Paul Sessums loved the sound of loud electric guitars. When he’d stand on the Sixth Street sidewalk and rail about this and that, using a parking meter as his pulpit, everything was all right in his universe as long as the guitars were ringing through the doors of his Black Cat Lounge. He’d hire any band, practicing virtually any style of music, as long as they had a hot guitar player and could play for three hours without a break. Seemingly unconcerned about making money, Sessums gave the bands 100 percent of the door — which could be as high as $4,000 a night during the 1989-92 glory years — but in return he implemented a “my way or the highway” philosophy that pushed away some of the Cat’s signature acts, including Two Hoots and a Holler, Ian Moore, Soul Hat, Chaparral, Little Sister (now Sister7) and Joe Rockhead. Sessums saw his club as a launching pad, and he’d push the button when it was time to put the act in motion.
Above all else, the 57-year-old Sessums, who died early Monday when he lost control of his van near Bastrop, demanded loyalty and hard work, qualities he’d give in return. If you were on his side, he was a friend to the end, but if you were at cross purposes, as were the various downtown neighborhood groups seeking to gentrify or capitalize on his slice of Sixth Street, his vitriol flowed like the Buckhorn beer he swilled.
When promoter French Smith closed off part of the street for his various East Sixth Street Community Association-sanctioned festivals, for instance, Sessums undercut organizers’ beer sales by offering 24-ounce cans at $1.50 each. It didn’t matter that Sessums could barely realize a profit at such a price: He was messing with an event that he saw as an infringement, and seeing long lines in front of his door, while official vendors were unbusy, was all the gratification he needed.
When the Black Cat opened in ’85, it was your basic biker bar, but even as it evolved into a world-renowned live music venue, touted on VH1 and in magazines, the rebel spirit never waned. When the health department had a problem with the Black Cat selling hot dogs, Sessums gave them away. When police dragged daughter Sasha into jail for noise code violations, the Black Cat flew a banner welcoming fans to “The Dead Music Capital of the World” and warning them to be quiet. “Shhh!” the sign said sarcastically. “People are trying to sleep.” Sessums didn’t like people telling him what to do and he didn’t join clubs (even lucrative ones such as South by Southwest).
It was such spunk, as well as a full-family effort from artist wife Roberta, son Paul Jr. (better known as “Martian”; he designed the club’s popular T-shirts) and daughter Sasha, that helped create the Cat’s distinctive personality. Even as bikers and druggies mingled with frat boys and sorority girls, the inherent danger of different types partying together was scented with an air of hominess.
When the Black Cat opened at its original location at 313 1/2 Sixth St., it was at a time when Sixth was even more homogenized than now, with even Steamboat featuring disco-funk cover bands. The Black Cat didn’t advertise and didn’t have a phone, but hip locals quickly found out about this funky cool outlaw club and came to see such acts as Donny Ray Ford and Evan Johns play for tips in a plastic jar that shimmied and moved above the crowd on a rope with pulleys. In late ’88, needing more space, Sessums moved the Cat to the 309 Sixth St. location where it stood until a 2006 fire demolished the building. (The Nook Amphitheater is currently in the space- and fighting the Westin Hotel, which had better be glad they weren’t going against Paul!)
When you consider how many kids first became exposed to the Austin live original music scene through the Black Cat’s all-ages policy and how many bands honed their repertoires in the little sweatbox — not to mention their financial survival — you have to realize that in his own iconoclastic way, Paul Sessums was the biggest supporter of live music in Austin during the past 13 years.
On Monday night, hours after its owner had been pronounced dead, the Black Cat Lounge was open for business as usual. There were signs galore outside the club, including one announcing that the Cat sold neither martinis nor cigars, but nothing marked the passing of Sixth Street’s beloved curmudgeon. But that was just the way he would’ve wanted it. Paul Sessums never could stand crybabies.