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STEWED, SCREWED AND TATTOOED: The Selling of Sailor Jerry

Posted by mcorcoran on May 20, 2018

by Michael Corcoran. Dec. 2014.

Imagine if there was a company making Babe Ruth rum and Babe Ruth clothing and Babe Ruth iPhone covers and using iconic images of the baseball legend in all sorts of manners. Much wealth is built on dead cash cows- it’s the capitalist American way. But what if the family of Babe Ruth was never contacted before the market became flooded with images of their husband or father? What if they never received a dime?

Sailor Jerry Collins is to tattooing what Babe Ruth is to baseball, a giant in the field who’s become the embodiment of “old school.” He was certainly a mythic figure in my young adulthood of the mid-1970’s after I came under the influence of Mike Malone and Kate Hellenbrand, the couple who bought Sailor Jerry’s shop in 1973, after Collins died at age 62 from a heart attack. A true American patriot, who tried to re-enlist at age 30 after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, but was turned down because of a heart condition, Sailor Jerry hated the Japanese for what they’d done on that December morning. But he also had a passion for Far Eastern art and philosophy, revolutionizing tattooing in the 1960’s by adapting the traditional Japanese tattoo art form to Western motifs. Before Jerry, “tattoo artist” was considered an oxymoron in most circles. This was carny stuff.

Sailor Jerry was among the first to document his tattoos by taking photographs, among the first to market tattooing to women. His clientele was about 90% military men- and he created the macho “decal” designs that would send them off to war a little braver- but he also tattooed elaborate, conceptual back pieces and sleeves, which made him the mentor for next generation tattooists Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, Michael Malone and Zeke Owen. In the year Sailor Jerry died there were maybe 500 tattoo artists in the world. In 2014, there are at least 500 in Central Texas.

“In the beginning there was Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins, father of the old-school American tattoo. Then a clothing company was created to protect and sustain his legacy,” say the first sentences in a recent press release announcing that Iggy Pop was now part of the Sailor Jerry Ltd. design team.

I came in during the 25 years between those two sentences. But even though I never met the man, I heard enough stories to know that Sailor Jerry would’ve hated having his name associated with sneering punk rockers and flocks of young dummies with disposable incomes. The way his name, image, philosophy and art are used to hawk all sorts of products, from spiced rum to skateboard sneakers, is a fame that would’ve probably sickened Sailor Jerry, who used to refer to publicity-seeking tattoo artists like Lyle Tuttle as

N.K. “Sailor Jerry” Collins circa 1972. Photo by Kate Hellenbrand.

“prosta-tattoots.” The real Sailor Jerry- yes he was an actual person, not some Bunyonesque folk hero who tattooed to the Misfits- hated hippies and liberals. He played big band saxophone and railed against the government on an overnite radio show, which he hosted for several years as “Old Ironsides.” The Hawaiian Islands were “the hemorrhoids of the Pacific.”

The underground rumblings at Punchbowl cemetery on the island of Oahu have no doubt moved the earth in recent years as the proudly Conservative man buried there has become a hip lifestyle brand. But the Richter needle would’ve jumped with the claim from Jerry’s widow Louise Collins that she never gave permission for those uses and has been bypassed by the proceeds.

Austin filmmakers Angela Lancaster and Paul Galvan trekked to Honolulu recently while shadowing Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand, “the godmother of American tattooing,” and tracked down Louise Collins, 77, who lives in an apartment with her daughter, Sailor Jerry’s kid. In her first interview on camera, Louise told Lancaster that she’s never received any compensation as executor of her husband’s estate, from either Gyro Worldwide, the Philadelphia company which started developing the Sailor Jerry brand in 1999 or the Scottish-based William Grant & Sons alcohol company that bought the Sailor Jerry brand et al in 2008. The spiced rum is a hit, with over 660,000 cases sold in 2013, up 15% from the previous year.

Malone and his girlfriend/partner at the time Hellenbrand, who owns a tattoo shop on Guadalupe Street in Austin, paid $20,000 to Louise Collins for Sailor Jerry’s shop at 1033 Smith Street and its contents, which included Sailor Jerry’s tattoo designs. But did they also buy Jerry’s “intellectual property,” including his name, likeness and the copyrights to all his artwork? Malone, who passed away in 2007, and his business partner Hardy, who made millions in the t-shirt business, believed they owned all things Sailor Jerry. And Gyro Worldwide, now named Quaker City Merchantile, seemed confident all the paperwork was in order when they plunked

down a reported $20,000 to Hardy and Malone for those rights in 2003. Quaker City owner Steven Grasse boasted in 2010 that he made some serious “F.U. money” when he sold the Sailor Jerry name and intellectual property to Grant & Sons. QCM was retained to handle advertising for the Sailor Jerry brand, including a current $7 million TV advertising campaign.

But did Grasse sell something he didn’t own? Asked to comment, Quaker City spokesperson Laura Price forwarded a statement from Grant & Sons that claims that the Malone purchase in 1973 included intellectual rights.

Austin attorney Anderson Simmons isn’t so sure and said copyrights, as well as rights of publicity, may have been violated. Hawaii law HRS 482P states that “every individual or personality has a property right in the use of the individual’s name, voice, signature and likeness.” According to Hellenbrand, who said she borrowed $5,000 from her grandmother to make the down payment on the shop, the written contract between Malone and Jerry’s widow Louise Collins was little more than a bill of sale saying that Michael Malone bought Sailor Jerry’s shop and its contents for $20,000. Since the name of the shop was immediately changed to China Sea Tattoo, the Sailor Jerry trademark ended there.

“William Grant & Sons has the burden of proving what particular intellectual property they purchased and proving that their title to that particular property traces back to the estate of Mr. Collins,” said Simmons. “Unless they can prove they purchased the rights to (Sailor Jerry’s) publicity from his estate, or that Mr. Malone purchased it from the estate and then they purchased it from Malone, they may be violating that right of publicity.”

Simmons viewed a copy of the statement from Grant & Sons and said it was lacking in information. “This isn’t any kind of evidence to prove ownership,” he said. “If they bought the rights to his publicity, why didn’t they say so, instead of vaguely referring to the purchase of ‘intellectual property,’ a term which wasn’t even in common usage when Mr. Collins died in 1973… I doubt they have a contract that actually states they were getting the ‘intellectual property’ when they purchased the tattoo shop from the estate.”

This controversy over who owns the rights to the Sailor Jerry name, likeness and artistic copyrights is nothing new. Shanghai Kate first brought up in online forums in 2009 that Louise Collins was one step from homelessness while rich men were becoming richer on the name and reputation of her late husband. By that time, Malone had died and Ed Hardy took the brunt of Kate’s scorn. His son, Doug Hardy, who now runs the Hardy business from San Francisco, shot off a vitriolic response:

“Mike and my father became the sole owners of Jerry’s artwork after Louise sold it (Mike had sold a good amount of Jerry’s artwork to my father). It would have been burned and lost forever otherwise… Mike decided to make some money off of the artwork, first by partnering with my father to make the Sailor Jerry flash books (which are still used by tattoo artists around the world) and then later partnering with the clothing company that still produces the Sailor Jerry line of clothing. The clothing company made a deal with the liquor producers who make the rum, which apparently is a world-wide smash hit. Recently the liquor company bought out the rights completely, and my father and the executors of Mike’s estate got paid in a settlement, which was from I understand, not a huge sum. Mike had been selling Jerry’s original art for years, which was just as much of his right as licensing it as he had purchased it in full from Louise years earlier. That’s the end of the story.”

Maybe. Neither Louise Collins nor the two children she had with Sailor Jerry have ever challenged the ownership of the Sailor Jerry name and intellectual property in court. But, then, it’s only been a couple years since she was in a restaurant and saw a bottle of Sailor Jerry rum and wondered, “what’s this all about?” In the early ’70s, tattooing was a secret society that wives didn’t belong to. They didn’t want to know what was going on- a mindset that remains with Louise Collins perhaps. But there could be millions of dollars at stake here.

Ed Hardy wrote the esssential book about Sailor Jerry in 2004. After a long and informative intro, the book is turned over to the letters Sailor Jerry wrote to Hardy, who later replaced him as America’s greatest tattoo artist. On one letter dated Dec. 27, 1971, Jerry seemed especially prophetic when he wrote: “There has always been a sort of hypnotic fascination about tattooing but until now nobody has been able to get artistic work so I think we are on the upgrade as far as the profession is concerned although there are a hundred bums all around trying to tear it down with their stupidity and greed…It’s the old story, we build up the demand and the bums cash in on it. And the hell of it is that most people are so aesthetically blind that they don’t know the difference…”

Just like some folks can’t tell if the legacy of Sailor Jerry has been enhanced by the glut of exposure or watered down. He’s famous, immortal, a household name. Somebody’s making money; does it matter who?

When I worked at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor as a teenager in 1972 I befriended a group of Marines who had all been tattooed by Sailor Jerry. Their tattoos were so clean and colorful and badass, especially the pinup girls. They each had one- the sexy chick that will never leave. One night I accompanied one of the jarheads to 1033 Smith St. and wandered around seedy Hotel Street while Sailor Jerry put a tattoo on my friend. It was a large knife plunging into his back with the words “Go ahead, everyone else does!” It was the first fresh tattoo I’d ever seen so I never forgot it.

