MichaelCorcoran.net

Secret History of Austin Music

The Gant Family Singers, Henry Lebermann, Dolores and the Bluebonnet Boys, Arizona Dranes, but first…

Joyce Harris rocked so hard some folks still think she’s black.

THE STORY OF DOMINO RECORDS

In the summer of 1957, 10 Austinites took a night school course on song marketing at the YWCA on Guadalupe Street and ended up partnering with their instructor to start a record label and music publishing company. Each pledged $5 a week to meet expenses.

These moonlighting accountants and housewives and state workers and salesmen would put out regional hits from their office above a drugstore at 607 W. 12th St. and watch two of their acts — the Slades and Joyce Harris — lipsync on “American Bandstand.”

But by 1960, the original 11 label owners had dwindled to three. At the end of 1961, there were none.

This is the story of Domino Records, Austin’s first label of note, which made some noise, but not much money, in the years between the Elvis explosion and Beatlemania.

It was an era when independent record labels flourished because, unlike the stodgy hierarchy-layered major labels, the children of Sun Records were quick to embrace rock ‘n’ roll as an exciting mix of black and white cultures.

The Daylighters, led by Clarence Smith (AKA Sonny Rhodes), backed Joyce Harris and also put out singles on Domino in their own name.

Domino went even further with Joyce Harris and the Daylighters, a white female singer backed by a black rhythm and blues band. Race was not an issue, however, because anyone who heard “No Way Out” (which critic Dave Marsh has listed as one of the 1001 greatest singles ever made in his 1989 book “The Heart of Rock and Soul”) would swear the Etta James-like singer was black.

“Lora Jane really just let us do our own thing,” Harris says of Lora Jane Richardson, the Domino co-founder who was in charge during the last year of the label. Harris wrote and produced “No Way Out,” even running the board at Roy Poole’s Austin Recording studio in the Littlefield Building.

Joyce Harris and the Daylighters never played in public, only on records, so she was adamant about regular rehearsals before they stepped into the studio.

The Slades with Bobby Doyle and Joyce Webb.

“One night, the Daylighters didn’t show up, and so I got in my car and went looking for them,” recalls Harris, a New Orleans native. There was a place over on “the Cuts,” slang for East 11th Street, where the Daylighters liked to hang, and sure enough the musicians were coming out of the club when Harris pulled up. “Don’t you remember, we’ve got a rehearsal?” she said. “Get in.” But bandleader Clarence Smith and the other three hesitated. In Texas in 1961, black men didn’t get in a car with a white woman, but Harris would have none of that. “Get in!” she said again, her tone amplified, and the band eventually complied, though it was an uneasy drive across town.

Though Joyce Harris and the Daylighters were the most flamboyant artists on Domino, the Slades were the label’s signature act. A white doowop group of McCallum High students past and present, the Slades were the first artists signed to the label — on the basis of a live performance at a Girl Scout function, according to the liner notes of “The Domino Records Story” compilation, which was reissued by Britain’s Ace Records in 1998. They were originally called the Spades, taking their name from a deck of cards, but when the group had a minor hit with first single “Baby”/”You Mean Everything To Me,” several DJs in urban areas refused to play the song because “spade” was sometimes used as a racial slur. (“The Spades” was, ironically, also the name of Roky Erickson’s first band, five years later.)

Renamed the Slades, Don Burch, Tommy Kaspar and John Goeke, augmented by bassist Bobby Doyle (who would later give Kenny Rogers his first gig), were poised for a national breakout in 1958 with “You Cheated.” Initial pressings on Domino had sold more than 10,000 copies just in Texas, so several larger labels were circling for the rights. Hollywood-based Dot Records, which was doing well with Pat Boone, emerged at the top of a bidding war, but the Domino owners instead decided to release “You Cheated” on their own. They struck a deal with a Los Angeles “one-stop” to press and distribute the 45s.

“That decision led to the demise of Domino,” says Ray Campi, a rockabilly singer signed to Domino in 1958. It turned out that the one-stop had oversold its distribution capabilities, so while copies of “You Cheated” by the Slades were sitting in a warehouse, L.A. producer George Motola assembled a group of black singers, including Jesse Belvin and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, to copy the tune note for note. To add to the confusion, the group was called the Shields. The cover version, distributed by Dot, beat the original to the charts, landing at No. 12 on Billboard. The Slades version stalled at No. 42.

Since Domino owned the publishing of the song, the company made money off the Shields, but the missed opportunity to break out its top act was demoralizing, says Joyce Webb, who sang backup on “You Cheated” and released several catchy singles under her own name on Domino. Webb, the 1958 Austin High prom queen, was discovered by Domino while lipsyncing the hits of the day on “Now Dig This!” the Saturday morning show hosted by Cactus Pryor on KTBC, the only TV station in town at the time.

“We were all really in it for the fun at first,” says Webb, who now owns a glassworks business in Wimberley and still performs at piano bars. “But then it started getting serious.”

Campi says there was friction among the original 11 almost from the start. “You just can’t have that many people making decisions for a label to be run right,” he says.

The first to leave was Jane Bowers, the night school instructor who had achieved some success before Domino when Tex Ritter cut her song “Remember the Alamo.” She took Doyle with her to Trinity, the label she started with her attorney husband.

