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‘All Over the Map’ Dedication: Stephen Bruton

Posted by mcorcoran on May 9, 2017

Stephen Bruton, T Bone Burnett and Flex Fleming, Fort Worth circa 1964.

One Saturday, every Saturday, in Fort Worth, 1960: A pair of 12-year-olds in the T.H. Conn music store messing around with the various stringed instruments hanging from the walls. The shorter of the kids always went back to his favorite guitar, a beat-up Epiphone Texan acoustic, which had the sweetest tone he’d ever heard. Finally, he brought it over to owner Woods Moore, and they talked for a while, with Moore scratching his chin before agreeing to a deal. “Stephen got that guitar for about half of what it was worth,” T Bone Burnett recalled in 2009 of his smooth-talking friend, musician Stephen Bruton. “He took it home on the city bus in a brown paper wrapper.”

Five decades later, the lifelong friends earned critical raves for their original film score to Crazy Heart, which got Jeff Bridges his Oscar as a washed-up country singer with one good song left in him. “This film has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Burnett, who was one of the movie’s producers in addition to sharing music supervisor credit with Bruton. “When we won the L.A. Film Critics award, it was so sad for Stephen to not be there. This was really his film. I turned the music over to him.” Austin music mentor Bruton died at 60 in May 2009 at Burnett’s home in Los Angeles after a 2 1/2-year battle with throat cancer. Burnett and director Scott Cooper screened Crazy Heart for Bruton about two weeks before he died.

“We just set out to do something really good, and Stephen knew we had done that,” said Burnett, whose wife Callie Khouri based the Nashville TV series character Deacon Clayborn on Bruton. A recovering alcoholic, Bruton made some really good records under his own name, but thrived mostly in the shadows. He had looks and ambition, but his talents were as guitar player, songwriter, producer.

Stephen Bruton photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

After leaving Cowtown for good in the early ’70s, Burnett and Bruton took separate career paths, with Bruton plying the guitarist trade with Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt, among other notables. Burnett made his name as a producer with the first Los Lobos record, Elvis Costello’s King of America, Gillian Welch’s Revival and other fantastic records, but he really shot into the stratosphere as a producer with the multiplatinum touch on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000 and then seven years later topped it with Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

As a guitarist/songwriter for hire, Bruton was sometimes frustrated that his oldest friend, now a music industry mogul, wouldn’t throw much work his way. But T Bone said he was just waiting for the perfect project. “When Crazy Heart was a go, Stephen was the first person I called,” he said in 2009. I visited with Bruton while he was undergoing treatment for cancer in 2007. He was going to beat it, no two ways about it. He was a South Austin Superman, able to resuscitate an ailing club called the Saxon Pub, not to mention the careers of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alejandro Escovedo, and the livers of hundreds he helped get sober. In his home studio, Bruton had a picture on a music stand of him playing guitar with Brownsville native Kris Kristofferson for the first time, in 1971 at the Lion’s Share in San Rafael, California. Bruton was 20 and Kristofferson was on a Jimmy Webb-like songwriting tear that included “For the Good Times,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me and Bobby McGee” in quick succession.

The two had met in Fort Worth a couple years earlier and when a spot opened in his band, Kristofferson asked Bruton if he was interested in playing the guitar. “Man, that’s all I’m interested in.” Stephen ended up playing with Kris for 17 years. Playing with Raitt was his main gig in the early ‘90s, but then Bruton came off the road to write songs, produce records (After Awhile by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Gravity by Alejandro Escovedo) and play his own gigs. At age 40, he became a first-time frontman. And the star of meetings in the basements of Protestant churches. The night he died, I was on the phone with Kristofferson to write the obit. He talked about proudly watching the hotshot guitar-playing kid become a man. “When my son was going through some hard times, Stephen was there to help him get sober,” said Kristofferson, on the verge of breaking down.

It was good karma for what Kris had done for an insecure songwriter decades earlier. “Kris was always so encouraging,” said Bruton in 2007. His confidence grew when he co-wrote the title track of Kristofferson’s 1972 album Border Lord, but Bruton’s greatest writing thrill when Raitt and Willie Nelson sang a duet of “Getting Over You” on Willie’s terrific 1993 LP Across the Borderline. Between T Bone and Kristofferson was Delbert McClinton, who was Bruton’s running buddy in the ’60s, when a teenaged Stephen and his older brother Sumter III were guitarists in the house band of a Fort Worth juke joint called the Bluebird. Their father, a jazz drummer, owned the hippest record store in Fort Worth, and the Bruton brothers soaked up all that rhythm and blues. In McClinton, who would later teach John Lennon how to play blues harmonica, Bruton found a kindred musical spirit. They grooved to Texas music, that lowdown blues/funk/country sound, where the juke joint met the honky tonk. Bruton would come home from a Kristofferson tour of concert halls, and then just as happily play dives with Delbert. Through his association with Kristofferson, who always kept his band with him when he was shooting movies, Bruton beefed up an acting resume. He loved being in movies so much that when he was late for guitarist Jon Dee Graham’s wedding in 1998, someone joked, “turn on a movie camera and he’ll be here in five minutes.” Though he had a bigger role in the 2004 remake of The Alamo, Bruton’s most memorable movie scene was in Songwriter, when Bruton, shivering in his skivvies, has a beer bottle shot off his head by Rip Torn, as punishment for fooling around with the Torn character’s wife.

