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Austin, what did I do to deserve you?

Posted by mcorcoran on November 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin, what can I do to preserve you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse Dayton, hard charger

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

Willie never showed, but it didn’t matter.

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

 

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There’s never a wrong time to be born

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

Suzanna Choffel photo by Houston Chronicle. The following article was first published in 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for now, she’s hunkered down with Boyle, out to make the album that Nell and I talked about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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I love the years, but sometimes hate the days

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Gettin’ Mighty Crowded: the story of SXSW is the story of Austin today

Posted by mcorcoran on November 11, 2017

This column is from Feb. 2014

Sunday is March 1. MARCH FIRST! People in Austin start freaking out- a mix of horror and excitement- when they flip the calendar and see it’s March. The chest pounds like being in the tunnel before a big football game. The third month means South by Southwest and, godammit, we’re going to do it right this year.

SXSW turns Austin into a dead buffalo and all the people who come are the Indians who use every piece of the animal. Every building, every parking lot, every side street, every park. They stuff their faces and dance to tribal beats and go a little crazy in the spirit of celebration. And when they go home there are always a few they leave behind.

One of the advantages of our town is that we have a built-in conversation starter that bypasses the weather. “What brought you to Austin?” Cab drivers to yoga instructors, they all have a story. The number one answer used to be “attended the University of Texas and decided to stay.” But today it’s because they came to Southby one year and decided they could definitely live here. The registration line at the Convention Center in mid-March is the Ellis Island of New Austin, a land of opportunity for people with reasonable expectations.

SXSW used to be “the music industry’s best kept secret” and the people who came here from all over the country (mostly Oklahoma and Louisiana in 1987, the first year) went back home and told everyone about this paradise they had found. The music was good stuff from road-tested professionals, the clubs were right next to each other and the weather was better, the beer cheaper and the people friendlier than back home. Some got laid. We didn’t even need breakfast tacos, but that foldable deliciousness was a spectacular bonus. This town during SXSW in the ‘90s was a moveable feast equal to Paris in the ‘20s. I shit you not.

The monster of mid-March became an action-packed trailer for the indie film “Move To Austin.” The word got out like a mutha, as SXSW became the cultural party of the year. Lately, Austin during the ten days of madness more closely resembles a montage of apocalyptic chaos, which has called for scaling down.

Austin is no different than any other cool place- it had to show off. It’s only natural, no one is to blame. I was one of those doing the bragging, writing a seven-page spread on the Austin music scene for Spin magazine in 1986. “The New Sincerity” was the headline and the piece focused on bands like True Believers, Zeitgeist, Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, Daniel Johnston and Dino Lee. We were all on a mission to tell the world what an amazing town we had found.

Then SXSW started and legitimized Austin as a music industry town. Nashville with soul, an affordable L.A. An estimated 150 people a day are moving to Austin, while 40 a day move away, usually because they can’t afford to live here anymore. Used to be you could house the whole band and the roadie for $750 a month. For that price these days you’ll get a studio apartment next to a Jiffy Lube south of Ben White.

So what brought me to Austin 30 years ago? I thought I’d never ask. I got a postcard one day from a friend who toured with the Cramps as girlfriend/ lighting tech. It said the band had just played a punk club called Raul’s and I wouldn’t believe how hip this town in Texas is. I ran a t-shirt business in Honolulu with tattoo artist Mike Malone. Around the same time he got a newsletter from an Austin jug band his friend Travis Holland was in. We were pretty bored in Hawaii and the t-shirts- which we advertised in biker magazines- were really taking off, so we had decided to move to the mainland to cut down on postage. But where?

I also remembered that my rock critic hero Lester Bangs lived in Austin for awhile. We up and moved and Malone set up a tattoo shop at 2712 Guadalupe St., but hardly anybody came by because only military guys and bikers got tattoos back then. There were only two tattoo shops in town in 1985 and they were both pretty dead, so Malone ended up returning to Hawaii after a couple years.

But I stayed, long enough to attend every SXSW. Long enough to watch Austin become an overcrowded bar that used to be a place where there was always an empty booth. You drive by and see the line outside and can’t even remember that night that girl who’s now your wife surprised you by rubbing her bare foot on your crotch from across the table. That booth is still there. You just can’t sit there after about 9 p.m. Or when there’s a festival in town (AKA “the weekend.”)

A couple of ironies to point out: SXSW was started by the Austin Chronicle, a liberal weekly with an anti-growth agenda, and it was held on Spring Break week because all the UT students would be out of town.

Austin fiddler Ruby Jane with Lady Gaga at Stubb’s during SXSW 2014. Billboard magazine photo.

In recent years, as the buzz got out about free Jay-Z and Kanye concerts and free booze at music industry parties and flocks of film celebrities and people getting laid, Austin became a Spring Break destination. Padre Island still gets the bronzed and the blasted, but the more parsimonious collegians head to ATX to get their free(k) on. It’s the party of the year if you know how to work it and if you don’t and you have $30 you can get one of the RSVP services popping up to enter your name in as many free party lotteries as they can.

This is the part of South by Southwest that’s not really SXSW, the foliage that has practically overgrown base camp. You see, SXSW Inc. is really only what goes on in the Convention Center and the venues they have under contract. Everything else is fair game and corporations, craving a clientele of tastemakers, come to town with money to melt and impressions to make. If the SXSW event you want to go to has a RSVP link, it’s not really SXSW. It’s the afterparty that goes on before, during and after the main event. But like a rap concert where there are 11 people standing on stage and only two mics, the afterparty has become the big draw.

“I thought SXSW was supposed to be for unsigned bands,” the old sandwich artist’s mope, has been magnified in recent years, as such acts as Coldplay, Prince, Eminem, Usher and the like have taken high profile slots.In 2014, the iTunes Fest took over ACL Live, Austin’s downtown jewel, but it was not really SXSW. Just as the Austonian high-rise condo isn’t really Austin.

Although their sanction is slapped on the event, SXSW organizers had nothing to do with Apple’s decision to bring the iTunes Fest to town. Believe me, they didn’t want to give up their very best venue, the 2,750-capacity ACL Live, with not a bad seat in the house, to a corporate giant trying to bask in their heat. But iTunes Fest was coming no matter what and so the best SXSW could do was convince Apple to work with them.

The whole game has changed at SXSW, just as it has for the entire entertainment industry. The music portion of SXSW used to be the main focus, with about 90% of the attention, and the other 10% going to fledgling interactive and film components. Today, music lags far behind interactive for the simple fact that the Internet made music free. Spotify has rented a big house in West East Austin (west of Chicon) for around-the-clock partying, while the record labels have a cheese, fruit and vegetable tray in the corner of a dive bar.

SXSW brings out the best in people and the worst. I’ve been saying that since year two. But the city has become so overrun with a Mardi Gras- like party atmosphere that even the city government noticed. Unlike the New Orleans blowout, SXSW is an industry event. Aside from the few superstars- like Prince and Justin Timberlake last year- who are paid handsomely to play corporate parties, almost all the 2,000 plus acts come to SXSW to play basically for free in front of industry folks who can help their careers. The energy from true fans helps the show, but generally the more the public gets involved, the more watered down SXSW gets. A lot of folks who used to come to the convention every year to network and learn, have sworn off SXSW forever. It’s become too much of a challenge to navigate through the tens of thousands who come to town because they heard there’s free shows everywhere.

In an attempt to limit the madhouse’s scope, the city began putting a cap on the number of special event permits in 2014, reaching capacity almost two months before the event this year as well. The city permitting department even prevented Lady Gaga from playing on the Doritos stage (last year). The official reason was that the demand would be too much to handle, but I think there were closet “little monsters” in on the decision who just couldn’t stand the desperation of their idol playing on a 50-foot-tall chips dispenser.

