Trumpet players blew so hard to produce the slightest spit of sound that they almost passed out. Drummers snapped their sticks with all the rhythmic sense of a pair of tennis shoes in the dryer. The honks of confusion rang out in the music room on the first day of band practice.
It was 1950 and Austin native Alvin Patterson, a 27-year-old recent graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, sat in his office at Douglass High School in El Paso and wondered what he’d gotten himself into. The school had never had a band before. His thoughts turned to his mentor, B.L. Joyce, the larger-than-life band director at L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin.
Patterson wondered how the man he called “Prof” would handle the situation. He took a deep breath, thrust the door of his office open and stood firmly before his musical beginners, but the dissonance barely dispersed.
THWACK! Patterson brought his baton down hard on a table top. The room froze. “Rule number one,” Patterson intoned, sternly. “When I step up to the podium I want to be able to hear a pin drop.”
Patterson sits in his home office/Anderson High museum in East Austin and smiles at the memory. “I always thought Mr. Joyce was maybe a little too strict until I had to control a room full of kids with noisemakers in their hands,” says the 81-year-old recent retiree. “You’ve gotta demand discipline and respect or there’s gonna be chaos.”
The Anderson High School Yellow Jacket Band, whose lofty alumni include bop trumpet great Kenny Dorham and former Motown arranger Gil Askey, had only two directors in its 38-year history. Joyce founded the band in 1933 and ruled it with an iron baton until Patterson took over in 1955, when the old man was forced to resign because of a new statewide regulation that required high school band directors to have music degrees. That Joyce, who got his college degree in tailoring from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, didn’t step down voluntarily made for a rough return for Patterson.
“We gave (Patterson) some grief that first year,” says Joseph Reid, who played clarinet in Joyce’s last and Patterson’s first bands. “If there was anybody you could call a legend in East Austin during that time, it was B.L. Joyce.” Imagine replacing Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama or taking over “The Tonight Show” after Johnny Carson’s retirement. Several band members quit after Patterson’s first practices. But the 1940 Anderson grad didn’t shy from the challenge and was eventually able to carve his own imposing legacy until federal orders to desegregate closed Anderson, Austin’s historically black high school, in 1971.
Long before Janis Joplin sang at Threadgill’s and Willie Nelson got the heads and ‘necks together at the Armadillo, Austin’s reputation as a music town was forged by the Anderson High School band. Resplendent in uniforms as bright as a September sunrise, the Yellow Jacket Band would trek to the annual Prairie View Interscholastic League competitions and invariably come back with a trophy. Under Joyce’s directorship, the Jacket band won the state championship seven times from 1940-1953.
“If we got second place it was a big disappointment,” says Ernie Mae Miller, a tenor sax player with the band from 1940-43, who went on to a lengthy career as a singer/pianist. “We just sounded better than the other bands. When they called our name as the winner, we were like, ‘Of course!’ ”
For most of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the East Side was invisible to most of Austin’s West Siders. The predominantly black neighborhood on the other side of the freeway might as well have been a town far away. But when the Yellow Jacket Band marched down Congress Avenue, its presence was full and pronounced.
They would span the full width of the street, causing rubberneckers to jump back on the curb or else be swallowed up in their swagger of brass. “We felt like we were representing not only our school, but our entire community,” says Reid, who heads the Original L.C. Anderson Alumni Association. “When we sang our school song (‘When the days are dark and dreary/We are never blue or weary/ It’s ever onward, upward, forward, marching AHS’), we really meant it.”
The Yellow Jackets were the first black band to march at a Texas inauguration, for Gov. John Connally in 1959. They were the first all-black band to play in the Austin Aqua Festival parade a few years later.
Besides Dorham, Miller and Askey, more than two dozen future band directors, including Ray Murphy (Hobbs, N.M.), T.W. Kincheon (Caldwell High), Richard Elder (Taylor High) and John Whitehurst (Boulder, Colo.), passed through the ranks, but then so did such notables as Travis County tax collector Nelda Wells Spears, Dr. James Hill (chief of the University of Texas community relations department), John Q. Taylor King (former Huston-Tillotson College president and head of King Tears Mortuary), longtime H-T music department head Beulah Curry Jones and educator Charles Akins, who became the first black principal of a predominantly white high school in Austin in 1973.
“Teach the whole person. That’s what I learned from Mr. Joyce,” says Patterson, who spent 32 more years in education after the original L.C. Anderson High closed. (The current Anderson High, at 8403 Mesa Drive on the West Side, was built in 1973.) “Being in the band was more than just playing the right notes. It was about building character and leadership skills. If you didn’t toe the line, we’d put you out of the band in a second.”
Jazz turns the tide
A tailor who made custom suits out of his house at 1706 E. 14th St. and taught the trade at Samuel Huston College, Benjamin Leo Joyce was also a musician who played tuba in the Army band during World War I. With a desire to give black students the same kind of musical training given in the white schools, Joyce started canvassing East Austin in late 1932 looking for kids who wanted to play. He also solicited neglected instruments. An Austin trumpeter, William Timmons, had been teaching a community band over at the youth center on Angelina Street but he was soon off to join the Ringling Bros. circus band. Joyce recruited four Timmons students — Alvin Patterson’s older brother Roy, Hermie Edwards, Ulysses Fowler and Raymond Edmondson — as the core of his first AHS band.
Joyce made the uniforms that first year; no beginning band ever looked so snappy.
The players were expected to carry themselves in a manner consistent with their sartorial splendor. “Mr. Joyce didn’t put up with an ounce of foolishness,” says Ernie Mae Miller, whose grandfather Laurine Cecil Anderson was the school’s namesake. “You couldn’t play no jazz either.”
Joyce bent his strict “no jazz” rule only one time that Patterson could remember. “We were playing football against Wheatley (the archrival from San Antonio) and they were beatin’ us,” he recalls. “But even worse, their band was showing us up, playing all these hot big band swing numbers. So Mr. Joyce called me over and said, ‘What was that swing thing you were playing the other day when you thought I was out of listening range?’ I said that was ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s hear it.’ ” The band also did Cab Calloway’s “Fat Foot Flewzy.”
Miller, who was also in the band at the time, recalls that the crowd went nuts when the precise, militaristic Yellow Jackets of marches and grand overtures turned to swing and jazz. “It lit a fire under the football team, too. We ended up winning the game,” she says, with a hearty laugh.
When Patterson was in the band with Dorham and Askey, the trio and such friends as trombonist Buford Banks (father of noted local jazzman Martin Banks) and trumpeters Paris Jones and Warner “Rip” Ross would meet in the back yard of Patterson’s house at 1709 Washington Ave. to play improvisational jazz. Though Dorham went on to iconic status, replacing Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948 and co-founding the influential Jazz Messengers in 1954, he often deferred to the older players in the back yard jam sessions, especially Hermie Edwards, recognized as the baddest horn player in East Austin at the time. “Kenny was quiet, deep,” Patterson recalls. “Very thoughtful and perceptive.”
After being drafted into the Navy in 1942 and stationed in Boston, where his job was playing “Taps” as the body bags from World War II were unloaded, Patterson met up with Dorham when the trumpet player was in Billy Eckstine’s band. “He used to copy Erskine Hawkins when we’d jam in Austin,” Patterson says, “but he started getting into his own thing.”
Dorham, known for his dark trumpet tone and graceful melodic flights, died in 1972. But Patterson was able to hang with him one more time, when Dorham returned home, with fellow native Austinite Teddy Wilson and an all-star cast, including John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Dave Brubeck, to play the 1966 Longhorn Jazz Fest at the old Disch Field (next to City Coliseum).
When Askey made his triumphant return to Austin in the mid-’60s, he brought a trio of singers from Detroit to a party at the Hamilton Avenue home of his mother, Ada Simonds. “Everybody was pretty much focused on the Supremes,” Patterson recalls of the special guests. Askey’s credits include arranging and producing the likes of Curtis Mayfield, the Four Tops and the soundtrack to “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Whatever success Askey achieved, he was quick to credit Joyce. When the old man passed away in 1980, Askey, who currently lives in Australia, wrote a poem called “I Am an Extension of Him” for the funeral program. “Mr. Joyce lives on in the things I do, for without him there’d be no me,” it ends.
The impeccably-dressed, well-spoken Joyce came from an era, Reid says, when educators were bigger heroes in East Austin than footballers or singers. “The legends you heard about growing up were Miss (Lucille) Frazier, the English teacher and Mr. (Lawrence) Britton, the track coach,” says Reid. “Even going back to when I was in elementary school, the older kids would say, ‘Just wait until you’ve gotta take Mr. Pickard’s science class.’ Anderson High was the thread that kept the community together.”
The school was all black until the late ’50s when a handful of Hispanics attended. The first white student to graduate from Anderson was in 1970. The next year, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that favored busing as a preferred method of integration, the federal government sued the Austin school district and ordered district schools to desegregate. As the first federal suit following the Supreme Court decision, the Austin case was a national news story for several months.
AISD’s decision in July 1971 to comply by closing Anderson High, which had fewer than 20 nonblack students (out of a student body of about 800), “just devastated us all,” says Patterson.
The one-way busing — with black students sent to white schools, but white students not sent to black schools — especially rankled East Austinites. On the first day of the new school year, 121 former Anderson High students did not report to their new schools.
“It’s like they ripped the heart out of East Austin,” says Reid. “You wanna know when the neighborhood started going downhill? It’s when they closed Anderson.”
Patterson moved to McCallum High School, where many of the black students were bused, and remained a counselor in the community relations department until 1984, when he took a position as assistant to the dean at St. Edward’s University. He retired last June at age 80. Fittingly, a Juneteenth parade of marching bands ended at Patterson’s doorstep in East Austin, a show of appreciation for the 16 years he led the best high school marching band in Texas.
The building at 1607 Pennsylvania Ave. that housed Anderson High School from 1913-1953 burned down 20 years ago. Kealing Junior High now sits on the site. The original Olive Street location of Anderson (1907-1913) — which was originally named E.H. Anderson High for L.C.’s older brother — burned down in 1947.
But the brick building on Thompson Street, which housed L.C. Anderson High (renamed after the 1938 passing of its first principal) from 1953-1971, still stands. Anderson alum Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson has restored the running track and the football field on the west side of the school, but the building, which now holds the Boys & Girls Club and an alternative learning center, does not resemble a place that once anchored an entire community.
Sometimes when Patterson drives on that street, his mind brakes for memories. Other times he drives by and looks away, not wanting to revisit what used to be.
But it’s a special place, this building where Joyce passed him the baton, where he became a father figure to a family of students, just like the old man had been.
