#1 Armadillo World Headquarters
It was “the coldest, ugliest building in town,” according to Eddie Wilson, the manager of Shiva’s Head Band, who went out the back door of Cactus Club at Riverside and Barton Springs to take a leak and found the Texas Fillmore. The Armadillo was a bare bones place with a big soul, a 1,500-capacity room that was both the world’s largest nightclub and smallest arena. Born during Vietnam, the ‘Dillo was the greatest place ever to come of age in.
San Francisco ruled the counterculture nationally, but in Austin the Armadillo crew did it their own way. The club’s mascot, drawn by its Michaelangelo, Jim Franklin, was a misunderstood nocturnal creature with his nose in the grass. The armadillo wore armor and 525 ½ Barton Springs Road was once a National Guard armory. But now the walls held paintings of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (created by former Vulcan art director Gilbert Shelton) and Rikke, the Guacamole Queen.
The first show was Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth on July 7, 1970, but that was more like a dressed rehearsal. The venue officially opened on Aug. 7, 1970 with Shiva’s Head Band, Hub City Movers and Ramon Ramon and the 4 Daddios.
The national acts that played the ‘Dillo’s first year, when the capacity was only 750 (and the stage was on the south end, not the north), include Fats Domino, Ravi Shankar, ZZ Top, Lightnin’ Hopkins, New Riders of the Purple Stage, Flying Burrito Brothers and especially Freddie King. Sometimes Leon Russell, who was then the biggest thing in the rock world, would sit in on piano as King scorched all those flower children who didn’t know how much they loved the blues.
Rather than name some of the acts who played the Armadillo, let’s hear your favorites from the place that they almost named Uncle Zeke’s Rock Emporium (thank you, Lord.)
There was a big gap in the country, between those who supported the war and those who protested it, as you can imagine. But they all came together to listen to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings at the Armadillo. That’s what the club, which was ground zero for the “progressive country” movement, is best known for today. Chet Flippo was living in Austin when the ‘Dillo started and he let the world know about this groovy longhaired cowboy scene in Texas via dispatches in Rolling Stone.
There were no boundaries in the bookings and when punk broke, the Armadillo hosted the Clash with Joe Ely, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, B-52s, Elvis Costello, the Ramones and so on. This was also where AC/DC played their first first show on American soil, in July ’76.
Rent for the 30,000 square foot building was $1,500 a month, but even at that rate, Wilson and his partners, including lawyer Mike Tolleson, were often months behind on the rent. The ‘Dillo booked about 200 shows a year at its peak, and it would only take a couple of bombs to set everything back.
The club declared bankruptcy in 1977, but was bailed out by Hank Alrich, who put up $25,000.
Ask Bruce Springsteen or Van Morrison or Bette Midler or hundreds of other acts which was the most magical place they ev
er played in Texas and they’d say the ‘Dillo, whose building next to the Skate Palace used to house the Sportscenter in the 1950s, so Elvis Presley played there as well. This was a counterculture dream of outlaw country singers and Commander Cody and everybody ripped to the tits except the old man with the big glasses and the camera. Everybody just loving music so much.
But music isn’t money and by 1980 that property was worth a lot more torn down and resold.
The final night of the most legendary of all Austin clubs was Dec. 31, 1980 and it all ended with everybody onstage singing “Goodnight, Irene.” The last line of the “Dillo swan song was “I’ll see you in my dreams.”
Musical revolution, like pot smoke, was always in the air at the club that opened in August 1970 and closed on the last night of 1980. That’s almost too perfect, 1970- 1980, but it fits a venue with the most-charmed existence of any in Texas. Frank Zappa summated the scene as a state of mind when he famously announced on a live album recorded at the Armadillo, “Good night, Austin, Texas, wherever you are.”
#2 Liberty Lunch
To those of us who moved to Austin in the ‘80s and had to hear about how we missed the Armadillo World Headquarters: think of how much worse that would have been if we didn’t have our own ‘Dillo in Liberty Lunch! This sacred venue was bulldozed in 1999 to make room for Computer Sciences Corp. headquarters and I still remember everything about the Lunch.
I’m not talking about the lineups, like the triple bill of My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr. and Babes In Toyland, which were unforgettable. I remember how the floor was more like ground and how the best place to see the band was stage right, where the pot smoke from the patio hit the jetstream of sound.
Physically, there wasn’t much too it. A big stage so flimsy that Run-DMC had to perform like statues because every time they moved in ’86 the record skipped. No place to sit. Gross bathrooms that the acts had to use because there wasn’t running water backstage. But what made the Lunch was the people who worked there. They treated you like you were guests at their home. And on the way out, the audience would say “thank you!”
Besides great roadshows, the Lunch nurtured several local scenes, including the funk-rap with Bad Mutha Goose, Do Dat, Bouffant Jellyfish and Retarded Elf. Any kind of live dance music worked there. Any kind of music really.
You felt safe at Liberty Lunch, which was all-ages, so many parents just dropped their kids off for shows to go out and have a quiet dinner.
Mark Pratz and J-Net Ward were the couple, now married, who ran things from ’83- ’99, but let’s not forget the Austin couple that founded Liberty Lunch. Before Esther’s Follies, Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton took over the site of a former lumberyard, which had been used as a ratty ass flea market, on Dec. 9, 1975. They planned to call this food/ performance space Progressive Grocery, but while scraping the paint off the front of the building they saw the name Liberty Lunch from when the Texas Lighthouse for the Blind served lunches there after WWII. During the patriotism of 1976, they decided Liberty Lunch was the name.
Soon after opening, the club’s Cajun-influenced restaurant got a rave in Texas Monthly and the staff struggled to keep up with the demand. The first bands to really take off were Beto y Los Fairlanes (salsa), the Lotions (reggae) and Extreme Heat, each inspiring dancing on the gravel floor that covered the whole place in dust. This was around when that dopey tropical mural was painted. The city owned the property and wanted to shut down Liberty Lunch and all those half-naked stoned hippies from the very beginning.
Charlie Tesar took over in 1980 and built a roof over Liberty Lunch from materials from the Armadillo, which closed on the last day of 1980. The torch had been passed, but the old Lunch crowd hated it not being open-air. The old standbys started eating it at the door and a new era was about to begin.
Pratz, the doorman since ‘78, started booking the club around ’81, then joined with Louis Meyers, manager of Killer Bees, to bring in bands from Jamaica and Africa and, of course, the Neville Brothers from New Orleans.
At 1,200 capacity, the Lunch was the perfect launching pad for bands like Nirvana, Replacements, Pavement and Alanis Morrissette who’d outgrown the Continental Club, which Lunch Money also booked. You’d see k.d. lang, when she was a rockabilly singer, and then the next night would be Fugazi and then the Count Basie Orchestra.
In 1998 city council voted to end Pratz’s lease and rent the land to a high-tech company. The club had six months and when Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs called out a stage hand in Dec. ’98 and ended with a fractured skull, everyone kinda knew there’d be no reprieve this time.
The last year of the century was the last year of not only Liberty Lunch, but Steamboat, Electric Lounge and the Bates Motel. Things were changing as fast as local hero Lance Armstrong on the Tour De France.
#3 Charlie’s Playhouse/ Ernie’s Chicken Shack
You can be in any club during any era seeing any act. That’s the game. Some might wish they were at the Armadillo when Bruce Springsteen or Van Morrison played all night. Maybe Nirvana at Liberty Lunch, Iggy at Club Foot, James Brown at the Austin Opera House, Sonic Youth at the Continental Club.
My fantasy gig is catching Freddie King at Charlie’s Playhouse on E. 11th, then following after midnight to Charlie Guildon’s afterhours joint on Webberville Road. Put me in a ripped vinyl booth at Ernie’s Chicken Shack with a bootleg bottle of hooch on the table and Freddie ripping “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” on his cherry red Gibson guitar. Put me there in 1962 and I’ll have lived a full life.
Ernest Charles Guildon was a businessman who didn’t just buy a building, he bought the 1200 E. 11th Street block from Tony Von, the DJ/promoter who’d moved to Taylor, in 1955. Guildon replaced Von’s Show Bar at 1206 E. 12th Street with Charlie’s Playhouse, which he’d originally opened in a tiny joint at 12th and Chicon. The new room was made for live music and dancing, so Guildon hired Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets (so named because Hubbard had worked on planes at Bergstrom AFB) as his house band. Local bluesman Major Burkes, who had a minor hit with “Break These Chains,” and Jean and the Rollettes were also regulars. During this time, the Victory Grill was thriving a block down E. 11th and Charlie’s would compete to bring in name acts like Johnny Taylor, Etta James, Albert Collins, Joe Tex, Tyrone Davis and Al “TNT” Braggs.
Clubs had to close at midnight back then, but that’s when the party was really cooking, so Guildon opened his afterhours joint disguised as an all-night chicken restaurant, in 1960. The Playhouse had been experiencing a quite lucrative problem for Guildon when UT fraternities, turned onto the East Side bands by Cactus Pryor’s Saturday TV show Now Dig This on KTCB, flocked to Charlie’s every weekend and took 90% of the chairs and tables. The regular black clientele even picketed because they were allowed to only go to black clubs, while the white kids could go anywhere in town.
