BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble EPIC/LEGACY [Box Set]
SRV breaks out of the gate with Little Stevie Vaughan before he was Stevie Ray. A member of Paul Ray and the Cobras, the kid’s doing “Thunderbird”the upbeat, swinging standard by the Nightcaps, Texas’ first great white-boy blues banda song that every Dallas kid with an electric guitar and an attitude knew by heart. The voice is already full-formed, deep and bluesy. The instrumental prowess, in terms of tone, technique, and attack, is already over the heads of his bandmates. And so begins a long evolution, detailed by the low-down and dirty reading of “I’m Crying,” from Vaughan’s first recording session with Double Trouble, followed by a full-throttle shuffle, “You’re Gonna Miss Me Baby” and 51 other tracks. Most of the songs on this three-CD set are unissued alternate studio takes or live performances. Rarer gems like “Rude Mood/Pipeline” performed with brother Jimmie for MTV and three songs from Vaughan’s last gig, at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley, are worth the price of admission alone. Taken as a whole, it is even bettera remarkable body of work. So if earlier recordings Vaughan made as half of Blackbird with Christian-Charles de Plique or as part of the Nightcrawlers with Doyle Bramhall and Marc Benno in the early seventies are missing (or even “Let’s Dance,” the song and guitar break that made David Bowie’s career), it’s a minor complaint. What’s important is that the box set captures Stevie Ray Vaughan in full blazing glory, locked into that sweet spot where he could soak up roots, tradition, and soul the way he did so well and then take all that to the next level. Ten years after he died, it’s clearer than ever: SRV was in a different zone. Texas guitar will never sound the same.
Jimmy Reed, Emancipator of the South: An Oral History
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Summer 2000, Issue No. 42
It begins with the discovery of a black-and-white photograph dated 1961. The setting is Walker’s Auditorium, a chitlin’ circuit showcase for touring black musicians in Waco, Texas, the same city where a black man named Washington Jess had been lynched 45 years earlier. In the center of the shot is the performing artist Jimmy Reed, dressed to the nines in a shiny cream-colored suit with black lapels and a black low tie, strumming a guitar and looking back at the photographer beaming a wide-open smile, a pure expression of some kind of ecstasy, wiggling a hip, the fingers of his left hand contorting to make a chord on the fret board while his right hand works the strings below, stroking.
In the foreground are the head and shoulders of another black man in a dark suit, looking off to the side, a guy in the band you can’t see well enough to identify. Over Reed’s left shoulder in the background is a second black man, in a white short-sleeved shirt, holding what appears to be another guitar. It may or may not be Eddie Taylor or A.C. Reed, two of Jimmy Reed’s sidemen, but it really doesn’t matter.
It’s the scene beyond the two microphones set up on the lip of the small stage that counts: a sea of young white faces, most of them clustered around the stage watching, others dancing, all eyes fixed on Jimmy Reed. Most all of them are males, though you can see a couple of young women among them brazenly walking the wild side. One college-aged gentleman clutches a can of Lone Star beer, his brow furrowed, concentrating hard, really hard, as if trying to understand what it all means, working at getting into the groove. The burr-headed man next to him is bent down low towards the ground, face relaxed, lost in a dream. He already knows.
Across the stage are two boys in matching white shirts and dark ties, both resting left arms on left knees propped up on the stage, paying very close attention. The image leaves the impression that it’s still early, but by midnight, no more three hours after the moment was captured by the photograph, everyone in the picture will be foaming-at-the-mouth, stark-raving mad, flat-on-their-ass shit-faced drunk, Jimmy Reed included.
But the more I look at the photograph, the more I see Jimmy Reed the liberator, as well as Jimmy Reed the showman. I’m not certain, but I’m almost absolutely positive that without Jimmy Reed, the integration of the South would have been even far more contentious and difficult fight. By attracting and emancipating white southern youth in the late fifties and early sixties through music and alcohol and the fine art of having a good time, he set the stage for Martin Luther King. Laws legislating change in the wake of the societal crossover that was in play at the time within the realm of entertainment, thanks to Jimmy Reed and his peers. The message may have been one of pure pleasure with a subtext of celebrating being yourself (Jimmy Reed couldn’t have put on an act if he wanted to). The effect was far more reaching.
I sought out five white musicians who were my elders when it came to learning about blues in the first place, to find out whether that’s was the way it really was.
THE FIRST TIME
“Lemme tell you, I know exactly where I was the first time I heard a Jimmy Reed song. I was in Fort Worth, over on the south side, I can’t remember what intersection, when “Honest I Do” came on the radio. I was in the car with about three other guys and I just went apeshit –especially at the big cymbal crash. It wasn’t but a few weeks later we were playing Blue Monday out at the Skyliner Ballroom [on the infamous Jacksboro Highway, the sin strip of Texas], Jimmy Levens [the star black disc jockey on KNOK-AM] always booked us out there. He booked all those shows. Blue Monday was when blacks had the Skyliner [the rest of the week the only blacks in the house were the performers and the hired help] and Jimmy would always put shows on out there.
On this particular night, Red Prysock was out there playing, and I don’t know who all. We played out there a lot, a lot of times played with Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, you know, in fact I think they were there that night. But we were out there, we played on our own [with his band, the Straitjackets], so we got to stay and watch the whole show, sat right on the side of the stage, and I hear somebody playing harp [his voice takes on this faraway wistful tone]. Do you remember the old Skyliner Ballroom? The stage was built for an orchestra, so they would hang this sheer from across the back half of the stage, so it wouldn’t look like such a huge stage. And Jimmy Reed comes walking out behind there playing the harmonica. And I just about shit.
I had been playing harmonica all my life but I was playing stuff like “Dixie” and little Irish jigs, and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”, shit like that. The next day, I went over to T.H.Conn music store–that’s back when harmonicas cost seventy five cents a piece–and I got a few harps. I have been playing harp regularly since that day.”
“My momma used to get mad at me. They used to play him on the radio and I’d be working at my mother’s store, and when Joe Anthony [the disc jockey who hosted the Harlem Hit Parade on KONO in San Antonio] would come on, I’d go in the back room and listen to him. She’d know where I was, and she’d find me and say, ‘Junior, get back over there!’
It was between him or Slim Harpo. They both had that almost nasal kind of voice.
First time I saw Jimmy Reed was at a theater on Telephone Road in Houston. I went there on my motor scooter, drove 200 miles from San Antonio, 35 miles an hour. There wasn’t the Interstate back then. I had an Allstate, cost me forty five cents in gas to get there and cost me $4 to get in. It was mostly all-black [crowd]. If the white people were there, they were Cajuns.”
“When I first encountered Jimmy Reed, it must have been on the radio from Dewey Phillips. Around here [Memphis, where Dickinson grew up] in the mid to late fifties, that’s what was going on. I didn’t understand til I got to Texas that the music I was hearing was not universal music. Dewey Phillips used to say ‘It’s a hit!’ and play a record, and I thought it was a hit.
I first heard Jimmy Reed on the radio, then I spent a long time trying to do it. Seeing the picture of him with the harmonica rack, wow, Bob Dylan must have seen a picture of Woody Guthrie. I didn’t see a picture of Woody Guthrie until way later. But I saw this picture of Jimmy Reed with this rack around his neck, I thought, Damn, lookit that. And I made me a rack out of coat hangers, like every other white boy who would tell you this story, of which there are plenty. Steve Cropper can tell you the same story. Steve Cropper used to have a Jimmy Reed amp, like me. I did 10 or 12 Jimmy Reed songs at my peak, and I did pretty good. I never did figure out crossharp until later. I was blowing, I was playing folk harp. I didn’t know you were supposed to suck, although the second night I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh, I saw him play in at least five keys, using a capo on the double neck. Never changed the harmonica. I have no idea how he did that.
The first time I saw him live was at the auditorium downtown where I saw Elvis in ’56. This was a package show. James Brown was the headliner, must have been ’59, Bo Diddley was on it. Everybody was doing two songs tops, a big band backing them up. Jimmy Reed came out soused. He introduced ‘Goin’ To New York’ and played ‘Take Out Some Insurance’ then kept playing. The band played an ending and he went “Take out some insurance….Jimmy Reed, baby…” introducing himself. They pulled him offstage, he came back onstage, it went on and on. It was a memorable thing.
Albert King was backing him up, and Jimmy would say onstage, ÔTurn me around in G, Albert.’ He’d play some 5-4-1s and he miss it, and sing, ÔTurn me around again.’ I went there with my cousin. Fats Domino was supposed to be on the show. I’ve never known why. You could see him in the wings, we were way in the back, and they said he was sick and he didn’t play. James Brown was the star. They didn’t turn on half the PA until James Brown. The kids in this mostly college crowd kept screaming, ÔBring on the Bullet, bring on the Bullet.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. After the intermission, the announcer said, ÔNow we’re going to bring on the Bullet and the crowd goes crazy.’ And they bring on this black quadriplegic. And they put a stool in the middle of the stage, and a pillow on the stool, and a microphone in front, and they brought him on and put him on the pillow and he screamed into the microphone. That was it. WAAHHHHHHHHHH!
The audience went nuts. Then they came on and got him.
That was the first time I saw Jimmy, and he was….disappointing.”
“When I eleven, I got my first guitar and that’s when I started finding Jimmy Reed records. I said, ‘Oh man, this is for me, I love this.’ Dad took me down to Montgomery Wards there on Seventh Street [in Fort Worth], bought me a Silvertone guitar, a black one that had the gold glitter thrown into the paint, had that little piece of white plastic around the edges, the case was the amplifier, you opened it up and it was painted the same way: glossy black with gold glitter thrown on it, and up in the right-hand corner this little-bitty ol’ eight inch speaker in the case. You took the guitar out and opened the case and stood it up. And that was the amp. Of course I learned every damn Jimmy Reed song that ever was, then I got into Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, anything that had serious rock and roll in it. ‘Big Boss Man’, ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’–it had to have that kind of feel, that kind of emotion. The song was real. You felt like you were living it. Those guys were pulling it off, where they actually made you believe. It was too much for me.”
“I started listening to Jimmy Reed when I was eleven years old. I was just absolutely sucked in. It was before radio became unified. You know, Little Walter had hit records, so did Tommy Tucker [‘High-Heeled Sneakers’] and Bill Doggett with ‘Honky Tonk’. I was walking around telling everybody about Jimmy Reed, and went over to the record store and got his album and would listen to his record over and over and over, every night when I’d go to sleep. Jimmy Reed was so different than all of those people, he was like so real, to me, it just moved me more than anything. He was my most favorite guy.
