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By Christopher Gray, May 26, 2006, Music


Clifford Antone, founder of Antone's nightclub and one of the godfathers of the Austin music scene as we know it today, died early Tuesday at his downtown condominium; his body was discovered by police at about 1:15pm. The Travis County Medical Examiner's office said Wednesday morning the cause of death was unknown, pending results of a toxicology report, which they estimated would take about two weeks, but preliminary speculation is that Antone succumbed to a heart attack. He was 56 years old.

"One of the primary reasons Austin is known as the Live Music Capital of the World is because of Clifford Antone," Austin Mayor Will Wynn said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. "His devotion to the music spoke for itself."

Clifford Jamal Antone was born October 27, 1949, in the East Texas seaside city of Port Arthur, scion of a well-to-do food-importing family. He acquired a taste for the blues at a young age, first from gospel music imparted to him by childhood caregiver Sister Mary Hinton, then by joining scores of other thrill-seeking Gulf Coast youth (including future Antone's fixture Marcia Ball), who ventured across the Sabine River to Louisiana juke joints Lou Ann's and the Big Oaks Club. Those venues later became models for his own, where regional acts like Clifton Chenier, Barbara Lynn, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lazy Lester, the Fabulous Boogie Kings, and Warren Storm were always welcome.

Antone moved to Austin in 1969, originally planning to study law at the University of Texas but dropped out after he was arrested in Laredo for smuggling a bag of marijuana across the Mexican border (a case that was later dismissed). He ran the local branch of his family's business, a delicatessen on 15th Street, but his true passion was the Chicago blues albums he had discovered through his love of Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Rolling Stones, and the counsel of good friends like Angela Strehli.

On July 15, 1975, Antone opened Antone's nightclub in a converted furniture warehouse at Sixth and Brazos, in what was then a desolate patch of downtown, far removed from today's co-ed playground. Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band played the grand opening, soon joined by virtually the entire pantheon of blues and R&B legends: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Albert King, Albert Collins, and a memorable Independence Day 1976 show featuring B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland. Antone had a special affinity for, and struck up deep friendships with, several of the era's oft-overlooked sidemen, including Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Taylor, Walter "Shakey" Horton, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Calvin Jones, and Willie "Big Eye" Smith. He was responsible for moving Sumlin, Cotton, and Perkins to Central Texas in their later years, as well as assisting with day-to-day needs, such as doctor's appointments and hospital bills.

"People have no idea the things he did behind the scenes," says local bassist and trombonist Jon Blondell, a member of Antone's house band in the Eighties. "He'd pay you out of his pocket on a slow night, and I've seen him buy horns and [guitars] for people."

Antone's had a twofold effect on the blossoming Austin music scene of the mid-Seventies, then dominated by the progressive country sounds emanating from the Armadillo World Headquarters, Soap Creek Saloon, and Castle Creek. Besides bringing the aforementioned names to town, Antone further fostered the blues' local ascendancy by arranging for the stable of local musicians who adopted the club after years of playing out-of-the-way joints like the One Knite, Buffalo Gap, Ed's Cucaracha, and even the Back Room to act as their backing bands.

From this pool, springing from North and East Texas, with a few Lubbockites thrown in, arose bands that went on to challenge, and ultimately usurp, progressive country as Austin's reigning sound: the Nightcrawlers, featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Ferguson, and Doyle Bramhall Sr.; Southern Feeling, with Strehli, Denny Freeman, and W.C. Clark; Paul Ray & the Cobras, with Vaughan on guitar; the Fabulous Thunderbirds, with Stevie's older brother Jimmie, Ferguson, and California import Kim Wilson; and Triple Threat, with SRV, Clark, and Lou Ann Barton. Bands swapped nights, and sometimes members, and grew into a close-knit community headquartered at Antone's.

"Clifford showed up at the right time, when everybody was looking for a place to play," says Paul Ray. "It was like a family."

The blues was and is hardly lucrative, and Antone's original location closed in 1979 but reappeared months later in a former rug dealership on Anderson Lane, a location that hosted James Brown but only lasted a few months itself. In 1981, the club took over the old Shakey's Pizza Parlor at 2915 Guadalupe, and because of Vaughan's and the Thunderbirds' concurrent rise to national and international fame, this location became the definitive version of Antone's for many people in Austin and around the world. It's where everyone gathered when Vaughan's helicopter crashed in August 1990 and where U2 stopped by on the Joshua Tree tour. Here and at the club's current location at 213 W. Fifth, where it moved in 1997, Antone continued welcoming and nurturing new (and new-to-Austin) talent: Charlie Sexton, Doyle Bramhall II, Ian Moore, Bob Schneider, Toni Price, Sue Foley, Miss Lavelle White, Jake Andrews, the Keller Brothers, Jane Bond, Eve Monsees, Gary Clark Jr.

"Pretty much all the shows I saw at Antone's, I don't know why they spoke to me loudest, but there was something so deep," offers Ian Moore. "It was so much more real than seeing college kids with a bunch of angst, because it was the same thing, but it was real. It really made a big impact on me."

Antone's colorful life was also marked by convictions in federal court for marijuana trafficking in 1984 and 2000. He was forced to cede ownership of the club to a corporation headed by his sister Susan after the first one and started the ongoing series of "Help Clifford Help Kids" benefits for local nonprofit American YouthWorks while serving his sentence for the second. When he was released in December 2002, the gregarious Antone became a greeter at Güero's restaraunt, a regular at the Broken Spoke's hardcore country night, and beamed ear to ear the night in June 2003 his probation expired and he was again allowed to enter the club that bears his name.

Antone was a principal organizer of the Neighbors in Need benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims at the Frank Erwin Center last November. At the time of his death, he and Sarah Rucker were collaborating on a book, an outgrowth of his popular history of blues and rock & roll courses at the University of Texas and Texas State University. "My job is done if one kid is inspired to buy a Muddy Waters CD who didn't know who he was," Antone told the Chronicle in February 2004. The lifelong Longhorns and Houston Astros fan was seldom seen in public minus a Longhorn cap and an adoring young lady on each arm.

"He helped make music fun in Austin," Broken Spoke owner James White said Tuesday. "Everybody knew him, just like his good friend Doug Sahm. I can see him right now, in that suit and baseball cap of his."

Antone is survived by sisters Susan Antone and Janelle Antone Raad, a niece and nephew, and a city that would not, and will not, be the same without him. His funeral is private, but visitation today (Thursday) and Friday at Cook-Walden Funeral Home, 6100 N. Lamar, is open between 6-8pm. A free public memorial is scheduled for 6pm Saturday, June 3 at Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Rd.

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