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Don Albert’s Keyhole Club: San Antonio’s integrated club in the ’50s

Posted by mcorcoran on May 1, 2018

The turquoise facade with big ears suggests “Dumbo,” but the animation inside 1619 West Poplar St. on a recent Thursday evening was decidedly un-Disneylike, as men in Lucha Libre masks bodyslammed each other into submission. Operated by the Cruz Blanca Sociedad Fraternal, the 6,000 square foot building rents out to weddings, bingo nights, quinceaneras and dances, in addition to twice-monthly Mexican wrestling.

But from 1950- 1964 it was Don Albert’s Keyhole Club, San Antonio’s stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” of black-owned nightclubs that kept rhythm and blues musicians working during the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination. What set the Keyhole apart from others in the network of raucous Southern juke joints was that it was integrated- on the bandstand and in the crowd-  and had been since the first location opened in November 1944 at 728 Iowa Street in the Eastside. Owner Albert and his backer Willie “Red” Winner advertised that all races were welcome at the Keyhole, then had to go to the Texas Supreme Court in 1951 to fight a police commissioner intent on closing them down.

A Creole from New Orleans, who moved to San Antonio in 1926 to play trumpet for Troy Floyd’s Orchestra at the Shadowland speakeasy on Blanco Road, Albert Dominique, as he was born, used his connections and charisma to book acts such as Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Erskine Hawkins, Big Joe Turner, Billy Eckstine and Louis Jordan, who didn’t normally play 300-capacity joints. Before Johnny Phillips opened the Eastwood Country Club in 1954, the Keyhole was THE afterparty spot for hip San Antonio, with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and boxer Joe Louis dropping in after their paid engagements. Albert also had an eye for young talent, with both guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and blues pianist Amos Milburn discovered at the original Keyhole, which closed in February 1948.

Later that year, President Harry Truman ordered the U.S. military desegregated, which had a rippling effect on G.I.-heavy San Antonio, already the most diverse big city in Texas. Blacks were still kept separate from whites in department stores, movie theaters, restaurants and city buses, but the music knew no racial boundaries.

The Keyhole reopened on the Westside in 1950 and found a growing clientele of white soldiers and airmen crazy for R&B, who found out about the place from their black base-mates. While only a smattering of whites, including sax player Zoot Simms, went to the original Keyhole, which was in a black neighborhood, the second location would sometimes have as many whites inside as blacks.

Not everyone was in favor of such race-mixing, especially when the cause of congregation was the frenzied beat of African American “devil music.” The thought of white women dancing with black men infuriated those who wanted to maintain white supremacy.

Nat King Cole and wife Maia popped in at the Keyhole in Nov. 1955.

Newly-elected fire and police commissioner George M. Roper made it his mission to shut down the sinful Keyhole after he took his post in May 1951. A former inspector for the Civilian Conservation Corps, Roper was a war hero who spent 1942-45 in a Japanese POW camp. He was also a rabid segregationist, who aimed S.A.’s vice squad at the Keyhole. Just a month into Roper’s term the Keyhole was raided after midnight and more than 300 patrons were arrested on curfew and liquor violations. More than 100 of those were servicemen, who were handed over to military police. The rest when to jail, where they were released after paying a $5 fine.

Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were laws that allowed white-owned businesses to deny service and access to blacks, but there was nothing authorities could do to prevent whites from entering black-owned businesses. So Roper and his men turned to harassment. One night the cops burst in during the Keyhole’s floor show, which often included one-legged tap dancer Peg Leg Bates and “Iron Jaws,” whose act was dancing with a table between his teeth, and ordered the crowd to stand and be counted. Another night, officers seized 30 cases of beer when it was discovered that Winner owned a liquor store. Texas law prohibited an individual who owned a package store to also have a beer and wine permit.

Citing a faulty roof, without any input from city code inspectors, Roper ordered the Keyhole closed on June 22, 1951. But Albert and Winner had hired attorney Van Henry Archer, Sr., who filed a temporary restraining order so the Keyhole could stay open until the case went to court. One of the stipulations of the order was that police couldn’t enter the Keyhole without cause unless they paid the admission charge ($1.50 each). The book “Jazz On the Road: Don Albert’s Musical Life” by Christopher Wilkinson (University of California Press, 2001) covers the court case.

In October 1951, Associate Justice Jack Pope of the Texas Supreme Court ruled in the Keyhole’s favor, blasting Roper’s action as “not due process of law. It is no process at all.” The restraining order became permanent, plus Pope ordered the police commissioner and other city officials to pay all court costs. Don Albert’s Keyhole Club, the western point of the Chitlin’ Circuit, was officially recognized as the first integrated nightclub in the south.

Albert sold the club in 1964 and it closed soon after. The end of segregation wiped out the Chitlin’ Circuit. The bigger acts could play larger capacity venues previously denied. And music fans could now go to any venue in town.

Keyhole #2 is one of the few old juke joint buildings in Texas still standing, along with the Victory Grill in Austin and Smithville’s West End Park. The floor of dark brown wood, which such bands as Boots and His Buddies once filled with dancers, is wonderfully preserved at 1619 W. Poplar. And there stands the bar of glass bricks, where Nat King Cole bought a pack of cigarettes in 1955. But the kitchen where a homesick Della Reese once cooked her favorite spaghetti recipe for the Keyhole staff is no longer in operation.

Corner of Iowa and Pine today.

The original Keyhole, in the Denver Heights neighborhood, was torn down in the late ‘90s and remains an empty lot. Before and after the Keyhole’s three and a half year run, 728 Iowa St. was home to the Ritz Theater. In the late ‘50s it became the Leon Theater, then the Leonard in the ‘60s.

In 1969, the Langston Hughes Afro-American Theatre took over, sharing the space with  the local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), according to a 2017 article on “The Corner” of Iowa and Pine Streets by activist Mario Marcel Salas, then a member of SNCC. Fitting that the 728 address would once again be a venue in the struggle for human and civil rights.

The Leon Theater was the original Keyhole location

Don Albert, who recorded eight sides for Vocalion Records with his Ten Pals swing band in November 1936, went back to playing music after he sold the second and final Keyhole. The respected elder of the San Antonio jazz scene died at age 72 in 1980, just a couple months after doing the interview with Sterlin Holmesly for the Institute of Texas Cultures Oral History Collection that provided much of the information for this story. Businessman Willie “Red” Winner, who brought Albert back to San Antonio in 1950 to re-open the Keyhole, passed away in 1985 at age 84.

In March 2013, the city zoned 1619 W. Poplar Street as a historical landmark. The building can’t be used for any purpose other than as a place where people gather, with the official designation as “meeting facility/reception hall.”

The glory years of R&B are long, long gone, but it’s good to know that this building’s ghosts will never have to move.

The floorshow at 1619 Poplar circa 1952.

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Willie at 70 (15 years ago)

Posted by mcorcoran on January 5, 2018

2014 photo by Scott Newton

First published April 2003 in AAS

Willie understood. When Frank Sinatra kept touring well into his 70s, reading the words of his classic songs off giant TelePrompTers, critics and fans wondered why he didn’t retire. How much money did he need? But Willie Nelson knew that concert receipts had nothing to do with his friend and idol’s busy schedule. “When you sing for people and they throw back all that love and energy,” he said, when interviewed by phone in 2003, “it’s just the best medicine in the world.”

The phases and stages of Willie’s career have found him evolving from the honkytonk sideman to the hit Nashville songwriter, from progressive country pioneer to crooner of standards. And now the iconoclast has become the icon, with Willie achieving American folk hero status.

This pot-smoking Zen redneck in pigtails, who sings Gershwin through his nose and plays a guitar that looks like he picked it up at a garage sale, transcends music and has come to personify the individual, the rectangular peg to the round hole of corporatization.

Willie’s the one producers called to sing “America the Beautiful” at the moving finale of the televised “A Tribute To Heroes” show after the Sept. 11 attacks. He’s played for worldwide audiences at former President Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. And he can have his bacon and eggs at any greasy spoon in the country and feel right at home.

Meanwhile, the journalists keep leading with the same questions about what keeps him going at the pace of a much younger man. Willie and the band he calls the Family are scheduled to play almost 180 dates this year, and the shows are two-and-a-half-hour affairs.

“I’ve been trying to take it easy for years, but this is what I love to do,” he says. “When I go home to rest, I get a little stir-crazy after a few days.”

Here’s a man whose office in Luck, the Western town he built near his “Willie World” complex of golf courses, condos and recording studios on Lake Travis, carries a plaque that reads, “He who lives by the song, dies by the road.” True to that motto, one of Roger Miller’s favorite sayings, Willie’s been home in the Hill Country a total of only two weeks this year.

It’s no wonder that “On the Road Again” is the easiest song Willie’s ever written. The producers of the 1980 film “Honeysuckle Rose” were looking for a theme song about vagabond musicians, and their star wrote the first words that popped into his mind: “The life I love is making music with my friends/ I can’t wait to get on the road again.”