Bruton and Jeff Bridges were inseparable on the set of Crazy Heart.

Bruton knew the road life, both sides, as well as anybody, and he used pieces of that in helping compile the character of Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake. It was his idea, for instance, to have Blake empty out a urine-filled water bottle after a long drive. But Bruton’s chief contribution was crafting such songs as “I Don’t Know,” “Somebody Else” and “Fallin’ & Flyin’” that would fit Blake’s career.

Before a song was written, Burnett and Bruton listened to the records Blake would’ve grown up on- from bluegrass to Haggard to Dylan- to get inside his musical evolution. The listening sessions brought the pair back to Record Town, which father Sumter Bruton Jr. opened near the Texas Christian University campus in 1957 and is still there (as of 2017). “Back then you couldn’t order records unless you had a record store,” Burnett said. “So Stephen could get, like, old blues and bluegrass records from the Library of Congress that nobody else could get.” The teens would thumb through catalogs and then wait for records by Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf to arrive. At night, the underage pair and McClinton would dive into the musical melting pot that was Fort Worth, hiding under pool tables to catch black rockabilly great Ray Sharpe and slipping in some Jacksboro Highway roadhouse to hear Ernest Tubb.

“From my point of view, Stephen embodied the soul of Texas music,” Burnett said. “He went deep into what made it unique. I learned so much from him.” Asked what was it about Fort Worth that made it special, Burnett recalled a scene from The Last Picture Show, when the main characters are sitting out by a desolate stock pond. “The ground is gray and the water’s gray and the trees are gray, and the Ben Johnson character says, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’” Burnett said. “(Fort Worth) didn’t seem like much to most people, but it was a magical place to us.”

Crazy Heart ends with an a capella version of “Live Forever,” the Billy Joe Shaver song, sung by Robert Duvall, then the credits end with a dedication to the memory of Stephen Bruton. He passed six months before the movie opened.

On the night of May 9, 2009, Bruton told his loved ones keeping a vigil at his bedside that he was going to sleep. He never woke up. Leaning up against his bed was that old beat-up Epiphone Texan, the guitar he bought in Fort Worth in 1960. It’s the guitar he played in the score of Crazy Heart. They made it almost 50 years together.

Let’s also dedicate this book to Turner Stephen Bruton, who tapped into the soul of Texas music whenever he was onstage, in the studio or just alone at home, writing a song he couldn’t wait to play for someone.

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RIP Roscoe: Death of a True Believer

Posted by mcorcoran on April 21, 2017

It’s fashionable to bitch about newcomers in Austin, even though we all came from somewhere else. But some transplants are more like reinforcements, letting us know through their unbridled enthusiasm that we live in a special place.

Ross Shoemaker, who everyone here called Roscoe, came down with the great Oklahoma migration of the ‘80s. At first he was known as “the guy who recorded The Shit Hits the Fans,” the legendarily awful/perfect, drunken Replacements set at the Bowery, where he worked in Oklahoma City. God, how Roscoe loved the ‘Mats! But after you ran into him a few times and hung out at a couple 3 a.m. living room parties, you knew him as the guy who loved ALL his music deeply and sincerely. He was the pure fan, not a snob. I would tell him the Replacements were way overrated and he would laugh and rattle off 26 song titles that told me it didn’t matter what I thought.

Roscoe, who got jobs at Waterloo Records and Liberty Lunch so he could be around music fulltime, died last night in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He’d moved back to his home state at least 20 years ago. Got married, had a daughter, stayed in touch. At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, Ross was driving his Ford Focus when a Cadillac Escalade crossed into his lane and hit him head on. Cause of the accident is being investigated.

The word spread through Facebook Thursday morning like a Roscoe whoop at a True Believers show. The first things folks who knew him mentioned was that he was a great friend of music and a devoted father to teenaged daughter Sadie. To me he represented Austin in the ‘80s, when you toyed with excesses daily because that party was too good to end. All the bands we were getting tired of- Doctors’ Mob, Wild Seeds, True Believers, Poison 13, etc.- almost became new again in Roscoe’s pure and devout worship. “His love of music was contagious,” Max Crawford of Poi Dog Pondering posted on Facebook. Words that should be engraved somewhere meaningful.

Following Ross on Facebook was a human roller coaster ride. His bad days were painful, especially after he lost his job a couple years ago, but then he’d see a great band or run into an old friend and it would be the Roscoe of old. “Awesome” was his favorite word and it meant something when he said it.

I enjoyed a perfect day with Roscoe in June 2014 when I was sent to Tulsa for a story about the lawyer who represented the wife in a divorce that was settled for $1 billion. I couldn’t wait for the interview to be over because I was meeting Ross for lunch at Goldie’s, a hamburger joint recommended by former Tulsa musician Ron Flynt. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly about the highs and lows of being a single parent. We both married dumb, but conceived wisely. Roscoe’s ex was a newlywed or about to be, so she was always calling him to modify the custody situation, he said. “I always say ‘sure,’” Roscoe told me. “I’ll take every minute I can get with my daughter.” We had a lot in common, but not all of it good. I think Roscoe was 9 months sober at the time and went to meetings.