The tunes were really cool, the playing was so loose, it was perfect to dance to, it was different. He’s the only guy who did that stuff, really. Nobody else played like that, I don’t really know why. I don’t know why I loved it more than all other stuff, but it was my favorite thing. Jim Lowe and Kats Karavan [a nightly rhythm n blues show on WRR-AM in Dallas in the fifties and sixties] had a lot to do with that. That was the radio station we listened to every night and, what’s the one in Tennessee? WLAC. John R. Those guys, we’d listen to that too. Everybody was into that stuff and if you couldn’t play that stuff, you couldn’t get the gig.
“Until he got drunk, he was just a regular guy, although no way he was just a regular guy. But he wasn’t outrageous. He’d get drunk. Have you got the CD that’s got a bunch of outtakes of him on it? I’ve got it here somewhere. You need to get it because there’s no better example of what he was like when he got drunk. On this CD, they keep trying to start the song and he keeps fucking it up. [adopts voice] Ohohohoh. Ah’m sorry. Ah’m sorry. I should be in the key of C, me n you both are on the wild side of the count.
The voice that’d come out, it just don’t get no lower down. If you could put your hand on the truth and pick it up, his voice is the closest thing to everything there is….I just hung on every word he had to say. He was thrilled to death with his popularity, but all he wanted to do was drink whiskey and go out with women.
I’ve got a microphone I’m looking at right now, big ol Shure 550, the kind they like to use today in videos, big ol mic, and I bought that one weekend when Jimmy was gonna work with us and I went so far as to rent a little Bogan PA system–which if you know what that is, well, two speakers clipped together with the amp in the middle. I rented a Bogan PA system and bought this microphone when Jimmy Reed was coming to play.
For the second set, he’d usually come up just drunk out of his mind, in fact he’d usually have two or three women helping him up there, and he got up there and started to sing a song and puked right on this microphone, the very first night I got it. I’ve got in a little showcase here, it’s one of the only things out of my past. Fortunately it’s something with a story attached to it. I’ve worked on that son of a bitch forever with a toothbrush, I’m still not satisfied it’s cleaned. It wasn’t a full-blown blowing beets, it was just one of them little ol’ liquid pukes that just shoot out of your throat, you know what I’m talking about? I watched it happen, I went Shit! What are you gonna say, man? It’s Jimmy Reed. And he’s my hero.”
“He was drunk. He was always drunk. I seen him three times–once in Houston, once in New Orleans, and in Houston again. The third time, I was onstage with him. You know, he’d walk out, sit down, set that microphone out there. I wasn’t there one night, I don’t know where it was, but Jimmy Reed was sitting up there, saying ‘I’m gonna play for ya’ll, all right.’ Turned around and just passed out. ”
“The thing that sounded so great to me as a kid was, this music sounded drunk. Which, they probably were. Later, Albert King told me he was hired to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t know if was true or not, but Albert King told me he was playing drums, that he had been Jimmy Reed’s driver, that is was his job was to keep Jimmy Reed sober. I don’t think he did a very good job, the few times I saw Jimmy Reed in the flesh.
The second time I saw him was more reassuring, which was about ’63 or ’64 at Clear Pool, which was the roller skating rink that Elvis used to rent, out on Lamar. It was an upstairs-downstairs teenage hoodlum venue for fraternity parties, that kind of stuff, and this was a fraternity party. I was playing in the opening band with Don Nix from the Mar-Keys (sp), this might have been a Mar-Key gig, I don’t remember. This was about the time I was playing phony Mar-Key gigs–when the Mar-Keys broke up, they all would book gigs and everybody would be a Mar-Keys, anybody of a certain age group in Memphis who had an instrument was a potential Mar-Key.
I played in the opening band, and I was such a purist, that I missed my chance to play with Jimmy Reed. I could’ve easily stayed on the stage and played, but I thought to myself, Jimmy Reed doesn’t have a piano player, there’s no piano on the records, so I’m not going to play. So I didn’t play. I got drunk instead.
The piano was still on the stage, he propped himself against it, between the piano and the microphone, giving himself as little room to fall over as possible. He was wearing a custom made suit that looked like cutaway tails, but it was made out of awning material, like canvas, bright green canvas that had snaps like a high school letter jacket and a stripe going down his pants, a plastic bow tie, and black plastic cowboy boots. He was beautiful. He was like three or four days gone, just soused, they put the guitar on him, put the harmonica rack on him and he just stood that way backstage. Nix and I were talking to him before he went on.
And he didn’t have his wife with him. ‘Course, part of the mythology is his wife whispered in his ear, and all those stories. Nix would say anything to anybody and we were jiving with Jimmy and he says, ‘Jimmy, where is your wife?’
Jimmy says, [Dickinson speaks slowly] ‘She’s back at the hotel. She can make more money there than I can here.'”
“My job was to make sure he had everything he needed. I brought him towels and whisky, Jimmy was doing a little heroin, you don’t have to mention that one, I guarded the door.”
“Jimmy was just drunk all the time. That was his problem. That gig I played with him was like that. He was about to pass out. That’s where he was at.”
TRANSITIONAL JIMMY REED MOMENT
“We worked with Jimmy a lot, backing him up a lot at Jack’s Place [on the Mansfield Highway in southeast Fort Worth, where the neon sign of a kicking mule was hard to miss–“If the mule was kicking, everything was cool,” Delbert said. “If it wasn’t kicking, it meant there was gonna be a raid that night.”] back in the late fifties and early sixties. Lot of times, he and Sonny Boy [Williamson] both, we would play with them in Fort Worth or Dallas on Friday and Saturday night, and then go up to Oklahoma with ’em to play a black club on Sunday night. One place I remember, in Lawton, was Mother’s Place. Beer and barbecue and blues. That’s the real deal. Jimmy used to bring this guy with him sometimes, this one-eyed bass player, Hal somebody, he was kind of his manager–who knows what he was–he was with him, he was a bass player, relatively no reason for him to be there, I guess they were good buddies, or he, I don’t know, he waddn’t much on watching out for anybody.
Anyway, we took a station wagon up to Oklahoma. Some other black guy was with us, it might have been someone in Sonny Boy’s band. There were two carloads of us, mixed pretty evenly. There were probably ten people, half-black, half-white. I was sitting in the car with Jimmy, you know, and this one-eyed bass player. This guy was wanting to light a cigarette and he didn’t have a match. He reached over the front seat, tapping this black guy sleeping, wanting to get a light from him, and Jimmy reached over and knocked his hand away:
‘Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.’
And I like to have fuckin’ died. I think I was the only one that laughed.
That was the way the talk went. ‘Lev him alone and leave him kept on slepping.’
I guess he didn’t like people smoking ’cause I’ve seen him more than once slap a cigarette out of people’s hands. No smoking on the fuckin’ bandstand.”
“He would sit in the hotel room, and he’d start playing and make up words. We were at a place called the White House Motel out on Main Avenue, a long time ago. We were sitting around talking, and I said something about having to take my son to the doctor. He had his guitar with him all the time, and whatever you were talking about, he’d start singing, that knack or ability, so he sang, ‘I had to take my boy to the doctor….’
I played a two-night stand with him at Liberty Hall in Houston in 1975 [shortly before Reed’s death]. We’d sit there on my bus and tell stories. He told me this one story, he said, ‘Man, I’d got off a gig, got in my car to go to the hotel, got about $5,000, got a bottle of whiskey, got a woman. Wake up in the morning, my car is gone, my $5,000 is gone, the woman’s gone, and the whiskey’s all gone.’
I asked him, ‘How many times that’d happened, Jimmy?’.
He looked at me and smiled.
‘Too many,’ he said.”
“Of my generation of kids who grew up in the fifties, most of us got a guitar and learned to play ‘Honky Tonk’, which is what it is: it is Bill Doggett’s ‘Honky Tonk’. We called the actual riff ‘shifting’ around here. And it became ‘The Twist’, also dada dada dada dada. It’s the same musical notes. It’s part of the interrupted left hand boogie-woogie pattern played on the top two or three strings of the guitar. In both cases, that’s what Chuck Berry does, and that’s what Jimmy Reed does. Or that’s what they appear to do, if you’re a stupid white boy from the suburbs and you can figure out how to do that too.
Soon you realize that they must be doing something else, because when you do it, it doesn’t sound like what they’re doing when they do it. And sure enough, there is a mystery to it. I did finally crack the mystery with the help, the shameful help of a teabag, but sometimes it takes our brothers from across the water to open our eyes to the truth.
The first Jimmy Reed record was an obscure one. It’s one of the early ones, which we referred to around here as ‘Backed Up to the Window’ which is just a line from the second verse. That’s what everybody called it. The actual name of the song is “Can’t Stand to See You Go”. There’s a mistake in the intro, one of the rare cases where he uses a guitar intro. Usually he uses the harmonica. There’s this guitar figure for the intro and whoever’s playing guitar screws it up and you hear Jimmy Reed laugh. I loved it because of that. You hear this riff, riff, then ‘hahahahaha’ and the next start and finally he starts to sing.
You can’t understand maybe three words out of ten, and it’s a wonderful song. And as a stupid white kid in the suburbs of Memphis back in the fifties, I sat there with the record until I figured out what this guy was saying and it still didn’t make any sense. You can’t tell whether the song is about suicide or what. Great song. Harmonica sounds broken. That was when I started to debate what was the difference between those Jimmy Reed records and other records that represented the same genre. And I didn’t find that out until the seventies: the difference was the engineer, a white guy.
It’s like with Robert Johnson and Don Law. There always has to be the white guy, like Leonard Chess was to Muddy Waters. Like Miss McBurney was to Elmore James in Jackson. There has to be that guy. In this case, it was an audio designer named Bill Putnam who receives label credit. He built Universal Studios in Chicago where they made this stuff. He is the explanation for why Jimmy Reed sounds like it does. It’s primitive music, of course, with no bass. The best recordings on Veejay were made with no bass guitar at all. It sounds like the drums are maybe boxes and the guy’s hitting it with his shoe–BUT, the sound is real good, the audio quality of this lo-fi sound has been recorded in hi-fi by this weird guy Bill Putnam who built studios. He built the studio that is now Ocean Way in Hollywood, probably the highest dollar studio in America. Allen Sides (sp.) the current owner, one of his big selling points is that when he bought the studio, he ripped all the seventies and eighties treatment off the wall and went back to the original Bill Putnam room. That’s why the Rolling Stones are recording there.
I’m sure Bill Putnam would have been more comfortable recording a string quartet. In a way, it’s like George Martin with the Beatles and those guys in lab jackets that you see in early recording pictures. They couldn’t have possibly liked the music. I doubt very seriously Bill Putnam enjoyed the experience in recording Jimmy Reed, but he recorded the crap out of him.