But there’s nothing to limit the number of folks who are moving to Austin. “Yeah, it sucks, but tell me a better city to live in,” is what I hear from friends when we sit around. We used to argue True Believers vs. Zeitgeist, now we debate about what we hate more: Mopac or I-35.

But just as there are two SXSWs, there are two Austins. What you loved about this town when you first moved here is still there, you just have to look for it. “The land of opportunity for those with reasonable expectations,” remember that motto.
On Sunday afternoon I went to an old haunt, the Hole In the Wall, and it was almost like the old days. Someone had a Weber grill going on the patio and bands were playing country music and blues and stompin’ folk. People were sitting at picnic tables draining pitchers, talking politics, gossiping, laughing. It brought me back, but I couldn’t stay long.

Amid the craziness of SXSW, you can find scenes from SXSW 1993, I’m telling you. There will be little moments that are big in your heart. The mistake a lot of people make when SXSW approaches is becoming obsessed with seeing it all, being everywhere. You want to be where they’re “killing it” on Facebook or hashtag facemelt on Twitter. The fear of missing out is wasted energy, let me tell you as a veteran of every SXSW.

In the early years of Southby, there might be only two or three big parties a day, so if you missed one you felt like a loser. But in less than a couple weeks it’ll be all day, all night, wall-to-wall music and partying. Forget the big picture. That’s just traffic. Look at what’s in front of you and you just might stumble onto the set that makes you fall in love with live music all over again. Stop reading nametags and you’ll meet people who know how to share themselves in meaningful ways. Finding the individuals in the crush, the artists in hucksterville, is not usually something you can plan.

SXSW brings out the best and the worst in all of us.

But here’s the thing I like most about when our town becomes Super Austin, the Burning Brand Festival. The lines, the crowds, the gridlock are a great advertisement for going out to the clubs and the restaurants when it’s not SXSW.

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Goodbye Old Friend: Ian McLagan 1945- 2014

Posted by mcorcoran on November 10, 2017

When Kim McLagan died in a car accident in August 2006, it hit especially hard because I knew how devastated her husband Ian McLagan was. You’ve never seen a veteran couple so in love. Kim was Ian’s angel and they made each other laugh.

I was at the Statesman when the sad, stunning news came and I was supposed to write an obit on the 57-year-old former British model, ex-wife of Keith Moon and best friend of Beatles wives, but I just couldn’t move. “How’s that obit coming along?” an editor came by after about half an hour. No place colder than a newsroom. He came by again and said, “I need it NOW!” How was I supposed to write when my friend’s life had just been torn apart? But I plowed through and got it done. Can’t tell you how many times that scenario repeated in my mind and I told the editor to leave me alone to grieve.

When I found out that Ian McLagan, Manor’s only member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had died Wednesday after suffering a stroke, I had one part of me saying to get an obit up. But I let myself reflect for awhile, going for a drive while Facebook and Twitter were blowing up. I was thinking about how Mac, this member of British rock royalty, was much more a musician than a rock star. He was part of the community, not gated off from it. Mac hustled gigs to pay the bills- good gigs, mind you. And when he had enough money, enough songs, he made albums like this year’s United States, which upped his roadwork. McLagan died the day before he and his band were to embark on a cross country tour with Nick Lowe. Lowe became worried when the ever-dependable McLagan failed to show up for rehearsal Tuesday. Friends checked in on the keyboardist and found him in his bathtub, barely breathing, apparently the victim of a brain hemorrhage. At 2:39 p.m. Wednesday McLagan, 69, was dead.

Faces-era Ian McLagan

Unlike other Sixties and Seventies rock icons, McLagan didn’t come to Austin to retire on his laurels. He came here to thump that piano and sing like he and his mates were up to no good. He could break your heart when he sang about Kim, but he could also make you forget everything besides needing another beer with a romping pub rocker. He had a tradition to uphold!

The music world has never seen anything like the British Invasion of the 1960’s, when the Beatles, soon followed by the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Hollies and many more mopheads with bad teeth, took the best of American music, from the blues to Buddy Holly, dressed it up on Carnaby Street and sent it back over the Pond as an exotic new strain of rock n’ roll.

Nobody’s had a vision of what Heaven might be that beats London in 1965 and Ian McLagan, keyboardist of the Small Faces, was right in the thick of it. Unlike the entourage-laden bands of today, who pretty much keep to their own circle, the British bands of the ’60s all hung out together. Like astronauts who’ve walked on the moon, they were a special fraternity. No one else could understand what they were experiencing, though everyone else was trying real hard to find out.

After Ron Wood joined the Stones, Rod Stewart went solo and the Faces broke up, McLagan toured as a sideman for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg and many more. He also had his own group, the Bump Band, for club work in Los Angeles, where almost all the British rockers moved in the ‘80s.

While on tour with Rod Stewart in 1994, Ian and Kim signed the papers to buy a two-story wooden house on 15 acres six miles outside of Manor. This was right after the big earthquake in L.A. He loved that the town had a British name and that there was a great restaurant, Little Thailand, not too far away. But the main reason the McLagans chose to live near Austin was because Mac’s best friend from the Small Faces, Ronnie Lane, lived here. Lane had been diagnosed with MS in the late ‘70s, but had made remarkable progress since moving in 1985 to Austin, where he was embraced as a musical hero, not just for the Faces, but his Slim Chance solo record and the Rough Mix collab with Pete Townshend.

But Lane couldn’t take the Texas summers and, newly married and in declining health, moved to Colorado just two months after the McLagans arrived. He died in 1997.

“Ronnie was the soul of the Faces,” McLagan said in ’99. “Rod’s songs are all about girls and parties, but the reason they worked is that Ronnie would follow up with a song that went deeper.”

McLagan wrote two songs about Lane — the rollicking pub song “Hello Old Friend” and the touching “Don’t Let Him Out of Your Sight” – and included them on his 2000 LP Best of British, which garnered universal great reviews, but didn’t sell too well

That year, McLagan also released his autobiography All the Rage. When I went out to Manor to interview him, the photos from the book were scattered around his studio. One showed a 17-year-old Ian riding in the back seat of a car being driven by Howlin’ Wolf, who used McLagan’s Muleskinners band as backing on a British tour. “Wolf was the coolest,” he said. “When we met him, he put his arms around all five of us, pulled us towards him and said, `My boys.’”

There were lots of photos of Mac hanging with the Stones, whom he toured with in ’78 and ’81. “So many great times,” he said as he thumbed through a stack of photos of him and Mick and Keith and Ronnie and Charlie. “When I saw the Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond that first time (circa ’62), I knew that that was all I ever wanted to do. There was never a Plan B.” The Stones picked McLagan and his Bump Band to open their historic 2006 concert at Zilker Park.

Early signs looked for McLagan to play for tens of thousands again in the summer of 2015 as a headliner this time, with the reunited Rod Stewart and Faces. McLagan’s keyboards were as essential to the Faces sound as Johnnie Johnson to early Chuck Berry, so the prospect of a reunion got Mac excited. Now, that was a rock n’ roll band, women.

“The Faces definitely had a reputation for partying, ” McLagan said, when we sat down for a pair of Guinesses in the Laughing Dogs Pub inside McLagan’s house. “It was something the record label was all behind, this image of us as elegantly boozing rock ‘n’ rollers.” Every day the band would check into their hotel rooms and greeting them would be a full bottle of their liquor of choice (Jack Daniel’s for Mac). Often the band members would take their half-empty bottles onstage and swig throughout the show, accenting the band’s charming recklessness. Even though Rod Stewart wore scarves and dated supermodels, the Faces maintained a working-class connection mainly because they refused to take any of this rock ‘n’ roll stuff seriously.

It was an attitude Mac brought to Austin, where he and his band played almost every Thursday at Lucky Lounge.

