple kinda checked me out like I was a sociology project. They want to see demented? We could hear Neil and Crazy Horse onstage, but I had to have just one more.
As I was leaving to go back into the arena, a single man was walking my way. Neil Young. Shit! The set was over, so I caught just the encore, which led off with the disposable “Welfare Mothers.” That song had never received as much ink as on the subsequent RS review. I scrambled back to Suarez. “You missed a great show, man.” What did he play, what did he say, details, details, details? But I guess Dave was pissed I never came back with his beer. He couldn’t remember shit.
The biggest Neil Young fan I knew was Rick from 11th Dream Day, so I called him up the next day. I could’ve been coy, like “What were your favorite songs last night?” But I just came out and told him what happened and he saved my ass. Not only knew the entire set list, but which guitar tunings were used. So I wrote the review and everything was cool.
Made one big mistake, though. I trashed Sonic Youth, who bored the hell out of me. (As always.)
About a week after the full-page review was published, I got a call from Barbara O’Dair, the assigning editor. Someone narked on me, most likely The Couple. “We heard you were getting drunk backstage for most of the show,” she said. Um, well, um, I was taking some new medication, and um, I felt faint, um, and I have a friend with Sonic Youth, um, do you know Terry Pearson? Great sound man. You know he got the gig with Sonic Youth because they were double-booked one night in Austin with Brave Combo and clear-headed Terry made it all work, and, um, he saw I was having trouble with the medication, and said why don’t you come backstage and lay down, and, um…”
I was fucked. No more assignments from Rolling Stone. But the weird thing is, I got a contract a few weeks later from Rolling Stone asking to reprint my review in a book they were doing on Neil Young.
A later Neil Young assignment would even further exemplify the kind of anti-critic I was. The editor called and said they were starting a new feature called Overrated/ Underrated, where two critics would state the pro-and-con cases for a certain artist. The first one would be Neil Young. I guess he read my Rolling Stone rave. Are you interested? Sure, I said, and we discussed money, length, deadline and all. But just before we hung up I said wait a second. “Which side do you want me to argue?”

Going through Manhattan to interview a neighbor

I’m like the Cat Lady of pet peeves I’ve got so many running around. One of my big ones is when an Austin musician hires a high-powered NYC publicist that you have to go through to set up an interview. I’ve been emailing back and forth six times, like a negotiation, to talk to someone whose house I pass on the way to and from HEB. This is the kind of publicist I hate, the one who wants to make sure you focus on what they want, which, in this case, is a new album coming out in a couple months. (I should point out that I’m not trying to interview Beyonce, but someone who plays the Continental Club.) Normally, at this point I would say “forget it” and move on to the next story. But I’m having fun toying with this woman. She kept asking me how much of the article is going to be about the new album (how the fuck do I know?) and I either ignored her or was intentionally vague. She was persistent because, you see, it makes her day when the story comes out and she can harangue the writer about how it ended up different from how he or she “promised” it would be.
After the third email, in which she specified emphasis points on the release, I almost emailed back “what album?” but I caught myself.
I’m not going to tell you who the Austin artist is, but if you read a 2,000-word article that mentions an upcoming album, without naming it or giving the release date, you’ll know they have a pushy NYC publicist. God, I love my job!

GRAMMY STORIES? YEAH, I GOT ONE

I’m not a great talker. I couldn’t sell earmuffs to an Eskimo. But I talked my way into the Grammys once. It was the night after I crashed Clive Davis’ A-list black tie party at the Beverly Hilton. Something was going on that year- 1995.

The Dallas Morning News sent me to L.A. for five days to cover the Grammys because this was back when big newspapers had a lot of money for shit like that. But I had to write different stories every day. I reviewed club shows by Lucinda Williams and Guy Clark, did a party scene report and hung out in the lobby during Clive’s big bash, just taking note of all the celebs for my daily column. I knew the publicist for Arista, Clive’s label, who was at the entrance checking credentials, then she came over to me and said, “Carlos Santana is coming on next and his new album (Supernatural) is going to be HUGE (it was). Clive would want a critic to see this, so I’m gonna turn my head and you’re gonna walk right past me, OK?”

So I did just that. I scooted by her in my black t-shirt and ripped jeans and found myself in a huge ballroom, full of big stars. Jerry Seinfeld, Mike Tyson, Puff Daddy, Bobby DeNiro, Will Smith – they were all sitting 10 feet away from me. Whitney Houston was onstage singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and then she was off and Santana came on with Wyclef from the Fugees. As soon as their song was over, I was being led out of the room by security, but I was grinning. I’d be able to write about attending the most exclusive Grammy party of them all, as if I was invited. Also, I talked to Dallas native Erykah Badu for 10 seconds when she was walking through the lobby, so I had a quote from a big local. Shit, man, I was gold.

Which was a relief because I had kinda fucked up a couple weeks earlier. I sent in my request for press credentials to the Grammys a little late and there was no room for me. But I’d covered the Grammys before and spent most of the time in the press room watching the show on TV. They’d parade the winners by every minute or so, but the quotes were hardly ever any good, so I figured that I could just cover the show from my hotel room and no one would be the wiser. The Associated Press had a file of backstage quotes I could pull from. Just had to give them credit at the bottom.

So I was getting all set up in my room. Beer on ice, joints rolled, just had to find what channel the show was on. This was about an hour before the Grammys were to start. I went to the channel menu for 5 p.m., which was 7 p.m. Dallas time, and no Grammys. I scrolled to the right and it said that the show aired at 8 Pacific. FUCK! They delayed the broadcast on the West Coast. I wouldn’t be able to watch it on TV and make my deadline. WTF! I didn’t know what to do but throw on some clothes and run down to the lobby and get a cab to the Shrine Auditorium.

Here’s a detail I don’t really need, but I’m gonna throw it out there to show just how fucked my day was going. About three blocks down Hollywood Boulevard I saw Elvis Mitchell on the sidewalk. My friend who was a bigwig in L.A. “Pull over!” I told the cab driver and I went over to Elvis to see if he had any suction with Rogers and Cowan, the Grammys publicists. Only, it wasn’t Elvis Mitchell. It was a black guy with long dreads in expensive clothing and black horn-rimmed glasses, but it wasn’t fucking Elvis! I turned around to see my cab leaving, so I had to run back to the hotel lobby and get another cab. I’m dripping with sweat, heart palping, all the way to the Shrine.

Every road was blocked off for about a quarter mile except for limos, so I had to run the rest of the way to the Grammys. So, I finally got there. Now what? I couldn’t get credentials a couple weeks ago; how were they going to let me in, sweating like a dopesick junkie, 10 minutes before the show started? But I didn’t have any other choice.

Luck shined on me, however, when I saw my old friend Chris Morris of Billboard. “Chris, please, could you send someone from Rogers and Cowan out here?” I said from outside a chain-link fence. About five minutes later there was some guy in a suit, looking at me with the right amount of skepticism. I told him my story and how I would probably get fired if he didn’t let me in. “There’s no place for you,” he said. Just let me watch the show from a monitor somewhere, I said. I don’t care if it’s in the men’s room. The guy, whose name was neither Rogers nor Cowan, said, “OK, but you owe me, big time.” Brother Theresa led me to the press room, picked up a big bowl of lettuce on the catering table and said “sit here.” And I did, for the whole show. Press folks would come by with their plates and fill up with cold cuts and carrot sticks and the like and then they’d get to me and turn around.

But I was in heaven. The adrenaline of just getting there had my fingers flying on the keyboard. I was sending all these great dispatches from backstage at the Grammys. Got a few short one-on-one interviews even (Chris from Soundgarden, Don Was, Booker T, Tony Bennett in the men’s room). Bruce Springsteen was winning everything for his “Streets of Philadelphia” song and so during the commercial break before Record of the Year, I finished my A1 recap. Just needed to hear the name “Bruce…” and I’d be sending before they got to “…steen.” I had really kicked ass.

“And the Record of the Year goes to…” My finger was ready. “Sheryl Crow for ‘All I Wanna Do’!” Are you fucking kidding me?!! Goddammit, man. Now I had to rewrite the whole first part of the article. And my final deadline was in 10 minutes. But I did it. And I was done. Shit, man, I even talked my way into the A&M Records party, just two blocks from the Roosevelt Hotel, where I was staying. What a motherfucking day!

That’s kinda like how every day is. I mean, not insanely hectic or heart-racing. But we just take things as they come- bring it on-  and do the best we can. But sometimes you look back and go “how did I pull that one off?”

Bitch!

Direct line to Billy Ray Cyrus

I became a pretty decent obit writer because of my time at the Dallas Morning News (’92-’95), which didn’t really hold entertainment writers in high regard unless they consistently landed on 1A. And the easiest way to get a front page byline was writing a celebrity obit. The Morning News didn’t use a single AP obit for a musician in the three years I was there.

When Coway Twitty died, however, I was busy as hell and kinda hoping my bosses would let me outta that one. But I was the country music critic at the time and CW was a major dude, I guess, so I had to fit it in. The reason the day was so stressful was that I had a phoner with Billy Ray Cyrus that took me two weeks to set up. It was during that period, right after “Achy Breaky Heart” came out, when Cyrus was the biggest thing in all of music. His first LP “Some Gave All” debuted at #1 on Billboard and stayed there for 17 consecutive weeks, a maiden run that’s never been matched. He was a sensation who hardly did any interviews, but since the DMN stories were picked up on the wire, his handlers felt they could just do mine and that would cover the country. It was a major coup. But then Conway Twitty died and I was distracted.

I was finishing up my Twitty obit when Billy Joe called for the 15-minute phoner. He politely asked me how I was doing and I said I had been gutted by the news of Conway Twitty (not really) and then Cyrus, very poignantly, told me how listening to Twitty when he was a boy made him realize that country music could also be pop and rock n’ roll without losing its twang. Boom, there was my lead quote on the obit! The next day I got all kinds of congratulations from the big editors, who thought I’d moved mountains to get a quote from the biggest star in the music biz. Today, this would be like Patti Labelle dying and getting fresh quotes from Beyonce. Even the New York Times couldn’t get ahold of “the new Elvis of country.” My Cyrus story wasn’t scheduled to run for another two weeks so they were sixpence none the wiser.