“Mr. Joyce was as strict as they come — you sure didn’t want to feel his wrath,” Patterson says. “But I think you’ll find that, deep down, kids want someone riding them, demanding the best out of them.”
The fumbling disorder of a band practice can, with the right guidance, evolve into the sweetest sound.
7. Bob’s Burden
People make the place. Consider the Austin music scene, where a hideous National Guard armory (Armadillo World Headquarters), abandoned furniture warehouse (the original Antone’s on Sixth), and a lumberyard (Liberty Lunch) transformed into low-rent live music palaces because of the bands that played, the people who ran the joints, and the crowds that couldn’t believe they’d found such paradise on Earth.
In 1978, a Jewish accounting student from the Houston suburbs went to a West Campus blues club called the Rome Inn. In time, he became protégé of the old black man who ran the joint. Thirty-six years later, there’s a bright red and white awning on a hot new club on South Congress: “C-Boy’s Heart & Soul.” Inside glows tribute in the form of a Sixties juke joint, with vintage waterfall lamps and classic R&B sleeves, to a humble man who loved the blues.
“So, who’s C-Boy?”
Steve Wertheimer spent more than half a million dollars and 18 months of his life in order to answer the question he kept hearing over and over for the official grand opening on New Year’s Eve, 11 months ago.
“If it wasn’t for C-Boy Parks, I wouldn’t be in the music business,” he told a couple who asked him about the name of the club, which opened amid much oohing and ahhing at the former location of dive bar Trophy’s.
Dressed in a white suit jacket that matched white eyeglass frames, Wertheimer was more guide than host on opening night, returning again and again to old pictures on the wall around a heart-shaped mirror. There reside photographs of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, playing a small stage in a packed club on West 29th, where Texas French Bread is now.
“Here’s a good one of me and C-Boy,” he pointed to a photo of a teenager with active skin and frizzy hair stretching out from under a cap. Next to him stands a black man 34 years his senior, with a big smile on his face. C-Boy grew up in Austin, but had a deep country accent.
“I grew up around black people,” explains the club owner. His father, Henry Wertheimer, owned the pharmacy on Rosenberg town square and many was the night little Stevie would ride with his dad to the “other” side of the tracks to deliver medicine to the elderly. “My dad taught me to respect everyone and to help whenever you can.”
Two years after Henry Wertheimer died in 2005, a middle school in Rosenberg was named after him. Many of his good deeds, including funding the school district’s free breakfast program, had not been made public until the dedication of the school in his name.
C-Boy Parks didn’t own the Rome Inn, where he came to work in the kitchen in 1967 when it was an Italian restaurant. But after it changed to a live music venue and he was promoted to manager, the Rome became C-Boy’s club, no doubt.
“C-Boy made everyone feel welcome,” says Wertheimer. “And he was always working.”
Two bedrock lessons learned by a young man who today owns Continental Clubs in Austin and Houston, buildings Downtown, pieces of successful restaurants including Perla’s and Elizabeth Street Cafe, the Lonestar Round Up car show, an auto repair business, and more. Even then, Wertheimer says his portfolio wasn’t complete until he honored C-Boy Parks with the club that bears his name.
“That’s always been my dream,” he says a few days into 2014. “I’ve been thinking about C-Boy’s for years and years.”
He’d drive by Trophy’s location, which had a brief run in the Eighties as one of Austin’s first Cajun restaurants (Big Mamou) and think, “That’s my C-Boy’s.” When word got out about his honoring Louis Charles “C-Boy” Parks, Wertheimer kept hearing from musicians who played the Rome Inn, whose heyday lasted only two years. Two spectacular years.
“You’re doing the right thing,” Jimmie Vaughan told him.
Wertheimer says he’s never been more sure about a business venture.
“He was a major part of my life for several years,” he says of Parks, who died in 1991 at age 66. “The Rome Inn has always been the standard, in my mind, for how to run a club.”
The blues scene integrated Austin like nothing before it, with UT students going to Charlie’s Playhouse on East 11th and bands like Clarence Smith & the Daylighters backing white singers. White blues musicians like Bill Campbell, the Vaughan brothers, and Angela Strehli sought out obscure Eastside blues players. Yet besides local African-American musicians W.C. Clark and Dr. James Polk, and deejays such as Tony Von and Lavada Durst, C-Boy Parks from East Austin had the greatest impact on the local blues scene.
“So, who’s C-Boy?”
There was a time, says Wertheimer, when everybody in town knew C-Boy Parks.
“He didn’t need a ticket or a backstage pass. If C-Boy wanted to go see Stevie Ray Vaughan or the T-Birds he’d just show up. And be treated like royalty.”
Antone’s, internationally renowned “Home of the Blues,” helped put Austin on the map, but from 1978 until its final blowout on April 20, 1980, the Rome Inn was the hottest club in town for local blues acts. SRV played every Sunday and Paul Ray’s Cobras had Tuesdays, but the hottest night was “Blue Monday,” with the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“Nobody would go down to Antone’s to see the T-Birds,” says former club owner Steve Dean, whose AusTex Lounge (at the current Magnolia Cafe location on South Congress) was a hub for roots rock. “But when C-Boy gave them Mondays, they slowly built it up to the point that if you didn’t get there by 8 o’clock, you might not get in.”
Billy Gibbons would take a busload of Houston friends to the Rome Inn on Mondays to see the T-Birds and immortalized the “fiend scene” on “Lowdown in the Street” from ZZ Top’s 1979 album Degüello: “So roam on in, it ain’t no sin to get low down in the street.” That same year, the T-Birds paid tribute to the lovable man in the sweat-stained blue T-shirt with slow harp instrumental “C-Boy’s Blues” from their debut LP Girls Go Wild.
“We went to all the clubs,” Wertheimer says, listing the Armadillo, Soap Creek, Antone’s, and Split Rail as regular haunts. “But there was something special about the Rome Inn. And that was C-Boy.”
Though there was no food service after the Italian restaurant closed, C-Boy cooked for the bands, who especially loved his “don’t need no teef to eat my beef” barbecue.
“He would work at the Rome Inn until 3am, have time to go home and take a shower, then he was back at the Night Hawk at 6am,” marvels Wertheimer. “He worked 20 hours a day.”
Parks staffed various Night Hawk diners for 45 years and was in the kitchen at Night Hawk No. 2 on Guadalupe in 1963 when Harry Akins became the first restaurant owner in town to integrate his dining rooms. He slept after his Night Hawk shift ended at 2pm, then was back at the Rome Inn by about 7pm to get ready for the crowd.
“C-Boy wasn’t there to party,” says Wertheimer. “He was there to work. But he had a blast, just being around all those people who loved him so much.”
The only time he’d take a break was when the T-Birds played swamp pop classic “Mathilda,” for which he’d cut up the dance floor.
C-Boy Parks had an especially patriarchal pull on Steve Wertheimer, who bugged the old man for a job until he was stationed behind the bar one night. Over the next few months, the pair became unlikely running buddies. There’s a photo of the two of them taking apart the bar after its final night.
Dean brought in floodlights and filmed the Rome Inn’s last waltz. He kept the footage on VHS somewhere in a box of tapes, but after C-Boy’s Heart & Soul opened, he found it and bought a VCR to watch it. Aside from eight seconds of live SRV that he sold to VH1 for a bio, the public hasn’t seen the footage. A collector of music memorabilia, Dean refuses to digitize the tape and put it online, but in it, a 25-year-old Stevie Ray Vaughan finds his power trio identity in the opening slot, and then the Fabulous Thunderbirds destroy the place with their swampy interpretation of Chicago blues. Dean’s footage also includes an interview with Parks, who speaks in such a country blues accent he’s a little hard to understand. You can feel the love he had for the Rome Inn and the people who made it.
Wertheimer graduated from UT with a degree in accounting in 1980, a bad year for Austin clubs in general and C-Boy Parks in particular. Not only did the Armadillo learn that it would close on the last day of the year, but C-Boy became “devastated” – Wertheimer’s description – when he learned the Rome Inn was closing at the end of its lease in April. The club’s owner, who lived in Burnet and only occasionally dropped in, had decided to shut down.
Parks also lost his job at Night Hawk No. 2, which closed in 1980, and worked at Night Hawk No. 1 on South Congress and Riverside, which burned down in 1985, and Akins’ eatery the Frisco on Burnet Road. During the next couple of years, Wertheimer dipped into his pocket a few times to help his friend pay bills, “but C-Boy was a proud man and didn’t like asking for money.”
“What he wanted to do was work,” says Wertheimer. “So me and a buddy bought him a [portable] barbecue pit and went into the catering business.”
Backstage, T-Bird Riverfests on Town Lake came well fed, but the jobs weren’t consistent. Then one day, Parks got a call from Hank Vick, who used to own Steamboat and other clubs. He’d just taken over the lease at Lake Austin boater hangout Ski Shores and wanted Parks to run the kitchen. “I don’t do anything without Mister Steve,” he told Vick. That’s how Wertheimer, who worked full-time as the controller for a real estate developer, received his entrée into the restaurant/club business, since Ski Shores also featured live music.
Vick, a legendary Austin raconteur who passed away several years ago, deserves his own story. Let’s just say he had to leave the country at some point, making Wertheimer the sole proprietor. With a lot of bills to pay – Vick had been writing checks on a closed account – Parks apologized profusely to Wertheimer for getting him involved.
And yet, if Wertheimer didn’t own Ski Shores, he wouldn’t have known the Continental Club was available in late 1987. The Schuler family, Ski Shores regulars, owned the building at 1315 S. Congress and approached Wertheimer about leasing the club.
“After the mess I’d gotten myself in, my first reaction was, ‘No, thanks,'” chuckles Wertheimer. “But working there with C-Boy every day started me thinking about the Rome Inn.”
Like C-Boy’s Heart & Soul 26 years later, Wertheimer’s Continental Club opened on New Year’s Eve.
After a near-disastrous first year, when Wertheimer recast the gritty Continental as a Fifties-style hamburger joint, the club started slowly finding its own identity. Key was Junior Brown on Sunday nights. Just as the T-Birds slowly built Mondays at the Rome Inn, Brown didn’t play to many folks in the beginning, and Wertheimer pulled money from the bar register to keep him coming back. After word got out there was a guy who sang like Ernest Tubb and played guitar like Jimi Hendrix, Sundays at the Continental became a thing in town.
