Those Magic Moments
On the Eve of His Club's 26th Anniversary, Clifford Antone Remembers the Masters
For a man whose days begin and end in a cell at the Federal Correctional Institution near Bastrop, inmate No. 22656080 still has a firm grasp on the outside world. Federal facilities have a reputation for being summer camps next to state prisons and local jails, but that's like saying a kick in face with a jackboot is preferable to a spike heel. Prison is prison.
Clifford Antone began serving his four-year sentence for conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana and money laundering just days before his club's 25th anniversary show last year. He's allowed some privileges, and can keep in telephone contact with Antone's record store, the nightclub, the record label, and his sister Susan. Calls are limited and subject to phone availability, but Antone stays in touch regularly with all.
In an anniversary year dedicated to late Houston guitarist Clarence Hollimon, Antone spoke from prison about the club's 26 years of magic moments. It may well have been politic of him to avoid addressing his present circumstances, but it is also 100% Clifford to focus on musical memories and his club's colorful history -- especially considering John Lee Hooker's death just two days earlier.
"I remember John Lee Hooker," Antone begins. "He called me in 1975 for a gig at the club, and I set him up. Later, he would call me and come visit, like a vacation, not even to play. That's how close we were.
"It was a hard time for blues," he continues. "The hardest time was right around '75. That's why we became so close with Jimmy [Reed], Clifton [Chenier], Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Walter Shakey Horton, and Sunnyland Slim. Some of them had never been to Texas. Some of them no one wanted anywhere, and here's this club of kids devoted to the blues. It just blew them away. The musicians would drive up and come in and ask, 'Where's Mr. Antone?' and I'd say, 'That's me.'
"'Where's your father?' they'd ask.
"'He lives in Port Arthur,' I'd tell 'em. 'Why?'
"'Who owns this place?'
"'Well,' I'd tell 'em, 'I do!' And they'd just start laughing. Just some kid, you remember. We were just kids.
"It was magic. I don't think the city of Austin really comprehends how important that was. There's not even a plaque on Sixth Street to say we were there, all those people were there. Stories are written about the history of Sixth Street and don't even mention us. Maybe it's like the music itself and will take 100 years for them to appreciate it, appreciate all these people.
"I've been the luckiest man to know all those blues musicians. Angela Strehli helped me through so much of this, her brains helped everything. All the great musicians from the Eastside inspired me at the club -- Blues Boy Hubbard. You remember Ural DeWitty, the drummer from the Jets. DeWitty might have been the best drummer in Austin and never got any recognition. Outside of Bobby Bland, I never heard anyone who could sing better. And drumming -- he was an artist of a drummer, playing so beautiful.
"There's a lot of young kids out there doing it, like Rusty Zinn, Johnny Moeller, the Keller boys; all music needs support, but these very talented kids need it too. Rusty Zinn sounds like he was playing in Memphis for Sun Records in 1950. Johnny, nobody can burn like that kid. He's got the heart like Stevie had, about the only one I've seen with that kind of heart. Johnny's so quiet and bashful, just a sweet kid and sometimes those kids get overlooked.
"The talent pool in Austin is just wonderful. Bob Schneider, the Scabs, I love 'em. The Vallejo kids, it's good to bring them all to one place to play. Even Lucinda Williams, I love that girl.
"Sue Foley's either 100 years ahead or behind, I'm not sure which. Sue could have come up with Robert Jr. [Lockwood], Little Walter, or the old blues cats in Chicago. One of the few who knows how to play the blues correctly. Look at everything they call blues today! When she and Derek [O'Brien] are backing Kim [Wilson], it's too much. It's so good to have younger musicians mixed with the older ones.
"We're dedicating this year's anniversary show to Clarence Hollimon, who might be the best guitar player in the world. Up there with Wayne Bennett and those guys. His wife, Carol Fran, how great she is! What they do together is superior, heavy music, but not much of an audience. Just a shame.
"Clarence Hollimon was a gentleman beyond belief, the greatest guy to work with in the studio, a great guitarist like those other Houston fellas like Roy Gaines -- Grady Gaines' brother out there in California.
"Those are the people, the Eddie Taylors, Luther Tuckers, Hubert Sumlins, and Wayne Bennetts. Those are the geniuses I always try to promote, even when they've passed. And least Buddy Guy, John Lee, and B.B. got theirs.
"I was lucky also in my association with the younger generation of the Seventies: Jimmie, Stevie, Kim ... Seeing Jimmie Vaughan play that many times in my life is like whew! He's as superior a musician as there is, another one folks don't realize what an artist he is.
"I watched [Jimmie] play slide with Muddy Waters and saw Muddy's head just turn! Muddy loved Kim Wilson too. Watching Stevie Vaughan and Denny Freeman every week with Paul Ray & the Cobras, seeing the Thunderbirds back then with Lou Ann, Angela ... All that, I think about at anniversary time. I could write a book about it -- and I'm going to.
"My message is the same one I've had all these years: Turn off the TV, get out and support live music. The object is to put money in the pocket of the musicians, support live music. People in Austin are spoiled to so much good music, but when it comes to the blues, there aren't that many masters left."