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Milton Brown, the Edison of Western Swing

Posted by mcorcoran on December 22, 2018

“It’s the same ol’ tune, fiddle and guitar, where do we take it from here?” An ol’ honky tonk hero sang that in the ‘70s, but back in the early ‘30s, Milton Brown and Bob Wills were thinking the same thing. The singer and the fiddler worked together less than two years in the Light Crust Doughboys, but what they started afterwards, when they kept adding instruments and improvisation, came to be called Western swing.

Although Wills earned the “King of Western Swing” tag with four decades of dancehall-filling dominance to make cowboy jazz a Texas tradition, the innovator was Brown, whose Musical Brownies were the prototype Western swing band in 1932. Four years later he’d be dead and his former partner would carry the torch with an “Ah-ha!” holler.

Brown’s smooth vocals brought the city to the country and, with the addition of pianist Fred “Papa” Calhoun, the Brownies converted the string band into a dance outfit, mixing the previously disparate styles of jazz, country, blues and pop to fill the floors. The 2/4 “Milton Brown Beat” revolved around the mighty strike hand of tenor banjoist Ocie Stoddard, who was followed closely by standup bassist Wanna Coffman and Milton’s little brother Derwood Brown on heavy rhythm guitar. Fiddler Jesse Ashlock handled the melody, while Calhoun brought such an air of improvisation that he was nicknamed “Papa” by Brown in reference to legendary jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines.

The Musical Brownies would first record in April 1934, a year and a half before Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. And yet Wills was called “the first great amalgamator of American music” when he and the Playboys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Milton Brown is not even in the Country Music Hall of Fame!

Milton led the band for only four years, during the Depression, but he knew how to get the people to come out. The Musical Brownies were easily the most popular dance band in Texas in the early ‘30s. But they almost never played out of state, except to record in Chicago and New Orleans.

In the essential Cary Ginelli oral history Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing (University of Illinois Press 1994), Calhoun recalls being dragged out to Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion, four miles northwest of Fort Worth, on a snowy Thursday night in late ’32 and being impressed by the turnout of hundreds for Milton and the boys. Billed as “the Colonel from Kentucky” (though he was from Chico, TX), Calhoun played solo jazz piano on KTAT, so he was known to the Brownies, but nobody played keyboards with a string band back then. Milton removed the cover of the house piano and called Calhoun up to sit in on “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and the pianist jammed for the entire set. During intermission he was asked to join the Brownies.

They had found something special, but Brown was not done assembling his dream lineup. He hired classically-trained Cecil Brower to play twin fiddle- a new concept- with Ashlock at first, then Cliff Bruner. In late ‘34 came steel guitar genius Bob Dunn, who started off as a Hawaiian-style player, then found greater satisfaction emulating the sliding trombone of Vernon’s Jack Teagarden. But how could Dunn’s guitar, a Martin acoustic laid flat and played with a steel bar, be heard over this hot band? With “Taking Off,” recorded in Chicago in January 1935, Dunn had the distinction of being the first to record an electric guitar, played through a magnetic mic in the soundhole.

Brown developed the idea to play a jazz/pop repertoire with country music instrumentation, but Wills went bigger, adding drummer Smokey Dacus in 1935, then a horn section soon after. Wills and his 13-piece orchestra, with Brown’s replacement Tommy Duncan on vocals, did not see themselves as competing with the Musical Brownies as much as with national swing orchestras on tour. Filling every square of air in the enormous dancehalls and ballrooms of Texas and Oklahoma, the Texas Playboys eventually outdrew Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. Like Milton, Bob could always get the top players, including slidemaster Leon McCauliffe, whose 1936 recording of “Steel Guitar Rag” was every bit as influential as Dunn’s ground-breaking work.

Ginelli identifies four eras of Western swing. The first is the advent of Milton and the Musical Brownies and the second era is defined by the late ‘30s Tulsa residency of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who broadcast daily from Cain’s Ballroom on 50,000-watt KVOO. The Wills group maintained vitality through the next two eras, headed by Spade Cooley-Tex Williams in the ‘40s and Waco’s Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys in the ‘50s. The term “Western swing” wasn’t used until applied to Cooley, an Okie who had moved to California during the Dust Bowl. Trade magazines tried to call it “hillbilly jazz,” but the h-word was considered derisive.

The original Light Crust Doughboys, with guitarist Herman Arnspiger and Derwood Brown seated.

Wills is still the king because in April 1936, Milton Brown crashed his new Pontiac Silver Streak into a telephone pole on the Jacksboro Highway and was dead at 33. Band members surmised, because they’d seen him do it before, that Brown fell asleep at the wheel (giving name to the longtime Western swing upholders of Ray Benson.) His passenger, 16-year-old aspiring singer Katy Prehoditch, was killed instantly in the 3 a.m. crash. The recently-divorced Brown died six days later of pneumonia while still in the hospital. His ex-wife married Bob Wills.

Milton and the Musical Brownies left a rich recorded legacy- 16 sides for Bluebird in 1934, and over 100 for Decca, recorded in the 15 months before Brown’s death. But live is where they really took off, with the dancers spurring them on. It’s lucky for fans of Texas string band dance music that Wills and the Playboys were there to “take it away.” There was an abundance of overshadowing, but if the Texas Playboys weren’t so thrilling for so long, Brown’s vision wouldn’t have gone as far.

Like Wills, Milton Brown grew up in rural Texas (Weatherford) with a fiddle whiz as his pop. But Milton was a singer, not a player. Back then, the house party band would be a fiddler and a guitarist and most tunes were instrumental. If there were vocals on fiddle music, they were country-raw, from the backwoods, while Brown’s vocals were smooth, from the ballroom. Milton listened to country blues, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and Bing Crosby, but with the old-time fiddle tunes part of his makeup, he had a mindset to meld.

Milton on the mic.

Everybody wanted that swing, pioneered by the 1920s Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet dancing all around the beat. In the ‘30s, Georgia-born Henderson sold arrangements to Benny Goodman, who took swing to new heights of popularity. Jazz-minded rural musicians wanted to play “that hokum,” too, and the Musical Brownies showed that Texas audiences also wanted to dance to it, just like the Yankee swells did at Roseland Ballroom.

The old Texas dancehalls, built by Czech and German immigrants in the years between the Civil War and World War I, were ready-made for this new exciting string band swing. The venues were so cavernous that bands had to use more instrumentation, because if there’s a word to describe what makes Texas music special, it’s “dancing.” The beat had to break through the chatter to give a template of movement to those out on the floor. It was a formula later followed by Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers (featuring Moon Mullican on piano and Leo Raley on electric mandolin) and Leon “Pappy” Selph’s Blue Ridge Playboys (Floyd Tillman, Ted Daffan), both from Houston, and San Antonio’s Adolph Hofner and All the Boys. “Although I never had the pleasure of knowing Milton Brown, he and his band were my big inspiration,” Hofner told an interviewer. “They played jazz then, the same as New Orleans jazz, but without the horns. They did it with strings.” Even with his unfortunate first name, Hofner had the distinction of being the longest-tenured Western swing bandleader, mixing cowboy jazz with polka music from the late ‘30s until the early ‘90s.

Brown and Wills remained friends more than rivals after the singer departed the Light Crust Doughboys in 1932 because, at least, they shared a dislike of W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the general manager of sponsoring Burrus Mill, who also appointed himself band manager. The conservative, authoritative O’Daniel didn’t want the Doughboys to play dances, where there was bootleg whiskey and all sorts of carrying on. That was enough of a bolting point for Milton, but his mind was made up when O’Daniel wouldn’t pay 16-year-old Derwood Brown, who’d been sitting in for free, but was newly-married. A steady paycheck from Burrus, where the Doughboys also worked as delivery drivers and salesmen, was a big deal during the Depression, but Milton knew there was more money to be made in the dancehalls and so he scooted right over to Crystal Springs and took his little brother with him.

Some music historians credit “Blues in a Bottle,” the 1928 OKeh ‘78 by Prince Albert Hunt and the Texas Ramblers (actually just guitarist Harmon Clem), as the first Western swing recording. The jazzy quality of Hunt’s breakdown fiddle had that swing, like the 1926 OKeh records by Philadelphia duo Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, but it was still just fiddle and guitar. True Western swing has a beat. It has musicians waiting their turn to “take off.” It has a dancefloor. But Hunt’s recording did help Texas music turn the corner with its embrace of black music, a key element of Western swing.

Born Archibald Hunt in 1896 and raised in Terrell, the son of an Irish fiddler, Prince Albert hung out with the black musicians in Deep Ellum and imitated them in blackface minstrel shows, as did Wills and the influential Emmett Miller of Georgia. Along the way he heard “Stingaree Blues,” written in 1920 by black Galveston songwriter Clinton Kemp, which Hunt refashioned into “Blues In a Bottle.” Jazz trumpeter King Oliver covered “Stingaree Blues” in 1930.

Hunt’s greatest innovation was putting vocals on fiddle music two years before Milton Brown did the same with Wills. Hunt also died tragically, at age 34, shot to death outside a dance at Confederate Hall in Dallas by the estranged husband of the woman he’d been seeing. That was in 1931, when Milton Brown and Bob Wills were playing every afternoon on WBAP as the Light Crust Doughboys.

The formidable pair met at a house party in Fort Worth in 1930 and joined forces, each bringing their own guitar player (Herman Arnspiger and Derwood Brown) to play Eagles Hall in Forth Worth as the Wills Fiddle Band. The quartet added Sleepy Johnson on banjo, and became the Aladdin Laddies when the Aladdin Lamp Company sponsored their WBAP radio show in the summer of 1930. After that deal expired, they shilled for Burrus’ Light Crust Dough, first on KFJZ, then the more powerful WBAP. In the early years of radio, record labels thought airplay would actually hurt sales and forbid most of their ‘78s to be played, so almost all of the music on radio was from live performances.