C-Boy was there when his protégé turned things around and created the modern version of the Rome Inn. Then, in 1991, he was suddenly gone. C-Boy’s longtime girlfriend Frances called Wertheimer in hysterics to tell him the old man wouldn’t wake up. Steve bolted over to C-Boy’s place on East 12th and Airport Boulevard, but arrived just after the funeral home took the body. That was 22 and a half years ago.
“I think about him every day,” says Wertheimer.
Help people. That’s what Henry Wertheimer and C-Boy Parks taught their boy Steve. You help people to help yourself. Fill a room with music and folks who love it, and sometimes it becomes a palace. You’ve just gotta walk through that door.
His newborn daughter had him up at 4am again and after he put her down, Charles Attal knew he couldn’t go back to sleep, so he got dressed and walked the mile down the hill to Zilker Park. This was late September 2008 and the park’s Great Lawn was in the process of being transformed into the setting for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which would fill the park with 75,000 fans for three days the next week.
Since Attal books the festival as a partner at C3 Presents, you can imagine the amusement it brought to the overnight security team to see their boss standing in the field in the pre-dawn hours with a hose in his hand, watering the grass. Attal returned almost every morning for a week.
“Hand-watering is therapeutic,” says Attal today.
Gifted a facsimile of the groundskeeper shirt Bill Murray wears in Caddyshack by his partners, the local concert promoter calls Zilker Park a special place for him since he was a little boy and his uncles and their uncles would sleep there the nights before Easter and the Fourth of July to claim a section of picnic tables for the large, clannish Lebanese family.
“I’ve seen so much of the Austin I knew disappear,” laments Attal, “so knowing that Zilker Park will always be here was reassuring.”
It wasn’t until a few months later that he discovered his family’s deeper connection to Austin’s jewel. Attal’s great grandfather, Shikrey Joseph, was one of the brothers sent by their schoolteacher father from a mountain village in Lebanon to Austin in the 1880s and ’90s to avoid being drafted by the Turkish army during the years of rule by the Ottoman Empire. The first sibling to arrive was a 14-year-old Cater Joseph (b. 1867), followed soon after by John and Isaac, then Shikrey and Nahoum.
Attal knew all that. Because of the Joseph family’s rich influence in Austin – in the areas of fashion, real estate, entertainment, retail, and politics – the story of their humble roots is well-known. Yet not until Austin attorney Philip Joseph, Cater’s grandson, researched and printed out an 18-page history of the family, did Attal learn that their first relative to arrive was taken in and mentored by Andrew Jackson Zilker, a self-made millionaire in the ice business who bought Barton Springs and the surrounding 350 acres in 1901.
Philip Joseph found that information in a 1976 paper by retired schoolteacher Jeanette Fleishmeier, which is kept at the Austin History Center. Fleishmeier based her history on 1975 interviews with three of Cater Joseph’s 10 children: Eddie Joseph, Jennie Emmett, and Cecilia Norton. Their father told them that, besides giving him a place to stay, Zilker taught him math and bookkeeping and helped him with his English.
Fleishmeier’s account retraces the journey of a kid who, like so many, had his name shortened at Ellis Island. His real name was Cater Joseph Cater, and he was from a family of Maronite Catholics in the mountain village of Roumieh. After some time in New York City, his sponsor, Dajeeb Dieb, arranged Cater’s travel by ship to Galveston. From there, he took a train to Hempstead and then walked the final 111 miles to Austin with only a bag of “silver” that turned out to be worthless.
Perhaps A.J. Zilker saw a bit of himself in the hardworking Joseph, who bought wares in town, packed them on his burro, and traveled as far as Johnson City to sell them to farmers and ranchers. When his brothers arrived in Austin, they worked together as peddlers until saving up enough money to open mercantile stores and fruit stands, initially on East First, then Congress Avenue, and finally on East Sixth Street.
Zilker was born in New Albany, Indiana, on the banks of the Ohio River. As a cabin boy, he read Henderson Yoakum’s History of Texas and dreamed of making his fortune on the new frontier. At 18, he worked on a riverboat to New Orleans and eventually made it to Austin by ox cart and on foot in 1876.
A year earlier, the first drum of ammonia for the manufacture of ice made it to Austin from Galveston and Michael Paggi had already opened the city’s first ice house at Barton Springs, which had been discovered in 1837 by William Barton. Zilker was fascinated by artificial ice and got an entry-level job in a new plant at the end of Colorado Street to see how it was made. A few weeks later, he was the engineer and before the end of the year, he was leasing the plant, which he renamed Lone Star Ice Works.
Austin residents were skeptical that man-made ice would work, so Zilker staged a demonstration on Congress Avenue, with chunks of lake ice on one side and artificial ice on the other. The lake ice melted before the Lone Star ice and Zilker soon had more customers than one ice house – with a maximum output of 1,000 pounds a day – could handle. He soon opened ice plants all over Central Texas and also became Austin’s first Coca-Cola bottler.
Zilker and his wife, the former Ida Pecht, who grew up in Austin’s Germantown neighborhood (Red River between Seventh and 12th Streets), built a two-story house at the corner of Second and San Jacinto, in what was then called the 10th Ward. Cater Joseph and his brothers lived together in a red brick house just a block away, at what is now the site of the Four Seasons Hotel. They opened a confectionery in the front of the house and lived in the back.
“Lebanese are the direct descendants of the Phoenicians,” says Charles Attal’s father, “Lucky,” a noted antique dealer and appraiser in town for almost 50 years. “They’re the merchants of the world, building ships from the cedars of Lebanon. It’s in our blood.”
Land and liquor were the main areas of business for the proud new Americans (Cater Joseph became a citizen in 1900). After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, there were more than 20 liquor stores on East Sixth and Red River, and the majority were owned by Lebanese families. Twin brothers Theodore and Arthur Jabour opened a package store on East Sixth that served as the foundation for the Twin Liquors empire of almost 70 stores in Central Texas today.
Charles Attal’s grandfather Wolfred, whose father Augustus immigrated from Tripoli in the 1890s, sold booze out of the A&A Drug store he owned with his brother Gus. It was across the street from the Jabours’ concern, which caused serious price wars.
“But they were still friends at the end of the day,” laughs Lucky Attal. “That was just business.”
With the tight-knit Lebanese community in Austin, family was always the most important thing.
“We were always all together on holidays, weddings, and funerals,” he says.
Lucky’s mother Martha cooked a feast every day at the Hyde Park home she shared with husband Wolfred Attal. On special occasions, members of other Lebanese families – the Hages, Ferrises, Dacys, Zegubs – would drop by for a taste of the old country: cabbage rolls, grape leaves, tabbouleh salad, shawarma, and hummus. Martha Attal, whose mother died of a bladder infection when Martha was about 10, learned her trade from her stepmother Jenny, who married Shikrey when she was 15 and spoke only Arabic in the house.
“We were very proud of our Lebanese heritage, but we were Americans,” says Lucky.
The extended family was rich with the entrepreneurial spirit, especially Cater’s son Eddie Joseph, who owned two movie theatres on East Sixth – the Yank and the Iris – plus a string of drive-in movie theatres, a bowling alley, Campus Men’s shop, and tons of property in town. His home was at 1700 San Gabriel.
Eddie’s brother Harry Joseph also had his hand in many ventures, starting Centennial Liquors, running the Schoonerville hamburger joint (which became El Patio in 1954, opened by Shikrey’s son Paul), and buying two blocks of property on Guadalupe Street from the 2900 block north. Harry was close friends with Jamal Antone, who headed the Lebanese Federation from his Port Arthur import business. When Jamal’s son Clifford needed help relocating his blues club from Sixth Street where the building was to be torn down – and after a brief foray in North Austin – Harry went across the street and convinced the owner at 2915 Guadalupe Street to rent to Antone’s.
A Lebanese family, the Hages, owned the building and the land where the Armadillo World Headquarters put Austin on the national music map from 1970 to 1980. M.K. Hage Jr., whose sister Lee was married to Houston super lawyer and University of Texas
benefactor Joe Jamail, built the Medical Park Towers in the Sixties, so when a long-haired Eddie Wilson signed the lease for the Armadillo (at $500 a month) he did so in Hage Jr.’s plush office in the Towers. Hage Jr. wasn’t the most popular Austinite when he sold the land at 525 Barton Springs Road to a developer and the Armadillo was torn down to make way for an office building.
The Josephs received their greatest measure of national recognition in the Sixties when Joseph’s Men Shop at 217 Congress Avenue, owned by Cater’s sons Ernest and Philip Joseph, became known for supplying President Lyndon Johnson his custom-made Stetsons (Silver Belly Open Road model). President Johnson’s father, S.E. Johnson Jr., patronized that same block of Congress Avenue 50 years earlier to stock up on supplies at the Joseph Brothers’ Merchantile.
As vice president, Johnson ordered a pair of hats from Joseph’s for John and Jackie Kennedy, which he planned to give them in Austin the evening of Nov. 22, 1963. The names of the president and first lady were embossed on the inside bands. The Secret Service came by in early December to pick up the most somber of keepsakes.
Lucky Attal and Catherine Burke, of Irish descent, were married on Nov. 23, 1963. There had been so much planning that the date couldn’t be rescheduled, but since flights out of Texas had been canceled the day after the assassination, they spent their honeymoon
in the comfort of family.
Wolfred Charles Attal, born in 1967, was always known as Charles, but on a Pony League baseball team trip to Oklahoma with the Manchaca all-star team, he was teased by teammates after the announcer said, “Stepping to the plate is number four, Wolfred Attal.” Years later, when music agents discovered Attal’s real name, they started calling the 2005 winner of the Bill Graham Promoter of the Year award “Wolfie,” but Attal took the jibe as a source of pride. Some called his grandfather Wolfie, too.
More than half a century earlier, Andrew Zilker had planned to build a mansion at Barton Springs, but when his wife Ida fell ill in 1912 and died soon after, he abandoned the plan and stayed at the house on Second and San Jacinto. In 1918, he transferred the deed for 42.51 acres, which included Barton Springs Pool, to the city with the stipulation that it would donate $100,000 to the Austin school board. He also maintained a right of way to the Springs so his livestock could drink the water.
“We felt that it would be wrong for this beautiful spot to be owned by any individual and that it ought to belong to all the people of Austin,” Zilker said at the time.
He donated 300 more acres, including the land where ACL Fest takes place, to the city, which agreed to pay another $200,000 to the school board in 1932. A few weeks before his death in 1934 at age 78, the great man gave the city a third parcel, where Austin High School now sits.
The Zilker home was put up for sale in 1944 and bought by Eddie Joseph for an undisclosed sum. He tore down the old Victorian house and put an office building in its place to house three businesses: General Hotel Supply, Meyer-Blanke Dairy Supply, and Armstrong Automotive Supply.
