To C-Boy, With Love
Continental Club maverick Steve Wertheimer pays tribute to his mentor – with a nightclub
People make the place. Consider the Austin music scene, where a hideous National Guard armory (Armadillo World Headquarters), abandoned furniture warehouse (the original Antone's on Sixth), and a lumberyard (Liberty Lunch) transformed into low-rent live music palaces because of the bands that played, the people who ran the joints, and the crowds that couldn't believe they'd found such paradise on Earth.
In 1978, a Jewish accounting student from the Houston suburbs went to a West Campus blues club called the Rome Inn. In time, he became protégé of the old black man who ran the joint. Thirty-six years later, there's a bright red and white awning on a hot new club on South Congress: "C-Boy's Heart & Soul." Inside glows tribute in the form of a Sixties juke joint, with vintage waterfall lamps and classic R&B sleeves, to a humble man who loved the blues.
"So, who's C-Boy?"
Steve Wertheimer spent more than half a million dollars and 18 months of his life in order to answer the question he kept hearing over and over for the official grand opening on New Year's Eve.
"If it wasn't for C-Boy Parks, I wouldn't be in the music business," he told a couple who asked him about the name of the club, which opened amid much oohing and ahhing at the former location of dive bar Trophy's.
Dressed in a white suit jacket that matched white eyeglass frames, Wertheimer was more guide than host on opening night, returning again and again to old pictures on the wall around a heart-shaped mirror. There reside photographs of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, playing a small stage in a packed club on West 29th, where Texas French Bread is now.
"Here's a good one of me and C-Boy," he pointed to a photo of a teenager with active skin and frizzy hair stretching out from under a cap. Next to him stands a black man 34 years his senior, with a big smile on his face. C-Boy grew up in Austin, but had a deep country accent.
"I grew up around black people," explains the club owner. His father, Henry Wertheimer, owned the pharmacy on Rosenberg town square and many was the night little Stevie would ride with his dad to the "other" side of the tracks to deliver medicine to the elderly. "My dad taught me to respect everyone and to help whenever you can."
Two years after Henry Wertheimer died in 2005, a middle school in Rosenberg was named after him. Many of his good deeds, including funding the school district's free breakfast program, had not been made public until the dedication of the school in his name.
C-Boy Parks didn't own the Rome Inn, where he came to work in the kitchen in 1967 when it was an Italian restaurant. But after it changed to a live music venue and he was promoted to manager, the Rome became C-Boy's club, no doubt.
"C-Boy made everyone feel welcome," says Wertheimer. "And he was always working."
Two bedrock lessons learned by a young man who today owns Continental Clubs in Austin and Houston, buildings Downtown, pieces of successful restaurants including Perla's and Elizabeth Street Cafe, the Lonestar Round Up car show, an auto repair business, and more. Even then, Wertheimer says his portfolio wasn't complete until he honored C-Boy Parks with the club that bears his name.
"That's always been my dream," he says a few days into 2014. "I've been thinking about C-Boy's for years and years."
He'd drive by Trophy's location, which had a brief run in the Eighties as one of Austin's first Cajun restaurants (Big Mamou) and think, "That's my C-Boy's." When word got out about his honoring Louis Charles "C-Boy" Parks, Wertheimer kept hearing from musicians who played the Rome Inn, whose heyday lasted only two years. Two spectacular years.
"You're doing the right thing," Jimmie Vaughan told him.
Wertheimer says he's never been more sure about a business venture.
"He was a major part of my life for several years," he says of Parks, who died in 1991 at age 66. "The Rome Inn has always been the standard, in my mind, for how to run a club."
The blues scene integrated Austin like nothing before it, with UT students going to Charlie's Playhouse on East 11th and bands like Clarence Smith & the Daylighters backing white singers. White blues musicians like Bill Campbell, the Vaughan brothers, and Angela Strehli sought out obscure Eastside blues players. Yet besides local African-American musicians W.C. Clark and Dr. James Polk, and deejays such as Tony Von and Lavada Durst, C-Boy Parks from East Austin had the greatest impact on the local blues scene.
"So, who's C-Boy?"
There was a time, says Wertheimer, when everybody in town knew C-Boy Parks.
"He didn't need a ticket or a backstage pass. If C-Boy wanted to go see Stevie Ray Vaughan or the T-Birds he'd just show up. And be treated like royalty."
Antone's, internationally renowned "Home of the Blues," helped put Austin on the map, but from 1978 until its final blowout on April 20, 1980, the Rome Inn was the hottest club in town for local blues acts. SRV played every Sunday and Paul Ray's Cobras had Tuesdays, but the hottest night was "Blue Monday," with the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
"Nobody would go down to Antone's to see the T-Birds," says former club owner Steve Dean, whose AusTex Lounge (at the current Magnolia Cafe location on South Congress) was a hub for roots rock. "But when C-Boy gave them Mondays, they slowly built it up to the point that if you didn't get there by 8 o'clock, you might not get in."
Billy Gibbons would take a busload of Houston friends to the Rome Inn on Mondays to see the T-Birds and immortalized the "fiend scene" on "Lowdown in the Street" from ZZ Top's 1979 album Degüello: "So roam on in, it ain't no sin to get low down in the street." That same year, the T-Birds paid tribute to the lovable man in the sweat-stained blue T-shirt with slow harp instrumental "C-Boy's Blues" from their debut LP Girls Go Wild.