Nashville may have the Country Music Hall of Fame and Seattle may have the Experience Music Project, but Austin had a living, breathy, rock your face off monument with Ian McLagan. A fabulous keyboard player, who’d played on such important records, McLagan was confident in his place in rock history. But we also remember him fondly as a man who carried himself less as a legend of the British Invasion than that white-haired bloke on piano who’s gonna bury your favorite young band.

 

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As long as you’re not finished: the Harvey “Tex Thomas” Young Story

Posted by mcorcoran on November 10, 2017

Photo by Scott Newton. This story first published in 2014.

The song started as a poem on a postcard to a brother in prison. It was first recorded in the ‘90s on an album nobody bought. I first heard it in Nashville last month, sung by Joe Pug, a 30-year-old rising star of deep, dark pop songs.

“This next one is by an Austin songwriter named Harvey Young,” Pug said at the High Watt Club, and I stood there, stunned by the incongruity of the moment. This hip “new Dylan” was covering a song by Tex Thomas (Harvey Young), whose Dangling Wranglers terrorized the Austin’s country music scene of the ‘80s. Led by Young and his musical sidekick Danny Levin, those raucous R&B cowboys played Hut’s every Sunday for a decade. But even possessing some of the best musicians in town, the talk was always about the crazed antics of “The Rawhide Messiah” Young, who possessed the energy and the ethics of a profane preacher. Nobody could talk down or out-drink or over-entertain Tex Thomas.

The rumor was that he also wrote great songs, but I never got close enough to the hearth, hanging back with the coke whores and lip-chewers and the guys with the skunkweed pockets. More drugs than hamburgers were sold in Hut’s on Sunday nights, let me tell you.

Back at Nashville’s High Watt, where the closest to a drug deal was someone buying a beer in thanks for a Benadryl, Joe Pug stepped up to the mic and started:

From deep dark wells comes pure clean water
and the ice will melt as the day gets hotter
and the night grows old as the sun climbs into the sky

The club grew quiet except for the voice and the strum. And then came the chorus, with a melody that packed more of the meaning:

As long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again
As long as you’re not finished, you can start all over again

When this beautiful song about hope and rebirth was over the crowd erupted and I felt a little low. I moved to Austin in 1984 and yet I didn’t know Harvey Thomas Young had such inspiring songs in him. I’d heard all the drug stories, but didn’t know this wildman had poetry in his soul. I was reminded of the time at SXSW circa 1991 when the great Memphis musician Jim Dickinson introduced a song by Blaze Foley to zero reaction. “Haven’t y’all heard of Blaze Foley?” he said to blank stares. This was just two years after Foley was shot to death on West Mary Street. “He’s from right here in Austin and he was a great songwriter. Ya oughta be ashamed.”

Harvey Young, now 64, never stopped writing songs, even though his heyday in the Austin music scene was over two decades ago. He just released his first album since 1995, More Than We Was, to get down for posterity such deep and wondrous songs as “Vagabond Soul” and “Don’t Say No.” The theme of all his material, Young says, is that life is a gift to embrace with both hands, even when things aren’t going great.

Young possesses what could kindly be called “a songwriter’s voice,” but the songs of this musical grandfather run around in your mind when you’re asleep if you listen to them late at night.

“My parents used to take me to Hut’s to see the Dangling Wranglers when I was nine years old,” said Young’s guitarist Gabe Rhodes, whose mother Kimmie goes back with Harvey Young to Lubbock in the ‘60s. “And I didn’t realize how much that music had sunk in subconsciously until I started playing those old songs with Harvey (recently). “We’d play ‘Highways of Gold’ or ‘Fugitive Animal’ and I’d be thinking ‘I KNOW that song!’ They never left me.”

We were talking at Guero’s on Wednesday, where I met with Young and Pug to discuss their unlikely mentor/protégé relationship. Pug later joined Young and his newest Wranglers (Levin, Rhodes, bassist Zeke Jarmon and fiddler Ian Stewart) for a version of “Deep Dark Wells” that aired live on Sun Radio 100.1 FM. “Harvey’s songs are part pop, part psalms,” said Pug, who moved to Austin from Chicago almost five years ago. “I think some of them are worthy of the Great American Songbook.”

Joe Pug and Harvey Young at Guero’s 2014.

The spirituality of Young’s music was preserved in the ‘80s in the collection Hut’s Hymnal compiled by Casey Monahan, who now heads the state government’s Texas Music Office. Nearly 25 years later, Monahan was the link between Young and Pug, turning the young songwriter onto the West Texas “warrior poet” about four years ago. Born Joseph Pugliese in Maryland, the wavy-haired Pug was a young playwright hopeful who dropped out of the University of North Carolina in 2005 to become a singer-songwriter in Chicago. Carpentry paid the bills, but at nights Pug hit the open mikes and assembled enough good material to record his first EP Nation of Heat. Before it became commonplace for musicians to give away their music to help create a fanbase, Pug handed out and mailed CD samplers to anyone who was vaguely interested and even a few who weren’t. But the music resonated and Pug ended up selling 20,000 copies of Heat. Leadoff track “Hymn #101,” embraced by NPR as the work of a rising songwriter, opened the doors on a career boosted by a two-month stint in the U.S. and Europe opening for Steve Earle on his Townes Van Zandt tribute tour.

A taste for Texas

Night after night, only two men came onstage with their acoustic guitars: Pug, then Earle. It was a master class in songwriting and performing for the kid from Maryland, whose compositional roots kept taking him to Texas. Such Lone Star songwriters as Earle, Van Zandt, Joe Ely, Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Gilmore and Butch Hancock connected deeply with Pug, so after the Earle gig ended, he decided to move to Austin. He wanted to breathe in the air that had exhaled such tender masculinity in song. Pug had just released his full-length debut Messenger to critical raves and was ready to embark on his next chapter.

Monahan was friends with Pug’s label head Logan Rogers at Lightning Rod Records and he arranged a “welcome to Austin” breakfast with Pug at Cisco’s in 2010. During the meal, Monahan’s phone rang and he said he had to take it. “It’s someone who might be interested in my rent house,” he said. As coincidence would have it, the caller was Pug’s girlfriend Jamie Zanelotti (The Hems) and by the end of the week the former high school sweethearts were Monahan’s tenants.

Between their houses is a shed where Monahan played records by some of his favorite songwriters from Texas. “Joe was such a fan of the Flatlanders,” said Monahan, “and I wanted him to hear some of the other greats from Lubbock, so I played David Halley, Eddie Beethoven, R.C. Banks and Harvey Young.” Pug soaked it all in, but that Young song “Start Again” was the one that really stalked his writer’s mind.

Pug played Young’s 1995 CD Highways of Gold over and over and learned the chords and words to the #12 track without ever really knowing the title. After recording it as “Deep Dark Wells” and putting it on his 2012 LP The Great Despiser, he received a call from Harvey a few weeks before the LP’s release, thanking him for recording “Start Again.” Oops. The Pug album was already printed and ready to ship. “Ah, don’t worry ‘bout it man,” Young said with a laugh. “I think that’s what the (Mapleshade) label called it. I never did have a name for it myself.”

The lyrics for “Deep Dark Wells” came from a postcard that Young was going to send to his brother Norbert, in prison for bank fraud, but it was intercepted by Monahan while collecting lyrics for Hut’s Hymnal.

“It’s the only song we do that I didn’t write and we play it every night,” said Pug of the Young cover that he’s grown so close to. “It’s like marrying a woman with a kid and eventually the kid becomes your son. I identify with ‘Deep Dark Wells’ so strongly that if we have a short 10-song set, that’s one that we’d play.”

