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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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A Legend Grows In San Marcos

Posted by mcorcoran on September 8, 2018

“Country band looking for singer” was all it said, with a phone number. From that seed of torn paper stuck on the cluttered bulletin board at the Southwest Texas State University student center in August 1975 grew a chapter of country music history that’s still a page-turner.

The first person to answer the ad, placed by three students who were former members of the band Stoney Ridge, was an agriculture major just back from a hitch in the Army.

“I remember that audition like it was yesterday,” steel guitarist Mike Daily said of the day George Strait walked into his life. “George sang two lines, and it was over.”

Forty-three years later, Strait, 66, is an unprecedented country music success story, with 44 No. 1 Billboard singles, more than any other act of any genre. And Daily and original bassist Terry Hale are still in Strait’s aptly named Ace in the Hole Band, regarded in the industry as the best road group in country music, until Strait stopped touring a few years ago.

“They’re probably the greatest ambassadors of honky-tonk music ever, in terms of the number of people they’ve played in front of,” said Austin songwriter Monte Warden, who has had a song recorded by Strait.

The first gig- at Cheatham Street Warehouse in 1975. In June 2009, they christened AT&T Stadium in Arlington in front of a crowd of 60,000.

“George wants to concentrate on his singing, so he surrounds himself with professionals, ” said Tom Foote, who played drums for the Ace in the Hole Band from January 1976 until he switched to tour manager in 1983. “Some acts have a lot of rules for the band, but we have only one: Be on time.”

Directed by Austin-based keyboardist Ronnie Huckaby, the Ace in the Hole Band today is an 11-piece marvel of musicianship, with the ability to play both Western swing and lush country ballads. But in the beginning, it was more of a bar band, with Daily, Hale, Foote and lead guitarist Ron Cabal (who died in a 1996 car accident) backing Pearsall native Strait, who had begun performing in the early 1970s when he was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and fronted a band of homesick country boys.

Originally, the San Marcos group was billed as “The Ace in the Hole Band with George Strait,” but as the frontman’s good looks, charisma and pure country voice made him a star, the billing was simplified to “George Strait.” But you’ll hear no complaints from the band, which released a lone album under its name in 1995.

“We didn’t even know what success was in the music business or how to get it,” Foote said of the group’s early years. “But the first time I heard George sing, I thought, ‘Well, this my chance to find out.’ “

Ace in the Hole Band played Texas dives, roadhouses and dance halls for six years before Strait got a record deal. Foote’s uncle, writer Horton Foote, modeled the upstart band in his Oscar-winning script for 1983’s “Tender Mercies” on the band’s early days.

The group’s first show was at San Marcos’ ramshackle Cheatham Street Warehouse on Oct. 13, 1975. A year later, they were regularly packing Gruene Hall. But breaking into the Austin market was a challenge. The “outlaw country” movement was the rage in the ’70s, but even as major labels were signing just about every singing hippie in a cowboy hat from Texas, Strait refused to modify his traditional country style.

“We had a hellish time getting booked in Austin,” said Daily, the grandson of George Jones mentor Pappy Daily. “Finally, James White gave us a shot at the Broken Spoke, and we started building up a following.”

Foote recalled that Spoke debut, opening for Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys. “We got everybody from Cheatham Street to cheer us on, so Mr. White would think we were a big draw,” he said. White booked the band once a month for $400 to $500 a gig.

Unlike his bandmates, Strait was married and had a young child to support when he joined the band. Growing up, he loved working on his family’s ranch near Big Wells, so Strait had a tough decision to make when he graduated from college in 1977 and was offered a job with an agriculture company in Uvalde.

“He had the ambition to be what he is now,” Daily said, “so he decided to give the music business one more shot.”

In the summer of ’77, Cheatham Street Warehouse owner Kent Finlay, songwriter Daryl Staedtler and Strait drove a two-seat cargo van from San Marcos to Nashville, Tenn., taking turns sleeping on the Army cot in the back.

“George really needed a record deal,” Finlay said, “so we loaded up 10 cases of Coors beer and brought a six-pack to each label. You couldn’t get Coors in Nashville back then, so it made it easier to get a foot in the door.”

Ironically, Strait got his big break in San Marcos, when the band played at Erv Woolsey’s Prairie Rose nightclub in the late ’70s. After about a year of running the club, Houston native Woolsey returned to his job at MCA Nashville, where he persuaded the other execs to sign the singer from San Marcos. Woolsey eventually quit his label job to manage Strait, who rarely does interviews and could not be reached for this story.

Strait’s first single, “Unwound,” reached the top 10 in 1981. The first No. 1 hit came the next year with “Fool Hearted Memory.” Strait has had at least one No. 1 single a year since. In 2006, Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he’s the only member still recording No. 1 hits.