But Ernie’s Chicken Shack at 1167 Webberville Road was immune to gentrification. That place, which had gambling around the clock, was a bit too real, though if you wanted to get UT quarterback legend Bobby Layne’s autograph he was usually in the back room throwing dice. The bands who played Charlie’s that night always moved on over to Ernie’s. It was a set break with a 5-minute drive. Then the bands played ‘til 5 a.m. In the ‘60s,
East Austin was its own world with its own laws. Probably some grease going around, too, but if it didn’t impact life on the other side of East Avenue (now I-35), it didn’t seem to matter to the cops.
Charlie’s Playhouse, so popular that clubs such as IL Club, Hideaway, Good Daddy’s and Sam’s Showplace thrived on the overflow, is really where the downtown Austin club scene as we know it was born. East met West at that joint where blacks and whites danced together (though seating was segregated) to that negro rock n’ roll. Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan came out of Charlie’s Playhouse, mentored by guitarist Bill Campbell, a white man from Smithville, who the black bands accepted as a brother. If you want to learn how to cook Creole cuisine you go to New Orleans. If you wanted to play the blues, you went to the black clubs.
Charlie’s closed in 1972 and became a succession of other clubs- Tink’s Playhouse, Jackson 4 Club, etc.- before it was torn down. It’s now just an empty lot, unless a condo came up in the two months since I checked. Ernie’s Chicken Shack closed soon after Guildon died in 1979.
#4 Continental Club
This is how you know this list isn’t based on my personal preferences, but, rather a host of considerations including influence, goodtimes-ability, schedule and historical importance. The Continental Club of the ‘80s is my favorite spot on Earth. The CC of Mark Pratz and J-Net Ward was a perfect place to hear rock bands- intimate, yet powerful enough to hit me on the back wall. The bookings, with Louis Meyers, brought in so many great acts: Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Johnny Thunders, Bad Brains, Replacements and so on. But the core was the local acts, especially True Believers and their crowd, and LeRoi Brothers and the roots pack. Lou Ann Barton, Dino Lee, Glass Eye, Poi Dog Pondering- so many of the greatest sets were from folks we knew from Wheatsville or wherever.
When M&J closed the club in ’87 to concentrate on Liberty Lunch, it was taken over by Steve Wertheimer of Ski Shores, who tried a rock n’ roll diner at first, then allowed Junior Brown to show the way to the next glory land. Junior’s Sunday residency started slow, but once word got out that they was this Ernest Tubb guy in a cowboy hat who could play like Link Wray, the lines were down the street. It was also the best place to see Alejandro Escovedo in all his configurations.
The Continental Club rocks on like Clara Que Si’, the go-go bartender who started going to the Continental as a teenager from Mexico. I’ve been in Austin over 30 years and it’s always felt like family at the Continental, which was built in 1947 as a Laundromat. The Continental opened as a private club in 1955, owned by Morin Scott, with Bill Turner’s jazz trio as the house band. The Sunday night jam session brought out some of the area’s best jazz musicians, but after the club was sold, the jazz moved to Club Unique on Guadalupe St., just north of the Drag.
The club hit some down time in the ‘60s, when it was an alcoholics’ dive with Happy Hour from 6 a.m.- 8 a.m. That’s not a misprint. It looks to have also been a disco for a bit in the ‘60s and also, reportedly, was a topless bar for a few months.
The turnaround came in 1979, when some of the former One Knite owners teamed with Wayne Nagel and Summerdog to bring the blues-rock to the black box. Pratz and Ward took over in ’83.
Wertheimer has grown the club since 1988, adding the Continental Gallery listening room almost 10 years ago. Wertheimer is a special kind of club owner, which is why he keeps waitresses
and bartenders for decades- and musical residencies even longer. Toni Price, Jon Dee Graham, James McMurtry and the members of Heybale! have been assured at least one payday a week for years thanks to Wertheimer’s loyalty.
It’s a rare thing, indeed, for a club to have two golden eras with different owners, but the Continental was all that and continues to bring much-needed soul to South Congress.
Hank, Elvis and Minor Threat
The Skyline, out on the old Dallas Highway (North Lamar), is best known today for being the site of the final concerts by both Hank Williams (Dec. ’52) and Johnny Horton (Nov. ’60). Ironically, both men were married to the former Billie Jean Jones at the times of their deaths. This is also the place where Elvis Presley
played in 1955, after Dessau Hall and the Sportcenter (later site of the Armadillo World Headquarters.)
But between the time it was built in July 1946 until its demolition in the expansion of Braker Lane in 1989, the Skyline held more musical history than any club in Austin. Though it’s legal capacity was 250, almost twice that packed in to some of the punk shows (including Scratch Acid’s debut) there in the early ‘80s. Before that, the Skyline was the second location of Soap Creek Saloon for a year.
During its honky tonk heyday, such acts as Johnny Cash, George Jones and Ernest Tubb played the Skyline. Loretta Lynn was so impressed by the house band (which backed many touring country acts), that she tried to take them on the road with her. A couple went, but Henry “Poochy” Hill, the bass player stayed in Austin because he had a good job with the city.
The Skyline was hardcore country, but such local acts as Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters and Grouchy and the Texans always threw in a couple polka numbers each night to get the old Germans and Czechs on the dancefloor. Wednesday was 10-cent beer night and every night was don’t-give-Maybell-Crumbley-any-lip night. The waitress was as well known as owner Warren Stark, who personally picked up Hank Williams in Dallas and drove him to the Skyline for his Dec. 19, 1952 swan song. Ol’ Hank did sing a few songs at a party for the musicians union in Alabama a few days later, but the Skyline was his final concert. Hank Williams’ heart broke for the final time on New Year’s Day 1953.
Kill it again, it’s not dead yet
Clifford Antone was a blues fanatic who wanted to meet his idols. He also wanted to turn others onto the music of all those Chicago greats nicknamed after their size. His club would book the legends for five nights in a row, to give them a break from hard travel for a week and a nice payday in a town that treated them like royalty. They all came to Antone’s to play- Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, Eddie Taylor, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Albert King, Big Joe Turner and on and on. Everybody but Howlin’ Wolf, who was in ill health when Antone’s opened and died in Jan. 1976.
The Antone’s that opened on Sixth Street in July 1975 was a classroom for such blues musicians as the Vaughan brothers, Lou Ann Barton, Derek O’Brien, the Thunderbirds and Charlie Sexton. But it was leveled in 1979 and the Home of the Blues moved to Great Northern Boulevard, near Anderson Lane. Bigger room, bigger shows, with B.B. King, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis, but Clifford wanted to be closer to downtown. He had some Lebanese relatives looking out for him and they helped get him the place at 2915 Guadalupe St. across the street from their Centennial Liquors.
Now, everybody will tell you that the greatest location of Antone’s was the first one, in an old used furniture store across from the Driskill Hotel. But I don’t see how it could’ve been better than the one on Guadalupe. That place, a
former Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, was pure magic. It’s where U2 jamed with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dr. John after their sold-out show at the Erwin Center in ’87. It’s where Buddy Guy, who’d been semi-retired, came back hard to show everyone where Jimi Hendrix got some of his licks.
Every celebrity passing through the ATX had to pop in at Antone’s and if they thought they could play a little they jumped onstage. My favorite night was when Bruce Willis jammed with the house band. Not that part, the next, when Snooky Pryor followed and shoved that weak harp shit right up “Bruno”’s tailpipe.
Antone’s long “Cliffipedia” intros were legendary and he especially loved to rattle off the resumes of little known sidemen like Wayne Bennett and Matt “Guitar” Murphy. Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin practically lived at Antone’s.
Let’s see if we can name all the Antone’s locations: 1) Sixth Street 2) North Austin 3) 2915 4) West Fifth and Lavaca 5) East Riverside Hell and now 6) on East Fifth. The new location seems committed to following the initial vision of Clifford, who passed away from a heart attack in 2006, of honoring the blues musicians who gave birth to rock n’ roll.
Six seems like a good number for Antone’s, a club that has had its share of dead nights, but continues to represent a quality live music experience to the rest of the world.
#7 Soap Creek
1973- 1985 (three locations)
There was nothing like #1, which they called it “the Honky Tonk In the Hills” and “Dope Creek.” The first Soap Creek, opened in 1973 by a hippie/biker couple from the Vulcan and the ‘Dillo named George and Carlyne Majewski. The roadhouse used to be a dude ranch bunkhouse and then was the Elm Grove Club. Alex Napier of the Cobras had it for a few months before it was Soap Creek, but it couldn’t make it because at that time, Westlake Hills was way out of town. And that drive up the hill!
Doug Sahm was smart. He rented a house 100 yards away, but let’s just say a lot of people slept in their cars. Freddy Fender remember
ed that long, rugged drive up from Bee Caves Road and entering a parking lot where longhairs in cowboy hats were smoking weed. “I thought, ‘man, what has Doug gotten me into?!” he laughed. On parole after a marijuana bust, Fender was working as a mechanic in Corpus Christi, but after Sahm covered “Wasted Days, Wasted Nights” in ’74, he reconnected with Fender and brought him up to play Soap Creek. It was the show that made Freddy quit his job at the garage. The next year Fender had the #1 song in the country with “Til the Next Teardrop Falls” and it all started at Soap Creek.
The Majewskis foster a family environment amidst all the dope smoke and tequila shots (50 cents!), raising their own kids, as well as those Sexton boys, pretty much. Because it was so isolated, the club had a communal feel you don’t get downtown. And a great sense of humor, billing itself “Home of the Stars” and hosting the annual Spamarama.
