Mr. Toad's Wild Ride
Tales from Austin's big bang: John Andrews
Time is a continuum that's sometimes hard to trace. Look too far back and things get hazy. Try gazing into the future and it's all guesswork. Living in the present is, of course, no less tricky. Maybe that's why I've always been consumed by the past, especially when it comes to music. Novelist Billy Lee Brammer's book review of The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock in the first issue of the Austin Sun 30 years ago described the affliction in connection with Conqueroo's Bob Brown: "nightmare nostalgia." I knew exactly what Brammer was talking about, because I was suffering from the same fate, but even worse: It was nostalgia for a time I was only gazing at from afar. Which meant I was double-dipped and dancing in the dark.
I can trace a lot of this wistfulness to my first teenage trip to Austin in the summer of 1968. My friends and I had strip-mined the clubs and concert halls of Houston for five years, veering from the blues bars in the Fifth Ward to soul spots wherever we could find them, big shows at the Coliseum and Music Hall and, finally, psychedelic rock rooms, with one that featured floor pillows on which we'd lay and watch bands like Red Krayola and the 13th Floor Elevators. That year, after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, it became crystal clear those days in Houston were done and it was time to move on. That's when we heard Muddy Waters was finally coming to Texas and playing a place in Austin called the Vulcan Gas Company.
Walking into the Vulcan on Congress near Third Street was like entering Alice's wonderland. You could feel the freedom, from the light show on the walls all the way to the fabulous freaks in charge of the club. This was as close as we were going to get to San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom, and I knew instantly there was no going back. What I didn't know was that I'd also fallen down the rabbit hole on a quest to find out how this had happened and why Austin had become the absolute center of Texas musical experiments. What I also didn't realize that warm night in August was that for all intents, the Sixties were over. Most of the local musical pioneers had moved on or were otherwise occupied, and the waves of styles that would make the city such an obvious pleasure zone in the Seventies blues, rock, and country were headed ashore.
Of musical mentors that helped blaze those initial trails around town 40 years ago, somehow John Andrews' name has escaped all but the most diligent diehards. Maybe it's because he was only around a couple of years in the Sixties, and yet this guitarist took one of the first giant leaps over to East Austin to play blues at Charlie's Playhouse in 1964 when white faces there were unheard of, starting groups with people like Boz Scaggs that have escaped the local history books. Andrews left Austin before much notice could be taken, but soon came back with San Francisco hybrid band Mother Earth, featuring both Tracy Nelson and Powell St. John on vocals, playing guitar with his teeth while he hopped around onstage at the Vulcan Gas Company and proved his nickname "Toad" was no misnomer.
Andrews' tale of musical strength and shenanigans is truly one of the wilder rides of those survivors. If his seem like tales from another time, in many ways that's exactly what they are. But it's a time that helps us tell the future. For that alone, it's a ride worth taking. Today, Andrews owns Texas Ceiling Fans on West Sixth Street, and at 62 is not one to live much in the past. He's too busy operating a successful business and still trying to find that perfect guitar.
Austin Chronicle: Were you born in Texas?
John Andrews: No, Phildelphia. We moved to Spring Branch near Houston when I was in 11th grade.
AC: When did you come to Austin?
JA: In fall of '64 I went to UT and right away ran into Bob Arthur, who played bass. One of the first things he ever said to me was, "I like the way you play. Where'd you learn to use your teeth." Bob called me one day and said he'd seen a card on the bulletin board at the Student Union that read, "Guitarist-vocalist wants to form Jimmy Reed blues band. Boz Scaggs," and had his phone number on it. We called and went over to his place on 17th Street near the university. He was going to the UT extension school. He said he could get us all the fraternity gigs we wanted because his best buddy from high school was Angus Wynne, who was the social chairman at the SAE house. We got a job that weekend and just kept playing. Those frats didn't have stages, so we stole some plywood skids from The Daily Texan that they kept the big rolls of newsprint on, and we used them for a stage. We called ourselves the Wigs and wore black turtlenecks and Italian boots.
I was working in the kitchen at the Id. It was a coffeehouse, but I hated that folk stuff. As the Wigs, we'd play at Green Pastures and also those party barns. The way I got the name "Toad" was we'd go to Scholz's and drink five or six pitchers of beer before playing the frat parties. I'd be up there bopping around and jump off the pallets, hopping around on the floor playing with my teeth. One night Bob said, "He's a toad," and that was it. Back then, fraternities hired mostly black bands, and we were the only white group playing that circuit. Then we started going over to the Eastside and Charlie's Playhouse. That was the place to go. I don't think the Victory Grill still had music at that point. On Monday they had amateur night at Charlie's, and Boz and I would go there and do songs like "Hideaway" and "Stormy Monday." Boz had an Epiphone guitar that used to belong to T-Bone Walker; Steve Miller's father was a doctor in Dallas and knew Walker. Walker gave the guitar to Steve, and Steve gave it to Boz. We won the $25 prize four weeks in a row, and they said we couldn't enter anymore.
AC: Was there any other music in Austin then that you were aware of?