Brown and Wills recorded only one ’78 together, as the Fort Worth Doughboys, for Bluebird in Dallas on Feb. 9, 1932. But Brown original “Sunbonnet Sue” and a cover of “Nancy Jane” by the Famous Hokum Boys (featuring Big Bill Broonzy and Georgia Tom Dorsey) didn’t further their career. Seven months later, Milton was no longer working with Bob, who left the Doughboys 11 months after that. Wills initially moved to Waco, where he called his band the Playboys. But the jilted O’Daniel, who would go on to become Texas governor in 1939 and U.S. Senator in 1941 (defeating Lyndon Baines Johnson), did everything in his power to drive Wills out of the state. O’Daniel sued Wills for billing his band as “formerly the Light Crust Doughboys,” and lost, but filed appeal after appeal. While based first in Oklahoma City and then Tulsa, the Playboys added “Texas” to their name and became the swingingest country band in the land over the next 30 plus years.

Sometimes what you go out and accomplish on your own surpasses the benefits of collaboration. Even if everyone has forgotten. Milton Brown was the Edison of Western swing and yet, perhaps because he was a singer, not an instrumentalist, he’s not suitably honored today for his mammoth musical innovations. He fell asleep at the wheel and has been unjustifiably slept on ever since. But Bob Wills went to his grave in 1975 knowing that, at least in the beginning, his Texas Playboys followed what the Musical Brownies were laying down.

Michael Corcoran is the author of All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (UNT Press). This is a chapter from his upcoming book on TCU Press in late 2019.

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12th and Chicon Soundtrack

Posted by mcorcoran on December 18, 2018

East Austin’s most infamous corner used to be called “The Ends” in the 1930s because that’s as far as the streetcar went on East 12th St. When buses replaced streetcars in 1940, 12th and Chicon was still the last stop. “We called it the Ends when I was coming up,” said Dorothy McPhaul, whose grandfather Simon Sidle, the antique dealer, lived on 12th and Chicon in the early ‘50s. The corner had it’s own language, like everyone called the liquor store “Blue-eyed” because the proprietor was an African-American with blue eyes.

From its 1935 opening until it burned down in 1973, the Harlem Theater anchored entertainment on the Ends. “They showed anything and everything that the ‘white only’ theaters were done with,” said Ed Guinn, one of the few blacks who was part of Austin’s hippie scene as a member of Conqueroo. “Saw lots of scratchy versions of films there for years.”

Our first entry is Willie Hutch’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” from The Mack, one of the last films shown at the Harlem Theater:

2.“I Got Rhythm” by Teddy Wilson Trio

Samuel Huston College dean of boys James Wilson and his teacher wife Pearl had a son Teddy, born in Austin in 1912. The family moved to Alabama when Teddy was six to take teaching jobs at the prestigious Tuskegee Institute. Teddy became the Jackie Robinson of jazz in 1935 when he integrated the Benny Goodman Trio (with Gene Krupa) and then went on to play with all the greats, but especially Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. (Ironically, THE Jackie Robinson taught P.E. at Huston in 1945.) This number features Gene Ramey, also born in Austin, on bass. Ramey’s illustrious career included stints in the bands of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

3. “Blues After Hours” by Pee Wee Crayton

Rockdale-born guitarist Pee Wee Crayton moved in 1935 to the West Coast, where he was a contemporary of Dallas guitarist T-Bone Walker. But he played Austin often after that, visiting some of his old haunts like Manning’s Café at 1810 E. 12th or the Club Alabama next door at 1808, currently the home of Dozen Street. He sat in at the original Charlie’s Playhouse at 1201 Chicon before it moved to E. 11th in 1957. Crayton had his first R&B #1 in 1948 with this instrumental on Modern Records.

“No Way Out” by Joyce Harris and the Daylighters

In 1960, rock n’ roll history was made when black band Clarence Smith (nee Sonny Rhodes) and the Daylighters backed Joyce Harris, a white female singer on Domino Records. Their raucous single “One Way Out” is a classic, highly valued by collectors. To this day some still think Joyce Harris is black. But the logistics could get hairy in Jim Crow Austin. Harris recalled looking for the Daylighters the day of the session. Finding them coming out of the White Swan (currently King Bee Lounge) she called out “Get in, fellas, we’ve gotta make a record,” but they initially refused to get in the car of a white woman in East Austin. They eventually got in and rode to Roy Poole’s studio on East Sixth Street ducked down below the windows. 

“Stop Now” by Bells Of Joy

Gospel and blues resided next to one another in urban neighborhoods and the best acts of those genres learned to borrow from the other one. Ray Charles has credited the smash 1951 religious smash, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by Austin’s Bells Of Joy with inspiring his first #1 hit “I Got a Woman” (1954). In turn, the Bells, influenced by Ulit Street barrelhouse piano player Lavada Durst, put a lot of R&B into their sound.

“Tuxedo Junction” by Erskine Hawkins

Legendary band director B.L. Joyce, who founded the L.C. Anderson High Yellow Jackets in 1933, was a tailor by trade at 1706 E. 14th St. He also taught alterations at Sam Huston College and made sure all his musicians looked tight. Disciplinarian Joyce was a J.P. Sousa man- if he caught you playing jazz he’d throw you out of the band, so the top players like Kenny Dorham, Hermie Edwards, Ray Murphy, Paris Jones, Warner “Rip” Ross and Buford Banks (trumpeter Martin’s dad) would sneak off after band practice to play improvisational jazz in the backyard of Roy and Alvin Patterson at 1709 Washington Ave. Joyce bent his “no jazz” rule only once, when Anderson was not only getting its butt beat on the football field, but in the band section, by archrival Wheatley High of San Antonio. “They were showing us up, playing all these hot, big band swing numbers,” recalled Alvin Patterson, who replaced Joyce as band director in 1955.  “So Mr. Joyce called me over and said, ‘What was that swing thing you and Kenny were playing the other day when you thought I was out of listening range?’ I said that was ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s hear it.” The crowd went crazy when the band came out swinging.

“Runaway Love” by Linda Clifford

Another graduate of the Yellow Jackets was Gil Askey, the Motown trumpet-player/ arranger who was Diana Ross’s music director for 10 years. Askey’s mother was Ada DeBlanc Simond, the noted African American historian and author who penned the “Looking Back” column in the American-Statesman for several years. Nominated for an Oscar for his score for Lady Sings the Blues, Askey also wrote and produced this 1978 disco hit for NYC singer Linda Clifford.

“Night Train” by James Brown

All-black Anderson High produced not-only substantial musical talent, but a couple of major NFL players: Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and Richard Lane. Nicknamed “Night Train” by fellow Los Angeles Ram Tom Fears in 1952, Lane intercepted 14 passes (in a 12-game season) that rookie year- a record that’ll probably never be broken, even in 16 games, plus playoffs.

“Here Comes the Judge” by Pigmeat Markham

Blues music integrated Austin like nothing before it. Bill Campbell, a white guitarist from Smithville, picked up blues singles at King’s Record Shop at 1812 E. 12th and East Side Records at 1213 E. 12th and learned to really play by sitting in with guitar slingers like Freddie King at Ernie’s Chicken Shack (1167 Webberville Road) and Sam’s Showcase at 1922 E. 12th. He showed a couple of brothers from Dallas named Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan where to find the real stuff. Campbell was especially valuable on tour with musical comedian Pigmeat Markham, whose 1968 recording of “Here Comes the Judge” laid the blueprint for hip-hop. Fellow guitarist Major Lee Burkes recalls that Campbell would rent two or three rooms in all-white motels and the black musicians would sneak in. Campbell was also the take-out king at restaurants in the south.

“I’ll Save the Last Dance For You” by Damita Jo

Gil Askey’s cousin was R&B/jazz singer Damita Jo, the only child of Creole chef Herbert DeBlanc and schoolteacher Latrelle Plummer DeBlanc. They both stayed at 1010 Olive Street with their grandmother Mathilde when they returned to Austin on yearly visits.  Damita Jo had hits with “answer songs” to “Save the Last Dance For Me” by the Drifters and “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. She also possessed comedic flair and was a regular on Redd Foxx’s 1977 TV variety show.

“Scuttle Buttin’” by Stevie Ray Vaughan 

When Stevie Ray Vaughan was recording his second LP Couldn’t Stand the Weather in New York City in 1984, he wasn’t getting the right feel, so he had someone call up Sam’s BBQ at 2000 E. 12th for an overnite shipment of his favorite food. That got the record back on track.

“Alone Together” by Kenny Dorham

Dr. James Hill (chief of the University of Texas community relations department), John Q. Taylor King (former Huston-Tillotson College president and head of King Tears Mortuary), longtime H-T music department head Beulah Curry Jones and educator Charles Akins, who became the first black principal of a predominantly white high school in Austin in 1973, were all former Yellow Jacket band members. But, musically, the standout has to be Kenny Dorham, who replaced Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948. Although Dorham, “the thinking man’s trumpet player” was on the bandstand with Parker on the sax great’s final public performance in 1955, he spent most of the early ’50s freelancing for Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt and others. In 1954, he co-founded the highly influential Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey.

This selection is an instrumental version of a tune made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics speak out for a segregated East Austin community that may have lived in the shadow of mainstream Austin, but shone brightly on its own.

“Alone together, beyond the crowd/ Above the world, we’re not too proud/ To cling together, we’re strong/ As long as we’re together”

Bonus track:

“Sweetback’s Theme” by (an uncredited) Earth Wind & Fire from the soundtrack to Melvin Van Peebles’  Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, which was held over at the Harlem Theater in 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jimmy Bowen: A Pirate, a Poet, a Pawn and a King

Posted by mcorcoran on November 28, 2018

Nancy Sinatra and Jimmy Bowen circa 1967.

