By Michael Corcoran
Wild-eyed rockabilly veteran Ray Campi wrote his first song on the last day of 1949 and left Austin at the end of 1959. He’s a man of the ‘50s in his home town, so in his mind the Magnolia Café at 1920 S. Congress Ave. is still Flossie’s Drive In, where country bands like Leon Carter and the Rolling Stones played. He still calls far South Congress Avenue, home of such 1950s clubs as the Cinderella, Rudy’s Drive In, the Alibi, Gil’s and the Top Hat, “the San Antonio Highway.”
While legions continue to mourn the 1980 closing of the Armadillo World Headquarters on Barton Springs Road, Campi has fonder memories of the 1,500-capacity hall when it was the Sportcenter in the mid-’50s. There, he and such local acts as Betty Barnes, the Hubcats with Hub Sutter, the Hungry Mountain Boys and Buck Fowler and the Black Diamonds would play the Saturday night Jamboree. Billed the “Folk Music Fireball” by an Austin promoter, Elvis Presley played the future hippie haven August 25, 1955- one of four Austin appearances before his January 1956 TV debut made him a national sensation.
“Some people talk like Austin became a music town in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Campi, who owns a house in Spicewood, yet has lived primarily in Los Angeles for five decades. “But the town was hoppin’ when I was coming up.“
The dynamic 77-year-old slap bassist, who still thrills crowds in rockabilly-crazed Europe by standing on his bass fiddle, remembers a time when Dessau Hall near Pflugerville and the Skyline Club on far North Lamar Boulevard (“the Dallas Highway”) were “the Palladiums of Central Texas.” Dessau was built around a huge pecan tree which grew up through the roof, delighting such Eastern swing bandleaders as Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw.
Touring and local country bands would also play the Buckholts SPJST Hall in nearby Milam County, where an 18-year-old Campi was called up by his guitar hero Merle Travis to sing “San Antonio Rose” in 1952.
Because Austin is home to the most liberal state college in Texas, it’s always had something going on musically. In the ’50’s, downtown was swingin’ with the original Jade Room (2514 Guadalupe St.), Squirrel’s Inn (415 Barton Springs Rd.) and New Orleans Club (1123 Red River). The roots rockin’ Continental Club opened at 1315 S. Congress Ave., just up from the Terrace Motel and nightclub, in 1955, but it was more of a jazz club, with Bill Turner’s trio playing most nights.
In the otherwise barren hills of West Lake, musicians played the Elm Grove Lodge, which would go on to gain fame during the ’70s as Soap Creek Saloon.
Over on the East Side, you had Charlie’s Playhouse (1206 E. 11th), Big Mary’s/ Alabama Club (1808 E. 12th St.), the Victory Grill (1114 E. 11th) and more juke joints. “We used to go to Charlie’s on Friday nights to learn the latest dances,” said antique dealer Charles “Lucky” Attal, who went to Austin High, at the current 12th St. location of ACC, in the late ’50s.
Most of the major black acts, including Bo Diddley, Big Joe Turner and Little Richard on one memorable night, played Doris Miller Auditorium. The great KVET DJ and musician Lavada Durst, a true icon in the history of Austin, also brought in such giants as Duke Ellington and Sam Cooke.
Not to be outdone, the City Coliseum on Barton Springs Road featured an Oct. 7, 1957 show with Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, The Drifters, Lavern Baker, Clyde McPhatter and more. Lucky Attal’s son, Charles of C3 Presents, would be lucky to book that much talent over three days at ACL Fest.
For Hispanic fans, a weekly highlight in the ‘50s was the Nash Hernandez Orchestra’s “Friday Frolics” at Zaragoza Park. The scene was strong, with Manuel Donley, Shorty and the Corvetts, Roy Montelongo, Lonnie Guerero and his son Louie and more local acts benefiting from nightly exposure on Lalo Campos’ “Noche de Fiesta” radio show on KVET. Accordion master Camilo Cantu, meanwhile, had couples dancing at La Polkita, an open air venue bounded by Christmas tree lights in Del Valle.
With a memory as sharp as his vintage threads, Campi remembers Austin in the ‘50s as if the past five decades were a week and a half. He’ll talk your ear off, but you’d be wise to take notes.