Used to be at the fraternity party, we’d do the third set blues, to make people leave. Bout ’59, ’60, they started staying. Kids coming back from college would actually request Jimmy Reed songs. Because they wanted to do this specific dance, which in Texas was the Push. Around here, it was a little bit different. It was called the UT, and it’s the same basic thing, but a pre-Twist. I remember the night onstage when the third or fourth person asked me to play a Jimmy Reed song. I thought, Something has shifted here. Something has changed. We became known for doing Jimmy Reed stuff. At the same time, Steve Cropper was in a band called the Royal Spades, that became the Mar-Keys, with a rack around his neck would stand at microphone and try to sing Jimmy Reed songs.
“The North Texas Push was the fuckin’ dance. Everybody loved it. It was the coolest dance I’ve ever seen, to this day. It was originally called the North Texas Push, and Jimmy Leavens at the Skyliner touted it as the greatest dance floor in Texas, this was before Gilley’s or any of that shit. It was half the size of Fort Worth. My job was to keep it slick, so he gave me a big box of Ivory Snow detergent that looked like snowflakes and I’d go out and sprinkle that on the dance floor. Boy, you could slide across that sumbitch like it was an ice pond. And I’d help him pick up the beer bottles at night, and that’s how I got the gig. He’d had one bad leg, Jimmy did, God bless him, and all the waitresses were a bunch of idiots and they’d leave the place a mess. This club seats 500 people, big place. And Jimmy’s out there, dragging that one bad leg out there trying to pick up all these beer bottles and carry them out to the bar. I says, ‘Jimmy, you put them away. I’ll go get em.’
That’s how I got the job warming up acts like Ray Sharpe with my band. He’s losing business to the Rocket Club, so he says, ‘Jerry, what am I gonna do? Nobody’s coming to the club anymore.’
I said, ‘Jimmy, you need to book these black artists. The big dance now is the North Texas Push’, and it started up in Denton at the college, and these college kids are flipping out about this dance.’ He says, ‘Who do you have to book to get them to do that dance?’
I says, ‘They love Jimmy Reed–Jimmy Reed, Bobby Blue Bland, Ike and Tina Turner.’
He says, ‘Can you book these acts?’
Before I could even think about it, my mouth went ‘Yeah.’ So I went home and got out all the albums that everybody loved to dance to, and called the record label, and found out there managers, and called them up. Ike and Tina were about Eight Grand, Bobby Blue Bland Seven, and Jimmy Reed Six. All of them you had to send half the money up front.
Jimmy said, ‘All right, let’s book ’em up. But who should we book first?’
I said, ‘Jimmy Reed. He is the God of North Texas Push, this is what everybody dances to.’
He gave me the money, I got him booked in.”
“Our house was very integrated. My dad was a doctor in Dallas and he had black lab technicians. He actually got arrested for having a race party, a Christmas party for everybody who worked in the pathology lab. It was like 4:30 in the afternoon, and cops came down and handcuffed him and everybody else, threw him in jail. In my family there were a lot of black people coming and going. T-Bone Walker used to come over to the house all the time, was a good friend of my father’s.
My dad listened to all kinds of music, he was into recording music. He’d go into black Baptist churches and record Sister [Rosetta] Tharpe and people like that, he was recording those people for himself, just for his own collection. Anyone who was a good musician, my dad would end up knowing them. We had all of that music going on in our house all the time, but it seemed there was black music going on in everybody’s house. In a lot of ways the South was a lot hipper than the north, and in a lot of ways, it was a lot worse. The segregation part was terrible, but the two cultures crossed a lot.
I started playing fraternity gigs when I was twelve years old. You had to play Bobby Blue Bland, you had to do Ray Charles, you had to do Little Walter, a little Muddy Waters, some Chuck Berry. Black music was all anybody was interested in. Even the white bands were playing black music. We were way ahead of the curve.
When I was fourteen, my band backed up Jimmy Reed at Lou Ann’s
It was amazing. It’s hard to believe. There weren’t any rock n roll bands. I think we were the second rock and roll band in Dallas, Mario Daboub and the Nightcaps and the Marksmen combo [Miller’s band] were the only two bands in Dallas for a really long time.
We played Jimmy Reed tunes, so getting to play with him was interesting. We did this gig out at Lou Ann’s. It was Ben E. King and Jimmy Reed. We backed up Jimmy Reed, and he was sooooo drunk. I never really get to talk to him. I didn’t even think he was even going to be able to play. He was almost unconscious before he hit the stage. He had this black guy with him, who was sort of his roadie who ran the band, and we were just little kids wearing seersucker suits and Ray Charles sunglasses trying to be cool.”
“Jimmy Reed is a phenomenal lyricist. ‘Course you got to be able to understand what he’s saying. I took it real, real serious to try to understand that. I can’t think of one other person–Jimmy Reed is as unique as Bob Wills. Like with Bob Wills, you hear Bob Wills, you know it’s Bob Wills. It ain’t somebody else. Jimmy Reed, there’s just nobody sounds remotely like him.”
“He had muscles. You ever see his arms? He’d take his shirt off. He was built.”
“Jimmy Reed, like Howlin’ Wolf, is a mystery. Because, A–what is he singing? –and B–what does it mean? The simplicity of what he appears to be doing musically, is again, another mystery. Like Chuck Berry, it appears to be this very simple musical thing that every white boy of a certain generation learned how to do. And it’s not. If you watch his hands, again like Chuck Berry, watch his hands, they’re basically the same riff. Chuck Berry played it in eighth notes and it became rock and roll. The same exact pattern, Jimmy Reed had been playing since God knows when. Which is a pattern. That’s why it became so accessible to a generation of white people. Chuck Berry plays it with all the eighth notes having the same value, like Billy Gibbons does. But Jimmy Reed plays it in a shuffle pattern, where the two eighth notes are divided. He also plays it slower.
I went to Texas in 1960, assuming that music was over for me, that I was going to do something else. But in Texas, I found all these people who loved Jimmy Reed, so at the cast party–I was in theatre–wherever we were, we lived in this apartment on campus in Waco called the Catacombs. We had this unofficial group, the Catacombs Coon Hunters, which was me and this guy John Logan who later wrote ‘Jack Ruby, All-American Boy’, the musical that they did in Dallas, and this girl who later did dinner theater in Dallas named Sharon Bunn, used to read about her, we had a Jimmy Reed in Life pact that we’d do at various social functions. It seemed odd to me to be transplanted into this group of people who all loved Jimmy Reed. But then I did see the West Texas Push, the dance that everybody did to that particular rhythm in Texas.
The feel for the music, the subtle laziness, the swing factor, whatever the drummer would tell you it was in that shuffle, and the tonality of his voice. There was a back of the throat, top of the head sub-nasal tonality. He sounded drunk. He sounded loose. He sounded funky. All those things that I liked.
The thing about the lick, OK, it’s obviously ‘Honky Tonk’, until you get to the five chord, which would be B7 if you’re playing the lead, the turnaround, the blues pattern. Then, Jimmy Reed does something. He plays this thing, this riff, instead of the five chord, that eluded me for twenty years, I guess, until Keith Richard showed me backstage at the Astrodome. ‘This is the way you do it.’ And it is.
That takes it across the fuckin’ ocean to another bunch of white boys, another place, hearing his mysterious drunken sound. Mystery is a real important part of it too because it was, and is, remains mysterious, that music pattern. In a way a lot of other blues singers don’t get to. Howlin’ Wolf, certainly, is a more drastic example, but that same sense of mystery is attached to Jimmy Reed. He’s from somewhere else.
And it is ensemble playing. He has a band and they are in the pocket, a way few other bands ever get to. And it sounds like morons playing on boxes, but it is in this unbelievable groove. The bass is being played by a guitar, and they’re all out of tune. The harmonica by nature of its existence. They’re at least drunk, if not more, and yet somehow, it comes together in this pulse that talked to a generation of white kids in a way nobody white was doing. As a musician, it gives you a workable pattern, cause if you can’t play it right, at least you can play it wrong and get by. They were playing on Silvertones and Kays. There weren’t any Les Pauls or Stratocasters.”
“There aren’t a lot of people who know Jimmy Reed cold. Everybody thinks they do, but they don’t even have a clue. All my rhythm guitar playing comes from Jimmy Reed records. Taj Mahal taught me the final ultissimo licks and put it all together for me.
The simplicity of Jimmy Reed stuff and his band and what they did is just so natural, it’s great.”
“One thing, Jimmy worked a lot, he was on the road. He worked a lot, and I can only assume that everywhere else was like Texas. The college kids just fuckin’ loved him. I think it was because he was so unique. I know what an impact he made on me.
My parents didn’t give me shit [for liking Reed], they just didn’t understand it. ‘Course I was way far gone into it before knew what I was doing. My parents never did try to stop me. They worried the hell a lot about me. You can imagine my parents coming from where they came from [Lubbock] and all of sudden rock and roll comes along and then their little boy’s listening to mmmrrruhhuhwuhwuhwuh [making a guttural sound somewhere between a Reed vocal and a mouth harp], just low-down shit.
I played a lot of black clubs back in the late fifties and early sixties, and never ever one time did we catch any shit. ‘Course we were there with the fuckin’ star, too, and we were playing the music pretty damn good. And at this point, everybody in the world wasn’t doing it. There weren’t that many good bands that could supply, and do it well.
All the white folks–I mean, let’s define which white folks we’re talking about. The white folks that came out to the club, they were all into it. And at that time, it was a real novelty for a lot of people to hang out with black people. So, a lot of times, people would try to come through me or other guys in the band to get close to these guys. You know, we’d be their window into hanging with them, because we were backing them up.
I remember another night, at Jack’s Place, Jimmy Reed and Buster Brown. This is right when I started getting into these guys. I had harmonicas in hand, and I was determined to take every opportunity to learn something from these guys. So, before the show ever even started, I’m in the dressing room with Buster Brown and Jimmy Reed, and they’re passing a fifth of Old Granddad whisky back and forth between ’em. And I’m like twenty, twenty one, couldn’t drink [legally], but I’m getting that bottle double, I’m in the middle so I’m getting it twice for every time they’re getting it once. Never saw the show. Never even made it to the opening fuckin’ note, man. I was drunk and passed out in the office at Jack’s Place.
I know that Jimmy Reed music was the most popular thing that we got requests for, because people could do the Push to it. And anytime he was in town, all the Push people, which during a particular few years there was like a religion, as is now the Shag in North Carolina, which is very, very similar, whole lot of the same steps. Hell, I worked down there and people have got gold chains around their neck with SHAG written in gold, I mean they live it, you know. That’s how my popularity grew in the Carolinas, because I was doing all that old music there, this guys comes from Texas, and I’m doing all this music. Hell, there was a period of years back when I didn’t have anything going, North and South Carolina kept me alive. And I’m still a big item down there. I’ve got fans down there that’d take a bullet for me, because like they shag to this music.