A family’s deep, dark wells

Born in 1951, Young grew up on a farm near Littlefield, the hometown of Waylon Jennings. Toddler “Tommy” moved with his family to Bakersfield, where his father was an in-demand lap steel player. Harvey Sr. was always on the road, touring with Patsy Cline for almost two years, so he became almost a mythic hero to his oldest son.

With a new brother and sister for Tommy, the family moved back to Texas in the early ‘60s and bought a farm in Farwell, near the New Mexico border. On July 4, 1964, Young’s parents and younger siblings Norbert and Debra, were coming to pick him up from his aunt and uncle’s farm, where a 13-year-old Tommy had worked all day. But Tommy heard a horrible crash about a quarter mile from the farm and went running. It was the family car, broadsided on that country road by a drunk driver. Harvey Young Sr. was dead. The rest of the family was hospitalized.

“I was not the same after that, as you could imagine,” said Young, whose mother Pauline also almost died in the crash. “I had been a good student, testing in the top 4% in the state, but my mind was just in the clouds. I had been emotionally destroyed, so I built a wall around myself so it wouldn’t happen again.”

Young found solace and release in the set of drums his father had given him just a few weeks earlier. “He said I should learn to play an instrument I didn’t have to tune,” said Young, who dropped out of high school to play drums for bands in Lubbock.

“I was scared of Tommy Young, which is what we called him back then,” said R.C. Banks, who moved from Lubbock to Austin in the late ‘60s to play music. “He was a tough sumbitch and he carried a chain with him,” said Banks. “Plus his Uncle Boozie was a gangster. You were wise to stay away from the Youngs.” But Banks’ band Showdown needed a drummer. And Tommy had a van, which was really the main reason Banks hired him. But in an O. Henrian twist, Young sold the van for a plane ticket to Austin and rent money.

“I had been in Austin about a year and I was wonderin’ what the big deal was,” said Young. “But then one day (in 1973) I went to a concert at Hill On the Moon on City Park Road and that changed the way I thought about music. It was the Storm, with Jimmie Vaughan, opening. Then Roky Erickson (with 13th Floor Elevators), who had just gotten out of the state mental hospital. And then Willie Nelson. That show made me realize that rock and country and blues could all fit together.”

Young was a good drummer, able to play everything from “Cisco Kid” to “Walkin’ the Floor Over You,” but he was also a songwriter on the side and came to rehearsal one day with an original composition he wanted Showdown to work up. “We fired him on the spot,” Banks laughed. “If you were a drummer, you kept your songs to yourself.”

But the material Young was writing was good and Banks, who was dating Chris O’Connell of Asleep At the Wheel at the time, suggested that Young pitch songs to the Wheel. Harvey ended up going on tour with the Western-swing band as a roadie/gofer and that’s when he met pianist Levin, who’s still his musical spouse 40 years later. The pair collaborated on “Don’t Get Caught In the Rain” for O’Connell, hitting the country Top 40, just barely. The Wheel also recorded Young’s “Baby.” Getting those first two cuts did everything for the songwriter’s confidence.

Young, who has always held day jobs as a rock mason or carpenter, was especially moved by Nelson’s 1975 masterpiece of spiritual redemption. “My dream was to one day make a record as good as Red Headed Stranger,” Young said, laughing. “Still dreaming.”

But Young was so serious about songcraft that, at age 25, he bought a 3 ½ acre spread on the San Gabriel River in Liberty Hill to use as a writer’s retreat. He’s lived there since 1976, the last 33 years with wife Patti.

He also kept an apartment in Austin- party central- during his 14 years fronting Tex Thomas and the Dangling Wranglers. He admits that the drinking and drugging got out of hand, but he made time to write. It kept him from going over the edge.

The title track of the Dangling Wranglers’ second LP Screaming In the Night came from a nightmare Young had about the car crash that took his father and his childhood.

“Danny and I always took songwriting seriously,” he said. “The Wranglers were supposed to be the vehicle to get the songs out to the people, but that vehicle just ran over everybody.”

We’re sitting on a picnic table outside at Guero’s and Young, uncomfortable in the heat, swigs water from a gallon jug. Pug, whose Windfall album is coming out Feb. 24, drifts away to call Jamie, now his fiancée, but not before a little marital advice from Young. “You gotta swallow a lot of shit when you’re married,” he said. “But you do it because you love them. That’s the secret.”

His songs aspire to a purpose, Young said. “If people like to dance to some of them, that’s fine, but I never set out to write a dance song. For me, a song starts with an emotion I want to pursue. I try to write songs that could be helpful or hopeful to someone going through the same thing.”

When Pug sat back down, Harvey excused himself to get some chewing tobacco, making sure everyone was cool with that. It was a chance to talk about Young in ways that would sound ass-kissing if he were there. Pug said the songwriter Harvey most closely resembles, in terms of spiritual storytelling, is Billy Joe Shaver. Like Shaver, Young grew up writing poetry in grade school. Both writers have the gift of exploring a range of emotions in simple lines.

And both are veteran fist-fighters who have never really gotten over the hardships of their youth. Pug came to Texas to find out what it is about his favorite songwriters, and there it is. Life is hard because it should be. Such grace does not come without debts to pay.

Joe Pug sings “Deep Dark Wells” at Guero’s 10/8/14

 

 

 

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Dealing with the devil: Houston gospel from the house of Robey

Posted by mcorcoran on October 25, 2017

 

Don and Evelyn

Houston’s Don Deadric Robey- half black, half Jewish, all gangster- beat Berry Gordy by 10 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 n’ roll records of the 1950s and ‘60s from a building in Houston’s tough Fifth Ward. As Stax would later define Memphis grit, Duke/Peacock was raw, black Southern music for an audience more into getting down than fitting in.

The 2809 Erastus Street address housed Robey’s sophisticated Bronze Peacock Dinner Club from 1945 to ‘53, and in a back office he launched Peacock Records to try and make his discovery Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown a star. That didn’t quite happen, but Peacock hit it big 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 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 2004, “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 a people were buying them. Robey had five labels, 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.)

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 Peacock had as heavenly a roster as there was.

Robey with Al “TNT” Braggs and Bobby Blue Bland.

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 the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, whose fame has been surpassed by their Alabama counterparts in recent years. But back in the heyday when you mentioned “The Five Blind Boys” you were talking about 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, 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 capella. After “Our Father” hit, almost none were.

Early Bells of Joy

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 in 1951 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.

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.

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.

Tucker told interviewer Seamus McGarvey years later that he never really had a problem with Robey. “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…If he could scare you down, he would.”

Roscoe Robinson of the Five Blind Boys, who replaced Brownlee as lead singer in 1960 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. “After our contract was up, we asked Robey for a new car and he said ‘no,’ so we signed with Chess Records up in Chicago,” said Robinson, 86. 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,” said 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, having 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 Robey’s 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. (Disproven by eyewitnesses, including Big Mama Thornton.)

 

In 1953, after he acquired full ownership of Duke (reportedly using a Colt .45 as a bargaining chip), 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.

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, Alabama, was an acolyte of Brownlee and 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.

Little Richard was also on Peacock Records for a spell, in 1953, with his band the Tempo Toppers. In an interview with Dave Booth, Little Richard recalled that his signing was not voluntary. “I wouldn’t sign that contract,” Richard said, “and I ended up signing it because he beat me so bad. I had ran away from home…and he took advantage of it.”

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

When he hit 70 years old in 1973, Don Robey sold his assets, which included 2,700 song copyrights (several co-“written” by Deadric Malone, Robey’s 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 shortlived. The mogul died of a heart attack in 1975. Made a lot of money that’s probably all long gone. But also made a lot of records that will last forever.

 

 

Sources include “Let’s Go Out To the Programs” by Ray Funk, Rejoice! magazine 1990. Thanks to Robert Darden.

Listen to a playlist of Peacock gospel.

