Thursday, July 6, 2017

How Austin, Texas, Became the Live Music Capital of the World

Before Austin, Texas, was the "Live Music Capital of the World," a rollicking music hall run by a bunch of hippies threw open the doors for fans to enjoy a new blend of country music and rock. Over its ten-year lifespan, the Armadillo World Headquarters hosted thousands of high-profile musicians—Willie Nelson, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Taj Mahal, AC/DC, Charlie Daniels, the Ramones, Roy Buchanan, and Bette Midler, to name a random few. The Armadillo helped define the Austin lifestyle, culture, and identity, setting the stage for successors such as the SXSW music festival, PBS’s Austin City Limits, and the ACL festival, which have made Austin an international destination for music fans.

In the newest UT Press podcast, Armadillo co-founder Eddie Wilson shares stories from behind-the-scenes of the beloved temple of "Redneck Rock." Below we've transcribed some of the best bits from the interview, but be sure to tune in and turn on to the whole thang!

We ask Eddie Wilson how he discovered the building that eventually came to house the Armadillo World Headquarters:

UT Press: You did some urban parkour to find the building, right?

Eddie Wilson: Well, the bathroom was broken at the Cactus Club, and so there wasn't anything to do but go out back. And there was this giant wall looming up with broken windows way up top. It was 25 feet tall at least, and so, I knew that there had to be a giant room on the other side of a construction like that. I went around the building and managed to pick a flimsy lock--I watched James Garner a lot--but, uh, I was awestruck. I pulled my car in it, reached in and flipped on the lights, and almost had a heart attack. I think I turned them off as quick as I could. And it was just this huge room. And then we made it bigger by tearing out all of the rooms that were inside of that room.

UTP: And it had a stage?

EW: It had a concrete riser. If I had known at the time that Elvis had played on it, I probably would have kept it like it was. But he played there in '55.

Co-authors Eddie Wilson and Jessie Sublet discuss one of Frank Zappa's visits to the Armadillo World Headquarters and his introduction to local musician Blind George:

EW: Zappa was such a professional, he wanted a three-hour rehearsal--the contract read three-hour rehearsal, an hour off for supper, and then an hour for, uh...

Jessie Sublet: Sound check?

EW: Yeah, just the sound check, I guess it was. Anyway, his equipment got there about a half-hour before the show was supposed to start. We waited and waited and waited all day long. It was really nerve-wracking. And when it got there, he got to see the crew, who were at their very best; everybody just hustling and setting up, building that mountain of speakers that he was hauling and hauling. And, uh, he got a seventeen-minute sound check, and I figured he was going to keep on going until he was satisfied. Well, he got seventeen minutes and his road manager Marty Perellis ran his finger across his throat, and Zappa stopped immediately. And we opened the doors and they just came flooding in. Zappa, he uttered some excuse for a sound check, so I tried to disarm him a little bit with my Blind George story:

We had an entertainer in town named Blind George McClain, who was not just blind but close to deaf and crippled and twisted. He had a little board under his feet on the piano that he would stomp back and forth on for his rhythm. We had just found a videotape of him doing at least about 20 verses of "Tennessee Stud" at an outdoor benefit.

JS: Cool!

EW: Really good black and white [video]

JS: He had good hair though, didn't he?

EW: (Laughs.) Oh ho, yeah. Yeah, that was a great--I remember he did the nastiest version I've heard of "Cherry Pie."
. . .

So, Zappa was in a bad mood, it seemed to me, and I hadn't spoken to him yet. . . . "Let me try and disarm you," I thought. "Would you like to meet your opening act? He's deaf, dumb, and cripple." He said, "What does he do?" I said, "He plays the piano, stomps on a board, and sings Ray Charles and, uh, George Jones." And he said, "I want to meet him right now."

We went up the stairs and over to the office, and George was kind of crushed down in his terrible, cripple sort of way with black sockets, you know, just dark dark caverns where his eyes would have been. And I whispered to Zappa as we approached him. I said, "Remember he's kind of deaf." And [Zappa] was so stunned when he saw him that he just kind of mumbled. And George said, "Huh?" And he said (louder), "Did you hear our sound check?" George bellowed back, "Yeah, you were too damn loud!"

Jason Mellard, author of Progressive Country: How the 1970's Transformed the Texan in popular Culture (2013), talks to Eddie Wilson about the fateful Thanksgiving Day in 1972, when Jerry Garcia decided to invite Leon Russell to jam at the Armadillo World Headquarters:

EW: Jerry Garcia wanted to go on stage at the free jam that we had on Thanksgiving Day in 1972. . . The only reason that I was pushing was because we had no advertising; we had nothing to let anybody know that we were going to be open on Thanksgiving Day. And I did one of those--one call to the radio station --and I couldn't say who because I didn't know who was going to show. But as Garcia was leaving the auditorium, Palmer, the night before, after we fed him at the Armadillo, Jim Franklin and Leon Russell were coming in the back door, comin' down from Tulsa because Leon wanted to meet Willie Nelson.

And so Jerry Garcia looked up and saw Leon Russell and said, "Why don't you come over and jam tomorrow at the Armadillo?" He hadn't wanted to tell me what time because he had committed to doing it around the meal--that was going to be too much detail, and he was above detail. And when Leon [asked] what time, Garcia kind of looked at me and gritted his teeth, and I said, "How about 3 o'clock?" They agreed, 3 o'clock.

So, of course, at 3 o'clock the next day, I was just a nervous wreck. Who's going to really show? Garcia was there early and then Leon finally showed. So okay, guys, you know, let's do it. Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead) was on bass and a lot of the best local pickers were all--

Jason Mellard: Yeah, I think, was it Furman, formally of the Elevators, was there?

EW: Benny Furman, he had a fiddle there; yes, he did.

JM: Sweet Mary Egan (Greezy Wheels)?

EW: Yeah, yeah. Hank Alrich (Tiger Balm).

JM: Jerry Barnett (Shiva's Headband), I think also?

EW: He did a lot of drumming. And, uh, Jim Finney also played some drums. But, Garcia said, "Let's just wait until Doug [Sahm] gets here, he needs to be the bandleader for this thing. He knows at least 1,000 songs." And Leon said, you know, not long before he died, he came through town and we had a good visit; and he actually said to the audience in our beer garden, he said, "I played Armadillo World Headquarters with the Grateful Dead, and it was the worst performance of my career.

EW: He's not a jam guy! He's an arranger. And, you know, it just wasn't his particular bag. Oh, but you couldn't have wanted more.

Click here for more information on Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir.

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