Ramblin’ Ray remembers not only the music scene, but can still describe details about restaurants like Lung’s Chnese Kitchen (1128 Red River), Austin’s first foray into “exotic” cuisine, the Toddle House on 19th St., with its famous breakfasts, and the Sho-Nuff Café (2006 S. Lamar, later locale of Bag of Chicken), where musician Calvin Russell’s parents worked as fry cook and waitress.
“There were seven drive-in movie theaters in Austin in the ‘50s,” said Campi, rattling off the names: the Burnet Road Drive-in, the Delwood, the North Austin (also known as the Eddie Joseph Drive-In), the South Austin, the Montopolis, the Chief, the Longhorn.
The competition was fierce and one time Campi got drawn into a big publicity stunt at the Chief Drive-In (5601 North Lamar). “There was a guy who was buried alive for a month,” Campi said, with a laugh. “He wasn’t really buried. There was a secret door and he’d go home after the last showing each night. But one day (studio owner) Roy Poole had an idea to record a song from the grave, so he had me play the guitar while the guy sang.”
Before Poole opened Austin Recording Company on the second floor of the Littlefield Building at 6th and Congress in the early ‘50s, the only recording studio in town was the Radio House on the University of Texas campus. Campi recorded several tracks there from 1951- 58. As described by Campi, the former Radio House was almost certainly the brick annex of the historic Littlefield Building on campus.
But on a recent four-day visit to Austin, Campi never made it to campus to confirm that. He did visit his childhood home at 1116 W. Sixth St. for the first time in decades. The two-story brownstone with the house in the back is now Fortney’s West End antique store.
“Hi, I’m Ray Campi and I used to live here,” he said to one of the store employees. “I made some records in the ‘50s, but you’ve never heard of me.”
He never became more than a local act, at least in his prime. Soon after recording a regional hit (“Caterpillar”/ “Play It Cool”) for San Antonio’s TNT Records, Campi was signed to Dot, the home of Pat Boone, in 1957. Although his single “It Ain’t Me” went nowhere, it led to a lipsynced appearance on “American Bandstand,” which made Campi a bit of a star back home.
After being “one and done” at Dot, Campi was courted by Domino Records, Austin’s first label of note, which made a little noise in the years between Elvis and the Beatles. Formed in 1957 as a night school project, Domino featured such acts as the Slades, Joyce Webb, Barney Tall and Joyce Harris, a white singer from New Orleans whose backing band was a black group from East Austin called the Daylighters. Once, Harris found the band coming out of the White Swan on East 12th and reminded them they had a rehearsal scheduled. But Clarence Smith (AKA Sonny Rhodes) and the others didn’t want to get in the car with a white woman. Not in the ’50s in Texas. Harris and the Daylighters made great records, but never performed live together. (Listen to “
Campi’s contribution to the Domino catalog was “My Screamin’ Screamin’ Mimi” in 1958, but when that rocker didn’t make it further than the sock hops of the Hancock Clubhouse and the Teen Canteen near Camp Mabry, Campi moved to Los Angeles.
Returning to his family’s former home on W. Sixth St. brings back happy memories for Campi, of Cuban and Scotch/English descent, who learned to play guitar on the steps out back.
“This was Alex Fischer’s grocery store when my dad bought it in 1943,” Campi said of the first floor storefront. Having sold his flooring business and the family home in Yonkers, New York to explore the new frontier, Campi Sr. had some money to buy property.
“Part of the deal was that Mr. Fischer would teach my dad how to cut meat.”
With a head for business (“which wasn’t passed on to me,” Campi said), Ray Campi Sr. converted a back room of the grocery store into a mini-barracks with six bunk beds. “He’d send me and my brother Harvey (a year younger) to the bus station with flyers. A lot of G.I.’s in town from Camp Swift or Fort Hood couldn’t afford hotel rooms so we’d rent them a cot for a couple bucks a night.”