The 25-year-old Texan sat in the limo outside a Palm Springs desert compound for about an hour, waiting for Frank Sinatra. The junior exec had been recently hired by Reprise Records, which had half a dozen strong acts, but the problem was that there were over 100 on the label. Reprise was founded by Sinatra in 1960 and rescued by parent company Warner Brothers, with Sinatra retaining 1/3 ownership, three years later. That’s when Jimmy Bowen came aboard. “Sinatra would have a few drinks in some lounge and sign the piano player. He was out of control,” recalled the sheriff’s son from the Texas Panhandle. “So one of my first jobs was to tell Mr. Sinatra we had to drop more than half the acts he’d signed. I was scared shitless, knowing he was going to fire me- or worse.” Finally called inside, Bowen laid out the direness of the financial situation. “Mr. Sinatra downed a glass of Jack Daniels, then he said, ‘well, do what you gotta do’ and walked away. I left before he could change his mind.” The long ride to Palm Springs was a lot shorter on the way back.

When Bowen told the story 30 years later, he was Music City’s feared “Chairman of the Board.” When your music biz baptism was firing about 70 friends of Frank Sinatra, it’s no big deal to clean house when you take over as head of a Nashville label, which Bowen did six times from 1976 to his 1995 retirement. As the incoming chief at MGM, MCA (twice), Elektra/Asylum, Warner Brothers and Capitol, he’d generally keep two or three people and fire the rest. Bowen even pink-slipped the A&R guy who signed Garth Brooks, Capitol’s  golden goose in a Stetson. The designated label-fixer axed so many people he stopped going to industry parties. “The last one that I went to, I looked around the room and realized that I had fired half the people there – some of them two or three times,” Bowen said.

In a town known for humility, where honchos ask if you’d like some coffee, then fetch it themselves, Bowen made sure everyone knew who was boss. “Whenever you have a meeting with Bowen, you have to go to him,” said MCA’s Tony Brown, then Bowen’s main rival. Wearing a Greek sailor cap and aviator glasses, Bowen  brought the Rat Pack mentality to the Hat Act reality and never really fit in. “I was a Yankee for the first time in my life,” Bowen said of his two decades running (some might say “ruining”) Nashville.

But here’s where Jimmy Bowen matters: he produced 67 #1 country singles and 10 #1 country albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s, making superstars out of Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., Reba McEntire, Conway Twitty and George Strait. “The music belongs to the artist,” was his credo, something else he said he learned from Sinatra. “The worst mistake a producer can make is to think it’s his record. A good producer should do as little as possible- or as much as necessary.”

Bowen arrived in Nashville with a proven track record in the pop field, producing signature songs of Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”), Dean Martin (“Everybody Loves Somebody”) and Sammy Davis Jr. (“I’ve Gotta Be Me”), with arranger /conductor Ernie Freeman.

Bowen started getting a little cocky after winning 1967’s Record of the Year Grammy for “Strangers In the Night,” but Sinatra was still in charge of the recording sessions. “He’d usually nail it on the first take, but sometimes there’d be a second take,” recalled Bowen. “But that was it. Frank didn’t do a third.” After Sinatra’s second take of “That’s Life” Bowen said, “let’s try one more,” and Sinatra shot back “no, we got it!” But Bowen persisted and Sinatra called him a “fuckin’ hayseed!” in front of everybody (including fiancee’ Mia Farrow), and stormed out. But about 10 minutes later, Sinatra was back. “ONE MORE TAKE!” he said, and that was the one they used on the classic “That’s Life.” That’s why he’s practically spitting the lyrics in his most over-the-top performance.

Bowen famously butted heads with Garth Brooks in the early ‘90s, but as a label exec, not a producer. Although Bowen oversaw multi-million sellers No Fences in 1990 and Ropin’ the Wind in ’91, Brooks blamed Bowen for slower sales of The Chase in 1992 and In Pieces in 1993. And why the hell did he have to change the label’s name from Capitol Nashville (AKA “The House That Garth Built”) to Liberty and move the offices miles away from Music Row? Brooks wanted a deal like the one Michael Jackson had signed, giving him more than a 25% royalty rate: Bowen told him he wasn’t Michael Jackson, which, according to Bowen’s 1997 Rough Mix autobio,  pissed off GB to no end. In 1994, Brooks told honchos at Capitol’s parent company EMI that he wouldn’t deliver his next album if Bowen was still in charge.

The pay-per-view-worthy staredown between the control freaks was averted, however, when the label head was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in late 1994 and retired to Maui. (Bowen was not involved in any way in Garth’s Life of Chris Gaines debacle in ’99, it should be pointed out). As of early 2019, Bowen, 81, was living in Arizona with fifth wife Ginger. Liberty was changed back to Capitol Nashville after Bowen left.

Bowen with Floyd Cramer and Johnny Rivers

•••

“I didn’t really like country music growing up,” said the Dumas native, who teamed with fellow West Texas State student Buddy Knox in 1956 to chase the Elvis vapors to the top of the charts.

They called their rockabilly band the Orchids and wore matching purple shirts. After Roy Orbison of Wink and his Teen Kings played the college in Canyon, Bowen asked him where he got that great sound on “Ooby Dooby,” his first single.  “Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis,” Orbison said.

A few weeks later, bassist Bowen and guitarists Knox and Don Lanier, with session drummer Dave Alldred, crossed the border into New Mexico to see if they had some magic in them. The resulting self-released single – “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox with the Orchids b/w “I’m Stickin’ With You” by Jimmy Bowen with the Orchids- attracted the attention of NYC’s Roulette Records (Lanier’s sister was a model in New York and knew co-owners Morris Levy and Phil Kahl), who split it into two 45s and renamed the band Rhythm Orchids. “Party Doll” was Roulette’s first #1 record, while Bowen’s single, with “Everlovin’ Fingers” on the flip side, hit #14. Bowen released several more 45s on Roulette, but none hit the Top 40. “When the girls stopped screaming and I could hear myself sing,” Bowen said in ’93, “I figured I needed to find another way in the music business.” Mobbed-up impressario Levy gave the kids from Texas a glimpse into the real-life music business, where payola ran radio and a couple thugs materialized whenever the subject of monies owed came up. “You want royalties,” Levy would bellow, “then go to England!”

Bowen laughed at the hard lessons learned from the record man who was the model for the Hesh character in The Sopranos. We were sitting in a whatever room in Bowen’s brick mansion on Franklin Road in late ’93, and he reminded me of Ben Johnson from The Last Picture Show in the way his drawl made every word count. He rarely went into the office, he said, because that’s where they think about today. “My mind is on next September,” he said. But not on this day, when Bowen seemed to enjoy reminiscing for a career profile in the Dallas Morning News.

After a brief time doing A&R for Bob Marcucci’s Chancellor Records (Frankie Avalon, Fabian), Bowen was hired as a staff producer at Reprise in 1963. One of his first projects with the label was “The Lonely Surfer” by Jack Nitzsche, which reached #39 on the charts. But it was his work on The Intimate Keely Smith and Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which  knocked the Beatles out of #1 in 1964, that put producer Bowen on Sinatra’s radar like a jumbo jet. Everybody else forgot that Sinatra had recorded “Everybody Loves Somebody” 17 years earlier. Rising star Bowen became part of the inner circle when he married Keely Smith, a close friend of Sinatra’s, in ‘65. He also helped first daughter Nancy Sinatra by putting her with Lee Hazlewood of Port Neches, who co-wrote and produced smash hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking” in 1966. When the Sinatra father/daughter duet had a #1 hit the next year with “Something Stupid,” Bowen was listed as co-producer though he wasn’t in the studio. The kid from Dumas was learning how the music business worked.

Sinatra and Keely Smith.

The Golden Boy and Louis Prima’s ex had a messy divorce in 1969, by which time Bowen had formed Amos Records as a mirror of Reprise, signing such past-prime acts as Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Mel Carter and Johnny Tillotson. The label didn’t have a single hit record in its three years, but two Amos acts would play a part in music history, when Glenn Frey of Longbranch Pennywhistle and Don Henley of Shiloh joined together with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner to form the Eagles. Amos LPs by Longbranch and Shiloh (whose membership also included J.D. Souther and future Warner Brothers Nashville president Jim Ed Norman, respectively) stiffeded, but the Eagles released the best-selling album of all time with Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975.

Bowen’s country music mentor was Tompall Glaser, whose Hillbilly Central recording studio in Nashville gave birth to the ‘70s “country outlaw” movement with recordings by Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson and many more. When he moved to Nashville in ’76, Bowen hung out at sessions and listened to every classic country record Glaser thought he should hear. Perhaps Bowen’s first great move was encouraging Hank Williams Jr. to pursue his true identity as a rowdy country rocker.

Texas can boast several top record producers as native sons. T Bone Burnett of Fort Worth helmed the multi-platinum O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack (2001) and Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (2007), in addition to acclaimed LPs by Los Lobos (How Will the Wolf Survive?), Gillian Welch (Revival) and Elvis Costello (King of America). Jim Beck of Dallas recorded Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and many other honky tonkers in the early ’50s before he died after accidentally inhaling cleaning solution. Houston’s Huey Meaux produced classic garage rock by Sir Douglas Quintet, R&B by Barbara Lynn and country by Freddy Fender. Then there are Tom Wilson of Waco and Hillsborough’s Bob Johnston, who produced, not only classic ‘60s Bob Dylan albums (Johnston took over for Wilson on Highway 61 Revisited), but the Velvet Underground, the Animals, Frank Zappa and Sun Ra (Wilson) and Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel (Johnston). Amazing bodies of work from two guys who grew up 40 miles from each other in the middle of Texas.

But no one’s resume is more impressive than Bowen’s. Before he was 30, he produced classic recordings by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Then came all those number ones in Nashville, including the dry spell-ending “Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” for Merle Haggard and “Family Tradition” by Hank Williams Jr. His creative and business brains got together to spearhead Nashville’s conversion to digital recording technology in 1986- a year before Los Angeles studios followed suit.