The Push, in my opinion, is a much classier, more interesting dance than the Shag, but basically it’s the same thing.
Between him and Sonny Boy, that’s how I learned to play. I’d say how’d you do that? Course you couldn’t see anything they were doing. It’s hard to say how he taught me. I wanted to know, and I had multiple opportunities to be sitting knee to knee with him and listen to him play. By doing that, I’d try to copy him. ‘Course at the same time, I also developed my own style, so it was a good thing. I knew I was in a good place at the time.
He was always gracious. He didn’t give me too much shit. Any time you ask him something, he was available, unless he was stoned out of his mind or he was chasing women. He did whine a lot. I think that’s why he liked to have that one-eyed bass player with him. He was a pure artist.”
“The only guy I know who can sing like Jimmy Reed today is Rocky Morales.”
“When I was writing for music for Ry Cooder doing movie soundtracks, we did ‘Streets of Fire’, it was all futuristic fifties music like Link Wray stuff. He wanted some kind of Jimmy Reed thing. Cooder, the way we used to do things, he’d cut a band track, then he gave it to me to write words to. It was pretty good for where we were and what we were doing, it was pretty Jimmy Reed-esque. It was Cooder and Tim Drummond and Jim Keltner. I sitting in the Miramar hotel in Santa Monica, trying to write words to this thing. I had a couple of verses, I had an idea going. But Jimmy Reed, there was always that one line hook that had any number of vague meanings, specific and universal and all that literary stuff, and I had to have one of those lines. The way I worked with Cooder. I was in the hotel room and had on headphones and a small tape recorder, I’d just play the band track over and over and write words.
I’ve heard other people talk about hearing voices in their head, but never happened to me before or since .but I swear to you as I’m sitting here now, I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed in my head, sing the entire hook line and I just wrote it down.
Which is ‘You got what you wanted but I got what you need tonight.’
I heard the voice of Jimmy Reed sing it into my ear. I promise you.
Jimmy Reed paid the price for being Jimmy Reed. He obviously drank himself to death and he didn’t and couldn’t take care of business. But the thing to remember, it’s hard to keep in context now with the commercialization of rock and roll, is that it was not popular music. It is now. But it wasn’t then. The blues never was popular, it’s a complaint, it’s a bitch, it’s a gripe. Robert Johnson never played for more than fifty people at one time in his career, but the music of Robert Johnson, inexplicably it will not go away. And so it is with Jimmy Reed. He’s singing about the human condition. He was obviously not an establishment figure. He was talking back to the boss man: ‘You’re just tall, that’s all.’ Read his lyrics and tell me it’s not poetry. ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, which if you write it out appears to make sense on two or three different levels, if you closely analyze it really doesn’t make any sense at all. Everybody thinks they know what it’s about and it’s not about anything. ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ is the same thing, it’s such a simple one line idea it means anything: ‘Bright lights, big city went to my baby’s head’ fucking says it! That’s the whole story.”
” I got Jimmy to teach me how to play guitar.”
” See, Jimmy sold a lot of records. He probably sold more records than Muddy Waters and Little Walter or those guys in Chicago. In my world, Jimmy Reed had hits. ‘Big Boss Man’ was a big hit. ‘Goin’ To New York’, ‘Honest I Do’. Just one after another. Those were hits that were played on the radio. The radio back then did play a lot of black music. Then about 1960 it got all screwed up. When WLS and Dick Biondi and those guys in Chicago and those guys in the East Coast, we used to laugh our asses off at Fabian and people like that, they were junk. That was manufactured bullshit. Jimmy Reed was real.
When I was thirteen, I spent one summer in Florida and played in a band. The same thing was going on. Bands were integrating stuff and it was touch and go. Sometimes there’d be trouble, most of the time there wasn’t. I grew up in an integrated world, so to me, it seemed weird when people were trying to segregate things. At the same time, I didn’t know any black people as equals until I went to college, and I went up to the University of Wisconsin. They were the first guys I met that were as smart as me, who weren’t yard men or something, like it was in the South, especially in Texas.
I think the music really broke down those barriers. You talk about Martin Luther King, I was a freedom rider, and I was in SNCC [The Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee]. I was very involved in civil rights after I got out of Texas because I that felt segregation was really bullshit.
It was Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker and Martin Luther King for me, really and truly. The music definitely broke down the barriers way before the law did or before Martin Luther King did. Guys like Jimmy Reed were making people think. A lot of people weren’t thinking of it in terms of race and segregation, they weren’t thinking about it at all, except they liked the music and danced to it and they got down to it.”
[Blues Access magazine]
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
How San Antonio’s Clear Channel Communications is ruining radio in your townand in the rest of the country.
IF YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD OF A SAN ANTONIO COMPANY called Clear Channel Communications, it’s because you aren’t listening. From its unlikely nerve center in south-central Texas, this once modest, family-run owner of a handful of radio and television stations has exploded into a media giant, dominating radio like no single entity ever has before. Unleashed by government deregulation in 1996, founder Lowry Mays shelled out billions for properties like Jacor Communications and Tom Hicks’s AMFM, formerly the biggest radio conglomerate in the country. Today one of every ten commercial radio stations in the United States belongs to Clear Channelincluding six stations in Dallas-Fort Worth, eight stations in Houston, seven stations in San Antonio, six stations in Austin, six in El Pasoa total of more than 1,200 domestic channels in some 250 markets. Its closest rival, Cumulus Broadcasting, has 240 stations. (Texas Monthly’s parent company, Emmis Communications, owns 23 radio and 15 TV stations and is another of Clear Channel’s competitors.)
Clear Channel’s manic, multimedia shopping spree didn’t end there. Last year it also bought SFX Entertainment, which owns the majority of the outdoor amphitheaters in America, including the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater near San Antonio, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion near Houston, and a minority interest in the Smirnoff Music Centre (Starplex) in Dallas, as well as dozens of theaters and other performing venues. This instantly made the company’s subsidiary Clear Channel Entertainment the dominant concert promoter in the United States. And wait, there’s more: Clear Channel now has the second-largest number of billboards of any company in the United States, nineteen television stations, and nine hundred radio and TV Web sites. The company, which was founded in 1972, has doubled in size every eighteen months over the past five years.
All of this may sound like harmless, run-of-the-mill media giantism in the early twenty-first century. Unfortunately it’s not, especially the way the Mays familyLowry and his sons, Mark and Randall, the company’s iron triangleplays the game. In fact, they give new meaning to the phrase “control of the airwaves.” Their size and aggressiveness have given them unprecedented say not only over what you hear on the radio all over the country but in how music is sold, promoted, and performed. As the big guys on the blockwho dictate programming at 1,200 stationsthey are more responsible than anyone else for the cookie-cutter state of radio, where more and more stations sound the same, no matter where you go.
That may be good for business, but it almost certainly isn’t good for listeners. I love radio and its ability to be local, immediate, and mobile in a way that other media cannot. There is nothing more “local” in origin and impact than a hometown radio disc jockey or talk show host. But Clear Channel is changing that, bringing to the airwaves the hard, bottom-line logic of the fast-food franchise, and I don’t think it translates. Radio doesn’t need its own version of Wal-Mart. A listener in Tampa doesn’t necessarily want to hear the same oldies that are popular with listeners in Seattle, nor are classic rock, news talk, modern rock, or hot country all the same coast to coast.
Clear Channel doesn’t see it that way. In place of local hosts, the company is syndicating personalities such as Bob and Tom on their classic-rock properties or Kidd Kraddick on contemporary-hits stations they own in Texas and in other states. Some of these choices have been dictated by the company’s acquisitions. To achieve “synergy” from its purchase of Premiere Radio Networks, Clear Channel needs to employ the syndicated radio personalities that came along with it. A perfect example is Clear Channel’s hometown flagship station, WOAI-AM, which has altered its news-talk format by replacing locally hosted talk programs with the syndicated Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, Phil Hendrie, and Art Bell, all of whom were part of Premiere Networks. That may have improved the station’s efficiency and affirmed Clear Channel’s synergy, but it has compromised WOAI’s ability to function as a true voice of its community.
Another practice that sacrifices local content to national business considerations is Clear Channel’s cross-promotion of radio and its entertainment properties. Traditionally concert promoters have worked with radio stations to promote events through giveaways and plugs that go beyond traditional advertising, a practice that benefits not only the stations and the concert halls but also the music acts. Clear Channel has made this arrangement proprietary: Its radio stations give priority to Clear Channel Entertainment-promoted concerts over non-Clear Channel ventures.
This has prompted a number of complaints by competitors in both radio and the concert business. Though many of the detractors have declined to voice publicly their dissatisfaction lest they offend Clear Channel, one Denver concert promoter, Nobody In Particular Presents, has gone to court accusing the San Antonio company of monopolistic and predatory practices by preventing the promoter from hiring touring musicians. They say that some of those musicians fear losing airplay on Clear Channel radio stations if they don’t work with Clear Channel Entertainment concert promoters. The company denies these allegations. One independent concert promoter says he’s found it almost impossible to work out promotion arrangements with Clear Channel radio stations because of Clear Channel’s policy. Sometimes the company takes this practice to absurd lengths: It once hyped a Michael Bolton show on a modern-rock station even though it likely hurt the station’s credibility with its audience.
Competitors who try to subvert Clear Channel’s control end up paying a price. A Washington, D.C., radio station that bought $3,000 worth of tickets for a Wango Tango concert in Los Angeles to give away to listeners was hit with a lawsuit by the concert’s promoterClear Channel Entertainment, of courseclaiming that only Clear Channel stations could give away tickets to concerts it promotes, no matter where they are.
The way Clear Channel makes its will known to its far-flung holdings became apparent in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack. In the week following the disaster, corporate headquarters circulated a list of songs it felt would not be suitable for airplay. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” were predictable choices. But other songs on the list, such as John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and anything by Rage Against the Machine makes one wonder what their programmers have been drinking. According to Mark Mays, Clear Channel’s president and chief operating officer, Clear Channel did not dictate such playlists to its stations. “As always, programming decisions are made locally by each station manager and program director,” he says.
Meanwhile, ticket prices for concertsan industry in which Clear Channel Entertainment now controls about half of the business in the U.S.are at an all-time high. I realize the company has to justify the inflated price it paid for SFX, but when consumers have to subsidize it with $7 service charges added on to each ticket purchased or $4 for a twelve-ounce bottle of wateras was the case this summer at the new Verizon Wireless Amphitheatersomething is wrong with the picture. No wonder overall concert revenues were down 12 percent earlier this year at concerts by the top fifty touring acts, according to Pollstar magazine.