JA: The only other musicians I met in Austin then were Powell St. John and Benny Rowe. The college music scene was still all those folkies. Finally Boz, Bob, and Benny went to London in 1965, and I went back to Houston because I had a conflict with my parents. The Beatles were huge then. That March, I went to London, too, but we couldn't get work permits there, so Boz went off to India, then made an album in Sweden like the Bob Dylan of Scandinavia. I called my mother, and she said I'd just gotten my draft notice, so I decided to get a student deferment by going to college in Spain.
AC: What do you remember about those London days?
Boz Scaggs: They had great R&B bands there, some of the best players in the world, doing Bobby Bland songs and all those things. But we couldn't play because we didn't have our musician work permits, so me and Benny Rowe washed dishes and did construction work. I finally left and traveled around there for two years.
AC: What about John's playing?
BS: He was one of the first guys I met that had been influenced by Albert Collins and Johnny "Guitar" Watson, which really impressed me. He played great.
AC: When did you come back to Austin again?
JA: Bob came back first, then we put a group together with George Kinney, who had been in the Spades with Roky Erickson, and on drums was Daryl Rutherford, who later joined Conqueroo. We were called the Chelsea and dressed like English guys and smoked English cigarettes trying to pass ourselves off as Englishmen at sorority gigs. This was the fall of '65, and Benny Rowe started a band with Rusty Wier called the Whigs, with an "h." Bob left and went to San Francisco, and the Chelsea started playing a place called the Clown's Den down on San Jacinto and 18th Street. The Chelsea couldn't get a gig at the Jade Room. The 13th Floor Elevators were there all the time. We got a two-track recorder and went down to the 11th Door and recorded some songs, but it was all blues and there really wasn't a market for it. So we had our photo taken and ran an ad in the Texan that said, "Just Back From European Tour," and the Clown's Den was packed.
One night Travis Rivers brought Janis Joplin by. I think it was after they started calling the club the Fred. They said they were going to San Francisco, where she was going to try out for a band. We'd just changed the name of our band from the Chelsea to Sopwith Camel, not knowing there was a group called that in California. Jerry Jeff Walker used to open up for us. I went to Europe for a while, then ended up back in Houston. Club Ebony is where I met saxophonist Grady Gaines, who was the bandleader for Little Richard & the Upsetters from '55-'58 and then worked with Sam Cooke until Cooke was killed in 1964.
AC: You started working in Houston then?
JA: Right. Grady hired me and we started playing all around Houston on the chitlin' circuit, places like Drag Kitchen in Orange, Shorty's in Beaumont, Sid's Ranch in Houston, and a place called McDaniel's Lounge that had a 6am-to-noon Blue Monday, the G&M Pleasure Spot in LaMarque, the Paladium in Bryan. We backed up Johnnie Taylor, Lowell Fulson, Albert Collins, Miss Lavelle, Bobby Hebb, Joe Hughes, Big Joe Turner, Margie Hendricks, Joe Hinton all those people. Before that I'd sat in one night at Club Paradise in Memphis with Johnnie Taylor, and they said I was the first white guy to ever play there. I was at the STAX Studio the next day and Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn couldn't believe I'd done it. I got to hang out with Otis Redding for a whole week in Memphis.
When I went back to Houston, we played a place in Bay City, the Club Astronaut, that was really rough. One night there were some gunshots and everyone started running. I was in the restroom when Lowell's brother Robert walked in and said he'd just been shot. I did that for two years. The most memorable gig with Grady was playing for a victory party for Muhammad Ali at the Black Muslim Temple in the Third Ward. When Ali came out on stage he took one look at me, surprised to see a white guy in the band at the Temple. Grady told him, "He's cool, man, he's cool." We'd go around Houston and see Johnny and Edgar Winter's band and the Bobby Doyle Trio with Kenny Rogers on standup bass. One night I went to the Eldorado to see B.B. King, and ended up in his dressing room. He saw my curly hair and got his hairdresser to straighten it right there, and wrap it in a doo rag. Crazy. There was so much music it was fantastic.
AC: Where did you go after that?
JA: I got a call from my friend Spider Price. He'd been pals in San Antonio with Michael Nesmith, who hired him to work on the Monkees as a stand-in for Davy Jones. Spider said Nesmith wanted to put together a white Texas blues band called the Armadillo. I drove to L.A. and got Bob Arthur to meet me there. He was just getting out of the Army, where he'd been on the DMZ in Korea. We put the group together and would rehearse at Nesmith's big house up on Mulholland Drive. Then we played around the San Fernando Valley, and three months later the network didn't renew the Monkees' show, so the money dried up.
I called Grady in Houston, who said his guitarist brother Roy Gaines lived in L.A., so I started sitting in with him. I got a call from Roy saying Little Richard was coming out of retirement to play rock & roll again and was holding band auditions. I went down and made the first cut and knew I'd nailed the gig, and ran into Jessie Hill there, the singer who'd done "Ooh Poo Pah Doo." He tried to get me to start a band with him, saying, "It's a big old world out there. Forget Richard." Before I went back for the second round I got a call from Travis Rivers saying he had a band in San Francisco called Mother Earth and they needed a guitarist and bassist. Powell St. John was one of the singers, and when Bob and I went up there Powell was really cooking. Tracy Nelson was the other vocalist, and we got the gig. The next day we started recording.
