As I begin this piece, several miles to the south of me, Austin’s annual mating ritual of art and commerce, the South by Southwest Festival, is already well underway. SXSW, more than the meetings of the Legislature, more than UT football games, is an accurate picture of what Austin is today, and like Caesar’s Gaul, it is divided into three portions.
The Interactive portion will spotlight the computer/high tech industry, and will consist mostly of computer gurus, technical braniacs, and celebrated bloggers telling shell-shocked unemployed and under-employed former dot-commers that the Good Times will return and Tinkerbell will not die, if only they clap their hands really hard and repeatedly say, “We believe! We believe!”
Then there’s my personal favorite–the Film portion. Here dozens of movies, beautiful and sublime, wretched and pretentious, will be screened, in hopes the next big indie hit can be sussed out. And of course Harry Knowles will be running all over town, telling anyone who’ll listen that “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy would never have been made, and Elijah Wood, et al., would be broke and homeless, were it not for him.
And finally there is the Music portion of SXSW, the original part around which this convention was built. Musicians, music fans, and music execs from all over the world come to Austin for this. Some bands will show off their great talents and will go on to become the next “Strokes” or “Bright Eyes,” while others will learn that it takes more than greasy hair, a clever band name, and lots of attitude to make it in “this business of show.”
Austin has always had a “thing” for music. I know many Austinites for whom music is a secular religion, or indeed a substitute for religion. There are those who regard the pronouncements of musicians as sacred writ, as carved-in-stone guides to life, and who feel the possession of a recording contract is proof-positive of a musician’s genius. And anyway, what other cities do you know of that are so ga-ga about music that they have stages for live bands at their airports and city halls?
Sometimes Austinites get carried away over their music. Every couple years it seems that some bar faces the wrecker’s ball and the music fans wail, gnash their teeth, and pray for the rocks and mountains to fall down upon them: “Oh, you can’t tear down the XYZ Lounge! It’s part of Austin’s music history! Why Jerry Jeff Walker once hummed a few bars of ‘Sugar Shack’ here while waiting for a beer in 1975!”
So, with this year’s SXSW in mind, and with one eye aimed, as usual, on the past, I’d like to take a scattershot look at some of the great Austin music venues of the past century or so. I will almost certainly fail to mention your favorite place, but then again, as always, I make no attempt to be encyclopedic in my coverage.
In the nineteenth century there were lots of ways to hear music. Some saloons and brothels had pianos and singers. Small orchestras and brass bands often gave concerts or played at balls and dances.
Churches were also a good place to both hear and perform music, and some houses of worship featured pipe organs, pianos, and fine choirs. In some churches that either couldn’t afford or didn’t allow musical instruments, the congregation engaged in what was known as “shaped-note” singing, which was an eerie, droning, and hypnotic method of performing sacred music, designed for people who could neither read conventional music notations nor carry a tune. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Cold Mountain,” you’ve heard shaped-note singing in the initial battle scene and in the Sunday church scene. It’s a powerful and unsettling form of music.
Of course, prior to the age of the phonograph, and indeed for many decades subsequent, the most common way for people to hear the “hit tunes” of the day was for some musically-inclined member of the family to buy the sheet music for the piece and learn to sing it or play it on the piano, violin, or guitar at home. In those days musical tastes were not so sharply divided along generational lines as they are now.
Before there was air conditioning, about the only way people had to deal with the hellish Texas heat was to go to places that were shady and breezy, and if you could tie one on while you were there, well, all the better. Hence the popularity of the beer garden, of which Austin’s Scholz Garten (1607 San Jacinto) is a legendary example.
The 1909-1910 Austin City Directory had an advertisement that described Scholz’s as “One of the Coolest and Most Attractive Resorts in the City for Quietude, Comfort, and Pleasure–Open At Night And All Day–Free Lunches And All Kinds Of Bottled Beer. The Celebrated Lemp’s Beer Always Fresh On Tap.”
The ad concludes, “Blind Institute Cars Pass The Garden,” which must’ve been handy not only for patrons who were naturally visually impaired but also for those poor slobs who were made blind by all that Lemp’s swill.
Another City Directory ad for Scholz’s features a cartoon of a naked, drunken cherub sitting astride a beer keg, and swinging a stein while watching a goat dance. We all knew such things took place at Neverland Ranch, but in Austin?!
Scholz’s was founded in either 1860, 1862, or 1866, depending on which source you consult, by August Scholz, on the site of an old Indian watering hole. Since 1914 the beer garden and restaurant, bowling alley, and auditorium have been owned by the Austin Saengerrunde, a German singing society, with the commercial portions leased out to various managers. Scholz’s was the inspiration for a beer garden in Billy Lee Brammer’s Texas political novel, “The Gay Place,” and indeed, for almost a century and a half, has been a popular meeting place for legislators, attorneys, and other undesirables.
August Scholz was the father-in-law of William Besserer, a local musician, and Besserer’s Band was the house band at Scholz’s for years. Besserer was one of the organizers of the Saengerrunde and was also its musical director. (O. Henry’s wife Ethel sang for Besserer’s Band on a regular basis.)