C3 Presents, the concert promotion business Charles Attal founded with Charlie Jones and Charlie Walker, had its first offices across the street from that property.
Right next door from where Attal’s great grandfather Shikrey sold fruit when he first arrived in America.
Marijuana’s active ingredient THC is not harmful, the scientific tests that I choose to believe have concluded. But if you’re a member of the University of Texas Longhorns, pot is really bad for you. It’ll cause you to lose your dreams, as well as your scholly.
Forget that a Longhorns running back totally into Bob Marley won the Heisman trophy fifteen years ago or that a team of stoners brought a national championship back to Austin in 2006. This is a new regime led by a coach with zero tolerance- and one win.
Statesman football beat writer Brian Davis, whose writing is as flashy as his name, turns out to be a pretty good reporter. He scoured university records to find out that first year football coach Charlie Strong is a big fan of drug testing, going through almost twice as many lined plastic cups in 8 months as his predecessor Mack Brown did on average per year: 188 to 104. Brown usually tested players in the spring and mid-October, but never during training camp or before the season opener, Davis reported.
But Charlie Gotcha didn’t stop after testing 104 players from March 19-28, according to university records. On April 11, another 18 players were tested, then two on April 30, and one more on May 3. Fifteen tests in July were followed by 16 in August, when the players and coaches were living together in the dorms. “We drug test,” Charlie proudly proclaims. One helluva recruiting slogan.
Chief Strongbow has dismissed nine braves this season and suspended three, including Daje Johnson, whose Ramonce Taylor impression bombed like Henny Youngman at the Apollo. Daje is the Missing Link, with his blazing speed needed to spread the defense, which would loosen the box for our star (in high school, at least) RBs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. But we also need Da J to give recruits a 2014 highlight reel that consists of more than short passes and shorter runs. Then there’s the suspended- for unspecified reasons- Josh Turner, who is missed badly in a defensive backfield in a constant state of quandary, dig?
And let’s make this clear: the drug that makes players fail is marijuana. Cocaine and heroin last in your system just slightly longer than bad Chinese food, but traces of THC can be found in urine 45 days after someone hands you a joint at a Wiz Khalifa concert. The way this team has been weeded out, it seems that those not accused of raping were vaping.
Can’t have players who have smoked marijuana- they might screw up the coin flip. Or run a hurry-up offense with a 4-point lead and 4 minutes on the clock. (Maybe the coaches should be drug-tested.)
You don’t need to test me to know I’m a marijuana advocate; my phone’s contacts list looks like a yelp pizza index. The benefits of herb lap the detriments, especially in a sport where off-field violence is a major concern. Nobody fights when they’re stoned because, as comedian Bill Hicks pointed out, they forget what they were arguing about. Put the THC back in team?
Meanwhile, Longhorn Nation unanimously applauds Coach Strong’s heavy law and order approach. It’s good to see a black authority figure, for a change, coming down hard on young black men. (Don’t deny that there’s a racial element on that plantation with goalposts.) There’s even been talk of Roger Goodell seeking out Strong for advice on how to administer his five core values: 1) Honesty 2) Treat women with respect 3) No drugs 4) No stealing and 5) No guns. Seems to me that list is self-explanatory, but Goodell is so intent on keeping his $44 million job, through public relations, he’s also trying to set up a meet with Oprah or at least Liz Gilbert.
It’s also worth pointing out that then-Longhorn Cayleb Jones, now a star receiver for Arizona, would not have violated Charlie’s Core in 2012 when he coldcocked a tenis player who was chatting up #4’s ex-girlfriend. The Chuck Fiver leaves out a bunch of things, like treating the other half of the world’s population with respect.
Number three means any street drugs, even the ones delivered by bike messenger. Even the ones that help with stress and anxiety. Even the ones that make Foster the People sound good. It’s a rule and if you break it that means that you put yourself above the team and so you’re gone. It’s less a crackdown on potheads than players who think the rules don’t apply to them. I get that.
I love Charlie Strong, I do. He’s the best possible coach Texas could’ve hired since Kevin Sumlin wasn’t going anywhere and Art Briles hates UT. But I also think a great football team needs a few ME guys (also known as playmakers) on the field. Football is a crazy-ass sport. You’ve gotta not only be big, fast and strong, but you have to be fearless to succeed. We need a few guys that don’t count their items before getting in the express lane. I’m not saying Horns players shouldn’t be tested for drugs, but once they pass the mandatory group piss-off, why sneak up on them later? The players work hard for no money to allow Charlie Strong to make over $5 million a year. Let ‘em smoke some boo.
Everybody’s convinced that Charlie’s chocolate muscle factory is going to be churning out 12-win seasons as soon as he gets his own squeaky clean players in place. The best high school player in Texas, Mesquite Poteet LB Malik Jefferson, is leaning hard towards Austin after being sold on Strong. But if I’m a parent of a supremely talented athlete with his whole world ahead of him, do I want to risk him getting kicked off the team in a public humiliation and playing JUCO in Brenham if his urine isn’t pristine? “Zero tolerance” would scare me if I could see my kid making a mistake.
The Strong philosophy will attract some recruits and repel others, but the idea is that we want guys who embrace discipline and team unity. It’ll take time. Be prepared for a season where the Hook ‘Em Horns sign will also answer the question of how many wins we can expect. Today’s game against Kansas is going to be tough. I think the Jayhawks squeak one out, 19-17 and Texas limps back to Austin 1-3, with Baylor and OU up next. We’re all supposed to just sit back and applaud Charlie Strong’s cultural upheaval of UT football because we’re going to be great in a few years, but I’d like to propose an alternative to Coach Strong’s 5 core values. Follow these and we’re looking at 6-6, baby.
The 5 Cork Values
- Beat your man, not your woman
- No man-made drugs
- No assholes
- No 5-yard passes on 3rd and 10
- Beat Kansas for godssakes
September 2005: Hurricane Rita is threatening to postpone the fourth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. At the last minute, the 180 mph winds uprooting trees near the Gulf Coast take a turn before Central Texas, and, instead of a storm, Austin gets a heat wave, with temps reaching 108 degrees. Just past noon in Zilker Park that Friday, I seek refuge from the burning sun at the only stage with a roof that extended over the public.
The program tells me that a group from Bay City called the Jones Family Singers have just come onstage. An older gentleman with a James Brown step to his drawl introduces the group as his five daughters, two sons, and a grandson. Twelve-year-old Ian Wade then kicks it off with a fierce snare; the sisters in matching lime green shirts and jean skirts start to sway as if moved by a spiritual wind. For the next hour, I’m transfixed.
A live volcano in a forest of soul, Alexis Jones rears back and erupts with all the passion a voice can hold. In an era when popular religious music often sounds like reworked Mariah Carey, this family band packs the power of vintage black church music. Past the lyrics and the fervor, all the love, here was a supernatural talent daring you, “Tell me there’s not a God.”
As a lifelong rock & roll fan, I’d started waking up to find the Soul Stirrers, not the Rolling Stones, the Staple Singers, not AC/DC, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, not Prince, in my CD player after a night of partying. You know, those times when you want to keep adding power and energy in that hour before the heap? The unbridled jubilation of black gospel was becoming my night-melter of choice.
I thought my chance of ever experiencing that music live had passed me by. All the greats were dead or dying. And the best new music reinforced the idea that what happens in church, stays in church. The Jones Family had been singing and playing gospel music on the Church of God in Christ circuit for over 20 years before they torched the groove fields of ACL like it was gospel night at the Apollo.
That was eight years ago, and I’ve seen the Jones Family Singers dozens of times since. In church and in nightclubs, at South by Southwest and ACL, at festivals in front of thousands and in big, empty rooms. These women who work fixing hair or in child-care jobs became my Pentecostal Phish. I’d drive hours to see them because they had something I needed.
Some shows were better than others. Sometimes the crowd gets into it and sometimes they don’t know what to make of all that preaching. Either way, not once did the Family look like they’d rather be somewhere else. Neither was there a time when I didn’t walk away feeling a little more alive.
Gospel is freedom music, evolved from songs the original African-Americans sang in the fields of the antebellum South to soothe their souls. While they couldn’t sing openly about their desire to be free, slaves could rejoice in the story of Exodus, when the children of Israel yearned to be liberated from bondage. When slaves sang, “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land/Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go,” they did so with the vigor of deep personal connection.
The “hard gospel” style of the Jones Family can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century, when “shout songs” became synonymous with the Holy Ghost possessing a soul. After the Pentecostal movement, headed by the Church of God in Christ, was born on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906, churchgoers spoke in tongues, rolled in the aisles, waved their arms wildly, shouted “Hallelujah,” banged on instruments, and clapped their hands in sanctified percussion.
The Jones Family Singers come out of the COGIC music tradition of Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers of “Oh Happy Day,” though Bishop Fred Jones Sr. was raised a Baptist in Lake Charles, La. For nearly 30 years, he’s presided over the Mount Zion COGIC in Markham, just outside Bay City, where the Family live and work day jobs. Weekend soul-saving performances give sweet release.
Beginning in the Eighties as the teenaged Sensational Zionaires, the JFS played churches in and around Houston and recorded an album with original lead singer Cynthia Fray. When she moved back to Florida with guitarist-husband Eddie Fray, the band, wanting to separate itself from all the other Zionaires in the gospel field, became the Jones Family Singers. Earlier this year, they congregated at Jim Eno’s Public Hi-Fi studio and, with producers John Croslin and Eric Friend, recorded The Spirit Speaks, which comes out Tuesday.
Austin filmmaker Alan Berg (Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW), decided that his documentary on the Jones Family needed newer, higher-quality recordings than the band had made previously, hence The Spirit Speaks. Most of the CDs the JFS sell at gigs were recorded live in church.
Producer and Reivers frontman John Croslin had seen the JFS wreck a church at SXSW a few years earlier, but he didn’t know the power of this church family until he and Friend, the former Spoon keyboardist who does a lot of musical supervision work on Mike Judge projects, went to Bay City in late 2012 to listen to the band perform at a rehearsal at Mount Zion. I sat in the back row and proudly watched the Jones Family destroy the two producers for almost two hours. Croslin had no idea they were that good and, frankly, neither did I.
It was decided to concentrate on the talents of the singers and musicians instead of trying to re-create the explosion that is the JFS live. The band can be wonderfully all over the place in concert, with Alexis and Jones Sr. both slowing down songs to make observations and the group sometimes leaping from song to song like it’s an hourlong medley. Yet The Spirit Speaks contains 10 songs that each have a distinctive personality you’ll want to spend time with. This is the album this group’s been waiting three decades to make.