The label seemed to have run its course in late 1959, when co-founders Ed Nichols and Bob Williams moved to Hawaii to start a record distribution business. The exodus was soon after followed by Betty Theobalt, Mark Silverstone and Scott Yeamans.

The last three remaining partners — Lora Jane Richardson, Anne Miller and Kathy Parker — relaunched Domino in 1960 with the idea to expand to country (Barny Tall), pop crooning (Rod McCullough) and R&B (Joyce Harris and the Daylighters). Unexpected cash came when the Fleetwoods covered the Slades’ “You Mean Everything to Me” and included it on the B-side of million-selling pop hit “Mr. Blue.”

Bowers was right about holding on to publishing.

“They were all songwriters or wanted to be songwriters,” Domino artist Ray Campi says of the label founders, who regularly pitched their songs to the artists they signed. But the label also encouraged its roster of acts to write their own material, which was almost unheard of until May 1957 when a band of Crickets from Lubbock released “That’ll Be the Day.”

“Domino Records was like a family atmosphere,” says Harris , who was signed to Domino after a friend of Richardson’s saw her perform at La Macarena nightclub in Ciudad Acuña. “But looking back, I guess they didn’t know as much about how to promote artists as I thought they did at the time.”

Cash flow was always a problem at Domino, so when “No Way Out” attracted some interest, the tune was licensed to L.A.’s Infinity Records and Harris moved to the West Coast. Renamed Sinner Strong by Serock Records (a subsidiary of Scepter) and cast as “the female Jackie Wilson,” Harris belted a couple more singles in the early ’60s that went nowhere. After recording a couple of sides for Eddie Bo’s Fun Records in New Orleans in the mid-’60s, Harris got married and retired from the music business. She lives about 40 miles outside New Orleans and plays bluegrass music with her church group.

Bring up her time fronting the Daylighters, however, and Harris talks with an excited cadence. “I remember the first time we played together, thinking, ‘Now this is what I’m talking about,’\u2009” says Harris, who, as a teenager, cut several singles with her younger sister Judy at Cosimo Matassas’ legendary recording studio in the French Quarter. “The Daylighters took me right back to the New Orleans thing.”

The band was led by Smithville native Smith, who changed his name to Sonny Rhodes, switched to lap steel guitar and still performs today. Rounding out the group were Willie Cephas on guitar, Ira Littlefield Jr. on drums, George Underwood on bass and Mack Moore on piano.

The relaunch of Domino was not successful, but those night-school students with almost no experience in the music business can be proud of preserving some of the music made in Austin before it became nationally known as a music mecca.

“It bothers me that so many people think Austin music started with the 13th Floor Elevators,” says Campi, 76, who moved to L.A. in 1959 and has taught in public schools there for four decades.

Lora Jane Richardson, who stayed at the helm of Domino from beginning to end, while keeping her job with the Internal Revenue Service, passed away in 2004 at age 88.

The Slades regrouped for a few years in the 1980s to play private parties. The group’s talented leader Burch still lives in the area, but according to bassist Henry Hill, “he doesn’t like to talk about the old days.”

Austin was a small city in the 1950s, with Threadgill’s on North Lamar Boulevard at the edge of town. It was a simpler, unjaded time, when 11 people could meet at the Y and ask “Why not?” The venture born in that night school seminar was not financially viable, but it sure seemed like fun for awhile. Domino released a handful of really good records in its four-year run, which seems a good measure of success.

Domino records sampler

  • ‘You Cheated’ by the Slades
  • ‘Right Here’ by Joyce Webb and the Slades
  • ‘I’ll Never Let You Go’ by the Daylighters
  • ‘My Screamin’ Screamin’ Mimi’ by Ray Campi
  • ‘No Way Out’ by Joyce Harris
  • ‘Little Love Letter’ by Barny Tall
  • ‘Freedom March’ by Dub Walker and the Victorians
  • ‘You Gambled’ by the Slades

 

THE GANT FAMILY SINGERS

It sure seemed quiet for 10 a.m. on a weekday, when John A. Lomax, who recorded folk songs for the Library of Congress, knocked on the front door of a six-room shanty on the northern bank of the Colorado River. Maggie Gant answered, still in her bedclothes. The children were still asleep, the mother of eight whispered.

“Last night we all got to singing and dancing. We didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning,” she told Lomax, which he recalled in “Our Singing Country,” his 1941 book that contained four songs collected from the Gants.

“The singing kept us so happy,” Maggie Gant told Lomax, “we couldn’t go to sleep.”

It was 1934, during the depths of the Depression, but the Gant family of dispossessed sharecroppers was rich in music.

Austin’s Gant family saved more than 40 folk songs when they recorded them for the Library of Congress from 1934- 36.

Lomax, a former University of Texas administrator, and his son Alan made more than 40 primitive recordings of the Gant family, whose vast repertoire ranged from jailhouse ballads and play ditties to cowboy songs and minstrel tunes.

The most prominent of those, in retrospect, was “When First Unto This Country a Stranger I Came,” which Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang live and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded in 1993. They all learned it from the 1960s folkies the New Lost City Ramblers, who heard it from the Gants.

Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother) of the Ramblers and his sister Peggy knew the song growing up, as their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, transcribed and archived the songs the Lomaxes recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1930s.

If Maggie Gant and her 17-year-old daughter, Foy, hadn’t sung the tragic song about a jilted lover-turned-horse thief into the Lomaxes’ phonograph disk recorder, it almost certainly would’ve been lost forever.

