The Town Was Hoppin'

Ramblin' Ray Campi remembers Austin music's Fifties

Ray Campi recently revisited the steps on West Sixth Street where he learned to play guitar with older cousin Harold Layman (below).
Ray Campi recently revisited the steps on West Sixth Street where he learned to play guitar with older cousin Harold Layman (below). (Photo by John Anderson)

Wild-eyed rockabilly veteran Ray Campi wrote his first song on the last day of 1949 and left Austin at the end of 1959. He's a man of the Fifties in his hometown, so in his mind the Magnolia Cafe on South Congress is still Flossie's Drive In, where country acts like Leon Carter and his band the Rolling Stones performed. He still calls far South Congress Avenue – home of such Fifties clubs as the Cinderella, Rudy's Drive In, the Alibi, Gil's, and the Top Hat – "the San Antonio Highway."

While legions mourn the 1980 closing of the Armadillo World Headquarters on Barton Springs Road, Campi has fonder memories of the 1,500-capacity hall when it was the Sportcenter, where he and such acts as Betty Barnes, the Hubcats with Hub Sutter, and the Hungry Mountain Boys would play the Saturday night Jamboree. Billed as the "Folk Music Fireball" by an Austin promoter, Elvis Presley played the future hippie haven on August 25, 1955, one of four local appearances before his January 1956 national TV debut.

"Some people talk like Austin became a music town in the Sixties and Seventies," says Campi, who owns a house in Spicewood, yet has lived primarily in Los Angeles for five decades. "But the town was hoppin' when I was coming up."

The dynamic 77-year-old "Rockabilly Rebel," who stands on his bass fiddle while slapping the strings in double time, remembers a time when Dessau Hall near Pflugerville and the Skyline Club on North Lamar ("the Dallas Highway") were "the Palladiums of Central Texas." Touring and local country bands would also play the Buckholts SPJST Hall in nearby Milam County, where an 18-year-old Campi was called up onstage by his guitar hero Merle Travis to sing "San Antonio Rose" in 1952.

Because Austin is home to the most liberal state college in Texas, it's always had something going on musically. In the Fif­ties, Downtown was swingin' with the Jade Room (2514 Guadalupe), Squirrel's Inn (415 Barton Springs Rd.), and New Orleans Club (1123 Red River). The roots-rockin' Conti­nent­al Club opened in 1955 at 1315 S. Con­gress, just up from the Terrace Motel and nightclub, but it was more of a jazz club, with owner Bill Turner's trio playing most nights.

In the otherwise barren hills of West Lake, musicians played the Elm Grove Lodge, which gained fame during the Sev­en­ties as the home of the Soap Creek Saloon.

The Town Was Hoppin'

Over on the Eastside, you had Charlie's Playhouse (1206 E. 11th), Big Mary's/Ala­bama Club (1808 E. 12th), the Victory Grill (1104 E. 11th), and more juke joints. "We used to go to Charlie's on Friday nights to learn the latest dances," recalls antique dealer Charles "Lucky" Attal, who attended Austin High in the late Fifties, when it resided at the current 12th Street location of ACC. Blues Boy Hubbard & the Jets were the house band at Charlie's.

Most major black acts, including Bo Diddley, Big Joe Turner, and Little Richard on one memorable night, played Doris Miller Auditorium. The great KVET-FM deejay and musician Lavada Durst, a true Austin icon, brought in such giants as Duke Ellington and Sam Cooke.

Perhaps the biggest concert of the Fifties in Austin was an Oct. 7, 1957, show at City Coliseum on Barton Springs Road that featured Fats Domino, Buddy Holly & the Crickets, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, the Drifters, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, and more. Lucky Attal's son, Charles of C3 Presents, would kill for talent like that at the Austin City Limits Music Fest.

For Hispanics, a weekly highlight in the Fifties was the Nash Hernandez Orchestra's "Friday Frolics" at Zaragoza Park. Manuel Donley, Shorty & the Corvettes, Roy Montelongo, and more locals benefited from exposure on Lalo Campos' radio show for KVET. Never-recorded accordion master Ca­mi­lo Cantu, meanwhile, had couples dancing at La Polkita, an open-air venue bounded by Christmas-tree lights in Del Valle.

With a memory as sharp as his vintage threads, Campi remembers an Austin of old like the past five decades were a week and a half. He'll talk your ear off, but you'd be wise to take notes.

Ramblin' Ray remembers not only the music scene, but can also still describe details about restaurants like Lung's Chinese Kit­chen (1128 Red River), Austin's first Asian sensation, and the Sho-Nuff Cafe (2006 S. Lamar, later home to Bag O' Chicken), where Europe-adored musician Calvin Russell's parents worked. He recalls the fanfare when the Twin Oaks Shopping Center ("the largest in town") opened at South Congress and Oltorf in 1955.

"There were seven drive-in movie theatres in Austin in the Fifties," says Campi, rattling off the names: the Burnet Road Drive-In, the Delwood, the North Austin, the South Austin, the Montopolis, the Chief, and the Longhorn.

Handbills and ads of Austin's past: Gene, Elvis, and Ray
Handbills and ads of Austin's past: Gene, Elvis, and Ray

The competition was fierce, and one time Campi got drawn into a publicity stunt at the Chief Drive-In (5601 N. Lamar).

"There was a guy who was buried alive for a month," laughed Campi. "He wasn't really buried. There was a secret door and he'd go home after the last showing each night. But one day [studio owner] Roy Poole had an idea to record a song from the grave, so he had me play the guitar while the guy sang."

Before Poole opened the Austin Recording Company on the second floor of the Littlefield Building at Sixth and Congress in the early Fifties, the only recording studio in town was the Radio House on the University of Texas campus, where Campi recorded several tracks. As described by Campi, the former Radio House was almost certainly the brick annex of the historic Littlefield Building on campus.

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Ray Campi, Leon Carter, Bob Wills, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Charles Attal, Lavada Durst, Bobby Doyle, Gene Snowden, Bert Rivera, Vivian Worden

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