While the disc was being mastered in New York, the Jones Family volunteered its services for a Fourth of July festival in Brazoria, some 30 miles outside of Bay City. With the temperature at 103 and no shade for fans, the JFS played to a “crowd” of seven. This from an 8-foot-high stage in a field that could hold 10,000. The group put on a show as if there were people as far as the eye could see.
They sang, they danced, they vamped, and they even pulled out their encore number “(You Make Me Want to) Shout,” usually reserved for when the crowd just won’t leave until they hear one more. The smiles onstage were as broad as I recalled eight years earlier at ACL and although I can’t speak for the other six in the audience, I can testify that, once again, they brought out chills in the triple digit heat. That’s why the Jones Family remain one of the best live groups in gospel/soul music. They play for the people, yes. More importantly, they play as a family and for their Creator.
In this purity of purpose comes a simple truth: They can’t be tamed, those voices reaching out to heaven’s gate. The spirit can’t be contained.
Both gospel and blues came from “Negro spirituals” sung in the fields to keep the misery at bay. The Jones Family and other gospel musicians point out the huge difference in the genres. The blues singer is alone in this world – nobody knows the trouble he’s seen. The gospel voices are a family of faith anyone can join. You just have to believe there’s a force out there greater than you. Sometimes music is all the proof you need.
(originally published in Texas Super Lawyers Magazine 2014)
by Michael Corcoran
Tony Buzbee was a 22-year-old lieutenant just out of the ROTC at Texas A&M when he faced his Marine squad for the first time during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. If his men had any thoughts of testing the new “kid” commander in Kuwait, they were soon erased.
“There’s nothing you can beat me at,” Buzbee said to the group. “Not at boxing, or in one-on-one basketball, or in cards or a footrace. I’m stronger than you and I’m smarter than you. So don’t try me.” Any questions?
“That’s how you lead in the Marines,” Buzbee says two decades later in his large and sparse office that looks over downtown Houston from the 73rd floor. “You’ve gotta be fearless.”
Buzbee brings the same refuse-to-lose swagger to the law firm that bears his name—and he’s been able to back it up. “Prepare, prepare, prepare,” Buzbee says when asked how he uses his military experience in the legal field. “Then execute.”
Juries eat up the Tony Buzbee Show, a mix of homespun charm and vitriolic turns when he spars with a hostile witness or opposing counsel.
His epic battles against British Petroleum, which, Buzbee estimates, yielded more than $300 million in personal injury judgments for his clients in Texas and Louisiana, landed the Houston attorney on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2010. He may be the closest the Southwest legal field has to an action hero, and there’s even been talk of making a movie based on his fights with BP. Asked who he sees in the lead role, Buzbee smiles. He’s thought of that before. “Gerard Butler,” he says. Butler, the handsome Scottish actor (“300”) who drank his way out of the legal profession and onto the big screen, would have to work on the slight East Texas accent that Buzbee turns up in court when it’s to his advantage.
Competitive? Michael Jordan is competitive. Tony Buzbee is a psycho. He’s obsessed with winning. And with his landmark victories including the $75 million he earned for offshore drilling workers in a wage fixing suit, Buzbee’s not only earned respect, but in his 14-year career, he’s pocketed as much money in the courtroom via jury awards as Jordan made on the court.
“Tony Buzbee is the biggest, baddest, meanest dog in the yard—that’s a fact,” says Houston attorney Chad Pinkerton, who worked at the Buzbee Law Firm from 2005 until starting his own office in 2007. “But he’s also generous and he cares a lot about his people and his clients. He taught me everything I know about practicing law.”
A fashionably-coiffed Buzbee, looking ready for cocktail hour with his trademark ice-blue handkerchief peaking out of the pocket of a tailored suit, says, “I’m not the lawyer people hire because I have a cool website or a nice ad placement in the Yellow Pages. They hire me to beat the other guy… They get so (angry) that they say, ‘I’m gonna call Tony Buzbee!’ If that doesn’t send shivers up the spine of some pompous corporate lawyer,” he says with a big smile, “well, it should.”
Buzbee hates losing so much that he hasn’t been present to hear a jury’s verdict read since 2001. “It’s just too nerve-wracking. Thank God it’s rare that I lose, because when it does happen, I just want to roll up in a ball like a baby. The next day it feels like I’ve been beaten by sticks. My feeling is that if you can handle losing, you’re a loser.”
Buzbee drills younger attorneys on what he calls “the architecture of the case.” It’s all in the foundation and blueprints. “You don’t win a case in your opening or closing arguments,” he says.
Buzbee shrugs off his big victories and dwells on the few setbacks, including a political defeat when he ran for Texas State Representative in 2001. (“My last foray into politics.”) Winning is profitable, but you always learn more when you lose. “The first case I lost was a young girl who’d been burned at Wal-mart,” he recalls, putting the year in the late ‘90s, soon after he’s expanded from his first office in Galveston to downtown Houston. “Oh, I gave the best arguments,” he says. “My opening statement? You could’ve put it in a book. Cross-examination? Brilliant. Closing argument? Of the eight jurors, there were seven crying.” Buzbee’s excited cadence is reminiscent of a Southern preacher. “In each of the discreet elements of the case, I shoulda won. But I got poured out. The jury note came back: “Can we give this little girl money and still find Wal-mart not liable?” Buzbee knew he’d lost the case.
“I hate to lose, but what I won’t say is that the jury sucked,” Buzbee says. “What I won’t say is that the judge screwed me. It all comes down to the architecture of the lawsuit. That’s what I drill into all our young attorneys. The case has been decided before you get into the courtroom.” Preparation and putting yourself in a place to win: the Marine instincts have only become deeper ingrained. “It still all boils down to this: Have you presented a story that the jury buys into?”
Houston attorney Frank Spagnoletti, who has worked on cases with Buzbee and against him, has known the younger lawyer since he was a clerk just out of law school. “Tony Buzbee is a different cat,” says Spagnoletti. “But he’s leading the next generation of top lawyers in Texas. I’ve known Joe Jamail and John O’Quinn and Tony is a throwback to that era. He has the legal abilities, the financial abilities and, most importantly, the huevos that most other lawyers don’t have.”
At age 45, with four children and his wife Zoe, whom he met at A&M, Buzbee says he’s looking for balance in his life. Where does it come from, the unbridled tenacity, the hardcore competitive streak? Buzbee asked himself that a few years ago and went in search of the answers on ancestry.com. Then he visited the towns in Alabama where his people settled. “I found that I come from a long line of Buzbees with chips on their shoulders,” he says, “and it continues to this day.” He traced his lineage back to his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Reeves Buzbee, who was in jail in Coosa County, Ala., in 1860 at age 70 for murder. Tony Buzbee visited the jail and stood in one of the tiny cells for a long time, thinking.
Actually, he didn’t have to go back too far to find evidence of the Buzbee flame. “My dad is a true character,” he says of butcher Glenn Buzbee, who now tends the cattle ranch his son bought outside Atlanta, Texas, where Tony Buzbee grew up. During courtroom breaks, Buzbee loves to tell stories about his old man, like the time he wrestled a bear to settle a barroom bet. “He would not only fight at the drop of a hat, he’d drop the hat himself.” Tony Buzbee recalls one altercation that started when his father called the parents of a boy who had thrown some of Tony’s things out the window of a moving school bus. “The kid’s mother answered and my dad gave her a good cussin’,” Buzbee recalls. When the boy’s father heard about that, he called Glenn Buzbee back and threatened to whup him next time he saw him. “Come over RIGHT NOW!” Glenn yelled into the phone. “We waited and waited, and the guy never showed up, so we went to bed,” Buzbee says. About midnight, the man rolled up to the Buzbees’ and got out of his car. “He’d had a few beers for courage, I guess.” Glenn Buzbee jumped out of bed, charged outside in his underwear and clocked the guy on the side of the head. But he slipped on the dew and fell down, which gave the other father an opportunity to jump in his car and hightail it on out of there. Buzbee laughs as he recalls the sight of his father “chasing the guy for six blocks in his tighty whities.”
Buzbee was just an average student in high school, but he desperately wanted out of his small town in the upper right corner of Texas. “Going to A&M was really the turning point in my life,” he says. “Being from a podunk town, I wasn’t sure I could be as good as everyone else.” He took hard to the Corps of Cadets and earned the rank of commander of Battalion K2. “Our motto was ‘The best in every way,’ and A&M gave me the confidence to believe it.” Buzbee was recently appointed to the Texas A&M Board of Regentsl; he donated the money to build the Buzbee Leadership Learning Center for cadets on campus.
Buzbee went straight into the Marines out of college, a newlywed deployed to the Middle East. “It was tough on my wife,” he says. “In four years, I was home four months. But she’s a strong person and we made it work.”
Buzbee says he “ate, slept, breathed the Corps. Except for the fact that you couldn’t make any money, I’d still be in the Marines.” He would have liked to stay in long enough to break Chesty Puller’s record as the most-decorated Marine in history.
After his military bid was up, Buzbee attended University of Houston Law Center and graduated in 1997, the same day his first child was born. While at law school, Buzbee’s hero was UH alum John O’Quinn, best known for winning a $1 billion verdict against Wyeth Laboratory for its diet pill fen-phen. Quinn was also known for a fleet of cars—more than 600 luxury and vintage models—that would make Jay Leno drool.
When Buzbee started winning million-dollar judgments for his clients (taking 40% as his fee), he also started accumulating expensive cars. Then, O’Quinn died in a single-car accident in 2009 and Buzbee had a shift in priorities. “John O’Quinn didn’t leave behind any children. He didn’t have a wife. He just had all those cars,” Buzbee says. “I was thinking that if John O’Quinn could come back to pass on one last bit of wisdom, he would say, ‘Cars are just a bunch of metal.’”
Around the same time, Buzbee was starting to worry that he and his family were being defined more by what they had than what they did: “My kids would ask me what car I was driving that day because that’s what the kids at school wanted to know.”
Buzbee decided to donate all his cars to be auctioned off for charity, raising $2 million for Jesse’s Tree, which helps homeless people turn their lives around. “I kept only one car,” he says, with a twinkle that cues a punch line. “But it was a Maybach,” List price: $550,000.
Buzbee is rich beyond his dreams. But in his heart he’s still the son of a butcher from East Texas. “You remember those notes you used to pass around in school to girls? It would say, ‘Do you like so and so, check yes or no.’ When I was in sixth grade there was this girl I liked a lot, and when I got the paper back, under ‘Do you like Tony Buzbee?’ she had checked no. I was crushed.”