The best part of the day was when Roscoe proudly showed me around Tulsa, with its rich musical history. We went inside the famous Cain’s Ballroom, which would probably be a CVS right now if it was located in Austin, then drove to Leon Russell’s old church studio where so much great Leon, Tom Petty, Freddie King and J.J. Cale stuff was recorded. He took me to the Woody Guthrie Museum, which is worth a long drive in itself, then showed me Guthrie Green, a fantastic free live music venue bankrolled by a billionaire music lover. He showed me the small club where Alejandro Escovedo had played just a few days earlier and where Roscoe got to catch up with his old friend. He moved away, but never really left. Last stop was the intersection of Greenwood, Archer and Pine Streets, from where Tulsa’s GAP Band got their name. It was a great day to talk about the music we love, where some of it was made.

About two weeks ago, Roscoe proudly posted the list of Rolling Stone magazine’s “50 Greatest Live Records of All Time,” which ranked The Shit at No. 50. M’man produced one of the 50 greatest live records of all time! Then gave the tape to the band because that’s the kind of fan, the kind of man, he was.

If you can live a life like Ross Shoemaker did, so full of love and enthusiasm, you will have a great one. It will be a real life of ups and downs, deep sorrows and bursts of euphoria. A life that touches many.

“Alex Chilton” is a song about being a fan. I’m playing it for Roscoe now and it’s never sounded sadder. This is gonna take some time.

 

Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

Mirth, Sins & Fire: 40 years of throwing my life away

Posted by mcorcoran on April 13, 2017

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer my senior year of high school. She died at the end of freshman year of college and I never really went back, for a variety of reasons. But mainly I was using my license to go a little crazy.

In December 1974, an Islands sensation named Aerosmith- who were totally unknown on the Mainland except in Boston- opened for the Guess Who at the HIC Arena. The sold-out venue of 7,500 had about 1,000 left when Guess Who were done. Half the crowd left immediately after Aerosmith. Never seen an opening act blow a headliner off the stage like that, so I decided to write a review and send it in to Sunbums, Honolulu’s counterculture rag.

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Within days I got a nice letter from the new Sunbums editor Kathryn Hellenbrand, saying that they already had the Aerosmith review covered, but she liked the other piece I had sent in as a sample of my non-musical writing. It was a first-person account of getting my ear lobe needled called “Preparing For Piercehood.” She set up a meeting, and the rest, as they say…

I don’t know what I would’ve done in 1975 without Sunbums. My dad remarried horribly and I was set out into the world. Kathy became my mentor and 525 Cummins Street, in the hideous Kaka’ako neighborhood of Honolulu, became my new home. I was sleeping in the back room of my job at the Ford Island Gym in Pearl Harbor, but if I wasn’t there, I was at Sunbums or reviewing concerts or down on Hotel Street, where the transvestite prostitutes were better looking than the girls.

Better known today as “Shanghai Kate,” Hellenbrand was 31 at the time, living with the tattoo artist Mike Malone, and they had bought Sailor Jerry’s famous tattoo shop at 1033 Smith Street. Having come from New York City, Kate and Mike were streetwise as hell, something I decidedly was not. They took in strays and I was ready to follow anyone. Boy, did I hit the lowlife highlife lottery!

When I arrived on the masthead of Sunbums in January 1975, it was pretty full of rock critics. Or folks pretending to be, so I mainly wrote “humor” pieces at first, but I exhibited a real flair for concert reviews, so after a few months I was the lead guy.

Now, while my mother was alive I had never smoked a joint, never gotten drunk, never shoplifted, never did anything illegal. I even waited until my 18th birthday to go to the porno shops, when there was nobody checking IDs.

But I was on my own at 19, basically orphaned, so I made up for lost time. The first time I got stoned was driving over the Pali Highway with Kate and her prostitute friend/ Sunbums associate editor, going to see Blazing Saddles. The three of us were howling uncontrollably to the point that the usher came to ask us to please keep it down.

I had never purchased drugs until the day of the Earth, Wind & Fire concert I was to review at the Waikiki Shell in June 1975- 40 years ago this week! I split a gram of coke with Kate and she pulled over at McDonald’s and I ran in for some coffee stirrers, which looked like plastic coke spoons back then. Just having drugs in my pocket made me high.

When I got to the Shell that night and went to pick up my ticket, it came with a backstage pass. Since Sunbums was owned by mid-level promoter JFL Concerts, I knew that backstage passes had varying levels of access. One of my jobs at JFL shows, even the ones I reviewed, was as gofer for the VIP area, so I saw how most of the folks sporting those passes couldn’t get in there, with the free booze and nice food spreads. So when I slapped on the sticker at EW&F I didn’t expect much. But I thought I would just keep walking backstage until someone said “that’s far enough,” and to my astonishment I was waved through all the way to the VIP. Now I could do that coke! So I went into the men’s room and found a stall and started dipping in that McDonald’s spoon and, basically, blowing white powder all over the bathroom floor. After a few minutes there was this big rush of people into the bathroom and I could hear the door lock behind them. They were black guys yelling at each other about getting high before the show. They were Earth, Wind & Fire!

Moffatcolumn

They settled their deal in about 10 minutes and after they left, I remember sitting there on the commode with my clothes on thinking “this is the life I want to be part of.” And I’ve never looked back.

Been some lean years. Been an intervention or two. Been times when I wished I’d had a job pounding nails or digging ditches- anything but this writing that won’t come. But I have to say it’s been a great life overall. I’m good at it and it pays the bills.

