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, Etta James, 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, as it was in July 2001.
Bobby “Blue” Bland’s return to the Victory, where he performed in the late ‘40s as a soldier at Fort Hood, was the big draw that hot night. The club was so jampacked you couldn’t get to the bathrooms and the fire marshal shut it down halfway through Bland’s set. But easily the highlight was a three-song segment during an otherwise generic opening act featuring a 17-year-old Gary Clark Jr. It was like seeing B.B. King in his “blues boy” prime! Women sprung out of their booths and screamed over the rails as Gary wailed on “Three O’Clock Blues.” The torch had been passed.