 

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25,000 sets in 25 years: Saxon Pub sound man Richard Vannoy

Posted by mcorcoran on October 22, 2017

From 2015, Arts&Labor site, by Michael Corcoran

The Saxon Pub celebrates its 25th anniversary this month and for all but a few months in the beginning, Richard Vannoy has been the club’s sound man. For the first 13 years, the Abilene native worked seven nights a week, but after a run-in with the Monday night headliner in 2003, Vannoy has worked Tuesdays through Sundays. “I said something and Bob Schneider didn’t like it so he fired me,” Vannoy, 63, says with a laugh. “So now I play softball on  Mondays. I needed a night off anyway.”

Since the Saxon books three or four acts a night, and Vannoy has averaged 338 nights working per year, conservative math puts him in the sound booth for about 25,000 sets since 1990. That was the year Joe Ables and Craig Hillis opened the 150-capacity live music venue at 1320 S. Lamar Blvd. in the former home of neighborhood barfly incarnations the Boss’ Office, the Living Room and Madison’s.

Ables found the place when Madison’s was going out of business and hired the Angleton native, who had a small accounting practice, to audit their finances. “I knew Craig Hillis from Steamboat,” Ables said in 2010, “so I called him up and told him I’d found a club with some potential. He asked me ‘what do you see it as?’ and I said it could be a really good room for singer-songwriters. And he said ‘you mean like the old Saxon Pub?’ and the name just stuck.” The original Saxon Pub was an A-frame building on the Interstate 35 frontage road near 38 1/2 Street in the late ’60s/early ’70s.

In the beginning, the “new Saxon” continued the folksinging tradition, with such acts as Steve Fromholz and Shake Russell. The Bad Livers put the club on the map in the early ’90s with their Monday night bluegrass massacres, and then Rusty Wier and W.C. Clark were fave regulars.  It was the late Stephen Bruton’s endorsement that helped establish the Saxon as a place where world-class musicians could cut loose.

“Stephen came by one day, in ’96 I think, and he said ‘I can’t get a gig in town. Can I play here?’ And I said ‘I’ll not only book you, I’ll give you a key to the place,” said Ables, who had just bought out his partners. Not only did Bruton pack the club every Sunday with the Resentments (whose residency reaches 17 years on Sunday), but Bruton’s sets sometimes turned into superstar jam sessions, as he brought up former bosses Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt on occasion. Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominoes plays every week and you’ll catch Red Young when he’s not on tour with the Animals, plus Denny Freeman, who was Bob Dylan’s guitarist for so many years.

The walls of rough cedar provided great acoustics for loud rock, as well as folkies. There’s something else unique about the Saxon: to accomodate a working clientele, Ables put the headliner in the middle slot, which was originally met with protest, but now seems the natural way to go.

Vannoy (pronounced with a V in front of “annoy”) has been a sound man since following a bunch of Abilene musicians to Austin in the early ’70s. “I was in a band with (drummer) Bill Maddox and (bassist) Noel Kelton in junior high,” Vannoy recalls. “They were so good, even as 14-year-olds, so I asked ‘how much do you guys practice?’ When they said 4-6 hours every day, I knew I could never match that so I started thinking of other ways to make it in the music business.” Maddox, murdered by a deranged neighbor in 2011, played in his father’s jazz band at age 11.

Maddox and Kelton had a band in Austin with fellow Abilenians- singer/guitarist Keith Landers and keyboardist Stephen Barber- called Cadillac, which gave Vannoy his first sound man gig. “Steve and Billy wanted to play jazz-rock fusion, so they left to form the Electromagnets with Eric Johnson and Kyle Brock (the bassist, also from Abilene). Keith and Noel wanted to keep playing rock, so they started Johnny Dee and the Rocket 88’s.” Vannoy ended up working with the ‘magnets from ’72- ’74 and the Rockets from ’76- ’84 and learned a lot from both. “I set up the gear, drove the truck, I was the only roadie,” Vannoy says of his start in the sound biz.

“The Electromagnets were such incredible musicians, every night someone would come up to me and compliment me on my sound mix,” Vannoy says. “But I wasn’t really doing anything special. It was all the band.” That taught him to stay out of the way and do as little as neccessary. Johnny Dee, meanwhile, was a group that relied on great singing, so providing a clear vocal mix became Vannoy’s obsession to this day. “The number one complaint for sound engineers is ‘I can’t hear the vocals,'” says Vannoy. “If you’ve got the vocals right, the instruments will usually fall into place.” Vannoy says his favorite acts to work with, such as Guy Forsyth and Patrice Pike, are talented singers.

Ables says such an affinity is a key to Vannoy’s longevity. “He’s such a music fan,” says the club owner, who’s looking to open a bigger Saxon Pub at a new development on St. Elmo Street, though the 1320 S. Lamar St. locale will remain open for at least another five years. “I still get calls from him when he’s excited about a new band. He digs hearing live music night after night.”

In nearly 25 years, Vannoy has taken only one vacation. He says he has to keep working because “rock and roll doesn’t have retirement benefits.” He’ll stay on at the Saxon at least until Social Security kicks in at age 66, but, he said “I’m still keeping my other job.” After working until 2 a.m. most nights, Vannoy goes home to sleep for a few hours, then goes off to a parttime job with a rare book restorer.

“It’s a 70-hour work week, but I’m loving it,” says Vannoy, who has his sound system so dialed-in that he can sometimes wander about or get a slice of pizza next door. But taped to the wall of his sound booth is a page with the names of acts handled by a certain manager who insists that Vannoy remain in the booth at all times during their sets. Vannoy shrugs that 95% of his job is in the setting up, but he abides. “They might want more monitor, but that’s about it,” he says of possible mid-set adjustments.

“Joe is the owner, but this is Richard’s club,” says bassist Bruce Hughes, who plays three residencies at the Saxon Pub each week- Monday with Schneider, Wednesdays with Johnny Nicholas and Sundays with the Resentments- as well as occasional gigs with his own band. “Almost all clubs are terrible places to just show up and try to get a sound. You never know what you’re gonna get. But you know with Richard it’s gonna be consistent. One of the reasons the Saxon Pub is one of my favorite places to play in the world.”

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Make It Beautiful: the Bobby Doyle story

Posted by mcorcoran on August 8, 2017

“Seventh Son” by Bobby Doyle

      1. 11 Track 11-1

The blue TV at the corner of the bar had the Late Night show on as the man at the piano was taking a break.

David Letterman to country music icon Kenny Rogers: Who’s the greatest musician you’ve ever worked with?
Rogers, without hesitation: Bobby Doyle.

The night that show aired in 1996, Doyle was most likely playing a solo piano set at Ego’s, a South Congress dive in the parking garage of an apartment complex. Unlike his former bass player Rogers, Doyle had to work hard for little money, playing five or six nights a week for tips and, sometimes, a small guarantee.

But if Bobby Doyle was bitter, you wouldn’t know it. While the rest of the country was going “Bobby who?” this blind man in a jacket too nice for the room, was wailing on a Jerry Lee Lewis number, then crooning “Fly Me To the Moon” with an extended jazz piano solo, then thumping and testifying on “Rugged Old Cross” like it was a Leon Russell number. At times he sang like country Ray Charles and then he’d channel Mose Allison on some blues that wants to be jazz that wants to be blues. It didn’t matter that only a couple dozen drunks and floozies were on hand. When Bobby Doyle played, Ego’s was as cool as any Greenwich Village basement club.

Who would take fame over talent? Not Bobby Doyle.

It doesn’t happen very often, so when it does, it’s something you never forget. Going into a club for no real reason and getting blown away by someone you’ve never heard of. It happened to me at Ego’s in 1995 when I went to meet a friend who lived in the apartments. The first thing you realized about Bobby Doyle was that he knew he had IT. There’s that old line about someone playing a crappy bar like it was Madison Square Garden, but in Bobby’s inward eyes he was playing Carnegie Hall. A maestro’s palace.