It’s a simple existence made all the more comfortable because Willie is surrounded by people who’ve been with him for decades. Bassist Bee Spears has lived 35 of his 53 years in Willie’s band, which also features the barrelhouse piano of Willie’s 72-year-old sister, Bobbie, and Willie’s legendary running buddy, 71-year-old Paul English, on drums. Percussionist Billy English, Paul’s brother, is the new guy, having joined just 19 years ago. Harmonica player Mickey Raphael and guitarist Jody Payne are also relative newcomers, both joining the ragtag caravan 30 years ago.

“You can’t get out of this band even if you die,” Willie says with a laugh. “I’ve told the guys that we’ll just have ’em stuffed and put back up on that stage.”

Willie’s circle of fiercely loyal lifers include roadies (78-year-old Ben Dorcy has been with Willie since the early ’60s), sound engineers and managers. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter, Lana, travels with Willie and keeps up the willienelson.com Web site.

“We all act like we can’t wait to get off the road and catch a break from each other,” says stage manager Randall “Poodie” Locke, who joined up in 1975. “But after three or four days, we’re looking for excuses to call each other. Everybody’s wives or girlfriends are going, ‘Uh, Honey, don’t you got any gigs comin’ up?’ ”

Where’s Willie?

On the road again, they just couldn’t wait to get on the road that takes them to the Lone Star Park horse racing track near Dallas on a crisp recent evening. Some of the fans come early, looking for Willie’s bus, the one that has “Honeysuckle Rose” and an American Indian figure painted on the side.

A group of giddy grandmas stand outside the band’s business bus before the one with the “Ladies Love Outlaws” T-shirt gets up the courage to knock on the door. “Where’s Willie?” she asks the driver, who answers that he won’t arrive until showtime. When the women leave, Poodie says, “Willie makes every fan feel like they’re his friend. Because they are.”

With piercing brown eyes that seem to have the ability to make eye contact with thousands simultaneously and a world class smile that’s both frisky and comforting, Nelson turns concerts into lovefests and makes fans feel like they grew up next door to him.

To gaze at the social makeup of the line waiting outside the horse race track is to marvel at the range of Nelson’s appeal. There are older couples dressed in tight, rounded jeans and multicolored western shirts, who look like they used to see a pre-bearded Willie at the old Big G’s dance hall in Round Rock or at the Broken Spoke. There are tons of college kids in ballcaps and straw Resistol hats, plus truck-driver types, budding socialites, bikers and hipsters with their neck tattoos.

But there are also many who just came to play the ponies and don’t even know Willie’s booked to sing after the night’s final race. When a young man with gold front teeth and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers hat worn sideways approaches the turnstile, the ticket taker jokes, “Are you here to see Willie?” A few Willie fans giggle as the man shakes his head and says, nah, he’s here to bet on horses. Then, as he passes, he leans back and says, “But I do like Willie Nelson.”

As long as he’s healthy and the people keep coming out. That’s how long Willie says he’ll keep this carnival out on the road. Meanwhile, the 70th birthday peg has led to renewed interest in Nelson’s recorded legacy, with Sony reissuing an “Essential Willie Nelson” double disc and the Sugar Hill label getting critical raves for the recently unearthed “Crazy: the Demo Sessions” from the early ’60s. A recently remastered version of the 6 million-selling “Stardust,” Willie’s best-selling album, is turning a whole new audience onto the songs of Hoagie Carmichael and Irving Berlin, just as it did in 1978.

Although last year’s “The Great Divide,” an attempt to duplicate the “Supernatural” success of Carlos Santana by dueting with such hitmakers as Sheryl Crow and Rob Thomas, sold a relatively disappointing 361,000 copies, Willie and the Family are playing to some of their biggest crowds since the mid-’70s glory days of “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

Now that Waylon, the Butch Cassidy to Willie’s Sundance Kid, has passed away, it’s up to Nelson to keep the outlaw country bus a-churnin’ down the highway. And with his role as the vortex of Texas singer-songwriting assured, Willie has picked up the younger high school and college crowd that goes batty for the likes of Pat Green and Robert Earl Keen.

Informed that a band member said, “It’s like 1975 all over again,” Willie lets out a laugh. “If he can remember 1975, he wasn’t in my band. But it does seem that the girls are getting younger and prettier. And they know all the words! I hear a thousands kids singing along to ‘Bloody Mary Morning’ and I think, ‘Y’all weren’t even born when that one was written.’ It just makes me feel great to know that these old songs are clicking with a whole new crowd.”

As with the Grateful Dead, Nelson’s spike in popularity so late in his career comes partly because he and the band promote a free-spirited lifestyle. But where the Dead (whose surviving members will join Willie at this year’s Fourth of July Picnic at the new Two River Canyon venue, just down the highway from Willie World) became synonymous with extended jams and mind-expanding drugs, the Willie way is built around short songs and long drives, a cowboy/ Indian fashion mix and tear-in-your-beer roadhous

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson 2007.

es. Above all, the band’s escapist bent is intensified with instinctive musicianship, a play-it-as-we-feel-it attitude that extends beyond the stage.

“Playing with Willie is tricky business,” bassist Spears says of the frontman who never met a beat he couldn’t tease. “If you try to follow him too close, he’ll lead you down to the river and drown you. You have to keep one eye on him and one eye on your part. Just play your part and trust that he’s going to come back and meet you at some point.”

Willie says the musical kinship between him and sister Bobbie, who ride the

bus together, is almost telepathic. “Sometimes, she seems to know what I’m going to play before I do. I’ve played music with my sister almost every night of my life. There’s just this intense connection that really gets the whole ball rolling.”

Raphael says that if someone should die, the members of the Family have decided to carry on in missing man formation, as fighter pilots do after a comrade crashes. “But if anything happens to Trigger,” he says of the acoustic guitar that Willie’s picked a hole through, “that could be the show.”

The Martin classical guitar, which he bought sight-unseen for $750 in 1969, is Nelson’s most precious possession. That he lets friends, about 40 so far, carve their names into the guitar says as much about Willie Nelson, the unmaterialistic scamp, as the way he plays it with gypsy fingers and a jazzman’s curiosity.

Poster for Willie’s very first show at the Armadillo by Micael Priest

At home in the crowd

“God bless ’em,” singer Marty Robbins once said of country music fans. “They’ll do anything for you but leave you alone.”

But no country star has ever handled the demand from fans to touch, to talk to, to have a picture made better than Willie. He spent the first part of his career trying to become successful and the rest proving that success hasn’t changed him a whit.

He’s got a bunch of burly guys, including a former Hell’s Angel named L.G., working for him, but Willie doesn’t allow them to lead him through crowds, even when about 3,000 people stand between him and the stage, as they did at the Lone Star Park show.

When the crowd lets out a roar because they’ve seen Willie in their midst, Mickey Raphael walks up to the window of the band bus, peers out at his boss signing autographs in the sea of hats and says, “Looks like we’ve got about 45 minutes,” then goes back to telling a reporter how he came to run away with this circus.

“My first exposure to the group was the cover of that (1971) ‘Willie Nelson and Family’ record. They were the freakiest looking country band I’d ever seen. Paul looked like the devil and was wearing a cape; Bee had on some furry diapers. I said, ‘Now, what do these guys sound like?’ ” After sitting in with Willie and the Family at a firefighter’s benefit in Waxahachie, Raphael starting playing at all the band’s dates in the Dallas area.

“Willie asked me one night, ‘Hey, Paul, what are we paying that kid?’ ” says English, the infamous raconteur immortalized in Willie’s song “Me and Paul.” The pistol-toting English has handled band biz on the road since 1966, when Willie enticed him to leave his business supplying call girls to Houston businessmen. “I said we weren’t paying Mickey anything, and Willie said, ‘Then double his salary.’ ”

Bee Spears, who joined the Family in 1968 when original bassist David Zettner was drafted into the Army, talks about his first Christmas out on the road with Willie: “We tried to make a snowman out of shaving cream, and we drew pictures of the presents we would give each other when we made it big. Willie had us believing that it wouldn’t be ‘if’ we made it, but ‘when.’ He knew that eventually someone was going to figure him out.”

Austin understood. It was here in the early ’70s that Willie Nelson found a kindred musical attitude. Even though he spends more of his time off the road these days in Maui, where his fourth and current wife, Annie, and their boys Luke, 14, and Micah, 13, live, he remains Austin’s spiritual adviser and greatest musical ambassador.

“Willie loves it in Maui, but he considers Austin his home,” says Lisa Fletcher, who’s married to Bobbie’s son Freddy Fletcher. “He’s got six children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and they almost all live around Austin, so he gets down here every chance he can.”

Austin and Willie go together in the minds of the masses, like Elvis in Memphis, but where Presley lived a fortressed life, Willie doesn’t think anything about jamming for hours at Poodie’s Hilltop Grill near his Lake Travis compound or popping in at Momo’s on Sixth Street to see his favorite local band, Los Lonely Boys. “The town’s grown so much,” Nelson says, “but I still like the vibe there. It’s still a music town.”