Anyway, all this came up again like bad Chinese, when I read all those posts from Bonnaroo, where by most accounts Earth, Wind & Fire were the hits of day one. (They’re coming to Austin July 23 on a double bill with Chicago). I found a recent nostalgia column written by Hawaii’s legendary promoter Tom Moffatt (unfortunately named “Uncle Tom’s Gabbin’”) that quoted from my June 1975 Earth Wind & Fire review and there seemed to be some juice in the 40th anniversary. Forty years of throwing my life away, the best way I know how.

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Austin’s ‘Street of Dreams’: From Pecan Street to Dirty Sixth

Posted by mcorcoran on April 10, 2017

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“A big rat came out of one of the old buildings and scampered into an alley. A discarded newspaper fluttered against a parking meter in the early morning breeze. Keys grated in locks and doors opened and the smell of hot coffee came into The Street.
East Sixth Street was open for business.”

– Dan Grover, Austin American Statesman, July 1953

Austin’s most famous street has earned the nickname “Dirty Sixth” over the past few years, with a boozy, unruly Bourbon Street-like atmosphere and a YouTube driven reputation for violence. You almost forget the history of the street whose majority of buildings, even those housing tattoo parlors, frat bars and gawdy gift shops, were erected in the late 1800s.

The mob that mills between the barricades on weekends tripled during South by Southwest and became menacing, with street brawls and cops in riot formation. “SXSW has lost Sixth Street” was my shortest tweet of the week, as I gave up trying to see a band that was just two blocks away. The few, miserable-looking badge-wearing registrants I saw moved through the roving street gangs and drunken frats like they were navigating chest-high swampwater. This was not in the brochure!

The proximity of clubs on Sixth, many of which change to live music venues for a week to catch a whiff of the windfall, was a key to the appeal of SXSW in the early years. But during this past fest, two forays into the fray reminded me of that line from Apocalypse Now: “Don’t get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right. Why would I ever leave South Austin during the third week of March?

This Saturday will be another crazy time on Sixth, as the last night of the Texas Relays has become the traditional Black Party Night in Austin. Not only will there be the Urban Music Festival at Butler Park (starring Kool and the Gang), but Sixth will be packed from Brazos to Red River Streets with tens of thousands of African-American teenagers and young adults trying to hook up.

Stubb’s tried to capitalize on the crowd one year and held a big hip-hop show with national acts. But they sold fewer than 60 tickets to the 2,000-capacity venue. Two blocks was too far from the real action, called “parking lot pimpin’,” with the closed-off street creating a free venue.

Some Sixth Street merchants and club owners made news a few years ago when they closed the night of Black Saturday, some nailing plywood over their windows. Their venues didn’t cater to the crowd and none of their usual customers could get through the mob, they argued, but the moves smacked of racism.

History reminds us that Sixth Street, which turns 175 years old in May, was built on true diversity. While the rest of Austin abided by rules of Jim Crow segregation, East Sixth was always open to every race. Black businesses were next to white, Lebanese, Chinese and Hispanic storefronts. White businesses on Sixth, like Hyman Samuelson’s Crown Tailors at 408 E. Sixth, advertised on black radio shows, such as Lavada Durst’s “Dr. Hepcat” on KVET. “Now if you want to be draped in shape and hep on down, get your frantic fronts at Crown,” Durst would say.

Crown Tailors at 408 E. Sixth St. circa 1950. Left is master tailor Eli Gonzales. Right is owner Hyman Samuelson. (Courtesy Austin History Center).

Crown Tailors at 408 E. Sixth St. circa 1950. Left is master tailor Eli Gonzales. Right is owner Hyman Samuelson. (Courtesy Austin History Center).

Sixth Street is the closest Austin’s ever gotten to 14th St. in Manhattan. And yet today it’s become synonymous with hooligans and loud, stupid noise.

Sixth Street is at a crossroads, with most business owners and patrons pining for the more manageable past. Downtown streetscaping plans have been submitted to wash that “Dirty” right offa the street, making Sixth an “18 hours a day” family-friendly destination. Vote yes on the proposition, known as the Good Luck With That bond.

But when you consider the history of Sixth Street, it’s an avenue well worth saving. Sixth Street is actually the coolest thing about Austin.

I’ve been learning about Sixth in the 2010 book Images of America, Sixth Street, by Allen Childs, an Austin doctor who worked as a boy at his family’s shoe store on E. Sixth St. A lot of things I didn’t know, like Austin’s first HEB, then called H.E. Butts was at 600 E. Sixth Street. The Academy retail chain started as a military surplus shop on Sixth. Twin Liquors grew out of Jabour’s. And Austin’s first J.C. Penney’s was in the building at 204 E. Sixth St. where Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson once ran a boardinghouse on the second floor, while her husband made caskets on the ground floor.

E. Sixth has the greatest concentration of limestone Victorian commercial buildings west of the Mississippi. But even more impressive is the street’s human legacy. In a 1978 article in the Austin Sun about a fight between preservationists and developers over the 100 block, home then of Antone’s blues club and O.K. Records, Sixth Street was described as “breathing with a truly diverse urban life all its own.” But developers won that battle.

This 1872 Victorian building was erected by Austin's first black business owner Edward Carrington, who had a grocery store on the ground floor and lived upstairs.

This 1872 Victorian building was erected by Austin’s first black business owner Edward Carrington, who had a grocery store on the ground floor and lived upstairs.

