Chairman of the Board

Antone's Blue Monday boss Derek O'Brien keeps the music alive and blue

Chairman of the Board
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

A choice bit of little-known Austin music history: Guitarist Johnny Copeland lived here in the early Seventies. The Louisiana native spent formative years of his career touring the Texas-Louisiana-Arkansas triangle, honing a sinewy style after T-Bone Walker's electrified modern blues. Copeland, aka the Texas Twister, thus came up alongside Houston's Albert Collins in the Fifties, both masters of the Telecaster. In 1987, the two shared a Grammy with Robert Cray for the joint Alligator Records recording Showdown!

That trophy arrived after decades of largely regional success for the elder pair of six-stringers, while Cray became a blues and soul savior the following year when he hit the mainstream with Strong Persuader. For Copeland, the award represented not only recognition, but payback for a lifetime's work. That included his less prosperous years in Austin, when he hired a neophyte guitarist named Derek O'Brien.

Call O'Brien by any number of titles: first-call guitarist in Antone's still-intact stable and leader of the brand's decades-old Blue Monday tradition (revisit "Earache!" bulletin "Blue Monday Returns," March 31); Grammy-nominated producer of Doug Sahm's The Last Real Texas Blues Band (1994) and Willie Nelson's Milk Cow Blues (2000); member of the mysterious Titty Bingo band; VIP bandleader for endless local benefits and tributes; and of course, blues Everyman.

Despite the Dallas-reared mainstay preferring to keep his profile low and credits extensive, there's one irrefutable fact about his local tenure of nearly 40 years: Derek O'Brien ranks alongside Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Denny Freeman, and Bill Campbell as Austin's chairmen of the board – blues guitar division.

James Cotton's Colored Socks

Vintage O'Brien and James Cotton
Vintage O'Brien and James Cotton (Courtesy of Susan Antone & the CJ Antone Collection)

Derek O'Brien chooses Railroad Bar-B-Que on FM 1626, at the east end of Manchaca near the (yes) railroad tracks, as his interview destination on this warm April Sunday. Within days, the ribs joint announces the shuttering of both its Manchaca and Kyle locations, with only a Dripping Springs outpost remaining for now.

"It reminds me of Alexander's," he says, evoking a long-gone ARCO gas station by day that turned into a blues barbecue joint by night during Austin's early Seventies. The Sherrill family's franchise we're sitting in notches 32 years, having recently turned Manchaca into a Tuesday hot spot every week that onetime Muddy Waters' harp man Paul Oscher takes the stage. It's the kind of place where fellow Muddy alumnus James Cotton can saunter into virtually unnoticed. Which is exactly what happens once we're settled.

O'Brien jumps up to greet the legendary harmonica player, who lives just a few blocks south. Cotton, a regular, shuffles through the dozen or so wooden tables, leaning on his cane as he eases into a chair and wheezes greetings from his wife, Jacklyn. For the better part of the next hour, the two musicians exchange stories, O'Brien eagerly quizzing Cotton about his colorful life. At 63, the former's not too old to play student and learn from a 78-year-old teacher he's studied under for decades.

That's at least part of the secret to O'Brien's quiet success: His inquisitive nature is still on full tilt, whether sitting in a barbecue joint with James Cotton or reminiscing about being backstage with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, B.B. King, and Bobby Blue Bland. He's produced dozens of bluesmen and women, not only Cotton, but Matt Murphy, Miss Lavelle White, Snooky Pryor, Jimmy Rogers, and – like new Austin guitar-slinger Jake Langley (see "Eruption," March 28) – Pinetop Perkins. Working with Albert Collins, Otis Rush, and Hubert Sumlin reaped dividends, while his stewardship of a 2007 Jimmy Reed tribute by Jimmie Vaughan and Omar Dykes remains an Austin blues essential.

At the moment, however, Cotton commands his attention.

"You wore what color socks?" asks O'Brien incredulously when told of being fined for the wrong attire at a gig. Cotton issues a chuckle made raspier by a bout with throat cancer in the late Nineties.

"I was playing with Jimmy Rogers," he says. "We wore green suits, with yellow ties, yellow hankies, and yellow socks. I had the wrong color socks. I think I wore black ones. 'My name is Jimmy Rogers, and I run the band,' he'd say. And there wasn't no talkin' back."

The two guffaw about Cotton's sartorial infraction, yet at the heart of the laughter lies truth. The blues remains very much about style, especially the six-string variety. That's where Derek O'Brien had the luck of the Irish when he fell in with Johnny Copeland's band around 1972.