Watch the movies he made here in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and you’ll see that so many old landmarks are gone, including the Armadillo World Headquarters, where Willie mapped out the common ground between hippies and the rednecks. Also torn down was the Villa Capri motel, the scene for so many guitar-picking parties hosted by Willie’s buddy Texas Coach Darrell Royal. But Willie’s still Willie, and his set starts out the same way it has since 1971.

There’s the four or five guitar strums and Mickey’s snaky harp lines and then the unmistabkable nasal twang: “Whiskey river, take my mind/ Don’t let her memory torture me.” It’s a holistic hoedown as “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” follows, and then come patchwork versions of the early ’60s hits “Crazy,” “Hello Walls” and “Night Life.”

Ain’t it funny how much time hasn’t seemed to slip away?

There’s a scene in “Honeysuckle Rose” when Amy Irving asks Willie if he ever gets tired of being everybody’s hero. His silence makes the question rhetorical, but after watching Willie hold court on his bus a few months ago outside Gruene Hall, with person after person telling him how much his music has meant to them and their recently deceased mother, it’s a question worth re-asking. Does Willie ever get tired of being everybody’s hero?

“I think when that line came up in the movie, the reason I didn’t say anything was because I was probably thinking, ‘That’s about the dumbest question I’ve ever been asked,’ ” he says with a huge Willie laugh.

What a stupid question. Who wouldn’t want to be loved by millions simply by being themselves? Who wouldn’t want to be paid handsomely to do the thing they’d do for free? He’s on the road again and again, playing, in the words of Mickey Raphael, “Carnegie Hall one night and some dump in Odessa the next.”

And so when Willie hits the big 7-0, it won’t be a star-studded affair at a huge Texas amphitheater, complete with fireworks. That would make too much sense. Instead, his bus, his home, is rolling towards Wednesday’s gig at the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City, La.

That’s so Willie.

On the road, he’s Willie Nelson, an American treasure and hero of the common folk. Now, who wouldn’t want to be that as often as possible?

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Don Robey: Gangster of Worship

Posted by mcorcoran on January 4, 2018


Listen while you read

Houston’s Don Deadric Robey — half black, half Jewish, all gangster — beat Berry Gordy by ten years to become the first African-American record mogul. A gambler and a hustler, he did not get there by playing fair, but Robey put out some of the greatest gospel, R&B and rock and roll records of the 1950s and ’60s from a building in the Fifth Ward of Houston. As Stax would later define Memphis grit, Duke/Peacock was raw, black Southern music for an audience more into jubilation than assimilation.

The 2809 Erastus Street address housed Robey’s sophisticated Bronze Peacock Dinner Club from 1945 to ’51, and in a back office he launched Peacock Records in 1949 after his discovery Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown didn’t get much promotion on two singles for L.A.’s Aladdin label. Peacock first made its name in the gospel field, then hit it big in R&B in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” predating the sensational Elvis Presley cover by three years.

After he acquired the Duke label in the early ’50s, Robey’s stable of acts contained not only Gatemouth, but Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Big Walter and the Thunderbirds and O.V. Wright.

Robey’s empire included the Buffalo Booking Agency, run by the irreplaceable Evelyn Johnson, which repped many black entertainers, including B.B. King, out on the “chitlin circuit” and gospel highway. Robey insisted that his acts tour incessantly and if they had jobs they couldn’t leave, like Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951, he sent out singers to pose as them. As a one-stop operation, Robey got a piece of everything and used strong-armed intimidation to make negotiations go his way.

“He might’ve ripped me off,” Gatemouth Brown told me in 2005, “but if it wasn’t for Don Robey, nobody would’ve ever heard of me.”

Such sentiments fueled impressario greed across the board in the music business at the time. Getting paid to do something you love was a novel concept after the Depression and WWII. What was important was that Robey allowed musicians to make records, and the style didn’t matter as long as people were buying them. Robey had five labels in all, including Back Beat (Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” in ’65) and Song Bird (“Lord Don’t Move the Mountain” by Inez Andrews in ’73).

Five Blind Boys of Mississippi

As the label of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Sensational Nightingales, led by the volcanic housewreckers Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, respectively, Peacock was primarily known in its early years as the home of hard gospel. Add the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, Pilgrim Jubilee Singers from Chicago, Rev. Cleothus Robinson from Mississippi, Sister Jessie Mae Renfro of Waxahachie, the Christland Singers with R.H. Harris and the Brooklyn All-Stars and Peacock had as heavenly a roster as there was.

Chicago was still the headquarters for black gospel music, but because of Robey’s label and booking agency, Houston was gospel’s second in command.

It all started with Brownlee’s Blind Boys, whose fame has been surpassed by their Alabama counterparts in recent years. But back in the heyday, “The Five Blind Boys” referred to the guys who formed at the Piney Wood School for the Blind near Jackson, Miss. Besides shoutmaster Brownlee, the original group, which was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937 as the Cotton Blossom Singers, included tenor Lawrence “Shorty” Abrams, baritone Lloyd Woodard and bass singer Joseph Ford (replaced by J.T. Clinkscales in the late ’40s).

After school, the group began singing professionally as the Jackson Harmoneers and moved to New Orleans for better opportunities. There, they picked up fifth member Percell Perkins and recorded obscure singles for the Excelsior and Coleman labels. Booked in New Jersey with another blind group, a promoter billed the concert as a battle between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama — and both acts ended up keeping the new names.

On tour in Houston in 1950, the Mississippi Boys met Robey, who decided he could sell some gospel records by adding a drum beat to quartet singing. While the first session with the “Original Five Blind Boys” did not produce a hit, the second session created a monster with “Our Father.” That intensifying of The Lord’s Prayer, over a repetitive bass drum, validated Robey’s vision by being the first black gospel record to hit the jukebox. Before that, almost all quartet records were a cappella. After “Our Father” hit, almost none were.

Robey required all his studio drummers to follow the beat of a red light in the studio that simulated the rhythm of a human heart. Austin gospel group the Bells of Joy had a huge hit following that Robey formula on “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” The lyrics were written by Lavada Durst, the KVET disc jockey who’d just recorded a piano blues single for Peacock as “Dr. Hepcat.” With sales of 700,000 copies, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” won the Cashbox award for best-selling religious single of 1951.

Peacock got thick in the game in 1952 when Robey signed established gospel stars the Dixie Hummingbirds, who rival the Soul Stirrers and Swan Silvertones as the most consistently great gospel quartet of them all. Led by the inventive, charismatic Ira Tucker, the “Birds” could sing it all, exemplified by 1953 smash “Let’s Go Out To the Programs,” in which the group delivered perfect imitations of the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Bells of Joy and, lastly, the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Peacock’s other big signing in 1952 was the Sensational Nightingales, assembled in North Carolina by former Hummingbird Barney Parks a few years earlier. Besides Cheeks, whom Wilson Pickett acknowledged as a primary influence, the ‘gales added two other lead singers — Ernest James and Jo Jo Wallace — before making their Peacock debut in the summer of ’52 with “A Soldier Not In Uniform” b/w “Will He Welcome Me There.” The Nightingales’ most sensational number came in 1956 with the aptly-named “Burying Ground,” with Cheeks’ seismic vocals burying all contenders at the gospel “battles” that were popular at the time.

Former Erastus Street home of the Bronze Peacock and then Duke/Peacock Records. Torn down in 2017.

Before 1956, when a full studio was built at 2809 Erastus, Robey and musical directors Joe Scott and Dave Clark used Bill Holford’s ACA (Audio Company of America) studio on Westheimer. Peacock artists were in and out of there all the time, as Robey kept signing acts like the Southern Wonders, Christian Travelers, Stars of Hope, Golden Harps and Gospelaires.

If anyone had a problem with Robey’s sketchy concept of renumeration, they weren’t on Peacock for long. Ira Tucker told interviewer Seamus McGarvey years later that he never really had a problem with the entrepreneur whose very name started with R-O-B.

“The only thing that you had to watch was, if you had a deal with Don, you had to keep him with the deal (because) if he could talk you out of it, he would,” he said. “If he could scare you down, he would.”

Roscoe Robinson, who in 1960 replaced Archie Brownlee as lead singer of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi after the great shouter died of pneumonia at age 35, said Robey paid the group with a new car and performing uniforms, but they never received royalties. Like all Peacock acts, they made their money on the road.

“When our contract was up, we asked Robey for a new car and he said ‘no,’ so we signed with Chess Records up in Chicago,” says Robinson, now 88. But after the Five Blind Boys made a record for Chess subsidiary Checker Records in ’62, Robey had a scheme to defraud Chess by producing a contract with the Blind Boys that he had back-dated.

“He said he would cut us in on a lot of money [Peacock sued Chess for $450,000] if we signed the contract, but me and Shorty refused, so they kicked us out of the group,” says Robinson.

Robey put it out there that Robinson went against his own to sign with a white man, so he was effectively blackballed, he said, and had to leave gospel for R&B; he later had a minor hit in 1966 with “That’s Enough.”