A luxury housing project knocked Soap Creek #1 out of the Eanes school district in 1979, but they found a new home at the old Skyline club at North Lamar and Braker Lane. The third Soap Creek location was in the former Backstage Club at South Congress and Academy Drive. All three locations had some great shows. Seeing Doc Watson at #3 in ’84 was the closest I’ve ever sat to a musical genius doing his thing.
The Majewskis sold the business and Carlyne went into band management (Lone Justice, Marcia Ball, the Wagoneers, Kelly Willis). Soap Creek closed in 1985.
#8 Black Cat Lounge
Austin has had some quite remarkable clubowners, but there’s never been one like Paul Sessums, a biker who grew up in Austin, married an artist and raised their children in a raging nightclub in the heart of Sixth Street. Sessums didn’t like anybody telling him what to do, whether it was his neighbors or city code enforcers, so he’d draft these incredibly angry and graphic screeds and post them in front of his club. In one I remember, he said the city was trying to turn Sixth Street into “a gay Disneyland.” He wanted it to keep rocking.
Bands that played the Black Cat had to do 3-4 hour sets, no breaks, and for that they were paid handsomely. Paul gave them all the door, which for top acts like Soulhat, Joe Rockhead, Little Sister, Johnny Law, and Ian Moore, that could be as much as $3,000 if they turned the house. (Which isn’t hard to do when you’re playing for four hours.)
The first real sensation was Two Hoots and a Holler, who packed the place every Monday night, starting around ’89. One night, leader Rick Broussard
decided to take a break and Sessums was in his face. “What’s the matter, is your pussy sore?” the clubowner said and the pair had to be separated. The lucrative residency, for both club and band, was over. But that was Paul. He didn’t seem to care about money.
After Paul and his wife Roberta opened the bar in 1985, the crowd was mostly bikers. Some of the early acts were Evan Johns and Donnie Ray Ford, at the tiny first location, when the tip jar flew over the crowd on wires and pulleys. If you’d been there awhile and didn’t tip the bands, the bartender would make the tip jar dance over your head until you threw in a buck.
The 313 E. Sixth Street location, from ’88 until the club burned down in 2002, was bigger, but still a supreme dive. There was no phone and the club never advertised. But if you were into rock bands, especially ones with great guitar
players, you knew about the Black Cat. There was no heat, so the Sessums family (Martian and Sasha were the kids) would start a fire pit out back on cold winter nights. They also served free hot dogs for a few years until the health department shut that down.
Martian drew up the Black Cat t-shirts that everyone halfway cool wore, even Timbuk 3 on the Tonight Show, and left the club around ’95. With her parents
Living in Palacios, TX, Sasha pretty much ran the place after that. Paul Sr. died in a car accident near Bastrop in 1998.
The Black Cat nurtured many different scenes in its 17-year-run. It was the home of country, rockabilly, funk, jamband, blues and even rap and metal at times. There was really only one rule: if Paul is beaming, then we’re having a party.
#9 Club Foot
Located at E. 4th and Brazos, Club Foot took over the Club 110 disco in late 1980. After the Armadillo closed on the last day of that year, the hippies moved on to Liberty Lunch on 2nd Street or Soap Creek #2 at the old Skyline Club on North Lamar, and the Foot got most of the alternative/punk acts, like U2, New Order, REM, X, Gang of Four. Soul bands like Sam & Dave and James Brown packed the 950-capacity club, which also started Austin’s love affair with African music with an appearance by King Sunny Ade that folks are still talking about.
But Brad First’s most influential booking at Club Foot was pairing D.C. go-go band Trouble Funk with the Big Boys, who were among the first punk bands to incorporate funk music into their sets. (We can blame them for Red Hot Chili Peppers, I guess.)
When I visited Austin in the summer of ’83, the club was called Nightlife, though it had most of the key people in place. The owner was John Bird (the
brother of Austin author Sarah) and when he bought into the Golden Chick food franchise, that’s where his attention- and financial backing- went.
It was a Monday night and the place was empty when I went there, but you could see what made the club so great. The live room was a perfect size, with balcony viewing. And there were all these other rooms to kinda pop your head into. I could picture the first night a band was booked- the Stranglers- and see the Raul’s/Armadillo crowd discover a club like they’d never seen before. They knew it couldn’t last, that’s how perfect it was, and so they ate it up and now have memories you can’t touch.
Three years that changed Austin music forever
On Dec. 31, 1977, Roy “Raul” Gomez, Joseph Gonzales and Bobby Morales opened a bar at 2610 Guadalupe Street where they wanted to feature Chicano music. But the Sex Pistols made for other plans. Nine days after Raul’s opened, the British punk rock sensation played Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio and every cutting edge music fan from Austin was in the crowd thinking “I could do that, if I only had the guts.”
Four who did were Kathy Valentine, Carla Olson, Marilyn Dean and Jesse Sublett, who formed a band called the Violators. Joe King Carrasco, who played Raul’s in a Tex-Mex band called El Molino, had told them about the dive on the Drag, which actually wasn’t doing so well. Hispanic employees in the area, especially construction workers, just wanted to go home after the whistle blew.
The kids approached Gonzales, who figured what the hell and put them on a bill with Bill Maddox’s art-rock band Project Terror in March ’78. It didn’t take long before Austin had its very own CBGBs. This sort of thing was happening all over the country, but because Austin was already a live music city where the unconventional flocked, the bands were really good, not just drunks stumbling around onstage and taunting the audience. The Big Boys and the Dicks, lead by overweight queens, were like no other bands in the country. Then you had the art rock of Terminal Mind and F Systems, the melodic quirkiness of Standing Waves, D-Day and the Jitters, and the flamboyant singer- focused bands like the Next with Ty Gavin and the Huns with Phil Tolstead.
The Raul’s scene started getting a national rep with “The Huns Bust” of Sept. 1978, when cops, who had targeted the punk club, mistook staged chaos onstage for real violence, and started busting heads and dragged in six clubgoers (including Austin Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro.) Touring acts like Patti Smith and Elvis Costello popped in to jam, then up-and-coming acts like Psychedelic Furs started getting booked.
“The thing about Raul’s was that when it took off, it turned all notions of what passed for cool in Austin upside down,” said Roland Swenson, the SXSW director whose entree into show biz was managing Standing Waves. “The social order was disrupted… If you cut your hair short, wore black and hung out at Raul’s you became a target for frat boys and hippie rednecks alike. That bonded the kids in the ‘scene’ in a way I’ve not seen since.”
Punk rock was a gang, a family, for those who felt left out.
When I was living in Hawaii, “the Rock,” looking for a town to move to, I got a photo in the mail from my friend Andrella, who was doing lights for the Cramps on tour. It showed shirtless singer Lux Interior in the middle of a delirious packed crowd in full-on punk and rockabilly regalia. “This is TEXAS!” she wrote on the back.
But by the time I moved to Austin, Raul’s was gone, closing in ’81.
#11 Rome Inn
Antone’s is Austin’s internationally renowned “Home of the Blues,” but from 1978 until its final blowout on April 20, 1980, the Rome Inn had the hottest blues scene in town. SRV played every Sunday and Paul Ray’s Cobras had Tuesdays, but the hottest night was “Blue Monday,” with the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Billy Gibbons would take a busload of Houston friends to the Rome Inn on Mondays and immortalized the “fiend scene” on “Lowdown in the Street” from ZZ Top’s 1979 album Degüello: “So roam on in, it ain’t no sin to get low down in the street.” That same year, the T-Birds paid tribute to the lovable man in the sweat-stained blue T-shirt with slow harp instrumental “C-Boy’s Blues” from their debut LP Girls Go Wild.
C-Boy Parks, a hard-working old black cook with a love in his heart for people, is what made the Rome Inn special. His protégé was a white accounting student who lived in the neighborhood named Steve Wertheimer. Parks didn’t own the Rome Inn, where he came to work in the kitchen in 1967 when it was an Italian restaurant. But after it changed to a live music venue, he was promoted to manager because all the musicians loved him.
The blues scene integrated Austin like nothing before it, with UT students going to Charlie’s Playhouse on East 11th and bands like Clarence Smith & the Daylighters backing white singer Joyce Harris. White blues musicians like Bill Campbell, the Vaughan brothers, and Angela Strehli sought out obscure Eastside blues players. Running the place, C-Boy gave the music a lift of authenticity.
Parks died in 1991 at age 66, but not before he saw his student flourish in the club business with the Continental. Then, in 2014, Wertheimer fulfilled a longtime promise to himself by opening a soul-themed bar seven blocks up South Congress from the Continental. It’s called “C-Boy’s,” of course, after the man who worked two fulltime jobs a day (including fry cook at the Nighthawk), but always came from back behind the bar, no matter how busy he was, to dance to “Mathilda.”
After the Rome Inn closed, the club on 29th Street had a brief resurrection as punk club Studio 29. But since the mid-’80s it’s been Texas French Bread.
#12 Cactus Café
When the Texas Union reopened in 1979 after extensive renovations, it featured a new coffeehouse called the Cactus Café. But long before that, going back to the ‘30s, the space was known as the Chuckwagon. It’s where a UT student named Janis Joplin first performed in front of people in 1962, with a folk trio called the Waller Creek Boys.