The knock on Bowen, who produced an average of one album a month for 15 years, was that he was just in the room- when he wasn’t on the golf course. He usually shared production credit with the artist. But that’s how Bowen wanted it, to get the full commitment of the person whose music this was. When Reba, then a moderately successful country pop singer, signed to MCA in 1984, she told label boss Bowen she wanted to go back to her roots, with fiddles and steel guitar. He gave her the keys to make My Kind of Country, and McEntire won her first of four consecutive CMA awards for best female vocalist. There are a lot of stories like that.

Many of those Bowen fired became label heads and other prominent Nashvillians, which could be why his name is not suitably revered today. But nobody mastered both the business and the creative ends of the music industry, not to mention the pop and country fields, like Jimmy Bowen.

Through it all, he said he’s operated under a simple mantra: “You make music for tomorrow, not for today.” The records he made still stand up.

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Nanny Dearest

Posted by mcorcoran on November 23, 2018

I told y’all a couple months ago about the time an on-the-clock dancer from the Yellow Rose babysat my three-year-old son. Well, on the 7-hour drive from Marfa, I remembered quite a few more details of that night in ’97 or ’98. To refresh: Don King, who managed the Yellow Rose, invited me to cover a special event at the strip joint. It might’ve been an anniversary, but the guest-of-honor was Augustus Busch, the CEO of Budweiser at the time. A bunch of local celebrities (Dale Dudley, that baseball player Kelly Something, etc) were going to be on hand, so it would be good for my popular “Austin Inside/Out” column.
At the time, Sugar’s and the Yellow Rose were in heavy comp to be THE gentlemen’s club in town and they were both feeding me items about celebrities stopping in. I had just had something about George Clooney partying at Sugar’s (and leaving with a dancer in the middle of her shift) and so the Yellow Rose wanted to get some attention, too. DK said I was VIP all the way, but I had to call him that day and say I couldn’t make it. My babysitter had canceled. “I’ve got a whole list of babysitters here,” Don said, and in my mind he was holding a sheet of paper with names of actual babysitters that maybe the employees had shared with each other. “I’ll send her in the car and you get in and come to the Rose, then when you want to leave, the car will take you home and pick up the babysitter.” OK, I said. Not 30 minutes passed before a black limo pulled up to my Hyde Park shanty and a tall, platinum blonde with heavy makeup stepped out. She introduced herself with a normal name, like Melanie, but even with all that perfume, you could still smell the pole on her. She was a stripper who probably danced as Destinee.
I didn’t know what to do. I made some small talk, while wondering if I should send her back. But then I made a decision. I could either stay home with my toddler and watch “Fox and the Hound” for the third time or go to the VIP room full of naked women and booze. The column was important to me, so I went. But I felt guilty right away. What if she was abused as a child and that’s why she’s a stripper, I thought. The abused become abusers. When I arrived at the YR, I tried to drum up a column item as soon as I could- then head back to Hyde Park before she was showing little Jackie how to cut up lines. At the time, Budweiser had a campaign where they stamped “Born On” dates on their beer, to show how freshly they’d been bottled. I came up with the line that Mr. Busch wasn’t at the party for pleasure, necessarily, but to check the “Born On …” dates on the dancers’ derrieres to make sure they were of legal age. Had my item! I was out of there in 10 minutes.
I came home to see Jack laying on the couch, blissfully, with Melanie patting his head. They were watching MTV- a Madonna video, I believe.
As if this night could not have been more memorable, it was also when three-year-old Jack uttered his first curse word. When I came in the front door, he sat up and said, “Why the FUCK are you home so soon!”
OK, I made up that last part, but the rest is true. Don King should be able to verify it.

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The worst thing I ever went through never happened

Posted by mcorcoran on November 11, 2018

Was this really happening? Being marched, handcuffed behind my back, through the crowd of about 5,000 at Waterloo Park, sobered me up and gave me time to think practically. Busted for hitting on a joint a friend passed me, I would certainly be fired from my job as music critic for the Austin American Statesman and so as the faces, some familiar, stared at me with looks of shame, horror and amusement, I considered my options. Maybe this newfound notoriety would help me get an edgier new job. Maybe this was a sign that I should switch fields and start writing screenplays. Maybe Willie Nelson, the great hemp activist, would play a benefit concert to keep me out of the shelters. Maybe this would end up being a good thing.

But the dominating thought was this: who the fuck gets arrested for smoking a joint at an outdoor music festival in Austin?! A concert here sans marijuana smoke is a hockey game without a fight. If there’s a balcony at a Raffi concert, there’s a parent torching up in the darkness.

And those guys don’t get arrested. Oh, but not me, public enemy number one. On March 30, 2000, while I was reviewing the Cajun/Zydeco-themed Swamp Romp, I accepted an offer to make the music sound better and was about to go from “My Toot-Toot” to my cellmate. When the park police (“there are a lot of kids and families here”) emptied my pockets onto a table, I recognized a song being played from the stage a quarter mile away. “Excuse me, officer,” I said. “Could you please write ‘Hot Tamale Baby’ in my notebook?” If I was going down, by God, it would be as a professional.

As the cops ran my name for priors and warrants, I pictured that crackling police scanner on the desk in the Metro section of the newspaper. “C-O-R-C-O-R-A-N, Michael. Age 44.” He had to spell the last name two or three times because they always do, thinking the second “C-O-R” is repeating the first one for clarity. Then, after about a 30-minute wait, they cut me loose. Just like that. “On your way and don’t come back tomorrow.”

I understood, in that moment, how it feels to win a Super Bowl. Instead of “I’m going to Disneyland!” I was “Not going to jail!” But instead of thanking my lucky stars and going home, I went to a club and celebrated not hitting rock bottom.

Then reality hit the next morning. My bosses were going to find out. Someone in the audience who didn’t like an old Alanis Morrissette review or something, was going to dime me. What are the chances in a crowd of 5,000 that no one wants to see the rock critic fired? That’s 5,000 movie critics giving the new Adam Sandler movie a pass. If not the crowd, the Statesman cops reporter was going to blab. I was done at the Statesman. And maybe in journalism.

This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for me. Just a week earlier, my popular “Austin Inside/Out” column had been suspended and I was publicly flogged for material deemed not up to the paper’s standards of accuracy and tone. It had been building for awhile since Michael Dell’s people called the publisher about a little Jewish holiday joke, but last straw status goes to two items: 1) my account of a Texas Monthly photo shoot in which the art director, speaking of clothing, said “there are too many whites over here and too many colors over there.” Everybody laughed because she pointed to a section of mostly white people over here and then black people over there, and singer Malford Milligan joked “I haven’t been called colored in awhile.” It was all in fun, but there were charges of racial intent, the guy who wanted me fired would stop at nothing and my peeps caved in. That was bullshit. 2) But the second reason was all my fault. I fucked up by reporting that Matt’s El Rancho was towing cars during SXSW, when, actually, they had someone stationed at the entrance to turn festgoers away. My contention that Matt’s was towing out of jealousy of Maria’s Taco Xpress next door, which was attracting thousands a day to the music and tacos, made it potentially libelous, so I fell on the sword. But that wasn’t the end of it.

The Monday after all this went down, Austin talk radio all over the dial blasted the Statesman and talked about things that only myself and my superiors were privy to- mainly the Texas Monthly incident- and I was called on the carpet. Holy crap, was that editor fuming! I explained that my then-girlfriend, one of the most well-connected public relations persons in town, had simply told her curious friends what had happened and how can I control what my girlfriend says? I couldn’t even get her to go to Emo’s with me. “Well, you’d better get her under control or you might get fired!” the editor told me.

Six days later I was in handcuffs with a cop leading me through the crowd. As a pre-emptive strike, I went to my first-ever, long-overdue AA meeting the next day. I figured that on Monday, when I was called in again, I could say I’m currently a member of a 12-step program blah, blah, blah and maybe they might think treatment instead of termination. It was worth a shot.

That first meeting was uncomfortable, of course, because it meant trading what I loved- getting high- for what I hated- public speaking. I was terrified of being called on to share and so I used the same “not me not me not me” look as I do when a magician is looking for “volunteers.”

The guy leading the meeting introduced a theme: “the worst thing I ever went through never happened.” The worst thing. I ever went through. Never happened. I kinda thought about it a little, boiled it down to “stop worrying so much” and went back to watching the clock like the big hand was my kid playing soccer.

The next day I went back to work expecting it to be my last day. A friend called and said he’d heard I got arrested at the Swamp Romp. Great. It was just a matter of time until the word hit the glass offices. But that first day nothing happened.

Tuesday was also a day of dread, as I realized, the sleepless night before, that the editors needed time to figure out how and when to sack my sorry ass. Again, nothing. I went by the Metro desk to see who would avert their eyes, but it was business as usual. By Wednesday and Thursday I started wondering about those sadistic fucks in management. It seemed cruel to draw out the obvious. I kept going to meetings.

A week went by without mention of my RWI, reviewing while intoxicated, arrest. Then another. I was out of the woods. I stopped going to meetings. But I never forgot what I heard that first one.

The worst thing I ever went through never happened.

I ended up working at the Statesman another 11 years after the Swamp Romp incident. I drank and smoked heavily during that time, aside from a couple months here and there, when I sat with other Catholics in the basements of Protestant churches. So many times I gave it all up one day at a time. But then one day I’d be at the beer barn drive-through telling myself just this one time to blow off steam. Nobody needs to know. Then three years later, I’d be back at the meeting with the worst hangover of all time.

I quit drinking after going to rehab in November 2012. It’s holding this time like never before and some days I don’t miss it at all. Most days, actually.

The concept of embracing the higher power was easy because I grew up in a time when the Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Cream and the like were Top 40 artists. Whatever I was going through, there’d be a song on the radio that would tell me what to do. “Slip Slidin’ Away” by Paul Simon convinced me to quit a job that I was miserable in. “When a Man Loves a Woman” kept me in a trying relationship until it was really time to move on.

But it was in a dark room stained with cigarette smoke that a song that didn’t need music taught me a lesson I access every day. Stop punishing yourself needlessly. Don’t obsess over things you can’t control. Let the angels help.