By all accounts — and I do mean all — Robey was the black Lucky Luciano, ruling his musical turf as a ruthless boss. Such was his rep that when his rising star Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself to death on Christmas Day 1954, rumors started that it was actually a hit on an artist looking to leave his label. (These were disproven by eyewitnesses, including Big Mama Thornton.)

In 1953, after he acquired full ownership of Duke, Robey started a gospel series on that label, including two releases by acts with ties to Austin’s first family of gospel, the Franklins. The Paramount Singers, who were co-founded by Ermant M. Franklin, but relocated to Oakland during WWII, and the Chariettes, featuring E.M.’s daughter Evelyn Franklin, recorded singles for Duke.

Austin’s Bells of Joy had a huge hit on Peacock.

The Franklins who would have the biggest impact on Peacock were Ermant Jr. and brother Elmo, whose Mighty Clouds of Joy signed with Robey in 1960 and changed gospel music forever by making the full, funky band essential. The group, who would go on to be known as “The Temptations of Gospel,” recorded the spiritual hit “Ain’t Got Long Here” at their very first Peacock session and had enormous LP sales with Family Circle in ’62 and Live at the Music Hall in ’67. Clouds lead singer Joe Ligon, a native of Troy, Ala., was an acolyte of Brownlee and Sensational Nightingales lead singer Julius Cheeks, taking Peacock’s anguished rasp sound full-circle. The band’s soul-funk influence is still prominent in current Texas gospel acts like the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers.

 

By the early ’60s, Peacock had so many gospel artists on the roster that Robey started a new religious music subsidiary Song Bird, which also expanded on Peacock’s focus on male quartets. Some of Robey’s earlier competitors, such the Specialty, Apollo and Gotham labels had become inactive, so he was signing just about anyone he wanted and at one point had 109 acts under contract, according to Ray Funk’s 1990 history of Peacock’s gospel division that ran in Rejoice! magazine (an invaluable source for this article). The biggest act on Song Bird was Inez Andrews, formerly of the Caravans. Even when Robey’s R&B and pop records experienced dry spells, the gospel records always kept the cash flow going.

The gospel side paid unexpected dividends when Tennessee native O.V. Wright, a former member of the Sunset Travelers, had a huge secular hit in 1964 with “That’s How Strong My Love Is” on the Goldwax label. Robey discovered that Wright was still under contract to him, so he claimed the rising R&B star for his Back Beat label and had big hits with “Eight Men, Four Women” and “A Nickel and a Nail.” If there was money to be made, Robey didn’t miss a trick.

By the late ’60s, he was spending more and more time at his ranch near Crosby, where he raised thoroughbreds and sometimes even competed in rodeos on other horses. As in the music biz, his specialty was calf-roping and tying.

When he hit 70 years old in 1973, Don Robey sold his assets, which included 2,700 song copyrights (several hundred co-“written” by Deadric Malone, his pen name), to ABC/Dunhill for an undisclosed amount. The deal called for Robey to remain a consultant on his catalog, but that gig was short-lived.

The mogul died of a heart attack in 1975. He made a lot of money that’s probably all long gone, but also a lot of records that will last forever.

 

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Sonny Curtis Knows the Real Buddy Holly Story

Posted by mcorcoran on December 1, 2017

West Texan Sonny Curtis could very well be the Bo Jackson of songwriting. Instead of excelling in two sports, the 75-year-old Curtis penned two classics that are as divergent as football and baseball.

As a Lubbock sandstorm howled outside his window in the summer of 1958, he wrote “I Fought the Law,” one of the first rock rebellion songs, which was first recorded by the Crickets three months after Buddy Holly died, made famous by the Bobby Fuller Four in 1965, then flagged as a nascent punk song by the Clash.

The other landmark composition was the theme song on a TV show that debuted in 1970 and ran seven groundbreaking seasons. Curtis received a four-page synopsis of a show about a 30-year-old woman out on her own in Minneapolis after an engagement breakup, and two hours later came up with “Love Is All Around,” better known today as the theme to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

The garage rock holy grail and a beloved TV song that came to represent feminism with a thrown hat in the air. Two songs that had nothing in common except they came from the creative mind of Sonny Curtis, born in a dugout his daddy built on a farm outside Lubbock during the Great Depression.

Curtis, who will be inducted Saturday into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame, along with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn and the late Roger Miller, also had hits with “Walk Right Back” for the Everly Brothers (which he wrote in Army basic training in 1960), “The Straight Life” for Bobby Goldsboro and “I’m No Stranger To the Rain” for Keith Whitley.

But even if he didn’t write a single song, Curtis would be a notable figure in rock ‘n’ roll history for his close association with Buddy Holly, less than a year older, who Curtis played guitar and fiddle with before Buddy formed the Crickets. Curtis was in the band- along with Jerry Allison on drums and Don Guess on bass- when Buddy Holly opened for Elvis Presley at Lubbock’s Fair Park Coliseum in 1956.

Curtis and Guess were the musicians Holly took with him to Nashville on his first recording session for Decca Records later that year. Not much came of the sojourn to Bradley’s Barn- two singles (“Blue Days, Black Nights,” “Modern Don Juan”) went nowhere, but Curtis made history by being the first to play the brand new Fender Stratocaster on a recording.

Needing a paying gig, Curtis left Lubbock in ‘57 to tour with country superstar Slim Whitman, but that didn’t last long. When “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy” hit in quick succession for Buddy and the Crickets, Curtis was playing five sets a night at a Colorado ski lodge. “The pay wasn’t very good,” Curtis has said of that gig, “but the hours were long.”

After Holly died in a plane crash at age 22 in February 1959, Curtis joined the Crickets and played them a song he had called “I Fought the Law.” The tune was recorded in New York City and included on “In Style With the Crickets,” a favorite album of a young guitarist/singer in El Paso named Bobby Fuller.

A draft notice interrupted Curtis’ time in the Crickets, though he’s remained a member throughout the years and still gigs with Allison and bassist Joe B. Maudlin, his neighbors in Nashville, as the Crickets.

After the Army, Curtis settled in Los Angeles, where there was songwriting and guitar playing work for hire. Curtis played guitar for Roger Miller occasionally, which ended up providing his connection to Mary Tyler Moore, who shared management with Miller. Curtis said he’d give it a try when he was asked to write the song for the intro of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” He read the synopsis at around noon one day and later that afternoon found himself in the office of show creator James L. Brooks.

“I played him ‘Love Is All Around’ and he said ‘Let me take that song with me to Minneapolis,’” Curtis said. “They were shooting the opening footage on location.”

Not many folks know that the lyrics were altered after the first season. The unforgettable first line, “Who could turn the world on with her smile?” was not in the original version. When the show debuted, the Mary Richards character had embarked on a fresh start after a breakup, but didn’t have a job or, really, any skills or experience to be more than a secretary. The theme song’s original first line was “How will you make it on your own?”

Applying for an entry level job, Richards was instead hired on Lou Grant’s whim as assistant producer of the “Six O’Clock News,” so by the end of the season a more optimistic tone was needed for the theme. Besides the new opener, the last line was changed from “You just might make it after all,” to “You’re gonna make it after all.”

Curtis had hoped that he’d also sing the theme song, but the show’s producers wanted to find a “name” vocalist. “They were going for Andy Williams, who was hotter’n a pistol and had his own show,” recalled Curtis. “So I said, ‘Well, if you can get Andy Williams, then go ahead.” When Williams passed, Curtis got the gig.

Curtis still writes, still tries to pick that guitar like Chet Atkins. He said that since his pre-teen days playing fiddle for the Curtis Brothers at the KSEL Jamboree at Sled Allen’s Arena in Lubbock, all he’s ever wanted to do was play music. The mailbox money is a nice bonus.

One of his later compositions to get attention is “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” which inspired Holly fanatic Paul McCartney to make a documentary of the same name to dispel some of the mistruths of the 1978 film, which made Gary Busey a star.

“It was a good Hollywood rock and roll movie,” said Curtis, “but it didn’t capture Buddy to my way of thinking.” The scene that especially makes Curtis shake his head is when Holly, frustrated by the meddling of Nashville producer Owen Bradley, punches him out in the studio. “I was there,” said Curtis, “and nothing like that ever happened. It was always, ‘yes, sir, Mr. Bradley’ or ‘no, sir.’ Buddy always treated everyone with respect.”

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Austin, what did I do to deserve you?

Posted by mcorcoran on November 16, 2017

Gary Clark Jr. on HBO’s “Sonic Highways.” This article is from Nov. 2014.

Four high schools in four years and then released into a world I felt like I had no part in. Tried to find a home in Los Angeles and then upstate New York, but I kept coming back to Honolulu, a city where a tan meant more than ideas. No place else to go.

And then, at age 28, I found Austin, and for many years after that had to laugh when someone called Hawaii paradise.

