TONY VON: THE ORIGINAL T.V. ON THE RADIO
“This is Tony Von, T.V. on the radio, in living color.” The mellow, mesmerizing voice rolled out of the 1260 slot on the AM dial at 4 p.m. every weekday and at 2 p.m. Saturdays from 1954 until tragedy was a sad silencer in 1979. His real name was Tony Von Walls, and his radio nickname was “the Master Blaster,” but most everyone knew the irrepressible KTAE disc jockey and soul concert promoter as T.V. When the wild sax of Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” Von’s opening theme, came skronking out of the speakers, a community gathered together, if only spiritually.
He played gospel and blues side-by-side, just as nightclubs and churches were often next door to one another in East Austin. But more significantly, at a time before cell phones and pagers, Von was how Austin’s black community knew what was going on. He’d plug shows, give birthday greetings and announce events, often in free-form rhyme. “Tony was black radio back in the day,” says local blues artist Major Lee Burkes, whose hit song “Break These Chains” got its earliest airplay on Von’s show. “Communication was sometimes quite difficult back then so I’d listen to T.V. to see where I’d be playing that night.”
Austin’s reputation as a town where live music is a way of life, was built not just by the players and singers, but club owners, disc jockeys, journalists and record store owners. Tony Von performed all those duties. Radio was his calling, plus he opened the Show Bar and a record shop on “the Cuts” (popular slang for East 11th Street) in the early ’50s. After selling the club to Charlie Guildon, who later changed the name to Charlie’s Playhouse, in 1955, Von moved full time to Taylor, where he opened another record shop that he could plug on the air. He also brought such acts as James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner to Doris Miller Auditorium, and occasionally wrote for the Capital Argus, a black publication. Von put a lot of miles on his car driving back and forth from East Austin to Taylor.
“Tony yielded a lot of power,” Burkes recalls. “He had all the connections.” He didn’t make much money on KTAE, but used those airwaves to his advantage in business. Many of the biggest names in black music played at Von-promoted shows for free (which translated into tons of airplay), while Von provided the backing band, which was usually Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets. If you liked a song Tony played, you knew it was in stock at Von’s record shop. He always seemed to be working three angles at once.
On the air, however, he was the personification of laid-back. “Be cool, be back and remember one fact: We love you,” is how T.V. signed off each day.”Austin truly was ‘the live music capital of the world’ back in the ’60s,” Burkes says. “These days, it’s not even close to how much music was going on in East Austin, and Tony Von had a lot to do with it.”
A native of Dallas, Von moved to Austin to attend Sam Huston College. Back in Dallas after graduation, Von got his start in radio at KLIF, but it didn’t work out because Von wouldn’t embrace the corny “Jackson the Jiver” persona radio legend Gordon McClendon had devised for him. Von made a better impression on KTAE owner Gillis Conoley who was looking for a replacement for Jukebox Jackson in the afternoon. KTAE specialized in country and rockabilly, but the station also made time for R&B and Spanish music (Chicano DJ George Martinez followed Von’s show for 10 years).
In a 1977 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Von laid out the inclusive philosophy that made his show a forerunner of community radio. “I have always believed in playing anything by everybody, anybody and nobody,” he told writer Ronald Powell.
Two years after the Statesman story was published, Von met his tragic fate in the form of ex-con James Earl Pullins. Von was working in his record shop on East Walnut Street the evening of June 20, 1979, when an intoxicated Pullins stood in the middle of the street and fired a shotgun in the air. Von got his pistol and told Pullins to put the shotgun away and Pullins moved on down the street. He returned a couple hours later, however, and found Von in the Soul-Ful Club across the street from his record shop. One blast from the shotgun killed the black music entrepeneur. He was 54.
Having served two prison terms for armed robbery, this third strike against Pullins ensured a life sentence, so prosecutors didn’t try him for murder, thinking his guilty plea on an aggravated assault charge would put him away for good.
But after only 10 years in the joint, Pullins was paroled in 1990 because of prison overcrowding. Three years later, he was found shooting a stolen gun in the air in San Antonio and sent back to prison.
This many years later, Tony Von is not quite as big a local black radio icon as Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst or the great gospel announcer Elmer Akens, who both worked for KVET. The Brooklyn band TV on the Radio doesn’t even know about the original, having taken their name from British DJ Tommy Vance, who calls himself “TV on the radio.” The catchphrase was born on the second floor of a building in downtown Taylor 53 years ago. The man who called himself that was one of the most important voices in Austin’s African American community for 25 years.
WHAT’S GOIN’ ON AT 12th and CHICON: WIZARD
Everyone back in the game had a nickname and Edward McMillon’s was Wizard. He was an Eastside dope fiend for almost 30 years, surviving 21 gunshots and three stints in prison. If that doesn’t make you a ghetto Merlin I don’t know what does. Sometimes when he’s trying to talk some young hustler off the street he’ll take the kid’s hand and run it against the back of his head where there’s an opening in his skull where a bullet went through.
Wizard’s childhood started in the country, near East Bernard, TX, where he rode cutting horses as an 8-year-old. Five years later, a different “horse” would take over after his mother bought a house on Lyons Road in East Austin next door to a heroin dealer. “When the laws came and broke the door down, the Mexicans would throw bags of ‘heron’ out the window and into our yard,” Wizard recalls. “Neighbors help each other out, so I’d bring the drugs back when the cops left. But one time I kept a bag.”
A 13-year-old McMillon didn’t know what to do with the heroin until he went to an R&B package show at City Coliseum the next week headlined by Ike and Tina Turner and John Lee Hooker. An older junkie named Killer Jack was there and, for a taste, showed McMillon how to shoot up in the bathroom. You don’t forget your first time, in fact the memory starts to rule your existence. Wizard vividly remembers smack’s euphoria engulfing him as opening act Gene Chandler sang “Rainbow ’65,” his latest hit. “C’mon now, baby, stop this rainbow in my heart.” Wizard was hooked.
When he was 16, in October 1969, Wizard was walking to “Mexican Town,” over at East First, to score and decided to take a shortcut through “the Bricks,” which is what everyone called the Booker T. Washington housing projects. “It was the first time I’d ever gone that way,” says Wizard, who picked up a couple of friends named Sam along the way. They came to an apartment ablaze and quickly rescued two kids, whose 19-year-old mother had left them home alone. Then, Wizard heard a baby screaming on the second floor. The stairs had collapsed, so he shimmied up a pole behind the apartment, smashed a window and climbed inside, the Statesman reported. “I found the baby, put him to my chest and zipped up my jacket,” says McMillon. He jumped and when he landed on his feet, he quickly unzipped the child free, then rolled on the ground, a tactic he learned as a Boy Scout, because his jacket was on fire. The 18-month-old baby was safe, though his two-month-old brother perished in the flames. “I don’t know why we decided to take that shortcut on that particular night, but it ended up being the only good thing that ever came out of being a junkie,” McMillon says. The three 16-year-olds, including Sam Anderson, now a minister, and Sam Arnold, received plaques from community leader Berl Handcox (who would become Austin’s first black City Councilman since Reconstruction in 1971). But after that splash of goodness, Wizard remained a bottom-feeding addict for the next 24 years.
He did two years in prison for aggravated assault, then three years for theft, but after he was arrested for badly beating a guy who tried to steal his drugs in March 1993, Wizard fell to his knees in jail and gave his life to Jesus Christ. “I’ve never wavered,” he says. During the next 17 years in prison, the only time he missed church services when when his cellblock in Beaumont was hit hard by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and he spent Sunday enroute to his new home at Gatesville. He was reunited at Gatesville’s Hughes Unit with his old runnin’ buddy from E. 12th Street, Otis Bell, who they used to call “Trouble,” but he, too, had found religion. The two prisoners were as thick as reformed thieves. “Jesus gave me hope and Otis gave me strength,” says McMillon. “He was there for me when my brother died. We did a lot of soul searching together.”
McMillon was paroled in 2010 and returned to a greatly changed East Austin. “When I got out of prison, my friend took me to East 11th Street, my old stomping grounds,” he says. “There was a brand new bank next to a two-story building. I knew every inch of East 11th coming up, and I was asking ‘Where are we?’”
Joining the Greater Love Baptist Church on Manor Road helped him get his footing on the outside. Among his many tasks at the church is running the sound system for services. One Sunday, about three years ago, a minister from Round Rock came up to the pulpit and talked about how God puts people in your life that make a difference. He talked about surviving a terrible fire when he was an infant and looked up at Wizard. “If it wasn’t for Edward McMillon, who’s over there in the sound booth, I wouldn’t be alive today.” Rev. Wilbert Justice had tracked down the junkie who had saved his life and surprised him. Sam Anderson confirmed that it was Carolyn Justice’s boy that Wizard rescued.
Wizard, 62, spent yesterday feeding the hungry outside the church for its monthly First Tuesday fruit and vegetable giveaway. He’s always driving to Manor and Springdale to unlock the doors of Greater Love for someone. But he loves helping people, he says. And he loves reading from the Good Book. Later this month, the Wizard will be ordained a deacon of the church. “It wasn’t just a coincidence taking that shortcut,” he says of that Saturday night in October 1969. But he took the long way around for his own salvation.
What’s Goin’ On at 12th and Chicon? Part 2: OTIS & LOLA
In the spring of 1897, renowned Austin pianist Edmund Ludwig (originally of Heidelberg, Germany), arranged a dual recital at the Millett Opera House on Ninth Street with pianist Maud Cuney, the head of the music department for the Texas Institute of Deaf, Dumb, Blind Colored Youth. But when Cuney discovered that opera house management required blacks to sit in the balcony, separated from whites, she urged Ludwig to cancel the contract and he did. With no venue available, the concert was held at the black blind school on Bull Creek Road. In attendance was an 8-year-old student named Arizona Dranes, who would pioneer “the Gospel Beat” in 1926.
Maud Cuney-Hare, her married name, would go on to an illustrious career herself, as a musician, folklorist and writer. Of light skin and European features (both her parents had white fathers and mulatto slave mothers), Maud never tried to pass as white, as her father taught her her to be proud of her ancestry. Cuney-Hare was briefly engaged to author and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she met when she was a student at the New England Conservatory fighting eviction from the dorm when it was discovered she had African blood. Du Bois was at Harvard and a member of the black students group that came to her defense. She stayed in the dorm. Though the romantic relationship didn’t last, they remained friends and Cuney-Hare wrote an arts and music column for the NAACP publication, The Crisis, that Du Bois edited.
As a musicologist, Cuney was one of the first to explore the African roots of American music, and published the first book of Creole songs in 1921. Her landmark 1936 book Negro Musicians and Their Music was, sadly, released months after she died of cancer at age 61. She lived most of her adult life in Boston, aside from her two years in Austin music teaching at the blind school and a short stint at the present Prairie View A&M.
She was also married, from 1902- 1906, to a doctor 20 years her senior, and the couple went to live in Chicago. The doctor insisted that they try to pass as Spanish American, and she maybe went along with it at first, but that’s not how she was raised. Her red blood ran dark.
Her grandfather Phillip Cuney was a white slave-owner who had a bunch of farmland outside Hempstead, TX that he called “Sunnyside Plantation.” In order to make slavery seem acceptable, some owners developed an ideology that they were providers to a people who couldn’t make it on their own. Cuney had eight children with his slave Adeline Stuart, and raised them as his own. He freed Maud’s father Norris Wright Cuney at age 13 and sent him to school in Pittsburgh. When Norris returned to Texas after the Civil War, he settled in Galveston where he organized black longshoremen into a union and was elected alderman. Eventually, he would be elected chairman of the Republican Party in Texas. His politican fight against the “Lily White Republicans” (they called themselves that) is chronicled by Maud Cuney-Hare in Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People, a biography she wrote in 1913.
Here’s an entry on Cuney-Hare in the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Rensaissance.
And through the beauty of this free and instant digital age, the very rare and out-of-print Negro Musicians and Their Music can be found here in its entirety.
ROBERT “FUD” SHAW: PIANO PLAYING GROCER
The boogie woogie was born in East Texas, pioneered by George and Hersal Thomas (the older brothers of blues singer Sippie Wallace), who heard music in the choogle of steam locomotives. On such pre-1920 Thomas brother numbers as “The Fives” and “The Rocks,” the percussive left hand aped the rhythm of trains carrying lumber from the Piney Woods, while the right hand created a whistle of movement with dazzling, improvised trips up and down the ivories.
Among the most proficient of their keyboard disciples was Robert “Fud” Shaw, who grew up on his father’s farm in Stafford, near Houston. Shaw was a favorite on the barrelhouse circuit – named for the barrels of booze at speakeasies during Prohibition – but he retired from performing in the 1930s to open a grocery store/barbecue joint in Austin.
Before it was called boogie woogie after Alabama piano thumper Pine Top Smith’s 1928 recording “Pine Top Boogie Woogie,” the style was known as “Fast Texas.” But in Houston they called it “that Santa Fe thing,” in reference to the Santa Fe Railroad that shot through Fourth Ward as free passage to points beyond.
Houston-based music historian Mack McCormick was so intrigued by the piano tradition of that one neighborhood that he took a job there as a 1960 census taker. Besides the usual questions, McCormick would ask about the hot piano players. Many of the greats had passed on, but McCormick heard that Fud Shaw was living in Austin. Shaw moved here in 1935, playing piano and running numbers. A nudge from a judge and a 1939 marriage to second wife Martha got Shaw into more legitimate pursuits. His first market was at 1000 West Lynn St. in Clarksville. In the ’50s he moved to the building at 1917 Manor Road that now houses Salty Sow.
Shaw kept an old upright piano at his grocery store and practiced every day. But he had been retired from the music biz for almost 30 years when McCormick tracked him down in 1963, which wasn’t hard to do. Shaw’s store was not only a hub of the black community, but also a favorite of collegians and politicos.
“When my grandfather would drive around, he’d know every single person on the street,” said Lea Walker-Clark.
Folks knew Shaw played piano, but they didn’t know that he was keeping alive an African American musical tradition, if only in the back room at Shaw’s Food Market, which everyone called the Stop ‘n’ Swat. When McCormick produced Shaw’s “Texas Barrelhouse Piano” album (later retitled “The Ma Grinder” and reissued by the Arhoolie label), he marveled at how the 55-year-old’s playing was as crisp as the white dress shirts he favored. Because Shaw hadn’t burnt out in clubs, where there’s pressure to chase the trends, his original barrelhouse style, which mixed elements of ragtime and jazz and slow blues with boogie woogie, was wonderfully preserved.
He could still play “The Cows”, “The Fives” and “The Clinton,” signature Santa Fe tunes, as if the old gang were still playing hot piano in the sportin’ houses in the Fourth Ward and in the Brazos bottoms towns.
Newly rediscovered, Shaw performed with Janis Joplin at a blues concert on the University of Texas campus in April 1966. The great blues singer Victoria Spivey sang Fud’s praises in Record Research magazine that same year, calling the pianist a “true representative of the wonderful Texas blues tradition.” Rod Kennedy booked the piano pioneer at the Kerrville Folk Festival for 14 straight years.