Blues Lore & Musical Mojo

Texas triangle: O'Brien, Lou Ann Barton, and Jimmie Vaughan at Antone's circa mid-Eighties
Texas triangle: O'Brien, Lou Ann Barton, and Jimmie Vaughan at Antone's circa mid-Eighties (Courtesy of Susan Antone & the CJ Antone Collection)

Working with Copeland turned into a different sort of education for O'Brien, who mimes how his employer paid the band literally under the table by sliding them a roll of bills unseen – so no one knew how much the other made.

"I never knew how much I was supposed to get, never asked," says O'Brien. "I'd just picked up guitar when I ran into him. He said, 'Man, I'm putting a band together and I want you to play.' I didn't even know who Johnny Copeland was! He wasn't playing guitar on his gigs, just singing his regional hit, 'Down on Bending Knee.' So we played all these chitlin circuit places in Cuero, Taylor, Gonzales, Luling. Shiner on Christmas Eve in a joint with a wood-burning stove. It was all little black joints.

"He'd always pick me up in a Cadillac, I didn't have a car. I'd ride to gigs with him and it was the greatest experience for me. Nobody knew he was here. It was just this little pocket of time and he didn't appear at Castle Creek or the Armadillo or any white clubs – just Eastside places like the Harlem Theatre. Then he left, went to New York, and subsequently hooked up with Alligator.

"We'd do the 500 Club in Temple and when he'd sing 'Bending Knee,' well, he was no Bobby Blue Bland in the popularity department, but the women were fainting as soon as he'd break into it.

"Except for me, he got all East Austin musicians. [Trumpet player] Martin Banks was in the band for a minute, bored to death, of course. Martin was at a different level than anyone else in that band, but I was intimidated by them all. I was with Johnny for a year of gigs. He was a badass Texan with a Telecaster."

Playing with a Lone Star legend didn't alleviate the need for grunt-work jobs to pay bills – dishwashing at UT, temp labor, custodial work. Fortunately, transportation came cheap.

"I remember walking down to the Vulcan [Gas Company] in 1968, from my un-air-conditioned UT dorm room on 21st Street. It was a ghost town Downtown. A friend of mine had a good blues collection, so when the Vulcan started bringing in Big Joe Williams and Mance Lipscomb, I knew who they were. The Vulcan's booking policy really kept blues alive here – Mississippi Fred McDowell, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter.

Friend, peer, and fellow Austin institution Denny Freeman (see "Ten Fingers," Dec. 2, 2011) concurs.

"What you have to understand," he points out, "is all of us guys trying to learn how to play the guitar went to the same well. Not just the Texas players, either. And we each came away with something a bit different. We each took a little from this guy, a lot from that guy, and if you're lucky, you come up with something that's listenable."

For O'Brien, the quest was simpler.

"I was learning to play and just thinking about blues. My One Knite experience was going to see Storm on Mondays, then Angela Strehli's band, and later the early Cobras. I got to meet Bubu Watson, Major Burke, Freddie Goldsmith, W.C. Clark, Matthew Robinson, Hosea Hargrove. And Lewis Cowdrey was the greatest.

"But seeing Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall do it every Monday for nearly five years got something started here. That great guitar and that great voice doing this stuff no one else our age was doing in Austin."

Back inside Railroad Bar-B-Que, O'Brien's still focused on Cotton, who's now regaling him with stories of how onetime Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin's sanctified mother told them they would "die and go to hell" for playing blues. She finally agreed to let her son go on tour with the provision that Cotton bring him home on Wednesdays – every week for nearly two years. Sumlin was only two years Cotton's senior.

To see the younger musician's face alight with a broad, unself-conscious smile as he laughs and smacks the table in time to Cotton's punchlines is to realize that this is the real Derek O'Brien, a man with endless appetite for blues lore and musical mojo.

Groover's Paradise

Triple threat: (l-r) O'Brien, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Denny Freeman
Triple threat: (l-r) O'Brien, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Denny Freeman (Courtesy of Susan Antone & the CJ Antone Collection)

Ask Gary Clark Jr. about his influences and Derek O'Brien's name is famously among the first cited. America's reigning prince of primal guitar cut his teeth on Antone' blues blasters. Query Charlie Sexton or Ian Moore or Kathy Valentine or Doyle Bramhall II or any of the scores of locals who grew up witnessing O'Brien and Denny Freeman go from local heroes to internationally recognized masters of Texas blues and they'll answer the same.

O'Brien's generous with ensuing generations, not having picked up the guitar himself until 1970.