The Austin segment of the Foo Fighters’ series Sonic Highways screened last night at Studio 6A, the original home of “Austin City Limits,” the night before it airs on HBO. After the episode ended to impressed applause and scattered standing ovations from the invited studio audience, head FF and Highways director Dave Grohl and “ACL” producer Terry Lickona, who plays a big part in the hour-long doc, sat in easy chairs onstage. They talked about Austin and the 8-part series and that big piano on the stage with them that had been played by Ray Charles, Tom Waits, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many other greats on Austin’s live music TV show that turned 40 this year.

Grohl recalled his first visit to Austin, as an 18-year old drummer for D.C. punk band Scream, and how he immediately felt “safe” here. Austin was an oasis on the road, a place to let loose creatively without the threat of redneck bullying. San Francisco-on-the-range, this college town was different than all the others out on the road because it was also the capital of the most diverse musical state in the union. New York and L.A. aren’t for everybody and so Austin became a different sort of musical Mecca. One that took money out of the equation.

“We just played Austin last night and you wouldn’t believe we were in Texas,” my friend Andrella, on the road with the Cramps, wrote me in a postcard around 1980. “Punks in mohawks, rockabilly kids, wild crowd, great show!” That was the note that put Austin in my mind’s map.

I arrived, as we all did, with the energy of exploration and the determination of making this fresh start count. This is a city that people have moved to since the ‘60s for the quality of stimulation. We came here because where we were just wasn’t doing it for us, and so the best icebreaker question in Austin is “what oppressive shithole are you from?” It’s notable, then, that the two standouts of Sonic Highways:Austin are native sons Gary Clark Jr. and Roky Erickson.

Austin, what can I do to preserve you?

Clark talks about growing up in far South Austin, unaware of the live music scene on the other side of the river, and then snapping at his friend since third grade Eve Monsees when she showed him the downtown clubs where blues, reggae, rock and jazz pushed out from doorways onto the streets. “Why did you keep all this from me?” the 14-year-old Clark asked. He was reborn.

The guitarist recalls when things started changing on the music scene, when the condos went up downtown and the cops started showing up with sound meters that measure noise, not music. “This is what we do here!” Clark says of the local music way of life in Sonic Highways’ pivotal scene. It doesn’t matter anymore that the music was here first.

The ambitious idea behind Sonic Highways, also the name of the Foo Fighters album which comes out Tuesday, is that the band recorded one song each in eight different American cities, filming footage for an hour documentary each week. They would learn as much about that city’s musical history as possible through interviews for the doc, record the backing tracks in a historically significant studio and then Grohl would write the lyrics based on lines from the interview transcripts. The other cities in the already- acclaimed series are Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville, Seattle, D.C., Los Angeles and New York.

The Austin song is “What Did I Do?/ God Is My Witness,” which is about falling in love with something that’s slipping away. “What did I do to deserve you?” Grohl sings at one point, setting up a marrow-melting solo from Clark Jr., who showed up at the session without a guitar and left with a brand new Gibson SG (“Take it,” Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear said to Clark. “It’ll never sound that way again.”) Later in the Beatle-like song Grohl asks “What can I do to preserve you?”

This is no allegory. This song is, in part, about the soul of Austin, Texas being priced out of the market. Ironically, the Austin segment is so galvanizing that we can expect new waves of unsatisfied citizens to move here in the months to come.

The hourlong spotlight is a great summation of what Austin music is all about, touching heavily on the Vaughan brothers, Willie Nelson, 13th Floor Elevators and Townes, as well as Antone’s, Raul’s, Liberty Lunch and the Armadillo. Can’t fit everyone in an hour and so there’s little to nothing on Sir Doug, the “new sincerity” guitar bands, Spoon, Alejandro, the Scabs or the current garage scene. This Sonic Highway, with the exception of Gary Clark Jr., ends at about 1982.

If all the good stuff happened here before you arrived, that’s your fault. But the Austin segment brings up some good points about holding onto the history. Studio 6A is hallowed ground. Taking that elevator up to the 6th Floor and then going down the hallway with all the iconic Scott Newton photos and then entering the 320-capacity studio, the years snapped back in tight nostalgic recoil. This is where some of our favorite memories were made.

But everything that happened in Studio 6A is preserved. On tape and digitally. The stuff’s that’s going away forever are the clubs. And then the musicians. The City of Austin hasn’t done much to either preserve or nurture the activity that gives Austin its slogan. Once Austin’s crown jewel, the music scene is now just another thing to dangle from the bracelet. The way of life: is it over?

After the screening, I went to the Broken Spoke on the rumor that Willie Nelson was going to play a secret set in honor of the club’s 50th anniversary. The place was crazy, like Mardi Gras at the OK Corral, with the crowd encroaching on couples dancing to Jesse Dayton and the string of musicians he called up- Scott Biram, Rosie Flores, Jesse Harris and so on. It felt more like the last night of the Spoke than an anniversary, but it was a blowout sans regret.

Jesse Dayton, hard charger

There’s no backstage at the Spoke, just “back there.” A door from the stage opens outside, and there were about 30 of us hanging out, smoking, passing around a bottle of hooch in a bag. There were a couple of writers and a few musicians and a guy in a Devo-esque electric cowboy suit, plus a couple of blonde drunken sweethearts to keep it interesting. You could hear the band pretty well back there and they were doing the Joe Maphis song “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music” and it felt like the original honky tonk roadhouse that the Spoke is.

Willie never showed, but it didn’t matter.

Still glad I moved here 30 years ago. Still think about leaving every day. It’s not just the traffic, but the phoniness and pretense that permeate the whole nouveau city. But at times like last night, it feels like paradise again. Watch Sonic Highways tonight, then go out and hear some people sing and play. The magic may be harder to find, but you can always follow the music.

 

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There’s never a wrong time to be born

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

This story was done, then completely lost and I had to start all over again. Hate when that happens more than just about anything that doesn’t include a catheter, but unlike all the other times, it had nothing to do with a computer glitch or mental mistake while saving. I had to rewrite the whole damn thing after I received word from Austin singer Suzanna Choffel that she’s pregnant.

“I guess this changes everything,” Choffel texted. She has no idea.

Really happy for Zanna and her Persian bodybuilder lawyer boyfriend, but this was going to be a story about a young musician leaving the velvet rut of Austin, where she was born and raised, to gamble on New York City. A tale of a strong woman who put her life, her career, on the line and met a well-connected manager in Manhattan who believes in her 100%. Their ambitious dreams together sparkled like the skyline, and if this story was ever optioned for the movies, I was thinking about a soundtrack like the one from Run Lola Run. “Little Bunny Foo Foo” was not in the picture!

Choffel is blissfully happy and she’ll continue to make her music, but her March 2015 release- a daughter- takes precedence over all else. It was back to the word mines for yours truly. I had spent too much time lately thinking about Suzanna Choffel’s career to just walk away with nothing.

You may recall the sultry singer from her three-song stint on The Voice in 2012 or maybe you first heard that French surname connected to the online love fraud documentary Catfish, where a woman sent a grainy You Tube video of Choffel singing “Tennessee Stud” to a much-younger man and said it was her. Her song “Archer” was used for a Dell commercial and another original tune “Hey Mister” won $10,000 in a national Famecast contest. The Austin High grad been on the verge of stardom for nearly eight years and I’ve been in her corner the whole time.

The Divine Miss C on “The Voice” 2012

I’ve been a fan of Choffel’s since she taped a great live segment for ME Televison, the all-Austin music access channel that went away without much acknowledgement after the music community fought hard for it for more than a decade. There’s a sensual smoke to her voice that seems as it would fit in with fans of Amy Winehouse and Adele, and yet Choffel is still toiling in the clubs. When I caught her set in NYC’s Rockwood Hall in August 2014  and hung out with her for a bit afterwards, I was impressed with how she moved with the rhythm of the capital of the world. Her adventurous streak had found a home.

But when Choffel announced that she and former Momo’s clubowner Paul Oveisi were expecting their first child, the Big Apple’s temptation was no longer in play. Oveisi, who is working to open a Tex-Mex restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, continues to split time between NYC, where the couple rents a room in Chelsea, and Austin, but Mommie Nearest is staying home.

With or without child, she wouldn’t be going anywhere anyway. Last week, Choffel started recording her third LP at the Churchhouse studio in East Austin with Aussie producer David Boyle (Okkervil River, Black Joe Lewis), who’s been in Austin so long- about 30 years- the accent is almost an affectation. This is the recording situation that’s almost perfect for Choffel, whose sound bears an unmistakable affinity for Brazilian music. Boyle has played keyboards for such Rio grandmasters as Bebel Gilberto. I can see those two working well together in that studio with the high ceilings and spiritual stamp.

But the story has changed, at least from my side, and if I have to read one more Facebook post about how Choffel is now doing something “for two” I might lose it. “Initially, I was scared shitless and just so overwhelmed about what this meant for my career,” says Choffel, 34, who didn’t tell anyone besides immediate family that she was pregnant until she was at 16 weeks. “And then slowly, with a lot of talking it out and journaling and reaching out to other musical mamas, I realized that this is not only doable, but it can actually enhance your career in many ways. Up until now my whole life has just been about me and my career. I did whatever I wanted to do, whenever. This gives me some boundaries, which I think might be a good thing. Time is more precious, to be treated with respect.”