The folkies and the hippies embraced the original blues musicians, but unlike most of the others, the description “itinerant bluesman” didn’t apply to Shaw. The player got his entrepreneurial gene from a father who not only raised cattle and hogs, but owned a barbecue joint and market.
The family owned a Steinway baby grand piano that Shaw, a skilled calf roper and bronco tamer, had to play on the sly because his father didn’t want him to get any notions about becoming a musician. But the kid discovered talent early on and paid for his own lessons. “I could sit there and throw my hands down and make them gals do anything,” Shaw said in the liner notes of his 1963 recording debut. “I told ’em when to shake it and when to hold back. That’s what this music is for.”
When they laid Robert Shaw to rest at Capital Memorial Gardens in May 1985, a heart attack victim at age 76, they buried the man, but not the tradition he helped keep alive.
In fact, some who work at 1917 still feel the spirit. Citygram Magazine tells this eery ghost story of the boogie woogie man:
“Long before it was Salty Sow – or Red House Pizzeria, El Gringo, or J Mueller’s BBQ – the space on Manor Road was a grocery store and barbecue restaurant named the Stop n Swat. The business was owned by Robert Shaw, a successful blues musician who pioneered a style of barrelhouse piano which he used to play for his customers. The back house, now a bar area called The Trough area, was where he lived, right next to his store.
Late one night when Salty Sow’s manager Peter Van Etten was closing, he saw a man in a vintage fedora lingering in the back corner of the restaurant. When he stepped inside to tell the man they were closed, he had vanished. When he described the man to another employee, they looked up a picture of Robert Shaw and found that he matched the description quite exactly. Bartender Jonathan Pacheco walked to the back house one day and heard a voice very distinctly introduce themselves as Robert. He walked back up to the front, slightly confused, inquiring about the “new guy.”
Other employees have reported a cold draft by the very same window, even in the middle of the summer, and a door that will occasionally slam, despite the fact that it doesn’t even pull closed very easily…another fun fact: Salty Sow serendipitously opened on May 16, 2012, the 27th anniversary of Shaw’s death.”
SUPERFLY ME 2004
Whenever it’s time for lunch or dinner, my mind starts to drive. If I’m at the office, my mental route is east, down either Cesar Chavez Street, with all its great Azul to Arkie’s variety, or East Seventh Street, which could be the best avenue for the appetite in Austin. Surveying the dining options starts the pleasure process. If I’m at home near Martin Luther King Jr. and Airport boulevards when hunger hijacks my attention, my mind moseys south to East 12th Street, where the consistent La Morenita Mexican restaurant and the aptly named Maxine’s Soul Kitchen provide good options across the street from each other.
Sometimes my mind can motor as fast as the camera from Run Lola Run and it spends a lot of time tearing down Chicon Street, from East 12th to Cesar Chavez: Galloway Sandwich Shop, Nubian Queen Lola’s, TJ’s Seafood, La Michoacana and Mr. Natural are fave grubberies on that glorious culinary corridor.
Before I moved to my new ‘hood two years ago, I had no idea there were so many great funky joints to eat east of Interstate 35. When I lived in Hyde Park, east side cuisine meant Sam’s BBQ and El Azteca. It was eenie meenie miney mo, barbecue or Mexico.
But I’ve always been a follower of the “eat where you live” philosophy, and after two years of chancing dives and diners, of turning my cholesterol into mo’lesterol, I’ve discovered that a person could be content eating exclusively on the east side. Then, a few months ago, a documentary called “Super Size Me,” in which the protagonist ate every meal at McDonald’s for a month, caused a stir and got me thinking. What if I did an article about eating every meal in East Austin for a month? I even had a working title: “Superfly Me.” My editor looked at me like I was a brave soul, going to great sacrifice for the sake of a story. But, in reality, when he gave the OK, it was like assigning me to report on the backstage scene of a gentlemen’s club. Sometimes this can be a really good job (and sometimes you’ve got to write about what’s going on with the Austin Music Network).
A side order of quirks
Southern cooking, Cajun cuisine, barbecue, hamburgers and Mexican are the Big Five of comfort food, and there are excellent examples of each in East Austin. I haven’t been able to find good pizza, and Asian restaurants are about as prevalent as Pat Boone songs booming out of car trunks, but there’s plenty of everything else here.
The subject of “Super Size Me” gains a lot of weight and suffers other health problems after his month at Mickey D’s. After spending all of July eating my way across East Austin, I felt a different sort of change, more mental than physical. Even as I’d gained a few pounds (if you want to know what you’ll weigh after eating at Maxine’s, just step on a scale holding your plate of food), I had a little more swagger in my step. When genuine love and care and a lifetime of experience are passed on through food preparation, eating out can be spiritual.
But sometimes you get a bad piece of meat.
During my monthlong “challenge,” I had some of the best meals of my life, but also some of the worst. Sometimes on different days at the same restaurant. The maverick diner has to take chances.
I sought out the joints that had some character, that were as far away from America’s food-court mentality as you could get. The east side has its own way of doing things, that’s for sure, and at first I was slightly irritated by some of the quirkiness I’d encountered. Jonesing for a hoagie one afternoon, for instance, I went to the Galloway Sandwich Shop and discovered that it’s not a sandwich shop at all, but a cafeteria-style home cooking joint. The first time I went to La Michoacana, meanwhile, I stood at the food counter for several minutes and no one took my order. Finally, one cook pointed to the line at the grocery checkout and said something in Spanish that probably translates to: “You gotta pay first, Mr. Clueless.”
Another thing that takes some getting used to is that every restaurant east of the freeway seems to have a 19-inch TV with bad reception, tuned to Jerry Springer or Oprah or Judge Whoever.
I used to feel a little uncomfortable about being the only white person at a soul food joint, but after July I’ve come to understand that nobody cares what race you are when they’re looking down on a plate of smothered pork chops. Besides, it’s like when comedian Chris Rock is ragging on white people in his routine, then throws in an aside that present Caucasians are excluded. “You cool,” he says to the whites in the audience. “You paid money to see me.”
Food is generally only as flavorful as the person who cooked it. “Soul food” is more than a down-home marketing term; the best meals tell a story, like when you’ve had some of Nubian Queen Lola’s crawfish etouffee, you know she’s from Louisiana and that she cooked side by side with her mother since she was old enough to stir a wooden spoon. But that’s only part of Lola Stephens’ story.
She moved to Austin from Lake Charles, La., in 1980, soon after graduating from high school. Austin was supposed to be a brief stopover on Lola’s journey to Hollywood stardom, but when she got a job here as a cashier she never made it any farther west. In the late ’80s, Stephens was unemployed and homeless for two years. But she got back up on her feet and now raises four daughters, three adopted from a friend.
Early this year, Stephens saw a “For Rent” sign on the former location of Nanny’s, a much-missed home-cooking joint at the corner of Rosewood Avenue and Chicon Street, and she said the Lord came to her and said, “That’s your place.” Stephens had no money, but scraped together $500 from friends, relatives and kind-hearted strangers, to pay a month’s rent. She painted the place purple and yellow, Mardi Gras colors, and hung beads from the ceiling. On the board outside she scrawled spiritual messages, but she still didn’t have the equipment to open. “There was this white man who would drive by and he asked me why I wasn’t open yet,” Stephens says. When she said she needed money for pots, pans, a cooler and other essentials, he took her shopping and spent more than $1,000. Nubian Queen Lola’s opened six months ago.
Assisted by her daughters, ranging in age from 11 to 17, Stephens works 18-hour days to keep her dream alive, sometimes catching a nap on a cot in a back closet. Then, on Sunday, the only day her restaurant is closed, she feeds the homeless out of her back door. True story.
TJ’s Seafood, a Vietnamese-owned restaurant at East Seventh and Chicon streets that caters to African Americans, is another curious joint. It opened in 1992 at a former location of Gaylord’s Hamburgers, whose decor has barely been touched. The reason the seafood is relatively cheap ($6.95 for a 12-piece jumbo shrimp dinner) is because there’s no middle man: Co-owner Jennifer Tranh’s mother owns a shrimp boat in Port Arthur and supplies the 10 seafood restaurants all over Texas and Oklahoma that are operated by her 12 children. The Tranh family harvested shrimp in Vietnam before they fled Communist rule in 1975. Knowing these sorts of details almost makes up for TJ’s soggy French fries and the tasteless side salad that a picky hamster would send back.
More slices of heaven
* Maxine’s Soul Kitchen, 2931 E. 12th St. (220-3650). Maxine Carlock and her husband, LaVern, bought the old Soul Kitchen about a year ago, and they’re still messing around with the menu. Beef tips and rice, Salisbury steak and hamhocks are perennials, but Maxine has been known to whip up an oxtail stew or pepper steak if someone asks. After working in the food service industry for 30 years, cooking mainly at nursing homes, this is Maxine’s first restaurant and if a recent visit, which found Longhorn football legends Johnny “Lam” Jones and Donnie Little humming in approval, is any indication, she’s scored a touchdown.
* Taco Sabrosa, 5100 E. Seventh St. (385-8898). The cleanest-looking taqueria in town, with a spacious courtyard and very reasonable prices, this place has, quite literally, a lunchwagon soul. The old coach that used to sit at the corner of Shady Lane has been built into the kitchen, which serves up a mouth-exploding al pastor taco called the Gringas. This is one of the few good Mexican restaurants on the east side open late on weekdays and at all on Sundays.
* Tony’s Southern Comfort, 1201 E. Sixth St. (320-8801). Not spectacular, but consistently good, the opening of this down-home eatery about a year and a half ago signaled an east side re-vittle-ization. Best chicken-fried steak east of the Broken Spoke.
* Gene’s, 1209 E. 11th St.(477-6600). Along with Ben’s Longbranch BBQ, this is the top spot where West eats East. Most of the Cajun dishes are just so-so, but the shrimp po’ boys are tops. (Clothing tip: Wear a bright shirt to Gene’s to make sure you’re not invisible to the wait staff, which I have been a couple of times.)
* La Michoacana, 1917 E. Seventh St. (473-8487). This place is so real, so plucked out of Mexico, that I’ve been there a couple dozen times for fajita tacos and I’ve never heard a single customer or employee speak English. Even the confusing parking lot screams Nuevo Laredo.
* Mr. Catfish, 1075 Springdale Road, (927-6666). Known for serving the best fried shrimp in town, this place also serves up some stellar sides of gumbo, red beans and rice and homemade hushpuppies.
* Los Comales, 2136 E. Seventh St. 480-9358. In the mood for cheap, flavorful flame-broiled steaks in a classic south-of-the-border setting? This place won’t let you down.
* Mi Madre’s, 2201 Manor Road (322-9721). Although it’s officially considered East Austin, I don’t think of Manor Road that way. It’s uptown. But I decided to extend the boundaries for the story because I wasn’t about to go a month without those perfect, plump breakfast tacos from here.
There goes the Pulitzer
All right, here we go. Confession time. Although I vowed to eat every July meal in East Austin, I had to give myself a couple of exemptions. On July 5, after a day of tubing in San Marcos, I ate with family at Rivendell, a Hobbit-themed health food restaurant in S.M. They were hungry; I was hungry; we were 30 miles from East Austin and besides, it was a federal holiday. Lapse No. 2 was also unavoidable at the time. I had three 10-year-old kids in my charge for a day and I couldn’t think of a place in the neighborhood that they, all eaters of only things yellow, would enjoy. This was before I knew about Mr. Catfish, so I took them to Dave & Buster’s.
OK, I admit it. I broke my vow, not once, but twice.
Jim Romenesko’s media news Web site oughta be all over this scandal. (“Journalist Betrays Public Trust By Eating At Hobbit-Themed Restaurant.”) This project, which began so well-intentioned, may end in disgrace, but if it makes any difference, I’m still eating every meal on the east side.
I’ve learned to savor the flavor, to embrace the pace of Austin’s eastern time zone. All the little quirks spice up the experience, I’ve found. Or, more to the point, once you’ve sat down to a plate of Maxine’s beef tips and rice or gnawed around the bone in Nubian Queen Lola’s pork chop sandwich, Bennigan’s just ain’t gonna cut it.
Bishop Raymond “Big Tex” McDonald says “Don’t Worry ‘Bout the Mule”
The Butthole Surfers were the kings of drug-fried musical insanity in Austin in the ‘80s, but an even more off-the-wall act was playing twice a week in East Austin at the time, to fanfare barely contained inside the walls of a dingy storefront church.
Bishop Ray McDonald Jr. strapped on an electric guitar at the Guiding Angel Church of God In Christ at 1916 E. 10th St. and raged his hardcore gospel blues to the beat of a drum machine and at the urging of a clump of Pentecostal parishioners. Luckily, some of those frenzied services are preserved on McDonald’s Big Tex label, which put out a couple albums in the 1980s.
All that crazy tongue-people music would be forgotten today if “Rock Daniels,” McDonald’s almost unidentifiable cover of a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, wasn’t included on the collection Fire In My Bones: Rare + Raw + Otherworldly African-American Gospel, which came out on Tompkins Square in 2011. Curator Mike McGonigal was hipped to McDonald by Friends of Sound Records in South Austin, where he searched for obscure gospel sides whenever he was in Austin from Portland, Ore.
McDonald sold his albums Electrifying Gospel and The Rain Done Fell On Me (a double LP), as well as those of other regional and national gospel acts, at his Big Tex record shop on E. 12th St. A traveling COGIC evangelist based in Houston, McDonald settled in Austin in the early ’80s to help take care of his aging parents and founded the Guiding Angel church. The McDonald family came from Bellville, about an hour west of Houston, then moved to Brenham before the kids grew up and scattered.
McDonald’s primitive music sounds like he’s been dead for years, like it was recorded in the ‘50s, but the good Reverend is still living in Austin’s far eastern “Hogpen” neighborhood, named so because many residents raised livestock on their large lots until fairly recently. He says his age is 68, but he seems to be at least 10 years older. (His older brother Norris died in 2012 at age 84.) But even frail and near-blind, Ray Jr. still has the musical set-up in his collage-wrapped living room: a cheap Roland synth for drums, an electric Epiphone guitar and a little Fender amp. “I mess around with my music every now and then,” he says. “But I don’t got it like I useta.”
McDonald says he started making collages, most with an African-American history theme, in the ’60s to commemorate his travels as a “fire-rock” preacher. “I took a little bit from every place I been, every magazine or newspaper.” McDonald put all his collected words and images together in the pamphlet The USA Montage Treasure of Black Song Legends Plus!, which, like all McDonald’s works is right with intention and passion, but short on a professional polish.
