Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel Turn 50 in Texas Highways

https://texashighways.com/culture/art-music/ray-benson-reflects-50-years-seminal-western-swing-band-asleep-at-the-wheel/

A story I wrote for Texas Highways magazine

Ray Benson poses with a guitar near his home outside of Austin Texas

Rolling with the wheel

Western swing disciples Asleep at the Wheel mark 50 years and countless miles of Texas

By Joe Nick Patoski

Ray Benson at his home in Austin earlier this year. Photo by Jeff Wilson

One afternoon this March, the visage of Ray Benson, founder and leader of the band Asleep at the Wheel, flickered before my eyes. Well, on my computer screen, actually, courtesy of FaceTime. It had been a rough two weeks. Plans for a 50th anniversary Asleep at the Wheel reunion show and recording session in the band’s hometown of Austin had been done in by the coronavirus. Without his trademark cowboy hat, Benson looked downright deflated.

He said as much. It wasn’t the thwarted album or the cancellation of his annual birthday party show in March. It was the stage being ripped from his soul. “I haven’t gone this long without playing in front of an audience since I was 18,” Benson moaned.

As it turned out, Benson had plenty reason to be bummed. A few days after our conversation, he was in the news, having tested positive for COVID-19. Thankfully, the 69-year-old recuperated, and a few weeks later, we talked again.

“Well, I’ve got time!” a revitalized Benson boomed through the computer screen. He’d just wrapped up an online board meeting of the nonprofit Texas Cultural Trust, but it wasn’t like he had a gig to rush off to.

In a weird way, it was telling that Benson was among the first high-profile Texans diagnosed with COVID-19. His familiar baritone sounds like Texas—just like the Western swing band he’s led for 50 years sounds like Texas.

If there’s a dance hall in the Lone Star State with a stage and a dance floor that’ll hold enough folks, Asleep at the Wheel has played it. With fiddles and steel, the Wheel has articulated an ensemble sound that links Western swing—the made-in-Texas original sound popularized by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in the 1930s and ’40s—with modern Western sounds.

“Asleep at the Wheel have kept Western swing vital and relevant to country music and gave it a worldwide audience,” said Rich Kienzle, a country music historian.

Asleep at the Wheel’s been playing so well for so long, it’s actually eclipsed Wills’ band in longevity. Along the way, Benson and his crew have graced thousands of stages, released more than 25 albums, won 10 Grammy Awards, and counted nearly 100 musicians among its membership.

“I wanted more Broken Spokes, more ‘Cotton Eye Joes,’ more Western swing music,” Benson said, looking back across a half-century of nurturing Western swing’s flame. “Guess what? It happened. There are a number of Western swing bands around the country now.”

Pretty good for an idea hatched by two boys from the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Ray Benson's arm over a guitar with an "Asleep at the Wheel" tattoo visible

A vintage photo of Benson sporting a band tattoo. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
A vintage photograph of Ray Benson and his sister Sandy Katz slouching in a chair

Benson and sister Sandy Katz as children in about 1955. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
A black and white picture of Ray Benson playing guitar in 2009

If there’s a dance hall in the Lone Star State with a stage and a dance floor that‘ll hold enough folks, Asleep at the Wheel has played it.

Benson in 2009. Photo by Lisa Pollard.

The story begins in the 1950s, when Ray Benson Seifert and Reuben Gosfield (who later adopted the showbiz names Ray Benson and Lucky Oceans) started running together at age 3, going to the same schools and summer camp, buying records, seeing shows, and playing in bands. A Gene Autry show in Philadelphia was a transformative moment for both of them. Oceans’ eyes popped when he saw Autry ride his horse onto the theater stage. After getting deep into Hank Williams, in 1969, Benson made a proposal: “We’re going to be the first hippies to have a real country-western band.”