Mays says the criticism about Clear Channel is coming largely from disgruntled rivals who can no longer compete. “No one likes change,” he says in an interview at Clear Channel’s cool, casual corporate headquarters in the Quarry Market area in San Antonio. “How would you like to be the Z102 guy who gets fired because he’s being replaced by Bob and Tom? It is our responsibility to provide compelling programming to our listeners, and that requires changewhich is always difficult.” Mays insists that Clear Channel is practicing good business and not playing out of bounds. The number of stations Clear Channel owns isn’t the issue, Mays contends, so much as the diversity of what is heard over the airwaves. He is emphatic in his belief that Clear Channel promotes more, not less, variety in radio programming. And Clear Channel is delivering the goods so effectively, he says, that those eating its dust are not happy about it.
“There is no question in my mind that the consolidation has increased the diversity of programming,” Mays says. “If we were a stand-alone operation, we would not be able to operate in the diverse number of formats that we do today.” Clear Channel’s success, he explains, is based on running each of its divisions as a separate entrepreneurial business unit under a centralized financial management umbrella. “We have created a platform that is very unique and very different for the business we’re inoperating like a little company with big resources.” He says his stations have plenty of autonomy. The lawsuits, Mays says, are just part of doing business. “Because of our ability to compete and be successful, someone is going to be upset about it.”
As much as I was impressed by my visit to Clear Channel’s officeswhose atmosphere suggests a small, successful family operation where the boss’s door is open to every employeeI still don’t buy Mays’s argument that the company’s approach is ultimately not bad for listeners. The bigness beyond the building is too hard to shake. The gargantuan scale of Mays’s “convergence, consolidation, and synergy” is on the verge of tipping that delicate balance between art and commerce that has characterized radio for the past half century. That is not a good thing. Since radio first came into existence, listeners have always had a clear option if they didn’t like what they heard: Change the channel. But what choice is there now, really, when everywhere I go it’s Bob and Tom?
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 8, 2002
There’s an inherent flaw to creating a Texas Top 40 using Billboard as the source: Billboard didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a clue. According to Billboard, Mouse & the Traps, the Tyler, Texas, band that paid homage to Bob Dylan with “Public Execution,” later immortalized on the Nuggets punk retrospective, didn’t even exist. In Austin, Ray Campi’s “Caterpillar,” the Slades’ “You Cheated,” and Roky Erickson’s first band the 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” also acknowledged on Nuggets, Vol. 1, were all radio hits. The Moving Sidewalks, Billy Gibbons’ first band, garnered loads of Houston AM radio airplay with their psychedelic single, “99th Floor,” alongside the Elevators and Fever Tree’s “San Francisco Girls.” Rene & Rene’s bilingual belly-rubber “Believe Me” got so much South Texas airplay that they were radio gods. So, my Texas Top 40 is offered with considerable hesitation. You may think Christopher Cross was somebody because Billboard recognized “Ride Like the Wind” and “Sailing.” I find another local San Antonio chart-topper, Sonny Ace y Los Twisters, who was doing Rock en Español before there was a name for it back in the mid-Sixties, far more significant, not to mention spiritually nourishing. Any chart that doesn’t have room for Jimmy Dee’s “Henrietta,” the Triumphs’ “Garner State Park” (before B.J. Thomas went solo), Bruce Channel’s follow-up to “Hey Baby” — “Going Back to Louisiana” — isn’t really an accurate barometer at all.
[You Cheated in the Austin Chroncicle]
West Side Horns
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September 13, 2002
San Quilmas (Dialtone Records)
Within the first few bars of “Rainbow Riot,” the opening track of the West Side Horns’ San Quilmas, three great revelations came to me while getting reacquainted with the honey-dripping saxophones of Eracleo (Rocky) Morales, Spot Barnett, and Louis Bustos blending with Al Gomez’ trumpet, Jack Barber’s swinging bass, and Arturo (Sauce) Gonzalez’s fat Hammond B-3 chops: 1.) Doug Sahm lives! The Horns defined Doug’s puro San Antonio pachuco soul, and you can hear it right here. 2.) San Antonio Express-News music critic Jim Beal was right on comparing the West Side Horns to the Memphis Horns, and the reggae rhythms of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. They’re that good, and that distinctive; worthy of the North Texas tenor tradition, articulated by Buster Smith and carried by David “Fathead” Newman, and the Honker & Shouter school, defined by Arnett Cobb and still practiced by Grady Gaines. The West Side Horns sound like San Antonio should, with roots firmly planted in the R&B and swing traditions of Aaron (T-Bone) Walker and Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown in particular, with a jalapeño con Big Red afterburn. 3.) They’re pretty great taken on their own terms, especially with the added presence of Johnny Moeller on guitar and his brother Jay on drums. They traffic in a bluesy instrumental jazz-funk, where lead breaks are economical, short, and to the point, and all ears are first and foremost locked on the rhythm. Sort of like those other all-stars from Memphis, Booker T. & the MGs, if they’d grown up on El West Side: an obscure Freddy King instrumental (“High Rise”) here, Joe Zawinul there (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”), and like-sounding originals (“Hit’ N the Jug”) sprinkled in. Thrice the formula is broken, when Morales vocalizes (quite well) in an earthy voice, recalling in verse and timbre the great Jimmy Reed, one of the first black bluesmen to find favor among white audiences in the south and Texas in the late Fifties and early Sixties (he influenced Delbert McClinton, Steve Miller, Augie Meyers, and Dusty Hill among others). Ever since he single-handedly revived the career of Freddy Fender with his searing solo on Sahm’s version of “Wasted Days, Wasted Nights” more than 30 years ago, I’ve regarded Morales as the one of the best, if not my very favorite, horn player in the state. His sendup of Reed seals the deal, because he’s got Jimmy, trashed-out and drawling, down cold. Rocky Morales is beyond cool. Rocky is hep. But on this recording, he’s only among equals, because he stands next to Spot Barnett, the house band leader at the Ebony Club on San Antonio’s east side, and the object of admiration of all three horns in the West Side Horns as teenagers as well as Doug. (“I used to want to be a pimp like Spot,” Sahm told me almost three decades back.) Barnett came out of retirement at Sir Doug’s behest in the mid-Nineties and has stuck around, his seasoned honks providing the anchor for the horns in more ways than one. In that respect, San Quilmas is really a piece of history, a continuum of Doug, T-Bone, Gatemouth, Freddy, Clifford Scott, and all the other arbiters of Texas jump blues pumped into the corpuscles of SA vatos. The breadth of their repertoire, always coolly danceable, and a pedigree of those they quote from underscore a greater, bittersweet truth that when the Horns finally hang it up, this kind of sound will be gone for good. Hear it while you can. It’s the sound of roadhouses and jukes, dancing to the music so hard you can feel the whole joint shake. And while you’re at it, you might want to work on those dance steps, too.
James Luther Dickinson
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 18, 2002
Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis)
You may know Jim Dickinson as the daddy of those North Mississippi All-Stars, producer of the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, or the guy who played piano with the Stones on Sticky Fingers and Dylan on Time Out of Mind. For others, he’s the white cat out of Memphis, who 30 years ago cut his one and only solo album Dixie Fried, one of the best rock & roll albums of all time. Well, the Dickinson growl and his hard-bitten Easy Credit No Money Down, Years to Pay philosophical rant is back, most clearly evident in “Hungry Town,” which throws more than a few hints about where the Stones at their peak learned their funk. Or take “Asshole,” a tune that manages to rhyme the orifice with both “that’s so” and “low class-o,” and even inject “little children” into the lyrical fray while skipping along to a musical duel to the death that pits a gypsy violin against a smoky xylophone. With his greasy fingerprints smudging a gospel rant/Ry Cooder retro-roots mandolin stomp (“JC’s NYC Blues”), sentimental covers of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” and Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly,” plus loads of references to gambling that only Texas hustlers in Vegas and Southern cads on riverboats can fully appreciate, Dickinson’s album should be required to carry the following warning: “Anything Dixie Fried may not be good for your health, but it sure sounds good anyway.” The artery-clogger lives.
Songwriter helps lead the fight against development
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 12, 2003
EL PASO – Tom Russell can lay claim as the “last” singer-songwriter in Texas. That’s because he lives in a historic 70-year-old adobe home on 3 acres within spitting distance of the New Mexico state line.
The Los Angeles native, whose folk songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith and K.D. Lang, has lived in many corners of the world – Nigeria in wartime, Austin as it was emerging as a music scene, San Francisco and Brooklyn. But he now lives in the far end of far West Texas by choice.
The rural area is known as the Upper Valley, a swath of green bordering both sides of the Rio Grande for a mile or two as it meanders through the Chihuahuan Desert. The rugged western flank of the Franklin Mountains, the southern end of the Rockies that end in the heart of the city, provides a scenic backdrop.
“This is the last oasis in West Texas,” says Mr. Russell, 55. “It’s a refuge for heron, desert tortoises, egrets, raccoons, skunks, badgers, you name it. I have foxes walking through my yard every day.”
But the days of Mr. Russell’s idyllic retreat may be numbered. Progress in the form of two-story stucco houses built to their lot lines – crammed into subdivisions, five to eight homes per acre – are marching his way at a fast pace, with requests by developers for city zoning variances leading the way.
The first skirmish came last year when Mr. Russell and five of his neighbors managed to reroute massive overhead power lines that were proposed to run directly over their homes.
A controlled access highway completed two years ago to link Interstate 10 with Santa Teresa, N.M., has been a magnet attracting subdivisions, which in turn are attracting commercial developments.
Farming on plots of land less than 100 acres was already in decline in the Upper Valley, as it is everywhere in the United States. The sandy river-bottom soil is certainly productive enough. But the cost of planting, growing and harvesting crops, and increased competition from other countries add up to food and fibers being grown somewhere else.
Factor in what Mr. Russell sees as a city leadership overly supportive of growth and development at the expense of residents, and the Upper Valley becomes vulnerable. It is one of the few green spaces remaining in the metro area.
Yet those who support growth and development say that El Pasoans need housing and that it is being provided under the rules and guidelines set forth.
“Ownership of property is one of our basic rights in America, and it cannot be vulnerable to opposition without good cause,” says Rex Smith, a landowner who purchased Upper Valley property a year ago and immediately sought a zoning variance from the City Planning Commission. “Progress happens, and it cannot be stopped.”
Susan Austin, the City Council member who represents the Upper Valley, pushed for lower-density housing rules after initial protests. But she – along with the majority of the council – also voted to approve Mr. Smith’s application for higher-density housing. That has prompted one of Mr. Russell’s neighbors to mount a recall campaign of Ms. Austin.
