Juke Joint Blues
Blues Boy Hubbard remembers Austin's Chitlin' Circuit
By Jonny Meyers, Fri., July 13, 2007
Linear stories age with their storytellers. Each subsequent telling becomes less enthusiastic, each audience less interested, each repetition somewhat comical without intending to be. Nonlinear stories, by contrast, improve with age. They translate into invaluable sources of history by inconspicuously molding the past and the present. This erasure of history as textbook concept creates an evolving context by which to view the past.
Walking from the parking garage into his East Oltorf apartment, Henry "Blues Boy" Hubbard looks me over and warns, "If you got something particular you want to know about 11th Street, that would be better, because I can sit here [talking] for a week. I could never stop telling you about 11th Street because there's that much to tell." Hubbard had been here before some young white boy trying to get insight into the blues. "I'm not going to exaggerate nothing because I was right there," he claims with authority.
Hubbard's storied career in local music is told once again with bright eyes, big smiles, and a lot of laughter, the kind aging men let loose in moments of deep pride in their accomplishments. From center stage to the audience, from beyond the spotlight and into the backdoor business dealings between club owners and players, and from onetime bandleader of the Eastside's hottest house band to backer of tour legends ("Bright Lights, Inner City," July 4, 2003), the guitarist's bird's-eye view remains one of the most potent landmarks of Austin's long-faded "Chitlin' Circuit."
Whether sitting on the couch in Hubbard's apartment or in the front seat of his car outside of Guitar Resurrection, thumbing through a box of photographs of Austin juke joints from Tary Owens' archival collection, the stories roll without stop. Hubbard recalls the racial changeover at Charlie's Playhouse that occurred in 1960 on Friday and Saturday nights, and when a picture preserves an all-black crowd dancing to the Rollettes, featuring Hubbard's longtime bandmate Walter Shaw on tenor sax, he immediately recognizes the Sunday crowd that accompanied it.
While struggling to remember the exact name of the venue, he recognizes the jukey details: brown wood paneling adorning the walls, PA speakers resting on the floor amidst the dancers, a simple raised platform sectioned off by a surrounding guardrail that functions as a makeshift stage, and, if you look carefully at the tables around the dance floor, there's the ice bucket, plastic cup, and BYOB setup that's a staple of the last remaining juke joints in Texas.
In that moment of recall, the past becomes the here and now for Hubbard, and we forget all about linear time. The confines of his apartment and SUV disappear, and Hubbard is "right there" again, leader of a vibrant blues scene and a stellar house band that bears his name.
The Road Dared Traveled
In a dark corner of a makeshift greenroom sits San Antonio saxophone mainstay Spot Barnett, dapperly dressed in tan slacks, a well-pressed button-down shirt of the same color, sparkling white shoes, and the quintessential horn man's black beret. Relaxing before his 2007 Juneteenth performance at the Victory Grill, Barnett positions a stack of framed black-and-white images on an end table beside his tenor and soprano sax, alongside a plastic cup of light beer, bucket of ice, and pack of menthol smokes. Each photo contains an equal number of legendary, as well as less famous, artists; club owners; and spectators taken at the juke joint where Barnett got his first job, the Keyhole.
"This is a treasure chest here," motions Barnett at the second picture, pointing to the faces. "On the right, this is Johnny Phillips, the owner of the Keyhole. This is Nat King Cole and his wife. This is Sammy. He had a place on Eastwood Street. There's Duke Ellington. This is Red Winters and his partner, Don Albert ... and uh, some other guys I forgot.
"It's been over 50 years. This is the kind of people that was coming on the Chitlin' Circuit at the time."
Barnett's trophies tell little of his own story. Unlike Blues Boy Hubbard, his travels as a longtime member of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and a brief sideman stint with Bobby "Blue" Bland makes him a valuable source for Chitlin' Circuit road stories. In addition, his bandleader days in San Antonio juke joints like the Keyhole and the Ebony Lounge, where future Texas Tornados Doug Sahm and Ernie Durawa played for him in the Fifties, and in Austin's legendary Eastside clubs alongside his good friend and late local drummer Datty White have afforded his entourage the claim that Barnett is the Chitlin' Circuit.