The Ace in the Hole Band rarely plays on Strait’s albums, as his Nashville-based producer Tony Brown prefers to work with session players. But live is where the players, whose training ranges from honky-tonk taught to fiddler Gene Elders’ classical background, find room to shine. Like Willie Nelson’s Family, formed just a couple of years before the Ace in the Hole Band, there is an almost telepathic connection among the players.

Many of the San Marcos haunts of the band’s early years, including the Cheyenne Social Club (formerly the Getaway), the house on Uhland Street where Strait auditioned, and George and Norma Strait’s house, directly across Riverside Drive from Herbert’s Taco Hut, have been torn down. But the band born from such humble beginnings has kept its musical passion alive. Sometimes during shows, the members will grin at each other as if to say, “Can you believe we’re getting paid to do this?”

The hit 1992 movie Pure Country, in which the band members played themselves, helped keep Strait’s career vibrant during the Garth Brooks-led “young country” boom. In the film, Strait plays Dusty, a fame-warped country singer who lost his way, playing his music behind garish special effects. Eventually he returns to his traditional country roots. But Strait’s real career path has never been anything but simple and steady.

Ace in the Hole from Pure Country filming.

“If I had to use just one word to describe George Strait, it’s ‘authentic,’ ” said Foote. “There’s nothing contrived about him. When the label folks wanted George to move to Nashville, he stayed in Texas because that was home. When they wanted him to take off his cowboy hat, he kept it on because it felt comfortable. “

There was also pressure from Nashville for Strait to replace the Ace in the Hole Band with more seasoned Nashville players.

“George resisted, giving everyone the chance to grow into their position,” Foote said.

And the Ace in the Hole Band has never stopped growing.

****

Sad news. Mike Kennedy has played drums for the Ace In the Hole Band since 1987.

Strait’s longtime drummer Mike Kennedy dies in car accident.

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King Curtis: Cowtown Soul Stew

Posted by mcorcoran on August 13, 2018

King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex

It’s a nice, small brownstone with ornate gates on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just two blocks from Central Park. A young Tom Cruise used to live in the building, as did Robert Downey Jr., when he was with Sarah Jessica Parker. But the front stoop holds a tragic memory.

The sax player King Curtis bought this eight-apartment building in 1971, just after he got off a tour with Aretha Franklin. August 13 of that year, Curtis had gone downstairs to check on a recently-installed air conditioner that didn’t seem to be working and he saw a couple of junkies hanging out on his steps. The neighborhood was much different than it is today. Heated words led to a scuffle and then a fistfight with 26-year-old ex-con Juan Montanez. But the junkie had a shiv and plunged it into the heart of the dynamic tenor sax player from Fort Worth. Curtis got the knife away and stabbed his attacker, who was arrested at Roosevelt Hospital that night and eventually sent back to prison. But King Curtis was pronounced dead on arrival. He was 37 years old and on the verge of becoming to Aretha what Lester Young was to Billie Holiday, what Maceo Parker was to James Brown. He had the honkin’ horn that clicked with the volcanic voice; they took each other to magical places.

“You heard King Curtis tonight, heard us do our thing together,” the great Lady Soul said at the end of three exhausting and delirious nights of music in March ’71 which have been preserved on a pair of highly-recommended Live at the Fillmore West albums. “We’re gonna do our thing for years to come, I imagine.” But just five months later, the master of the shrieking, stuttering, soulful sax sound had been silenced.

More than 2,000 people attended King Curtis Ousley’s funeral at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan, with Rev. Jesse Jackson delivering the eulogy and Stevie Wonder tacking the name of King Curtis onto his rendition of “Abraham, Martin and John.” Aretha Franklin was there, too, singing her sax man home with a gospel song, “Never Grow Old.”

His killer pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and received a seven-year sentence, disgustingly light when you consider what he also robbed the world of.

But it’s not as if King Curtis hadn’t left his mark. You can hear his influence every time the Saturday Night Live band kicks off another episode. Like his former employer Sam Cooke, who also died senselessly in his 30s, King Curtis packed quite an amazing career into his shortened years. But we’re left wondering where else his horn would’ve led him.

Duane Allman played guitar on King Curtis’s Grammy-winning “Games People Play.” The Allman Brothers played “Soul Serenade” at the Fillmore East the night after King Curtis died.

Born Curtis Ousley in 1934 in Fort Worth, where he went to the same I.M. Terrell High School as jazz sax legends Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman, Curtis was the master of the Texas tenor sax sound pioneered by Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. Like those Houstonians and Herschel Evans from Denton, King Curtis served his apprenticeship in the band of Lionel Hampton, moving to New York City at age 19.