My Swamp Romp review ran as planned, though the evening’s headliner was inexplicably not mentioned. And nobody cared. The highlight of the night to me was “Hot Tamale Baby,” written in my notebook in a different hand.

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Hunt Sales Memorial- from 2012

Posted by mcorcoran on November 1, 2018

With Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life,” Hunt Sales laid down the most famous drum intro in rock history, the rollicking jungle beat heard on TV commercials, in the movie “Trainspotting” and daily on Jim Rome’s sports radio show. But that perch in posterity will have to be reward enough, as Sales has never received a dime in royalties for the distinctive beat. “Lust For Life” was written by Iggy Pop and David Bowie for the 1977 album of the same name; drummer Sales was paid a work-for-hire fee for the sessions.

“At least ‘Trainspotting’ used the whole song,” said Sales, who has lived in Austin since 1993. “In most cases, they just use my drum beat or copy it.” Sales said the money he was paid should’ve covered only the album, not the music’s re-use in commercials and movies. But litigation is expensive and there has long been a gray area in copyright law about backup musicians receiving royalties. “At this point, I’ve moved on,” he said.

Hunt Sales 2018 Photo by George Hancock.

“Iggy thinks that everything happens because he’s Iggy,” said Sales, who met fellow Michigan native Pop when he and bassist brother Tony were recruited by Stooges guitarist James Williamson to play on the “Kill City” LP in 1975. The Sales brothers and guitarist Ricky Gardiner backed Iggy on a world tour in 1977. Later that year they all went into the Tansa Studios in Berlin, right next to the Wall, to begin work on the “Lust For Life” album. Bowie and Pop were co-producers.

“The band was so tight after ‘The Idiot’ tour,” Sales said. “I think we made the whole record in five days.” Among the better-known tunes on the LP is “The Passenger,” which has also been used in movies, Vera Wang commercials and as the lead-in instrumental music for “Anderson Cooper 360.” Again, no royalty cheese for Major Tom-Tom.

“Iggy is a great songwriter and has a lot of good ideas,” Sales said, “and David was one of the only guys to catch on to that at the time.” Iggy directed drummer Sales to come up with a “George of the Jungle”-type rhythm for “Lust.” Sales also incorporated a favorite beat from 11 years earlier — “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes — as well an intro he heard on Armed Forces Radio.

Sales threw all those elements together to create an intoxicating rhythm that underscores Iggy’s lyrics about drugs and debauchery. The inclusion of “Lust For Life” at the beginning of “Trainspotting” is routinely included in lists of best-ever uses of music in film.

On the other hand, the employment of the ironically titled ode to drug culture in a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line commercial was chosen in 2006 by NPR listeners as the most inappropriate use of music in an advertising spot.

Sales, whose new project Hunt Sales Memorial plays Thursday at the Continental Club, could talk about his past for a couple hours and still leave out some cool stories. The son of TV pioneer (and jazz fanatic) Soupy Sales, Hunt can recall eating his cornflakes on Sunday morning while his dad’s good friend Frank Sinatra was crashed out on the sofa. Before his pie-in-the-face routine became a national sensation, Soupy Sales had a nightly TV show in Detroit called “Soup’s On,” which hosted the biggest jazz performers in the country as they passed through Detroit.

Through his father, Hunt met his drum mentor Shelly Manne, an icon of the West Coast Jazz movement and the go-to studio drummer of the ’50s and ’60s. Manne gave Sales his first set of cymbals at age 7 and, along with another mentor Buddy Rich, gave the youngster words to drum by: “Don’t play the beat, BE the beat.”

When Hunt was 11, the Sales brothers’ band Tony and the Tigers was signed to Roulette Records by reputed mobster mogul Morris Levy (the model for Hesh in “The Sopranos”). By 15, Hunt was on his own, living in New York City and hanging out with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon. He played on his first hit single the next year, “We Gotta Get You a Woman” by Todd Rundgren.

Hunt Sales first became captivated by Austin in 1976 when he toured Texas with the short-lived Capitol Records power trio Paris, featuring Bob Welch (ex-Fleetwood Mac). “There was definitely a cool Texas music vibe,” he said. He found the scene much more supportive than the cutthroat world he grew up in. But it wasn’t until after Sales finished a three-year stint (’89-’92) as the drummer in David Bowie’s Tin Machine that Sales finally moved to Austin.

Aside from a year in Nashville in 2006, Sales has lived in South Austin for almost 20 years. His oldest daughter Cali, a talented visual artist, is finishing up at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. He also has a 4-year-old daughter, Sugar, with Heather, his wife of six years.

The 58-year-old said he doesn’t dwell on what he might be owed for past work. “The music I care about is the music I’m making now.” Hunt Sales Memorial includes former Ronnie Dawson guitarist Tjarko Jeen and bassist Bobby Perkins. “We’re going for a modern version of the Jazz Messengers,” said Sales, who also handles vocals. “Art Blakey’s always been one of my favorites.”

The band’s name is inspired by another drum hero: Buddy Miles. “I met him when he was a 15-year-old kid playing with Wilson Pickett, and, of course, I loved him with Hendrix in Band of Gypsies,” Sales said. “So I was excited when I heard he was living in Austin.”

When Sales went over to see Miles, the icon was in deteriorating health and had few visitors. He died of congestive heart failure in Austin in February 2008 at age 60. “They had a big Buddy Miles Memorial at Threadgill’s and it was packed,” said Sales. “There were these guys in leather pants and white tennis shoes onstage playing in homage to Buddy and I was thinking, ‘Where were these guys four months ago when Buddy was sick and lonely?’ I decided to call my band Hunt Sales Memorial so we’d always get a big crowd.”

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What’s Goin’ On At 12th and Chicon? OTIS and LOLA

Posted by mcorcoran on October 1, 2018

Otis Bell in white at the Hideaway in East Austin circa 1971.

Otis Bell sat on the bed, while Wizard and Lil’ Sam took up chairs in the big room of the house at 12th and Chicon that used to be the Aristocrat Inn. The memories flowed between these three former ‘60s and ‘70s running buddies, who have all recently returned to East Austin after a collective 72 years in prison.

“The Harlem Theater was right next door to here,” said Edward “Wizard” McMillon, 62. “That’s where we’d go see movies like King Kong and The Magnificent Seven.”

After the movies there were so many nightlife options on E. 12th, which everyone called “the Ends” since 12th and Chicon was the last stop on the streetcar. It was also hopping on E. 11th, nicknamed “the Cuts” and anchored by “Chitlin Circuit” hotspots the Victory Grill and Charlie’s Playhouse. After hours, which was midnight back then, the party moved to Ernie’s Chicken Shack on Webberville Road, which stayed open all night, with lots of gambling in the back room.  Otis and the fellas rattled off more club names: White Swan, I.L. Club, the Hideaway, Good Daddy’s, Sam’s Showcase, T.C.’s Lounge, the Yellow Jacket, Untouchables Lounge, Alabama Club, the Oak Tree, Brown Derby and Shorty’s Bar. Missed a few- I couldn’t write that fast.

Barton’s Tavern was at the Northeast corner of 12th and Chicon and next to that was Blue-Eyed Liquor Store, nicknamed so because the proprietor was a black man with blues eyes. Old men from prison can tell you more about the old neighborhood than the Austin History Center, that’s for sure.

“This neighborhood was all black,” Otis said. “Black as far as you could see, and as long as we kept it to our side of the freeway, we was cool.” Drugs, gambling and prostitution went on without much concern from law enforcement, as long as nobody got killed.

“There were only two things a black man could do in East Austin,” says Selma “Lil’ Sam” McLennan, a notorious ex-pimp. “You either joined the military or you hustled in the street. I ain’t never had a job.”

Otis Bell. Photo by Otis Ike.

McLennan, 70, tells you straight up he went to prison for 28 years this last time because he murdered the owner of Martin’s Drive Inn on Weberville Road in 1986. “I killed someone there in 1971, too,” he says. “That was the roughest place in town, man. Everybody had a piece.”

McMillon was a heroin addict who robbed and stole to feed his habit. He told us all about that in part one of this series last week. But Otis, who’s been out of prison the shortest time, doesn’t want to talk about his criminal record. He just got out after 27 years, man. Let him be free, at least in his mind, a little while before you start bringing up the negative.

We’ll give him that, but since I did pay $7.95 for a copy of court papers pertaining to his case, you can read them at the end of the post if you’re interested. Basically, Otis received a life sentence in 1988 for shooting his cousin, who died a week later. The incident was March 2 and just two months later, Otis Bell was shipped off- he’d say railroaded- to the penitentiary. In those court papers, which used Bell’s nickname “Trouble” without protest from a court-appointed lawyer, you’ll read about a man of the same age and name, but that’s not the Otis Bell you’ll find waiting tables at Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Kitchen on Rosewood Avenue. It’s not the Otis I’ve been over to see four or five times in the past month.

It started when I ran into Lola Stephens on E. 12th one night. “I want you to meet my husband Otis,” she said. “He just got out of prison.” I was there checking out the transformation of the corner that once was as close as Austin got to The Wire. And now it’s got Dozen Street, a piano bar like none other, and Full Circle Bar, devoted to hardcore skeeball players. There’s also the blues-themed pizza joint King Bee Lounge and the rock box Badlands, plus an art gallery and a hip food court going in. They’ve all got great patios and everyone sits outside smoking, where they can hear the music just fine. All these new businesses have kept a little bit of the grit, even the makeover knights of the Full Circle, because 12th and Chicon ain’t gonna just wash away like that.

White kids riding around on bicycles?! Otis Bell couldn’t believe that shit when he came back to 12th and Chicon in July. The hoodrats are still there, but they’re outnumbered by a younger generation, not intimidated by street people. East Austin has become the Brooklyn of Texas, the dangerous/cool ‘hood, with gentrification causing real estate values- and taxes- to soar. Many of the area’s settlers are being priced out, including those whose parents and grandparents were, basically, forced to live in East Austin, “The Negro District” of  a 1928 city plan. Austin is the only big city in America to lose black residents, because they’re moving to the more affordable suburbs. Wealth rules the city.