The Lomax family, based in Austin, lived to keep such songs of the working-class people alive, lugging their 315-pound acetate disk-cutting machine to prison work camps, Cajun settlements, fishing villages, cattle ranches, the hills of Kentucky, the Rio Grande Valley and even Haiti to find words and music that told the story of a culture.

With the Gant family of singers, led by mother Maggie (father George wasn’t very musical), the Lomaxes found a treasure in their own backyard.

In a note in the Lomax family papers, archived at UT’s Center for American History, John Lomax wrote, “The Gant family in Austin, Texas has a repertoire of about two hundred genuine folk-songs. We only had just begun the job of recording these tunes when we left town.”

The Lomaxes left Austin in 1936f to manage and tour with their great discovery Leadbelly, Even though their contribution was incomplete, the Gants left a body of work that puts them as “among the most important informants on traditional music that no one’s ever heard of,” said Minnesota musician/folklorist Lyle Lofgren.

The family’s list of songs passed down was “astoundingly broad,” Lofgren said. “It included many rare versions of archaic British ballads, the sort you might expect to find, if you were lucky, in some remote holler of the Appalachians, but probably not in Austin.”

The mystery behind the music has made the Gants’ story all the more intriguing. Even the Library of Congress, which keeps a thin file of info on the Gants, did not know until a few months ago that one member of the family, 86-year-old Ella Gant, was still alive and living in Utah.

But the biggest question has always been this: Where did this family of Mormons, originally from East Texas, learn some extremely rare songs of so many different styles?

A clue came with the family’s recently discovered genealogy, which daughter Foy Gant Kent registered with the Mormon church before she died in Houston in 2008 at age 90. Maggie Gant’s maternal grandmother, Lavinia “Lucy” Brown, was born in Wales, “the Land of Song,” which has a rich ballad tradition.

Maggie’s mother, Sarah Reeves, was born and raised in the Tennessee mountains but moved to Texas before Maggie was born in the East Texas town of Lone Oak in 1893. Lavinia Brown Reeves, the Welsh wellspring from which the songs most likely came, died in Grayson County, about 60 miles north of Dallas, in 1899.

Austin’s first family of song

The Gant family’s path to Austin can be charted according to where the children were born, starting with oldest son Nephi in the Northeast Texas town of Mineola in 1913.

The next four — Ether, Foy, Adoniron and Ella — were born just a few miles south of Mineola, when the family lived in Kelsey, the largest Mormon colony in the state.

Georgia came next in Altus, Okla., in 1925, and the youngest, Trovesta Mae, was born in 1929 in the Texas Panhandle town of Shamrock, from which the family moved to Austin after a severe drought dried up farm work. It’s unknown when and where Glida Koch, Maggie’s daughter from an earlier marriage, was born.

George, Maggie and the kids arrived in Austin in 1933 looking for work and, according to Lomax, went on relief at times.

The two oldest kids, Glida and Nephi, started families and lived together in a house at 1115 E. Third St. The rest of the family lived in the riverside shack where the recordings were made, about a half-mile west of Deep Eddy Pool.

In her 2008 memoir “Sing It Pretty,” daughter Bess Lomax Hawes, who was 12 when she met the Gants, recalled that the family’s house on the river was constantly being flooded. “But that old river never could stop the flow of their extraordinary repertory of Anglo-American balladry and folksong.”

Foy Gant, far right, sang lead on several songs. She kept her family’s genealogy and submitted it to the Mormon church records.

The Gants recorded only for the Lomaxes, in four sessions spread out over two years. Then World War II hit, acetate previously used for field recordings was restricted to the war effort, and the Gant family split time between Houston, where there were jobs in the Ship Channel, and San Angelo, where the parents moved with their three youngest. Maggie and the kids never recorded together again after 1936.

But Austin’s first family of song didn’t stop singing. Maggie’s grandson Edward Gant recalls Friday night folk song sessions in Houston led by Foy and her brothers Ether and Ado, as Adoniron was called. “There was music at every family gathering,” said Ether’s son Edward, who owns a Houston architectural firm.

Tim Gadd of Houston has a box full of cassettes of his grandfather Ado, who died in 2005 at age 84, singing and playing the guitar. Several of the recordings feature duets with Ado and Ether, who both worked as welders and married sisters. But after Ether died in a 1977 car accident, Ado mainly recorded himself playing along with singers on TV.

Ella Gant McBride’s granddaughter Julie Johnson said her grandma wrote songs about each of her granddaughters. “The last time I saw her she broke into the ‘Julie’ song as her greeting to me,” said Johnson, who lives in Florida. McBride, who broke her hip two months ago when she went out dancing, according to granddaughter Marianne Hewlett of El Paso, was not up to being interviewed for this story.

Senseless loss of a life strikes ‘a lovin’ bunch of poor people’

The Lomax family background — patriarch John got his master’s degree in the arts from Harvard University — was different from the Gants’, but they had the Great Depression in common.

Although he made his mark as a folklorist with his 1910 anthology “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,” John Lomax had moved on to other pursuits and was working for a bank in Dallas during the 1929 stock market crash, which left him unemployed.

Even worse, his wife Bess died in 1931, leaving him with two school-age children to raise.

Oldest son John Jr. encouraged his father, then 65, to get back into “ballad hunting,” a passion born from the cowboy songs Lomax heard growing up on a ranch in Bosque County, about 40 miles north of Waco.

