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

Posted by mcorcoran on September 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Professor” Jackson: Diboll musician who mentored Harry James

Posted by mcorcoran on September 15, 2018

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

by William James Jackson (1870- 1972)

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

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

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

Part Two

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

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

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

Harry James married WWII pinup girl Betty Grable in 1943

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

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A Legend Grows In San Marcos

Posted by mcorcoran on September 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ace in the Hole from Pure Country filming.

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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King Curtis: Cowtown Soul Stew

Posted by mcorcoran on August 13, 2018

King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Sound and Color: King Vidor’s ‘Hallelujah’

Posted by mcorcoran on August 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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STEWED, SCREWED AND TATTOOED: The Selling of Sailor Jerry

Posted by mcorcoran on May 20, 2018

by Michael Corcoran. Dec. 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mcorcoran on May 1, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corner of Iowa and Pine today.

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

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

The Leon Theater was the original Keyhole location

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

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

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

The floorshow at 1619 Poplar circa 1952.

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The Thomas Family and the Birth of Boogie Woogie

Posted by mcorcoran on February 7, 2018

Hersal, Sippie, Hociel, George: the Thomas family.

Leadbelly said he first heard boogie-woogie piano in East Texas, near Caddo Lake, in 1899. Before Clarence Smith gave it a name with “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” in 1929, the eight-beats-to-the-bar gyration generator was called “Fast Texas.” Pianomen made money playing the lumber camps serviced by the Texas & Pacific Railroad headquartered in Marshall, TX.

A pair of Texas brothers, whose father George Thomas Sr. worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, are credited with taking the left-handed “walking bass” figure nationally with sheet music published from around 1916 to the early ‘20s. George Thomas Jr. and younger brother Hersal’s sheet music for “The Fives” in 1922 and the 1923 Clarence Williams recording of “The Rocks,” written by the Thomas brothers, signaled the birth of “boogie-woogie,” which came from the title of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Booga Rooga Blues.”

With sisters Beulah “Sippie” Wallace and Hociel Thomas (actually George Jr.’s daughter, but raised as a sister) having hit blues records on OKeh in the ‘20s, the Thomases have to be considered “The First Family of Texas Music.” They also raised “Moanin’” Bernice Edwards, a fantastic piano player who recorded for Paramount in the late ‘20s and ARC in the early ‘30s. After a time bouncing between Houston and New Orleans, where George Jr. wrote the highly influential 12-bar “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” (and fathered Hociel with Octavia Malone in 1904), the musicians of the family moved to Chicago around 1921. Sippie signed to OKeh in 1923 and had big hits with “Shorty George Blues,” written by her oldest brother, “Mighty Tight Woman” and “Women Be Wise,” which Bonnie Raitt would resurrect in the ‘70s. George Jr., who said he was missing half his right thumb in a 1918 draft registration card, handled the publishing and wrote songs, while teenaged piano prodigy Hersal, 21 years his junior, hit the theaters and juke joints and demonstrated the tunes.  After recording “Suitcase Blues” under his own name in 1925, Hersal backed Hociel, who by this time he knew was his niece, not his sister (unless Hersal, born two years after Hociel, was also secretly George’s child) on sessions with Louis Armstrong on cornet. “Give it to me good Mr. Hersal,” Hociel commanded on “Fish Tail Dance” and he did on the swing dance tune.

After Sippie moved to Detroit with her gambler husband Matt Wallace, Hersal followed and got a gig at Penny’s Pleasure Inn in June 1926. But that engagement turned tragic when Hersal got suspected food poisoning and died a week later. He was only 19.

Tragedy struck the Thomas family again in 1948 or ’49, when Hociel reportedly got in a fight with a sister who died. Hociel was blinded in the fight. She pled self defense and was acquitted. She died in 1952 at age 48.

Clarence Smith was shot to death in a Chicago dance club in 1929, just a month after “Pine Top” became a hit record, and the boogie-woogie fever did not become an epidemic until 1938, when Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis played John Hammond’s “Spirituals To Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. Although George Thomas Jr. had died the previous year at

age 53 from a fall down the stairs, he and brother Hersal were noted in the Carnegie Hall program: “Albert Ammons and Meade ’Lux’ Lewis claim that ’The Fives,’ the Thomas brothers’ musical composition, deserves much credit for the development of modern boogie woogie. During the twenties, many pianists featured this number as a ’get off’ tune and in the variations played what is now considered boogie woogie. This is the first appearance in print of this composition.”

Later in ’38, Tommy Dorsey filled ballroom dance floors with “Boogie Woogie,” an eight-to-the-bar rhythmic dynamo which was basically an instrumental version of “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie.” The record was also a hit when it was reissued during World War II, at the zenith of “boogie-woogie”’s popularity, via such smash hits as “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” by the Andrews Sisters and “Cow Cow Boogie” from Ella Mae Morse.

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Willie at 70 (15 years ago)

Posted by mcorcoran on January 5, 2018

2014 photo by Scott Newton

First published April 2003 in AAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s Willie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At home in the crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s so Willie.

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

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Don Robey: Gangster of Worship

Posted by mcorcoran on January 4, 2018


Listen while you read

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Blind Boys of Mississippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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