One of McDonald’s 12 x 15-inch collages is titled “Austin Texas History” and it covers such local notables as longtime Ebenezer Baptist Church music director Virgie DeWitty, World War II hero Doris Miller, pioneer gospel announcer
Elmer Akins, the Bells of Joy hitmakers and Austin’s 1940s mother and sons gospel act, the Famous Humphries Singers. The upper right hand corner commemorates COGIC pioneer Luvenia Taylor, who established 18 missions in Central Texas before she passed away in 1929. Google is entirely unaware of Ms. Taylor or her assistant Sister Brown, but if there’s anything Rev. McDonald knows, it’s COGIC history. One of his finest works of cut-and-glue-and-type is a 27 x 40 inch sheet filled with cut-out heads of Church of God In Christ leaders. Nascent COGIC musicians included the Austin-educated Arizona Dranes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Willie Johnson, Ernestine Washington, Utah “Two Wings” Smith and the Angelic Gospel Singers. Also coming up in the COGIC tradition are Texas’ two top gospel groups- the Relatives from Dallas and the Jones Family Singers from Houston.
“I was always Church of God In Christ,” says McDonald, who lives alone, but has a nurse check up on him. “That’s all I ever knew.” His father was a laborer, a house-party blues guitarist, who wasn’t religious, McDonald says. But his mother Elizabeth (maiden name: Bynum) was a true believer and took her nine children to church with her.
Pentecostals, derided as “holy rollers,” were the first to play instruments in church and their belief in unbridled spiritual release is the foundation of rock n’ roll. “I would say my music resembles everyone’s music that came before, like boogie woogie and blues,” McDonald says. “But I still have my own style.”
McDonald said he tried concentrating on music as a career when he moved to Dallas in the ’70s, but “everybody kept telling me ‘that’s rock n’ roll. That’s not gospel.’ But I make it about the Lord.”
Usually starting off with a sermon, in McDonald’s calm, descriptive style of overwrought vocabularizing, he kicks into drive when he starts flailing on his electric guitar and screaming barely intelligible lyrics, while the congregation sings them back to him tenfold. It’s all so raw, going back to the birth of “Holy Ghost baptism” at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906. Sanctified churches had been around before then, but when Houston preacher William Seymour added a third act of grace- the speaking of tongues- as the purest connection to God, he created a sensation that inspired Azusa participant Charles H. Mason to form the Church of God In Christ in Memphis. Rather than assimilate to the staid, white style of church services, which is what mainstream black Baptist and Methodist churches were doing in the years after the end of slavery, COGIC’s philosophy was to celebrate blackness in all its emotive glory. That attitude instantly found followers and 100 years after Azusa, COGIC can count a flock of nearly 8 million worldwide.
McGonigal says “Rock Daniels,” which begins with a Bible recitation from McDonald’s then-wife Lucinda (who did taxes for hire at the record shop), was a favorite of many listeners of Fire In My Bones. “I love how his guitar playing was just the same riff over and over again, but you still want to listen to it multiple times in a row,” says McGonigal, who has plans to one day release a full album of Bishop Ray McDonald’s rudimentary, yet passionate, gospel music. “I love how you can see the process in his work- in the pasteups for his cover art, and in the tape splices on his recordings.” McDonald is the pure outsider artist, the visionary with limited means and education.
The former bishop, whose legal blindness and lack of a ride keeps him away from church most Sundays, said he found out that his version of “Rock Daniels” was on the Fire In My Bones compilation when his neighbor across the street informed him. McDonald had been telling the hipster kid he was a gospel singer, but even the old man was shocked when he heard his record from 1985 on an international release.
When I visited him at his rundown mobile home on Friday afternoon, I played the track from my iPhone and McDonald had an incredulous look, like he’d just seen a magic trick. He’s a humble man, a lone wolf, a living link to the Pentecostal pioneers who found the best way to praise the Lord through music is to lose themselves in the spirit. He can’t do it like he useta, but Ray McDonald Jr. is mighty tickled to see that newer generations are discovering his “electrifying, but not shocking” Wednesday night and Sunday morning wailing sessions from 30 years ago.
JOHNNY HOLMES AND THE VICTORY GRILL
Johnny Holmes, born in Waco in 1917, moved to Bastrop with his family at age 6. His first booking was in 1933 when he hired Roosevelt “The Grey Ghost” Williams to play piano for his 8th grade graduation at Kerr Hall. A pole vaulter, Holmes earned a track scholarship to Sam Huston College in 1937. He married Winnifred Van Zandt in 1942 and they lived at 1124 Chicon Street.
Holmes was a gambler, a card player, so he opened a nightclub in 1947 called the Victory Grill. The original V.G., which he opened in 1945 in the wake of V-J Day, was more of a hamburger stand down the block on E. 11th.
The Victory Grill, featuring waitresses with starched maroon shirts, enclosed the patio in 1951 and named this music venue the Kovac Room in 1956, after a place Holmes saw in his travels to Alaska. He leased-out the V.G. in 1952 to go
on the road, cooking to pay bills, plus booking R&B concerts in the Odessa-Midland area. He came back to Austin in 1965.
Such acts as B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Joe Tex and Ike and Tina Turner played the Victory Grill.
Holmes passed away in 2001. His club was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1997.
Here’s an 83-page masters thesis on Lavada Durst, the first black radio DJ in Texas in 1948.
“I was locked up in the ’80s and they had this drug counselor come to jail and talk to us. And afterwards he said ‘Have any of y’all heard of a piano player they called the Grey Ghost?’ Hell, I knew the Grey Ghost. He was out of his damn mind. So I called my grandma and she said he was still alive, still living on Juniper Street. So the next week I told the drug counselor where to find him.”
– Otis Bell meeting Tary Owens
Tary was a folklorist in the ’60s, who had recorded Grey Ghost in ’65 and forgot about him. After many years of heroin addiction, Tary got sober and became a counselor eventually. One day he went to a blues history exhibit at UT that used some of his recordings of the Ghost, whose real name was Roosevelt Williams. The experience re-energized Owens, who ended up tracking down an 84-year-old Ghost thanks to his prison informant. After Owens reissued those 1965 recordings on his Catfish label in 1987, the Grey Ghost had a career resurgence and played regularly at the Continental Club. He passed away in 1996 at age 92.
I’ve become intrigued with a story of race in Austin in the late ‘50s that comes from an unexpected angle. The era’s familiar protests of African Americans was present on E. 11th Street, but the picketing was against integration. White kids had become crazy for the blues after watching Cactus Pryor’s Now Dig This show on KTCB and so they’d been flocking to Eastside hotspot Charlie’s Playhouse. Which was fine except that the club’s regular black clientele was left outside if they didn’t get there early enough.
Co-hosted by teenaged singer Joyce Webb, who owned an art glass business in Wimberley until recently, Now Dig This was the Austin version of American Bandstand and just as Dick Clark would feature black doo-wop groups and the like, Pryor brought in black bands from East Austin like Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets, Jean and the Rollettes and Major Burkes to play live every Saturday morning. The college kids wanted to know where they could see these bands and the answer was Charlie’s Playhouse, which used to be the Show Bar at 1206 E. 11th until 1955 when Charlie Gildon bought it from D.J. Tony Von.
Fraternities would reserve four or five tables in the 300-capacity joint. Double-dating couples showed up in Caucasian clusters. “Charlie’s Playhouse is where we went to learn all the new dances,” says Lucky Attal, the antique dealer who graduated from Austin High in 1959.
Gildon didn’t allow the races to sit in the same sections, but they danced together to house band Hubbard and the Jets, as well as touring acts like Freddie King, Johnny Taylor and Joe Tex. Guitarist Bill Campbell, a white man from Smithville, often sat in with the black bands, leading the way for the Vaughan brothers, Denny Freeman, Angela Strehli and the like. 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.
Blues music integrated Austin like nothing before it. In 1960, rock n’ roll history was made when black band Clarence Smith and the Daylighters backed Joyce Harris, a white female singer on Domino Records. Their raucous single “One Way Out” is a classic, highly valued by collectors. But the logistics could get hairy in Jim Crow Austin. When I wrote a history of the Domino label, which was started as a night school project, Harris recalled looking for the Daylighters the day of a session they had apparently forgotten about. Finding them coming out of the V&V Club at 1112 E. 11th Street, she called out “Get in, fellas, we’ve gotta make a record,” but they initially refused to get in the car of a white woman in East Austin. They eventually got in and rode to Roy Poole’s studio on East Sixth Street ducked down below the windows.
The road to East Austin remained one-way until the mid-‘60s. Whites could enjoy authentic R&B, but blacks couldn’t go to the white clubs.
The initial consolation at Charlie’s Playhouse was to have “Soul Night” for blacks only on Mondays. “So many of the students, particularly from Huston-Tillotson and so forth, didn’t think that was quite right,” Tommy Wyatt of the Village newspaper recalled recently for an oral history project. “That we couldn’t go into any club on the west side, but yet we couldn’t go to our own clubs…The biggest club in Austin, for East Austin, was Charlie’s Playhouse and we couldn’t go there on Friday and Saturday night.”
Wyatt said the community had some empathy for Gildon’s position. “Now, economically you can understand that, you see, because this man was in business, that’s the way he was making his money. I mean he was making huge amounts of money on Friday and Saturday nights. But at the same time it was still offensive to the students over here. So some of the students from H-T started picketing the club on Friday nights and Saturday nights.” Not wanting to cross the picket lines, and, no doubt, feeling unwanted, the white flock dwindled to the hardcore and eventually Charlie’s became a Playhouse almost exclusively for African Americans again.
Integration ended up crippling the tight-knit East Austin community, especially when the hub, black high school L.C. Anderson, was shut down and its students bussed to McCallum High in 1971. The federal government sued the Austin school district and ordered district schools to desegregate, the first case of forced busing in the U.S., so it was a national news story for several months.
Even with its reputation for liberal attitudes, Austin has a racist history, going back to the 1920s when city planners tried to move all the town’s black population, which had pockets in Clarksville, Wheatville (24th and Rio Grande) and South Austin (West Mary Street), to East Austin by denying city services to those who refused to relocate. But let’s remember that it was an Austinite, Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed into law the Civil Rights Act in 1964, his first year as President.
With the African-American clientele permitted to shop, eat, dance, whatever, all over Austin, the shops and clubs along East 11th, which was nicknamed “the Cuts” because it slashed across East Austin at an angle, hit hard times.
Charlie’s closed in 1972 and became the Jackson “4” Club for a couple years and then was torn down. One of Austin’s most legendary live music venues, certainly up there with the Victory Grill, is now an empty lot across the street and up a block from the Longbranch Inn.
But in 1960, Charlie’s was so hoppin’ and nobody was ready to go home at midnight, that Gildon opened Ernie’s Chicken Shack at 1167 Webberville Road. Until it closed in 1979 after Gildon was shot to death, this was THE legendary after hours club in Austin. Whoever was playing at Charlie’s that night would pack up at midnight, legal last call at the time, and head straight over to the Chicken Shack, where they’d play ‘til 5 a.m. on weekends. Gildon ran a gambling operation in the backroom, while illegal booze flowed in the main room.
Eastside, man. In the ‘60s it 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.
People will argue about which era of Austin was the greatest. Was it the ‘70s during the Armadillo heyday? Was it the ‘80s when the Liberty Lunch/Beach/Continental Club axis put some euphoric jangle in your stride? To some, it was the ‘90s, when South By Southwest made Austin the live capital of cool every March.
Put me in a ripped vinyl booth at Ernie’s Chicken Shack in the ‘60s. It’s 3 a.m. and Freddie King just walked in with his big, red Gibson guitar. Bury me there if you can.
GIL ASKEY COMES HOME
Gilbert Askey left Austin for good at age 17 in 1942, but the former Motown arranger, who received an Oscar nomination for his work with Diana Ross on “Lady Sings the Blues,” says “Austin has never left me.”
Although he has lived for 30 years in Australia, where his wife, Hellen, is from, the L.C. Anderson High School graduate comes back to visit once a year. Gil’s nickname is “Brother,” and when he comes back to Austin, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes said, “Brother makes an effort to see everyone around from the old days.” His two older sisters, Grace and Velma Jo, are still alive, as are friends that go as far back with Askey as the first grade at the Olive Street School.
Timing smiled when the 85-year-old trumpet player was in town in early February, just three weeks before Ross, his boss for more than 10 years, was set to appear at ACL Live at the Moody Theater . Love a local tie-in to the most successful female recording artist in history.
Over coffee at Denny’s, however, Askey put off questions about his glitzy musical résumé and instead told long stories of growing up dirt poor in East Austin. He made imaginary street maps with the side of his hand — “Hackberry, Juniper, Willow…” he’d recite.
Askey helped discover the Jackson 5 and was musical director on tours by the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Supremes. He co-wrote hits for Curtis Mayfield and Linda Clifford, and yet he wanted to talk more about musicians he played with on the Anderson High Yellow Jackets marching band, including Kenny Dorham, Roy and Alvin Patterson, Ray Murphy, Paris Jones, Warner “Rip” Ross and Buford Banks (trumpeter Martin’s dad). They all used to get together at the Pattersons’ house and play jazz, which was frowned upon by Anderson High band director B.L. Joyce. Askey grew up idolizing Harry James of Beaumont, while Dorham, who would go on to replace Miles Davis in Charlie Parker’s band, knew every Erskine Hawkins lick.
But the authoritative Joyce was all about John Philip Sousa marches. Outfitting his band with uniforms he tailored himself, Joyce led the Yellow Jackets to state marching band championships during Askey’s last two years at Anderson, which was then located at 1607 Pennsylvania Ave., near where Kealing Middle School is today.
Askey does not go easily from memories of Rip Ross to Diana Ross. It’s as if he’s written a book about his life in his head and when asked about it, he doesn’t want to be rushed
through the early chapters. “I’m gettin’ to that,” he’d say whenever a question about his career was posed, “but first I’m going to tell you the stuff people need to know about.” He wears big glasses slid to the end of his nose and looks over them for emphasis. “Mr. Joyce thought that if the white schools had a band, the black schools should have one, too.”
Benjamin Leo Joyce, a master tailor by trade, formed the first Anderson High Yellow Jackets band in 1933 and ruled with an iron baton until 1955, when a new school district ruling that band directors must have music degrees forced him out, amidst much community uproar. His replacement was his former first trumpeter Alvin Patterson, who led the band until desegregation closed the school in 1971.
Askey’s mother was Ada DeBlanc Simond, the noted African American historian and author who penned the “Looking Back” column in the American-Statesman for several years. Askey’s father, Aubrey, left when Askey was 2 and, with his mother already having three kids by age 26, he was raised by his grandparents Gilbert and Mathilde, Creoles from Louisiana, who spoke French in the house.
Askey’s cousin was R&B singer Damita Jo; Texas Rep. Dukes is his first cousin once removed.
Joyce had recruited a 10-year-old Askey in 1935 to start playing trumpet at Kealing Middle School, whose band he also ran. “I was shooting marbles, and this kid said, ‘You should try out for the band,’ and I said, ‘The band’s for sissies. I want to play football,’ ” Askey recalled. Joyce was in earshot of that exchange and within days Askey’s grandmother was in Joyce’s office. “He sold her an old beat-up Martin trumpet for, like, $10, and the next thing you know I’m taking lessons from Mr. Joyce.”