I understand that. While raising my son, I perfected the two-hour profile. He would go down for a nap at about 2 p.m. and there was no such thing as writing block. I don’t care what I was working on- a 10,000-word profile of Willie Nelson or a review of a Terri Hendrix record- by the time I heard the wake-up cry at about 4 p.m. I was done. Gain a kid and lose all those weak excuses about feeling the vibe. Just as dancing is a representation of having sex, making a record is an approximation of childbirth. There is no greater form of creativity- and any two morons can do it- so you have to work hard to make your experience special.

The over/under on which of Choffel’s next LPs will be “for children of all ages” is two.

This was also going to be a story about Nell Mulderry, Choffel’s NYC-based manager, whose BOSS Sounds company handles all the Miles Davis reissues for Sony Legacy, as well as other music marketing concerns. It’s rare that Mulderry manages acts, but when she heard Choffel’s second-place entry (“Stumble”) in an international songwriting contest, she says she heard “a totally original artist” that you’re lucky to come across once every few years. Mulderry went right to www.suzannachoffel.com and saw that the singer had recently moved to NYC and was set to appear at the ZirZamin underground club in the Village that weekend. (Opened by Oveisi in late 2011, ZirZamin closed about two years later.) The live set cinched the deal for Mulderry, but Choffel was still under contract with The Voice at the time. Her televised audition, singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” got Adam Levine and Blake Shelton to turn their chairs around and she chose Shelton to be her coach. The next week was the battle round and Choffel advanced singing “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine.

In that week’s wrapup of the show, Rolling Stone magazine singled out Choffel as “the only artist you’d want to listen to a complete album by,” but her run ended the next week when Zanna Ouise, as her friends call her, went up against Cassadee Pope, the eventual season winner. Before that sing-off, show producers gave Choffel a list of four song possibilities and asked her to rank them according to preference. Choffel put “Jolene” at the top and “Will You Be Loved” at the bottom, but producers had her do the Bob Marley song, which is not really a singer’s showcase, but Choffel could’ve played the hell out of it on guitar. (She taught herself to play by listening to Marley records for hours and hours every day while at Austin High.)

Choffel says she had to wrestle long and hard with the idea of being on a TV singing talent show, but she’s long been taken for granted in her home town and seemed to only get recognition when she mixed it up with the world. Still, she’s a child of Patty Griffin’s Living With Ghosts album, which changed her from a Whitney Houston karaoke singer to a serious artist, writing her own songs from the heart. Getting bounced from The Voice may have stung her pride a little, but it also meant she could get on with her true career.

Suzanna Choffel photo by Houston Chronicle.

Once free from NBC’s contract, Mulderry signed Choffel and got NYC’s Red Parlor Records to reissue 2011’s Steady Eye Shaky Bow as Archer. Though Steady Eye seemed strong enough to break Choffel nationally, getting tons of airplay for “Raindrops” on KGSR and other AAA stations, the momentum was shaken by the move to NYC and split from Austin-based Rainmaker Management. The reissue was important in getting Choffel on the scene with new product to promote and she toured Europe extensively, finding a new favorite spot on earth in the French village of Choffel.

After she became pregnant and career priorities changed, Choffel and Mulderry parted ways.

Well, look, I’m just kinda rambling here because I lost my story and you never really do get back on track when that happens. Here’s my original lead:

It’s been three years since her last album, two years since she appeared in three episodes of The Voice, but Suzanna Choffel looks to make her career the top priority in the next year. There are going to be a lot of champagne toasts in early 2015, when Choffel’s next album, produced by David Boyle (Okkervil River, Black Joe Lewis) should be in the can. Look for her to be running around all over town during SXSW in March. Nothing is going to distract Choffel in 2015, when she plans to continue living in both New York City, where she and boyfriend Paul Oveisi rent a room in Chelsea, and her hometown of Austin. An adventurous traveler, don’t be surprised if Ms. Choffel jets off to France or Brazil at a moment’s notice.

It’s all worthless now, but one thing remains unchanged from my original draft. The headline. “There’s Never a Wrong Time To Be Born” originally was aimed at how the fast-changing music business shouldn’t change the creative process. Choffel, who says “I was born either 10 years too early or 10 years too late” may have come of age at the worst time to make money as a musician. But it’s the best time to connect with those who get you and will find ways to keep you making more music. Even if your priorities flip.

Come to think of it, the title of this article actually fits better now.

UPDATE: Lulu Oveisi was born March 23rd, 2015. Huge, pregnant Choffel was dancing to African band Songhoy Blues on the last night of SXSW when she felt her child drop down. That night at about 4 a.m. she woke up with labor pains.

Choffel gave artistic birth to the great LP “Hello Goodbye” in May 2017.

Suzanna and Lulu at Blue Hole.

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They couldn’t make ‘Blazing Saddles’ today

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

They couldn’t make “Blazing Saddles” today. Not in this vitriolic racial climate, where a Super Bowl quarterback can’t even get a backup job because he wouldn’t stand for the anthem, and owners are afraid of offending fans. This culture would be less without “Blazing Saddles,” my vote for funniest movie ever made.
I’m troubled by what’s happening on social media, which is influencing- dominating, even- the minds of the world like nothing since religion. Facebook and Twitter are like a church service, where both sides of the aisle bicker back and forth at each other. They each have their own priest/website. Also, their own ministers of propaganda. But nothing gets done really, but the shouting. After awhile it becomes a drain.
Harmless (though offensive) posts are sucked into the agenda and contorted into mobilizing shapes. “This is an attack on our values!” It becomes a war for a few hours and then everybody moves on to the next thing.
If I was a young writer today, not one eligible for Social Security next month, I’d be wristslapped away from any outrageousness. Taught early on to comply to accepted notions- lest the fury of the Internet strike me down. I’d try to be the most colorful journalist on the party line, not the guy who wrote a column for the Austin Chronicle during the AIDS epidemic that belittled guys who used condoms for hetero-sex. The Chron never got more nasty letters than after the “Die Like a Man” column, but they didn’t come for a couple days- not a thousand in 90 seconds. Maybe a few phone calls went around, but nobody boycotted the Chronicle. Nowadays- boom!- 100,000 people think you’re a piece of shit.

I’ve always been a contrarian: ask my sisters. I try to find the angle that no one else is using- for reasons I would soon prove! My goal as a writer has never changed: Be Interesting. To me, there’s nothing to everybody repeating the same opinion. What do you learn from that?
I’m not very well educated, but I’ve got a masters degree in arguments. Taking the wrong side, I’ve found, is how you learn the most. There was a time, when SXSW was small, I made some flippant comment around a couple of Boston guys, that the Celtics always drafted the best available white guy. It almost came to violence when I called Larry Bird overrated and Kevin McHale all elbows. But after things calmed down, these guys gave me a lesson on McHale’s value that “30 For 30” couldn’t match. I really had no idea. We shook hands and went our ways, though I couldn’t resist a “Celtics Suck!” from the distance.
If we had that dispute on Twitter today, they would’ve gone through all my posts of the past couple years, screen-shooting the most ridiculous. They would’ve twisted what I said (“Larry’s afraid to play D? This asshole’s from Austin, TX”) They would’ve mobilized their network of Celtics fans and told them where I worked, what kind of car I drove. It would’ve been brutal.
The Internet won the election for Donald Trump and it’s dividing our country like no one person could. But it’s also an amazing tool for the times. I keep telling myself I’m done with social media. Just too much twisting, too many people trying to bring each other down. It’s home of the new witch hunt, only this time the witches are doing the hunting.
But I can’t turn away. It’s too informative (if you weed out the bullshit sites), too engaging, too fun. I’m not going to sacrifice all that because people can really be bullies on social media.
It’s not my time anymore, as a freelance provocateur. I can’t take all the negative shit like I used to. My days are limited and not to be used for explaining myself (or “mansplaining”). I’m just a guy with opinions and a laptop. I drive a beige 2015 Kia Soul. And I write about Texas music.

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I love the years, but sometimes hate the days

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

I’ve let myself go. Look at those words individually: let myself go. Where is the negative?

It’s liberating to grow old and not give a shit. I don’t want to die and I do things to add time between now and that day, but I’m not going to do dumb stuff to look younger or lie about my age. I’ll walk in a circle on a trail, then spend $7 for a juice, but I’m not doing anything with dyes and scalpels.

I’m proud of all the 61 years I’ve been alive and look forward to every birthday. Another year I beat evil and biology. It’s another year longer than I thought I would live. Age is a number on a scoreboard and this ain’t golf.

I had to use a cane for awhile after some surgery and I kept using it even after I healed. Man with a cane gets respect in a crowd. It’s a poor man’s bodyguard. People clear you a path when you have a cane, and no one’s looking to start some shit. An advantage of aging no one ever talks about.

What’s the worst thing about growing old? Depends.

Not quite there yet with the dumpster drawers, but I’m up on the downsides of getting old. The constant aches are kind of a drag, but it’s still better than being young and stupid.

You know you’re getting old when you’re online searching for a masseuse and you’re hoping it’s the real kind, not some woman you pay to jerk you off.