Leroy Preston met Benson and Oceans in Boston in 1969. He was a Vermont farm kid with a guitar, raised on country music and rock ‘n’ roll. The three decided to start a band, and in the spring of 1970, they took a break from college and moved to a friend’s farm near Paw Paw, West Virginia. Joining them was Danny Levin, a pianist and fiddler from Boston. For months it was “funky cabin living, bonding, and building the musical base for the band,” Preston said.

“We were broke,” Benson recalled. “Lucky’s folks, in their wisdom, gave us a 100-pound sack of flour, a 100-pound sack of oats, and a tub of peanut butter, and said, ‘Don’t starve.’ Friends of ours brought us deer meat. We were very serious that the band was our job.”

One night at a nearby club, Ernest Tubb and His Texas Troubadours left an impression. “They were blowing jazz in the warm-up set, just smoking,” Preston said. “And then Ernest came out, and straight as tick-tock, they were on classic country. It was the aha moment for us: You can do both.”

Benson, Redd Volkaert, and Dale Watson play guitars under stage lights

Benson, Redd Volkaert, and Dale Watson at Benson’s 2004 birthday bash. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Benson, in a black cowboy hat, poses with country singer Carrie Underwood

Benson and Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

On Aug. 25, 1970, Asleep at the Wheel played their first gig, opening for Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper in Washington, D.C. The Wheel played country standards “Cocaine Blues” and “Truck Drivin’ Man”—as straight as a band could be with a long-haired, barefoot guitarist standing 6-foot-7. One young singer, Chris O’Connell, was so enthralled seeing the Wheel open for the country-rock outfit Poco at American University, she followed the band back to Paw Paw and became its female vocalist.

“All of a sudden we had a big band that was really good,” Benson said.

The band took off for East Oakland, California, in 1971 and immediately gained a following, sharing a manager and club dates with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and bills with the Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Soon, a young jazz-trained pianist from Berkeley hired on after a one-song audition. He then changed his name from Jim Haber to Floyd Domino.

Ray Benson and Willie Nelson laugh inside of a tour bus

Benson and Willie Nelson on Nelson’s bus in 2009. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

With an opportunity to back up mainstream country acts, the hippie country outfit got serious, cutting their hair and donning Western suits to play with the likes of Stoney Edwards, a Black honky-tonk singer on Capitol Records. Around that time, the band went to Nashville to record its first album. “We wanted to be a country band,” Preston said. “We didn’t want to be lumped with New Riders of the Purple Sage or the Flying Burrito Brothers.”

Their first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, was produced by Tommy Allsup, the Texan who had played in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and as one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Allsup brought in fiddler Johnny Gimble, another Playboys alumnus. The Wheel’s version of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” became the star of their reinvention of Western swing and got the band touring in Texas.

“The audience in Texas knew our music as roots rather than fad,” Preston said.

Up until then, Wills’ music had been only a small part of the band’s repertoire. But the Wheel added twin fiddlers in California, and in 1973, Benson and the band saw Wills at a Dallas studio during the recording of the Texas Playboys’ album For the Last Time. A formal introduction planned for the next day didn’t happen; Wills had a stroke that night and never recovered.

The Wheel played venues like the Farmer’s Daughter in San Antonio; the Western Place in Dallas, where Willie Nelson showed up to introduce himself and jam with the band on stage; and the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, where they opened for Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. “It was like, ‘Holy moly, this is heaven!’” Benson said of the crowd’s untethered enthusiasm.

The band moved to Austin in February 1973 at the urging of Nelson and Doug Sahm. It was an exciting time, when longhairs in cowboy hats were suddenly a thing. Most of the musicians on the Austin club scene—legends like Steve Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey—played rock, folk, or what was known around town as “progressive country.” The Wheel fit right in. “We were regressive country,” Benson laughed.