Why Sixth Street and not Fifth or Seventh? Sixth, originally called Pecan Street, became Austin’s east-west Main Street because it was the most level path from the east. And it was the closest street to the Colorado River that didn’t flood when the water would jump the banks in the years before a dam was built in the 1890’s. It was safe to build on well-traveled Sixth Street and so settlers and immigrants built dry goods stores and saloons and sporting houses and hotels. When the Houston and Texas Central Railroad came to Austin in 1871, the town’s population doubled to 10,000 in a year. Pecan Street was dubbed “The Street of Dreams.”

Austin’s red light district of gambling dens and houses of prostitution was called Guy Town and located between Lavaca and Colorado Streets south of Fifth until Mayor A.P. Wooldridge cleaned it up in 1913. But most legitimate business happened on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street.

Congress was segregated, so blacks couldn’t go to the Paramount Theatre. But they could watch movies at the Lyric Theater at 419 E. Sixth St., which was opened by prominent African-American dentist Everett Givens in the 1920s. Blacks were also welcome at the Ritz Theater, which opened in 1929, though they had to sit in the balcony. Austin’s first black business owner Ed Carrington bought an empty lot at 518 E. Sixth (Pecan) St. in 1872 and built a grocery store. Brother Albert opened a blacksmith shop behind the store. You don’t even notice that building at Sixth and Red River on weekends because there’s so much barking human traffic.

The 700 block of E. Sixth became mostly Hispanic at the turn of the 20th century, with Garza’s Meat Market and Austin’s first Tex-Mex restaurant, El Original, across the street from where Easy Tiger is now.

Sixth Street had various Chinese laundries in its early years and a Chinese Restaurant, Joe Lung’s, which opened in 1916 at the current location of Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside eatery. Lung had been recruited, along with thousands of other Chinese natives, from his home near Canton to help build the U.S. railroads and decided to stay.

Sixth Street looking east in 1875. The railroad brought prosperity to the street four years earlier.

Sixth Street looking east in 1875. The railroad brought prosperity to the street four years earlier.

Austin and Sixth Street were born the same day. Mirabeau B. Lamar, who succeeded Sam Houston as president of the Republic of Texas, discovered Waterloo, as Austin was originally called, while camping near the mouth of Shoal Creek while on a buffalo hunt. The town was home to two families at the time. Lamar suggested the location to the commission created to select a permanent site for the capital of Texas and they agreed, renaming Waterloo, Austin in April 1839. Lamar’s agent, Judge Edwin Waller, arrived the next month to lay out the town. In that original 15-block square, he named the north-south streets after Texas rivers and all the east-west streets after indigenous trees.

Sixth Street was Pecan Street until 1884, when the city had overgrown available tree names and decided to go numerical. Two years later, Sixth Street had its crown jewel when cattle baron, Col. Jessie Driskill built Austin’s first grand hotel at the corner of Sixth and Brazos. (Col. Driskill would lose his namesake hotel in a card game about 10 years later.)

Austin’s first financial center, the Littlefield Building, opened at the northeast corner of Sixth and Congress in 1911. For the first half of the 20th century, Sixth Street was bustling. As evidenced by the 1953 Statesman article which remarked that one could buy a reefer

Stevie Ray Vaughan standing in front of OK Records, next to the original Antone's on Sixth.

Stevie Ray Vaughan standing in front of OK Records, next to the original Antone’s on Sixth.

on any corner, Sixth Street started to fall on hard times after WWII, when Austin’s first shopping centers and suburban flight drew away customers. When I-35 was built in 1959, erasing the prosperous East Avenue melting pot, it created a barrier from East Austin.

The almighty Driskill closed in 1969 and was saved from demolition only through a campaign that raised $2 million. The next year the Ritz became a porno movie house. “The Street of Dreams” had become Skid Row.

But various Austinites wouldn’t give up on what was once Austin’s most vibrant thoroughfare. Architect David Graeber and wife Jean paid $13,000 for a condemned building at 410 E. Sixth St. in 1968 and turned it into an Architectural Digest-worthy home, with an indoor swimming pool.

Four years later, Ralph McElroy and Randy Baird opened the Old Pecan Street Café, Austin’s continental cuisine debut, in the former Zegub’s shoe repair store at 314 E. Sixth. It became such a sensation that they expanded next door to the former Big State used furniture location.

In 1974, Jim Franklin turned the abandoned Ritz Theater into a music venue. Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton kept the Ritz going, then gave Sixth an entertainment anchor with Esther’s Follies, at the same corner of Red River Street where Skinny Pryor once ran the Spanish-language moviehouse, the Cactus Theater.

History should be important to everyone, not just those born here, but the couple in a U-Haul asking directions to Oltorf. So much of our foundation as a city, as a people, is built on six blocks from Congress Avenue east to Waller Creek. Six blocks “with just enough danger to make it interesting,” as the Sun reported in ’78. Six blocks that have represented all of Austin for 175 years.

A little bit of danger and a whole lot of history makes Sixth Street worth revitalizing, no matter what the cost or inconvenience.

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Pulling Out All the Stops: Mike Flanigin’s B3 Shot

Posted by mcorcoran on April 8, 2017

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin was a guitar player, a real good one. In 1992, the Denton native toured the country with the Red Devils, the L.A.-based blues band whose debut King King was produced by Rick Rubin. After the Devils broke up in ’94, he moved to Austin because this is where guitar players go to chase work and tail and, maybe in the process, get a real education.