“It feels the same way when you lose a case. It’s the ultimate rejection.”
As Buzbee excuses himself to polish an opening statement he’s been working on for three weeks, the attorney he’ll be facing might wish that little girl from Atlanta, Tex. had just checked yes.
Last week, I came out of the Trader Joe’s on Bee Cave Road and as I started to drive away, a man next to a car with the front door open was waving for me to stop. He had a story. His wife (in the front seat) had just gotten out of the hospital and he needed to drive her to her family in Waco, but his debit card (which he showed me) didn’t work and he didn’t have money for gas. Could I give him $20 and write my address down and he would… I didn’t even listen to the rest. Sorry, man. I know a con and more times than not it requires gas money. Usually, they’ll be holding a gas can. When they should be holding an empty crack pipe.
When I got home, I called my son, a kind-hearted, gullible kid, who is away at college. I realized that I hadn’t sufficiently drilled into him that most people who approach you on the street asking for money are scam artists. “Don’t even think about it,” I told him. “Just make it a personal rule to never, ever give money to panhandlers.” If you stop to hear their plea it’s much harder to get away, so don’t even slow down.
Well, the kid was hearing none of it. He’s given his last dollar to a hobo and felt good about it. “He needed that money more than I did.” At that point, I realized that all the scratch I’ve worked hard for, and scraped together, and put into accounts that would make his life easier should I fall before my time, would be given away to scruffy alcoholics or con artists with a good line.
That’s why I’m staying at the Waldorf Astoria while I’m in NYC this week. The inheritance is in serious jeopardy. Better I run through it than Son Theresa hands it out.
Just about an hour ago I was at Trader Joe’s on Broadway at 72nd Street. (We’re spoiled Austin and I didn’t know how much until I went grocery shopping by subway.) So, after the 25-minute wait to check out, I had my bag of stuff the hotel marks up 2000% ($7.50 for a bottled water!) and was headed for the station when I saw a young man with long hair, wearing too much jacket for July, sitting on the ground, drawing. He had an old dial phone as a paperweight, holding down a stack of what looked to be drawings and notes. Big stack. “Starving Artist” was written on a piece of cardboard. He didn’t look up as I watched him draw. He didn’t even look up when I put a $20 bill in his little wooden box. “Bless you,” he said softly.
For $20 you could eat really well at Gray’s Papaya hot dog stand across the street and still get a nice bag of food at Trader Joe’s. For $20 you could also get pretty wasted on booze or high on drugs. It didn’t matter. He needed the money more than I did, so I gave him some. And when I was walking down those steps to the train, I never felt more like an artist myself.
by Michael Corcoran 7/15/99 Austin American Statesman
IT’S ONLY A BUILDING, and an ugly one at that, with bathrooms that would’ve been an issue at the Geneva Convention and a hippy dippy mural dominated by a pouring coconut.
It’s just a building, yes, but for the last 20-plus years it’s been a structure where musicians and fans were at their best. Physically, Liberty Lunch is not a comfortable place. Chairs are rare and waitresses are non-existent. But emotionally, no other nightclub has made its patrons feel more at home.
Liberty Lunch was our Armadillo World Headquarters, and to think that we let another living landmark disappear only points to the fact that the times are changing. It’s the high-tech industry, not music, that wags the Austin of today. After one last night of revelry July 31, the Austin music scene will take a big step toward being like everywhere else. We’re losing something very special and all we can do is stand by and watch.
. . . And remember. The corners of our minds have been enriched by the music and comraderie of the bare bones club, so we asked the principals to help us tell the story of the Lunch. We also polled folks on their all-time favorite Liberty Lunch concert. “There were so many great shows,” Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes said, “but the thing that really sticks in my mind is the people who ran the club. They were always smiling, always wanting to help you. When you came to the Lunch you felt welcomed.” Owners J-Net Ward and Mark Pratz have never allowed their customers to be frisked and when heavy metal act King Diamond demanded that audience members be patted down one night in the ’80s, the Lunch let them keep the $4,000 deposit and canceled the show.
Let’s consider our loss and think of that gorgeous building that was more about the music than the money. In the impending roar of the bulldozers, only the memories will remain. But thanks to those who kept the doors open through three decades of change, those recollections are almost enough.
Last Chance Countdown
Tonight: Sleepwalkers, D-Rez, Playdoh Squad
Saturday: The Scabs, Funky London, Hayter’s Beach
Tuesday: The Samples
Wednesday: Missing Ingredient
July 22: Beto y los Fairlanes, Uranium Savages
July 23: ‘Gloria’-thon
July 24: Joe Ely, David Garza, Doctors Mob, the Brooders
July 30: Bob Mould
July 31: The Toadies
LIBERTY LUNCH: An Oral History
by Chris Riemenschneider & Michael Corcoran
From the Austin American-Statesman, Oct. 7 1978: “Liberty Lunch has thrived for the last three years in a little bit of building on West Second Street that once was a dilapidated wagonyard. It had two condemnations: One from the health department and one from the fire department. But that was before Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton took over. As founders of Liberty Lunch and then Esther’s Follies, the two have been part — if not a cause — of a minor social revolution in Austin.
“At first, Liberty was just a lunch spot catering to all downtown types. But as soon as they saw the place, Sedwick said, she and Shelton knew they would convert the Lunch’s vast outdoor area into a performing and eating area. As a result, Liberty has become a night spot with an open-ended range of entertainment. Groups such as Beto and the Fairlanes may play one night, Bobby Bridger the next. There are evening poetry readings, human rights benefits, theatrical and dance acts. Eclectic is the word.”
* MICHAEL SHELTON, Esther’s Follies founder and Liberty Lunch co-owner 1975-1979: We went around with Bill Smith, a local realtor, looking for a place and the (Liberty Lunch) site looked just bad enough that we might actually make a successful bid on it. Right before we got there, it was a flea market, and it wasn’t a very good flea market. Of course, it started out as part of the Calcasieu Lumber Co., the city’s first and biggest lumberyard. The company is still around, out on Burleson Road.
We opened on Dec. 6 in ’75. We were going to call it Progressive Grocery, but when we were scraping the paint off the front of the place we found the name Liberty Lunch underneath. That’s what it was called sometime after World War II, when the Texas Lighthouse for the Blind served lunches from there. . . . The whole “liberty” idea kind of fit during that first summer, ’76, the bicentennial. That’s when we started performing skits and having bands. We’d have burger cook-offs and gumbo cook-offs and all kinds of back-yard parties that celebrated Americanhood.
* JOE ELY, Austin music veteran: In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a lot of the clubs transformed and became something else. Places like the Chequered Flag and that club on San Jacinto and the One Knite, which is now Stubb’s, and of course Soap Creek. It was a special time. You know, you could go out and see the Thunderbirds or Stevie Ray or Townes on any given night.
Liberty Lunch is really the only place still around from back then, except for Antone’s, which of course isn’t where it used to be. I used to go out to Liberty Lunch when it was still a lumberyard. There’d be people playing among the 2×4’s. It was real cool, really a part of that old Austin feeling. I think in a lot of ways, Liberty Lunch became what the Armadillo started out as.
* SHANNON SEDWICK, Esther’s Follies/’75-’79 co-owner: That first summer was incredibly hot. A friend of ours who we did theatrical stuff with on campus, Doug Dyer, came back into town. Doug started “Stomp” (the “Hair”-like rock musical, not the current Broadway hit). It was so hot, we did a water ballet on land and told everyone to come in their swimsuits. Doug did this whole thing where it looked like he had wet his pants and water started spewing on everyone. We had Richard Halpin, too, who now runs the American Institute for Learning and is quite an upstanding citizen but was really just a crazy hippy like the rest of us back then. We’d have a band booked like Shiva’s Headband and we would do stuff like stand on the roof with light fixtures on our head and just walk around — you know, wow, performance art or whatever.
The restaurant part of it really took off. It was mostly Cajun/creole food, muffaletta, gumbo. Our chef at first was Emil Vogley, who quite fittingly made a performance out of the food, too. Texas Monthly had discovered us before we were ready, and things really got out of hand. The bands at night really started taking over, too, especially Beto y los Fairlanes and the Lotions.
* ROBERT ‘BETO’ SKILES, Beto y Los Fairlanes: I really think those early days at Liberty Lunch were the Big Bang of the Austin music scene. What went on there evolved into the various body parts of Austin music. For us (Beto y Los Fairlanes), it was building a bridge to the Latin music world, which was on the other side of the tracks at the time. The crowds were amazing, too. We’d play to half-dressed, sweaty people dancing barefoot on the ground, who were all eager to dance. That was it. It all had this tribal sort of feel.
* MAMBO JOHN TREANOR, percussionist for Beto y Los Fairlanes: The tropical-themed mural was inspired by the early Beto shows at the Lunch. Starting in the late ’70s, we played every Thursday and the people would come out in droves to dance to salsa music. The floor was pea gravel and when everyone was dancing there’d be a big cloud of dust. At the end of the night you could write your name on my drums — there was a layer of dirt.
There wasn’t a roof until the early ’80s, so if it rained, the gig would be canceled, which was a drag because we were making good money. We had a pretty big band and each member would make $150-$200 every Thursday. Four of us lived in a big house at Sixth and Oakland, where the rent was only $250 a month, so we could survive on the Lunch gig alone.
* MICHAEL SHELTON: By the time we sold it (’79), the money had really shifted from the lunch crowds to beer and bands at night. The look of the place was changing, too. They had brought in the roof from the Armadillo, and Doug Jaques painted the mural around that time. When we left, it wasn’t doing too well. I think they had some real lean years there for a while.
* SHANNON SEDWICK: The whole time we were there, the city wanted to shut us down. A month after we moved in there, the city took over the property and they would have run all over us then except we had a lawyer who helped us out and wound up talking the city into renting the building to us. Even then, they didn’t want us. It seems like ever since that first month, Liberty Lunch has always been a point of contention with the city.
CHARLES TESAR, lease holder/bar owner 1979-1993: I persuaded the City of Austin to renew a lapsed lease for the property in 1979, with Shannon and Michael. The lease was only for one year: a limited term condition that persisted throughout the 14 years I held the lease.