Nelson liked the band so much he had the Wheel open shows all over Texas. They were an ensemble of smart players with chops. O’Connell was a featured vocalist, along with Benson and Preston. Domino was the featured boogie-woogie instrumentalist. Upright bassist Tony Garnier and Domino would hold up fingers to represent which classic rhythm section they wanted to emulate during a particular instrumental break. Benson developed a crisp swing-guitar style on his big-bodied Epiphone, which melded seamlessly with fiddles and Oceans’ steel guitar.

Ray Benson and Jason Roberts perform under stage lights

Benson and Jason Roberts in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Ray Benson shakes hands with Porter Wagoner

Benson and Porter Wagoner in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

Benson was the focus. He did most of the talking and worked on taking care of business and building relationships offstage.

In 1975, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” a Benson-O’Connell duet in the tradition of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, reached No. 10 on the country singles chart and kept the Wheel on the road, playing 200 shows a year.

But by the early 1980s, as far as Nashville was concerned, Asleep at the Wheel was a band whose moment had passed. The band had won a Grammy, had a hit record with Texas Gold, and recorded five albums, but now members were having kids and buying houses. “At that point, I would have done anything else, but nobody offered me a job, and the band still had fans,” Benson said. “They’d say, ‘Don’t quit. There’s nobody else doing this.’”

Benson’s persistence paid off with another string of country hits in the late ’80s—“House of Blue Lights,” “Boogie Back to Texas,” and “Way Down Texas Way.” The 1990s were full-on Bob, as Asleep at the Wheel recorded two Wills tribute albums. In 2009, Benson’s career-long friendship with Nelson was cemented with the album Willie and the Wheel. That same year the band was hired to tour behind Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Nelson on their Last of the Breed tour.

10 essential Asleep At The Wheel songs

Over the course of its run, Asleep at the Wheel has earned the reputation as a road musician’s finishing school. If you can play with the Wheel, you can play with the best live bands out there. The band’s alumni list is getting close to 100 names long and counts well-known musicians including Jason Roberts, the fiddler who now heads the modern Texas Playboys; and Cindy Cashdollar, a renowned steel guitar and dobro player.

Turnover is routine for any large ensemble, and Benson never hesitated to demand the best of new members. Practically all living veterans from early iterations of the band made the 40th anniversary reunion in 2010. And they’ve all committed to a 50th reunion show, whenever that’s feasible.

“When we get back together, there’s such a fondness for each other, such a love, that any resentment falls away,” O’Connell said. “It’s all about perseverance, and I have to give all the credit to Ray.”

As far as the old band goes, founding member Oceans moved in 1980 to Australia, where he’s a radio broadcaster and an international pedal-steel legend. Preston returned to Vermont after a stretch as a Nashville songwriter. O’Connell moved back to Northern California, where she still performs. Garnier has been Bob Dylan’s bassist for more than 30 years. Domino remains a fixture in Austin beer joints, solo and leading his All-Star’s Western swing band.

As for Asleep at the Wheel, the band plays about 130 shows a year across Texas, Canada, and Europe. With touring stymied by the pandemic, the band staged a virtual dance online in late July. Benson has mellowed to the point of leaving business details to his son, Sam Seifert, who oversees operations at Benson’s headquarters. Seifert’s job, he said, is for “Ray to be able to play music and play golf.”

The old man has earned it. He sits on the boards of the St. David’s Foundation and Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and speaks to university business classes about life as a small business entrepreneur. He published a book in 2015—Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel—and recently donated his archive to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

“Ray Benson has a ridiculous work ethic, and he has something in him that people love to watch,” said Dave Sanger, the Wheel’s drummer since 1986. The secret sauce, he said, is “one part great musicianship, one part accessible yet challenging music, one part freedom to improvise and excel, and five parts Ray Benson. My mom always tells me how much joy we bring to people. Maybe that’s it.”