And then one night at Antone’s, in the corner of his eye, he saw the Hammond B3. Flanigin was playing an organ song- Big John Patton’s “Let ‘Em Roll”- on a steel guitar and he asked himself why wasn’t he playing it on that B3? Which was all it took. The first time Flanigin pressed his fingers down on the B3, he was no longer a guitar player. “Even when I didn’t know how to play, I knew this was the instrument I was meant for,” he said from the 1960’s house he rents in Rollingwood. “The B3 required all my attention, so I didn’t have time for the guitar anymore.” You don’t dabble with that four-legged cabinet that holds an empire of sound- it takes over your life.

Flanigin’s debut solo LP The Drifter, which comes out August 21 with special guests Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons, Kat Edmonson, Jimmie Vaughan, Rev. Gean West and Alejandro Escovedo, is the culmination of two decades of learning how to lock it down on the B3. But it also tells the story of his life in lyrics that this son of an Air Force pilot has been accumulating through his travels in the wild blues yonder. The title track of The Drifter is a Gatemouth Brown cover sang by Gibbons, but the other nine songs are Flanigin originals.

When he was still quite green, with his only organ experience in Doyle Bramhall Sr.’s band for a few months, Flanigin opened for B3 kingpin Jimmy Smith at the Mercury. Considering that Smith had recorded nearly 40 classic soul-jazz records for the Blue Note and Verve labels beginning in 1956, this would be like opening for Richard Pryor with knock-knock jokes. But Flanigin, then 32, got the gig because the club needed to provide a B3 and Flanigin had one. Luckily, this was the ground-floor version of the Mercury, not the one upstairs that’s now called the Parish, because hauling a 425-lb B3 and a Leslie speaker almost as heavy up a flight of stairs has caused many a roadie to consider another line of work.

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Mike Flanigin in Marfa. Photo by Ashley McCue.

“I hoped and prayed that Jimmy Smith would show up right before he went on and miss my set,” said Flanigin, feeling insecure about his pairing with the absolute genius of grit n’ soul. “At one point I looked over and there he was. JIMMY SMITH WAS WATCHING ME PLAY THE ORGAN! I just froze up, man. I stopped playing,” Flanigin was able to compose himself after a long minute and finished the set.

The B3 actually belonged to Mike Judge, who Flanigin knew from Dallas, when the Silicon Valley creator played bass for Anson Funderburgh. Since Hammond stopped producing B3s in 1975, the organ had to be over 20 years old, but it had never been played in public when Judge bought it. Smith, who’d been playing every beat-up piece of shit organ the clubs provided on his tour, loved the pristine instrument.

After the crowd had cleared out, Smith went back onstage and sat at the organ. Flanigin was up there to get the B3 ready to move, but Smith motioned for him to sit next to him on the bench. And for the next 30 minutes, the master showed the novice a few things on the B3.

“I had heard that Jimmy Smith could be difficult and moody- that was his reputation,” said Flanigin, “but he was nothing but nice to me that night.” Flanigin would, a few years later, see the temperamental side of Smith, when the icon refused to go back onstage at Antone’s after the club’s B3 temporarily died on him. But that night at the Mercury was a magical experience that will stay with Flanigin forever.

“It’s all the blues, man,” Smith told the kid after one adventurous run. “I was thinking ‘that’s not like any blues I’ve ever heard,’” Flanigin said with a chuckle. The legend’s impromptu tutorial showed Flanigin just how much he had to learn.

Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith

James Oscar Smith of Philadelphia started off as a piano player, but switched in 1953 when he heard Wild Bill Davis play the Hammond organ in Milt Larkin’s Houston-based big band. A key selling point for music school graduate Smith was that the organ never went out of tune. The first great electric organ player of note was piano legend Fats Waller, who grew up playing church organ at his father’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Waller taught Count Basie, who made the organ swing in the ‘30s. Chicago’s Les Strand earned the nickname “the Art Tatum of the organ” in the ‘40s and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, and there was also Smith’s Philadelphia neighbor Bill Doggett, who played a Hammond in Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five before forming his own band and having a smash with sax man Clifford Scott on “Honky Tonk (Pts. 1 and 2)” in 1956. But improvisational virtuoso Smith created much of the language of the Hammond B3 organ and anybody who’s played it after, even the rock and R&B players like Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Greg Rolie of Santana, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Booker T. Jones and Billy Preston, have got some Jimmy Smith in their heads. He is the Source, like T-Bone Walker on the electric blues guitar.

The B3 came out in 1954, just when Smith was starting out, and he pioneered the walking bass lines with his left hand and fleet-fingered single note runs on his right that emulated Charlie Parker. Smith’s hands clasped the relationship between the upper and lower keyboards, while his feet on the pedals colored the undertones like a mournful string bass. The 1956 LP, The Incredible Jimmy Smith, changed everything.