Because of his versatility and ability to frame the feel of a song, Curtis became an in-demand studio player and in 1958 recorded one of the most recognizable sax parts ever with “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters. Curtis came to define Atlantic Records’ rock ’n’ soul sound, as label co-owner/producer Jerry Wexler called on him for hit-producing sessions with Percy Sledge (“When a Man Loves a Woman”), Clyde McPhatter (“A Lover’s Question”) and Franklin (“Respect”). He also recorded with Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin, Wilson Pickett and the Shirelles. Little known fact: King Curtis and his band the Kingpins opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1964. His last session was on the Imagine LP by John Lennon, who would be murdered, nine years later, just a few blocks from where Curtis was killed.

“King Curtis was my main man,” Rolling Stones sax player Bobby Keys said in 2012. “He had this totally unique phrasing that was almost like country fiddlers.” Keys then hummed the sax part of “Yakety Yak” while miming a violin being played.

As a high schooler near Lubbock who ran errands for Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Keys once picked up “King” Curtis Ousley at the airport in Amarillo and drove him to Clovis, New Mexico for sessions with Holly that produced “Reminiscing,” as well as two tracks with Waylon Jennings on vocals.

During the late ’50s, the sax was becoming the lead instrument of rock ’n’ roll and Curtis blew the flamboyant sparks that producers wanted. But he also had instrumental hits under his own name, including “Soul Twist,” which topped the Billboard R&B chart in 1962, “Soul Serenade” (1964), “Memphis Soul Stew” (1966) and “Ode to Billy Joe” (1967). Session work was becoming so lucrative that Curtis and his earliest incarnation of the Kingpins, which included fellow I.M. Terrell alum Cornell Dupree on guitar, rarely toured.

But they made an exception when Sam Cooke took them out on the road in 1963, the year before the singer’s death. Sam and Curtis were kindred spirits, according to Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick, who observed that, like Cooke, Curtis was articulate, outgoing and took his music seriously. King Curtis also liked to gamble; the dice would roll for hours after each show. You couldn’t get such action in the studio. That tour is brilliantly represented by One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, which some critics have called Cooke’s best LP. It’s his answer to James Brown’s Live at the Apollo release, with the explosive Kingpins urging the singer to cut loose like he did during his gospel days. Cooke tips his hat to Curtis on the set-closing “Havin’ a Party” with the line “play that song called ‘Soul Twist.’”

Curtis’s work with Aretha would prove to be even more enduring. His sax was with her from her very first album on Atlantic, 1967’s I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You), which producer Jerry Wexler had hoped to cut entirely at FAME studio in Alabama, with the same session players that had cut hits with Wilson Pickett and Clarence Carter. Although a great talent, Aretha had been a disappointment at Columbia Records in the years before signing to Atlantic, but Wexler knew he had to get her down to Muscle Shoals. But after the first day of recording, Aretha and her volatile then-husband Ted White were on a plane back to Detroit. White was on edge about his wife recording with an all-white band in George Wallace country and ended up getting in a drunken fistfight with studio owner Rick Hall at about 4 a.m.

The sessions were moved to NYC, where Wexler flew up the Muscle Shoals guys, including the great rhythm section of drummer Roger Hawkins and bassist David Hood. The first song they recorded in Manhattan was Aretha’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” with Curtis taking a 16-second solo. It would become her first No. 1 and remain a signature song.

Curtis loved Aretha’s piano style and got her to play on a 1970 Sam Moore record (Plenty Good Lovin’) he was producing, something Lady Soul rarely did. But she had an affinity with her bandleader that she had with few people. “Curtis was noble, ballsy and streetwise like nobody I ever knew,” said Wexler, who often used the bandleader as a go-between with a moody Aretha.

The 1971 Kingpins, whose membership included guitarist Dupree, bassist Jerry “Fingers” Jammott, the polyrhythmic prince Bernard Purdie on drums, plus Billy Preston on the Hammond B3 organ and the Memphis Horns, had a similar effect on Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West, coaxing a majestic performance from the unbridled soul shouter. “Respect” gallops out of the gate as if fueled by pure adrenaline, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” wrings the soul like never before, “Eleanor Rigby” struts over Franklin’s electric piano lead and “Dr. Feelgood” is impossibly lowdown.

At one point, someone from Aretha’s entourage spotted Ray Charles seated in the back of the crowd, and the Queen of Soul called up her male counterpart in the monarchy for a loose and inspired 19-minute jam on “Spirit in the Dark.” It was a strange period for Franklin, who from 1967-69 recorded three of the most remarkable albums in music history.

At the advent of the ’70s, however, Franklin was in a bit of a sales slump, with a live album and a jazzier project going nowhere. Although her 1970 Spirit in the Dark album was one of her best, with the Franklin-penned title track making creative strides, it also registered disappointing sales. Had Arethamania died out? Wexler decided that the key to his prized diva’s rebound was to connect with the hippie rock audience that had so wildly embraced Otis Redding at Monterey. The headquarters of the counterculture was Bill Graham’s music hall the Fillmore, so Wexler booked Aretha into the 2,500-capacity venue for three nights. To make the shows financially feasible, a live recording was planned.