A black and white picture of Asleep At The Wheel performing at Armadillo World Headquarters

Asleep at the Wheel at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin in 1980. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Ray Benson, in a cowboy hat and holding a guitar, poses just like a lookalike cake of him

Benson and a look-alike birthday cake in 2015. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

Back on FaceTime, Ray Benson and I were talking about longevity when he brought up something the late singer-songwriter Steve Fromholz told him back in the 1970s: “It’s easier to get out of show business than it is to get back in.”

Ray has always been all in.

“You’re going to perform until nobody wants to come see you,” he said.

The Wheel keeps rolling, with Nelson and Tubb as its GPS. “With them, it’s the same thing: It’s all about getting on stage and doing it.”

“I have a theory,” Benson added, his voice buffering along with his image on the computer screen. “When the technology came where you and I can do what we’re doing now, and music legends are being recreated as holograms, people will pay a premium to see a band live on stage. There’s this thing that happens between people. It’s hard to explain, but when people are in the same room with other people, something happens. It’s not like staring at an avatar.”

When we can do that again, my money’s on people taking the dance floor and Asleep at the Wheel taking the stage

50 Years

of Sleeping

at the

Wheel

1970

Aug. 25, Asleep at the Wheel plays its first gig as the unannounced opener on the Medicine Ball Caravan, the “Woodstock on wheels” headlined by Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm commune gets them the job.

1969

Benson and Oceans, students at Antioch colleges in Ohio and Maryland, respectively, meet Leroy Preston in Boston at the house Leroy shares with Ray’s sister. They all move to a cabin in the woods to start a band, joined by Danny Levin.

1954

1972

1971

Reuben Gosfield and Ray Seifert (the future Lucky Oceans and Ray Benson) meet as children in a Philadelphia suburb.

Asleep at the Wheel records its first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, in Nashville with Tommy Allsup producing and guest fiddler Johnny Gimble opening the door to the world of Bob Wills.

Asleep at the Wheel relocates to East

Oakland, California.

1978

After being nominated for Grammy Awards the previous three years, Asleep at the Wheel wins its first award for “One O’Clock Jump” (Best Country Instrumental Performance).

1987

The Wheel records its first music video for “Way Down Texas Way.”

1973

The band tours Texas

and moves to Austin.

2020

2009

1975

Asleep at the Wheel marks its 50th anniversary. A reunion show and new album with the original band are delayed by the coronavirus until fall 2021.

The Wheel and Willie

Nelson release Willie

and the Wheel, which

is nominated for a

Grammy Award.

“The Letter That

Johnny Walker Read” hits No. 10 on Billboard’s country chart.

Photos courtesy Ray Benson

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The Texas Standard on Austin to ATX: How Austin Became Weird

July 20, 1981 Sam’s BBQ East Austi
The radio newsmagazine of Texas – The Texas Standard – covers Austin to ATX with David Brown asking the questions

The Texas Standard on Austin to ATX

Earlier this year, renowned Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski released his 10th Texas-centric book titled “Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed The Capital of Texas.” It’s an in-depth look of some of Austin’s most influential figures.

Patoski uses the term “alternative Austin,” which refers to the businesses that have been shaped by outsiders, musicians, freethinkers, artists and entrepreneurs who didn’t want to follow the status quo. These creatives, drawn to Austin for its counterculture and music scenes in the 1970s, developed communities and institutions that have paved the way for film, food and tech to become the cornerstones of life in Austin today.

Patoski says he wanted to understand why Austin has the reputation it does, and why some longtime residents have what he calls a “navel-gazing” love for the city.

“I wanted to … see what happened way back when, and the ‘Big Bang’ in the early ’70s, when people quit leaving Austin, and they started coming,” Patoski says.

In the 1960s, he says young people left Austin for bigger and better things, including famous musicians like Janis Joplin. Patoski says in the ’70s, the city’s distance from media centers on the East and West Coasts made it attractive to artists of all kinds.

“We make our own stuff up,” Patoski says. “My story is all these creation myths … of these outsiders who had to come to this place and work out their ideas and make something up out of nothing.”