Austin was booming after World War II., with the population rising from 87,930 in 1940 to 132,459 in 1950.The local music scene during that time was dominated by Western swing bands like Jesse James and All the Boys, Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters (pictured below), Doug and the Falstaff Swing Boys, Buck Roberts and the Rhythmaires and Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys, who would all throw in a couple of polkas for the oldtimers. The Taylor-based Heap band recorded nascent versions of the classics “Wild Side of Life” and “Release Me,” later made more famous by Hank Thompson and Ray Price, respectively.
“When my family moved to Austin my father wanted to feel more like a Texan so he bought a record by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys,” said Campi, who was 9 at the time. “Two of my favorite things were cowboy movies and big band music, so I took to Western swing right away.”The Campi brothers attended middle school at St. Mary’s Academy at 10th and Brazos Streets, where many of their classmates were the chlldren of Lebanese-Americans named Joseph, Attal, Jabour, Zigub and Sabb, who owned many of the businesses on Sixth Street. After school, Ray had enough time to catch a western at the Ritz Theater before walking home for dinner.
“It was a nickel if you were under 12, so we’d go to the Diamond Bar, next door to the Ritz, which was owned by our friend Joe Sabb’s mother,” said Ray, who was 13 at the time. “She’d sign a note saying we were 11 years old.”
But one day in 1947, Campi skipped the flick to watch country singer and songwriter Gene Snowden onstage at the Diamond (where the bands played on a loft above thne crowd.) Campi calls hard drinking Snowden “Austin’s original hillbilly poet,” and when he watched the interplay with great guitar player Curly Top Clayton, Campi decided to become a musician. “It was quite an epiphany,” Campi said. “They had a song called ‘Quit Your Trifling’ which I started covering in my first band.” And he’s been playing it ever since.
Campi made his show business debut in 1949 as part of a hillbilly comedy act with Joe Bill Hogan and Betty Jo Gregory. They performed such tunes as “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” at Saengerrunde Hall before popular play “The Drunkard.”
“Melodramas were big back then,” said Campi. “The crowd would throw peanuts at the villains. It was a lot of fun.” The Geezinslaws, another group modeled after Homer and Jethro, were usually also on the bill.
As a senior in high school, Campi formed Ramblin’ Ray and the Ramblers, whose guitarist was Campi’s cousin Harold Layman, a native of Newfoundland who lived in the house in the back. “Harold was six years older, and he had a job with the Coca-Cola plant near Treaty Oak, so he had money for records,” Campi said. The two would spend hours listening to western swing and honky tonk records, trying to play along. And on Saturday nights, they’d tune into “The Louisiana Hayride” on 50,000-watt KWKH out of Shreveport. “There were a couple of guys at Harold’s job- Slim Hendricks and Buddy Wyatt- who showed him a few chords on the guitar and he showed me.”
While at St. Edward’s High, Campi came under the musical spell of Jesse James and All the Boys, who played live on Lady Bird Johnson’s KTBC radio station at 1 p.m. every day. Cactus Pryor (who would later host the weekly “Now Dig This” TV show at the Driskill hotel) was emcee and sometimes sang parodies (“Jackass Caravan” spoofed “Mule Train”), backed by the James gang. Campi and his classmate, aspiring steel guitarist Bert Rivera, would sometimes skip school and go to the Brown Building for an hour of musical education.
“Jesse James had THE western dance band in town,” Campi said. “Man, they could play! Bert would watch Jim Grabowske on the steel and then go home and try to play like him.” Rivera went on to an illustrious career as a steel guitarist, playing in Hank Thompson’s band for almost a decade.
A featured guest of the James band was Cajun music legend Harry Choates (“Jole Blon”), who lived the last year of his life, his 28th, in Austin. An alcoholic since age 12, Choates died in July 1951 in the Travis County Jail from injuries suffered when he couldn’t control his DTs and banged around his cell. Grabowske and fiddler Junior Burrow visited Choates a couple hours before he died and tried to get help, but were met with indifference.
“Harry Choates would really light a fire,” said Campi. “He was a showman for sure.”