Even if she has been the object of much wrath, Ms. Austin calls the activism of Mr. Russell and his neighbors “as passionate as any neighborhood group in my district.”
But she pointedly adds that they should put their money where their mouths are. “A lot of people want to preserve the idea of having a ranch-size homestead without having bought a ranch-size homestead, including Tom Russell, ” Ms. Austin says.
“Some of the people all over me don’t even live in the city. They live in the county” – outside the city limits. “The city can regulate. There are no zoning restrictions at all in the county.”
Mr. Russell came to El Paso seeking the same sort of inspiration that artists such as Tom Lea and Luis Jimenez and writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Benjamin Saenz have mined so well. “He always loved places like this,” says his sister Nan Lazzaretto, a schoolteacher.
Mr. Russell’s home is a hideout of sorts, in the outlaw tradition, tucked behind a wall of trees, high brush and cane that suddenly materializes among the fields of cotton, chili peppers, pecan plantations and pastoral horse farms that define the Upper Valley way of life.
“I love that there is no scene here,” he says as he doffs his cowboy hat to reveal a head of graying, wavy hair. “I don’t have to worry about being seen.”
Unlike Brooklyn, where he lived for almost 20 years before moving here six years ago, “people here are pleasant and neighborly,” he says.
“Downtown El Paso is like a movie set. It’s like things have never changed. I love being close to Mexico. I love the history. The Old Spanish Road up to Santa Fe is right down here. I grew up on Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’ and the tales of gunfighters.” As it happens, Rosa’s Cantina is not too far down the road.
Sometimes friends stop in. Dave Alvin drops by whenever he’s on his way from his home in Los Angeles to gigs in the southern United States. So does Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
A few years back, Mr. Russell hosted a border-town birthday bash for songwriter and visual artist Terry Allen that drew a gaggle of like-minded professional dreamers. Not everyone gets it. The late folk legend Dave Van Ronk, whose last recording was backing up Mr. Russell, likened El Paso’s dry summer heat to being “in a pizza oven.”
Mr. Russell started writing, singing and playing originals more than 30 years ago, inspired by hearing his older brother sing cowboy songs and seeing Bob Dylan perform “Desolation Row” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964.
He taught criminology in Nigeria from 1969-70 during the Biafran war , then followed friends he made in Africa to Vancouver, British Columbia. A band performing Hank Williams songs on Skid Row moved him to think: “That’s the job for me.” He landed in Austin in 1974 during that city’s nascent era as a music scene. Later, he drifted to San Francisco before landing in Brooklyn in the early ’80s.
He shifted his focus to writing (“I’m a frustrated novelist,” he says) and drove cabs to pay the bills. When he sang a song he’d written called “Gallo del Cielo” to one fare – the composer Robert Hunter, who collaborates with the Grateful Dead – he was encouraged to get back on stage.
Life in El Paso has suited him just fine. His adobe hacienda is filled with Mexican pickled-pine furniture and folk art. He just finished an open, Mexican-style patio. He has incorporated the landscape and local history into his work.
The critic John Swenson called Mr. Russell’s ambitious 1999 song cycle The Man From God Knows Where as “close to a Homeric treatment of American history as we’re ever likely to see.” Two years ago, he released Borderland, which includes “When Sinatra Played Juarez,” a song inspired by his ex-girlfriend’s uncle.
The uncle, who found the house Mr. Russell lives in, used to play piano across the border when Juarez was a hotbed for quickie Mexican divorces. The location also satisfies Mr. Russell’s jones for bullfighting and his love of the border, although twice he’s found himself caught in the crossfire of warring drug gangs in Juarez.
Mostly, though, Mr. Russell’s place offers refuge from a steady touring schedule that over the past half-year has taken him to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Calgary and Edmonton in western Canada, and across the United States from Oregon to Maine – including an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, backed by Nanci Griffith in support of his latest album, Modern Art.
Mr. Russell and five neighbors have won some small victories in their effort to ward off more developments. Last summer, they successfully lobbied the City Planning Commission to reduce zoning density from R3A zoning, which allows up to eight homes per acre, to R2A, meaning lots can accommodate no more than five homes per acre.
That may be the best outcome possible, says Elma Carreto, the chairwoman of the Planning Commission. She says she sympathizes with Mr. Russell and insists the commission’s goal is to make sure planned developments conform to the existing area.
She says existing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, police, firefighters and schools, are not prepared to handle the traffic that 2,500 new homes bearing families will bring. But she can go only so far, she says.
While Mr. Russell’s songs classify him as a folkie, he is not known for political broadsides. His body of work tends to speak to larger philosophical issues, such as aging and loneliness. That makes his anti-development activism all the more unusual. “I don’t have any political bent,” he explains. “I don’t write protest songs.”
Instead, he has written letters, called the local chapter of the Sierra Club (the voice on the other end of the line urged him to play at a weekly meeting), attended planning commission and council meetings, and spoken out. “This is not a left-wing or right-wing argument – it’s right or wrong,” he says.
“There’s no real plan for this area. They just want to develop here while the interior of the city begs to be redeveloped. The leaders don’t see the big picture. They just want to develop, develop and develop until there isn’t anywhere left. We don’t need another 7-Eleven. There’s a Circle K a quarter-mile down the road. Lowe’s and McDonald’s will be next. The prognosis is pretty sad.
“You don’t do this to farmland. You don’t do this to your children. It’s corrupt thinking.”
His heels are dug in deep. “I’ll take my stand here,” he says. “Maybe import some donkeys and ducks and pigs, and no one will want to live next to me. I’m talking with some folks about buying up some land to keep it in farming. Other than that, I’m planting a lot of trees.”
The dilemma has moved him to also do what he does best. “I’m thinking about writing a song about all this,” he says. “Only it’s going to be from the point of view of a fox.”
Justin Lightfoot warms up backstage before his turn to perform at the Celeste Opry. The folksy, family-oriented country music revue is staged once a month in the small town north of Greenville, Texas. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.
A Night at the Opry
The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 18, 2003
The Celeste Opry features old-fashioned jamborees with country-fried fun for the whole family.
Pull off the road on the second Saturday of every month, and cars and pickups fill almost every diagonal parking space in downtown Celeste.
Outside a building on the north side of U.S. Highway 69, a younger man opens a door for three silver-haired ladies shuffling along the pavement. Older men with cowboy hats and gimme caps sit on two benches on either side of the door, shooting the breeze. A hand-painted cloth banner out front explains the hubbub:
Another smaller, hand-scrawled sign delivers the details: Tonight’s Guest Greg Mealer, Julie Beard Lightfoot, Anna Taylor, Justin Lighfoot, Susie Taylor THE OPRY HOUSE COUNTRYMUSIC SHOW
Over the course of an hour, close to100 people file inside the weathered building between a custom leather store and another saddle shop.
The Celeste Opry is about to begin.
The pilgrims come from Leonard, Greenville, Wylie and other nearby communities. They are a predominantly senior citizen audience. Some are family, fans or friends of one of the featured guests. Most are connected to the Opry House band, led by Tim Gilliam, 53, a stocky gentleman in navy blue T-shirt and jeans. He sings, plays guitar, directs, produces, helps sell popcorn and more or less makes the Celeste Opry happen.
Family-style entertainment in a lean, wholesome atmosphere is the meat-and-potatoes of any opry, and he Celeste Opry is no different.
Some bigger oprys – such as the Grapevine Opry, the Texarkana Opry, and Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue in Arlington – are weekly events and feature a mix of established professional entertainers and polished, up-and-coming talent. Most, though, are similar to Celeste’s – small-town affairs run on a shoestring to showcase local talent with a song in their heart and a musical itch to scratch.
Susie Taylor belts out a song at the Celeste Opry, accompanied by background vocalist Billie Gilliam (right). Susie is a regular on the Texas opry house circuit. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.
The opry tradition harkens back to vaudeville shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Oprys were a country music variation on the theme and grew in prominence thanks to several that were broadcast on radio. The most famous, the Grand Ole Opry, can still be heard Saturday nights over WSM-AM (630), a 50,000-watt clear channel station in Nashville that reaches most of the East and Midwest.
But even without radio, the opry concept has persisted and, over the past 20 years, enjoyed something of a renaissance. More than 60 oprys are staged across Texas on a weekly or monthly basis.
A family affair
The Celeste Opry’s roots go back to 82-year-old R.C. Gilliam.
“Pop liked to play guitar, but he quit when he went into the service during World War II,” says his son, Tim Gilliam, who lives in Greenville and works at Procter & Gamble Co. in Sherman. “He was intimidated by how well the city boys played. But after he met and married my mother, who’s a singer, he picked it up again.”
The elder Mr. Gilliam and his wife raised their children on the country music pillars of Johnny Cash, Connie Smith and Buck Owens, which led to the Gilliams’ involvement with oprys.
"When I got old enough to perform, I didn’t want to play clubs or bars,” Tim says. “It’s like work, playing those places. If some drunk wants you to play "Your Cheatin’ Heart" 12 times, you’ve got to do it. I wanted to play in a family atmosphere.
“Daddy, me and my brother, we were in a four-piece band,” he says. After performing at different oprys in east and north-central Texas, the Gilliam family decided to put on a country-oriented talent show in the community center in nearby Kingston.
Billed as the Kingston Kountry Music Revue, the monthly variety show debuted in 1983. Father, mother, two sons and a girlfriend destined to marry into the family all pitched in.
“I mowed the yard,” recalls Tim’s wife, Missy. Three years later, Tim moved the show to Celeste, where he says he “made an opry” out of a vacant building that once housed a drugstore and had most recently been a retail outlet for a towel and linen factory. The landlady has kept rent affordable because she’s glad to see the building used.
The format is straightforward. A revolving cast of singers, including several guest vocalists, does one or two songs each over the course of each set, before and after intermission, backed by the Opry House band. Mr. Gilliam describes it as “a set-down-and-listen show, no dancing,” before making a larger point. “It’s an opportunity for everybody to do something on a Saturday night.”
R.C. Gilliam takes tickets in the booth up front. Tim’s brother, Ryon, 37, a banker who lives in Cash, also plays guitar and sings in the house band. So does Tim’s son, Joe Ben, 17, who’s been coming to the Opry “since before he was born,” say his father and mother. Tim’s mother, Billie Gilliam, 75, sings backup vocals as well as taking a few turns as lead vocalist every opry. Missy Gilliam, 43, Tim’s wife and Joe Ben’s mom, runs the “world famous” concession stand behind the stage.
Making an opry
The venue has been a work in progress since it opened. Black curtains have just been added to cover the music stands on the raised stage. A patchwork of colored carpet remnants is affixed to the walls to muffle the sound.