What made the Cactus special at the beginning was a bartender named Griff Luneberg, finishing up his degree in Government. A Bob Dylan fanatic, Luneberg ran the club’s open mike night on Thursday and started booking the club fulltime in 1982. The first act to charge a cover ($2) was Nanci Griffith, who told her friend Lyle Lovett about the Cactus, and his career was built there in ’84, ’85.
Think of anybody who’s written a song in the past 30 years that’s made you cry- they all played the Cactus. Townes Van Zandt, Doc Watson, Gillian Welch, Bill Monroe, Todd Snider, Iris Dement, Jimmy Webb, Kasey Chambers… It’s really kinda ridiculous to try to list the nights of songwriting magic there. I’ll point out two.
The first was when an Austin High School basketball player named Suzanna Choffel saw Patty Griffin at the Cactus and saw the person she most wanted to be like. Nights at that little 100-capacity club have changed many in the audience. But they’ve also changed lives of those onstage. Bruce Robison and Slaid Cleaves are just two of many popular acts who didn’t know for sure that they could do this until they bowled ‘em over at the Cactus. Distance and volume are things that keep performers safe from revealing too much, but there’s no place to hide at the Cactus.
After an outraged public beat some sense into UT, which had announced they were closing the Cactus (and ended firing Luneberg to save face), the club was reopened in 2011 and it seems to be cruising along. But the Cactus was Griff. I have no real idea of what went on behind the scenes, but UT shouldn’t have done Griff like that. He’s the only reason there’s not still cover bands playing the Cactus, as in the beginning.
I said I was going to tell you about two specific shows to add some flesh around the thumbnail. This second one was my favorite show ever at the Cactus. I remember because we were among only about 10 people to see John Hiatt. This was right before Bring the Family. Across town that night, the Backroom was packed for Richard Thompson’s solo show. Glass Eye and Brent Grulke and all the other people who told you about music were always raving about Richard Thompson. Meanwhile, John Hiatt had spent a few years getting unfogged from various addictions and nobody knew if he was still any good. I just wanted to hear “She Loves the Jerk” and head on over to the Back Room.
Hiatt, also solo, was playing all these brilliant new songs like “Memphis In the Meantime” and “Stood Up,” and singing with such soul. It was a pure connection with the few of us. At the end he went to the piano and played a song I’ve heard hundreds of times since, but on that night it was new. “Have a Little Faith In Me.” I mean, come on! Here was this artist starting over, playing to nobody, being overcome with this real sense of personal fulfillment that only comes with humility. One man, one stage, one song. That was the night for me.
Not to be confused with club at 2015 E. Riverside
It’s 1992 and the alternative rock world of hardened white kids is looking for a place to show off their tattoos and listen to loud music. They had no reason to go to Red River Street until Eric “Emo” Hartman opened with a bang. A “no cover” policy will make you popular in a hurry. Emo’s rush-opened with a catering license for SXSW 1992, then made it official in May. Before Emo’s, the only rock at Sixth and Red River cost about $20 a pebble. If you were walking down Sixth Street and you saw the Red River street sign it was time to head back.
There was stuff happening on Red River before Emo’s. There was the Chances lesbian bar that became Club DeVille. The Cavity Club was the only skeezy shithole that G.G. Allin couldn’t mess up. Brad First introduced industrial rock to Austin at the Cave Club with Skinny Puppy and Ministry. It was a gay bar before the Cave, around 1986, so for the first few months there was a long horizontal mirror above the urine trough so you could see everybody’s chode. That’s where Elysium is now. Before that it was the Atomic Café, Paul Sessums’ Split Rail, the Sanitarium, Kilimanjaro, Hip-Hop City, I’m forgetting one or two.
But mostly, Red River was dominated by junk shops like Snooper’s Paradise and Hurt’s Hunting Ground before Emo’s made it the place to be.
When Hartman and his manager David Thomson (who came from the original Emo’s in Houston) entered 601 Red River for the first time, the walls held stuffed animal heads and wagon wheels, décor left over from when the club was C&W with Raven’s and Poodie’s. When Emo’s hired Don Walser to its first and only residency, it wasn’t as an homage to its past, but what its customers wanted. Henry’s on Burnet Road had been attracting punks and rockers to see Walser, Junior Brown, High Noon and other country acts.
Then there was the time Johnny Cash turned Emo’s into the Grand Ol’ Dump during SXSW ’94. “There was a knock on the back door that afternoon,” said Thomson, “and when I asked who it was, he said ‘John Cash.’ He said, ‘I’ll be working for you tonight, so I was wondering if I could come inside and see the place.” Thomson said it was the only time he was embarrassed by how Emo’s looked. Johnny Cash (followed by Beck) put Emo’s on the map and bookings got easier, though regulars were outraged when a cover charge of $1 for over 21, $2 for 18-21, was implemented. “Freemo’s” was no more.
Thomson laughed when he recalled overhearing Robin Zander of Cheap Trick walking into Emo’s for the first time, around ’95. “I can’t believe we’re playing this shithole!” he said. Neither could the 1,100 or so who packed the place.
“Emo’s was the home away from home for misfits,” said Thomson. “I think we brought a whole different crowd to Sixth Street.”
Emo’s closed in Dec. 2011 and opened a bigger, nicer version of the rock box at the former location of the Back Room on Riverside. Owner Frank Hendrix, who bought the club from Hartman in 2000, sold Emo’s East, as it had been called, to C3 Presents in Feb. 2013 and it is now part of the Live Nation empire.
#14 Hole In the Wall
1974 to present
My theory is that the mob buried some bodies under the building in the ‘50s. How else could you explain that the Hole In the Wall is still there on the Drag, unleveled in this era when “mixed use” throttles mixed drinks? This nightlife warhorse has had more false farewells than the Who.
We thought we lost the beloved Austin Cheers, where everybody slurs your name, in June 2002, when the closing made front page news. But the Hole came back a few months later, all cleaned up and catering to a broader audience than the daytime stool-flatteners and the younger people who had to order over them.
It’s true that Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith played at the Hole in its early years, but the club at 2538 Guadalupe St. didn’t really build its reputation as a live venue until the roots rockers of the ‘80s, including the Commandos, Two Hoots and a Holler, LeRoi Brothers and Buick MacKane.
Playing in the picture window, like some Lower East Side Esther’s Follies, bands came to embrace the Hole as a stage to pull themselves out of with the sheer force of their performance. Spoon, Fastball, Timbuk 3, Damnations, Sincola, Carper Family and the White Horse Saloon all came out of there. “This place was the litmus test for bands,” musician Jacob Schulze told me in 2002, on a night when Kathy McCarty raised goosebumps on leather jackets by belting “Living Life.”
“You couldn’t move onstage or hear yourself, and chances were pretty good there wouldn’t be much of an audience,” Schulze continued. “But if you couldn’t get up there and rock out and have fun, then you had no business playing music.” Those who couldn’t pull it off onstage were often scathed in instant reviews on the men’s room wall, the closest thing Austin had to a second daily paper.
It’s been a long time since Don Henley, hidden in a dark corner, jumped onstage to sing “Don Henley Must Die” with a stunned Mojo Nixon. Or since Courtney Love comandeered the men’s room for a sniffing session the night before her rambling SXSW interview. But the spirit’s still there, even as the Hole is now run with rare efficiency by Will Tanner.
#15 Vulcan Gas Company
Let’s look at Austin music in the ‘60s. There were folkie clubs like the Cliché in West Campus, the Eleventh Door on Red River and 11th and the Chequered Flag, which had an auto racing theme in reflection of co-owner Rod Kennedy’s obsession. There was the New Orleans Club, which took its name from the preferred Dixieland jazz, but then started booking rock acts like the 13th Floor Elevators to fill the club. The Jade Room on San Jacinto was another ‘60s club, but they never committed to original rock music and booked cover bands on the weekends. Club Saracen was one of the first clubs to mix beatniks and frats, then there was The Fred, a short-lived club that had light shows to rock music, and over on the East Side, the I.L. was booking longhairs. But all this early psych-rock activity was scattered.
The Electric Grandmother collective, which booked psychedelic shows at Doris Miller and the September 1967 “Love-In at Zilker,” rented out a storefront with a big, square room at 316 Congress Avenue and called it the Vulcan Gas Company. There was a war between dope-smoking longhairs and law enforcement in Austin (even though it was an ex-Marine with a crewcut who killed all those people from the Tower in 1966), so the Vulcan didn’t even try to get a liquor license. Instead, the city hassled them relentlessly over code violations, especially having to do with the Vulcan’s electrical set-up. The Statesman refused to advertise shows at the Vulcan, so the club’s 23” x 28” posters were on great importance and such artists as Gilbert Shelton, Jack Jackson and Jim Franklin blew minds and sold tickets.
The counterculture pleasure dome was a shithole, with inconsistent sound and no air conditioning. But 900 heads would pack in there to see acts like Big Mama Thornton, the Velvet Undergound, Jimmy Reed, Moby Grape, Mance Lipscomb and local faves Conqueroo and Shiva’s Head Band played to a backdrop of exposed pipes. Club favorite Johnny Winter met his hero Muddy Waters in ’68 when he opened for the legend at the Vulcan. Waters couldn’t believe the authentic sound coming from Winter’s guitar and so he held up a phone for a friend to hear. “He white,” Muddy said into the receiver. “I mean, he REALLY white!”