Whenever Campi returns to Austin he visits other musicians from the ’50s, especially his former bassist Henry “Poochie” Hill. From a musical family, Poochie played everywhere, from orchestras to dives like Nero’s Place on Ben White. He was in the Skyline house band in the late ’50s/ early ’60s, with guitarist Larry Corder and drummer Tommy Jackson, backing countless country greats, including Johnny Horton’s final performance in 1960. After backing Loretta Lynn at Dessau in 1962, the singer, who’d just had her first hit with “Success (Has Made a Failure of Our Home),” was so impressed she wanted to take them out on tour. But Poochie, raising a young family, decided not to go. “I had a good job (as construction inspector) with the city,” he said.
Poochie and his older brother Doug (who played bass for Willie Nelson in the ‘50s) owned the first electric Fender guitar and bass in town, preordered in 1952 from J.R. Reed music store on Congress Avenue. This made them particularly in high demand.
“When folks went out, they wanted to hear the songs the way they heard them on the
radio, so when Billy Byrd (from Ernest Tubb’s band) came out and honky tonk became the going thing, you had to have an electric guitar,” said Hill.
Poochie was a link between country music and pop in Austin when he replaced Bobby Doyle, the first blind graduate of McCallum High, on bass in the Slades. The great bassist-turned-piano-thumper eventually formed The Bobby Doyle Three with U.T. dropout Kenny Rogers on bass and recorded for Columbia.
“The Slades were the only act on Domino that really sold any records,” said Ed Nichols, who co-founded the label with Jane Bowers, Bob Williams, Lora Jane Richardson, Kathy Parker and Ann Miller. (Nichols ended up as a U.S. Agriculture bigwig in D.C. during the Carter Administration.) Signed to Domino after performing at a Girl Scouts event, the Slades were originally called the Spades, after a deck of cards, but had to change the name for racial connotations. (“The Spades” was, ironically, also the name of Roky Erickson’s first band, five years later.)
Led by Don Burch, who still lives in the area but is not big on interviews, the band was poised for a national breakout in 1958, with soulful doowop number “You Cheated” getting them booked on “American Bandstand.” Major labels were circling, but the fledgling Domino crew wanted to handle “You Cheated” themselves and struck a distribution deal with a Los Angeles company.
It turned out the “one-stop” had oversold its capabilities, so while the Slades original waited to be pressed and distributed, an L.A. producer cheated, assembling a group of black singers, including Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Jesse Belvin, to copy the tune as the Shields. That version made it to #12 on the Billboard singles chart, while the Slades original stalled at #42.
Another Austin act on the verge of making it in the ‘50s was West Austin housewife Vivian Worden (left, singing to her kids), who played a Gibson L-5 and billed herself as Betty Barnes. Originally from the mountains of Virginia near Roanoke, Worden moved to Austin in 1953 and soon got recording and publishing deals with San Antonio-based TNT, whose roster at the time included Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Although her own records, like “Come Out Joe” and “Henrietta” were hillbilly bop a la Wanda Jackson, Worden had a great range as a songwriter and recruited a black group from East Austin called the Chantones to record two of her songs-“Dear Diary” and “Cocoanuts to Palm Trees.”
“The lead singer was named Bertha and she could really put it out there,” said Worden, 83, who lives in a South Austin nursing home that recently celebrated her musical career, even hiring an Elvis impersonator. Worden met Presley in Nashville when she appeared on “The Grand Ol’ Opry” in 1956.
“Our father (an IRS accountant) didn’t really support mother’s musical career,” said Worden’s daughter Judy Sheffield. “It was just not something married women with children did back then.”
Then, as now, Austin was a place where 97% of the acts eventually gave up.
Disgusted by the counterculture movement (he parodied peaceniks on 1964’s “Civil Disobedience,” sung in a Dylan bray) Campi finally retired from the biz, he thought, in 1967 when he became a fulltime teacher in the Los Angeles public school system.
But that failed Dot 45 ended up blowing a big second wind behind Campi’s career four years later. A German-born rockabilly fanatic named Ronnie Weiser flipped over “It Ain’t Me” which featured Doc Shyrock’s finger-snapping instead of a drummer, and signed Campi to his Rollin’ Rock label. Besides reissuing most of Campi’s forgotten 1950s recordings, Rollin’ Rock released several highly regarded new Campi records, with Weiser producing the sessions in his living room. Campi was stunned to be hailed a rockabilly pioneer- the guy who kept double rhythm slap bass alive- on his first tour of Europe in 1977 with his band the Rockabilly Rebels. “I never had any hits, but those folks knew every one of my songs,” he said. “The Grand Marshal of Rockabilly” continues to play festivals almost every summer, when school’s not in session.