Strings of red, white and blue runner lights enhance the backdrop. A small balcony provides a second vantage point for watching the show. A simple colored disco ball hangs in front of the sound booth to add effects now and then.
The band, whose pay is all the hot dogs they can eat after the show, supports three to five guest vocalists per show, often rehearsing with them before show time.
“We’ve never turned away anyone for being bad,” Tim Gilliam says. “The only reservation I have is if you’ve never sung in front of a live band, you need to come in for an audition. Singing with a band is not like singing along to the radio or singing with karaoke.”
Success is relative. One wall in the backstage concession area is covered with 8-by-10 black and white glossy photos of young female singers, including Stephanie Starr, Misty Sereff, Meagan Counts, many of them poured from the same blond, toothy and precious mold of beauty pageant contestants.
The images testify to the career arc of a chunky, perky North Texas preteen named LeAnn Rimes, who launched her career 13 years ago at Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue, blazing a trail others have chased ever since.
“Debbie Money, she’s in Nashville,” Tim says, pointing to the likeness of one of the Celeste Opry’s bigger favorites. “She started out here 12, 15 years ago.”
As much as Tim accentuates the positive, somewhere along the way he can’t help but roll his eyes and mutter something about “stage moms” under his breath. If every job has a necessary evil, it is the mothers of acts such as those who hang on the wall who give Tim his biggest headaches.
Intermission at the Celeste Opry finds patrons mingling outside, visiting and taking smoke breaks. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.
Ryon Gilliam namedrops Chisai Childs, founder of the Grapevine Opry, where Ryon received a crisp $50 bill – his first professional pay, for a performance almost 30 years ago. “Last I heard she was opening for Shoji Tabuchi in Branson.”
On some nights, Tim Gilliam also does comedy bits, donning a wig to become a character named Meatball, adopting a thick drawl and a stiff swagger to do Johnny Cash, or putting on a mustache and slipping into Spanglish to mimic Freddy Fender. “Once, when the mustache started falling off, the audience went crazy. They really loved that.”
It’s hard not to love an opry, even if you don’t know who Freddy Fender is or don’t like country music.
“You can bring your 6-year-old and there won’t be someone blowing smoke in your face and drunks falling over you,” says Bill Seace, 60, of Irving, testifying while his wife, Pat, sitting next to him, nods. ‘We’ve been to Mount Pleasant, Farmersville, Texarkana, Point. We’ve been coming out here for six, seven years now.”
The Seaces are sitting in the only row of real theater seats in the house, two rows in front of the combo sound and ticket booth, where their son, Kirk Seace, is helping out. Kirk’s wife is the singer Susie Taylor, whom the Seaces follow on the Texas opry house circuit.
The opry runs like clockwork. Joe Ben Gilliam opens with “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” – a song made popular by Mel McDaniel – before Ryon Gilliam covers Tracy Lawrence.
Brian Sudderth, the house band drummer, sings the George Strait and Alan Jackson collaboration, “Designated Drinker.” Susie Taylor nails Loretta Lynn’s “Blue Kentucky Girl” with sassy aplomb. Dwayne Farrow, a DISD music teacher who also plays guitar in the band, croons the Jack Greene classic “Statue of a Fool,” a dreamy triplet with an Orbison streak of bedroom romanticism that moves Tim to comment, “If I hit that note, I’d have had to go to the doctor.”
“If you hit that note, you’d have lost your bridge,” Ryon Gilliam interjects.
Billie Gilliam, the family matron, pays tribute to Patsy Cline, singing “Back in Baby’s Arms.” The familiar songs are all greeted with aound of applause after the first few chords, confirming the audience’s familiarity and approval of song selection.
“Other oprys are political,” says Greg Mealer, the strapping blondhaired singer who is one of the evening’s special guests. The sweet-natured Mr. Mealer, who trains pit bulls for a living, is a realist. “Out here, they’ll give anyone a chance. There’s no one who’s going to get on a bus next month and be opening for Alan Jackson, but there’s some good music going on.”
“This is the only opry we sign up to come to once a month,” Kirk Seace says as the place clears out, closing another Saturday night at the opry. “Some of the bigger ones, you have to be perfect. Here, not being perfect is part of the fun.”
[Visit the Celeste Opry: P.O. Box 478, Celeste, TX 75423-0478, (903) 454-2926]
illustration by Nathan Jensen
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 19, 2003
All I wanted for Christmas was satellite radio, but I couldn’t wait.
In October, I broke down, got one, had it installed, paid $156 for a year’s subscription, tuned in and turned on. Now all I want for Christmas is a satellite radio in every car and in the house and a lifetime subscription.
See, I’m a radio nut. As a kid, I walked a mile every Wednesday to KFJZ 1270 in Fort Worth to get the Top 40 survey hot off the presses. I’ve remained involved with the medium ever since. (For starters, I’m a regular Monday guest on the Kevin & Kevin show on KGSR-FM). So when I say satellite radio has changed my life, you need to understand what kind of life it is.
Until satellite, my fixation with radio meant knowing way too much about Rush, Sean, and all the frothing right-wing shouters who dominate the AM band and being too intimate with the tics of Brad Messer, Jim Bohannan, Carl Wiglesworth, Jim Rome, Tony Bruno, and La Ranchera de Monterrey. (Disclosure No. 2: I am not a Libertarian). Now, with 100 channels to choose from, those characters have vanished from my life. So have bad infomercials for miracle joint medication.
Instead, I channel-hop from three jazz stations, an all-jam channel, channels dedicated to nothing but the blues, folk 24-seven, bluegrass, and global hip-hop to various shades of contemporary and alternative rock, country, reggae, and world music, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, Bloomberg, and the BBC. Not long after I got satellite, I drove from Austin to Houston to Fort Worth in the same day. I could’ve just as well gone on to Amarillo.
In one 15-minute stretch, I heard Doug Sahm lamenting about not going back to Austin anymore, John Coltrane blowing “My Favorite Things,” OutKast doing their version of the same song, “Jet Song” from West Side Story, and the latest news from Radio New Zealand. I even finally “got” French chanteuse Edith Piaf as she warbled her way through “Accordeoniste.”
My obsession began in 1999 when I cornered Mark Cuban, then one of two founders of Broadcast.com, a collection of radio stations on the Internet, after he gave the keynote address at South by Southwest Interactive.
“I love hearing all these different radio stations from all over the world online,” I told him. “How can I do that in my car?”
Cuban related how the Federal Communications Commission had licensed two companies to establish satellite radio networks, which would broadcast from outer space to the whole nation and give listeners a far broader selection of choices than existed on the AM and FM bands. Theoretically, it was the radio equivalent of subscription satellite television.
Cuban and his partner Todd Wagner subsequently sold their business to Yahoo! and became billionaires. I followed up Cuban’s tip, invested heavily in the two licensed companies, Sirius and XM, and lost my ass when the high tech bubble burst.
Since then, both XM and Sirius managed to stay solvent, launch satellites, develop receivers for consumers, and in the past couple of years become real radio networks. XM has the lion’s share of the market — 1 million subscribers to Sirius’ 150,000 — largely because it had a one-year jump getting product into stores and has stayed ahead with innovations such as a device that allows listeners with Sirius radios to dial up XM, too. The FCC has ordered both companies to develop radios compatible with either service.
Still, tech glitches, the considerable expense of buying and installing a satellite radio, and my bad financial bet kept me away until I was offered a next-to-nothing deal for a Sirius Plug & Play radio this fall. Three hundred dollars later, it’s a brand-new bag.
Although it has considerably fewer subscribers and costs more ($12.95 compared to XM’s $9.95 monthly tab), Sirius’ 60 music channels are commercial-free; XM’s music channels run two minutes of advertising per hour, still considerably less than over-air stations. Sirius’ talk stations include two NPR streams, a PRI stream, “liberal” talk streams, and the only gay-lesbian radio channel in the nation.
Plus, since I vote with my pocketbook, the considerable investment by Clear Channel, the San Antonio-based company that has choked creativity in radio, in XM and the involvement of Lee Abrams, the radio programmer credited with turning free-form progressive rock radio into a highly structured, highly profitable format known as AOR (“album-oriented rock”) 30 years ago, sealed the Sirius deal.
Sirius has two Plug & Play models you can insert into “docking stations” at home and in other cars, but the signal from the Audiovox I purchased first was getting “stepped on” by all four of the available frequencies one tuned in to in order to pick up the satellite signal. When I complained to Sirius, I was offered the Kenwood Here2Anywhere Plug & Play. The signal conflict is resolved because the Kenwood has a direct FM modulator, though the smaller screen makes it more difficult to read what’s playing, which is one of the biggest plusses of both satellite services.
Eventually receivers on the market will be cheaper and pick up both Sirius and XM signals, which the FCC has mandated. It’s going to take several years’ worth of new cars with factory-installed satellite radio for the concept to be fully embraced.
As much as I have come to enjoy Talk of the Nation, The Splendid Table, The Savvy Traveler, Whad’ya Know, and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! — all fare from NPR and PRI not heard on local affiliate KUT-FM — the music channels are the big difference. The six hip-hop stations have exposed me to nuances of the street that have previously escaped me with solid jocks stringing the mixes together. The five dance channels, particularly the rave channel, are guaranteed uppers whenever I need an audio pep pill. The three classical channels and the jazz, swing, show tunes, and bluegrass channels are my top choices for sonic wallpaper as I cruise.
Sirius has turned me on to Jet, a hard-banging band from Australia; Krishna Das’ grooving chant “Kashi Vishwanath Gange” on the Horizons world beat channel; cool dance remixes of Nina Simone; and Iggy Pop redux now that he’s in heavy rotation with Sum 41 on several channels. I’ve heard more Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Clash in the past month than I have in the last decade. Then there’s Lou Reed’s live, barn-burning version of “Rock N Roll,” Lucinda, Chris Duarte, Omar, Lou Ann, Wayne the Train, and Marcia Ball more than once.
It’s not perfect. I’m already burned out on “Take Five” on Pure Jazz, and anything by the Pet Shop Boys. Although the Radio Mexicana channel and Planet Hip-Hop do a good job covering contemporary Latin sounds, there ought to be room for a Tejano channel like there is on XM. The talk channels could use some fine-tuning. The audio feeds from Fox, CNN, CNBC, and the Weather Channel don’t translate well, and as engaging as the BBC is, the UK POV isn’t always my cuppa tea.