On Friday, February 24, 1871, Scholz’s hosted a “Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert” featuring vocal, cornet, piano, and violin performances of such pieces as “The Only I Love” (the only what I love?), the “6th Air de Berrot avec accompagnement de Piano,” “Fantasie Pastorale,” and Kucken’s “Drift my Bark.”
The 1885-1886 City Directory makes Scholz’s sound like a paradise on earth: “Most Popular Pleasure Resort In Austin–Grand Concert Every Sunday Evening–Fire Works, Balloon Ascensions And Amusements Of Various Kinds…The present Managers are constantly making improvements and introducing worthy attractions, which, with the beautiful location, Fountains, Menageries, etc., make the Garden a delightful place to while away your evenings, and a Resort superior to any place in Austin. The Garden being under the auspices of the Germania Society, no improper characters will be allowed on the grounds, and visitors may be called upon at any time for references.” (The menagerie included bears, deer, alligators, and parrots.)
An advertisement for Sunday, June 26, 1887 promoted a “Grand Concert” by Herzog’s Orchestra at Scholz’s, featuring selections from “The Mikado” and “Il Trovatore,” as well as various popular waltzes, caprices, and “galops.” Though the concert was free, the ad reminded the reader that “Privilege of Ejection reserved.” Printed alongside that ad was another that read “Patronize Home Industry And Drink Lone Star Beer On Tap At Scholz’ Garden And other prominent Places.”
Millett’s Opera House
Every town worth its salt in nineteenth century America had an opera house–Austin had several–Smith’s from 1861 to 1878, Millett’s from 1878 to 1897, and Hancock’s from 1898 to the 1920s. Charles F. Millett originally operated a saw mill at what is now 110 East Ninth Street, but in 1878 he erected a stone opera house with walls two-feet thick and seating for over eight hundred people on the floor, and more in the boxes. At the time of its completion the auditorium, with its heavy timbered ceiling, was the largest self-supporting room in Austin.
Millett’s attracted such great dramatic actors as Joseph Jefferson, Henry Irving, and Edwin Booth, but it seems light opera was the most popular attraction there. When it was not “theatre season,” Millett’s was used as a roller skating rink, with patrons showing up in costume, and skating to the music of brass and string bands. Legislative sessions, fancy dress balls, prize fights, and song fests were also held in the building.
According to the “Austin Daily Statesman” for Wednesday, March 30, 1887, Millett’s was to host, on April 5th, “the sacred opera ‘Belshazzar,’” featuring a cast of seventy-five, and elaborate costumes–seven hundred pounds of costumes in fact for the last act.
The “Austin Daily Statesman,” Sunday, September 29, 1889: “Presenting the great Irish Comedy Drama, Irish Hearts of Old. New Songs! New Music! Irish Jigs and Reel Dancing! New and Appropriate Scenery! Including an Irish glen with a Cataract of Real Water. Prices as usual.” (Sounds like “Riverdance” without the prissy egomania of Michael Flatley.)
Tuesday, December 3, 1889: “The World-Renowned Gilmore’s Band! and Companini-Whitney concert Company. Companini–The Greatest of Tenors. Whitney–The Greatest of Tenors!”
Tuesday, August 20, 1895–“Texas Eye, Ear, and Throat Charity Hospital Benefit Performance of the Opera ‘Elisa’…150 Participants.”
After its run as an opera house ended, Millett’s was used as, among other things, a Knights of Columbus hall, an office supply store, and is now home to the exclusive and very private Austin Club.
Can We Take It To The Bridge?
While researching this article I was looking for something to bridge the gap between the Victorian and modern eras. I found a program dated 1938 for something called “A Night of Opera,” performed at UT’s Hogg Memorial Auditorium, and sponsored by something called the “Austin Altrusa Club.”
It sounded like the concert-goer got a lot of bang for the buck–there were twenty-two pieces performed at that show. I noticed that one of the make-up girls was Ida Nell Brill, who later became Texas’s First Lady, Nellie Connally.
Everybody who was anybody in 1938 Austin took out an ad in the program, and one said, “Congratulations to the Altrusans upon their great civic and cultural work.” What on earth was an Altrusan? Had Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” been true after all?
Well, I did some poking around and learned that the National Association of Altrusa Clubs was an organization of business and professional women, and that in fact it still exists with branches all over the world. At any rate the Austin chapter was active enough in the 1930s that it was able to bring the works of Leoncavallo, Puccini, Weber, Verdi, Gounod, Mascagni, Massenet, and others to what was then a sleepy little college town.
Of course, in the late 1930s the Governor’s Mansion served as a music venue of sorts. Folksy flour mill owner-turned-band leader W. Lee “Pappy” O”Daniel used his popular radio show to publicize his campaign for the state’s top job.
After being inaugurated at UT’s Memorial Stadium, O’Daniel invited anyone who wanted to come to have a barbeque dinner at the Mansion. Thousands accepted his offer. While in office, he broadcast his radio show of “hillbilly music” and homespun advice every Sunday from the back parlor in the Mansion.