“My students Google me and find out about my other life,” he said, giving “my other life” an itallic tone. Campi uses his dark eyes in conversation as punctuation. “They print out pictures of me in my wildman getup and say ‘Mr. Campi, is this really you?’”
Although he officially retired from teaching in 1999, Campi still occasionally receives 6 a.m. calls to substitute. And he delights in running into ex-students, like former shy eighth grader Cherie Currie, who Campi convinced to sing in the Mullholland Junior High talent contest. Two years later, a 15-year-old Currie was fronting the Runaways. “Mr. Campi!” Currie exclaimed when her old teacher showed up at a book signing last year.
Currie was portrayed in The Runaways biopic by Dakota Fanning, which provides a slight twist in the Campi story. You see, Fanning also starred in Hound Dog, a 2006 film which licensed Campi’s “Caterpillar” for the soundtrack. “They gave us $250 upfront with the promise that we’d get another $6,000 when the movie was made,” said Campi. Of course he never got the six grand. And the movie flopped.
“Ray is always complaining that he’s never made it,” said writer Joe Nick Patoski, who booked Campi’s return to Austin in the mid-‘70s, a notorius show immortalized in Campi’s signature tune “Rockin’ At the Ritz.” “And so I’ll ask him, ‘Didn’t you just get back from touring Europe? Don’t you have all these young musicians who look up to you?’ C’mon, Ray. You’re doing great.”
He was Austin’s answer to Gene Vincent, even opening for the rockabilly legend at the City Auditorium (later Palmer, currently the Long Center) in Jan. 1958. But that night ended up being a highlight of Campi’s career, not a stepping stone.
Poochie Hill doesn’t need much time to name the highlight of his career. “We backed Roy Orbison one night at Hogg Auditorium and when he’d hit those high notes, we’d get chills going up and down our backs,” Poochie said. “Afterwards, I looked at the other guys, I didn’t even have to say it. They said, ‘Yep, we felt it, too.”
The song that best brings Campi back to those days of spot dances and necking in the hills above Barton Springs Pool is “The Austin Waltz” by Dolores and the Blue Bonnet Boys. Recorded by KVET program director Fred Caldwell for his Lasso label, “The Austin Waltz” is, according to Campi, “the greatest song ever written about my hometown.” He cut his own version in 1980 and let the words by Dolores Farriss flow through him.
“Why did I ever leave you?/ When I loved you so much/ Please let me come back to you, dear/ And dance to the Austin Waltz.”
A chapter on Harry Choates can be found in Michael Corcoran’s 2017 book “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” (UNT Press).
What was where in the ’50s?
Hut’s Drive In #2/ Wiley’s Drive In 206 Barton Springs Rd., Doug’s Club 415 Barton Springs Rd., Shrimp Boat 601 Barton Springs Rd., Kingfish Drive In 717 Barton Springs Rd. Holiday House #1 1005 Barton Springs Rd., Nighthawk Diner 336 S. Congress, Tower Bowlingside 407 S. Congress Ave., Dixie Grill 410 S. Congress Ave., Bamboo Tavern/ Downbeat Lounge 1300 S. Congress Ave., Canary Hut Grill 1301 S. Congress, Skating Palace 525 Barton Springs, Disch Field 1006 Barton Springs, Yank Theatre 222 E. Sixth St., Cecil’s Barbecue 424 E. Sixth, Cuban Club 403 E. Sixth St., Avenue Café 211 Congress Ave., Casino Bar 217 Congress, Sam Wah Café 401 Congress Ave., Tally Ho Restaurant 623 Congress Ave., Picadilly Cafeteria 801 Congress Ave., J.R. Reed music store 805 Congress Ave., Combo Club 1006 Congress, Hotel Guadalupe 1701 Guadalupe, Radio House W. 25th St. and Wichita St., Pig Stand #14 2801 Guadalupe St., Palomino Club 3405 Guadalupe St., Bledsoe Music 217 W. Sixth, Hays Record Shop E. 1st St., Southern Dinnett 1010 E. 11th, Tony Von’s Club 1012 E. 11th, James Tavern 1133 E. 11th, Club Manhattan 1906 E. 12th, Harlem Theatre 1800 E. 12th, Cactus Theater 521 E. Sixth St..Stallion Drive In 5534 Lamar
EERY SKYLINE COINCIDENCE
The Skyline remains infamous for hosting the final public performances of Hank Williams (Dec. 19, 1952) and Johnny Horton (Nov. 4, 1960), who were both married to the former Billie Jean Eshlimar at the times of their deaths. “Justin Tubb (Ernest’s son) was going to UT at the time and I was friends with him and the Tubb Boys, so we spent the day with Hank Williams, visiting Hays Record Shop (916 E. First St.) ,” said Jerry Green, the former Austin singer who went on to play the Grand Ol’ Opry and Louisiana Hayride. “Hank was trembling something fierce that day,” said Green, who dropped in on Williams back at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel before the show. “But when he played, he did a fine job.”