Like most of the neighborhood kids, Askey was intimidated by Joyce, who would carry a small billy club at band practice and rap kids across the back if they were goofing off or playing jazz. “I came to realize he had another side to him,” said Askey. “He really cared about us.”
Two hours into the interview, Askey had barely mentioned Diana Ross or the rest of his time at Hitsville USA. Another appointment ended the talk, and it seemed that this article would have to be filled in by others talking of Askey’s charmed career. He was leaving town the next day to visit his sister in Dallas and then back to Oz.
But about 9 p.m. that night the phone rang, and it was Askey. “I was just thinking,” he said with a stammer he’s had all his life, “that you might need some more stuff for your story.”
During the next 90 minutes came tales about the Supremes being introduced to chitlins in East Austin and a 10-year-old Michael Jackson hesitating to go on “The Ed Sullivan Show” until he saw “Uncle Gil” in the wings.
When he was tired of talking, Askey picked up his trumpet and gave an example of how he used to freelance jam with the bugle player on base near Wichita Falls. An officer heard the playing and, rather than discipline Askey, made him a member of the Special Services Band. “I still had my job to do every day, but I didn’t have to pull guard duty or KP (kitchen patrol), so it was a step up.”
What set Askey apart from all the other horn players of East Austin was a gift for arrangement and composition that he didn’t know he had until after getting out of the Army Air Corps in 1944 and enrolling first at the Boston Conservatory of Music and then the prestigious Harnett National Music Studios in Manhattan.
As an almost required rite of passage for Texas jazz musicians, Askey played for the Houston-based Milton Larkin Orchestra for a year between those two music schools. “You could say that was the time when the trumpet took over my life,” he said.
Askey started writing charts for full bands, eventually leading to his big break, a three-year stint as arranger/trumpet player with the popular Buddy Johnson band (“Since I Fell For You”). When rock ‘n’ roll exploded and Johnson’s brand of adult blues became passé, Askey toured in the house band on package shows, backing Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, the Clovers, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price and many more. “Bill Haley and the Comets were the only act on those tours that had their own band,” Askey said.
Askey received his first call from Motown on New Year’s Day 1965 with an offer to produce and arrange six tracks on Billy Eckstine’s “Prime Of My Life.” He ended up doing the entire album.
When the Supremes’ hits slowed down in 1967, Motown mastermind Berry Gordy decided to make a record that crossed over to an older Broadway crowd. He tapped Askey for “The Supremes Do Rodgers & Hart” and also appointed him the group’s musical director on live shows, including the 1970 “Farewell” performance in Las Vegas that was Ross’ last show before going solo.
Ross took Askey with her for 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Touch Me In the Morning” the next year and “Mahogany” in 1975. “You know, Diana Ross knows what she wants, and we didn’t always agree,” Askey said when asked about Ross’ diva reputation. “She even fired me once, or I quit, I can’t remember. Berry Gordy stepped in and got us back together.”
But Askey also recalls Ross as the consummate crowd-pleaser, who once even came back out onstage in her bathrobe to do an unscheduled encore because the crowd simply would not leave.
That the Jackson 5’s first album was billed “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5” has a connection to Askey. His stepfather, Luther Simond, was an assistant principal at Norton High School in Gary, Ind., in the late ’60s and knew the older Jackson brothers from school and the younger ones from church. Their Jackson 5 routine had instantly become a sensation in Gary and nearby Chicago, so Simond called his stepson in Detroit and said, “You need to come down here and check these guys out.” Askey passed on the tip to Ross.
During his recent Austin visit, Askey stayed with Simond, whom he calls “my dad,” at the house on Hamilton Avenue where his mother once cooked for the Supremes and the Manhattans on an off day on tour. “One of the girls said, ‘This is good; what is this?,’ ” Askey said, with a laugh. “I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were eating hog guts.”
So many things happen out on the road, but then there’s another town, another show and it all blurs together. Or sometimes seemingly forgettable incidents can change your life. While touring Australia in 1973, Askey and a few other band members were caught in the rain and couldn’t find a cab. A woman pulled up and gave them a ride to the hotel. Seven years later, Askey married the good Samaritan, named Hellen, and relocated to Australia.
In ’82, Askey flew to Los Angeles for what looked to be a month of work, helping to put together the spectacular “Motown 25” program, which featured a Supremes reunion, plus Michael Jackson’s sensational moonwalk to “Billie Jean.” Askey’s main role was arranging and conducting a soul throwdown between the Four Tops and the Temptations. Askey’s month in the States turned into more than a year when a tour was thrown together after “M25.”
His wife wasn’t happy about that, especially having to raise an infant alone, so Askey retired from touring in 1985. He’s well-known in Australia through his work with programs that encourage young people to learn instruments. “Brother’s hobby is finding old instruments, restoring them and then passing them on to kids,” said Dukes. At 85, Askey sits in with a Melbourne jazz combo once a week when he’s up for it. The former altar boy at Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Austin still goes to mass every Sunday.
He regrets that he was unable to attend B.L. Joyce’s funeral in 1980. Askey was working as musical director for the movie “Fame” and couldn’t get a day off the set. But he sent a poem, an “Ode to B.L. Joyce,” which he wrote about the tailor who became one of Austin’s most influential teachers.
“I could’ve been Gil Askey the carpenter… Or Gil Askey the doctor. But I became Gil Askey the musician,” said the poem, which was read at the funeral. It ends with a pair of lines that have guided Askey throughout the years: “B.L. Joyce lives in the things which I do, for without him there’d be no me,” it read. “Therefore I’m an extension of him.”
It was a single note, a G, that Mr. Joyce showed Askey at that first lesson, then sent him home to play only that note until he could play it perfectly. From the smallest details, big things one day come.
AUSTIN’S GREATEST ALLTIME ATHLETE? IT’S DICK “NIGHT TRAIN” LANE
1997 Westlake High grad Drew Brees erased Dan Marino’s NFL single-season passing yardage record in 2011 by four football fields, airing it out for 5,476 yards. But the Saints QB isn’t the only Austinite to hold a major NFL record: Richard “Night Train” Lane, who graduated from all-black L.C. Anderson High in East Austin in 1946, intercepted 14 passes (in a 12-game season) as an undrafted rookie with the Los Angeles Rams in 1952.
That’s one of the NFL’s unbreakable records, even as the schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978.
Lane benefited from the element of surprise his rookie season. At 6’2″ and 210 pounds and wearing #81, he was huge for a defensive back and quarterbacks figured him for lumber in coverage. But he had a quick break on the ball and often cut in front of surprised receivers and took it the other way.
Or he’d just wrestle the ball away.
Lane was a fierce hitter who had to find other takedown points when his “Night Train Necktie” led to the banning of clothesline tackles. After a tough upbringing in East Austin, where he was abandoned by his birth mother, a prostitute, Lane hurt people by driving in that chip on his shoulder.
Who’s the greatest Austin athlete of all time? Let’s put an asterisk next to Lance Armstrong, for growing up and starting his career in the Dallas suburbs (not for that other thing). We’re talking about folks who grew up here, not the likes of Kevin Durant, Roger Clemens, golfer Betsy Rawls or all those football players and Olympic swimmers who came here for college and maybe stayed. Earl Campbell was not nicknamed “the Austin Rose.”
Although Brees was not recruited by the University of Texas (who went out of state for Major Applewhite and Greg Cicero at QB in ’97) and went to college at Purdue, he was born and raised here, so he’s a true Austin athlete. The competion for greatest ever from here has gotta include Brees (whose status actually grew in a heartbreaking loss to the 49ers Saturday), former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and Negro League shortstop Willie Wells, who was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.
Also in the discussion are baseball player Don Baylor, the 1979 American League MVP, former Dallas Cowboys great Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson and tennis stud Andy Roddick.
But there’s a strong case to be made for Lane, who died ten years ago Jan. 29 at age 73 in an Austin nursing home. “Night Train” changed the concept of the defensive back, paving the way for Jack Tatum, Ronnie Lott, Rod Woodson and other hard-hitting cover men.
“He was the prototype for all big cornerbacks,” his former Lions teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Lem Barney has been quoted. Vince Lombardi called Lane the best DB he’d ever seen- and Herb Addeley agreed. “I’ve never seen a defensive back hit the way he hit,” said Packers great Adderley. “I mean he’d take them down, whether it be Jim Taylor or Jim Brown.”
After a 14-season career playing for the Rams (’52-’53), the Chicago Cardinals (’54-’59) and the Detroit Lions (’60- ’65), Night Train was a Hall of Fame no-brainer in 1974. In 1999, Lane was voted to the all-time NFL team and later was named the best #81 to ever play the game. Not bad for an NFL walk-on who played just one year of college ball, at a Nebraska junior college.
Comparing athletes from different sports, from eras that varied on access to athletes of color. is a case of Apples and P.C.s. It’s up for debate. But there’s little question that Dick Lane has the most compelling backstory to his success. Yeah, Roddick’s wife is the gorgeous supermodel Brooklyn Decker, but Night Train was married to freaking Dinah Washington, the jazz singing legend.
Dick Lane’s story is well told in the 2001 biography Night Train Lane– Life of Hall of Famer Richard `Night Train’ Lane,’ by Austin author Mike Burns. Lane did hours of interviews for the book, which is available at the Austin History Center.
Lane’s father, an abusive pimp they called Texas Slim, told his bottom girl “either the baby goes or you go” in the summer of 1928. And so with tears Johnnie Mae King wrapped her 3-month-old baby in newspapers and put him in a dumpster on the 1900 block of East 9th St.
A widow, Emma Lane, heard what she thought was a cat yowling in the trash bin and was shocked to see a baby boy. He became hers and she raised him up, not afraid to use the belt, with her two older boys. A younger woman started visiting the Lane house when Dick was six or seven. She was nice to him and sometimes pressed a 50-cent piece in his hand. When he was 11, Emma Lane told the boy that the woman was his birth mother. From a tough emotional distance, Johnnie Mae King watched her son grow into an all-round athlete at L.C. Anderson High, whose coach W.E. Pigford was a strict, yet fair, father figure to Lane.
One night Texas Slim beat King and went to bed and he never woke up. After shooting her pimp in the head, Lane’s mother spent a couple years in prison, then moved to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where she married and opened a restaurant/ bar.
While finishing up at Anderson, Lane got a job as a short order cook at the Nighthawk Diner at S. Congress and Riverside. His birth mother offered him a job at her diner in Nebraska and Lane got permission from Ella, his mom, to check out the situation. King had a lot of time to think about her life’s mistakes and desperately wanted to make it up to the son she discarded.
She and her new husband offered to pay for Dick to attend Scottsbluff Junior College. After a year there, Lane put in a four-year-stint in the Army, where he always played on the post football team.
After one of his Army buddies, Gabby Simms, was drafted by the Rams, he brought Lane along to informal team workouts in a city park. A coach remembered Lane from an Army exhibition game and when he kept winning sprints against smaller men, Lane was signed to the team for a $4,000 a year contract. Lane wanted to play receiver, a position he excelled at as an Anderson Yellow Jacket, but since the Rams already had future Hall of Fame receivers Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, the coach moved Lane to defensive back.
Lane got his nickname from Fears, who was playing the 1952 Buddy Morrow hit “Night Train” one night when Lane stopped by to talk about formations, as he often did. One of the few black players in the NFL at the time, Lane didn’t care for the racial connotation of his new nickname. But then he saw it in a headline — “Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane derails Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice” and loved it. Lane hit with locomotive intensity and knocked their lights out. “Night Train” indeed.
During his final of seven All-Pro seasons, with Detroit in 1963, Lane married “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington. Wilt Chamberlain was best man. But Lane would be widowed within a year. The last of Dinah’s eight husbands, Lane woke up the morning of Dec. 14, 1963 to find his new wife slumped over and unresponsive. Dinah Washington was dead from an accidental overdose of pills at age 39.
After retiring from football, Lane worked for a short while as Redd Foxx’s minder/ manager, but he found his post-career calling as the director of the Detroit Police Athletic League. The experience of working with kids like himself, growing up poor, neglected, with little prospects of a better life, was what he needed to pull him out of the funk of losing a career and a bride. He wanted to make a difference and found his role model in Emma Lane, who heard a cry and didn’t think twice about stepping up. Hs birth was an accident dumped on someone else. And there was the blessing. There was the strength of character that taught him to be a man.
Richard “Night Train” Lane, who accomplished so much from so little, is buried in Austin’s Evergreen Cemetery.
OSCAR “SMOKEY” RHODES: “Like playin’ piano with your feet”
(from June 2002, Austin American Statesman)
Under the coffee table of this small apartment in Rosewood Courts off East 11th Street is a row of scuffed shoes with cracks in the leather. They’re lined with paper, these five pairs that look like they’d go for about a quarter apiece at a garage sale. Little pieces of flattened metal on the soles make these shoes special, however. “My favorites are the red ones,” the skinny old man says from the couch. “They’re like magic, man. When I put those on I feel like I’m flying.”
At age 82 (or 83 — he’s not sure), Oscar “Smokey” Rhodes still has the moves that made him the favorite dancer of Austin musicians, including the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who would often call him onstage. His motions are slower these days, the tapping coming at a typewriter’s cadence rather than the spitfire pace of old. But as one of the last of the great “buck dancers,” Rhodes is often sought out by up-and-coming hoofers.
Rhodes says he loves to pass on the techniques of the flat-footed “buck” style, which is more syncopated and reliant on musical accompaniment than the standard tap dancing. “Kids nowadays, though, they want everything like this,” he says, snapping his fingers. “They want to learn, but they don’t want to listen.”
To listen to Rhodes on a recent afternoon is to learn about a life that has known great camaraderie, but also tragedy. They’re reconciled, the highs and lows, in the marriage of clicks and thumps of the buck dance, which gets its name from the old “buck and a wing” routine. As long as Smokey’s dancing, everything’s gonna work out.
This craft was handed down to Smokey by his mother, Mary, a rarity as a female buck dancer, who toured the Southern vaudeville circuit in the ’20s and ’30s. She also taught Smokey how to dance tap and the ol’ soft shoe.
“I’ve missed my mother every single day since she passed,” he says of the fun-loving disciplinarian who died of heart failure in the early ’70s. “She taught me that when it’s time to work, you work your tail to the bone. When it was time to play, well, go have yourself a ball.” Rhodes says he’s also never stopped mourning his only brother, Willie, who died of pneumonia on Christmas Day 1934 at age 13. Father Harvey, the namesake for Smokey’s oldest son (one of six children), passed away a few years after Mary. “I don’t care how old you are. You never get over losing your family.”
Mary and Harvey Rhodes, who both grew up in Bastrop, picked cotton when they weren’t dancing. “They’d dance for a man from Kyle who sold a potion he called ‘Getcha Ready.’ Wasn’t nothing but hackberry limbs all chopped up and boiled. My parents’ job was to rouse up a crowd with their dancing, then the medicine man would step up and sell his bottles.” Smokey would play percussion, strumming a washboard with thimbles on his fingers.