"We went to all the clubs," Wertheimer says, listing the Armadillo, Soap Creek, Antone's, and Split Rail as regular haunts. "But there was something special about the Rome Inn. And that was C-Boy."
Though there was no food service after the Italian restaurant closed, C-Boy cooked for the bands, who especially loved his "don't need no teef to eat my beef" barbecue.
"He would work at the Rome Inn until 3am, have time to go home and take a shower, then he was back at the Night Hawk at 6am," marvels Wertheimer. "He worked 20 hours a day."
Parks staffed various Night Hawk diners for 45 years and was in the kitchen at Night Hawk No. 2 on Guadalupe in 1963 when Harry Akins became the first restaurant owner in town to integrate his dining rooms. He slept after his Night Hawk shift ended at 2pm, then was back at the Rome Inn by about 7pm to get ready for the crowd.
"C-Boy wasn't there to party," says Wertheimer. "He was there to work. But he had a blast, just being around all those people who loved him so much."
The only time he'd take a break was when the T-Birds played swamp pop classic "Mathilda," for which he'd cut up the dance floor.
C-Boy Parks had an especially patriarchal pull on Steve Wertheimer, who bugged the old man for a job until he was stationed behind the bar one night. Over the next few months, the pair became unlikely running buddies. There's a photo of the two of them taking apart the bar after its final night.
Dean brought in floodlights and filmed the Rome Inn's last waltz. He kept the footage on VHS somewhere in a box of tapes, but after C-Boy's Heart & Soul opened, he found it and bought a VCR to watch it. Aside from eight seconds of live SRV that he sold to VH1 for a bio, the public hasn't seen the footage. A collector of music memorabilia, Dean refuses to digitize the tape and put it online, but in it, a 25-year-old Stevie Ray Vaughan finds his power trio identity in the opening slot, and then the Fabulous Thunderbirds destroy the place with their swampy interpretation of Chicago blues. Dean's footage also includes an interview with Parks, who speaks in such a country blues accent he's a little hard to understand. You can feel the love he had for the Rome Inn and the people who made it.
Wertheimer graduated from UT with a degree in accounting in 1980, a bad year for Austin clubs in general and C-Boy Parks in particular. Not only did the Armadillo learn that it would close on the last day of the year, but C-Boy became "devastated" – Wertheimer's description – when he learned the Rome Inn was closing at the end of its lease in April. The club's owner, who lived in Burnet and only occasionally dropped in, had decided to shut down.
Parks also lost his job at Night Hawk No. 2, which closed in 1980, and worked at Night Hawk No. 1 on South Congress and Riverside, which burned down in 1985, and Akins' eatery the Frisco on Burnet Road. During the next couple of years, Wertheimer dipped into his pocket a few times to help his friend pay bills, "but C-Boy was a proud man and didn't like asking for money."
"What he wanted to do was work," says Wertheimer. "So me and a buddy bought him a [portable] barbecue pit and went into the catering business."
Backstage, T-Bird Riverfests on Town Lake came well fed, but the jobs weren't consistent. Then one day, Parks got a call from Hank Vick, who used to own Steamboat and other clubs. He'd just taken over the lease at Lake Austin boater hangout Ski Shores and wanted Parks to run the kitchen. "I don't do anything without Mister Steve," he told Vick. That's how Wertheimer, who worked full-time as the controller for a real estate developer, received his entrée into the restaurant/club business, since Ski Shores also featured live music.
Vick, a legendary Austin raconteur who passed away several years ago, deserves his own story. Let's just say he had to leave the country at some point, making Wertheimer the sole proprietor. With a lot of bills to pay – Vick had been writing checks on a closed account – Parks apologized profusely to Wertheimer for getting him involved.
And yet, if Wertheimer didn't own Ski Shores, he wouldn't have known the Continental Club was available in late 1987. The Schuler family, Ski Shores regulars, owned the building at 1315 S. Congress and approached Wertheimer about leasing the club.
"After the mess I'd gotten myself in, my first reaction was, 'No, thanks,'" chuckles Wertheimer. "But working there with C-Boy every day started me thinking about the Rome Inn."
Like C-Boy's Heart & Soul 26 years later, Wertheimer's Continental Club opened on New Year's Eve.
After a near-disastrous first year, when Wertheimer recast the gritty Continental as a Fifties-style hamburger joint, the club started slowly finding its own identity. Key was Junior Brown on Sunday nights. Just as the T-Birds slowly built Mondays at the Rome Inn, Brown didn't play to many folks in the beginning, and Wertheimer pulled money from the bar register to keep him coming back. After word got out there was a guy who sang like Ernest Tubb and played guitar like Jimi Hendrix, Sundays at the Continental became a thing in town.
C-Boy was there when his protégé turned things around and created the modern version of the Rome Inn. Then, in 1991, he was suddenly gone. C-Boy's longtime girlfriend Frances called Wertheimer in hysterics to tell him the old man wouldn't wake up. Steve bolted over to C-Boy's place on East 12th and Airport Boulevard, but arrived just after the funeral home took the body. That was 22 and a half years ago.
"I think about him every day," says Wertheimer.
Help people. That's what Henry Wertheimer and C-Boy Parks taught their boy Steve. You help people to help yourself. Fill a room with music and folks who love it, and sometimes it becomes a palace. You've just gotta walk through that door.