"Derek came late to the guitar," says Freeman, "but he was already going to UT and living in Austin before us other Dallas boys came down. I saw him when I got here, at the One Knite. He hadn't been playing long, but already had a unique twist on his playing."

Almost 40 years to the May 9 issue date, a letter to the editor in Rolling Stone about the late Chet Flippo proclaiming Austin a progressive country hot spot turned the national spotlight on local blues practitioners. Singer-turned-booker Shirley Ratisseau (revisit "The Girl Who Met Robert Johnson," Aug. 3, 2012) rapped knuckles in a missive titled "In Defense of Austin Blues," noting: "Austin boasts the finest blues and R&B guitarists anywhere – Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan ... Denny Freeman, W.C. Clark, and Matthew Robin­son ... [but they're] so broke that a pickpocket going through their pockets would get nothing but practice."

Groover's paradise to some, woodshedder's dream for others, so rolled the blues a year before Antone's opened in 1975. The One Knite at Eighth and Red River, beloved biker-bar origin of Stubb's, boasted weekly residencies to make jaws drop. No cover, just pass the tip bucket for Jimmie Vaughan and Storm; Stevie Ray Vaughan in the Night­crawlers with Doyle Bramhall and Keith Ferguson; Angela & the Fabulous Rockets; Paul Ray & the Cobras. O'Brien and Freeman hopscotched through related bands there.

"After I left Southern Feeling – the lineup with Angela Strehli, W.C. Clark, Alex Napier, and Roddy Colona – Derek took my place. When I left Paul Ray & the Cobras, Derek took my place. When he left Angela's band, I replaced Derek. We finally played in the same band at the same time in the Eighties, when Antone's put together a house band."

O'Brien's health took a sharp turn late in that latter decade. While touring with Bill Carter in an opening slot for Stevie Ray Vaughan, he was struck by Bell's Palsy, a condition that caused the loss of half his facial muscles for nearly a year. In 1989, the feds busted O'Brien and his roommate "Mambo" John Treanor together on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana. Both did six months in Bastrop Federal Prison in 1995, involuntarily earning a credibility badge for doing time in service of the blues.

"Much of what's happened in Austin, musically, couldn't have happened without Derek," stresses Freeman. "He's Susan Antone's right-hand man now, and was Clifford's for many years. They count on him to help make the shows work. When the blues stars came to town. Derek spent time with the cats that Cliff would bring, making sure they had whatever they needed, musical and otherwise, and he produced most of the Antone's Records sessions. Hard to imagine all those shows and records without Derek being there.

"I've played with him more than anyone else I can think of."

When the Lights Turn Blue

"I hate interviews," grouses O'Brien good-naturedly previous to our meet. "I don't have anything good to say."

The following day brings Monday, and like most Mondays for decades now, the guitarist takes the stage at Antone's. Or rather at Midway Field House, the East Riverside venue that formerly housed Antone's fifth location. If it seems odd that a sports bar is graciously picking up the slack of a beloved but homeless worldwide brand, consider how strange it is that for the first time since 1975, there's no proper Antone's venue. That's not stopping the music.

Gigs these days mean that O'Brien assumes the role of mayor pro tem. He's alternately bandleader, greeter and handshaker, adviser, confidante, comrade, teacher, director, star, support, keeper of the Antone's flame. He approaches the stage without fanfare, picks up a signature Stratocaster, and sets those strings free when the lights turn blue.

"The spirit is alive and willing, always has been," believes O'Brien. "Antone's was such a freak occurrence when it happened. People from Clifton Chenier to Bobby Blue Bland to Otis Rush to Albert King coming for as much as a week at a time. Plus, guys like Willie Dixon, who wrote the book, and Albert Collins, who hadn't been playing a lot in his home state in the early days. All this stuff week in and week out. No filler, no fluff!"

James Cotton rasps in reply as he prepares to leave.

"[Clifford] Antone was the blues man of Austin. Ain't nobody was like him."

After Cotton departs, O'Brien shakes his head in awe.

"James Cotton. Mighty Long Time and all other things we did in the studio together have to be my favorite. He always gets it right – first time, every time. He recorded for Sun Records in 1953 and '54, went on to Chess Records and Vanguard, and is still going strong. What do you think about that?"

Not bad for someone with nothing to say.

Antone's Blue Monday currently resides at Midway Field House, 2015 E. Riverside. Free, 6-8pm.

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Derek O'Brien, Blue Monday, Denny Freeman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, James Cotton, Johnny Copeland, Shirley Ratisseau

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