The family settled in Austin in 1938 when Harvey got a job at a cotton gin that used to be at 1914 E. Sixth St., where a post office is now.
Before he started taking dancing seriously, Rhodes’ first love was baseball. After attending Anderson High School, Smokey was a star leftfielder for the Black Senators and then the Austin Palominos in the Negro Baseball League. Local 7-Up distributor Ed Knable was a big baseball fan who often gave jobs to players he liked, so he hired Smokey as a driver — a job he’d hold, during three different stints, for 31 years.
The first time he had to quit was when he was drafted into the Navy. His wartime duties were safer than most — mixing drinks in the officers clubs at bases in Corpus Christi, Oakland and Chicago. It was in the Windy City that Rhodes met his dancing idol, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. “He was the smoothest, man. You could learn as much watching his hands as you could watching his feet.” After studying Robinson night after night at a Chicago nightclub, Rhodes finally got up the nerve to approach the star. They hit it off and, over coffee, Bojangles gave Smokey some tips, but even more importantly passed on words of inspiration. ” ‘Keep on dancing’ is what he told me. It was the highlight of my life.”
Back in Austin after the war, Rhodes got his job back at 7-Up and also delivered ice for a Waco company. One stop on his route was the Harlem Club in Dallas, ruled by a guitar player named T-Bone Walker. “He blew everybody away,” Rhodes says with a big smile. “I got so excited I just hopped onstage and started dancing. That’s how it started for me, dancing with bands.”
Smokey especially liked to dance to the rhythms of barrelhouse piano, and in East Austin he teamed with such ivory thumpers as Robert Shaw, Roosevelt “Grey Ghost” Williams, Erbie Bowser and Smokey’s best friend since childhood, Lavada Durst. “The piano, man, that’s the whole program with buck dancing. It’s like playin’ the piano with your feet.”
When there wasn’t a piano around, Durst would pound out rhythms on a barrel while Rhodes danced. In their teens, the pair used to entertain Zilker Park picnickers by doing this routine from a raft in Barton Springs Pool. “They used to have this contest, where four guys would stand on the raft with one hand tied around their back and the other one with a boxing glove on it. They’d try to knock each other into the water and the winner would get five bucks. Well, when they were all done with that, me and Lavada would take over the raft.”
Though Smokey hates to fly, he made an exception when Texas Folklife Resources booked its “Texas Piano Professors Tour,” emceed by Marcia Ball and also featuring Durst and Bowser, at a venue in Long Beach, Calif., in 1993. Rhodes almost stole the show with his “Stop Time” routine with Bowser. “It was so wonderful to see all these lifelong friends reconnect onstage” says Texas Folklife’s Pat Jasper. “I think the experience really invigorated Smokey.” The man known for walking all over East Austin, sometimes miles a day, had a new spring in his step.
Tary Owens of Catfish Records, whose late ’80s releases of albums by the Ghost and Bell and Bowser led to a rediscovery of the East Austin barrelhouse blues scene of the ’40s and ’50s, says Rhodes was very much part of the revival. “When Smokey danced, it all came back. You could feel the spirit of the old days,” Owens says.
“Those guys were my brothers,” Smokey states. “Robert Shaw, Lavada Durst, Grey Ghost, Erbie Bowser, T.D. Bell — man, we were all so tight.” As he sits in the living room with the front door open on a hot afternoon, sadness passes over his face.
“They all died in a row. Like, one died on a Saturday and here comes Tuesday and another one passed. Now all my friends are gone.” Tears stream from under the hand covering his face.
Grey Ghost, Bowser and Durst died in ’96. Bell passed away three years later.
“I’m the last one left,” the 82-(or 83)-year-old, who lives alone, says with a sigh.
And until he goes, you can bet Smokey Rhodes, who remembers his mother in the steps she taught him and his friends in the moves their music inspired, will keep on dancin’.
DAMITA JO: AUSTIN’S ELLA
When native East Austinite Josephine Dukes heard that Janet Jackson’s new album was called Damita Jo, her jaw dropped. The only Damita Jo she knew of was her cousin, a dynamic singer who had a couple of pop hits in the early 1960s.
Then Dukes started putting it all together. Damita Jo DeBlanc had told her that Janet Jackson’s mother was a fan who named her daughter Janet Damita Jo Jackson. That info’s right there in the funeral program for DeBlanc, who died in Baltimore on Christmas Day 1998 at age 68, of respiratory illness.
A 4-foot-11-inch spitfire who lit up showrooms and living rooms alike, DeBlanc had hits with “answer songs” to “Save the Last Dance For Me” by the Drifters and to “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. But she really wanted to be the next Ella Fitzgerald, and Damita Jo, as she was billed, could scat like her idol.
Born in Austin on Aug. 5, 1930, the only child of Creole chef Herbert DeBlanc and schoolteacher Latrelle Plummer DeBlanc, Damita Jo was dancing and singing as soon as she could walk and talk. “She was a natural entertainer, the life of the party,” Josephine Dukes recalls.
She also possessed comedic flair and was a regular on Redd Foxx’s 1977 TV variety show.
Damita Jo’s father, who grew up speaking French in Iberia, La., and never lost the accent, enlisted in the Navy during World War II and was stationed in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Damita Jo attended high school. But she’d often return to Austin, where her grandmother Mathilde DeBlanc had a house at 1010 Olive St.
“I just adored Damita,” says Josephine’s daughter, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin. “She was the sweetest, warmest person you could ever meet. She’d say ‘Hot dog!’ and slap her thigh and everybody was ‘darlin’ and ‘sweetheart.’ ” Dawnna Dukes has become the DeBlanc family historian in recent years, tracing the Austin clan as direct descendants of Louis Antone Juchereau de St. Denis, a French explorer from Quebec who founded Natchitoches Parish in Louisiana in 1714.
In an entirely coincidental aside to the Janet Jackson/Damita Jo connection, Luther Simond, married to Damita Jo’s aunt, was an assistant principal at Norton High School in Gary, Ind., in 1966 when Jackson was born. “I knew the family well,” Simond says of the musical tribe that put Gary on the map. “Those (Jackson) boys started off singing in the church choir. Then, when they got their act together, I called my stepson (Motown arranger Gil Askey) in Detroit and said, ‘You need to come down here and check these guys out.’ “
Simond says Askey took Diana Ross to see the Jackson 5 and they were soon signed to Motown. “Janet’s parents didn’t know I was related to Damita Jo,” says Simond, whose late wife, Ada DeBlanc Simond, was a noted author and activist.
Damita Jo’s Austin relatives were important to her. She spent a few weeks in Austin in 1983 when her aunt Audrey DeBlanc Shannon was dying of cancer. “I spent almost every day with her,” says Dukes, who was in college at the time. “She was very unassuming, but if I prodded her, she’d tell stories about all the celebrities she had worked with — Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, Count Basie, Billie Holiday — people like that.”
Damita Jo’s life had its share of tragedies. Her mother died when she was 19 and she moved back to Austin, ditching dreams of Hollywood stardom to be near relatives and to attend Samuel Huston College. In 1970, her father was shot to death by a man he’d lent money to who didn’t want to repay. Eight months pregnant and living in Baltimore, a grieving Damita Jo was forbidden by doctors to travel to the funeral.
The daughter she gave birth to in 1970 died of sickle cell anemia at age 3. Damita Jo was on the road when she got the news. After that, she rarely toured and doted on her only son, John Jeffrey Wood, whose father, Biddy, married Damita Jo in 1961 and managed her career.
Her first husband was band leader Steve Gibson, whose Red Caps featured Damita Jo as lead vocalist. The couple divorced in 1958 after four years of marriage.
Signed to a solo deal with Mercury, Damita Jo hit the pop charts in late 1960 with “I’ll Save the Last Dance For You.” Six months later she had a No. 12 pop hit with “I’ll Be There,” a response to “Stand By Me.” Ironically, “I’ll Be There” was also the name of a Jackson 5 hit, though the tunes are different.
The pop hits stopped there, as Damita Jo transformed herself into a portrait of elegance, singing jazz standards at swanky bistros and casino nightclubs for the remainder of her career. She recorded several albums for the Mercury and Epic labels.
Mayor Lester Palmer declared May 9, 1967 “Damita Jo Day” when the singer returned to her hometown to perform.
Damita Jo retired from performing in 1984, after an eight-week run with Joey Bishop in Atlantic City.
Twenty years later, the name “Damita Jo” is everywhere — on TV shows, on billboards, in full page ads in trade publications. It may currently refer to Janet Jackson’s middle name and sexy alter ego, but seeing and hearing that name again so prominently has also rekindled many memories among those who knew the original Damita Jo.
“She was everyone’s favorite person,” Dukes recalls. “She was the family’s little china doll.”
KENNY DORHAM: Be-Bop royalty from East Austin
This town is a country and blues burg, a rock-without-borders haven, a place that embraces songwriters who can make poetry from their past. But you don’t hear much about Austin’s legacy as a jazz town. It’s quite amazing, then, to realize that a pair of Austinites, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and bassist Gene Ramey, not only backed the likes of Charlie Parker and Lester Young, but played on many of the late-’40’s and early-’50s Thelonious Monk sessions one critic called “among the most significant and original in modern jazz.” To go from the all-black L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin to 52nd Street in Manhattan and play with the best is a trek that only talent can guide. But Dorham and Ramey, who both picked up a lot of session work by knowing how to best shade the outline of the spotlight, are not widely known except to jazz aficionados. Dorham, who died of a kidney disease in 1972 at 48, was in the shadow of the three top trumpet players of the bop era: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro. But he’d settle for the “thinking man’s trumpet player” tag.
Those on the panel to decide who will be the first 10 inductees in the Austin Music Memorial, which will be unveiled on a terrace of the Long Center in March 2008, will make a gutsy, yet justifiable move if they choose two jazz figures in that first group.
But if only one jazzman can be chosen this first year, make it Dorham, who, unlike Ramey, was part of a music scene while he lived in Austin. Originally a sax player, Ramey (1913-1984) went to Anderson before it had a band and didn’t even learn how to play the bass until he moved to Kansas City as a young man.
Dorham was part of a group of young horn-blowing cats who’d sneak off after band practice, away from the authoritative glare of Sousa-lovin’ band director B.L. Joyce, to play improvisational jazz in the backyard of Roy and Alvin Patterson at 1709 Washington Ave. Also in that horn circle were Gil Askey, who would go on to be the top horn arranger at Motown; trombonist Buford Banks (Martin’s father); and a pair of swinging trumpet players, Paris Jones and Rip Ross.
In a 2004 interview with the American-Statesman, Alvin Patterson (who would replace Joyce as Anderson’s band director in 1955) recalled Dorham as a quiet, deep fellow who was “very thoughtful and perceptive.” Dorham would often defer to the older players, especially Hermie Edwards, who everyone knew was the baddest horn player on the East Side.
After high school, Dorham attended Wiley College in Marshall, where he majored in chemistry. But after only a year in college, Dorham was drafted into the Army. He was discharged in 1943.
Dorham’s first gig was in California with the Russell Jacquet Orchestra, according to Dave Oliphant’s Texan Jazz (University of Texas Press). Dorham got his big break in 1945 when he replaced Navarro in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra, the first bop big band, from whose ranks flowed the likes of Parker, Davis, Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan.
Patterson met up with his former marching band mate when Dorham was playing with Eckstine’s band in Boston. “He used to copy Erskine Hawkins,” Patterson recalled of the Anderson days. “Kenny loved to play that ‘Tuxedo Junction.’ But he started getting into his own thing.”
On Christmas Eve 1948, Miles Davis couldn’t make a gig with the Charlie Parker Quintet, so he recommended Dorham as a replacement. The gig lasted two years, including a sensational stint in 1949 in Paris, at that city’s first international jazz festival.
Although Dorham played with Parker on the sax great’s final public performance in 1955, he spent most of the early ’50s freelancing for Monk, Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt and others. In 1954, he co-founded the highly influential Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey.
Later, Dorham led several of his own groups, recording such highly regarded albums as “Afro Cuban” in 1955, “Jazz Contrasts” in ’57, and his most highly regarded LP, “Una Mas,” in ’63.
“In Miles’ autobiography, he writes about what an underrated player Kenny Dorham was,” says Thomas Heflin, whose New Six Jazz Project plays a birthday tribute to Dorham on Thursday at the Elephant Room. “He wasn’t flashy like Dizzy (Gillespie) or quite as stylish as Miles, but there was so much lyricism in the way Dorham articulated notes.”
With such tenderness and vulnerability in his dark tones, Dorham has been called the most poetic of trumpet players. “He embodied the Blue Note era,” Heflin says, in reference to the signature label of 1950s and ’60s jazz.
He was also a bluesy singer on occasion, wrote the jazz standard “Blue Bossa,” and he helped discover and nurture young talent such as tenor sax player Joe Henderson.
Patterson, who recently passed away, was able to hang out with Dorham one last time, when Dorham returned home to play the 1966 Longhorn Jazz Fest at the old Disch Field. Also booked at the festival were John Coltrane, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elvin Jones, Dave Brubeck and ex-Austinite Teddy Wilson.
That’s right, Austin can also lay (tentative) claim to Billie Holiday’s favorite piano man, Wilson, who crossed the color line in 1935 when he joined the Benny Goodman Trio (with drummer Gene Krupa). The son of schoolteachers, Wilson was born here, but moved to Alabama at age 6 when his father got a job teaching at the Tuskegee Institute.
Dorham and Ramey, along with Nat King Cole’s guitarist Oscar Moore, are the greatest representatives of Austin to the jazz world because their playing was in service to the song. Dorham gets special mention here because he influenced Martin Banks, who played trumpet in the house band of the Apollo Theater, and who passed the trumpet torch to the next generation of Austin players, including Ephraim Owens.
There’s always going to be a new generation of deep-thinking cats to keep Dorham’s legacy alive.
ELMER AKINS, THE FATHER OF NOT JUST EDUCATOR CHARLES BUT THE AUSTIN GOSPEL SCENE
Here’s an important documentary on longtime KVET gospel DJ and concert promoter Elmer Akins (1911-1998). Includes some rare footage of A.C. Littlefield singing “Let’s Talk About Jesus” with the Bells of Joy.
LET’S TALK ABOUT…BELLS OF JOY AND LAVADA DURST
They piled into a station wagon, with no real goal except that they were going to Houston to make a record. They didn’t even have a name, needing a new one because there was another group making records called the Starlight Singers. By the end of the year, these six young men from Austin would have the biggest gospel hit of 1951. “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by the Bells Of Joy, the name they picked out of a hat, sold more than a million copies, even more than the biggest hits by their idols, the Soul Stirrers or the gospel queen Mahalia Jackson.
With a drum beat, extremely rare for a gospel quartet record of the era, and harmony vocals that jubilantly bounced back responses to A.C. Littlefield’s smooth lead, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” was irresistible, the biggest spiritual crossover hit until the Edwin Hawkins Singers released “Oh Happy Day” in 1969.