The Philadelphia area was as fertile for B3 players as Chicago was for electric blues guitarists, with Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Don Patterson and more coming from Philly and New Jersey. The Garden State is where Flanigin tracked down one of his favorite organists Big John Patton, in 1999. “As a blues guitarist coming up, almost all your heroes had passed away,” Flanigin said. “But when I really started getting into the B3, I found out that most of the greats who played on my favorite records were still alive.” He knew that if he was going to get better he had to apprentice with a total pro.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Flanigin relocated to Boston at the turn of the 21st century when his wife at the time had a job there. Checking the New York City papers one day he saw an upcoming gig by Big John Patton at the Jazz Standard, so he took the train from Boston for the show. “He was a pretty dark cat, not really very approachable,” said Flanigin, but when it turned out that the older woman he’d struck up a conversation with was Patton’s wife Thelma, she introduced Flanigin to his hero. “I said, ‘I’d sure like to come to your house some day and learn a few things,'” Flanigin recalled, “and he said ‘sure, how ’bout tomorrow?'” Flanigin took the bus to Montclair, NJ, expecting to knock on the door of a mansion. After all, Patton, guitarist Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon made some of the greatest jazz organ trio records ever at Blue Note in the ’60s. This man was musical royalty, so Flanigin was surprised to see the Pattons living in a one-bedroom apartment. Flanigin slept on the couch and every morning for a week, he woke up to Big John’s B3 sounds while Thelma cooked breakfast. “All John ever wanted to do was play,” said Flanigin. For ten hours every day, the jazz great would show the student some things, then watch him try them on his own. You can’t get training like that at music school.

Flanigin visited the Pattons regularly over the next two years, usually staying over for about a week at a time, before heading back to Boston. Some nights Patton took Flanigin to organ-centric jazz clubs in Harlem. “He’d say, ‘This is my man, Mike. He’s a great organ player,'” and I’d feel like a million bucks.”

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Patton died in 2002 at age 66 from complications due to diabetes. His Hammond B3, which he bought in 1963 at Macy’s, sits in Flanigin’s living room. “We tried to get the Smithsonian to take it, but they wouldn’t, so Thelma gave it to me,” said Flanigin, who paid about $1,000 to have it shipped to him in Austin.

On a recent afternoon, Flanigin sat at Big John’s “desk,” which is what a lot of players call their B3s, and showed its features. Besides two 61-note keyboards, the organ has 24 foot bars, a volume pedal and 38 drawbars, also called “stops,” which a player can customize for his own sound. The term “pulling out all the stops” refers to an organ player who’s opened all the drawbars for crescendos. “It looks really complicated,” Flanigin said of the setup before him, “but it’s like driving a car. There are all those knobs and pedals, but after a while it becomes second nature.”

****

The electric organ was invented by Laurens Hammond of Evanston, IL in 1934 and advertised as an economical alternative to the massive pipe organs of churches, theaters and baseball stadiums. In that way, it was the first synthesizer. A non-musician, Hammond held 110 patents and had earlier invented an electric clock, which gave him his fortune, plus 3D movies and a card-shuffling contraption. Needing a new money-maker after the Hammond Electric Bridge Table ran its course, selling 14,000 units in two years, Hammond based the organ on the synchronized motor he used for his clock. He realized that it could produce tones that would never go out of tune. That was the gimmick, but Hammond’s accountant, a church organist, persuaded Hammond to go further and invent a new kind of electric organ. The sound on a Hammond is produced by 91 tone wheels, which revolve around a magnetic coil. Much of the appeal was that the keyboard action could be fast, like a piano, but it had the ability to sustain notes.

The B3's AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

The B3’s AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

In 1935, the first year of production, Hammond sold 1,750 organs to churches, but also drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which looked into a complaint by pipe organ manufacturers that Hammond was using deceptive advertising when it claimed that the $2,600 Model A could duplicate the sounds of a $75,000 pipe organ. A blind listening test was held and about 1/3 of the participants guessed that the Hammond was the pipe organ, which ended up being great publicity for Hammond.

Chicago-based Hammond introduced the BC model in 1936, the C model in ’39, the B-2 and C-2 in ’49 and the B-3 and C-3 in 1954. Besides churches, radio soap operas were early Hammond organ customers. Then, when Ethel Smith of Pittsburgh had a huge hit with “Tico Tico,” from the 1944 Red Skelton film Bathing Beauty, the home market exploded for Hammond, which produced the spinet organ in 1949.

Bobbie Nelson, who plays with her brother Willie’s band, got a job demonstrating Hammond organs in Fort Worth and paid the bills for years that way. Also up in Fort Worth in the late ’60s was Austin B3 favorite Red Young, “the Organizer,” who played organ on Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976, toured with Sonny & Cher, Dolly Parton and Joan Armatrading, recorded on sessions with Nelson Riddle and now plays all those great organ parts for Eric Burdon and the Animals. And we can’t forget Austin’s first great B3 player Dr. James Polk, who plays most Monday nights at the Continental Gallery with sax player Elias Haslanger.

During the ’70’s, jazz moved into a rock fusion sound that ditched the B3 in favor of clavinets, synthesizers and electric pianos. And the home market was taken over by cheaper digital keyboards. Hammond discontinued the B3 in 1975 and filed for bankruptcy 10 years later. But the B3 has gotten even hipper, especially after such acts as Medeski, Martin and Wood and Galactic introduced organ jams to festival crowds.

Hammond was bought by Suzuki Music of Japan, which produced a new B3 in 2009, but no self-respecting soul-jazz player would go for that digital model. Everybody wants to play what Jimmy Smith played. You’ve gotta have that attitude if you’re going to give your life to the B3. And this is the many-faceted instrument which is known to inspire such desire.

 

ORGAN PORN

Ethel Smith becomes a thing with “Tico, Tico”

Jimmy Smith delivers “The Sermon”

Unsung: the Billy Preston Story

“Let ‘Em Roll” by Big John Patton

 

 

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Los Lobos: How Have the Wolves Survived?

Posted by mcorcoran on March 27, 2017

HOUSTON 2012. Thunder and lightning and buckets of rain. In the hotel lobby bar of the Doubletree Hotel, members of Los Lobos are hanging out, waiting the word on whether or not their headlining set at the Houston International Festival is cancelled. Outside the window is a strobe-lit storm from a B movie.