He points to filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, and to Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey, too. Now, Austin-based global brands include the world’s largest chain of organic food stores and the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, among others.

“All these things were started, usually for the wrong reasons,” Patoski says. “People just wanted to get together and do something because it was cool.”

Patoski points out the differences between Austin and the rest of Texas. He says that while the rest of the state’s economy is based on extracting resources like oil and gas, Austin’s culture and economy are based on creativity.

Much has changed in Austin, though, since the 1970s. People in creative fields struggle to afford to live there, and the city’s population and physical size is much larger. But Patoski says new arrivals continue to view Austin as the kind of city those who live there imagine it to be.

“[Austin] continues to speak to people in a way that separates it from everywhere else,” Patoski says.

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

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Austin to ATX @ SXSW – Waterloo Records Fri Mar 8/ Who and What Makes Austin Austin panel Sun Mar 10

Waterloo Records details here

SXSW Sunday panel details here

I will be talking, reading, and signing copies of Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas this Friday, March 8 @ 7 pm at Waterloo Records in Austin, co-sponsored by Still Austin Whiskey.

Sunday, March 10 at 12:30 in Salon K of the Hilton, I’ll be moderating the Who and What Makes Austin Austin panel at SXSW. Panelist are Heather Brunner, CEO of WP-Engine; film editor Sandra Adair, director of “The Secret Life of Lance Letscher;” and Aaron Franklin, owner-operator of Franklin Barbecue. Each will tell their own Austin start up story, then we’ll mix it up.

Sunday, March 17 at 3:30 pm @ Monroe “Lefty” Krieg Field, Sun Radio broadcaster Kevin Connor and I will be calling the championship game of the SXSW Softball Tournament, a time-honored South By tradition. Plus, barbecue! I will have copies of Austin to ATX for sale and autographing.

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Sir Doug film review in MUSICFILMWEB

thanks to Brendan Toller for this fine review of Sir Doug & the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove  MUSICFILMWEB review link

 

 

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Sir Doug Film Kickstarter – kick Doug Sahm into the Rock HOF

To all my friends and neighbors and you good people in particular,

Today’s the day. I’m am pleased to announce the official campaign to get my new film Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove out into the world. We’ve got 30 days to make a BIG footprint on Kickstarter to both raise money to license over 40 of Doug Sahm’s songs for the film AND get him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s right, damas y caballeros, NOW is the time for Doug to finally take a seat where he belongs.

suppoortpeititon

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jnpparamount

We’ve only got 30 days to raise $75K. It’s a big lift, but we believe that the world needs to hear the music featured in our film in order to “get” Doug, and will come together to help support. Without these funds, we can’t distribute the documentary.This is a general “We Love Doug Sahm” campaign and it’s time he get the recognition he deserves. All the non-DougHeads around the world need to see this film and come to know and love Sir Doug like we do, so that he finally earns his rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Thanks for spreading the word about our efforts to get our film out and induct Doug Sahm into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Check out the campaign below and share with your friends!

Kickstart Doug into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-> bit.ly/SirDoug

Un abrazo c/s

Joe Nick

joe-nick-patoski-documentarian

The filmmakers of the new Doug Sahm documentary, Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, which premiered at this year’s SXSW Festival and earned Director Joe Nick Patoski “Variety’s 10 Documakers to Watch”, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $75K to complete and distribute the film so that the world will come to know Doug Sahm’s sound. Oh yeah, and while we’re at it, let’s get him the recognition he deserves in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame too.
Having a BIG footprint and a BIG show of support on Kickstarter for Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove will help raise Doug’s profile and chances of getting recognized for the hall of fame! We only have 30 DAYS to raise $75K on Kickstarter and it’s going to take the help from ALL of DOUG’s FANS and FRIENDS to get there!

jnpparamount

He was the one individual who could play every form of indigenous Texas music authentically and with passion.