More than a half century later — a few days before the Bells Of Joy will gather for two Sunday gospel brunch shows at Stubb’s — baritone singer A.D. Watson, the lone original member, sits on a friend’s Clarksville porch, just down from the Sweet Home Baptist Church, where the group first sang publicly, and reminisces. “We rehearsed every other day for three weeks, so we knew the material inside and out,” he says of the fruitful session in Houston.
The group, rounded out by A.C.’s brother Ester Littlefield (tenor), co-leads Vernon Manor and Clem Reed and bass singer and guitarist Namon Brown, was to lay down nine songs in two days. “When we got to the studio and they had us all separated with partitions. A.C.’s mike was way back in the end of a hall,” recalls Watson. “We had always sang side by side, so we were a little nervous. But once they said ‘roll it,’ we locked right in together.”
The drum was the idea of Peacock label owner Don Robey, who signed the Bells at the 1408 Ulit Ave. home of KVET’s Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst, the first black disc jockey in Texas (hired by future Gov. John Connally after he heard Durst announce the Negro League games at Disch Field). Also a skilled musician, Durst
wrote “Let’s Talk About Jesus,” Watson says, but gave A.C. Littlefield the writer’s credit. “Lavada was a blues man, see, and back then you couldn’t serve both the devil and the Lord.”To complicate matters further, the Littlefields’ father Ira owned the rough-and-tumble blues joint I.L. Club on E. 11th.
Born in 1913, Durst came of age during the boogie woogie piano craze of the early 1930s with such Austin contemporaries as Black Tank, Boots Walton and Baby Dotson. But his greatest influence was the great barrelhouse player Robert “Fud” Shaw who moved to Austin from outside Sugarland in 1933 to play juke joints in the wake of Prohibition’s repeal.
By the ealy ’50’s, Durst was the Man here in Austin due to his radio success and served as a silent negotiator for the Bells when they met with Robey, an infamously shady mogul, who became interested in the Bells when they tore it up at a gospel convention in Houston in early ’51. “Lavada said that if he nodded, to go ahead and sign the contract,” says Watson. The Bells opted for royalties rather than to sell their songs to Robey outright, which would’ve been a wise decision except that Robey never paid the royalties.
Instead Robey bought the Bells a brand-new Oldsmobile Delta 88 and sent them out on the gospel highway for almost 18 months solid. “When we signed the deal, it wasn’t just for recording, it was for booking,” Watson says. “Robey told us, straight up, if this record hits, y’all gonna have to quit your jobs and leave your family for a spell.” Leaving their custodial and porter jobs was no problem, especially since the members were making more than a month’s salary, as much as $500 a man per night, when they performed in package shows with Peacock label mates The Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi, as well as Soul Stirrers, Pilgrim Travelers, Swan Silvertones and others.
But the road wasn’t without potholes, especially since many in the national gospel scene resented the Bells’ instant success. “There was some grumbling,” Watson says. “You had all these great groups plugging away 10, 15 years without any kind of hit like we had on our first single.”
But a pair of Texas-raised quartets, the Soul Stirrers and the Pilgrim Travelers, smoothed the jealous waters when they could and gave the Bells some touring pointers. “They told us to never stop in small towns in the South; to get our gas and our food in the big cities, where there were black folks,” Watson says.
The group learned another lesson on their own. “See, we used to drive around with a sign that said ‘Bells Of Joy’ on our car,” Watson recalls. “But then we found out that motels would raise their prices when we pulled in. Everybody would come out and go, ‘You guys are the Bells Of Joy? You’re big stars!’ ” The sign came down in New Orleans after the group realized they were paying $7 a room, while the other guests were charged $4.
A suggestion from the Stirrers and Travelers that the Bells didn’t take was to move to a bigger city with a thriving gospel scene. The Trinity-born Stirrers were the rage of Chicago and the Houston-based Travelers had really taken off after relocating to Los Angeles.
But the Bells, who would prove to be one-hit wonders, stayed in Austin and pushed their career to sideline status, a decision Watson says none of the members ever regretted. “We was married people and we had families. None of us wanted our kids to be raised by only one parent. That’s when they start to get in trouble.”
Ironically, it was a secularized interpretation of “Let’s Talk About Jesus” and other quartet stompers that helped make the Bells’ style passe. In 1955, Ray Charles replaced the propulsive harmonies of “Talk About Jesus” with driving piano and “I Got a Woman” became his first hit. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, former church singers, would take Pentecostal fire to the pop charts and doo-wop singers would bring a streetlight glow to the quartet style. Gospel music no longer had a lock on a fever pitch. Singers were wailing on national TV.
For the next three decades, the Bells rarely played public concerts, concentrating instead on church performances and taking jobs as custodians, grocery sackers and cooks to pay the bills. Watson got a job as a maintenance man at City Hall, where he’d work for 28 years until retiring in 1986.
The group’s activity revved up in the late ’80s when there was renewed interest in vintage gospel sounds. Vernon Manor had retired from the group, to be replaced by Alton Cyphers. When group leader A.C. Littlefield passed away in January 1999, the Bells forged on.
Willis Littlefield, the nephew of A.C. and Ester, runs the band’s business today from the family homestead in the former all-black community of Clarksville. His house on West 12th Street, a shot put from the swank Jeffrey’s restaurant, is on the original two acres former slave Charles Clark purchased for $100 in 1871 to create a freedman settlement. Next door to Willis’ house is an overgrown vacant lot where Seymour Washington’s blacksmith shop used to be. “That’s where all the old-timers used to chew the fat,” says Watson, whose family moved to the neighborhood from Brenham in 1943. A.C. and Ester Littlefield grew up a block away, on a circle that no longer exists.
Construction of MoPac Boulevard displaced 26 African-American families in the ’70s. But the next decade’s development boom moved out even more blacks, who could no longer afford to live in the former rural community of outhouses and kerosene lamps, which had become a yuppie haven. The family milk cow was replaced by trendy coffee shops. “We’re one of the few black families left,” says Willis.
Likewise, the Bells Of Joy are one of the few “golden age” gospel quartet holdouts, still performing in the old style in an era of choirs, synthesizers and funky bass. Willis says his next quest is to chase down some of the royalties owed. Even though “Let’s Talk About Jesus” is included on several gospel anthologies, and still garners airplay on Sunday gospel programs, Willis says the group rarely receives residuals. “The checks we do get are so small they’re hardly worth cashing,” he says.
“If the money comes, it comes,” says Watson. “I ain’t worried ’bout it. We never sang for the money anyway.”
ISRAEL FONTAINE: JACOB’S GRANDSON PLAYED WITH SATCHMO
On this, the 100th birthday of the greatest musical genius America has ever produced, it’s appropriate to recall all that Louis Armstrong has given us. Besides presaging swing with his work in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1924 and laying the foundation for bebop with his flights of improvisation, Armstrong was the most influential singer of his time, inventing a whole language of sound. He gave sophistication to jazz, and there’s not a player today who doesn’t make use of something created by Satchmo, as he was called for his “satchel mouth.” New Orleans just renamed its airport for the fifth-grade dropout, who died in his sleep in 1971 while recuperating from a heart attack.
And in a small house in East Austin, a 91-year-old man has memories of a more personal nature. “Grits and gravy,” says Israel Jacob Fontaine, with a scratchy laugh. “As soon as we’d walk in a restaurant Louis Armstrong would say, ‘Gimme some grits and gravy.’ Man loved to eat.”
Fontaine, the grandson of Travis County’s first African American publisher, Jacob Fontaine, met Armstrong in early 1931 when Armstrong played the Cotton Club. The dance hall (previously home to the Royal Auditorium) at 817 E. 11th St. is now a vacant lot. After hearing the opening act, the Dixie Musicmakers, Armstrong asked Fontaine, the band’s trumpet player, if he wanted to join his 14-piece touring band. “Of course I said yes,” Fontaine says. “I knew there was a lot I could learn from him. I’d never heard anyone play the horn like that before.” Austin High senior Tommy Hill remembers standing behind a rope at the Cotton Club with the handful of other white kids, amazed at the powerful performance. “He played 20 choruses of ‘Tiger Rag,’ ” recalls the 87-year-old. “He was sweatin’ like crazy, with a white towel across his back, but he just kept playing.” A local radio station broadcast Armstrong’s Cotton Club performances, and when the bandleader sent a message to his mother in New Orleans, Fontaine had to tell him that those airwaves didn’t go any farther than the Austin area.
Armstrong returned to Austin for an appearance at the Driskill Hotel on Oct. 12, 1931. The show was noted in Ken Burns’ “Jazz” documentary and accompanying book. In the audience that night was Charles L. Black, who would later be plaintiffs’ attorney in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (Topeka, Kan.) decision that ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional. Armstrong was just starting to gain national recognition in 1931. Five years earlier, he had a couple of minor hits with his Hot Five studio band, including “Heebie Jeebies.”
Then in late 1929 he had his first major hit, a version of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” from Broadway’s “Hot Chocolates” revue. He also wrote the pop smash “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” but he sold the rights for $50. The way Armstrong made most of his money was playing live, but early on he couldn’t afford the talents of session players like Earl Hines and Kid Ory, so he put together pickup bands or fronted existing outfits. It wasn’t until mid-1931 in Chicago that Armstrong assembled his first full-time big band (which would, two years later, feature Austin-born piano man Teddy Wilson). But before that, he’d given youngsters like Fontaine the times of their lives.
“He just loved people,” says Fontaine, whose step-grandson, former University of San Francisco basketball All-American Orlando Smart, drives in from Pflugerville every morning to fix breakfast for him and also takes him to his dialysis appointments. “That’s what I remember most (about Armstrong) — him always being in a good mood. He had a big ol’ smile for everyone.”
The band traveled by train, segregated from white passengers, but if the racism of the times bothered Armstrong, he didn’t show it, Fontaine says. By the time a homesick Fontaine returned to live in Austin after a few weeks on the road, Armstrong’s star was on the rise, along with his asking price. “There was a small club in East Austin called the Blue Knights, and they took a collection to try to get Louis Armstrong to play,” Fontaine recalls. “They wrote him a letter that said they could pay him $100 to play, and he wrote back and said he’d play for $100, but they’d have to come up with a lot more money to also get the band.” After working for a printer for several years and playing music at Rosewood Park on Saturday nights, Fontaine followed a family tradition by starting a newspaper in 1938 called the Austin Express.
His father George, who’d died a year earlier, founded the Silver Messenger, and in 1876 George’s father, Jacob Fontaine, published the first issue of the Gold Dollar at 2402 San Gabriel St., in the heart of the freedman’s settlement of Wheatsville. A slave for the first 57 years of his life, Jacob named his paper after the gold coin his sister gave him when he was freed in 1865. Two years later, he organized Austin’s First Baptist Church for Colored and in 1873 the Mount Zion Baptist Church. “I gave up playing jazz in 1943 when I joined the ministry,” Israel Fontaine says.
That year he married his wife Dora Lee (who died in 1976) and took a job with a printing company in Fort Worth. When Fontaine returned to Austin in 1959, he led the parish at another church his grandfather founded, St. Stephen’s Waters Park. “Preaching and publishing — that’s in my blood,” he says. When he turned 90, this seventh of nine kids received a congratulatory letter from State Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin. But giving true perspective to his longevity were not Dukes’ words, but a remembrance. “Me and my wife used to baby-sit Ben Dukes, Dawnna’s daddy,” he says with a big ol’ smile.
THE L.C. ANDERSON HIGH YELLOWJACKETS
Trumpet players blew so hard to produce the slightest spit of sound that they almost passed out. Drummers snapped their sticks with all the rhythmic sense of a pair of tennis shoes in the dryer. The honks of confusion rang out in the music room on the first day of band practice.
It was 1950 and Austin native Alvin Patterson, a 27-year-old recent graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, sat in his office at Douglass High School in El Paso and wondered what he’d gotten himself into. The school had never had a band before. His thoughts turned to his mentor, B.L. Joyce, the larger-than-life band director at L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin.
Patterson wondered how the man he called “Prof” would handle the situation. He took a deep breath, thrust the door of his office open and stood firmly before his musical beginners, but the dissonance barely dispersed.
THWACK! Patterson brought his baton down hard on a table top. The room froze. “Rule number one,” Patterson intoned, sternly. “When I step up to the podium I want to be able to hear a pin drop.”
Patterson sits in his home office/Anderson High museum in East Austin and smiles at the memory. “I always thought Mr. Joyce was maybe a little too strict until I had to control a room full of kids with noisemakers in their hands,” says the 81-year-old recent retiree. “You’ve gotta demand discipline and respect or there’s gonna be chaos.”
The Anderson High School Yellow Jacket Band, whose lofty alumni include bop trumpet great Kenny Dorham and former Motown arranger Gil Askey, had only two directors in its 38-year history. Joyce founded the band in 1933 and ruled it with an iron baton until Patterson took over in 1955, when the old man was forced to resign because of a new statewide regulation that required high school band directors to have music degrees. That Joyce, who got his college degree in tailoring from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, didn’t step down voluntarily made for a rough return for Patterson.
“We gave (Patterson) some grief that first year,” says Joseph Reid, who played clarinet in Joyce’s last and Patterson’s first bands. “If there was anybody you could call a legend in East Austin during that time, it was B.L. Joyce.” Imagine replacing Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama or taking over “The Tonight Show” after Johnny Carson’s retirement. Several band members quit after Patterson’s first practices. But the 1940 Anderson grad didn’t shy from the challenge and was eventually able to carve his own imposing legacy until federal orders to desegregate closed Anderson, Austin’s historically black high school, in 1971.
Long before Janis Joplin sang at Threadgill’s and Willie Nelson got the heads and ‘necks together at the Armadillo, Austin’s reputation as a music town was forged by the Anderson High School band. Resplendent in uniforms as bright as a September sunrise, the Yellow Jacket Band would trek to the annual Prairie View Interscholastic League competitions and invariably come back with a trophy. Under Joyce’s directorship, the Jacket band won the state championship seven times from 1940-1953.
“If we got second place it was a big disappointment,” says Ernie Mae Miller, a tenor sax player with the band from 1940-43, who went on to a lengthy career as a singer/pianist. “We just sounded better than the other bands. When they called our name as the winner, we were like, ‘Of course!’ ”
For most of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the East Side was invisible to most of Austin’s West Siders. The predominantly black neighborhood on the other side of the freeway might as well have been a town far away. But when the Yellow Jacket Band marched down Congress Avenue, its presence was full and pronounced.
They would span the full width of the street, causing rubberneckers to jump back on the curb or else be swallowed up in their swagger of brass. “We felt like we were representing not only our school, but our entire community,” says Reid, who heads the Original L.C. Anderson Alumni Association. “When we sang our school song (‘When the days are dark and dreary/We are never blue or weary/ It’s ever onward, upward, forward, marching AHS’), we really meant it.”
The Yellow Jackets were the first black band to march at a Texas inauguration, for Gov. John Connally in 1959. They were the first all-black band to play in the Austin Aqua Festival parade a few years later.