Things began looking up. In 1933, John and an 18-year-old Alan Lomax began collecting songs for the Library of Congress, which named John Lomax the head curator of its Archive of American Folk Songs. The next year, John Lomax married Ruby Terrill, UT’s dean of women, and the Lomax family moved into the house Terrill owned at 400 E. 34th St.

The Library of Congress provided the Lomaxes with a bulky recording machine, which fit into the family’s Ford after the back seats were removed. Superior to the old wax cylinder recorders, the new machine cut grooves onto a disk as the songs were sung, giving the singers all the reward they wanted when Lomax played back the record they’d just made.

According to John Lomax biographer Nolan Porterfield, the Lomaxes became aware of the Gants through budding folklorist John Henry Faulk, then a 21-year-old UT classmate of Alan Lomax’s. Soon the Gants were starting to become well-known to many in the Austin area and proudly accepted an invitation to play at the State’s Centennial Celebration in Dallas in 1936.

But earlier that year, tragedy hit the singing family hard. Oldest boy Nephi, 22, was murdered on Feb. 1 after a fight at Ollie’s Place at the corner of East Fourth and Waller streets.

According to a never-published story by Alan Lomax, Nephi, who had two hungry babies at home, had gone to the beer joint to try to borrow money from a bartender friend or “maybe he could pick up a few nickels singing … because he was the best singer in the family.”

At Ollie’s, Nephi was challenged to fight by a man who’d just gotten out of prison 24 hours earlier and was “already crazy drunk and looking for trouble,” according to Alan Lomax. Nephi got the best of 21-year-old Howard Armstrong, who went out to his car, got a gun and shot Nephi in the head through the glass door. Sporting a black eye, Armstrong turned himself in to police the next day and claimed self-defense.

But the jury deliberated less than an hour before convicting Armstrong and sentencing him to 30 years in prison.

At Nephi’s funeral, Alan Lomax noted that the family “cried so much that their eyes and cheeks were red with salt burn.” Calling the Gants “a lovin’ bunch of poor people,” Lomax wrote of the incredible pain they surely felt at losing a brother, a son.

“They knew what it was like to be hungry and cold and not have a place to call home; but they’d been strong under all this suffering and sorrow because they loved each other so much.”

After her children’s father, George, died in 1943, Maggie Gant remarried twice and eventually moved to Arizona, where she ran a trailer court. She died in 1977 in Houston and, according to Mormon records, is buried in the same cemetery in San Angelo as George Gant.

Lofgren, the Minnesota folklorist, said the Gant family singers had “arrived seemingly from nowhere and disappeared again, at least as far as the folk song community was concerned.”

In fact, only in recent months did most of the Gants’ descendants discover the extent of the family’s influence.

“For so many years we kinda thought that Grandma’s stories about her family being recorded were, ya know, exaggerations, tall Texas tales,” said Johnson, who recently contacted the Library of Congress and was stunned to receive in the mail several discs of recordings made by her grandmother Ella’s family. “Now we are wondering if all the other crazy stories are also true.”

 

HENRY LEBERMANN

When Henry Lebermann was 6 years old in 1879, his mother, Alice Marie, born and raised in the French Quarter of New Orleans, took him from their home in Galveston to visit her parents’ native Paris. What a glorious time it must have been in young Henry’s life, meeting relatives he didn’t know he had and discovering that there was so much more to the world than Texas.

Secret History of Austin Music: Henry Lebermann photo

In 1929, the family — from left, Lowell, Virginia, daughter Virginia, Henry and Jeanne — moved to 3110 Walling Drive, in the same North Campus neighborhood where John A. Lomax lived.

The next year, the boy was stricken with spinal meningitis, which left him completely blind. Without the ability to read music as he played, it seemed impossible that Henry would equal the musical accomplishments of his father, noted Galveston composer and music professor Heinrich August Lebermann. But Henry Lebermann, the grandfather of late Austin City Council veteran Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., in many ways surpassed the high standard set by his father.

As a music teacher and orchestra leader at the Texas School for the Blind from 1901 to 1938, Henry Lebermann had a positive influence on such students as Fred Lowery, “the King of the Whistlers” of the Big Band era; legendary sheriff Pat Garrett’s daughter Elizabeth Garrett, who would go on to write the state song of New Mexico; and country songwriter Leon Payne, who wrote “Lost Highway” for Hank Williams, among other classics.

But perhaps Lebermann’s most wide-reaching musical contribution was when he, assisted by his sighted wife, Virginia, transcribed scratchy field recordings for John A. Lomax, setting such standards as “Home on the Range,” “Git Along Lil Dogies” and “The Old Chisholm Trail” into sheet music for the first time. Those songs and 25 others transcribed by the couple were collected for posterity in the landmark 1910 Lomax songbook “Cowboys Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.”

The longtime organist for the Central Christian Church at 12th and Guadalupe streets, Lebermann was a well-known Austin figure who was often seen walking to and from his home on East 23rd Street and the Texas School for the Blind at 45th Street and North Lamar Boulevard, more than three miles away. He’d meet his co-worker R.M. Perrenot at 30th and Guadalupe streets each morning, and the blind friends would walk together the rest of the way.