Janis Joplin and Big Brother were too big for the Vulcan and so the owners, including Don Hyde and Houston White, booked them at the Hemisfair Theater in San Antonio on Nov. 21, 1968. But after Joplin canceled the sold-out concert due to illness, promoters lost $3,500 and a disgusted Hyde dumped 3,000 posters he had made- one for each ticketholder, into the trash.
The Vulcan tried selling membership cards- at $1 a year- to stay afloat, but the club finally sunk in the summer of 1970. That was a few weeks before the manager of Shiva’s Headband found an abandoned National Guard Armory near the intersection of Barton Springs Road and Riverside that was just about the same size as the Fillmore in San Francisco.
316 Congress later became the location of Duke’s Royal Coach Inn, a short-lived, yet beloved punk/new wave club that opened after Raul’s closed.
#16 The Mohawk
Turning 10 in September, with no sign of slowing down, The Mohawk keeps this countdown from being a nostalgia fest through the heft of talent that has graced its stages. Don’t give me that stuff about seeing Freddie King and Leon Russell at the ‘Dillo: the Mohawk hosted Iggy and the Stooges, the Specials and Ghostface Killah, on the same night! Owner James Moody and his crew have done it the right way, building out the existing bar at 10th and Red River, until it became the best 1,000-capacity club in town. Inside is a cozy rock box, then outside is the big stage in the center of a viewing area and massive deck that were added in increments. The Mohawk, similarly, is smack in the middle of a changing downtown music scene, but it’s got it’s heart in live, original music.
Booked by Transmission Entertainment, the ‘hawk is the nightclub version of Fun Fun Fun Fest, with an “anything goes” attitude backed up by professionalism. When a car plowed into the crowd on Red River at SXSW 2014, the Mohawk’s staff and customers were among the first responders and comforted the wounded until EMS arrived. But this is also the club where craziness leads to unforgettable good times, as when the singer for Israeli band Monotonix led the audience outside to watch him climb onto the balcony of one of the condos across the street (a woman opened her curtains and screamed).
The Red River that’s still the place to be challenged by live music, is anchored by the Mohawk. Long may it dance.
#17 Austin Opera House
When I moved to Austin in ’84, the Armadillo and Raul’s were closed, but there were great, intimate roadshows at the Austin Opera House, and serious punk rock action at Voltaire’s. I saw Elvis Costello at the Opera House soon after I got here- and they announced an impromptu second night, with opener Nick Lowe headlining, right there at the show. This sort of stuff didn’t happen in other cities.
But when Willie Nelson is the owner, you sorta pick up the tempo. Willie bought the 1700-capacity (or 1500-seated) Opera House in 1977, and his business partner Tim O’Connor ran it. It was originally the ballroom of the Terrace Motel complex, which included little apartment houses, which were dubbed the Willie Hilton. The 200 Academy Drive building was 9,000-square feet, so Willie also put in a recording studio, Arlyn, where Stevie Ray Vaughan did much of his recording.
Actually, before Willie bought the property it was owned by three guys who opened the Texas Opry House in April 1974. That first night’s lineup was Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers and Freda and the Firedogs. It was only open about eight months, but Watlon Jennings recorded Waylon Live there, with its famous version of “(No Matter What Goes Down In Austin) Bob Wills Is Still the King.”
Neil Young, Patti Smith, George Jones, James Brown, Lou Reed, Sam & Dave, (and the best I saw there, Terrence Trent D’Arby), all played Willie’s joint, which stayed in his hands for about 10 years. The old ballroom has not been a club since the ‘90s, then it was The Terrace.
O’Connor modeled the Opera House after the Armadillo, which was going strong until 1980, right down to recruiting his own art squad. He gave house photographer Scott Newton free reign, even let him build his darkroom in a backstage corner, which is why we have such great shots today.
#18 The One Knite
CBGB’s was the Copa compared with Austin’s most notorious dive, located at 801 Red River St. where a much-expanded Stubb’s currently sits. From 1970, when a trio of pals bought the business for just under $2,000, until it closed on July 4, 1976, the One Knite was known for its hanging junkyard decor and its illegal after-hours parties that often raged until dawn.
But the most lasting legacy of the club is the musicians who started out there and went on to bigger things. Long before Clifford Antone opened his first namesake blues club on Sixth Street in 1975, the One Knite hosted the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Angela Strehli, Marcia Ball, Joe Ely and many, many more. They all played for tips. SRV’s earliest bands Blackbyrd, the Nightcrawlers and the Cobras were One Knite mainstays. Jimmie Vaughan and Big Doyle’s band Storm played every Monday night for five years. One night a touring British band came in during a Storm set and asked if they could jam, but when they said they weren’t a blues band, the members of Pink Floyd were denied the stage.
Cleve Hattersley of Greezy Wheels remembers the crowd being right on top of the stage. “They were in your face, and pretty rowdy sometimes, but they would be cheering you on. It was a great feeling.” The One Knite had a coffin-shaped front door and served dollar pitchers of beer.
In the early ’70s, when Austin was first getting a national reputation as a music town, the Armadillo World Headquarters and Soap Creek Saloon got most of the attention, deservedly so. But the scruffy downtown joints like Split Rail, Chequered Flag, Alamo Lounge, Spellman’s and the One Knite are where the Austin club scene, the one that lives on today, was being born.
The antithesis of the “cosmic cowboy” scene that was popular at the time, the One Knite’s interior was painted as black as bassist Keith Ferguson’s fingernails. This counterculture Cheers found biker gangs at the table next to former President Lyndon Johnson’s Secret Service detail. Flower children, East Side bluesmen, law students: They all sat under such objects as lawn mowers, tricycles, bed springs, shoulder pads and typewriters, which hung from the ceiling. “The One Knite had an across-the-highway feel,” says Hattersley. “No club west of I-35 had such a funky East Austin feel like the One Knite.”
While clubs were ordered closed at midnight in the early ’70s, owners Roger Collins, Roddy Howard and Gary Oliver merely padlocked the front door from the inside and let the revelry continue. We’re not talking about just sneaking a beer after closing time.
When someone pulled out a couple of machetes and a bag of marijuana, the cheers would go up for a Hot Knife Party. This was when a handful of pot was sandwiched between two stove-heated machetes and quickly filled the room with smoke. People were inhaling like lunatics. The men in blue often were waiting to corral the OK gang, once hauling 14 employees and customers off to jail in a paddy wagon. Sometimes the cops, headquartered just a block away, would barge in two or three times a night, checking IDs and looking for drugs. Collins kept a log in 1973 that showed his club was raided 150 times over a three-month period.
It would be the IRS that finally put the joint out. “We spent all our money on partying,” Collins says.
Besides running the club, the One Knite owners hosted outdoor concerts, the most notorious of which was the 1973 “Last Bash On the Hill” off City Park Road. Roky Erickson had just gotten out of Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane, so the 13th Floor Elevators reunited for the free show. An unannounced Willie Nelson also played a set.
Organizers expected 3,000 people; 15,000 showed up. The One Knite crew angered local authorities as fans ditched their cars from miles around when the traffic stopped moving. But, oh, what a party! During this time of Vietnam, the hippies of Austin knew how to forget.
#19 Victory Grill
During a time of segregation (anytime before 1964 in Texas), the black community found safe havens, away from the white gaze, in church and at the juke joint. Just as touring religious singers had “the gospel highway” of connected gigs and places to stay, R&B entertainers traveled the “chitlin circuit.” Before they became mainstream acts, Ike & Tina Turner, B.B. King, Bobbie Blue Bland, Joe Tex and many more made their livings playing clubs like the Victory Grill. The Grill’s Kovac Room also spawned a local blues scene that included Erbie Bowser and T.D. Bell, the Grey Ghost, Lavada Durst, Jean and the Rollettes, Major Burkes and more.
Johnny Holmes opened in 1945, the day after the Japanese surrendered, as a small icehouse and burger stand a block up E. 11th. In 1947, he bought the current building at 1104 E. 11th St. and opened it as a restaurant, with waitresses in starched maroon shirts, that also occasionally had music. But when he built the Kovac Room in 1951, he put in a big stage, plush booths and a big dancefloor. This was the place for the acts not yet big enough for Doris Miller Auditorium or City Coliseum.
Holmes was a natural for booking, hiring the Grey Ghost to play his 7th grade graduation at Kern Hall in Bastrop in 1937. He connected with the TOBA agency and the Victory Grill become a stop between the Keyhole Club in San Antonio and Walker Auditorium in Waco.
The club seemed to have closed for good in 1973. It sat boarded up for 14 years, but through the efforts of Tary Owens and others, the club reopened in 1987. It had a couple good years, but it hasn’t been consistently viable, which is a shame. The Victory Grill should be restored, rejuvenated back to life.
#20 Electric Lounge
Opened in 1993, closed in 1999
Opened by architect Jay Hughey and filmmaker Mark Shuman, and managed by poet Mike Henry, the Electric Lounge was the closest Austin had to a New York City nightclub in the ‘90s. The place aimed for boldness, as the two most popular residencies early on were Hamell On Trial, a one-man punk band with an acoustic guitar, and Asylum Street Spankers, the old-timey show band. The industrial-looking building had a fantastic interior design, with a partition of see-through (sorta) plexiglass allowing you to hang at the quieter bar side, while keeping tabs of the live room action. The Damnations were bartenders and that band, plus Spoon, Fastball, the Gourds and Sixteen Deluxe really made the Electric Lounge their home. “It’ll never be considered as important an incubator as Armadillo or Antones,” said Kevin Russell of the Gourds. “But, for its time it was a crucial venue that gave this town a place to grow.” The Gourds’ notorious cover of “Gin and Juice” was first played as an impromptu encore at the EL.