Satellite radio won’t kill terrestrial radio. Even though I’ve found several variations of what I’d describe as KGSR’s adult-alternative format on Sirius, including Organic Rock, the Trend, the Bridge, Folk Town, and the Border, none has a Kevin & Kevin, Jody Denberg, a Sam & Bob, a Dudley & Bob, or a Buck on sports. Truth is, traffic reports, news, weather, and local flavor just can’t be done effectively from national headquarters in New York or Washington, D.C., where XM broadcasts from.
Similarly, as much as I enjoy NPR and PRI programming (caveat: Morning Edition and All Things Considered are not part of NPR’s Sirius package), I still prefer Aielli, Ray, Monroe, Trachtenberg, Ferguson, the departed Dan Foster, and the rest of the KUT music gang programming my sounds. They’re shining examples of why Austin radio doesn’t sound cookie-cutter if you know where and when to listen.
Local will always trump national with me. I do hope satellite puts pressure on Clear Channel, which owns one of every 10 commercial terrestial stations in the nation, including KVET-FM, KVET-AM, KHFI, and Z102, to ditch their cookie-cutter programming mentality that envisions a KISS-FM in every city with the same jock as host instead of emphasizing programming that reflects the city they’re broadcasting in.
But if they don’t, that’s not my problem anymore. I like what I’m hearing when I’m driving. You don’t have to take my word. Log on to www.sirius.com and www.xmradio.com and check it out. Just remember, the first listen is free. The subscriptions aren’t.
[My Obsession in the Austin Chroncicle]
(Photo by Scott Newton)
The Cult of Ray
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 18, 2003
Ray Benson steps out from behind the Wheel.
Everybody knows Ray Benson: the big guy with the big hat, booming baritone, and Ernest Tubb disposition. How can you miss him?
He is Asleep at the Wheel, the merry (revolving) band of musicians from both coasts who moved to Austin 30 years ago on the heels of Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, just in time for the birth of the modern Austin music scene. Smitten with an archaic, hip regional sound called Western swing, they had the good fortune of arriving before the crowds did.
Striking a responsive chord with the preslacker longhairs who dug their mentors and cohorts Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, as well as with the two-stepping old-timers who hadn’t heard Bob Wills’ music played like that since Bob Wills, the Wheel has since become a musical institution. The scores of Texas Playboy alumni who have sat in, recorded with, been produced by, or produced the Wheel at one time or another, plus the Grammy Awards lining the shelves of Benson’s office validate that.
Yet while Asleep at the Wheel has evolved into a Texas-sized tradition, the cult of Ray has been quietly building to the point that at 52, Benson has finally gotten around to releasing his first solo album, Beyond Time. It makes sense, since he’s always been more than a frontman. As much a hipster as Willie or Doug, he can hold his own on T-Bone blues and do Basie jump like an alum. He’s always been a deal maker, hustler, a mover, and a shaker.
Benson’s still all that. Like Willie, he’s one of the few bridges between old Austin and new Austin, and far more accessible than the Red Headed Stranger ever was. The consummate glad-hander and back-slapper.
Who do you think made the introduction between Denny Bruce and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, putting in motion the record deal that put Austin blues on the map? Who hooked up Stevie Vaughan with manager Alex Hodges? Who brought together Lance Armstrong’s management and the folks who made the Austin City Limits festival happen?
And he continues to move and shake in music circles from New York to L.A. as easily as he does in South Austin or Spicewood. Yep, that was Benson sitting in with Paul Shaffer and the band on Letterman a few weeks ago.
Squint a little harder through the bifocals, though, and it’s easy to see the changes in el mundo del Ray go beyond his solo debut. And it isn’t the white overtaking the red in his goatee, sideburns, and ponytail or the tour bus with the “For Sale” sign parked outside his office.
Which raises the larger question: Who the heck is this cat under the hat?
State Musician of Texas
Surrounded by guitars and loads of pictures of Benson with the likes of Little Richard, Brenda Lee, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Snow, and Laura Bush, Benson is in his element at Bismeaux Productions, his business and recording studio complex on Manchaca Road.
The geegaws and souvenirs such as golf trophies, a Spade Cooley album cover, Austin Sun music awards, and a “Shalom, Y’all” sticker on his computer, Benson instructs his faithful assistant Bridget Bauer to hold all calls (sorry, Mike Levy). David McGee, who’s doing a phoner for Barnesandnoble.com, and his mom from Philly manage to get through.
Taking stock of his life thus far, Benson first clears the air about recording under his own name. The band, he says, is alive and well. In fact, he’s currently mixing another live album, this one from Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. The bus with the “For Sale” sign is merely being retired. At this pace, the Wheel will roll on forever. Going solo is merely realizing what he set out to do 45 years after writing his first song. It doesn’t hurt that he owns the studio, a tricked-out, tube-amp, old-school environment “and a mixing board Elvis once sang through.”
“I’m just trying to express myself and do what I know how to do,” explains Benson. “Asleep at the Wheel’s concept has narrowed and crystallized over the years to what it is, and I didn’t want to mess with that.”
It hardly ends there.
In 2004 Benson succeeds classical pianist James Dick as the State Musician of Texas. He’s been co-producing a duet of Willie Nelson and reggae legend Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals on Willie’s “Still Is Still Moving,” an occasion that finally resulted in his signing Trigger, Willie’s beat-up Martin guitar. That came on the heels of hosting a pilot for the CMT cable channel at Gerald Mann’s Riverbend Church last October. He won a regional Emmy Award for a PBS documentary he co-produced on the making of Ride With Bob, the Wheel’s most recent album to Wills. There’s also the T-Bone Walker Texas blues all-star tribute album he’s dreaming up …
At the same time, his civic profile has been steadily rising. He tried bringing baseball to Austin before there was a Round Rock Express. He sits on boards including the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and KLRU. He talks to business groups trying to explain where music fits in to Austin’s big picture. He could be mayor if he wanted the gig.
His running buddies are an eclectic albeit well-connected bunch, including writer Bud Shrake, football coach Darrell K. Royal, Clear Channel czar Steve Hicks, former Dell vice-chairman and philanthropist Mort Topfer, and Beavis and Butthead/King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, who happens to play a pretty mean bass. He’s on a first name basis with Republicans and CEOs. He raises money for Wild Basin. He’s a star on the Celebrity Pro-Am golf circuit.
He’s also newly divorced, though he continues to share a West Lake home with his wife of 20 years, Diane Carr. One son, Sam, is learning the music business and improving his golf at Belmont College in Nashville. Aaron is a high school senior. So what exactly is going on inside that Caledonia-sized head of his?
“All I can say is, everyone’s got to find their way,” laughs Benson. “I cherish my family. We went through the initial throes of the divorce and realized, was I going to pay an attorney everything I owned to get … whatever? So we worked it out.
“Yeah I see some other girls. Is it easy? No. Is it smooth? No. We all come with a lot of baggage. I don’t have the answer to the whole thing, but I’m trying to keep my family somewhat intact. Diane raised those kids and did an incredible job. I did as much as I could when I was home, but I was gone a lot.”
This, of course, is well-documented.
“You’re That Guy”
It all started when “three Jews” — Benson, Floyd Domino (ne Jim Haber), and Lucky Oceans (ne Ruben Gosfield) — a Vermont farm boy named Leroy Preston; Virginian Chris O’Connell; and Gene Dobkin, a bass player and fellow classmate of Benson’s from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, joined forces. Another Antioch student named Ed Ward brought Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen to campus, wherein the musicians saw the light. The rest is Austin music history, as Benson tells it.
“We cut our hair to do all this, so it looked right,” laughs Benson. “We wore Nudie suits. We basically said we were going to pass. We were kind of like black people. Over the years it’s been unreal. One time down in Louisiana, we played a Ku Klux Klan hall.
“I became Ray Benson the day before I started the band. I had read the Ray Charles biography, and his name is Ray Charles something or other. Jerry Reed is Jerry Reed Hubbard. I said to myself, those guys are smart; they’ve got stupid last names in terms of show business, I’ll do the same thing. Seifert just wasn’t going to make it, but Benson is great.”
The woodshedding took place in a 200-year-old cabin in Paw Paw, W.Va. They backed Stoney Edwards, one of two black men on Earth with a career as a country singer, and singers Connie Smith and Freddie Hart. They followed Cody and his big band to Berkeley, Calif., where they met Eddie Wilson.
“Eddie Wilson came out to [manager] Joe Kerr’s and just sold us,” recalls Benson. “All he wanted was to book the New Riders [of the Purple Sage] and Cody at the Armadillo. Joe told him about us. Eddie hears us and says, ‘You could be the house band.’
“Greezy Wheels was already the house band, but he was right. We were exactly what he was trying to do. Redneck hippies was his thing. We finally got a record deal, so we came down and played the Armadillo with Cody in ’73. Once we hit town, we went, ‘Whoa!’
“Michael Murphy and Jerry Jeff [Walker] and the songs that they did, to me that was like cool, cosmic-cowboy, electrified folk music. That’s not what [we] were about. We loved the New Riders from a lifestyle point of view but not their music. We loved the Burrito Brothers for doing what they did, but we didn’t like them because they were too slick. They were so L.A.
“Texas had it all. Willie and Doug were the two reasons. Willie had said to us, ‘What are you doing out there? You sound like you’re from here.’ Doug had given me one of his raps, and it made perfect sense. We figured out that we could get more gigs here than in the Bay Area, and it cost less to rent a house. And there’s chicks! And guns!”
A lot has changed since the Wheel found their mecca. Which leads to the inevitable question: Whither Austin?
“We’re mostly pricing ourselves out of the market,” states Benson. “I did one of those 360 summits, when the high tech boom was booming, and they asked me to come speak with Michael Dell and two other people. They asked that question: ‘What’s the difference between Austin then and where we’re at now?’
“I said, ‘Well, in 1973 we used to come to Austin to drop acid. Now, we drop antacid.’ Michael Dell turned three sheets of white.
“Obviously, the baby-boom generation has aged,” laughs Benson.
And so has Benson. Which is why he’s made the move he’s never made before.
“Lots of people come up to me and say, ‘You’re that guy.’ And as much as I enjoy that, I’d like them to know Ray Benson is that guy who does this stuff, because I’ve hidden behind Asleep at the Wheel for many years and behind incredibly talented people: Floyd, Chris O’Connell, Leroy Preston.
“What’s sad is that Chris O’Connell is a veterinarian’s assistant in Winchester, Va., and Leroy Preston is a data processor in Vermont. They don’t play at all. This business burns you out. It chews you up and spits you out. You’ve seen it a hundred times, and I don’t want to be one of those people.
“I want to play guitar — sing and write and make music. I know that. I don’t want to walk on the red carpet. I don’t like limos; I like buses. I don’t want to be a superstar at all.
“I want to ply my craft and make my music and have people love it.”
[The Cult of Ray in the Austin Chronicle]