The Skyline Club
The Skyline Club stood at the corner of North Lamar and Braker Lane from 1946 to 1989, when it was torn down to make way for a road expansion.
On December 19, 1952, Hank Williams gave his last public performance at the Skyline. A couple weeks later, on New Year’s Eve night 1952/1953, Williams died of a heart attack in the back seat of his Cadillac, while being driven to his next show.
On November 6, 1960, Johnny Horton gave his last public performance at the Skyline. A few minutes afterwards he was killed in a car accident in his Cadillac. At the time of his death, Horton was married to Billie Jean Williams, the widow of Hank Williams. (It’s when you throw all that “Booth ran from a theatre to a warehouse”/“Oswald ran from a warehouse to a theatre” stuff into the mix that the parallels get confusing.)
No one can say the Skyline wasn’t able to book talent. Performers there included Elvis, Willie, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Lefty Frizzel, Bob Wills, Tex Ritter, Slim Whitman, Johnny Gimble, Faron Young, Janis Joplin, Marty Robbins, Roger Miller, Porter Waggoner, Ferlin Husky, Webb Pierce, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Mathis (Johnny Mathis?), as well as the Geezinslaw Boys, the Roundup Boys, the Cimarron Boys, the Rocky Mountain Boys, the Brazos Valley Boys, the Blue Bonnet Boys, the Poke Salad Boys, the Texas Top Hands, Grouchy and his Texas Pioneers, and the Fabulous Gays.
The Armadillo World Headquarters
You can make the argument that the Austin music scene began and ended with the Armadillo World Headquarters–nothing had been as important before, and certainly nothing has been as important since. Although it only existed from 1970 to 1980, it was the catalyst for several important developments in Austin and American music: 1) the “country-rock” movement, prophesied by Gram Parsons and others, really gelled at the AWHQ, 2) Willie Nelson, a successful songwriter and modestly successful singer, became a huge star, a Texas folk hero, the biggest act in country music, and the spiritual leader of Austin, thanks to his performances at the AWHQ, and 3) because of the Armadillo, Austin became known internationally as a home of creative musicians, a real destination for touring acts, and a place where all styles of music are embraced and enjoyed.
Occupying an abandoned office building and an old National Guard quonset hut armory at 525 ½ Barton Springs Road, the Armadillo had a capacity for 1,500 people. The talent that played there reads like, well, a typical Austinite’s CD collection: Willie Nelson, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Frank Zappa, Cheech and Chong, Ravi Shankar, Jimmy Buffett, Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top, Devo, the Police, Linda Ronstadt, Boz Scaggs, Journey, Ted Nugent, the Charlie Daniels’ Band, Waylon Jennings, Van Morrison, B.B. King, and the Clash.
Not surprisingly though, a new vibe rose up, what turned out to be the spirit of the new Austin, the Austin of today, and greed trumped art. The Armadillo was torn down and a soulless high-rise was erected in its place. Many of the AWHQ’s mementos can be found in the Threadgill’s restaurant nearby, but the true legacy of the Armadillo can be found in the hundreds of live music clubs we now have all over town.
The Texas Showdown Saloon at 2610 Guadalupe is by all appearances a straight-ahead, nothing-fancy college bar. But at one time the place was called “Raul’s,” and it was the leading punk club in Austin from 1977 to 1981.
Raul’s had the good fortune of opening just a few days after the Sex Pistols performed in San Antonio. That concert whetted an appetite in Austin for punk and New Wave. In its short history Raul’s hosted Elvis Costello, Black Flag, Joe “King” Carrasco, Roky Erickson, Patti Smith, Fear, Sharon Tate’s Baby, the Cramps, the Psychedelic Furs, the Delinquents, the Distractions, and the Dicks.
In 1975 Austin was already a hotbed of live music, but most of it was of the outlaw country variety. So it was surprising when, in July of that year, former law student Clifford Antone opened a blues club on Sixth Street. It was even more surprising when the club stayed open, outliving even the famous Armadillo.
Over the years Antone’s changed locations, moving up to Mopac and Anderson, then 2915 Guadalupe, then to 213 West Fifth, and spawned a record label and an amazing record store that is a mecca for lovers of blues, soul, R&B, classic country, and anything by Texas musicians.
Who’s played at Antone’s? Gee, who hasn’t? The honor role includes John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Clifton Chenier, Robert Cray, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, B.B. King, Fats Domino, Albert Collins, Jimmy Reed, Pinetop Perkins, Buddy Guy, Doug Sahm, Gatemouth Brown, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown….You get the idea.
But the Patron Saint of Antone’s and of Austin music should really get the last word:
“The best music I’ve ever heard was at Antone’s, and some of the best music I’ve ever played was there. I learned more about the blues at Antone’s than I’ve learned everywhere else since.”—Stevie Ray Vaughn
So my advice to all you hungry young musicians here in town for the week: Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, independent of all but the here and now. The musicians Austinites have loved over the years certainly knew that. And if you learn that we may one day erect a statue to you too.
—March 17, 2005