Although Franklin had a touring band, Wexler convinced her to leave them in Detroit in favor of the all-star Kingpins, the tightest band in R&B. The opening show of the three-night stand was the first time Franklin and the Kingpins had played together, though she had just gotten out of the studio with Purdie and Dupree on sessions that would restore Franklin’s perch at the top later in ’71 with “Rock Steady” and “Spanish Harlem.” Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West and Curtis’ album of the same name (which came out a week before his murder), are landmark recordings, finding true geniuses of soul adapting their sound for the rock crowd and, in the process, creating the funky jam band sound. Although many have tried to duplicate what went on at the Fillmore West on March 5-7, 1971, nobody comes close. You can keep your 20-minute versions of “Feelin’ Allright,” performed by Meters/Grateful Dead wannabes. Ears that know better will take Curtis and the band’s rock-funk throwdowns on Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes,” Preston’s monster organ take on “My Sweet Lord” and a sultry, percolating version of “Mr. Bojangles” that should be one of Jerry Jeff Walker’s proudest moments as a writer.

The Live at Fillmore West albums are a jubilant study in musical communication, of instinctively finding a groove and building the intensity. Three-minute songs are stretched out to 10 minutes without any sense of overindulgence. These players were having a blast and the audience knew it, cheering them on with near-religious zeal. Listen to King Curtis today if you can. Play the records in order — Curtis first, then Franklin — and don’t dwell on the stupidity of the tragedy that took him away. Listen to just how alive King Curtis was five months before his death. Breathe in that thick saxophone smoke and dream of what might have been.

(This is an early draft of an excerpt from “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music,” which profiles 42 pioneers from the Lone Star State.)

 

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Sound and Color: King Vidor’s ‘Hallelujah’

Posted by mcorcoran on August 11, 2018

Quite ironic that the first Hollywood movie to offer a realistic, sympathetic depiction of life as an African-American in the 1920s was written and directed by a man whose father C.S. Vidor is the namesake of the most notoriously racist town in Texas.

“For several years I had nurtured a secret hope,” film director King Vidor started chapter 16 of his autobiography A Tree Is a Tree. “I wanted to make a film about Negroes. Using only Negroes in the cast.” King Vidor, whose entry in the film world was filming the 1909 hurricane In his native Galveston for newsreels, had grown up around blacks employed at his father’s East Texas lumber camps. He would poke his head into their churches and their juke joints. “The sincerity and fervor of their religious expression intrigued me, as did the honest simplicity of their sexual drives. In many instances the intermingling of these two activities seemed to offer strikingly dramatic content.”

King Vidor of Galveston was the first president of the Director’s Guild of America.

Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), which explores the forces of sin and salvation in the African American experience, didn’t have a chance to be made until the advent of sound pictures, or “talkies,” with 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Vidor’s earlier pitches for an all-black cast film were shot down by studios who argued such a picture would never play in the theaters of the South. But with the popularity of spirituals and jazz, plus spectacular scenes of river baptisms and juke joint dancing, MGM finally greenlit the picture. Also, Vidor agreed to forgo his $100,000 salary until the movie made money. “If that’s the way you feel about it,” said MGM’s parent company CEO Nicholas Schenck, “I’ll let you make a movie about whores.”

Vidor spent several weeks on the script, then went to New York City to scout talent. Daniel Haynes, who was Jules Bledsoe’s understudy in “Show Boat,” and 16-year-old Nina Mae McKinney- a standout in the chorus line of Blackbirds of 1929 revue- were hired as the male and female leads. Also in the cast is singer Victoria Spivey of Houston.

During pre-production in Memphis, where most of the film was shot, three boys, going as Sears, Roebuck & Poe, danced in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel for tips and when Vidor saw their act he hired them on the spot. The dramatic swamp scenes of the movie were shot in West Arkansas.

Hallelujah was Vidor’s first sound picture, but because MGM couldn’t spare a sound truck for a month in Memphis, it was filmed silent and then all the sound was dubbed in later. The synchronicity is bad in spots. Also, studio head Irving Thalberg had Irving Berlin write a song, “End of the Road,” and added it to the film without Vidor’s knowledge or approval. It was the one sore spot of Vidor’s passion project.

Only one theater in the South, in Jacksonville, FL, screened Hallelujah. It never showed in Texas or Arkansas, where C.S. Vidor also owned lumber camps, during its original run. Financially, the film was a flop and Vidor never received a penny for it. But today it ranks up there with The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928), Our Daily Bread (1934), Stella Dallas (1937), An American Romance (1944), Duel In the Sun (1946), The Fountainhead (1949) and Ruby Gentry (1952) as one of the top creative achievements by the greatest film director Texas ever produced.

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