McLennan lives over on E. 18th Street with his sister, who has no intention of moving, he said. “There have been some white folks trying to get my sister to sell the house to them, but she won’t do it. She’ll make a lot of money, but where’s she gonna go? All she knows is the East Side.”

There’s a Cajun restaurant, the Big Easy, on E. 12th and as I was wondering if Sister Lola was involved, there she was. She lives next door to the Big Easy, so, yeah I stopped in to meet Otis that night. “Did you go to Anderson?” I asked, which is always the greatest ice breaker in old school East Austin. Yeah, Otis said, graduated in 1965. Drafted into the Army in ’66.

He went into a box and pulled out an ornate, yellow and black, Anderson High Yellow Jackets belt he made while locked up. “There ain’t shit to do in prison, so around 1990 I started working in the craft shop with the leather men,” he said. Michael Lewis and Michael Heidt, a black man and a white man, were Bell’s mentors, but his grandfather William Henry Bell made custom cowboy boots on Congress Avenue, so maybe it’s in his blood, too. He also started attending church regularly and helped build the Chapel of Hope in the Hughes Unit of Gatesville Prison, near Fort Hood, in 1998.

Occasionally, there would be a cellblock shakedown, where guards would toss the cells while the inmates stayed out in the yard for a few hours. “You had to grab what you could or they’d throw it away, so I went through this stack of newspapers I had been saving to read. And there was a story about Lola, about this woman who feeds the homeless and raises other people’s children,” he recalled. He read the article out in the yard and when he got back to his cell he started writing a letter. “Lady,” it started, “you got a big heart.” He said that God told him to write her and offer any help he could give. He could send her leather goods that he and his crew made, assembly-line style with Otis as the designer, and she could sell them and use the money for her mission.

“I asked Otis to send me a sample of the work and he made me a money bag,” Lola said. “Just holding that bag I felt something. There was a connection.” She sold the first batch of leather bags, boots and belts easily and sent Otis $600 in cash, figuring he was as down on his luck as anyone. He sent it back for her to use for food. Lola works six days a week at her restaurant and then on Sunday feeds the homeless and hungry out her back door.

The youngest of 16 children of Rosie Robinson, Lola Stephens grew up in Lake Charles, La. and cooked with her mom growing up. She was raised strictly Pentecostal, but after graduating from Marion High in 1980, she took off on a bus to Hollywood. She visited a sister in Austin enroute to stardom and ended up staying. “I used to party in this house when it was the Aristocrat Inn,” she said one night recently. “But these days everything I do is for the Lord.” Lola starts more sentences with “God told me to…” than she does “I …”

In 2007, Otis got a letter from the City of Austin about his uninhabited house at 1804 E. 12th St. The house was passed to Otis after his father Willie, who owned a Gulf Station on E. 12th, died, and he’d been paying property taxes from prison. In the ’90s, the house was rented to someone who, without Otis’ knowlege, ran a drug-dealing operation and there was a danger of having the house torn down in a federal anti-drug program. But brother Joe was able to save the building, currently valued at just under $300,000. By 2007, the house had been vacant for almost 10 years, but the neighborhood was using Otis’ back yard as a dump. The city was threatening big fines and inflated removal fees if he didn’t clean it up. “I wrote to Lola and gave her the number of a relative who could maybe take care of that, but he never called her back,” Otis said. “So Lola hired a couple homeless guys to help her, then jumped the fence because she didn’t have a key, and cleaned the whole thing up herself. Ninety bags of garbage! And she didn’t know me from Adam.”

Lola asked if she could visit Otis in prison and he said sure, but made something clear: “I’ve already got a wife. And a girlfriend.” Otis was married to a former prison guard from the women’s unit in Gatesville. Didn’t faze Lola, who never missed a Saturday visit for a year. And the two wrote letters regularly. In one, Otis wrote “Are you afraid to fall in love with me?” Lola dashed off “Hell, no! Already in love.” They were married by proxy in 2008. Standing in for Otis was Mr. Lee, the white man who helped Lola get Nubian Queen off the ground in 2004 when she didn’t have a dime.

“I was done with men, but I’m not gay,” she said. “I prayed to God and told him that I wanted to marry his son, and he sent me Otis.”

Stop by and say ‘Hi.’ Nubian Queen Lola makes the best crawfish etoufee you’ve ever had. But you’ve gotta be patient, and relax. Good things take time, then Otis will bring it on out.

Otis Bell vs. the State of Texas:

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Sometimes we use others as a source of pride. Lisa Pankratz is happy to help.

Posted by mcorcoran on September 24, 2018

I was married for a little while in the ‘90s. Future ex-wife was in the art business, but her previous boyfriend was MC 900-FT Jesus so she knew a little about electronica, jazz and hip hop lite. Didn’t know- or seem to care- anything about the roots and country music I covered for the Dallas Morning News. I kept taking her to shows I was reviewing and she sat there, bored, making lists about stuff to do the next day. Uncle Tupelo made No Impression. Billy Joe Shaver, John Anderson, Patty Loveless and many more of my favorites played great shows and the wife’s mind was at the furniture store.

One night we went to a rockabilly revival concert at the Hard Rock Café. I remember that it was February or March of 1993 because we were getting along. The headliner was regional ‘50s fave Johnny Carroll, and the backing band was a group from Austin called High Noon, who usually played as a drummerless trio like Elvis and Scotty and Bill. But this night, they had a pretty woman with that great silent movie hair.

“Who is THAT?!” the wife asked. She became obsessed with the elegant drummer, who bit her red lip while pounding out the boss beat.

You don’t forget the first time you see Lisa Pankratz on stage. She’s not showy, doesn’t do any look-at-me tricks, and yet you can’t take your eyes off her. Other drummers will tell you she’s always in the pocket. She looks so natural behind the drums, whether playing a country shuffle or a 4/4 rock beat. But at the same time she looks like she stepped out of a 1950’s glamour magazine. You watch her crack out the beat and after awhile you forget she’s a woman and wonder what planet she’s from.

Unless you’d had a few and worked up the courage to approach her after a show. “You play as good as a man,” the drunks tell her. She’s heard it so much after two and a half decades of dancehalls and rock clubs, it’s not really even an insult anymore.

When Pankratz first became known on the Austin scene in the early ’90s, almost all female drummers were in punk bands. Watching her at the Broken Spoke or the Continental with the Derailers or Chaparral or Cornell Hurd was an anomaly because she was keeping authentic honky tonk beats, not trying to play up her uniqueness. “Yes, you will get extra attention sometimes,” she says of being the opposite sex when it comes to drummers. “But the novelty won’t get you a second call for a job. If I’m there, it’s because I earned it.”

Near the end of the Hard Rock show, an unannounced guest named Ronnie Dawson came bounding onstage. “The Blonde Bomber” of “Action Packed” and “Rockin’ Bones” fame strapped on a guitar and just took it for a ride. In three songs he and High Noon destroyed the place. It was rockabilly reborn, not rehashed. A complete revelation.

A package of rockin’ positivity, Dawson was an important mentor who taught a sometimes studious Pankratz to “put some stank on it.” The drummer complied by rocking Carnegie Hall and the Conan O’Brien show with Dawson in 1995. She would be the rockabilly icon’s favorite drummer until he succumbed to cancer at age 64 in 2003.

Pankratz’ main gig these days is with Dave Alvin, the Los Angeles roots rock king. “Listen man, when it comes to musicians you have to play with night after night, looks don’t mean a thing,” says Alvin, whose new project with brother and fellow Blaster Phil Alvin is an album of Big Bill Broonzy covers. “You gotta be able to really play, and Lisa’s got the ability, no question. But even more importantly, she’s got the attitude. That’s ‘let’s go out there are have some fun’ thing she brings to every gig.”

Pankratz came into Alvin’s band at a sad time. His best friend and guitarist Chris Gaffney died of cancer in 2008 and Alvin knew he had to change up his Guilty Men backup. For a fast-approaching gig at the Strictly Hardly Bluegrass Festival, Alvin decided to fly in an all-female band, the Guilty Women. He had only one choice for drummer.

“We did that show without a rehearsal,” Alvin says of the gig in front of 20,000 people. “Lisa’s always watching what everyone else is doing, so I told her to follow my left hand on the top of the guitar.” That cued her onto the turns. Alvin says the show went perfectly.

After making an album with “Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women” and touring behind it, the band, now co-ed, is just called the Guilty Ones.

“I knew Lisa as a great country shuffle drummer when she played with the Derailers,” says Alvin, who produced the Derailers’ Jackpot in 1996. “Then when I saw her with Ronnie Dawson, she was this great rock n’ roll drummer. Since she’s been in the band, I’ve found out she can play reggae, funk, everything. When she’s onstage I feel like I can go anywhere and she’ll be right there with me.”

Pankratz’s background in Jamaican music comes from her father Mike, who played drums for I-Tex and other reggae bands for years. Still does. A teenaged Lisa often sat in at gigs at Liberty Lunch and other clubs. While she was at Rice University, earning a degree in English literature in 1990, Pankratz had a reggae show on the student radio station. “Reggae really isn’t a big part of my musical life right now, but playing percussion with my dad gave me a chance to really hear how parts fit together and where fills and accents could go within a groove,” she says.

Pankratz also got her love of Buddy Holly from her father, who used to play covers of “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On” with Roky Erickson in high school.

“My parents were pretty young when they had me and so they were still growing and exploring life and music,” Pankratz says. “They took me to a lot of shows at the Armadillo when I was a kid.”

The Dripping Springs native received a toy drum kit when she was four, but didn’t start taking drums seriously until she was about 12 and started messing around with her father’s kit. “I almost accidentally figured out how to play a fill between one drum and the next and something clicked,” she says. “It’s what I wanted to do, what I couldn’t wait to get home from school and do. It was always on my mind.”