The club’s trademark “Electric” neon sign lit up the stage, which annoyed L.A. band the Muffs, whose bassist speared the sign and broke it. Such other touring acts as Neutral Milk Hotel, String Cheese Incident, Spiritualized, Supergrass, Sleater-Kinney and Lucinda Williams, who played five nights in a row while she was woodshedding “Car Wheels,” seemed to have no problem with the neon.
A couple cool things about the club: it was right next to the railroad track- and some dim bulb got their car smashed one crowded night when they parked on the track. The other thing was that you could walk down the hill to the Cedar Door if there was an opening act you hated or if you just saw someone you didn’t want to see. You made sure you wore all-terrain shoes when you went to the Lounge.
When you saw a great show at the Lounge, you couldn’t imagine it happening so well anywhere else. The best I saw there was ? and the Mysterians, the day before SXSW in ’97 or ’98. The place was big enough, I’m guessing 450-capacity, everyone standing, to really scream. But seeing someone like John Cale or Jeff Buckley in such a small space also made you tingle at the intimacy.
The last year of the century was a tough one for Austin music. We lost Doug Sahm to heart disease in ’99. And a trio of great clubs- Liberty Lunch, Steamboat and Electric Lounge- closed their doors.
#21 Steamboat 1874
Open from the ‘70s until 1999
Sixth Street has gone through different phases, but the Steamboat scene was a consistent positive for three decades. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson played here, but the first big breakout artist was Christopher Cross, who was playing for affable drunks and cokeheads on Sixth Street one year and the next year he was winning five Grammys.
“The weekly Austin All-Stars jam on Monday nights, which started around 1978, was the glue that held the rock scene together” for almost a decade, said musician Ernie Gammage. Such high level R&B cover bands as the Bizness and Extreme Heat kept the dancefloors filled in the ’70s.
In the early ‘80s they started regularly booking national acts like Los Lobos and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but the club’s glory years were in the late ‘80s/early ’90s when Danny Crooks took over and built a scene on local rock bands like Ugly Americans (with Bob Schneider), Del Castillo, Vallejo, Mr. Rockit Baby, Little Sister, Pushmonkey, Ian Moore, Breedlove, Sunflower and many more. It was an old-fashioned rock club, where you went to hear loud music and tried to find someone to sleep with. And you got drunk. Nothing fancy, but, again, we’re finding that the best clubs were the ones where you felt like family.
A couple of Middle Eastern dudes from out of town wanted to open a bar on Sixth Street so they went to Steamboat’s landlady in ’99 and offered to pay three times the rent. They got the space and called their laidback cocktail bar the Library. Steamboat closed a few months after Liberty Lunch, giving a scene a big 1-2 punch to the gut.
Danny thought he’d found new paradise when he moved Steamboat to that money pit on Riverside near South Congress where La Bare used to be. Overhead and some moderately-attended road shows did him in. Paul Oveisi of Momo’s took over for a short while, but this Steamboat has been in dry dock the past decade and a half. Crooks put on an annual reunion concert for many years at Threadgill’s, but I’m not sure if that’s still going.
Club trivia: The 403 E. Sixth Street location was the site of the Mayflower Café in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
#22 The Beach Cabaret
From 1983- 87, the so-called “New Sincerity” scene (True Believers, Zeitgeist/Reivers, Glass Eye, Wild Seeds, Doctors’ Mob, Dharma Bums, etc.) was born and nurtured in two clubs that were really more like clubhouses: the Continental south of the river and the Beach, one block north of the University of Texas campus. The Beach (2911 San Jacinto St.) was unique in that it was a neighborhood bar and it had a big patio in front. That sense of hominess continued on inside, where Daniel Johnston got his first cheers of encouragement (and jeers, too), opening for Glass Eye.
Not just the haven for jangly guitar bands, the Beach booked punk acts like Scratch Acid, Criminal Crew, Cargo Cult and the Crybabies. Just as with Raul’s years earlier, there were quite a few fights when frats infiltrated the punk scene. But 99% of the time, the place had a heavenly vibe. And, usually, Doctors’ Mob holding court on the patio was more entertaining than all the bashing around inside.
The owner sold the Beach in 1987 to the Crown & Anchor folks and focused on the South Bank at Riverside and Barton Springs Road, but that joint faded with the NS scene.
#23 Castle Creek
The 1411 Lavaca Street address holds a lot of history, with the Chequered Flag folk haven there in the ‘60s, and the Comedy Workshop, Austin’s home for Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks and many more, at 15th and Lavaca in the ‘80s. During the ‘70s it was Castle Creek, a 285-capacity listening room that knew how to rock. Jimmy Buffett, Doug Kershaw and Lightnin’ Hopkins mixed in the schedule with songwriters that sang, such as Willie Nelson, John Prine and Jackson Browne. There was a strict “no talking” rule when it was an acoustic act, but all hell broke loose when Little Feat made their Texas debut at the club in ’71.
This 20-year-old piano player named Doug Moyes had the idea, to open a farm club to the 1,500-capacity Armadillo World Headquarters, but he needed a partner with club experience and that was Tim O’Connor, in his mid-‘20s, who had been running a club in Colorado. Castle Creek was named after an area near Aspen where Moyes had camped a couple years earlier.
The pair scrapped together just enough money to pay a $1,500 deposit for banjo legend Earl Scruggs, then sold out all four nights. They were off!
O’Connor left Castle Creek in ’74 to work fulltime for Willie. Moyes eventually sold the club to a pair of Houston jazz fans and they lost their ass. The club closed for good in 1976.
#24 The Broken Spoke
Honky tonk Texas lives in a rustic red roadhouse that used to be on the outskirts of town, but now is surrounded by expensive condos. South Lamar has changed, but inside the Spoke it’s still 1964, the band is playing “Walking the Floor Over You” and the dancefloor is a counter-clockwise swirl of bodies.
It’s all about dancing at the club, which was founded 52 years ago by James White’s stepfather Joe Baland, who convinced Austin businessman Jay Johnson to not only lease him the property at 3201 S. Lamar Blvd., but provide $5,000 worth of building materials. Just out of the service, White helped build the Spoke and took over running the joint after the dancehall portion was added in ’65. His first big booking was Bob Wills, whom he paid $400 in ’66. Since then, everyone from Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells to Wilie Nelson and George Strait has played the low-ceiling joint with the plywood tables and cheap metal chairs.
But it doesn’t really matter who’s playing, as long as the crowd, a mix of oldtimers and nouveau Lamartians, can two-step.
#25 (tie) Saxon Pub, Back Room
Saxon Pub 0pened: June 1990, still going strong
“The House That Stephen Bruton Built”
Nurtured: Los Lonely Boys, Carolyn Wonderland, Hayes Carll, Monte Montgomery, Guy Forsyth, many more
Home club for: the late Rusty Wier, W.C. Clark, Bob Schneider
The Saxon, named after a short-lived, yet legendary, singer-songwriter club at 38 1/2 St. and I-35, has booked at least three acts a night for 26 years. Almost always with Richard Vannoy at the sound booth. Joe Ables’ innovation was putting the headliner in the middle, which not only lets working folk get in bed by midnight, but turns the house, with a whole new crowd coming in for the late night set.
Back Room opened in 1973, closed in 2006.
I can’t think of any club that has had more transformations, from blues club to bike bar to metalhead haven. After a 1985 expansion at 2015 E. Riverside, the live room was the perfect size (about 1,000-capacity) for national touring acts on the way up or the way down. Steve Earle and Jane’s Addiction played the Back Room- on the same night! (The house was cleared between shows.) While Jim Ramsey booked the joint, Richard Thompson played here, so did the Ramones. During the late ‘80s, the hair bands took over and the BR spawned national label locals Dangerous Toys and Pariah. In the ‘90s, the club, now managed by Mark Olivares, became best known for metal, and was booking a lot of rap acts like Public Enemy and 2 Live Crew. That latter crew was headlining on May 19, 1996, when fans rioted, stealing cash registers and looting the bar.
The Back Room closed in July 2006. The building, which also included a huge game arcade, was torn down to make way for the new Emo’s.
HONORABLE MENTION: Momo’s Henry’s Bar & Grill, Backyard, Black Queen, Beerland, Split Rail, Parish, Austex Lounge, Blue Flamingo, Chicago House, Spellman’s, Catfish Station, Elephant Room, Alamo Lounge, emmajoe’s, Hungry Horse, La Zona Rosa, Cannibal Club, Cave Club, T.C.’s/ Sahara, Jade Room, I.L. Club, La Polkita, The Ritz, Ego’s, Ginny’s Little Longhorn, Chequered Flag. New Orleans Club, Eleventh Door, Club Saracen, Sam’s Showplace, The Green Spot, Carousel Lounge.
Club trivia: Even though it’s best known as the launching pad for the 13th Floor Elevators, the New Orleans Club’s specialty was Dixieland Jazz, hence the name. But since the Elevators and other rockers brought in the crowds, owners gave them a weeknight.