Hank Williams died of a heart attack brought on by drug and alcohol abuse 12 days after the Skyline show.
Built in 1946, the Skyline was torn down in 1989 to make way for the expansion of Braker Lane. In 1979, it served as the second location of Soap Creek and after that hosted such punk bands as Minor Threat and Butthole Surfers.
ELVIS IN AUSTIN
Although Campi played a style of music popularized by Elvis Presley, he didn’t go to any of the three shows Presley played in town in 1955- at Dessau Hall, the Sportcenter and the Skyline- or the January ’56 show at the City Coliseum where Elvis opened for Hank Snow.
“If you weren’t Elvis, you didn’t like Elvis, at the time” Campi said. The Memphis Cat had everything that eluded Campi- most notably fame, screaming girls and a fleet of brand new Cadillacs.
But the first time Presley played in the area, at Dessau Hall on March 17, 1955, only about 75 people showed up. The only DJ in town that had been playing his records was KVET’s R&B jock Lavada Durst, so most people thought he was black. And not many white kids went to black shows back then.
By the time Presley had been drafted into the Army and stationed at Fort Hood in 1958, Campi had become a fan.“I went up to Killeen, where he had rented a big house, and met Elvis the night before he shipped off to Germany,” Campi said. “He would come outside every night at 7 o’clock and sign autographs and meet his fans.” Campi and Presley chatted about TNT Records owner Bob Tanner, who booked the first tour of West Texas for Presley.
“He couldn’t have been nicer,” Campi recalled of The King.
ALSO IN AUSTIN IN THE 1950s’
Future sexpot Jayne Mansfield was a student at the University of Texas… The city manager was Walter Seaholm and Emma Long was on the City Council… Kids swam in Waller Creek at the Blue Hole… Darrell Royal replaced Ed Price as UT football coach in 1956… Four houses of prostitution were closed in a 1959 raid… Lyndon Baines Johnson became Senate majority leader… Twenty-seven moonlight towers were operational… Golfer Betsy Rawls was winning NCAA championships for UT…J. Frank Dobie wrote “The Mustangs” in 1952…St. Mary’s Academy was razed as part of a downtown leveling project…Folklorist and CBS radio host John Henry Faulk, whose family owned Green Pastures, was blacklisted for unproven ties to communism. When KTBC’s Cactus Pryor (“the Bob Hope of Austin”) stood by Faulk and denounced the Cold War witchhunt, there was pressure to fire him, but Lady Bird Johnson refused… East Avenue was where I-35 is now… The 1950’s “panty raid” fad on college campuses debuted at UT in May 1952.
CAMPI’S OTHER OTHER LIFE
A lifelong fan of Hollywood movies, especially Westerns, Ray Campi used his educational background to meet and interview hundreds of stars, from his close friends Zachary Scott and Mae West to Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and his favorite cowboy actor Ken Maynard. “Most of the time they were just sitting around at home anyway,” said Campi. “You show up with a couple students and it puts them at ease.” Campi keeps about 200 of those interviews on reel-to-reel tapes, with cassette backups.