Besides Dorham, Miller and Askey, more than two dozen future band directors, including Ray Murphy (Hobbs, N.M.), T.W. Kincheon (Caldwell High), Richard Elder (Taylor High) and John Whitehurst (Boulder, Colo.), passed through the ranks, but then so did such notables as Travis County tax collector Nelda Wells Spears, Dr. James Hill (chief of the University of Texas community relations department), John Q. Taylor King (former Huston-Tillotson College president and head of King Tears Mortuary), longtime H-T music department head Beulah Curry Jones and educator Charles Akins, who became the first black principal of a predominantly white high school in Austin in 1973.
“Teach the whole person. That’s what I learned from Mr. Joyce,” says Patterson, who spent 32 more years in education after the original L.C. Anderson High closed. (The current Anderson High, at 8403 Mesa Drive on the West Side, was built in 1973.) “Being in the band was more than just playing the right notes. It was about building character and leadership skills. If you didn’t toe the line, we’d put you out of the band in a second.”
Jazz turns the tide
A tailor who made custom suits out of his house at 1706 E. 14th St. and taught the trade at Samuel Huston College, Benjamin Leo Joyce was also a musician who played tuba in the Army band during World War I. With a desire to give black students the same kind of musical training given in the white schools, Joyce started canvassing East Austin in late 1932 looking for kids who wanted to play. He also solicited neglected instruments. An Austin trumpeter, William Timmons, had been teaching a community band over at the youth center on Angelina Street but he was soon off to join the Ringling Bros. circus band. Joyce recruited four Timmons students — Alvin Patterson’s older brother Roy, Hermie Edwards, Ulysses Fowler and Raymond Edmondson — as the core of his first AHS band.
Joyce made the uniforms that first year; no beginning band ever looked so snappy.
The players were expected to carry themselves in a manner consistent with their sartorial splendor. “Mr. Joyce didn’t put up with an ounce of foolishness,” says Ernie Mae Miller, whose grandfather Laurine Cecil Anderson was the school’s namesake. “You couldn’t play no jazz either.”
Joyce bent his strict “no jazz” rule only one time that Patterson could remember. “We were playing football against Wheatley (the archrival from San Antonio) and they were beatin’ us,” he recalls. “But even worse, their band was showing us up, playing all these hot big band swing numbers. So Mr. Joyce called me over and said, ‘What was that swing thing you were playing the other day when you thought I was out of listening range?’ I said that was ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s hear it.’ ” The band also did Cab Calloway’s “Fat Foot Flewzy.”
Miller, who was also in the band at the time, recalls that the crowd went nuts when the precise, militaristic Yellow Jackets of marches and grand overtures turned to swing and jazz. “It lit a fire under the football team, too. We ended up winning the game,” she says, with a hearty laugh.
When Patterson was in the band with Dorham and Askey, the trio and such friends as trombonist Buford Banks (father of noted local jazzman Martin Banks) and trumpeters Paris Jones and Warner “Rip” Ross would meet in the back yard of Patterson’s house at 1709 Washington Ave. to play improvisational jazz. Though Dorham went on to iconic status, replacing Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948 and co-founding the influential Jazz Messengers in 1954, he often deferred to the older players in the back yard jam sessions, especially Hermie Edwards, recognized as the baddest horn player in East Austin at the time. “Kenny was quiet, deep,” Patterson recalls. “Very thoughtful and perceptive.”
After being drafted into the Navy in 1942 and stationed in Boston, where his job was playing “Taps” as the body bags from World War II were unloaded, Patterson met up with Dorham when the trumpet player was in Billy Eckstine’s band. “He used to copy Erskine Hawkins when we’d jam in Austin,” Patterson says, “but he started getting into his own thing.”
Dorham, known for his dark trumpet tone and graceful melodic flights, died in 1972. But Patterson was able to hang with him one more time, when Dorham returned home, with fellow native Austinite Teddy Wilson and an all-star cast, including John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Dave Brubeck, to play the 1966 Longhorn Jazz Fest at the old Disch Field (next to City Coliseum).
When Askey made his triumphant return to Austin in the mid-’60s, he brought a trio of singers from Detroit to a party at the Hamilton Avenue home of his mother, Ada Simonds. “Everybody was pretty much focused on the Supremes,” Patterson recalls of the special guests. Askey’s credits include arranging and producing the likes of Curtis Mayfield, the Four Tops and the soundtrack to “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Whatever success Askey achieved, he was quick to credit Joyce. When the old man passed away in 1980, Askey, who currently lives in Australia, wrote a poem called “I Am an Extension of Him” for the funeral program. “Mr. Joyce lives on in the things I do, for without him there’d be no me,” it ends.
The impeccably-dressed, well-spoken Joyce came from an era, Reid says, when educators were bigger heroes in East Austin than footballers or singers. “The legends you heard about growing up were Miss (Lucille) Frazier, the English teacher and Mr. (Lawrence) Britton, the track coach,” says Reid. “Even going back to when I was in elementary school, the older kids would say, ‘Just wait until you’ve gotta take Mr. Pickard’s science class.’ Anderson High was the thread that kept the community together.”
The school was all black until the late ’50s when a handful of Hispanics attended. The first white student to graduate from Anderson was in 1970. The next year, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that favored busing as a preferred method of integration, the federal government sued the Austin school district and ordered district schools to desegregate. As the first federal suit following the Supreme Court decision, the Austin case was a national news story for several months.
AISD’s decision in July 1971 to comply by closing Anderson High, which had fewer than 20 nonblack students (out of a student body of about 800), “just devastated us all,” says Patterson.
The one-way busing — with black students sent to white schools, but white students not sent to black schools — especially rankled East Austinites. On the first day of the new school year, 121 former Anderson High students did not report to their new schools.
“It’s like they ripped the heart out of East Austin,” says Reid. “You wanna know when the neighborhood started going downhill? It’s when they closed Anderson.”
Patterson moved to McCallum High School, where many of the black students were bused, and remained a counselor in the community relations department until 1984, when he took a position as assistant to the dean at St. Edward’s University. He retired last June at age 80. Fittingly, a Juneteenth parade of marching bands ended at Patterson’s doorstep in East Austin, a show of appreciation for the 16 years he led the best high school marching band in Texas.
The building at 1607 Pennsylvania Ave. that housed Anderson High School from 1913-1953 burned down 20 years ago. Kealing Junior High now sits on the site. The original Olive Street location of Anderson (1907-1913) — which was originally named E.H. Anderson High for L.C.’s older brother — burned down in 1947.
But the brick building on Thompson Street, which housed L.C. Anderson High (renamed after the 1938 passing of its first principal) from 1953-1971, still stands. Anderson alum Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson has restored the running track and the football field on the west side of the school, but the building, which now holds the Boys & Girls Club and an alternative learning center, does not resemble a place that once anchored an entire community.
Sometimes when Patterson drives on that street, his mind brakes for memories. Other times he drives by and looks away, not wanting to revisit what used to be.
But it’s a special place, this building where Joyce passed him the baton, where he became a father figure to a family of students, just like the old man had been.
“Mr. Joyce was as strict as they come — you sure didn’t want to feel his wrath,” Patterson says. “But I think you’ll find that, deep down, kids want someone riding them, demanding the best out of them.”
The fumbling disorder of a band practice can, with the right guidance, evolve into the sweetest sound.
PASSING THE TOUCH: SIMON SIDLE’S ANTIQUE FAMILY
Charles “Lucky” Attal looks back to 1959 and wonders if his life would have been different if he’d happened upon that garage sale on East 11th Street just a few minutes later and the bowl marked 50 cents had already been sold. Would he have gone into the antique business if he hadn’t brought his find to Red River Street antique dealer Theresa Mays, who took a long look at the beautiful blue glass-cut bowl and offered the skinny Austin High School student $100.“That was when I realized I could make a living buying and selling antiques,” says Attal, who had aspired to be a criminal defense attorney after college. Instead, he opened his first antique shop in 1965 and today is one of the state’s most prominent appraisers.
A hundred bucks was a lot of money in the ’50s — Attal says he would’ve been happy to get $10 — but Mays was guided by a simple philosophy: “Buy right, sell right.” And Attal kept coming back to Tannie’s and Theresa’s Antiques at 1122 Red River, one of several black-owned shops on the strip north of East Sixth Street. “Theresa knew the business inside and out,” Attal said.
That a soft-spoken Lebanese American teen-ager and a spunky middle-age African American would form a bond is not unusual when you realize that the antique business is built on intersecting lives. As the chair once owned by a blacksmith sits in the foyer of an Old Enfield mansion, it holds a connection to the past.
Theresa used to say you’re never alone in a room with antiques. They talk to you. They tell you their stories.
The tale of Theresa Sidle Mays Hardeman, who passed away in December 1999, will be told through her artifacts next month when Attal Galleries handles her estate sale. Helping Attal, the student going full circle on his mentor, get ready is Theresa’s niece Dorothy McPhaul, who says, “I’m the last in the line.” Her family has been in the Austin antique business since grandfather Simon Sidle opened a shop on Red River in 1920. McPhaul owns Johnnie’s Antiques, the shop at 911 E. Sixth Street where Theresa and Dorothy’s mother Ilesta moved in 1973 after their Red River storefronts were torn down. On the side of the building the pair proudly painted “Simon’s Daughters.” Today the shop is open on an appointment-only basis.
McPhaul remembers going to her grandfather’s shop at 1302 Red River when she was 8 or 9, not to marvel, but to manipulate. “Papa was kinda tight with his money, so whenever I needed a dollar to go to a show or something, I’d start picking up his finest items. Papa loved his glassware and his figurines and he’d get so worried that I’d break something that he’d give me a dollar just to get rid of me.”
They called him Ole Simon even when he was middle-aged because he seemed to have a way about him that suggested wiseness beyond his years. Simon Sidle (originally spelled “Seidel” after the Brenham family that owned his parents, Isaac and Mary, as slaves), moved his wife, Emma, and family from Pflugerville to Austin in 1918, just months after the birth of his ninth child, Theresa. After working for a white junkman named Mr. Noyes for a couple years, Sidle pioneered the Red River antique district, opening at 807 Red River in a building, ironically enough, which is currently co-owned by Charles Attal Jr. It was there that, while polishing for her father, a love for ancient objects rubbed off on Theresa. But even as the eager 6-year-old wanted the merchandise to sparkle, her father was telling her to leave it alone. McPhaul says her grandfather always believed that a little bit of dust added atmosphere to the shop.
“Ilethia (Theresa’s real name) was definitely Daddy’s girl,” says McPhaul. While the rest of the brood, which would reach 13 kids, loved to climb trees and watch the cattle being driven up East Avenue (now I-35), Theresa jumped at every chance to accompany her father on buying trips out in the country. Theresa began a lifelong passion for old photographs and tintypes when, at age 11, she took care of an elderly white woman whose son was a photographer. “I cut her toenails, combed her hair, played with her. She was my baby,” Theresa said in the book “African American Photography In Texas,” which devoted a chapter to her. “I always loved old folks a lot.”
Sidle often used games to teach his daughter the finer parts of the trade, covering his eyes and telling certain materials apart using only the sense of touch. It was a skill Theresa soon picked up, identifying woods by their grain. As he turned the corner on 70 , Simon’s eyesight started failing and his fingers guided him through his transactions. Unable to drive, he sold his second shop, at 1302 Red River, and opened a place closer to home, at Chicon and 12th streets. “Papa always said that when he left Red River he would pass away,” says McPhaul. “That street was his life.”
In January ’54, a year after moving, Simon Sidle died in his sleep at 74.
The patriarch of Austin’s first family of antiques lived on in the street that had become a reflection of his passion. Today the strip is one of trendy clubs, restaurants and Symphony Square, but in the ’60s there were more than a dozen antique stores and junk shops on Red River from Sixth to 13th, with such colorful names as Snooper’s Paradise, Fairyland Antiques and William’s Do-Rite Shop.
But no shop had quite the personality or merchandise of Tannie and Theresa’s Antiques. “Her hands were undoubtedly Theresa’s greatest assets,” says former Huston-Tillotson administrator Margaret McCracken, a friend for 50 years. “She handled objects as if she possessed magical sensitivity.”
Theresa and Tannie, who never had children together, opened their first storefront at 1204 Red River in 1946. The place was a veritable shack, with no electricity, no water, no gas. But it did have a rat that the couple named Tweety. Tannie and Theresa, who collected racist knicknacks as a reminder of their roots, also set up at antique shows all over the country. Among hundreds of exhibitors they were often the only African Americans.
After inheriting her father’s antiques, Theresa and Tannie found a bigger shop at 1122 Red River and remained there for 19 years. In 1963, after losing her leg in an automobile accident, older sister Ilesta had to quit her job as a domestic for the H.R. Northroup family and find a new line of work. The family business beckoned, so she opened Johnnie’s Swap Shop with with her husband Johnnie Alexander, next door to Tannie and Theresa’s.
The buildings, which sat on the edge of what is now Waterloo Park, were condemned and torn down in 1973 as part of the urban renewal campaign that accompanied the building of Brackenridge Hospital. It was a rough time for Theresa, who a year earlier had lost her beloved Tannie to tetanus poisoning after he stepped on a rusty nail. After a period of grieving those two losses, Theresa dug into a project she’d dreamed about for years. In 1974 she married longtime family friend George Hardeman and with material she and Tannie had been collecting, including railroad ties for the beams and signed bricks for the floor, they went to work building a house like none other. The patchwork architecture, which included woodwork from the old Scarbrough House and a pressed tin ceiling from the old Lampassas Court House rated a two-page feature (“In the House That Theresa Built”) in a 1980 issue of Antiques USA.
“Everything in her house was antique, right down to the kitchen utensils and the wood stove,” says Dorothy, who plans to put the house in far East Austin on the market next month.
Theresa Mays Hardeman became wheelchair bound in 1993, but she rarely missed a Citywide Garage Sale or any other antique show. Against doctor’s orders, Theresa set up at a show one week before her death at age 81. “It was just in her blood,” says McPhaul. “Antiques and the Lord, that was her life.”
It takes a certain drive, a voracious appetite for the old and authentic, to make a living in the antiques business. “The hunt is a bigger thrill than the sale,” says Attal summing up the allure. That’s why Ole Simon liked his precious items to sleep in the dust. That’s why his daughters loved to watch their customers squeal after pushing aside a crate to find that missing item for their collection.
As a little girl putting pieces of wood in the hand of a blindfolded man, Theresa Sidle understood just how important the sense of touch is in all this. After all, what are antiques if not history you can hold.
Three generations in the antique business
Simon Sidle opened his first shop, Simon’s, at 807 Red River in 1920. Nine years later he moved to 1302 Red River, where he remained for 23 years. In late ’52, he moved Simon’s Antiques to the corner of 12th and Chicon streets. He died in January 1954.