Doug Sahm’s culture-melding grooves have left an indelible mark on the world of Texas music. He is essential listening for anyone who considers themselves a fan of Rock and Roll. Doug is not just a Texas icon, but a pioneer who combined disparate styles of music into his signature groove and undeniably deserves a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Join T Bone Burnett, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and hundreds more in the campaign to induct Doug Sahm into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by supporting the latest documentary about his musical legacy, Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove. Our documentary was made under the auspices of the Society for the Preservation of Texas Music, a 501(c)3 non-profit, so Sir Doug has been a labor of love from the beginning.

We’ve got 30 days to raise $75K so that our documentary can make it out into the world. To do this, we’re going to need your help. Your donation puts your name on the list of supporters of Doug Sahm. Can’t donate at this time? Please sign the petition by clicking HERE. Don’t forget to share this page with your friends!

Sincerely,

The Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove Team

Join the campaign and you’ll be in good company!

supporterspix

Making a film of this scope is no easy feat, nor is it cheap. Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove was made possibly by the Society for the Preservation of Texas Music, a 501(c)3 non-profit, and we’ve made this far. In order to incorporate the best of Doug Sahm’s music into our documentary, tracks like “Mendocino”, “She’s About a Mover” and over 40 more of Doug’s quintessential songs, we need to pay for music licensing. The world NEEDSto hear Doug’s authentic sound, so we’ve taken to Kickstarter to raise the funds to license the music of Doug Sahm for the documentary. With your help, our film can reach the world.

It’s the mission of Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove to spread Doug’s music far and wide to earn him his rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kickstart our documentary and you kickstart Doug into the Hall of Fame!

Not interested in donating to the film? You can still show your support for Doug Sahm, by signing your name on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame petition HERE.

Sit back and enjoy the official trailer for
Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove
Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove Official Trailer 1 (2015) – Rock Documentary HD
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Let’s go to Valentine, Texas for Valentine’s Day

valentines

The semi-ghost town of Valentine, 39 miles west of Marfa, is gonna be wide open for bidness Saturday February 14 for the big Big Bend Brewing Company Valentine’s Day Party and Dance at Valentine Merchantile. The music lineup includes Tessy Lou and the Shotgun Stars, Mike and the Moonpies, the Crooks, and the Joe Ely Band. The Texas Music Hour of Power will be broadcasting live from the event and taking listener dedications and shoutouts online (texas@marfapublicradio.org), and the Image Wranglers will be doing Picture Radio in a show of force.

It’s gonna be nothing but a good time. For info: www.valentinemercantile.com
\
valcitylimits

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A Doug Sahm Groove-In Mon Nov 18 Cactus Cafe

Sahm_Cactus_11_18

Come on out to the Cactus Cafe on the University of Texas campus on Monday evening, November 18 for a Views and Brews discussion about Doug Sahm, the original Austin groover moderated by Jody Denberg of KUTX and featuring Marcia Ball, Ernie Durawa, and Speedy Sparks in a panel discussion, along with a screening of a four minute sizzler reel of a proposed film documentary directed by Joe Nick Patoski. Doors 6:30, show at 7

Doors 6:30 showtime 7 pm

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Pro Football’s Biggest Star

from the February 26 edition of TMDailyPost.com
link here:

The passing of Jack Eskridge on Februrary 11 was noted by one of his former employers, the Dallas Cowboys Football Club, which cited Eskridge as the team’s first equipment manager and one of Tom Landry’s very first hires in 1960. But, arguably, Eskridge’s most important contribution to the Cowboys was choosing a blue star to be the team’s logo.

Eskridge’s life was defined by numerous achievements, including witnessing the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima during World War Two, playing professional basketball for the Chicago Stags and the Indianapolis Jets, and coaching basketball as an assistant at the University of Kansas, where he recruited future superstar Wilt Chamberlain. But his simple choice of that star has resonated farther and wider than anything else he did.