“Lowell Jr. was only about 2 when his grandfather Henry died and so had no clear personal memories of him,” said Lois Pattie, who was Lowell H. Lebermann Jr.’s personal assistant from 1982 until about five years ago. “But he always spoke of him with pride, particularly in relation to his having played the organ at the Paramount Theatre during the Depression.” Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., who passed away in July 2009, was instrumental in the efforts to restore the Paramount in the 1970s.

Before he was a teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann was a student there, enrolled in 1883 at age 10 and graduating in 1894. At that time, the school was located at the University of Texas “Little Campus” in what is now known as the Arno Nowotny Building next to the Erwin Center. The current location was built in 1917 on 73 donated acres.

During his time as a student, Lebermann benefited from the leadership of Superintendent Frank Rainey, who emphasized musical training as a way for the blind to make a living and appealed to the board to spend money on instruments.

Rainey also encouraged innovative instructional methods and was overjoyed when one of his young teachers, Elizabeth Sthreshley, invented a Braille typewriter called the punctograph in 1890. Four years later, she married noted Congress Avenue photographer George Townsend and would assist him in his work with new X-ray technology.

Secret History of Austin Music: Henry Lebermann photo

Virginia Leberman with daughters Virginia, left, and Jeanne outside the family home.

Disaster in Galveston

After graduation, Lebermann moved back to Galveston and then to nearby Alvin to become a farmer. Besides music, Lebermann had a lifelong passion for growing and tended a vibrantly colorful garden until his death from congestive heart failure at age 68 in 1941.

In 1900, a hurricane destroyed Galveston, killing Lebermann’s father and brother Lee. According to a 1937 Austin Statesman article, Henry Lebermann and another blind farmer spent seven days with water up to their waists, with no food, abandoned by their terrified hired hand.

With a heart heavy with grief, Lebermann went back to the place in Austin that had been his home, his musical training ground, for 11 years. But this time, he would be an educator and leader. Kristi Sprinkle, a historian of the school, found records that Lebermann gave a classical music recital at the school in January 1901 and lectured on the life and work of Chopin in March of that year.

The school orchestra he led was one of the finest in Austin and was hired in 1904 to play a concert at Central Christian Church welcoming new students to UT. There, a 33-year-old Lebermann met an 18-year-old church member named Virginia Carrington, whose father, Leonidas, owned the prosperous L.D. Carrington and Co. retail business on Congress Avenue.

After a year’s courtship, Henry and Virginia were married. Son Lowell was born in 1906, with daughters Virginia and Jeanne soon following. As the family grew, the Lebermanns moved out of a house at 902 Manor Road and into a bigger place at 906 E. 23rd St., where they lived for almost 20 years. Both houses were torn down when the university expanded east.

In 1929, the family moved to 3110 Walling Drive, in the same North Campus neighborhood where the Lomax family lived.

The subject of a 1994 master’s thesis by Baylor student Kelly Stott entitled “The Emerging Woman,” Virginia Leberman (1886-1968), who went with a one “n” spelling, was shown to be a progressive thinker and painter who spent summers at the Taos, N.M., artist community as early as the 1930s. She also co-owned the successful Christianson-Leberman Photography business at a time when female entrepreneurship was rare. Among the subjects she photographed were Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.

“We are perhaps more properly balanced than most married people,” Virginia Leberman told The Dallas Morning News in a 1925 profile of her husband with the headline “Blind Genius at State Capital.” “Each approves so entirely of the actions of the other that there is no friction in our home.”

Encouraged to follow her artistic and philosophical pursuits, Virginia Leberman was new age before the term was invented.

Henry with Lowell, Sr.

Henry with Lowell, Sr.

“This social grande dame was quite bohemian to her core,” Stott observed of Virginia’s fascination with the Pueblo Indians and their customs and beliefs.

When he accepted UT’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000, Lowell Lebermann Jr., who was blinded after a shooting accident at age 12, credited his grandmother with expanding his cultural curiosity. “I’d go by the studio behind her house, and she’d be beating a tom-tom, breathing deeply and chanting,” he said. “How many grandmothers that you know do that sort of thing?”

In correspondence with Stott, Virginia Leberman’s friend Lady Bird Johnson recalled the night of a full moon in New Mexico, when Virginia asked their driver to pull over so they could get out and take in the view. “It was a high moment filled with respect for our surroundings and an experience that was a typical part of Virginia Leberman’s personality.”

Although it was prevalent in that era of raging anti-German sentiments during World War I to alter a name to sound less German, it’s not known if Virginia dropped the second “n” for her children’s surname as well for that reason. But Henry Lebermann kept the original spelling, perhaps in homage to his beloved father, as well as his first teacher at the School for the Blind, Edmund Ludwig of Heidelberg. Though his father, prominent Commerce doctor Lowell Sr., used just one “n,” Lowell Lebermann Jr. reverted to the original two “n” spelling after college and was “Lebermann” in 1971 when first elected to three consecutive terms on the City Council.

Successful students

In returning to the School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann may have hoped to have the same impact on his charges as Ludwig had on him. One such student was Fred Lowery, a native of Palestine in East Texas who was blinded at age 2 by scarlet fever. Lowery came to the school in 1917 at age 7 and took to the musical training with dreams of becoming a concert violinist.

In his autobiography, “Whistling In the Dark,” Lowery recalls a “long, fatherly talk” he had with Lebermann about the steep odds facing a blind classical musician. “Here at the Blind School we can make music together because we use a system designed for the sightless,” Lowery quotes Lebermann (blind musicians received their cues from the tapping of the leader’s baton). “Sighted musicians are trained in a different system. They play by sight, reading the score, watching the conductor. Their system and our system won’t mix.”