The first task was to dismantle the lumber stalls and build a stage. Opening night was St. Patrick’s Day, 1980, with the Uranium Savages. They, with Beto and the Fairlanes, the Lotions and Extreme Heat, kept us from going under in 1980. Since the Armadillo started outbidding us for our most productive bands in late 1980, I wasn’t too dismayed to hear that the owner had sold the property in 1981, and Pee Wee Franks had demolished the structure. A different plague was visited on us the same year. After the Memorial Day floods, it rained just about every night through that summer. By the fall, I was able to get a loan to buy the girders, trusses and beams from the Armadillo. With some advice from Pee Wee (a demolition expert) we dug the holes for the foundation, set the I beams and connected the trusses to support a new roof. City inspectors were appalled with the work, as was I, but it passed inspection nevertheless. Everybody I knew helped put the structure up, and it was met with round denunciation by most customers, particularly since the clear roof and huge crowds created temperatures well over a hundred.
* KIRK WATSON, mayor of Austin: My first six weeks in town, I saw Beto at Liberty Lunch at least four times. The one thing I remember, besides all the music and dancing, was that everyone was so proud of that dadgum roof. I kept thinking “What’s the big deal about a roof?” But since it came from the Armadillo, there was a sense that the torch had been passed to Liberty Lunch.
* MIKE MCGEARY, the Lotions: I remember a lot of our people weren’t happy about the roof. Part of the vibe of the place was that whole under-the-stars thing. The Lotions really were the first reggae band in Austin, so it made sense that we played outdoors. It didn’t matter too much to us, because I think we were the only band that had a rain guarantee. We got paid even if it rained. That was the kind of pull we had back then, because we brought in good money. We’d play every Tuesday night, and we’d pack the place. I mean, they’d have to stop letting people in. That went on for about three years.
* MARK PRATZ, booking/co-owner 1978-present: I started as a doorguy, and then a co-manager and manager. Eventually, we started bringing in road shows and I worked out a deal to get a cut of the door. The first road show was Michael Martin Murphey, who did great. Then it was the Ricky Nelson show, which was a trip to see because all these 50-year-old groupies showed up.
(By ’81 or ’82), things really changed. A lot of people were still pissed off that we put a roof on, and that just killed the open-air vibe for all the old hippies. They stopped coming. And around that time, emmajoe’s closed, so we started doing a lot of folk. We’d have Townes and Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. I remember seeing Lyle in the front corner of the little building, where the offices are now, and thinking, “There’s no way this guy’s going to make it.”
* LOUIS MEYERS, booking 1982-’88: Mark and I started Lunch Money Productions and tried for a little pre-Tim O’Connor empire. At one point, we were booking five places, including the Continental Club, Texas Money (where Emo’s is now) and a bad Mexican restaurant called Casablanca’s.
At Liberty Lunch, we hit this whole reggae/world-beat wave. We brought Burning Spear in on a Wednesday night with a $2,000 guarantee and it turned out to be a huge success. We really had a few magical years with it. All you had to do was put “direct from Africa” or “direct from Jamaica” on the marquee and at least 600 people showed up. We had King Sunny Ade, Sonny Okosun. There was just a whole swelling of support. Waterloo Records would help us promote them. Michael Point did a tremendous job covering the scene in the Statesman. It was a real communal era.
* PAT MACDONALD, formerly of Timbuk3: The first time we played there was in the afternoon, and it was a totally different scene than it is now. There were a bunch of old hippies in there, and their dogs, too. It really felt like it had more to do with the Armadillo generation. I liked the sound better back then, before they put the roof on. You could turn the low-end way up.
Sound seemed to be an issue there for us. We were opening for Jonathan Richman, and he made us turn down the volume. He walked out to the sound board and did it, we had no idea, except that all of a sudden people stopped dancing. I met Jonathan years later and thought he was a real nice guy, but man, for a while there I had sort of a low opinion of him.
* CHARLES TESAR: Our only experience with Stevie Ray (’80 or ’81) was not a good one. I guaranteed Double Trouble $300 for a concert and we only made $150 at the door and had to give him the $125 out of beer sales, so we still owe him $25. Maybe we’ll pay up with some flowers for his statue some day.
* LOUIS MEYERS: The Neville Brothers were the act for us for a while. In ’85, we had them doing two sets a night. We probably were getting them a lot longer than we should have, but each time we would just bump up the price a dollar or so and everybody would show up and the vibe would be just magical — for the band, the fans everyone. Then we lost them one year to the Terrace, and it didn’t work for them over there. It just didn’t work.
* STEVE COLLIER, singer-guitarist in Doctors’ Mob: Mark Pratz ran the Continental Club, and he’d have bands like Poison 13, the True Believers and us play there. Well, when he left, that scene sort of moved over to Liberty Lunch. It set the stage for what the place would become (in the latter half of the ’80s), which was that whole college rock, indie band kind of scene.
We got to open for a lot of great bands. We opened for the Replacements the night of the fires. We opened for Husker Du a couple times. I remember when we opened for NRBQ, we did it as this sort of alter-ego band called Free Flyte that did all the bad ’70s covers that you could think of. Nobody there for NRBQ knew that we were kidding, though, so literally we had people throwing stuff at us and booing.
* SCOTT ANDERSON, Doctors’ Mob manager and bartender since ’93: The night of the fires was definitely the most fun thing I remember. It was the Replacements, Poison 13 and Doctors’ Mob, sometime in the winter (Jan. 19, 1985). They moved the stage back by to where the door is now because it was warmer, but it was still cold as hell. The roof was still open then. You had all these people huddled together watching these bands, and three metal trash cans that eventually had fires in them. What a fun night. The Replacements knew some of the guys in Poison 13, so they were all in good spirits. And they weren’t too drunk, you know. They were in that middle ground where they were always best.
* STEVE DEAN, owner of Under the Sun: I had this thing for a while where, for the people that I liked, I would hiss when they were on stage. I’d do it to Marcia Ball, you know, and she’d make some kind of comment toward me and laugh. One night the Tailgators were playing, with Keith Ferguson. My friends and I were drinking, but not too bad. I hissed, and Don Leady took offense to it. He jumped down from the stage and swung at me. I tried to explain, “Hey man, it’s just a joke,” but he came at me again, and we were down on the ground kicking and fighting. The bouncers broke it up pretty quick, but I’ll never forget it.
* GIBBY HAYNES, singer Butthole Surfers: Before they had the fenced-in patio off to the side, you could drive through it. I remember one night some crazy dude almost plowed his car through a bunch of people. He slammed on his brakes and stopped about a foot from the people and he started laughing. It really pissed me off that he thought almost killing someone was funny, so I went over and swung at him. I didn’t know that the window was rolled up, so my hand went right through the glass and sorta nicked his face. It didn’t hurt at all. My friend was going “Your hand’s broken, man” and I didn’t feel anything. I went back in the club and had a beer. Meanwhile, the idiot in the car peeled out and almost killed a couple more people. He turned the wrong way down Second Street and was never heard from again.
* HENRY ROLLINS, singer Black Flag: I swore I’d never come to Austin again. We were playing at Liberty Lunch (about ’86), and I got to watch the crowd, mostly white, single out one black guy and beat the (expletive) out of him. And when I said something, everyone got pissed, so we left. It was ugly. I couldn’t believe that would happen in Austin. I thought Austin was different from the rest of the Sieg Heil (stuff) in Texas.
* BYRON SCOTT, Do Dat guitarist: During the ’80s, there was a thriving funk-rap scene that was sorta based out of Liberty Lunch. Do Dat, was part of that, along with Bad Mutha Goose, Bouffant Jellyfish, Retarded Elf, Def M.F.’s, who am I forgetting? The first big concert that showed that rap could work at the Lunch was when Run-DMC played there in ’84 — at the height of their popularity. Do Dat opened that show and Eloise Burrell — a jazz singer who started doing hip-hop because it was the hot thing — played right before Run. It should have been us second, her first, but it was alright, the place was already packed when we came on. I mean, I haven’t seen the Lunch so crowded as it was that night. You couldn’t move in the audience. As it turned out, they couldn’t move onstage either. When Run and DMC hit the stage, they started their usual jumping around, getting all hyped, but the Lunch’s stage was kind of flimsy, not really reinforced, and the records kept skipping. They stopped the show and tried to move the turntables away from the middle, to see if that would be better, but every time the guys moved the records kept skipping. So finally, Run-DMC had to do their show standing in one place. You could see how frustrated they were, because they were accustomed to running back and forth, back and forth. But the crowd went nuts anyway. It was “big time rap comes to Austin” and they were eating it up.
* LOUIS MEYERS: We even had wrestling matches one night. It was the “Rock and Wrestling” show, and Will (Sexton) & the Kill and Dino Lee would get on stage in between the matches. One of the wrestlers was Shawn Michaels, who I guess is big in the wrestling world nowadays. Yeah, that’s one night that definitely stands out.
* MARK PRATZ: For a lot of the ’80s, it seemed like we were the babysitters of the Austin music scene. All along, we were one of the few all-ages clubs and town, and parents were always dropping their kids off and leaving them with us. I guess they thought it was a safe place or something like that.
* Correction in the Austin American-Statesman, Aug. 22, 1985: “Liberty Lunch, the popular nightspot on West Second Street, will not be closing in October, as was reported incorrectly in a story Tuesday. Although the land is owned by the City of Austin, and is expected to eventually become part of the new City Hall, the club will remain open at least through October 1985, and possibly longer.”
MARK PRATZ: They were first going to tear us down in ’85, but then the depression hit Austin and the economy went (down the tubes). We did alright, though. In ’88 or ’89 we got our first five-year lease. Of course, the leases always had the 188-day move-out stipulation if they wanted us out.
* JOE ELY, on his 1990 album “Live at Liberty Lunch”: I had been playing with (David) Grissom and Davis (McLarty) and Jimmy Pettit for about five years, and it got to that point where I felt like I needed to catch the energy. We had been touring so much, it seemed right to do it at a place that felt like home. I did it without any record company knowing about it. I just tore down my recording studio, packed it up in a truck and parked it out at Liberty Lunch with James Tuttle running the board. We did it over three nights, and sure enough, the first night was a disaster. I was screwing up lyrics. We all had that feeling like, “Oh, I gotta play this right.” It was a real nervous energy. The second night was a lot better, and so was the third, so that’s what you hear on the album. . . . I had just finished with my two albums for Hightone at the time, and they didn’t want to release a live album for whatever reason. In the end, that was the album that made (MCA Records president) Tony Brown want to sign me again. Those recordings really shaped the next decade or so in my career.
* DAVID GARZA, former Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom singer: Our first gig there was in March of ’90. It was sort of a rite of passage. It was where my big brothers had seen Burning Spear and Bad Brains, you know, it was very cool. And around the time that we started playing there, everybody like Shoulders, Ed Hall, the Wannabes, Poi Dog (Pondering) and Stick People were playing there. I guess in the early ’90s, there was really a happening local scene there. It was the Armadillo of our generation. I always thought of it as the Willie Nelson of Austin venues, that one infallible place.