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AUSTIN’S MUSIC SCENE IN THE ’50s
By Michael Corcoran
Wild-eyed rockabilly veteran Ray Campi wrote his first song on the last day of 1949 and left Austin at the end of 1959. He’s a man of the ‘50s in his home town, so in his mind the Magnolia Café at 1920 S. Congress Ave. is still Flossie’s Drive In, where country bands like Leon Carter and the Rolling Stones played. He still calls far South Congress Avenue, home of such 1950s clubs as the Cinderella, Rudy’s Drive In, the Alibi, Gil’s and the Top Hat, “the San Antonio Highway.”
While legions continue to mourn the 1980 closing of the Armadillo World Headquarters on Barton Springs Road, Campi has fonder memories of the 1,500-capacity hall when it was the Sportcenter in the mid-’50s. There, he and such local acts as Betty Barnes, the Hubcats with Hub Sutter, the Hungry Mountain Boys and Buck Fowler and the Black Diamonds would play the Saturday night Jamboree. Billed the “Folk Music Fireball” by an Austin promoter, Elvis Presley played the future hippie haven August 25, 1955- one of four Austin appearances before his January 1956 TV debut made him a national sensation.
“Some people talk like Austin became a music town in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Campi, who owns a house in Spicewood, yet has lived primarily in Los Angeles for five decades. “But the town was hoppin’ when I was coming up.“
The dynamic 77-year-old slap bassist, who still thrills crowds in rockabilly-crazed Europe by standing on his bass fiddle, remembers a time when Dessau Hall near Pflugerville and the Skyline Club on far North Lamar Boulevard (“the Dallas Highway”) were “the Palladiums of Central
Texas.” Dessau was built around a huge pecan tree which grew up through the roof, delighting such Eastern swing bandleaders as Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw.
Touring and local country bands would also play the Buckholts SPJST Hall in nearby Milam County, where an 18-year-old Campi was called up by his guitar hero Merle Travis to sing “San Antonio Rose” in 1952.
Because Austin is home to the most liberal state college in Texas, it’s always had something going on musically. In the ’50’s, downtown was swingin’ with the Jade Room (2514 Guadalupe St.), Squirrel’s Inn (415 Barton Springs Rd.) and New Orleans Club (1123 Red River). The roots rockin’ Continental Club opened at 1315 S. Congress Ave., just up from the Terrace Motel and nightclub, in 1955, but it was more of a jazz club, with owner Bill Turner’s trio playing most nights.
In the otherwise barren hills of West Lake, musicians played the Elm Grove Lodge, which would go on to gain fame during the ’70s as the home of Soap Creek Saloon.
Over on the East Side, you had Charlie’s Playhouse (1206 E. 11th), Big Mary’s/ Alabama Club (1808 E. 12th St.), the Victory Grill (1114 E. 11th) and more juke joints. “We used to go to Charlie’s on Friday nights to learn the latest dances,” said antique dealer Charles “Lucky” Attal, who went to Austin High, at the current 12th St. location of ACC, in the late ’50s.
Most of the major black acts, including Bo Diddley, Big Joe Turner and Little Richard on one memorable night, played Doris Miller Auditorium. The great KVET DJ and musician Lavada Durst, a true icon in the history of Austin, also brought in such giants as Duke Ellington and Sam Cooke.
Not to be outdone, the City Coliseum on Barton Springs Road featured an Oct. 7, 1957 show with Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, The Drifters, Lavern Baker, Clyde McPhatter and more. Lucky Attal’s son, Charles of C3 Presents, would be lucky to book that much talent over three days at ACL Fest.
For Hispanic fans, a weekly highlight in the ‘50s was the Nash Hernandez Orchestra’s “Friday Frolics” at Zaragoza Park. The scene was strong, with Manuel Donley, Shorty
and the Corvetts, Roy Montelongo, Lonnie Gueurrero and his son Louie and more local acts benefiting from nightly exposure on Lalo Campos’ “Noche de Fiesta” radio show on KVET. Accordion master Camilo Cantu, meanwhile, had couples dancing at La Polkita, an open air venue bounded by Christmas tree lights in Del Valle.
With a memory as sharp as his vintage threads, Campi remembers Austin in the ‘50s as if the past five decades were a week and a half. He’ll talk your ear off, but you’d be wise to take notes.
Ramblin’ Ray remembers not only the music scene, but can still describe details about restaurants like Lung’s Chinese Kitchen (1128 Red River), Austin’s first foray into “exotic” cuisine, the Toddle House on 19th St., with its famous breakfasts, and the Sho-Nuff Café (2006 S. Lamar, later locale of Bag of Chicken), where musician Calvin Russell’s parents worked as fry cook and waitress.
He recalls the fanfare when the Twin Oaks Shopping Center (“the largest in town”) opened at South Congress and Oltorf in 1955. Twin Oaks today is just another strip mall being kept alive by computer repair shops and nail salons.
“There were seven drive-in movie theaters in Austin in the ‘50s,” said Campi, rattling off the names: the Burnet Road Drive-in, the Delwood, the North Austin (also known as the Eddie Joseph Drive-In), the South Austin, the Montopolis, the Chief, the Longhorn.
The competition was fierce and one time Campi got drawn into a big publicity stunt at the Chief Drive-In (5601 North Lamar). “There was a guy who was buried alive for a month,” Campi said, with a laugh. “He wasn’t really buried. There was a secret door and he’d go home after the last showing each night. But one day (studio owner) Roy Poole had an idea to record a song from the grave, so he had me play the guitar while the guy sang.”
Before Poole opened Austin Recording Company on the second floor of the Littlefield Building at 6th and Congress in the early ‘50s, the only recording studio in town was the Radio House on the University of Texas campus. Campi recorded several tracks there from 1951- 58. As described by Campi, the former Radio House was almost certainly the brick annex of the historic Littlefield Building on campus.
But on a recent four-day visit to Austin, Campi never made it to campus to confirm that. He did visit his childhood home at 1116 W. Sixth St. for the first time in decades. The two-story brownstone with the house in the back is now Fortney’s West End antique store.
“Hi, I’m Ray Campi and I used to live here,” he said to one of the store employees. “I made some records in the ‘50s, but you’ve never heard of me.”
He never became more than a local act, at least in his prime. Soon after recording a regional hit (/ “Play It Cool”) for San Antonio’s TNT Records, Campi was signed to Dot, the home of Pat Boone, in 1957. Although his single “It Ain’t Me” went nowhere, it led to a lipsynced appearance on “American Bandstand,” which made Campi a bit of a star back home.
After being “one and done” at Dot, Campi was courted by Domino Records, Austin’s first label of note, which made a little noise in the years between Elvis and the Beatles. Formed in 1957 as a night school project, Domino featured such acts as the Slades, Joyce Webb, Barney Tall and Joyce Harris, a white singer from New Orleans whose backing band was a black group from East Austin called the Daylighters. Once, Harris found the band coming out of the White Swan on East 12th and reminded them they had a rehearsal scheduled. But Clarence Smith (AKA Sonny Rhodes) and the others didn’t want to get in the car with a white woman. Not in the ’50s in Texas. Harris and the Daylighters made great records, but never performed live together. (Listen to “
Campi’s contribution to the Domino catalog was ” in 1958, but when that rocker didn’t make it further than the sock hops of the Hancock Clubhouse and the Teen Canteen near Camp Mabry, Campi moved to Los Angeles.
Returning to his family’s former home on W. Sixth St. brings back happy memories for Campi, of Cuban and Scotch/English descent, who learned to play guitar on the steps out back.
“This was Alex Fischer’s grocery store when my dad bought it in 1943,” Campi said of the first floor storefront. Having sold his flooring business and the family home in Yonkers, New York to explore the new frontier, Campi Sr. had some money to buy property.
“Part of the deal was that Mr. Fischer would teach my dad how to cut meat.”
With a head for business (“which wasn’t passed on to me,” Campi said), Ray Campi Sr. converted a back room of the grocery store into a mini-barracks with six bunk beds. “He’d send me and my brother Harvey (a year younger) to the bus station with flyers. A lot of G.I.’s in town from Camp Swift or Fort Hood couldn’t afford hotel rooms so we’d rent them a cot for a couple bucks a night.”
Austin was booming after World War II., with the population rising from 87,930 in 1940 to 132,459 in 1950.The local music scene during that time was dominated by Western swing bands like Jesse James and All the Boys, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters (pictured below),
“When my family moved to Austin my father wanted to feel more like a Texan so he bought a record by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys,” said Campi, who was 9 at the time. “Two of my favorite things were cowboy movies and big band music, so I took to Western swing right away.”The Campi brothers attended middle school at St. Mary’s Academy at 10th and Brazos Streets, where many of their classmates were the chlldren of Lebanese-Americans named Joseph, Attal, Jabour, Zigub and Sabb, who owned many of the businesses on Sixth Street. After school, Ray had enough time to catch a western at the Ritz Theater before walking home for dinner.
“It was a nickel if you were under 12, so we’d go to the Diamond Bar, next door to the Ritz, which was owned by our friend Joe Sabb’s mother,” said Ray, who was 13 at the time. “She’d sign a note saying we were 11 years old.”