Bobby sings on Playboy After Dark

One man, one mic, one piano: nobody could do it better than Bobby Doyle. Nobody. Yet, aside from a few brushes with fame- appearances in the 1960s on the Joey Bishop Show and Playboy After Dark were highlights- Doyle was a working musician with bills to pay. A man of hire who could light the fire.

“If Bobby was wearing his tuxedo and playing music for four hours, all was right in his world,” says Austin pianist Nick Connolly, who met Doyle in the early ‘80s on the piano bar circuit. Doyle played soft enough for it to be background music, understanding that everyone in the joint was trying to get laid that night, but his romps of soul no doubt made the sex better. “They want (the music) played for them,” Doyle told an interviewer in 2005. “Not on them or around them. For them.”

Austin is a town full of musicans who never quite make it big as their talent, but nobody was more overloaded with gifts than Doyle, who was a rock n’ roll piano prodigy busting out of McCallum High in the late ‘50s, played the jazz cocktail circuit nationwide and sang for Columbia Records in the ‘60s, replaced David Clayton Thomas in Blood Sweat & Tears for a minute in 1972 and then spent the last three decades of his career in the piano bars of Austin.

To the mainstream he’ll remain a footnote- the man who showed Kenny Rogers the way to a musical career. But to those of us lucky enough to sit so close to that musical force, Bobby Doyle left a lasting impression as a solo artist as intense as any five-piece band. He understood how to communicate a song. The rest is noise.

Tommy Laird, Roscoe Beck, Magda Trager and Bobby in 1975.

A heavy smoker, as were most of his fans, Doyle succumbed to lung cancer on July 30, 2006 at age 66. Folks that knew him well, like Threadgill’s owner Eddie Wilson, a former McCallum High classmate, said Doyle “was ready to go the day after (wife) Mary died” two years earlier. Mary Cockrill Doyle, who he wed in 1988, was much more than her husband’s eyes, providing vocal support near his side at every show. Their interplay made every gig fun.

After putting Ego’s on the map in the mid-‘90s, it turned into something else, a rock club, and Doyle left for gigs at Eddie V’s and the Driskill. His kind of places with his kind of people. He kept playing until he got the diagnosis that his cancer was terminal and became too weak. In March 2006, about five months before his death, Doyle set up a couple mics at his home in North Austin and invited his former musical partner Joyce Webb, whom he met in the ‘50s when she went to Austin High, to lay down some tracks.

The reason I’m writing about Bobby Doyle today is not because he’s expected to be featured in next month’s Kenny Rogers exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, which opens the day after Doyle would’ve turned 75. It’s because of the recordings Doyle made that day at his house when he was too frail to play gigs. He was known as a song interpreter, not a writer, but his composition “Beautiful” is one of the most haunting songs I’ve heard in some time. I played it over and over again, that tune about finding a balance between the loneliness that creativity requires and the need for human love. At least that’s the way I heard it.

“Beautful” by Bobby Doyle (March 2006 home recording)

      2. Beautiful02

 

Thanks to 91-year-old Fleetwood Richards of Onion Creek, whose association with Doyle goes back to Houston in the early ‘70s, I was able to copy several Doyle CDs that were never in print, as well as the terrific 1996 studio recording with engineer Spencer Starnes that Mary Doyle sold at gigs. My favorite of the seven CDs is probably “Live From the Roulette Club Houston 1973,” which features Doyle and Webb trading lead vocals for the first hour, then the whole quartet- including drummer Steve Kellar and bassist Bob Buelow- singing four-part harmonies on “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” to close it out. This cover of the 1960 song by the Four Freshmen was the first song played at Doyle’s funeral- at the angels’ request.

I knew Bobby Doyle as a piano man, a lounge lizard, a soul belter. “Spring” told me I didn’t know Doyle at all, so I went searching into details from his life that might piece together some kind of a story. The Austin great was never the subject of a major feature.

He was born in Houston on Aug. 14, 1939 to Edward and Ella Doyle, a carpenter and a housewife. Robert Glen, the youngest of six children, was born blind, an affliction attributed to his mother contracting German measles while pregnant with him. When Bobby reached school age, the Doyles moved to Austin so he could attend the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired on W. 45th St.

Bobby wanted to be like the other kids, so he opted to attend high school at McCallum High, becoming the first blind graduate in 1958. The next year, a school organization that had raised $1,700 for a bus trip to Mexico instead donated the money to Doyle for a surgery that was thought might restore his eyesight.

It didn’t and Doyle had to be content with having, what Austin bassist Jon Blondell said was “the ears of a bat.” Eddie Wilson recalls Doyle with a transistor radio in his pocket in class, bopping to Clyde McPhatter or listening to his beloved baseball at a volume level the teacher couldn’t hear.

Doyle lettered in wrestling at McCallum, and also tried out for the team at University of Texas, which he attended from 1958-60 before dropping out to play music fulltime. “He told me once, ‘never let a blind man get his hands on you, because he’ll never let you go,’” recalls his old pal Fleetwood. “He was a wiry Irishman, not to be messed with.”

Kenny Rogers remembers, in his recent Luck Or Something Like It autobiography, that Doyle struggled with alcohol and once was so soused at a gig in Houston that he snubbed the great Tony Bennett, who had asked if he could sing a couple with the band. “In a minute, Tony,” Doyle said, going in to his next number while Rogers and drummer Don Russell shook their heads in apology. “But even at his worst,” Rogers wrote of a lit-up Doyle, “he was better than anyone else I’d ever heard.”

“Up On Cripple Creek”- Bobby’s return to the Blind School circa 1979

      3. Cripple Creek - Bobby Doyle

 

By the time Doyle formed his trio with Rogers in 1960, he’d already gone a few rounds with rock n’ roll. As a senior at McCallum and a member of the school’s Talent, Incorporated club, Doyle played a 15-minute set of rock and doo-wop on KVET-AM every Saturday. He was enlisted by fellow McCallum classmates to join the Spades, a white doo-wop group that soon changed their name to the Slades to shake negative racial connotations. Doyle played bass on the single “You Cheated,” a regional sensation that reached #42 on the Billboard charts. The song, written by singer Don Burch, would’ve done much better if a hastily-assembled black group called the Shields didn’t rush into an L.A. studio and record a version that beat the original to record shops and radio stations.

Kenny Rogers, upper left.

“You Cheated” was the only hit on Austin-based Domino Records, the we-can-do-it label which grew out of a class at the YWCA on Guadalupe Street. The night school teacher Jane Bowers, who was a bit of a local bigwig for penning “Remember the Alamo” for Tex Ritter, soon left Domino and took Doyle with her to Trinity Records, which she founded in San Antonio with her lawyer husband.

 

Doyle’s single on the label “Here Now” went nowhere and he followed his family back to Houston. There he came to the attention of notorious Duke/ Peacock label owner Don Robey, who had started the Back Beat label to cash in on the rock n’ roll craze. Robey’s off-shoot hit paydirt with “Treat Her Right” by Roy Head and the Traits, but Doyle was dropped after two singles on the label: “Pauline” b/w “Someone Else, Not Me” (9/59) and “Hot Seat” b/w “Unloved” (3/60).

Doyle used to sometimes compare his diverse musical interests to living in a house with many rooms, so you could say he spent 1960 walking the hall between rock/ doo-wop and vocal jazz. Doyle found Rogers, a struggling singer, in Houston and turned him into a bassist/high harmony singer in the Bobby Doyle Three. Drummer Russell sang as well on 1962’s In a Most Unusual Way (Columbia) which sounds almost psychedelic today for its over-the-top vocal arrangements.

