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, could be as much as $3,000 a night 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 one helluva party!