During segregation, music venues known as juke joints, jook houses, or simply jooks arose in both rural and urban African-American neighborhoods and centers of commerce. Venues ranged from someone's front porch and rural shacks, icehouses, and cafeterias with a small space for performers to larger venues and theatres like New York's Apollo. The juke joints that were home to many local and touring blues and jazz acts together formed a larger network of black music venues known as the Chitlin' Circuit, referring to a delicacy of boiled pig intestines often served in jukes with short-order kitchens. This informal road map was to many black musicians the only safe way to travel and play their music, the only way they could find hotels, restaurants, and audiences that were welcoming.
The circuit was more than a tour route. It was an important and vibrant means of economy, community, and cultural trade. Since segregation placed limits on African-American businesses no bank loans or credit, zoning and neighborhood restrictions, zero mainstream exposure entrepreneurs turned to informal means in order to run their businesses. Juke joints were strictly cash businesses whose hours of operation could change daily depending on the success of the previous night's act, on what money could be borrowed from neighboring businesses, or on what was gambled away after hours. Shows were promoted by black radio deejays and the communities themselves. It was this self-sustaining network that allowed the careers of seminal black musicians to develop. Icons like B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, James Brown, and Sam Cooke all cut their teeth on the Chitlin' Circuit.
Asked to describe the Chitlin' Circuit, Barnett gives a three-word summation that bottom-lines the matter: "word of mouth." Rather than dropping names from Martin Scorsese's Chitlin' Circuit chapter of PBS documentary The Blues or ones whose celebrated biographies breeze briefly along the circuit on their road to stardom (see the first half-hour of Ray) or even the major players in his personal stash of pictures at the Keyhole, Barnett hails entertainers like Pigmeat Markham ("Here Come Da Judge" comedian who traveled with a backing band that once featured Austin guitarist Major Lee Burkes), Jackie "Moms" Mabley (black vaudeville comedian), and Peg Leg Bates (wooden-legged tap dancer who also was the first black man to own a borscht belt hotel). These, Barnett explains, were the pioneers who hit the road during harsh times for blacks in America and who all played Austin's Eastside.
Scratch My Back
Blues Boy Hubbard arrived in Austin from La Grange in 1955 at the age of 21, working as a jet mechanic at Bergstrom Air Force Base. Both formally and self-educated in music, he played boogie-woogie piano by ear at age 8, learned to read sheet music shortly thereafter, and joined marching bands on various horns by age 12. He also began playing and singing professionally that same year at his own cousin's Out Cross the Creek club on Highway 71.
After his parents witnessed older women wiping the sweat off his young brow, they decided his first gig at the Out Cross would be his last. Though Hubbard's journey on blues guitar, which his father called the "starvation box," actually began later, at age 14, these experiences carried on in Austin, at his regular gigs at the Victory Grill, the Showbar, Charlie's Playhouse, Chicken Shack, and countless jukes across the city. His virtuosity, band-leadership abilities, and consistent house gigs at the right places drew Hubbard into the same sphere as many of the Chitlin' Circuit's top artists.
According to Hubbard, the man most responsible for placing Austin on this informal road map was Tony Von. A black deejay broadcasting from KTAE in Taylor, Von hosted one of the only blues shows in all of Central Texas in the Fifties and Sixties. His influence over the airways gained him special favor with both touring acts and the local Eastside venues. As a result, the seeds of radio payola were sown. "Because Tony Von was the only black deejay in Central Texas, stars like B.B. [King] and Bobby [Bland] and Junior Parker all them had to like what he was doing," explains Hubbard.
Von, an entrepreneur who owned the Showbar before it became Charlie's Playhouse, as well as Club 21 in Taylor, used his influence to book that caliber of talent into the clubs he was promoting, collecting fees from both ticket sales and the clubs themselves. Since these were small venues and because the artists depended on Von's radio show for record sales in Austin's black community, Von was able to convince artists to leave their own bands behind and come to town solo.
"All those guys came to Austin," nods Hubbard. "It was like being at home. They'd come here and do a whole weekend. The way I got to hear them and see them and play with them was through Tony Von."
Von's relationship with major artists was: "You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. I'll play your [records] if you come here and don't be charging me nothing. I got a band that will play behind all of y'all."
That backing band would almost always be Blues Boy Hubbard & the Jets.
"Austin was a good place for Bobby [Bland], Junior [Parker], Joe Tex, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters because of Tony Von," reiterates Hubbard, "but you don't hear nobody mentioning him, because he didn't fit in the circuit like they wanted him to." Asked to elaborate, Hubbard adds only, "He didn't play by the rules."