It was a style which didn’t catch on with the mainstream, though the trio became popular on the cocktail jazz circuit across the country. When they played the Melody Room on Sunset Strip, better known today as the Viper Room, a young actor and piano fanatic named Clint Eastwood was in the audience every night. Before he was known as Dr. John, L.A. session player Mac Rebennack was another Doyle fan. The public had no idea who Bobby Doyle was, but the musicians knew.

“How could you be a player and watch Bobby and not be impressed?” says Nick Connolly. “He could play every kind of music imaginable for four hours and it was all in his head.”

After Rogers and Russell left to play in the more popular Kirby Stone Four, still riding that 1958 hit “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” Doyle reconfigured the trio with Webb sharing leads. The new Bobby Doyle Three got a regular gig at a private club in L.A. called the Factory, where all the movie stars and other celebs went so they wouldn’t be mobbed. It was the Rat Pack’s West Coast haunt, and one night an impressed Sammy Davis Jr. offered an opening gig in Las Vegas.

Connolly says he was watching a documentary about Las Vegas in the 1960s recently when something in a tiny corner of the screen caught him. “They had a 1959 Cadillac convertible with a tripod in the back panning the marquees,” he says. “I rewinded a few seconds and paused it. Yep, right there, in a row, were the names ‘Frank Sinatra,’ ‘Buddy Hackett’ and ‘The Bobby Doyle Three.’”

 “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring”

      4. 04 Their Hearts Were Full of Spring

“Cryin’ Time”

      5. 12 Track 12 - Bobby Doyle

 

Doyle was a regular on the Strip and in nearby Lake Tahoe until he, first wife Sammie Lou (a Beaumont native he married in 1961) and their four young children moved back to Austin in the mid-‘70s. He got a gig four nights a week playing a Vegas-themed club named Caesar’s, which had recently opened at 1907 E. Riverside. After that club closed around 1978, he worked regularly at such joints as the North Forty, the Cloak Room, the Blue Parrot and the Ramada Inn on E. 11th. He was a journeyman with 88 keys in his toolbox.

He also traveled to Las Vegas on occasion for solo lounge gigs. He had flings and fathered a son out of wedlock, which may have led to his divorce around 1980. “Bobby had reconnected with his son before he died,” says his former drummer Tommy Laird. “His son was a musician and Bobby went to Vegas to see him.”

The pain in his songs became real in 1992 when Doyle lost his only daughter Kathleen to a suspected suicide at age 22. His three sons by first wife Sammie Lou still live in the Austin area, according to friends, but couldn’t be reached for this story. Joyce Webb reportedly recently got married and moved away from Wimberley, where she had a stained glass business for years.

Sadly, Doyle’s records are all out of print, including 1970’s “Nine Songs” on Bell Records, with Steve Cropper on guitar. Recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, Doyle called “Nine Songs” a favorite of his records, but the Bobby Doyle Three was “the best band I’ve ever played in.” Bobby, Kenny and Don worked their tails off for five years.

Hopefully, some one will put together a proper Bobby Doyle reissue. A career retrospective for a guy who never had a hit and played out-of-fashion music for lonely people in dark rooms. But the musicians knew. Bobby Doyle was always a star among players. When Kenny Rogers flew Bobby to Los Angeles for a 50th birthday show in 1988, producer Quincy Jones was the first to his feet after Doyle’s segment, leading a rousing standing ovation.

Bobby Doyle knew he was the shit. That’s important. To have that much of a gift and never make it big is better than having only marginal talent and selling a million copies. That’s the true artist creed and Doyle lived it to the very end.

 

An interview with Bobby Doyle from 1975:

      6. Bobby Doyle interview 5-27-75 cleaned 32 bit rate

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Straight Into Compton: How a Texan Became the Wordsmith for N.W.A.

Posted by mcorcoran on July 15, 2017

The D.O.C. at the top of the game.

January 1996 DALLAS.
His mother begged him not to sue. Rapper Tracy “The D.O.C.” Curry says this in a rasp that sounds a little like resurrection’s whisper and a lot like Miles Davis’ parched bark. “She’s afraid something bad is going to happen to me,” the 27-year-old Dallas native says from his new hometown of Atlanta. Once a chief lyricist for N.W.A., as well as a hit artist on his own, Curry claims he was also a founding partner in Death Row Records, the $100-million home paid for by Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tha Dogg Pound, and run by a CEO The New York Times recently called “the godfather of gangsta rap.” Now Curry, the forgotten soldier, is taking on this music business posse that’s beginning to look more like an army every day.

“I ain’t sayin’ I’m not a little scared,” he says, but “it’s time to get what’s mine.”

As usual, though, Curry will have to go through his ex-manager and former best friend, Marion “Suge” Knight, to get his money. The 320-pound Death Row Records chairman is not a soft touch. A former football star at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who left behind the pads but not the spectre of violence, Suge Knight has a reputation for intimidation and an uncanny knack for getting competitors, like the late Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, to sign over assets for absolutely nothing in return except, perhaps, the opportunity to see another sunrise.

But Curry and L.A. Records chairman Dick Griffey have decided to take on the big man and his cash cow Andre Young (better known as Dr. Dre) anyway. Curry and Griffey are suing the label and its distributor, Interscope Records, for more than $75 million in general damages and $50 million in punitive damages. According to a 21-page lawsuit filed January 8, 1996 in Los Angeles Superior Court, Curry and Griffey entered into a partnership agreement with Knight and Young in January ’91 to form a music-publishing and record company that was first called Future Shock Entertainment and later renamed Death Row.

D.O.C. upper right with NWA

“I’m the one who told Dre to change the name to Death Row,” Curry says. “Dre was on Curtis Mayfield’s dick at the time, but I told him that name was corny as a muthafucka. [Mayfield had a hit in ’73 with ‘Future Shock.’] At the time, D.J. Unknown was trying to start a label called ‘Def Row’ and I told Dre, ‘Fuck that nigga, let’s call our shit Death Row,'” recalls Curry. (Curry is also credited by none other than Dre for “talking me into doing this album,” in the liner notes to The Chronic, Death Row’s first release.)

After Griffey procured a million-dollar publishing advance from Sony Tunes Inc./Sony Songs Inc. in 1991, the new corporation that became Death Row bought recording equipment, blocked out studio time, acquired the rights for Def Row from Andre “D.J. Unknown” Manuel, and started signing artists–including Cordozar Broadus Jr., better known as Calvin Broadus and completely known as Snoop Doggy Dogg.

You can’t tell it from his scratchy bray on the new sinister Helter Skelter LP on Giant Records, but the D.O.C. himself was once the most elastic and free-flowing rapper on the West Coast, with his 1989 debut LP, No One Can Do It Better, going double platinum. But just months after the record “blew up,” so did Curry’s follow-up dreams, as he fell asleep, drunk, behind the wheel of his car and drove off the road and into a coma.

The first concern was that Curry might not live, but after 22 hours of surgery, much of it reconstructive, he pulled through. The lasting injury, however, was damaged vocal chords that left him unable to speak for several months. “The only thing wrong with my voice is the way it sounds,” Curry says almost six years later, “and that’s getting better all the time.”

No longer smooth enough to rhyme “lyrical” with “superior,” Curry had to change his style to fit his excoriating voice. “I crossed over to the dark side, man, and I’ve seen what’s coming up at the end of the millennium,” Curry says. “The gangsta shit is gettin’ old. You can’t just get out there with a fine bitch and a blunt and a 40 [oz.] and work the crowd. That shit’s been played out.”