It was also the very first place I played as me. Before Twang Twang broke up, we were filling the place up on weekends. It was great. Then I went and tried to play there all on my own, and maybe 100 people showed up. . . . Liberty Lunch don’t lie.
* KEVIN McKINNEY, singer-guitarist of Soulhat: Our good shows there were probably from like ’93-’94. We did some of those Summer Solstices with Joe Rockhead and others, probably the Ging’breadmen. Those were fun. For us, Liberty Lunch seemed to be mainly the place where all the good road shows were. Sonic Youth, Fugazi, the Flaming Lips — all the bands too small to play the Erwin Center played there. We even got to open for John Lee Hooker there, and Johnny Winter, which was exciting.
I guess (the road shows) made it more of a thing for local bands to get there. It was something to set your sights on, a step up the ladder, playing Liberty Lunch on a weekend night. My only wish is that they had a toilet in the backstage area, or at least more private facilities. I guess that was part of the duty, having to sit on the toilet in front of everybody (in the men’s room). “Are you going to play `Stinkpot?’ ” “Yeah, I’m playing it right now.”
* MARK PRATZ: Nirvana (Oct. 21, 1991) was when we really started getting into (capacity) problems. We were just trying to be polite and letting everybody in, and we wound up with about 1,400 people with what was then a much smaller room. I remember there were people coming through the ceiling. They were climbing up the pecan tree out front and dropping through the skylights. You’d look up, and there would be people sliding down our poles like fireman. Kurt didn’t do anything crazy, they just played a great show.
The Alanis Morissette show was crazy, too. We didn’t sell advance tickets just so we could (mess) with scalpers. That’s another ongoing Liberty Lunch tradition, battling scalpers. Well, we of course wound up with a long line of people waiting outside and this major monsoon hit. We were handing out cardboard boxes and anything for people to cover themselves, and they all waited. The same thing happened for Beck, too, it rained like that again. I remember rain pouring in from the roof where it was open and kids just dancing underneath the (skylights) like it was part of the show.
* MARTHA GUTHRIE, doorwoman since ’93: I think something probably only the employees know about are the rodents who have shared Liberty Lunch over the years. We had a white rat we’d always see. One night we watched him and a few other rats dance. It was during some bands soundcheck, they just ran out on the dance floor and started spinning around. There was a porcupine, too, that always came around. It would sleep in this fruit basket in the back by the bathrooms, and sometimes we’d walk by and it would hiss at us. We really just learned to co-exist with them all.
* ALAN TUCKER, bartender since 1989: We had pot plants growing in the parking lot once. I assume they just came from people flicking their buds onto the ground out back, and there were seeds in them. But yeah, here were these 2-foot pot plants, on city property, a block away from City Hall. Of course, we did our duty and destroyed them, for the sake of the city.
* MARK PRATZ: In ’93, there was a whole nasty lawsuit (by an injured fan) and problems with the city, and they weren’t going to renew our lease. So I wrote a proposal for our renovations. We tore down everything, added the new wall (by the front door), fixed the leaks, the bathrooms, worked on the stage. Finally we got everything up to code, and $100,000 later we thought we were sitting pretty.
By ’97, we signed a five-year lease. The very next day I opened the paper and saw a new plan for city hall and lots more on . . . guess where? We’ve always had a feeling that we were living with a terminal disease over here.
* Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 10 1998: “. . . Last week, the Austin City Council voted to move ahead with a plan to turn Liberty Lunch’s property at 405 W. Second St. into the headquarters of a high-tech company. The city owns the property, so there’s little (J’Net) Ward can do. Her lease gives the club at least six months leeway before it has to close, and all signs are suggesting that the city won’t allow much time beyond that. It’s a now-classic tale of old Austin vs. new. Computer Sciences Corp. is offering thousands of jobs, millions of dollars and the attraction of turning the area along West Second and Third streets into a bustling business/city hall center. Liberty Lunch, with its piecemeal roof taken from the old Armadillo World Headquarters and the fading, tropical mural that adorns its walls, can offer the city only a touch of character and a beer garden full of good times.”
* J’NET WARD, co-owner and primary operator ’97-present: It doesn’t fully sink in until I think about the building being demolished. I think, “Oh, God, what about the mural? What about the backstage area where Dale (Watkins, a late employee) gave Dolly Parton his jacket because she was cold, or the riser where Mark had to hold up the members of the Replacements because they were too drunk to stand?” There are so many memories, so many of them good. We’ll still have them, I guess, but they just won’t be the same without the building here.
* JOE ELY: Mark and J’Net are really what attract many of the performers to Liberty Lunch . They’re just good people. It’s easy to tell the good ones, especially in this business. I think if they’re still running the place, wherever it is, it will be Liberty Lunch.
* MARK PRATZ: The thing that has always touched me over the years is when the show is over and everyone’s leaving, they’re smiling and they say, “Thank you.” That happened a lot in the earlier days, and it still happens. I hope we get it at the new place, but I don’t know. I think that’s just what that old building does to people. I mean, what other club in the city or in the country do people say, “Thank you,” as they’re walking out the door?
Interviews by Chris Riemenschneider and Michael Corcoran
*KIRK WATSON: The Yellowman show in ’84 or ’85 really sticks out because it was the first time Liz and I had ever heard live reggae music. A fellow lawyer, Steve Selby, was a reggae fanatic — he’d even sent out a memo with a reggae glossary — so at his encouragement we saw Yellowman and we were just blown away. He wasn’t one of the biggest names in the biz, but everyone at the show seemed to know all his songs. We were part of this communal musical experience and it was intense.
* MICHAEL POINT: For me, Liberty Lunch will always mean The Spear, burning brightly into the early morning hours with an audience of dedicated dreadheads so perfectly attuned to the hypnotic reggae anthems booming out from the stage that it seemed more like a religious ritual than a concert. The Lunch transcended eclecticism — who else would book Bill Monroe, Run DMC, Count Basie, k.d. lang and King Sunny Ade, not to mention the litany of cutting-edge rock thrashers — but the reggae revolution of the mid-’80s consistently filled the club (and the street) with the fervent faithful and that’s what I remember best. There was an air of discovery, as well as a special aroma in the air, as acts previously known only through radio and recordings, both the famed, such as the dynamic double bill of Toots & the Maytals and Yellowman, and the esoteric, such as the Twinkle Brothers and Tenor Saw, appeared on a steady basis. The rapidly expanding local reggae fan base was still holding awestruck conversations about last week’s Michigan & Smiley or Mutabaruka show when Sugar Minott, Big Youth, Eek-A-Mouse or some other reggae sensation came to town. It was a relentless riddim assault and The Spear ruled supreme over it all .
* MICHAEL CORCORAN: I’ve seen more great shows at Liberty Lunch than at any other venue, including several magical Neville Brothers concerts, an incredible Ween show, NRBQ, Fugazi opening for Bad Mutha Goose and that great Foo Fighters/Spearhead double bill from ’95, but the one concert that was pure ecstasy from beginning to end was when D.C. go-go band Trouble Funk played in ’85. This was an era when most funk or soul bands were dressed like space men with these ridiculous, shiny costumes and Trouble Funk came out in cut-offs, jeans, tank-tops and just rocked the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire into oblivion. T. Funk had a big following in Austin, thanks to their show with the Big Boys at Club Foot — one of the all-time legendary nights of music in town — and they seemed genuinely turned on by the audience response. I’m usually too self-conscious to let go at concerts, but on this night you stood out if you weren’t dancing.
* JOHN T. DAVIS: There were several years, between 1987-’91, when the Neville Brothers made regular pilgrimages to Liberty Lunch. I’ve never seen the band play better, either before or since. There seemed to be a synergy between the Nevilles and the Lunch that defied easy explanation. They could play in January, they could play in June, and it didn’t matter. For the duration of that night, the entire universe was a swampy, polyrhythmic, propulsive, irresistably danceable World Under One Groove. Park your car up the block and walk down the street toward the Lunch, and you could hear that big walloping bass line, echoing through the sidewalk and up the bottom of your feet. Get closer, and the siren wail of Charles Neville’s saxophone began to cut through the funk. Walk in the door, and the interplay of percussion, keyboards, chicken-scratch guitar, Second Line rhythms and Aaron’s angelic solo just swept you away from this veil of tears and into a special cosmos, a New Orleans of the imagination. I wouldn’t trade anything for those nights.
* DON MCLEESE: My first was Poi Dog Pondering at my first SXSW (’87 or ’88, memory blurs), which I was covering for the Chicago Sun-Times. The club was as much a part of the dynamic as the crowd and the band, and that dynamic was much of the reason I wanted to move to Austin. The first show I reviewed for the Statesman after making that move a couple of years later, was a Liberty Lunch triple bill of the Highwaymen , the Kris McKay Band and David Halley, where I discovered how easy it was for Austin to take such inspired music for granted, as a couple dozen of us shivered through the January evening. Too many great shows to mention followed, though the supersonic warp of My Bloody Valentine is the one experience I will never forget (and the one from which it has taken Austin rock in the ’90s so many years to recover).
* MILES ZUNIGA (of Fastball): I’ve seen too many cool shows to count. Some highlights: The first-ever Fugazi appearance in Austin, opening for Bad Mutha Goose. Oasis’ first appearance in Austin. An amazing show by My Bloody Valentine along with Dinosaur Jr. and Babes in Toyland, which many people say started the whole space-rock scene (Flying Saucers, 16 Deluxe, etc). I have many fond memories: Paul Westerberg milling about by himself after an amazingly drunk performance by the Mats. Dino Lee ringing in the new drinking age (21) while all these 19 year olds eagerly gulped down their last free legal minutes. To me the Lunch was like a trade school. I really believe I learned a big part of my craft there.
* CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER: My first time was in an ice storm in ’88. Along with about 30 other people, I learned the hard way that Liberty Lunch wasn’t built for winter, nor for the Dead Milkmen. The great shows came in due time: Camper Van Beethoven two days before “Key Lime Pie” came out; Soul Asylum when they recorded some live tracks; Dave Pirner singing “It’s a shame we’re so lame,” to the opening act (the Lemonheads). And that Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine and Babes in Toyland show, when MBV literally played a single note for like five minutes straight. The best night, though, was during South by Southwest in 1990 when I didn’t know the SXSW acronym from WASP. I saw the Jayhawks, the Silos, the Reivers and an upstart named Kelly Willis. Nobody set the place on fire. It was just probably my first true Austin night.