Although the reality check discouraged him, Lowery credited Lebermann with sending him on the path of being a big-band whistler. Having noticed Lowery whistling around school, Lebermann asked him to stay after band rehearsal one day. “I think we could use your whistle in the orchestra,” Lebermann said, astounding Lowery, who had never heard of such instrumentation. But Lebermann said he heard tones that suggested Lowery could mimic the sound of a piccolo, which the orchestra didn’t have. Lebermann craved a piccolo sound on the John Philip Sousa marches that were crowd favorites.

Lowery went on to a great career as a whistler, making his name in the 1930s with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, whose arranger was a trombone player named Glenn Miller. Perhaps best known for whistling the theme to “Lassie” and his TV duets with Bing Crosby, Lowery was a virtuoso who perfected the double-note whistle and performed such complex material as “The William Tell Overture.” (Hear samples of Lowery’s whistling with this story at austin360.com/music.)

Entering the School for the Blind in 1923 was Leon Payne from the Northeast Texas town of Alba. Under the tutelage of Lebermann and other teachers, Payne (1917-1969) became proficient in guitar, keyboards, trombone and drums and joined Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys just three years after graduating.

As a solo artist, Payne had a No. 1 country hit in 1949 with “I Love You Because,” written for his wife, Myrtie, a former classmate at the School for the Blind he reconnected with and married in 1948. Payne is best known today as a songwriter, penning big hits for Hank Williams (“They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me”), Jim Reeves (“Blue Side of Lonesome”), Carl Smith (“You Are the One”) and many more. Elvis Presley recorded “I Love You Because” at one of his first sessions with Sun Records.

As a teacher, your students’ success becomes your own, in a way. But as a musician and scholar, Lebermann left his own legacy. Among his compositions were “Spring Song” and “The Blue Bonnet Song,” but his invaluable preservation work with John A. Lomax deserves special citation in this 100th anniversary year of “Cowboy Songs.”

Lomax first heard “Home on the Range” in 1908 from a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio who had been a camp cook on the Chisholm Trail for years. Lomax lugged an old Edison wax cylinder recording machine to record the barkeep. Lomax took the a capella recording to Lebermann, who, according to Lomax’s notes, “used earphones and played the record over and over again until he felt he had captured the music as the Negro saloon keeper had rendered it.” As Lebermann listened and played the piano, Virginia Leberman wrote the notes on sheet music.

“The original cylindrical record of the song has crumbled into dust, but the music that Henry Lebermann set down from the record I made still survives,” Lomax wrote.

According to Stott’s thesis, Virginia Leberman used to say that “a great mind is always humble and curious.” It was an adage lived out by her and her husband and passed on to their children and grandchildren.

Henry Lebermann was blind, but not before he saw Paris. In darkness he created his own “City of Light” in a town he loved. As a conductor of music and life he led in the most meaningful way — by example.

DOLORES AND THE BLUE BONNET BOYS

In the nine years between the end of World War II and the big bang of rock ‘n’ roll, the Austin music scene was dominated by Western Swing and country bands with such names as Jesse James and All the Boys, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters, Doug and the Falstaff Swing Boys, Grouchy and His Texas Pioneers, Leon Hawkins and His Buckaroos, Hub Sutter and the Galvestonians, and Buck Roberts and the Rhythmaires.

But Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys stood out because it was that rare country band led by a woman who wasn’t the main vocalist. Far from a novelty, Dolores Fariss wrote songs, chose outside material, played piano and ruled her group of talented musicians like Bob Wills in a skirt.

“My mother ran the band like a business,” says son Don Fariss, 70. “Dad (drummer Lee Fariss) pretty much went along with whatever she said when it came to the group.” Rule No. 1 was no drinking before or during a set. And Dolores Fariss was also clear that she didn’t like her musicians showing off. Although she had a Hammond solovox piano attachment, which produced a shrill, single-note organ sound, Dolores used it mainly to emulate the clarinet notes during the band’s polka numbers. (The most famous recorded use of a solovox is on “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs.)

“Mother knew the way to stay popular was to keep the crowd dancing,” says Don Fariss, “and people loved to dance to polkas.” The majority of the group’s repertoire was country hits, though Dolores Fariss penned a local hit of her own with “The Austin Waltz.”

“Dolores was very commercial-minded, and she called the shots as to what we played,” says the band’s fiddler, Bill Dessens, who joined the Blue Bonnet Boys in 1949 while still in college at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos. “Her motto was ‘Keep it simple, boys.’ She’d say that whenever me and (twin fiddler) Joe Castle would take off on a crazy course. We used to get together in the basement of Joe’s church and learn songs like ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy,’ but Dolores didn’t care for that hokum (jazz).” She insisted the band give the crowd what they wanted, which made the band extremely hireable — not only in the clubs but on the more lucrative campus and West Austin private party scene.

Steel guitarist Jimmy Grabowske says “it was never an issue” to take orders from a woman because “Dolores knew what she was doing when it came to the band. She was such a wonderful person and such a talented piano player.”