But one day in 1947, Campi skipped the flick to watch country singer and songwriter Gene Snowden onstage at the Diamond (where the bands played on a loft above thne crowd.) Campi calls hard drinking Snowden “Austin’s original hillbilly poet,” and when he watched the interplay with great guitar player Curly Top Clayton, Campi decided to become a musician. “It was quite an epiphany,” Campi said. “They had a song called ‘Quit Your Trifling’ which I started covering in my first band.” And he’s been playing it ever since.
Campi made his show business debut in 1949 as part of a hillbilly comedy act with Joe Bill Hogan and Betty Jo Gregory. They performed such tunes as “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” at Saengerrunde Hall before popular play “The Drunkard.”
“Melodramas were big back then,” said Campi. “The crowd would throw peanuts at the villains. It was a lot of fun.” The Geezinslaws, another group modeled after Homer and Jethro, were usually also on the bill.
As a senior in high school, Campi formed Ramblin’ Ray and the Ramblers, whose guitarist was Campi’s cousin Harold Layman, a native of Newfoundland who lived in the house in the back. “Harold was six years older, and he had a job with the Coca-Cola plant near Treaty Oak, so he had money for records,” Campi said. The two would spend hours listening to western swing and honky tonk records, trying to play along. And on Saturday nights, they’d tune into “The Louisiana Hayride” on 50,000-watt KWKH out of Shreveport. “There were a couple of guys at Harold’s job- Slim Hendricks and Buddy Wyatt- who showed him a few chords on the guitar and he showed me.”
While at St. Edward’s High, Campi came under the musical spell of Jesse James and All the Boys, who played live on Lady Bird Johnson’s KTBC radio station at 1 p.m. every day. Cactus Pryor (who would later host the weekly “Now Dig This” TV show at the Driskill hotel) was emcee and sometimes sang parodies (“Jackass Caravan” spoofed “Mule Train”), backed by the James gang. Campi and his classmate, aspiring steel guitarist Bert Rivera, would sometimes skip school and go to the Brown Building for an hour of musical education.
“Jesse James had THE western dance band in town,” Campi said. “Man, they could play! Bert would watch Jim Grabowske on the steel and then go home and try to play like him.” Rivera went on to an illustrious career as a steel guitarist, playing in Hank Thompson’s band for almost a decade.
A featured guest of the James band was Cajun music legend Harry Choates (“Jole Blon”), who lived the last year of his life, his 28th, in Austin. An alcoholic since age 12, Choates died in July 1951 in the Travis County Jail from injuries suffered when he couldn’t control his DTs and banged around his cell. Grabowske and fiddler Junior Burrow visited Choates a couple hours before he died and tried to get help, but were met with indifference.
“Harry Choates would really light a fire,” said Campi. “He was a showman for sure.”
Whenever Campi returns to Austin he visits other musicians from the ’50s, especially his former bassist Henry “Poochie” Hill. From a musical family, Poochie played everywhere, from orchestras to dives like Nero’s Place on Ben White. He was in the Skyline house band in the late ’50s/ early ’60s, with guitarist Larry Carter and drummer Tommy Jackson, backing countless country greats, including Johnny Horton’s final performance in 1960. After backing Loretta Lynn at Dessau in 1962, the singer, who’d just had her first hit with “Success (Has Made a Failure of Our Home),” was so impressed she wanted to take them out on tour. But Poochie, raising a young family, decided not to go. “I had a good job (as construction inspector) with the city,” he said.
Poochie and his older brother Doug (who played bass for Willie Nelson in the ‘50s) owned the first electric Fender guitar and bass in town, preordered in 1952 from J.R. Reed music store on Congress Avenue. This made them particularly in high demand.
“When folks went out, they wanted to hear the songs the way they heard them on the
radio, so when Billy Byrd (from Ernest Tubb’s band) came out and honky tonk became the going thing, you had to have an electric guitar,” said Hill.
Poochie was a link between country music and pop in Austin when he replaced Bobby Doyle, the first blind graduate of McCallum High, on bass in the Slades. The great bassist-turned-piano-thumper eventually formed The Bobby Doyle Three with U.T. dropout Kenny Rogers on bass and recorded for Columbia.
“The Slades were the only act on Domino that really sold any records,” said Ed Nichols, who co-founded the label with Jane Bowers, Bob Williams, Lora Jane Richardson, Kathy Parker and Ann Miller. (Nichols ended up as a U.S. Agriculture bigwig in D.C. during the Carter Administration.)Signed to Domino after performing at a Girl Scouts event, the Slades were originally called the Spades, after a deck of cards, but had to change the name for racial connotations. (“The Spades” was, ironically, also the name of Roky Erickson’s first band, five years later.)
Led by Don Burch, who still lives in the area but is not big on interviews, the band was poised for a national breakout in 1958, with soulful doowop number ” getting them booked on “American Bandstand.” Major labels were circling, but the fledgling Domino crew wanted to handle “You Cheated” themselves and struck a distribution deal with a Los Angeles company.
It turned out the “one-stop” had oversold its capabilities, so while the Slades original waited to be pressed and distributed, an L.A. producer cheated, assembling a group of black singers, including Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Jesse Belvin, to copy the tune as the Shields. That version made it to #12 on the Billboard singles chart, while the Slades original stalled at #42.
Another Austin act on the verge of making it in the ‘50s was West Austin housewife Vivian Worden (left, singing to her kids), who played a Gibson L-5 and billed herself as Betty Barnes. Originally from the mountains of Virginia near Roanoke, Worden moved to Austin in 1953 and soon got recording and publishing deals with San Antonio-based TNT, whose roster at the time included Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Although her own records, like and were hillbilly bop a la Wanda Jackson, Worden had a great range as a songwriter and recruited a black group from East Austin called the Chantones to record two of her songs- ” and “Cocoanuts to Palm Trees.”
“The lead singer was named Bertha and she could really put it out there,” said Worden, 83, who lives in a South Austin nursing home that recently celebrated her musical career, even hiring an Elvis impersonator. Worden met Presley in Nashville when she appeared on “The Grand Ol’ Opry” in 1956.
“Our father (an IRS accountant) didn’t really support mother’s musical career,” said Worden’s daughter Judy Sheffield. “It was just not something married women with children did back then.”
Then, as now, Austin was a place where 97% of the acts eventually gave up.
Disgusted by the counterculture movement (he parodied peaceniks on 1964’s “Civil Disobedience,” sung in a Dylan bray) Campi finally retired from the biz, he thought, in 1967 when he became a fulltime teacher in the Los Angeles public school system.But that failed Dot 45 ended up blowing a big second wind behind Campi’s career four years later. A German-born rockabilly fanatic named Ronnie Weiser flipped over “
label. Besides reissuing most of Campi’s forgotten 1950s recordings, Rollin’ Rock released several highly regarded new Campi records, with Weiser producing the sessions in his living room. Campi was stunned to be hailed a rockabilly pioneer- the guy who kept double rhythm slap bass alive- on his first tour of Europe in 1977 with his band the Rockabilly Rebels. “I never had any hits, but those folks knew every one of my songs,” he said. “The Grand Marshal of Rockabilly” continues to play festivals almost every summer, when school’s not in session.
“My students Google me and find out about my other life,” he said, giving “my other life” an itallic tone. Campi uses his dark eyes in conversation as punctuation. “They print out pictures of me in my wildman getup and say ‘Mr. Campi, is this really you?’”
Although he officially retired from teaching in 1999, Campi still occasionally receives 6 a.m. calls to substitute. And he delights in running into ex-students, like former shy eighth grader Cherie Currie, who Campi convinced to sing in the Mullholland Junior High talent contest. Two years later, a 15-year-old Currie was fronting the Runaways. “Mr. Campi” Currie exclaimed when her old teacher showed up at a book signing last year.
Currie was portrayed in “The Runaways” biopic by Dakota Fanning, which provides a slight twist in the Campi story. You see, Fanning also starred in “Hound Dog,” a 2006 film which licensed Campi’s “Caterpillar” for the soundtrack. “They gave us $250 upfront with the promise that we’d get another $6,000 when the movie was made,” said Campi. Of course he never got the six grand. And the movie flopped.
“Ray is always complaining that he’s never made it,” said writer Joe Nick Patoski, who booked Campi’s return to Austin in the mid-‘70s, a notorius show immortalized in Campi’s signature tune “Rockin’ At the Ritz.” “And so I’ll ask him, ‘Didn’t you just get back from touring Europe? Don’t you have all these young musicians who look up to you?’ C’mon, Ray. You’re doing great.”
He was Austin’s answer to Gene Vincent, even opening for the rockabilly legend at the City Auditorium (later Palmer, currently the Long Center) in Jan. 1958. But that night ended up being a highlight of Campi’s career, not a stepping stone.
Poochie Hill doesn’t need much time to name the highlight of his career. “We backed Roy Orbison one night at Hogg Auditorium and when he’d hit those high notes, we’d get chills going up and down our backs,” Poochie said. “Afterwards, I looked at the other guys, I didn’t even have to say it. They said, ‘Yep, we felt it, too.”
The song that best brings Campi back to those days of spot dances and necking in the hills above Barton Springs Pool is by Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys. Recorded by KVET program director Fred Caldwell for his Lasso label, “The Austin Waltz” is, according to Campi, “the greatest song ever written about my hometown.” He cut his own version in 1980 and let the words by Dolores Farriss flow through him.
“Why did I ever leave you?/ When I loved you so much/ Please let me come back to you, dear/ And dance to the Austin Waltz.”