AC: How did John Andrews come to join the band?
Tracy Nelson: We had to replace the guitar and bass player from the original group, because they were lame assholes. I think Boz suggested Toad and Bob Arthur, who had gone to Europe with him. My first impression of Toad was that this guy who wore button-down Brooks Brothers shirts and Bass Weejuns couldn't be very funky, but one rehearsal proved me wrong. His guitar playing was spare, which I liked, and he totally killed me when he played with his teeth.
AC: Any other memorable attributes?
TN: The first thing that comes to mind about gigs was that he had this reflex when he heard the words "show time." It would immediately make him have to piss, and he'd disappear for a few minutes just as we were going onstage. He could also find a bottle of whiskey anywhere at any time. I remember many after-hour creeps going to fairly sinister urban areas and picking up booze from some guy who kept it in a manhole. Toad's craziness might be genetic. I recall one time he initiated a new guitar player into the group by getting him to do flaming shooters until the new kid was so drunk he lit his hand on fire.
AC: What were the sessions like for the first LP, Living With the Animals?
JA: Wayne Talbert, the great keyboard player, got fired right away, and he came back to the studio that night and stole my amp. Then Tracy told me, "I don't want to offend you, but when we record the song 'Mother Earth,' Michael Bloomfield's going to come in and play guitar on that song." He showed up while we were jamming with the rhythm section, and Bloomfield told me, "Man, you play just like Johnny 'Guitar' Watson." That was a real compliment. Doug Sahm arranged most of the horns on that album, probably because the players were originally with him, and he was tremendous. That was the summer of '68.
AC: How did you next end up in Nashville?
JA: We went there to cut Make a Joyful Noise, the second album for Mercury Records. One half was called "City Side" and the other "Country Side." Boz was living in Macon, right after he did his solo album on Atlantic and came over and played on our album. Then we did the country half with steel player Pete Drake, who talked Mercury into using Bob Johnston, D.J. Fontana, Scotty Moore, Johnny Gimble, and Pig Robbins on it. Mercury also let us cut a whole country album for Tracy using that group, and the famous photographer Robert Frank, who also did the Rolling Stones movie Cocksucker Blues, made a documentary on us that's hardly been seen. Later that summer in '69, we were supposed to go play the Woodstock Festival, but the advance didn't come through so Tracy wouldn't go. We did the Newport Rock Festival, and Hendrix used Bob Arthur on bass for his set.
AC: Why do you think Mother Earth wasn't more successful?
JA: We didn't have hit singles because we didn't do that type of material. And we never had a real record producer. Our manager Travis Rivers was producer. Tracy insisted on it. On the first album, Barry Goldberg was supposed to produce, but he was shooting up in the bathroom with blood going everywhere, so he got fired the first day. We would tour with a lot of people, including the Doobie Brothers, who were unknown then and opened up for us on what was called the Mother-Brothers tour, and even Alice Cooper, who got added to our New Orleans show because Warner Bros. felt we weren't a big enough draw there.
We did a few more albums with Warner Bros. and CBS, then they began calling them Tracy Nelson albums. She had a hit with Willie Nelson and we started getting all these country gigs. We'd get booed in some of those heavy country places. I remember in 1976 we did a Houston date, then two nights at the Armadillo got canceled. We went on to play St. Louis with Tom Waits opening and Madison and Toronto. We couldn't afford to eat in the hotel restaurant in Toronto, and it was too cold to walk down the street to get a hamburger. It just felt like the end of the line. After that, there was never another Mother Earth gig. It became just Tracy Nelson. That was the end.
AC: When did you leave the band?
JA: Not long after the Toronto show. In St. Louis, I had found some old Century fans, and started checking out other old fans in hotels. I lived outside Nashville in Franklin and went to the Sam Davis Hotel in town and bought 85 fans when it was being remodeled. I'd borrowed the money from my father, then restored the fans and sold them in flea markets there. I remember a paper in Nashville did a story on me, "Musician Trades in Guitar for Ceiling Fans." In 1977 I decided to take my fans to Austin and start a store here. I've been doing it ever since.
The continuum of time continues, and as the past gets further behind us, the ghosts become a little less daunting. We start to see how everything fits into what has come before, and hopefully, what's still to follow afterward. For John Andrews, his only son, Jake, became a guitarist around Austin before he reached 10, and recently moved to Los Angeles to further his career. For me, those days of nightmare nostalgia have become far more manageable. Instead of looking at life like a chain of events all linked together, I see it more as a long train, with different cars from different periods being taken off and put back on, all with their own purposeful worth, pulled by a collective engine of which everyone is an equal part. For John Andrews, it's been a long and exciting trip, from listening to Albert Collins play in his back yard during high school to performing with some of the best musicians of all time and building a musical legacy that even he is sometimes surprised by. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride indeed.
Bill Bentley was the first typesetter for the Austin Sun, and then tricked his way into a 30-year career as a writer and record company flack. He lives in Los Angeles now but still gets giddy whenever he walks past the old site of the Vulcan Gas Company on Congress.