Von's sway in Central Texas allowed him the luxury of bypassing major Chitlin' Circuit booking agencies and record labels and kept him from paying subsequent royalty and booking fees. Circuit kingpins like Houston's Don Robey, who owned both Duke/Peacock Records and the Buffalo Booking Agency, had backdoor agreements with Von.
"Don Robey would let his people come and wouldn't have nothing to do with it," says Hubbard. "Von wouldn't have to pay Don or nothing like that because he needed Von, too, see. Von was the only guy in Central Texas who was going to play his records."
What sprung from Von's bookings was a street scene of dreams on 11th Street.
"Eleventh Street was just packed!" exclaims Hubbard. "It was a fun time back in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. I got to meet everybody. Everybody!"
Other survivors of the era, like rural blues guitar legend Hosea Hargrove, who grew up between Bastrop and Smithville, sustain similar recollections.
"There was a lot of joints all up and down 11th Street, man," Hargrove beams. "I mean a long time ago. People walking down the street just like on Sixth Street now. You know, just real busy. You'd come in through the night, man, and you'd have to walk on the side of the street to get by people, just like New York City.
"Shit, back in them times, it was ... . But now, you and I can walk by somebody, and you don't even know he passed you."
Working 9 to 5
A stroll down East 11th Street today stirs few ghosts. On the north side, between Waller and Lydia, sit a juke joint and DiverseArts' outdoor performance space dedicated to the memory of local jazz legend Kenny Dorham. Across the street, moving toward I-35, remnants of an African-American center of commerce have been replaced by modern cafes, restaurants, new businesses, and construction sites for Downtown luxury apartments. While Austin's branch of the Chitlin' Circuit is now gentrified, other legs of the network around the country appear as neighborhoods of slum and blight. In most cases, the juke joints are long gone, and the memories of this vibrant time are quickly fading.
Ironically and well-documented, it was integration that caused the black middle-class flight from Austin's 11th Street area, which in turn resulted in the disbanding of the local Chitlin' Circuit network. The circuit's touring acts, who now could play white clubs, crossed over in search of fees that struggling jukes couldn't provide. The subsequent loss of economy and the inability to compete with white-owned venues resulted in the physical loss of juke joints around the country.
"Integration caused a lot of problems on the Eastside," affirms Hubbard, who equates the closing of Charlie's Playhouse to local black musicians having to take day jobs in order to survive. "T.D. Bell could no longer make a living in Austin, and that's why he would go out to Odessa. Finally, somebody on the west side helped him buy a dump truck, and he started making money then."
Though Hubbard himself avoided the day-job scenario until the Eighties, members of his Jets, Albert "Breeze" Hennerton (piano) and Ural DeWitty (drums), had to quit the gig for their daytime commitments. Eventually Hubbard, too, had to work double-time, playing five nights a week while holding a maintenance job for Austin state schools, which he kept for 21 years until retirement. He shrugs.
"You got to get you something that you can retire with, with Social Security, Medicare, insurance and all of that, see."
Recent oral histories and scattered artifacts are all that's left of the Chitlin' Circuit. With the actual buildings nearly all bulldozed and the lack of paper trails that may have existed had credit or bank loans been granted to black business owners, documentation is difficult to find, if not nonexistent. Bluesmen who were, at one time, local guitar heroes fell into obscurity as a result of their 9-to-5s. As these local musicians age and pass on, the memory fade with them.
In the past dozen years alone, Austin lost blues and jazz greats like T.D. Bell, Grey Ghost, Erbie Bowser, Ural DeWitty, Datty White, Eastside folklorist/pioneer/musician Tary Owens, and club owner Clifford Antone, whose experiences with Eastside musicians led him to hire Hubbard & the Jets for one month at the onetime Guadalupe location of his club. The unfortunate fact that your average local music fan and even local musician could tell you very little about the former blues scene on the Eastside is alarming.
What Austin still boasts, however, is worthy of preservation same as the Armadillo World Headquarters and Jimmie Vaughan's little brother, Stevie. Hubbard's many brushes with Chitlin' Circuit fame are absolutely legendary. Like the story of how Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was forever envious of Hubbard after all the ladies at Charlie's Playhouse screamed twice as loud for the latter's guitar solo than they did Brown's. Or how Freddie King parked a second limousine outside the Chicken Shack in order to persuade Hubbard to hit the road with him as an opening act. More important than even these stories are Hubbard's insights into the roots of today's live-music scene in Austin: He claims that the stars loved to play in Austin because the competition in the pool of musicians here was unlike many other stops along the circuit.