Mortality is acknowledged every night when you clear your computer history because there’s a chance you might not wake up and who’s going to understand that the Google search for Hung Mexican Men was for some research on drug cartel violence?

Age is the elephant in the room… watching “Judge Judy” at full volume. It’s something that’s always there, but in the back of your mind. Like the spare bedroom at your kid’s house that’ll be your dorm room until graduation to the nursing home. If you’re lucky.

 

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Saving “Home on the Range”

Posted by mcorcoran on November 13, 2017

The Lebermann family of Austin: L-R Lowell Sr., mother Virginia, daughter Virginia, father Henry and daughter Jeanne.

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam/ And the deer and the antelope play. Thus opens one of the most beloved tunes of Western American folklore, a song that may have been lost forever if not for the efforts of a trio of Austinites: song hunter John A. Lomax, musician Henry Lebermann, who scored the tune from a rough field recording, and his wife Virginia, who wrote it all down.

I have to thank Lois Pattie, the former assistant of the late Lowell Lebermann (ex-City Councilman), for sending me two and half typewritten pages that Lowell’s grandmother Virginia Carrington Lebermann wrote about how she and her husband Henry transcribed the music and lyrics for “Home On the Range,” which was published in 1910 in Lomax’s massively important book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. The Lebermanns scored 25 songs in all, including “Git Along Little Dogies” and “The Old Chisholm Trail.”

Here is the recollection in Ms. Lebermann’s own words, using her punctuation:

THE STORY OF “HOME ON THE RANGE” – AS IT HAPPENED BEFORE MY EYES

One day in June 1908, Mr. John Lomax, an administrator at the University of Texas, turned up in a colored saloon beyond the Southern Pacific depot in San Antonio, Texas, lugging an old-fashioned Edison recording machine about the size of a hay wagon.

The Negro proprietor had been a camp cook and for years had sung songs up and down the Chisholm Trail. Lomax found him behind the saloon, under a tree, asleep. He punched him in the ribs and told him that he wanted to record one of his songs.

“Come back tomorrow,” mumbled the singer.

This Lomax did, and under the mesquite where he had previously found him, the first recording of “Home On the Range” was made.

Finally, Mr. Lomax’s interest in the cowboy ballad brought him to our door. He came because he had heard of the musical ability of my husband Henri Leberman (note: Virginia always used the less-German one “n” spelling of her married name and spelled Henry Lebermann’s first name in the French way.) I remember so well the day he came to our house, carrying with him a satchel full of old Edison records that he had made—not only of the old Negro’s singing, but of cowboys singing around the campfire at night while they were camped on the range.

Lomax explained to my husband that he wanted musical scores written for all these tunes, so that they could be printed in a book he was compiling called “Cowboy Songs.” The scoring was a tremendous undertaking since some of the records were badly scratched, and in some cases the rhythm of the songs was poor.

The records in those days were cylindrical in shape, and the process of recording was extremely difficult since the machine in which the blank cylinders were placed was manually operated. The recordings produced were none too good at best, and the 25 that Lomax brought to our home were worse than usual. My husband was thus not very enthusiastic about doing the work.

Mr. Lomax offered Henri a choice of royalty on the book or cash payment for his work.

My husband was a teacher in the Music Department of the Texas School for the Blind, and a very fine pianist and organist he was. To him the classics were all to be desired, for he had no interest in “hill-billy” music as he called it. I tried to get him to take a chance that the cowboy songs would some day be the folk songs of the West.

I didn’t know at the time that I would live to see “Home On the Range” become the favorite song of our President, Frankin D. Roosevelt, and one loved by all Americans.

It was now the beginning of a long summer vacation, so after much persuasion, Henri agreed to write the music. I remember the hours we spent with the records, playing the tunes over and over as my husband arranged the proper music, harmonizing chords and runs to bring out the beauty of the melody.

After finishing a phrase, he would dictate the notes to me, and I would write the manuscript. After we had worked for weeks, we finished the music of all 25 records. We had scored the most sung of all cowboy songs.

Early that fall, Mr. Lomax returned to our home to pick up the manuscripts, and he was very pleased with the results.

He, again, offered Henri a royalty from the sale of the book, but Henri refused. I urged him to take the royalty, but he couldn’t be persuaded. Although he had done a very fine piece of work, all he wanted was payment for his services. Mr. Lomax paid him and then left with the manuscripts under his arm.

After the “Cowboy Songs” book was published I called on Mr. Lomax at his home in Dallas and asked him to sell me the original manuscripts Henri had dictated to me. I wanted to place them in our Texas University Museum as a tribute to my husband. Mr. Lomax said he had many old manuscripts and a number of them had crumbled to decay, these including, possibly, the manuscript from which “Home On the Range” was printed. I came home with a heavy heart.

In November 1957, an article appeared in the Dallas Morning News written by Walter C. Hornaday of the Washington Bureau of the News. Following is a part of the article:

“’Home On the Range,’ a most famous song of the West, was saved from oblivion by the late John Avery Lomax, noted Texas collector of folklore ballads.

Dr. Brewster Higley, a La Port, Indiana, doctor who went to the Kansas frontier, wrote the words.

The doctor’s poem was first published in the Smith County Pioneer in 1873, about a year after he wrote it. The tune was written by Daniel E. Kelly, a miller at Gaylord, Kansas.”

In “Cowboy Songs,” Mr. Lomax acknowleged my husband’s part in making “Home On the Range” a success. Hundreds of congratulatory letters poured in.

We felt happy that Mr. Lomax publicly acknowleged that it was Henri’s music that led to “Home On the Range” being a success.

I think Henri was very pleased, but being a very humble man, would never acknowledge that he had done anything great.

-Virginia Leberman, circa 1960

I met Ms. Pattie, an Australian native, in 2009 when I was writing a profile of Henry Lebermann, her former boss’ grandfather, for a series called “The Secret History of Austin Music.” As a music teacher at the Texas School For the Blind since 1901, Henry Lebermann mentored such future giants as Leon Payne, who wrote “Lost Highway” and other country classics, and whistler Fred Lowery. But the sightless visionary Lebermann had the most fascinating story of them all.

Before he was a teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann was a student there, enrolled in 1883 at age 10 and graduating in 1894. At that time, the school was located at the University of Texas “Little Campus” in what is now known as the Arno Nowotny Building next to the Erwin Center. The current location was built in 1917 on 73 donated acres.

During his time as a student, Lebermann benefited from the leadership of Superintendent Frank Rainey, who emphasized musical training as a way for the blind to make a living and appealed to the board to spend money on instruments. Rainey also encouraged innovative instructional methods and was overjoyed when one of his young teachers, Elizabeth Sthreshley, invented a Braille typewriter called the punctograph in 1890. Four years later, she married noted Congress Avenue photographer George Townsend and would assist him in his work with new X-ray technology. This is all cool Austin history stuff that I had to argue into the story about an influential unknown musician.

Besides music, Lebermann had a lifelong passion for growing and tended a vibrantly colorful garden until his death from congestive heart failure at age 68 in 1941. After graduating from the blind school, Lebermann moved to Alvin to become a farmer. But when his father and brother were killed in the 1900 Galveston hurricane, with Henry barely surviving, he moved back to Austin to carry on the work of his father, a noted composer and orchestra leader. Records show that Lebermann gave a classical music recital at the school in January 1901 and lectured on the life and work of Chopin in March of that year.

The Lebermann-led school orchestra was one of the finest in Austin and was hired in 1904 to play a concert at Central Christian Church welcoming new students to UT. There, a 33-year-old Lebermann met an 18-year-old church member named Virginia Carrington, whose father, Leonidas, owned the prosperous L.D. Carrington and Co. retail business on Congress Avenue.

After a year’s courtship, Henry and Virginia were married. Son Lowell Sr., who would become a doctor in Commerce, Tex., was born in 1906, with daughters Virginia and Jeanne soon following. As the family grew, the Lebermanns moved out of a house at 902 Manor Road and into a bigger place at 906 E. 23rd St., where they lived for almost 20 years. Both houses were torn down when the university expanded east.

It’s believed that Lomax visited the Lebermanns when they lived on Manor Road. Virginia Leberman (1886-1968), was a progressive thinker and painter who spent summers at the Taos, N.M., artist community as early as the 1930s. She also co-owned the successful Christianson-Leberman Photography business at a time when female entrepreneurship was rare. Among the subjects she photographed were Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.

“We are perhaps more properly balanced than most married people,” Virginia Leberman told The Dallas Morning News in a 1925 profile of her husband with the headline “Blind Genius at State Capital.” “Each approves so entirely of the actions of the other that there is no friction in our home.”

Such balance was also evident in their work together, as Virginia became strong at the things Henry couldn’t easily do. He listened to the records Lomax dropped off with earphones and called out the notes to Virginia. They worked side-by-side like this for hours every day.

But their work was not forgotten. “The original cylindrical record of the song has crumbled into dust,” Lomax wrote of the tune a black San Antonio barkeep sang for him after he sobered up. “But the music that Henry Lebermann set down from the record I made still survives.”

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