These men have played together for over 40 years, from the flea markets of Pico Rivera to the top tier of festivals much bigger than this one. The appearance fee’s been paid, there’s the NBA playoffs on TV; why not just take the night off? But the mood in the lobby bar is one of desire. To play! Every ominous message relayed from one of their roadies is met with a sigh.

“If we don’t play, it’s like we came all this way for nothing,” says Steve Berlin, the band’s sax player and sometime producer. After Houston, the band will fly home to Los Angeles, then bounce back to New Orleans to play Jazzfest, and then it’s back to L.A. for their second annual Cinco de Mayo festival.

Houston was for the money, yes, but it was also going to be a fun two hours for a band that’s recently ditched the setlist in favor of reading the moment. Even during the time that “La Bamba” was atop the pop charts in 1987, the Chicano rock band has never toured for more than five weeks at a time. They’ve got their families and their other pursuits: chief lyricist and maiden drummer Louie Perez is a playwright and painter, guitarist David Hidalgo is an in-demand sessionista, saxman Steve Berlin is a noted producer, who recently wrapped work on the next album by Austin’s Grupo Fantasma.

But Berlin says Los Lobos is priority numero uno. When the band, which brought traditional Mexican music and Chicano pop to the indie rock world with sensational debut EP “…and a time to dance” in 1983, is onstage in full-on musical connection, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.

“OK, we’re on!,” the road manager tells the band and they’re all out the door and into the waiting van. Astronauts cleared for outer space. Unfortunately, this mission was called back when the storm got even worse. Having seen what they’d be up against, the members now seemed relived.

At the bar, where Berlin nurses a Fat Tire beer and watches the ending of a double overtime basketball game, he talks about how the new spontaneity of calling out songs onstage has given the veterans a new appreciation of their catalogue. Their next album, recorded live in New York City, finds Hidalgo, Perez, Berlin, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano performing acoustic versions of old songs not as well known as “How Will the Wolf Survive,” “One Time One Night,” Don’t Worry Baby,” “A Matter of Time” and “Let’s Say Goodnight.”

Los Lobos is mainly a nostalgia act these days- in the way that Pearl Jam is. They still make records, 2010’s “Tin Can Trust” was the latest, but the Wolves get their prey these days by howling the heck out of their “hits.” During the ‘80s, Los Lobos was arguably the best band in America and they remember that when they play now. But this band, formed in 1973 by four Garfield High classmates from East L.A., have always recalled the past. After they broke through to the mainstream with a Ritchie Valens cover from the ‘50s, they took their Latino legacy tour back even further with ‘87’s “La Pistola y El Corazon,” an album of traditional Mexican music.

“I think it was really smart to follow ‘La Bamba’ with ‘La Pistola,’” says Berlin, a native of Philadelphia who was accepted into the band of brothers in 1984. “We got right back to being who we are.” Whether they play R&B like “I Got Loaded” or a Norteno song such as “Anselma,” Los Lobos is a band of memory with purpose. Their music is the soundtrack of the Mexican-American experience, which makes them the perfect band for Pachanga Fest, which was started to give Hispanic musicians and fans the beautiful outdoor days enjoyed by predominantly-Anglo crowds at the Austin City Limits Music Festival (where Los Lobos was a first-year headliner).

Berlin first met the members of Los Lobos while a member of the Blasters, the L.A. roots rock kingpins of the early ‘80s. The band from East L.A. was signed to Slash Records, which was also the home of the Blasters.

“The Blasters was like a bar fight every time there was a big decision to be made,” says Berlin, a Jewish hornblower from Philly who migrated to L.A. in the mid-‘70s with the Beckmeir Brothers, a rock/soul band. “Then to work with Los Lobos, a very democratic band, was just night and day.” The Blasters were lead by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin, but Los Lobos felt more like a family.

After he co-produced the ’83 Lobos EP with T-Bone Burnett, and started sitting in regularly with the band, Berlin was asked to join and he jumped that sinking U.S.S. Alvin and got himself a good paying gig for the next 30 years. “David (guitarist/accordionist Hidalgo) is the certified musical genius of the group, so what he has to say goes a long way,” Berlin says when asked to describe the group’s decision-making dynamic. And Louie (chief lyricist Perez) has his say. It’s all very respectful. If anyone feels really strongly about something, that’s usually the deciding factor.”

It’s a band that, Berlin says, is always able to pull something out of itself when the occasion calls for it. He uses the making of “Colossal Head” in 1996 as an example. “We had just finished doing the soundtrack to ‘Desperado’ and we were pretty much spent,” he says. “We love Robert Rodriguez, but he sucked everything out of us. We gave him every idea we had.” The band arrived at the studio empty-headed, but once they started jamming together, the songs crept out. The parts added up to an amazing whole and “Colossal” was met with rave reviews. It didn’t sell, though, so the band was dropped by Warner Brothers. But “Mas y Mas” from those sessions has become a set-capping crowd-pleaser.

Among the band’s credits is an appearance on Paul Simon’s modern classic “Graceland,” but it’s an experience that Berlin described in an interview as “not a pleasant deal for us.” He claims that Simon took full songwriting credit for a song that Los Lobos shared with him in the studio. The song in question became “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints.” Simon has denied the allegation.

 

 

 

 

 

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