Business as Usual
Thankfully, Eastside archivists have taken giant steps in expanding what is known about Austin's contribution to the Chitlin' Circuit. Folklorist Tary Owens' house is where historians must begin. Owens' vast collection, scattered in boxes and file cabinets in the home office of his widow, local vocalist Maryann Price, recently led to the discovery of a shoebox of 35mm photos of long-gone Austin juke joints. As fate would have it, the box was found resting inconspicuously atop Robert Shaw's piano, an Eastside legend, in between Tary Owens' and Grey Ghost's ashes.
Local arts pioneer Harold McMillan's refusal to be thwarted by forces of "progress" is undeniable testament to the spirit of survival along the Chitlin' Circuit ("Making It Happen," June 1, 2007). His Blues Family Tree oral histories are some of the most important contributions to the history of Austin music. Twelfth Street guitarist Major Lee Burkes Sr.'s autobiography, In the Shadow of Austin, chronicles his life on the Eastside to strong effect, as well. Finally, in between the new cafes and apartments sits Clay Shorkey's Texas Music Museum, a small space with more East Austin music valuables than it can physically hold in its underfunded quarters.
To see Shorkey's best Eastside blues pieces, you need only walk down the street to the Victory Grill. On display are 10 biographical spreads containing photos of the unsung local heroes, and memorabilia specific to the club lies in the glass case that leads directly to the performance space. This is just a small piece of the Victory Grill restoration project that has been Eva Lindsey's work in progress for longer than a decade and counting. While many question why it's taken the Victory Grill so long to be up and running as a full-time blues club, it seems that the pace and method by which Lindsey works are just right, if you consider yesterday and today.
Aware of pending and ongoing Eastside gentrification, Lindsey landed the Victory Grill on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 as a member of the Chitlin' Circuit to prevent it from being demolished. Since then, she's also continued to pursue formal designations from the city and state while at the same time keeping the club active through occasional bookings, South by Southwest, venue rental, and a handful of regular community events. Formal processes, she believes, may have, in some sense, slowed progress.
"Had I scrapped all the historical definitions and just went into this as a clean business deal with a commercial capitalistic bent, I probably wouldn't have had problems," claims Lindsey.
The problems, she explains, are problems of historical definition.
"It doesn't look like a historical building," admits the proprietress, "but the wonderful thing that came from the juke joint, that we fail to recognize, is that it brought some real cultural significance to the country. Developing the context for that, writing the story, and flipping the script from juke joint, beer joint, death [of the Chitlin' Circuit as a whole] to cultural significance ... it's been hard to get people to buy into it."
Still, shows at the Victory, like the touring avant-garde jazz shows produced by Epistrophy Arts, are as informal and jukey as ever. Bring your own bottle, pay for a setup bucket of ice and plastic cups, and you'll fit right in.
One of the regular shows of note is the Capitol City RapFest, a bimonthly showcase of local hip-hop MCs, DJs, and comedians who perform original work. For the past two years, it's been the most stable, regularly attended, and longest-running event at the Victory Grill. RapFest is the brainchild of Clifford Gillard, a concessions salesman and black youth advocate from Trinidad; Leon Oneal, a kinesiology major at Huston-Tillotson, aka local DJ Hella Yella.
Unaware of the Victory's history, Gillard walked in and inquired about renting it for one night after his Sunday afternoon gatherings at Givens Park were growing. The first show, held September 2005, spawned a working relationship between him and Lindsey, Gillard offering his concession and venue management services in order to secure a regular space for the RapFest. The relationship continues apace.
Gillard reflects that between the Victory of the Fifties and Sixties and RapFest, there lies a "continuum" in which "we probably go through all the same issues they did back then. Understand that we're dealing with underground ways of doing things." Certainly the RapFest aesthetic promotion by means of black radio and word of mouth, reliance on the success of each previous show to fund the next one, mixing comedy acts with music groups reflects juke joints of old. Perhaps these shows are reminiscent of the Sunday and Monday nights of Hubbard & the Jets' heyday. Perhaps linear time is irrelevant, and the spirit of the Chitlin' Circuit still lives on the Eastside.