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What’s Goin’ On At 12th and Chicon? OTIS and LOLA

Posted by mcorcoran on October 1, 2018

Otis Bell in white at the Hideaway in East Austin circa 1971.

Otis Bell sat on the bed, while Wizard and Lil’ Sam took up chairs in the big room of the house at 12th and Chicon that used to be the Aristocrat Inn. The memories flowed between these three former ‘60s and ‘70s running buddies, who have all recently returned to East Austin after a collective 72 years in prison.

“The Harlem Theater was right next door to here,” said Edward “Wizard” McMillon, 62. “That’s where we’d go see movies like King Kong and The Magnificent Seven.”

After the movies there were so many nightlife options on E. 12th, which everyone called “the Ends” since 12th and Chicon was the last stop on the streetcar. It was also hopping on E. 11th, nicknamed “the Cuts” and anchored by “Chitlin Circuit” hotspots the Victory Grill and Charlie’s Playhouse. After hours, which was midnight back then, the party moved to Ernie’s Chicken Shack on Webberville Road, which stayed open all night, with lots of gambling in the back room.  Otis and the fellas rattled off more club names: White Swan, I.L. Club, the Hideaway, Good Daddy’s, Sam’s Showcase, T.C.’s Lounge, the Yellow Jacket, Untouchables Lounge, Alabama Club, the Oak Tree, Brown Derby and Shorty’s Bar. Missed a few- I couldn’t write that fast.

Barton’s Tavern was at the Northeast corner of 12th and Chicon and next to that was Blue-Eyed Liquor Store, nicknamed so because the proprietor was a black man with blues eyes. Old men from prison can tell you more about the old neighborhood than the Austin History Center, that’s for sure.

“This neighborhood was all black,” Otis said. “Black as far as you could see, and as long as we kept it to our side of the freeway, we was cool.” Drugs, gambling and prostitution went on without much concern from law enforcement, as long as nobody got killed.

“There were only two things a black man could do in East Austin,” says Selma “Lil’ Sam” McLennan, a notorious ex-pimp. “You either joined the military or you hustled in the street. I ain’t never had a job.”

Otis Bell. Photo by Otis Ike.

McLennan, 70, tells you straight up he went to prison for 28 years this last time because he murdered the owner of Martin’s Drive Inn on Weberville Road in 1986. “I killed someone there in 1971, too,” he says. “That was the roughest place in town, man. Everybody had a piece.”

McMillon was a heroin addict who robbed and stole to feed his habit. He told us all about that in part one of this series last week. But Otis, who’s been out of prison the shortest time, doesn’t want to talk about his criminal record. He just got out after 27 years, man. Let him be free, at least in his mind, a little while before you start bringing up the negative.

We’ll give him that, but since I did pay $7.95 for a copy of court papers pertaining to his case, you can read them at the end of the post if you’re interested. Basically, Otis received a life sentence in 1988 for shooting his cousin, who died a week later. The incident was March 2 and just two months later, Otis Bell was shipped off- he’d say railroaded- to the penitentiary. In those court papers, which used Bell’s nickname “Trouble” without protest from a court-appointed lawyer, you’ll read about a man of the same age and name, but that’s not the Otis Bell you’ll find waiting tables at Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Kitchen on Rosewood Avenue. It’s not the Otis I’ve been over to see four or five times in the past month.

It started when I ran into Lola Stephens on E. 12th one night. “I want you to meet my husband Otis,” she said. “He just got out of prison.” I was there checking out the transformation of the corner that once was as close as Austin got to The Wire. And now it’s got Dozen Street, a piano bar like none other, and Full Circle Bar, devoted to hardcore skeeball players. There’s also the blues-themed pizza joint King Bee Lounge and the rock box Badlands, plus an art gallery and a hip food court going in. They’ve all got great patios and everyone sits outside smoking, where they can hear the music just fine. All these new businesses have kept a little bit of the grit, even the makeover knights of the Full Circle, because 12th and Chicon ain’t gonna just wash away like that.

White kids riding around on bicycles?! Otis Bell couldn’t believe that shit when he came back to 12th and Chicon in July. The hoodrats are still there, but they’re outnumbered by a younger generation, not intimidated by street people. East Austin has become the Brooklyn of Texas, the dangerous/cool ‘hood, with gentrification causing real estate values- and taxes- to soar. Many of the area’s settlers are being priced out, including those whose parents and grandparents were, basically, forced to live in East Austin, “The Negro District” of  a 1928 city plan. Austin is the only big city in America to lose black residents, because they’re moving to the more affordable suburbs. Wealth rules the city.

McLennan lives over on E. 18th Street with his sister, who has no intention of moving, he said. “There have been some white folks trying to get my sister to sell the house to them, but she won’t do it. She’ll make a lot of money, but where’s she gonna go? All she knows is the East Side.”