Pankratz is an intense drummer. She takes her craft seriously. The Lisa I met that night in Dallas and got to know the next few years seemed intent on just taking it all in. That’s the way she is onstage, in tune with the other players. She was all business.

But she found love while on tour with singer Roger Wallace in Europe in 2000. Lisa and the band’s bass player Brad Fordham, who’d been her platonic friend for about 10 years, started hanging out romantically, begin living together in 2001 and got married a couple years later.

Although they often work independently, with Pankratz in a couple all-female bands with bassist Sarah Brown and steel/dobro player Cindy Cashdollar, and Fordham sometimes gigging with Jerry Jeff Walker and others, they often come together as a package. They’ve backed Hayes Carll on the road and will tour the U.S. and Europe with the Alvin Brothers this summer. “It’s great when it works out and we play in the same band,” she says, then laughs. “At least I know I’ll like my roommate.”

She will also love getting back with her 1968 Ludwig drum set with the silver sparkle finish, which sits in L.A. between Alvin tours. After one particularly long separation, Pankratz bent over and hugged her favorite kit when they were reunited. “They’re warm and full and I can tune them in various ways to suit the gig,” she says of her beloved Ludwigs. She also has a 1958 kit in Austin that she uses for the pick-up gigs- about three a week- that pay the bills.

Pankratz reminds us that the richness of the Austin music scene is not just in the bands or headliners, but it’s also in the backing musicians. Ask a singer-songwriter why they’re glad they moved to Austin and they’ll say it’s the caliber of musicians for hire.

The same goes for fans. Who of us lucky enough to attend Antone’s at 2915 Guadalupe Street in the ‘80s didn’t swell a bit when Sarah Brown played bass for all the greats from Buddy Guy and Junior Wells to Albert Collins and Albert King?

I saw so many blues legends in the years between ’84 and ’88, but probably my favorite moment at the world’s greatest blues club was the night Lone Justice, very hot at the time, stopped in to see Marcia Ball, who had the same manager, Carlyne Majer. They were all leaned up against the bar, these L.A. hotshots, and Marcia’s guitarist David Murray pulled out an epic, serpentine, blues/jazz solo that had one of the guys in LJ smack himself on the forehead. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me proud to live in Austin.

I’ve seen Carolyn Wonderland have the same effect on out-of-towners. Barton Springs is nice, but it’s nothing compared to the beauty of Texas Guitar Women with Wonderland, Cindy Cashdollar, Shelley King, Sarah Brown and Lisa Pankratz.

Pankratz used to put all thoughts of being in an all-female band way to the back of her mind. That seemed to just multiply the novelty factor. But these days she’s down with Girl Power.

For every dummy who asks to see her muscles there are ten women who come up to Pankratz and call her an inspiration. “They tell me that they want their daughters to come see me play. Just to show them that they can do it, too.”

“I used to call it ‘the elephant in the room,’ being a female drummer,” Pankratz says after a recent pick-up gig at the Broken Spoke. “But sometimes it’s pretty cool.”

Sometimes it’s pretty cool for everyone in the room.

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“Professor” Jackson: Diboll musician who mentored Harry James

Posted by mcorcoran on September 15, 2018

This oral history was originally published in the Diboll Buzzsaw newspaper in August 1947, when Will “Professor” Jackson was 77 years old.

by William James Jackson (1870- 1972)

My musical career began when I was six years of age.  A Dr. J. L. Tylon took me in his care with three other colored boys and taught us to sing, dance, and play all kinds of musical instruments from a Jews Harp to a Pipe Organ.  He ran a medicine show and we furnished the entertainment for his audiences. During the winter months the Doctor had us all in school, then in the summer on the road. He manufactured his own medicines such as Herbs of Joy Tonic; Friend of Foot Ease Corn Salve; Oil of Gladness, Liniment of Leisure, and many others.

The first time I was on the stage I broke the “E” string on my mandolin in the middle of my first number.  The audience laughed. I cried and trembled, and then the Doctor fixed the Mandolin and I went back on filled with confidence and was never scared again on a stage anywhere in the world.  One time the Doctor’s medicine stock was getting low so he told us we were all going to South America to gather herbs. We were all very happy until we told our families and then we wanted to back out because the prospects of so long a journey made them very sad.  But Doctor Tylon took us on to New Orleans where we boarded a ship for Rio de Janeiro in South America. Everywhere I looked there was nothing to be seen but water and it made my heart pump fast and tears come in my eyes. The first night out I didn’t sleep a wink and I had no appetite.  The second day out the other boys were up on the deck looking for fish or something in the water. I was looking for land. The Doctor came up and got us to dancing and singing and we drew a crowd of everybody on the ship which made us forget our worries and on we went toward South America happy again.

One morning we all were thrilled to see something in the distance that looked like land.  It was, and a sailor told us it was Brazil. When we reached the shore and landed, a great crowd of people met us there.  They were jabbering something but we couldn’t understand what it was. The Doctor said they were speaking Portuguese. He could understand it but it sounded like just a lot of nonsense to me.  After two weeks in Brazil we went to a place called Para in Brazil, also known as Belem. There we moved about from place to place and into the jungles to gather herbs for the Doctor’s medicine.  There also we went to the banks of the Amazon River and deeper into the jungles where monkeys were numerous as were Boa Constrictors and other snakes; beautiful birds-many very rare-and other animals and thousands of varieties of flowers and plants of every description.  All this was unusual sightseeing for four little colored boys who had never even dreamed of such a wonderful opportunity to see so much. But all this, plus the sight of trees they took sap from to make rubber; big coffee fields, and “Milk Trees” was nothing compared to what I was destined to see and encounter in Asia, Central America, Africa, and many other parts of the world, about which I will tell in next month’s issue of the Buzzsaw.  I will also tell you about teaching a young white boy to play trumpet who later became well known as a musician. His name was Harry James.

Part Two

In the last issue of the Buzzsaw I told you about my first trip to South America with three other little colored boys-the four of us furnishing entertainment for Dr. Tylon’s Medicine Show.  It was quite an experience and the first trip any of us had ever made. But not the last.

When we returned from this particular journey we landed in New Orleans and were quarantined for 31 days because of a yellow fever epidemic, then were released and went to Milwaukee and home.  It was the happiest day in the lives of the Four Wills as we were known-all our first names being the same by coincidence. Anyway, we started out again very soon and traveled all over the United States with the medicine show selling Dr. Tylon’s products.  Then he said he was out of herbs again and we set sail for Central America, stayed there for six weeks, then took another boat for South America. We were there this time nine months and left as a result of Mrs. Tylon becoming suddenly ill. She died about five weeks later in MIlwaukee and the Doctor grieved so much we thought he would go too.  One day he called the four of us together and said: “I’ve raised you four Wills up from little boys. Now, as a result of losing Mrs. Tylon, I am a wreck, but I want you to stay with me. We’re going to travel all over the world so that I can forget my sorrow and I want you all to stick together and come with me”. We left thirty days later for New York, then across the Atlantic to Liverpool England.  We went all over Europe-France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the Balkans, and Italy-but the Doctor was still unhappy and still had a traveling mind. So we went on down to Capetown in South Africa, then to Asia where we travelled from place to place for many months, and all of us thought the Doctor was searching for the Spring of Youth or the Tree of Life because it seemed that he would never stop.  But we finally made it back to the U.S.A. and then the Doctor died. The Four Wills got separated and were never again together.

I joined the Richard and Pringle Famous Georgia Minstrels with Billie Kersand and went to England for a six month stay.  I left this show soon afterwards and joined the Black Patties Troubadours and spent two seasons with them, later joining the Fourteen Black Garzas out of New York and returning to Europe for three months with them.  Then came association with several small minstrel shows and finally carnivals and circuses. I was with Lee Brothers Circus in 1925 when I met Mr. Everett James, the band master of the sideshow band. Mr. James had a little boy by the name of Harry who loved to come over and talk to me and listen to the music.  He especially liked to hear me play the trumpet, so I soon began teaching him how to play it. After his father found out he had been spending so much time with me trying to learn to play the trumpet, he bought one for him. (Everett James took over trumpet lessons when Harry was 10). Little Harry would come over and ask me if he could rehearse with us and I would always let him.  He loved his trump more than anything else in the world and caught on faster than anybody I had ever seen with it. Sometimes in rehearsal I would have a trumpet part and would let him play it. He tried so hard that sometimes his face would turn bright red, but he never gave up. In fact, the more difficult the part the harder he would try and he never quit a single time  until he had mastered it.

Harry James married WWII pinup girl Betty Grable in 1943

After Harry James got a little older his father would let him out at night to go with us when we played for dances. He would always be there if he could, no matter where we went, and we let him play the trumpet all he wanted to because he was trying to get experience playing orchestra music. After five years with this show, Mr. Everett James, Harry, and I left and joined the Christy Brothers Circus where Mr. Everett was the bandmaster of the big show, and, like in the others, I was bandmaster of the sideshow.  In this show Harry played second trumpet in his father’s band and was very proud of his job. By this time he was getting to be really good on the trumpet-and better and better as the days went by because he practiced constantly and talked to me about improving his technique all the time. He also thanked me often for teaching him music and getting him started of on the right foot. He was a kind man-both he and his father-and did many favors for me that I appreciated. They left Christy Brothers and I never saw Harry again, though I did meet his father in Beaumont while I was still with Christy Brothers in 1933.  I wrote him for some music which I needed for my band and he came from Houston to Beaumont and brought music for the entire circus program and gave it to me free of charge. Harry James by this time had established quite a name for himself and his own orchestra. I know he didn’t forget me because I had several letters from him in which he told me he hoped to see me again some day and in which he again thanked me for my music teachings. I am naturally proud to have been instrumental in the development of so fine a musician. The fact that he became one of the great trumpeters was no surprise to me-he loved to play the trumpet so much as a child, and throughout his young manhood, that he couldn’t have been anything but the best.  And incidentally, I can still recognize his playing after listening to only a few notes even when I don’t know it is Harry James. I can still distinguish the technique-and I feel good inside when I hear it. Because I helped put it there.

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