AntoneThe sudden passing of Clifford Antone is noted in this week's Austin Chronicle www.austinchronicle.com It's worth reading because Margaret Moser, Bill Bentley, Ed Ward, and Chris Gray set the record straight. My contribution follows:
Clifford Antone didn't invent the blues. Hell, he couldn't even play the blues very well, although later in life he did become a decent bassist. But he understood blues well enough to try and soak up the sound once he figured out that real blues didn't come from Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton, the two seminal British acts that led him down the path. Blues came the black folks he grew up around in Port Arthur, from bands like the Fabulous Boogie Kings he heard as a teenager whenever he crossed the Sabine River to go party at places like the Big Oaks in Vinton, Louisiana, where you didn't have to be 21 to buy a mixed drink and from similar places like the Mississippi delta, the south side of Chicago, Beale Street in Memphis and the wide open spaces of North Texas. He got all that so well that he staked his career on it.
He came to Austin to run an outpost of his family's business, Antone's, which featured fine imported foods. But if you ever walked into the place to buy a sandwich late in the day, you'd just as likely find the Antone kid in back, playing blues records or picking at a stringed instrument as you were finding him dolling up a Po'Boy. His heart wasn't in the business.
That much was clear in 1975, the year he opened Antone's Home of the Blues, his nightclub at the corner of Sixth and Brazos in what was once an old furniture store (I swear you could still smell the bat guano on opening night).
Austin's music scene was already pretty well-established. Places like the Broken Spoke, the Armadillo World Headquarters, and Soap Creek Saloon were already burnishing national reputations. The latter two featured blues acts now and then as part of their music mix, bringing in folks like Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Clifton Chenier. But no place came close to what Clifford had in mind.
His place was different. For one, it was on Sixth Street, whose businesses at that time catered almost exclusively to older African-Americans on the north side of the street, and Mexican-Americans on the south side with pawn shops, porn shops, clothes stores, and the kind of rough bars that college kids didn't venture into. To overcome the perception Sixth was a bad part of town, and to make clear he was no Jerry Jeff Walker fan, he encouraged his waitresses and bartenders to dress up and look sharp. It was a shot across the bow straight to the heart of Austin's hippie aesthetic.
Unlike the progressive country fever sweeping Austin and the rest of Texas, his place was going to be Nothing But the Blues. The format proved to be not the smartest of business decisions in the end. But it sure sounded good along the way. There were nights there were more people on the bandstand than in the audience, like the time Bob Dylan watched the T-Birds. But there were also nights that came close to blowing the roof off. He persuaded Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band to leave Soap Creek to christen his place with a hot sweaty crowd. Sunnyland Slim and Muddy Waters and Eddie Shawr & the Wolf Gang were not far behind.
Word traveled fast among touring musicians. Cliff would treat you right, no matter what kind of financial bath he was taking. Some musicians stuck around for days and weeks past their play dates, particularly Luther Tucker and Hubert Sumlin, who proceeded to pass along their wisdom and knowledge to a generation of young blues players including two brothers, Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan, while boosting the reps of underappreciated characters like Bill Campbell. If not for this unique form of schooling, I would never have had the pleasure of driving to Garfield to eat catfish with Big Walter Horton, and arguing the whole way whether the El Merada, as Walter refererred the El Dorado, was made by Cadillac and Lincoln. It didn't matter who was right. The night Stevie Ray Vaughan sat in with Albert King, everything changed.
Respect was part of the code. The club made national news the night Bobby Blue Bland was playing and Boz Scaggs, a noted San Francisco musician, attempted to breach the security line backstage to see Bland. Antone was having nothing of it. Mr. Bland was resting and was not to be disturbed. The end result was a photograph in Rolling Stone magazine of a cold-cocked Scaggs laying on Brazos Street.
When Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was booked, Brown played fiddle and ran his band through Cajun and country songs, rather than concentrate on playing guitar and doing the kind of jump blues he popularized with "Okie Dokie Stomp" in the 1940s. Clifford spent most of that show on the side of the stage, stomping his feet and yelling "Play the blues!" But to no avail.
The Sixth Street club became a happening place, anchoring a half block with a record shop, Cajun restaurant, porno book shop, bar and a shine parlor that was hands down the coolest street in Austin. The magnet for all things lowdown triggered the Sixth Street renaissance and put Austin on the map as a major blues center. It might have become even bigger if the building hadn't been torn down for the Littlefield Parking Garage in 1979, despite its historic status as the oldest building on Sixth and protests from the music community, which received little respect from the city's business and political leadership.
Antone's moved to Anderson Lane into a modern suburban facility with zero funk factor, then to a cozier room on Guadalupe Street near UT in a former Shakey's Pizza Parlor with an Antone's record shop and record label across the street, before landing at its current Fifth Street location.
By the end of the 1990s, Antone's was Antone's in name only. What marijuana arrests and prison time didn't take away, Cliff lost, sold, or pissed away himself.
But you couldn't take away his heart. He grew into the role of elder statesman with unexpected grace. He became best buds with Doug Sahm, once his mortal enemy because Sir Doug was all about Soap Creek, and Antone was Antone. Both their careers were revived in the 1980s with a string of soulful Texas blues albums Doug did on the Antone's label that actually sold copies. More importantly, the albums brought together Doug and the Soap Creek loosey-goosey, T-Bone west coast hippie school and the Antone's more trad Chicago school of players like Derek O'Brien. Cliff honored Doug in death more effusively than anyone in Austin. He made up with Gatemouth Brown too and booked him on numerous occasions while his club developed a reputation as a showcase for all kinds of soulful roots music.
Cliff taught classes on the blues, had a film made about him, was working on a book, and spent a fair amount of time nurturing kids. He emceed shows at the club, especially fundraisers which is when I usually saw him. He became Pinetop Perkins' guardian. To the end, he carried himself like a godfather. But when I close my eyes, I see him hanging at the baseball card shop he owned with his bud Boo Boo, rifling through the 45s and 33s in the back of OK Records with Leon, his Wildman friend from Nederland, Doty, and Good Rockin' Dopcee and the Twisters, or ribbing Doug while Doug is ribbing him, or leaning against the wall with his boys in front of Antone's on Sixth late in the afternoon during a soundcheck, feeling the vibrations of instruments pouring out into the street, all of them wearing the nice oxford shirts he bought for them at the men's shop across the street, shirt tails out, Clifford with a cool, satisfied smile.
I saw Cliff a few weeks back at the Broken Spoke. He was buddying around with Eddie Wilson and James White. It didn't cross my mind until just now that they were mortal enemies back when Eddie ran the Armadillo and Cliff was just getting started in the club business. Neither set foot in the other's room. And you would never, ever see Antone at the Spoke, much less spot ol' James hanging at Antone's, either. But here they were, three blood brothers, laughing, backslapping, shaking hands, being the larger than life people they are. Attrition, time, and the common love of music had worked wonders.
Clifford might not have set out to get to the point of being a wise man of music, but he did just fine. Then the light went out. Just like that. But the sound--the pounding, strumming, 12 bar march to the lowdown, the dance that so many of us in Texas have known for a hundred years, its life extended in no small part by a kid from Port Arthur, is still coming across loud and clear.