Rather than tour the dancehalls, honky-tonks and VFW halls all over Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys rarely ventured outside Austin, where they played every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at the Skyline Club on far North Lamar Boulevard (at the corner of what is now Braker Lane) in the early ’50s. The group also played Dessau Hall twice a month and the Buckholts SPJST Lodge in Milam County about four times a year.

The Skyline gigs included the Wednesday “Spot Dance,” which was like musical chairs on the dance floor. When the music stopped, those who were not on one of the large white dots on the floor had to drop out.

The group publicized its shows by playing live on KVET (AM 1300), which signed on the air Oct. 1, 1946. Before KVET, there were two stations in town — the Lady Bird Johnson-owned KTBC (AM 590), a CBS affiliate, and KNOW, headquartered in Norwood Tower. Lyndon Johnson, then a rookie U.S. congressman, encouraged several of his closest associates, including future Texas Gov. John Connally and future U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle, to pool their resources and launch a third station, before NBC could enter the market. Better that competitors be friends than enemies. Because the new station owners were veterans of World War II, they went with the KVET call letters.

The Blue Bonnet Boys and the other big country band in town, Jesse James and All the Boys, were friendly competitors, often sharing and trading members. Blue Bonnet Boy guitarist Claude Hallmark even co-wrote “Darlin’, I Don’t Understand,” with James, who had a regional hit with it.

Grabowske played with both groups, leaving Jesse James for Dolores in 1953, after six years on the road. “Jesse James (was) popular all over the state, but the traveling would kill you,” says Grabowske.

There was more money out on the road, but the Blue Bonnet Boys stuck to Austin and environs because the Farisses had two boys in school and because Lee Fariss had a successful home construction business with his wife’s father, Alfred Hanson.

“Playing music was a way to make some extra money,” says Don Fariss, “but father’s job paid the bills.” The family lived in a modest house at 1136 Shady Lane in East Austin.

The Hansons, of Danish descent, came from Hutto, where Alfred had a polka band featuring teenage daughter Dolores on piano. Lee Fariss also had a band at the time, Lee’s Bees, in which drummer Fariss was the only member who wasn’t blind. Lee and Dolores met at a Hansons polka gig in 1930 and married the next year. First son James was born in 1934; then came Don in 1940. The Farisses put together Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys around 1946.

KTBC was known for its news shows and on-air personality Cactus Pryor, but KVET was a mixed bag of community programming. In addition to Lavada Durst’s pioneering “Dr. Hepcat Show” of R&B, Elmer Akins drove the “Gospel Train” every Sunday and Lalo Campos’ “Noche de Fiesta” played Mexican music. Both KTCB and KVET featured country bands playing live daily in 15-minute spots, and both had recording capabilities.

KVET’s Fred Caldwell signed the Blue Bonnet Boys to his Lasso label and recorded three 78s of Dolores’ original tunes, including “The Austin Waltz,” “Bonnie Blue Eyes” and “Think of Me.” Caldwell also launched Uptown Records and released R&B 78s by Durst, who would go on to co-write the Bells of Joy’s million-selling gospel smash “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” (That 1951 tune was one of the rhythmic models for Ray Charles’ secular 1955 smash “I Got a Woman.”)

“Mother was ambitious, but she didn’t put her musical goals above our education,” says Don Fariss. “It was impressed upon James and I early on that it was very important for us to get our college degrees.”

It was as a music major at the University of Texas that Don Fariss, who was dragged to most gigs from about age 6 to 11 when a baby-sitter wasn’t available, started fully understanding what a great band his parents had. “I grew up loving classical music and jazz and hating country-Western,” says Fariss, who studied the French horn before switching back to his mother’s instrument. “But the more I learned, the more I realized that the (original) fiddle players, Joe Castle and Randall Raley, were pretty amazing. They were classically trained, but they played country to pay the bills.” Also a brilliant cellist and guitarist, Castle worked for many years at UT transcribing classical violin pieces for the guitar, says Threadgill’s owner Eddie Wilson.

Rounding out the early incarnation of the group were guitarist Aubrey Cox, who handled most of the lead vocals, bassist Glen “Swede” Larson, Johnny Ross on steel guitar and guitarist Hallmark. Kenneth Threadgill, a good friend of Lee’s, would often sit in with the group and sang lead on the 1948 single “Mean Mama Blues.”

The first country band of note led by a woman was the Midland-raised/New Mexico-based Louise Massey and the Westerners, who had hits in the 1930s with “When the White Azaleas Start Blooming” and “My Adobe Hacienda.” The musical leader of that group was singer Massey’s brother Curt Massey, who went on to work in Hollywood as musical director for “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction.”

Although Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys never reached the commercial heights of the Massey family’s group, they earned a footnote as that rare country band led by a woman who wasn’t the singer. Dolores Fariss was a bandleader in the truest sense of the word.

“If they had to do it all over again, they may have pushed harder and gone further,” Don Fariss says of his parents. “But I think they were satisfied with what they had done while raising a family.” The Farisses disbanded the Blue Bonnet Boys in 1955.

Dolores Fariss, who went on to work as a dietitian for the Del Valle school district, lived to be 80. Lee Fariss made it to 90, passing away in 1998. Their friendly musical rival Jesse James died in 1973 at age 57.

“The Austin Waltz,” which was revived by Ray Campi in a 1980 recording and remains a favorite of nostalgic country bands such as the Knights of Texas Swing, lives on as the song that defines an era long ago.