It began as a blue star on the side of a white helmet—no white border around the star and not a spec of silver anywhere in the team’s uniform. The Cowboys’s other logo, a cartoon helmeted football player riding what appears to be a freaked-out miniature Shetland pony, was used to promote the team in print ads.

alternate Cowboys helmet

Before the 1964 season, there was some tinkering with the helmet logo that was credited to Tex Schramm, the Cowboys’ first GM. The team experimented with a Cowboy boot with a star spur logo and considered a blue helmet with a white star, but neither gained traction. When the season started, though, players wore the now-familiar silver helmets with the blue star, which was now outlined in white.

Schramm continued experimenting trying to come up with the right shade of silver, according to Carol Hermanovski, who designed the football club’s new offices at Expressway Towers at 6116 North Central Expressway and redid their bumper sticker to highlight the star.

“I’d meet with him, and he would say, ‘Carol I want to show you something.’ He’d say, ‘What do you think about this color for the leggings for the pants?’ He was obsessing constantly about that silver-blue color. He was so concerned about how that color looked on TV, and of course that was something you couldn’t control because each person’s TV was set differently. He was always trying to get that perfect silver blue. At times he got it a little much like a pale turquoise and I would tell him, ‘No, Tex, it’s got too much green in it. It looks too turquoise.'”

(Here’s a year-by-year evolution of the Cowboys’ look.)

This much is true: Eskridge’s embrace of the star as helmet logo would have been called marketing brilliance, if such a term existed around pro football in the sixties. Of all the brands associated with the state of Texas, none is as well-known and instantly identifiable around the world as that blue star with the white border. No other sports franchise can claim a logo that’s as simple and as instantly recognizable.

Helping to promote the star was the television show Dallas, which by 1980 was the most popular television show in the world, dubbed into 67 languages in more than ninety countries. No matter if viewers understood American culture, much less had an inkling about the city of Dallas—they knew the star, since the opening credits of every episode featured an aerial shot of Texas Stadium, zooming down through the hole in the roof to focus on the end zone where the letters spelled out “COWBOYS,” accompanied by the five-pointed logo. The star said all that needed to be said.

Just think, it could have been that goofy cartoon player riding the midget pony, which is right up there with the oil derrick that ID’ed the Houston Oilers, or that silly patriot hiking the ball that Boston originally embraced.

Or it could have been just a big D, for the first letter of the city the team represented, which of could have been confused for Denver (although today, D might be more appropriate, since it could also be mistaken for Dysfunction, which pretty much sums up the current state of the franchise).

Whatever it represents, it goes back to Jack Eskridge. No matter what one thinks of the Dallas Cowboys, that iconic star represents the team, the city, the state, and NFL football better than any logo in sports.

(Stars from Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos.Net, Boot helmet from Helmethut.com.)

Joe Nick Patoski is the author of THE DALLAS COWBOYS: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America (Little, Brown). Read an excerpt from it here.

AP Photo/Aaron M. Sprecher

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talking on Prairie Home Companion

. Watching the broadcast from backstage was fascinating. Being part of it was beyond fun.

So I was in Houston Friday night, talking the Dallas Cowboys at Brazos Bookstore and spinning vinyl at Leon’s Lounge, as well as hanging with my friends William Michael Smith of the Houston Press and Jack Massing of The Art Guys and sword-fighting with Max Massing. I’d noticed my old player-coach of the Jack’s Auto Repair All-Stars of the Twin Cities Cultural Arts Softball League, Garrison Keillor, was hosting A Prairie Home Companion at the Wortham Opera House in Houston on Saturday. I sent an email to the show and Friday afternoon received an email from Garrison. Long and short of it, and unbeknown to me until about 10 minutes before airtime, I had the pleasure of enjoying a few minutes of conversation with Garrison on his show, which is during the third segment.

I love radio and this program is the best of what radio is

Here’s a link to the broadcast.
prairiehome.publicradio.org/programs/2012/11/17

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