There’s a Cajun restaurant, the Big Easy, on E. 12th and as I was wondering if Sister Lola was involved, there she was. She lives next door to the Big Easy, so, yeah I stopped in to meet Otis that night. “Did you go to Anderson?” I asked, which is always the greatest ice breaker in old school East Austin. Yeah, Otis said, graduated in 1965. Drafted into the Army in ’66.

He went into a box and pulled out an ornate, yellow and black, Anderson High Yellow Jackets belt he made while locked up. “There ain’t shit to do in prison, so around 1990 I started working in the craft shop with the leather men,” he said. Michael Lewis and Michael Heidt, a black man and a white man, were Bell’s mentors, but his grandfather William Henry Bell made custom cowboy boots on Congress Avenue, so maybe it’s in his blood, too. He also started attending church regularly and helped build the Chapel of Hope in the Hughes Unit of Gatesville Prison, near Fort Hood, in 1998.

Occasionally, there would be a cellblock shakedown, where guards would toss the cells while the inmates stayed out in the yard for a few hours. “You had to grab what you could or they’d throw it away, so I went through this stack of newspapers I had been saving to read. And there was a story about Lola, about this woman who feeds the homeless and raises other people’s children,” he recalled. He read the article out in the yard and when he got back to his cell he started writing a letter. “Lady,” it started, “you got a big heart.” He said that God told him to write her and offer any help he could give. He could send her leather goods that he and his crew made, assembly-line style with Otis as the designer, and she could sell them and use the money for her mission.

“I asked Otis to send me a sample of the work and he made me a money bag,” Lola said. “Just holding that bag I felt something. There was a connection.” She sold the first batch of leather bags, boots and belts easily and sent Otis $600 in cash, figuring he was as down on his luck as anyone. He sent it back for her to use for food. Lola works six days a week at her restaurant and then on Sunday feeds the homeless and hungry out her back door.

The youngest of 16 children of Rosie Robinson, Lola Stephens grew up in Lake Charles, La. and cooked with her mom growing up. She was raised strictly Pentecostal, but after graduating from Marion High in 1980, she took off on a bus to Hollywood. She visited a sister in Austin enroute to stardom and ended up staying. “I used to party in this house when it was the Aristocrat Inn,” she said one night recently. “But these days everything I do is for the Lord.” Lola starts more sentences with “God told me to…” than she does “I …”

In 2007, Otis got a letter from the City of Austin about his uninhabited house at 1804 E. 12th St. The house was passed to Otis after his father Willie, who owned a Gulf Station on E. 12th, died, and he’d been paying property taxes from prison. In the ’90s, the house was rented to someone who, without Otis’ knowlege, ran a drug-dealing operation and there was a danger of having the house torn down in a federal anti-drug program. But brother Joe was able to save the building, currently valued at just under $300,000. By 2007, the house had been vacant for almost 10 years, but the neighborhood was using Otis’ back yard as a dump. The city was threatening big fines and inflated removal fees if he didn’t clean it up. “I wrote to Lola and gave her the number of a relative who could maybe take care of that, but he never called her back,” Otis said. “So Lola hired a couple homeless guys to help her, then jumped the fence because she didn’t have a key, and cleaned the whole thing up herself. Ninety bags of garbage! And she didn’t know me from Adam.”

Lola asked if she could visit Otis in prison and he said sure, but made something clear: “I’ve already got a wife. And a girlfriend.” Otis was married to a former prison guard from the women’s unit in Gatesville. Didn’t faze Lola, who never missed a Saturday visit for a year. And the two wrote letters regularly. In one, Otis wrote “Are you afraid to fall in love with me?” Lola dashed off “Hell, no! Already in love.” They were married by proxy in 2008. Standing in for Otis was Mr. Lee, the white man who helped Lola get Nubian Queen off the ground in 2004 when she didn’t have a dime.

“I was done with men, but I’m not gay,” she said. “I prayed to God and told him that I wanted to marry his son, and he sent me Otis.”

Stop by and say ‘Hi.’ Nubian Queen Lola makes the best crawfish etoufee you’ve ever had. But you’ve gotta be patient, and relax. Good things take time, then Otis will bring it on out.

Otis Bell vs. the State of Texas:

0-otis-t-bell-v-state-texas-06-28-89

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

Posted by mcorcoran on September 24, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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STEWED, SCREWED AND TATTOOED: The Selling of Sailor Jerry

Posted by mcorcoran on May 20, 2018

by Michael Corcoran. Dec. 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Austin, what did I do to deserve you?

Posted by mcorcoran on November 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin, what can I do to preserve you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse Dayton, hard charger

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

Willie never showed, but it didn’t matter.

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

 

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There’s never a wrong time to be born

Posted by mcorcoran on November 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The Divine Miss C on “The Voice” 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suzanna Choffel photo by Houston Chronicle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suzanna and Lulu at Blue Hole.

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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, breathing, 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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