Theresa Sidle Mays Hardeman and her first husband Tannie Mays opened their maiden storefront at 1204 Red River in 1946. After eight years in the shack without lights or heat, they relocated to 1122 Red River. That shop was torn down in 1973, and Theresa and her sister Ilesta operated out of the storefront at 911 E. Sixth St. until their deaths. Theresa passed away in December 1999.
Ilesta Sidle Alexander was a relative latecomer to the antiques trade, opening Johnnie’s Swap Shop with husband Johnnie Alexander next door to Tannie and Theresa’s in 1964. Looking for a new location in ’73, Ilesta moved into the 911 E. Sixth St. shop discovered by her daughter Dorothy. Ilesta died in 1997; husband Johnnie died in ’99.
Dorothy Alexander McPhaul, who was a coach and teacher in the La Grange ISD for 38 years, worked weekends in her mother’s shop on Red River and then East Sixth. When she retired from teaching in ’92, she devoted herself to the antique business full time and is currently training her son Tanny (named after his great-uncle Tannie, though opting for a different spelling) to take over the store.
BILL “THE MAILMAN” MARTIN AND AUSTIN’S FIRST FAMILY OF GOSPEL
Bill Martin, who married into the Franklins, Austin’s first family of gospel, delivered good news.
The night before East Austin’s legendary gospel announcer and promoter Bill “The Mailman” Martin was laid to rest in April 2014 at age 81, there was a musical memorial at the St. James Missionary Baptist Church on MLK pastored by his father-in-law E.M. Franklin from 1953 –1981. The songs were mournful, the speeches reverent on that Good Friday. Bill Martin was an actual mailman in East Austin for three decades before he took over for his mentor Elmer Akins as the face and voice of black gospel music in Austin, so he was doubly beloved. Sad to think that we’ll never again engage with Brother Bill, a man so full of life and care.
But gospel music does nothing if not lift you up when you’re down. In the midst of the musical tribute to the Mailman there was a Elgin preacher named Luchus McShann who got the crowd on its feet, urging him on, as he sang a ballad about Jesus in a haunting falsetto. When he squeezed out every bit of emotion on the last note of each line, spontaneously shrieks cut through the ominous atmosphere. Hands were shaking in the air. The huge auditorium filled with the spirit.
It was like the moments that changed the life of Bill Martin, who married into Austin sacred music royalty and was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame on his own in 2009.
He had grown up wanting to be a sax player like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young and moved to New York City after graduating from high school in Asheville, North Carolina. Martin passed an audition at Julliard, but he didn’t have the money, so he joined the Air Force during the Korean War with plans to attend Julliard on the G.I. Bill.
While stationed in 1953 at Bergstrom Air Force Base, where the Austin airport is now, he met a Huston-Tillotson student named Evelyn Franklin at her grocery store checkout job in East Austin and asked her out. “You gotta talk to my daddy first,” said Evelyn, who everyone called “Tutter.”
Can’t imagine there are too many things in life more intimidating than facing legendary East Austin preacher E.M. Franklin and asking him to entrust his daughter to you for an evening. The old man asked the airman what church he belonged to and when Martin said it wasn’t a member of any church, the audition was over. But Bill was in the front pew at St. James the next Sunday and he served the church with enthusiastic dedication for almost 60 years. Bill and Evelyn married in 1955 and stayed that way for 50 years. Evelyn passed away nine years ago.
She was a Franklin, back when that surname on the Eastside defined gospel music, not stand-in-line barbecue. E.M. Franklin was the family’s lightning rod. Born in 1910, one of 17 children of porter Ananias and Callie Franklin in the Pilot Knob community nine miles southeast of Austin, E.M. grew up in the church. He co-founded Austin’s first recorded gospel group, the Paramount Singers, with his brother A.C. in 1936.
Named after the theater on Congress Avenue which they couldn’t enter because of segregation, the Paramounts had a radio show on KTBC for five years and recorded for the Library of Congress in 1941.
The Chariottes, with Evelyn Franklin third from the left, briefly recorded for Duke Records.
World War II broke up the a capella group when the other co-founding brothers, Kermit and Geno Terrell, were drafted. Upon returning, the Terrells settled in Oakland and restarted the Paramount Singers with the fifth original member James Haywood Medlock. The Franklins decided to remain pastors of their churches — A.C. in Los Angeles and E.M. in Austin. Known to “wreck a house” with his passionate sermonizing and then move the throngs to tears as he sang his signature tune, “Yes, God Is Real,” A.C. preached alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1968. Everybody in Austin knew him as “Uncle Koot.”
Evelyn Franklin and her sister Dorothy were members of Austin’s first girl group, the Chariettes, who had a minor hit in 1953 on Houston’s Duke/Peacock label with “Step By Step.” Since some of the members were still in high school, they couldn’t hit the road, so Duke’s Don Robey dropped the group, which was managed by Lavada Durst. KVET’s jive-talking Dr. Hepcat was well-respected by Robey, who sold a million copies of Durst composition “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951.
It was the Gospel Highway or no way back in those days and Rev. E.M. Franklin no doubt wanted to keep his young daughters near him. (Years later, daughter Barbara Franklin went on the road with Ray Charles as a Raelette, which reportedly didn’t sit well with the Reverend.)
“We could’ve been the next Caravans,”Evelyn told me in 2000, when the Chariettes reunited for a 50th anniversary concert. (They were joined by an 82-year-old Rosie Lee “Miss Kitty” Alexander, one of the hottest piano players in town in the ‘40s and ‘50s.) “But there are no regrets.”
After a year of marriage, Bill hungered to give his musical dreams another shot and convinced Evelyn to move to New York City. He got a job driving a subway train and, at night, would tote his sax to jazz clubs in Harlem. But four years in the service left him rusty and his old musician pals, including nephew Johnny “Spider” Martin, had passed him in skill. But Martin was starting to become interested in gospel music, especially since the Mighty Clouds of Joy, featuring Evelyn’s brothers Ermant Jr. and Elmo, played the Apollo Theater every December. “Now, the Apollo was some place I dreamed of playing as a jazz musician,” Martin told me in 2001. “Seeing those gospel shows there opened my mind to the possibilities of where church music could be performed.”
After ten years of living in the South Bronx, just across the river from Harlem, the neighborhood started getting too dangerous and the Martins, who now had five children, moved back to Austin at Evelyn’s insistence in 1966. “I liked the New York pace,” Martin told me in 2001. “But what could I do?” He said he had never regretted the decision, however.
The ‘60s were a great time for Evelyn’s older brother Junior, who had become a major player in the national gospel scene by co-founding and managing the Mighty Clouds of Joy, as well as playing guitar and singing harmony. Junior Franklin moved to L.A. in the late ‘50s and started a new version of his Austin group Sensational Wonders, who played the same circuit as a teenage holy ghost shouter from Troy, AL named Willie Joe Ligon. What Ligon liked in the Wonders was a full band backing, unheard of in gospel at the time. In Ligon, Junior saw a singer who could match the intensity of June Cheeks and Archie Brownlee, the two greatest hard gospel voices of the ’50s. Together they became the Mighty Clouds of Joy, a group that revolutionized gospel music. They were called “The Temptations of Gospel” for their soul and choreography. But even more significantly was the funk bass lines they brought to religious music. Such current Texas gospel acts as the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers are direct descendants of that Motown gospel sound.
As much a Texas group as one from L.A., the Clouds made their first record in 1960 for Houston-based Peacock Records, having a hit right away with “Ain’t Got Long Here” (renamed “Stealing Away To Jesus” on some reissues). Though the Clouds, who had a disco hit in 1975 with “Mighty High,” were frowned upon by religious purists, they brought church to the charts while never losing the sanctifying conviction.
Junior Franklin moved back to Austin in ’79 to see after his ailing mother. At the time, Bill was delivering mail all over East Austin, then after work he’d get together with Elmer Akins, a man he met on his route. Also originally from Pilot Knob, Akins had the “Gospel Train” radio show on KVET from 1947 until his passing in ’98 and also promoted gospel concerts, usually at Doris Miller Auditorium. They’d attach a loudspeaker to the top of Akins’ car and Martin would drive while Akins barked. “The Soul Stirrers, with Austin boy James Medlock, are playing this Saturday night! With Shirley Caesar from the Caravans! Come to the program! It’s a joyful noise!” At the corner of 12th and Chicon, Martin would pull over as Akins, 21 years his senior, played records by upcoming acts over the loudspeaker.
What Martin didn’t learn from Akins he picked up from Junior Franklin, who went into the poster business after checking out a book about printing from the library. The Franklin–Stewart Printing company, known for day-glo posters, was shut down by the Dept. of Treasury in 1985 over counterfeiting charges, though details were not made public. Junior Franklin became a minister in 1991 and died of a stroke in 1996 at age 64.
“Junior convinced me to stick with radio when I was ready to give it up,” Martin said of his rough start at KIXL in 1980. “My first show was a disaster. I didn’t know I was supposed to turn off the mike when the records played, so they heard me talking on the phone over the music. I was so embarrassed; I tried to hide from everybody. But Junior kept telling me I could make a difference in gospel music if I stayed on the radio.” Martin went back to KIXL the next Sunday and kept going back for 34 years, even after KIXL became KGLO.
Just as Junior Franklin and Bill “the Mailman” Martin took over for E.M. Franklin and Elmer Akins, gospel music is a tradition to be passed on. The Franklin legacy is firmly in the hands of the remarkable Claudia Williams, who has been choir director at St. James since she was 16. Claudia was handpicked by E.M. Franklin after she led a bicentennial choir at the church in 1976. That was 38 years ago and in that time Williams, whose frantic motions and facial contortions resemble Mick Jagger as much as anyone in gospel, has become nationally known in mass choir circles.
Last weekend was quite a busy one for Williams, who is a Franklin on her great grandmother’s side. Good Friday was the musical memorial to the Mailman, and the funeral was the next day. Sunday was Easter. Williams led several hours of music over those three days, but gospel doesn’t pay all the bills and so Williams was back at her job early Monday morning.
Claudia Williams has been a mail carrier for 28 years.
Traces of tradition keep pieces of East Austin’s past alive.
EAST AUSTIN CLUBS 1957
Last week, I wrote this story about Charlie’s Playhouse. Which led to my discovery of photos by Neal Douglass of a female impersonators’ show at an unnamed East Austin bar. Today, I went to the Austin History Center and went through a city directory for 1957. Here are all the bars I could find in the black part of East Austin.
Blue Moon Bar 1902 E. 7th St.
Babalu Club 1618 ½ E. 6th St.
Barton’s Tavern 1900 E. 12th St.
Club Capree 1810 Chicon St.
Cobra Club 2321 E. 7th St.
Ellen’s Tavern 1626 Rosewood Ave.
Flamingo Club (Charlie’s Playhouse) 1201 Chicon St.
Harlem Novelty Bar 1010 Lydia St.
Harvey’s Place 1710 E. 1st. St.
The Hub 2200 E. 7th St.
J.C. Bar 1906 E. 7th St.
J.R. Club 2006 E. 7th St.
James Tavern 1133 E. 11th St.
Lecol Club 2136 E. 7th St.
Lillian’s Place 2142 E. 7th St.
Lo Jo’s 1407 E. 6th St.
M&B Club 2206 Webberville Rd.
Mackey’s Tavern 1618 Rosewood Ave.
Pearl’s Bar 1512 E. 6th St.
Raven Club 2148 E. 7th St.
Scoot Inn 1308 E. 4th St.
Senate Tavern 1811 E. 6th St.
Shallow Box Club 2310 Webberville Rd.
Silver Slipper 1627 Rosewood Ave.
Sport Bar 1200 E. 6th St.
Tasby’s Tavern 1922 E. 12th St.
V&V Club 1112 E. 11th St.
White Swan 1906 E. 12th St.
Wide Awake Club 1518 Rosewood Ave.
Your Place 1400 E. 12th St.
I found a few new interesting details about Charlie’s Playhouse. Owner Charlie Gildon, as he was known, was actually named Ernest Gildon. Perhaps Charlie’s sounded cooler for a nightclub. Now it makes sense why he named his afterhours joint Ernie’s Chicken Shack.
Also, Charlie’s Playhouse was originally located at 1201 Chicon St. After Gildon bought the Sho Bar from Tony Von in ’57, he moved the Playhouse there. The Flamingo Club moved into the old Charlie’s location.
Villager publisher/ editor Tommy Wyatt talks about E. 11th St. in the 1950s and ’60s
“And then after that you just had little drinking lounges, you know, like then we had a place called, the big dance hall, was Charlie’s Playhouse which is right there on 11th Street about two blocks from here, it was right down the street. They just tore the building down recently. And Charlie’s Playhouse had, now he had a live band five nights a week. He had an in-house band played five nights a week. And so they’d go down there, on Friday and Saturday nights are when they had the big nights over there. And of course back in those days, Friday and Saturday night Charlie’s Playhouse was filled with U.T. students. And, I’ll say it again, we had a segregated situation, and so they all could get in but you and I couldn’t sit at the same table, okay? You know, he wouldn’t let, he wouldn’t accept mixed couples or mixed parties in there. In other words you came with your party, your party’d sit here, the Black party’d sit over there. You could both dance or whatever, but he didn’t, didn’t have mixed parties at tables and stuff like that.
But the thing about it was, was that because he had such a large clientele of U.T. students on Friday and Saturday nights African Americans could hardly get in the club, although it sat right in the middle of our community, you know. And so the way Mr. Gilmer, Charlie Gilmer was the name of the guy who owned and operated the club, the way Mr. Gilmer would accommodate the African Americans he had a thing on Monday nights called soul night. So that was our night [laughs] Monday night, you know. So many of the students, particularly from Huston-Tillotson and so forth, didn’t think that was quite right you know. That we couldn’t go into any club on the west side, but yet we couldn’t go to our own clubs on the east side on Friday and Saturday night. It was the biggest club in Austin, for East Austin, was Charlie’s Playhouse and we couldn’t go there on Friday and Saturday night.
Now, economically you can understand that, you see, because this man was in business, that’s the way he was making his money. I mean he was making huge amounts of money on Friday and Saturday nights. And so, since he had one of the most popular clubs in town in walking distance from the campus, I mean you know, he couldn’t afford to turn it down, you see. But at the same time it was still offensive to the students over here. So some of the students from H-T started picketing the club on Saturday night, Friday nights and Saturday nights, and eventually they, they actually got it turned around, whereas most students stopped coming, you know. ‘Cause they didn’t want to walk through picket lines, stuff like that. So he was a little upset.
Then he had another, he had a second place called, an after hours place called Ernie’s Chicken Shack. And so he would close that, and we had that, that Saturday Blue Law that all clubs had to close at 12:00 you know, and any other night, on Friday nights you could stay open ‘til one, I think. But once they closed up you know, people didn’t want to go home at that time of night. It’s too early, you know. So he’d open up Ernie’s Chicken Shack about 11:00 and he’d stay open most of the night up there. He called it Chicken Shack because he sold fried chicken. At night, you know, you’d go out to get your fried chicken basket and that same band would move from the Playhouse to the Chicken Shack and they’d keep on playing, all night, yeah.”