On the apocalyptic Helter Skelter (not-so-ironically, the working title for the proposed Dr. Dre-Ice Cube collaboration), Curry raps about rebirth, secret master-plans, the here-after, in addition to the usual odes to “Bitchez” and his “Doggs.” There’s also a rhyming legal brief, titled “From Ruthless to Death Row (Do We All Part),” which summarizes Curry’s past nine years: “I rose up quick from the pit/I was in 454 300 Benz/Nothin’ but ends/But friends got me in a cross/Now everything’s lost.”

“I don’t like to toot my own horn, but ‘toot-toot,'” Curry says. “I’m a lyricist f’real. My job at Death Row was to make sure that all the words that came out on the albums were the shit. I’m one of the only people I know who’s meticulous enough to go over every line, every word, to make sure it’s all there.”

Before the Dre-produced No One Can Do It Better hit on Eazy-E’s Ruthless label, the D.O.C. made his name in his new home of Compton as a writer, with early credits including tracks on N.W.A.’s instant blacktop classic, Straight Outta Compton (’88), and Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It (’88).

“I was Eazy’s pen, because he couldn’t write lyrics,” Curry says. “The nigga couldn’t rap, either. Man, he had the worst rhythm.”

Better with numbers than words, Eazy-E turned Ruthless Records–a company he claims to have started with profits from drug dealing–into the hottest label in rap. The strain of violent, sexist “gangsta rap” established the previously ignored South Central scene as the vortex of new harder-edged hip-hop and infiltrated suburbia with tales of drive-by shootings and hooker mutilations.

At the same time, Curry insists, Eazy conducted business as if he were still on the street corner, with a focus on incoming funds and a disregard for paying out what was owed.

“In the hip-hop world, Eazy-E was the personification of evil,” Curry says. “He paid my hospital bill, about $60,000, but he made me pay him back, which is cool, except that I later found out that he paid the bill out of my share of a publishing deal he made for me. The muthafucka used my money and then made me pay him back.”

Curry also tells about the time he traded his publishing rights to Straight Outta Compton, which has sold more than five million copies and counting, for a gold necklace. “I was 19 years old,” Curry says. “I didn’t know about publishing back then, and I didn’t care. I was part of the hottest team in the rap game, and I just wanted to keep makin’ dope records.”

It was Suge Knight–whose Knightlife publishing company hit it big by owning seven tracks on Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme blockbuster–who convinced the D.O.C. and Dr. Dre they were being ripped off by Ruthless. When Knight exacted their release from the label–allegedly giving Eazy-E a choice between a pen in hand or a lead pipe upside the head, according to Eazy-E in Jory Farr’s music-biz insider book Moguls and Madmen–Eazy-E and Ruthless filed a $250 million federal racketeering and extortion lawsuit against Dr. Dre, Curry, Knight, and Griffey. The suit was eventually dismissed, but Knight’s reputation as “the wrong nigga to fuck with” was solidified.

“The four of us had a plan and we set it into motion,” Curry says about the seeds of the partnership. “We used the money from Sony to build that company, and we did everything the right way, only I didn’t get no money, but now I goin’ get it.” He says the last part with a singsong swagger that sounds like one of his old raps.

“I’ve known Suge Knight a long time. Hell, I was even tighter with him than Dre was for a while,” Curry insists, “and to be totally honest with you, the dude ain’t all he’s cracked up to be.”

Now, if Curry can only convince his mother of that.

Dr. Dre met Curry in Dallas in 1987, when Curry was a member of the Fila Fresh Crew and Dre was in town as guest DJ on a weekly rap show hosted by Dr. Rock on KKDA-FM (K104). “Rap was just being born in Dallas, but I’d been rappin’ since I was 13, and I was already real good at the shit,” Curry says. “Dre heard me rap and, he says, ‘If you come to California, nigga, we can make some money.’ Me and Dre just clicked.”

Curry had no qualms whatsoever about leaving a Dallas rap scene that was full of copycats. “When they first came out, Nemesis [Fila Fresh Crew’s crosstown rivals] sounded like they were from Brooklyn or Queens, but then I came back two years later and they sounded like they were from Compton,” Curry says. “I’m a leader, not a follower, so I moved from the projects of West Dallas to the projects of Compton.”

Once in L.A., where he slept on Dre’s couch for the first year, Curry says he was reborn. “In Dallas, I was pretty good, but when I hit Cali I was suddenly the best. I don’t know what happened, but I was un-fucking-touchable.” Indeed, with No One Can Do It Better, the D.O.C. established himself as a raging new talent on the West Coast rap scene. Dr. Dre, who cooked up an awesome stew of live instrumentation and silky soul samples, left no question about who was rap’s best producer.

“Dre is the Quincy Jones of my generation, the complete master of the studio,” Curry says. “Every little sound you hear on his records, the nigga done complexed on for hours. He runs shit through his head a million times before he puts it down.”

Asked if he’s sad that his association with his mentor has apparently ended, Curry says, “It ain’t ever over. You just go through phases of your life when you do fucked-up shit, but the real problem ain’t Dre. In fact, Dre’s the one who’s been telling me that I needed to get a lawyer and go after my money.”

“This shit ain’t hidden,” Curry says of his claim that he was shafted by Death Row. “Everything I’ve been telling you is known by those muthafuckas, but they ain’t gonna say nothing because it ain’t their play. This is Suge’s shit, and what he says, goes.”

According to the lawsuit, Interscope heads Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field, who could not be reached for comment, met privately with Knight and Dre and induced them to breach their partnership with Griffey and Curry, with Iovine calling Griffey “a crook.” Dr. Dre was really the franchise, and Knight was his manager: Interscope saw no need to deal with anyone else.

Suge Knight

“They just wrote me out,” Curry says. “[Suge and Dre] have a gangsta mentality, and that’s not really my mindset. Plus, I was there by myself. I didn’t have no gang with me. I was lost. I didn’t have no voice. I didn’t know what to do, so I just rolled with the punches until I could figure out what to do.”

Curry stuck it out with Death Row, overseeing and writing some lyrics for Dr. Dre’s massively selling The Chronic LP, as well as Snoop Doggy Dogg’s multiplatinum debut Doggystyle. “They were fuckin’ with me, but I got a love for my work, and I wasn’t ready to give it up,” Curry says.

Whenever Curry needed money, he insists, he had to go to Knight, and “Suge wouldn’t give me shit.” When Curry complained and talked about getting a lawyer, he was threatened with bodily harm, according to the suit.

Suge Knight could not be reached for comment, nor could Death Row’s attorney David Kenner, who’s busy defending Snoop Doggy Dogg at his trial for his alleged part in the 1993 shooting death of Philip Woldemariam.

“They intimidated the D.O.C. right out of Los Angeles,” says Joseph Porter, Curry’s attorney. “He was afraid for his life. I’ve been threatened, too. Someone from Death Row told me that bad things happen to people who go up against them, but where does it all stop? When you do evil for a long period of time, it catches up to you, and I think we have an incredible case with stacks of documentation.”

Curry says he’s all the way back, and the accident that took his rapping skills and almost his life was a message from God.

“When I was in that hospital bed,” he recalls, “I’d think back when I was a little kid in Dallas, and I’d pray to God: ‘Please let me be the best. If you do that, I’ll do right and let everybody know that it was you that put me there.’ But after I got there, I reneged on my part of the deal. I was arrogant, and I thought I was invincible.”

The night of the ghastly car accident, Curry says he was stopped by police in Beverly Hills and charged with a DUI. Instead of being arrested and taken to jail to sober up, however, Curry was simply given a ticket and sent on his way. Before driving off, however, he joked with the cops and took pictures of them holding his platinum record. Three hours later, Curry went through the windshield of his car and into what he calls “the edge of darkness.”

“Can you believe those cops letting me go?” he says in that fucked-up voice. “Hey, maybe I should sue them.” Then Curry lets out a gruff guffaw. Irony is not lost on this rapper who was deserted first by his voice, and then by his friends.

 

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