 

ARIZONA DRANES LEARNS PIANO IN AUSTIN

by Michael Corcoran

newdranes

New evidence shows that Arizona Dranes, the blind Pentecostal piano player who inspired everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Jerry Lee Lewis, attended the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths in Northwest Austin from 1896- 1912. Let that sink in for a sec: The first person to ever play piano on a gospel record, the musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe credited with influencing her raucous, syncopated style, learned how to play in Austin. Dranes remains virtually unknown today, with only a single blurry photo ever found, but she’s celebrated by prewar gospel and blues enthusiasts.

“Arizona Dranes is the most important performer for introducing ‘hot’ piano style to African American gospel music,” says Grammy-winning music historian David Evans. The first musical star of the Church of God in Christ, a Memphis-based Pentecostal sect that pioneered foot-stomping music, Dranes and her lost-in-the-spirit outbursts laid the blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll.

Her first music teacher in Austin was a Miss B.M. Boyd. Her last here was Lizzie B. Wells. Also teaching Drane (the “s” would be tacked on later) in other subjects at the institute was Mattie B. White, a noted educator and painter, who had earlier founded the first private school for African American girls in Austin in 1892. Until recently, the only known evidence that put Dranes in the Austin school was a 1910 census, which listed her age as 19. (She was actually 21, but maybe fudged a little to stay in school longer.)

The enrollment records disprove previously-accepted biographical information that Dranes was a mere 21 when she invented “the gospel beat” with recordings for Okeh Records in 1926. A minimum age of 7 for the school, puts Dranes’ birth year at 1889, as does the 1900 Federal Census.

The new information came in early 2007 when Kristi Sprinkle, a Web administrator for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, found the official enrollment record for the 1896-1897 school year, which lists “Arizona Drane” of Sherman as a student. Not much is known of Dranes’ whereabouts from her graduation in 1910 until the early 1920s, though at some point she fell in with Hillsboro-raised singing preacher Ford Washington “F.W.” McGee.

After becoming a COGIC minister in Oklahoma, McGee presided over a pair of revival tents in Chicago in the mid-1920s. McGee and his Jubilee Singers backed up Dranes on her Nov. 1926 followup session.Then Dranes played piano on McGee’s record “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” the next year. You didn’t need liner notes to know who was thumping those keys.

Dranes had been splitting time between Dallas, where she sang for E.M. Page’s COGIC church in the Freedmantown neighborhood (now known as State-Thomas), and Fort Worth, where her divorced parents Cora and Milton lived. Dranes was also a regular at Rev. Samuel Crouch’s Trezevant Hill Church of God In Christ on West Rosedale Avenue.   It was Crouch, the great uncle of gospel star Andrae Crouch, who recommended Dranes to a traveling Okeh talent scout in early 1926.

At the time, most gospel performances were vocal only or accompanied by guitar, but Dranes stood out with her Holy Ghost-fueled piano. All six sides recorded on June 16, 1926, were released, including a sanctified ragtime instrumental called “Crucifixion,” which has greatly influenced generations of gospel keyboardists.

Arizona Dranes was the full package, with a voice that quivered with emotion. She became Okeh’s biggest gospel star almost overnight, but wasn’t always paid in a timely manner, according to correspondence between Dranes and record execs made available in 1970 to writer Malcolm Shaw. “I’ve only received 50 dollars from you,” she wrote Okeh’s owner Elmer Fearn in February, 1928, while stricken with an unspecified illness in Memphis. Her deal called for her to be paid $25 per song. “Of coarse I dident know anything about record making or prices on them and I dident even consult our white friends down here,” reads the letter. “I’m asking that you consider me as I am disable to work now and have to be confined to my room for awhile.” Fearn replie that he had lost track of Dranes (who also lived in Galveston, Oklahoma City and Memphis in the late ’20s) and wired her the $60 she asked for.

Arizona Dranes at the piano. Bishop Riley F. Williams at the podium. Atlanta City Auditorium Aug. 1943.

By the end of 1928, Dranes’ recording career was over. The Great Depression killed demand for gritty music, But Dranes remained a star on the COGIC circuit, where she often performed before church founder Bishop Charles Mason. Although Dranes established such tunes as “I Shall Wear a Crown,” “My Soul’s a Witness for the Lord” and “Lamb’s Blood Has Washed Me Clean” as COGIC standards, there is no mention of her in the official church biography.  The name Arizona Dranes brings only puzzled looks from staffers at the Mason Temple in Memphis, where A.J. Dranes wrecked the house 75 years ago.

Dranes died of a stroke on July 27, 1963 at age 74. She had been living at 5219 McKinley Ave. in Los Angeles and attending Crouch Temple, named after her Fort Worth mentor.  Dranes’ death certificate, listing her occupation as missionary, says she was buried at the Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. But no one knows exactly where Dranes’ body is today.

Investigators discovered in 1995 that the cemetery had reached capacity 10 years earlier, so the owners were digging up bodies in the older sections and reselling plots. The undertakers would also stack bodies in the same plot, often crushing caskets to fit more in. According to the 1963 burial record, Dranes was laid to rest in section 183, block 4 and lot F-3. According to Warren Clark, a researcher for Find a Grave Inc., that was one of the recycled plots. Dranes’ remains were most likely moved to the mass grave, which was seven feet high and 50 feet wide.

Ghastly to think that one of Texas’ most influential gospel musicians would end up in such a discarded state.

 
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