Entertaining Angels

The Skylark Lounge's resident pianist Margaret Wright preserves East Austin in the face of rampant gentrification

Entertaining Angels
Photo by John Anderson

Margaret Wright's fingers aren't crooked. They're permanently curved to the keyboard. Tonight, the dozen people at the Skylark Lounge will hear every bend in the pianist's 10 digits.

"Kind of cold out there, ain't it?" she asks a slender, white-coated patron.

"Yes, ma'am, but it's supposed to warm up this weekend," he replies.

"Well, we'll warm it up in here tonight," she laughs, rich and genuine.

Every Thursday and Friday at the Airport Boulevard bar, roughly 6pm, Wright performs with a bygone romanticism. Complying to customer favorites like Howlin' Wolf's "The Red Rooster," she plays each allotted key with purpose – soulfully and with care. No pretension here.

The heavy aroma of popcorn in the Skylark prompts an instant thirst. The room's bulbous red glow gives it a distinct, throwback appeal. Overpowering resonance from the ice machine evolves into a white noise, blending out the otherwise sticky odds and ends of voices and glassware.

Skylark proprietor Johnny LaTouf has created a haven for everyone walking through the door with a makeshift handle. The love he has for the music and location is real, given the almost inordinate risk associated with maintaining a lounge on the Eastside (revisit "Cold Sweat," June 13, 2014). Such an enterprise rarely comes up easy, efficient, or profitable.

He soldiers on nonetheless thanks to his patrons, a cluster of backgrounds representing past iterations of the venue as both an African-American juke joint and gay club. The runoff returns weekly to marvel at the irrepressible charm of the ivory trader onstage. Obliging with reciprocating attentiveness, Margaret Wright could play an empty room with the same joy, reverberating notes from her every hammer press becoming their own best reward.

Have You Spoken To ...

To interview Margaret Wright, one must first talk to four other people – soft layers of protection around the 72-year-old Austinite. While patrons can stroll through the Skylark's door and potentially walk straight up to Wright with a request – and then be greeted by the singer the next time through that same entry – her closest friends and family have unwittingly become her handlers. All ask the same question: "Have you talked to so-and-so yet?"

For a woman and musician clearly loved and respected by everyone she comes across, this screen around her, perhaps unrealized by Wright herself, presents a discernible density. The tone of those pre-interviews suggests concern. After talking to a trio of folks before her – and each of them inquiring how their number came into the mix – daughter Joely Wright admits to this prevailing sentiment.

"I guess we are protective," she says. "She just wants to be an entertainer, a pianist. All that limelight isn't important to her. [But] I told her, 'You're leaving a legacy here, [and] it has to be documented. You're one of the last of old Austin, the last of the way music used to be done.'"

Asked about being raised by an entertainer, Joely – Grambling State alum and state employee at the comptroller's office – shrugs.

"She was always 'Mom.' It's funny because people are always asking what it's like to have your mom be an entertainer. I'm like, 'I don't know her as anything else.' Now, at this stage, I see why it's important, but she's still 'Mom' to me. And she's 'Mom' to a lot of folks out there."

One of those people is Greg Walden, who first came across the singer in 1976 at the Driskill Hotel's piano bar. He recalls his astonishment at her memory.

"I mean, I couldn't stump her," marvels the local real estate agent. "I'd belt out names of different songs or singers, and she'd nail it every time. She knows, remembers, and plays probably thousands of songs."

Walden lost his mother less than two years ago. Wright comforted him in his time of need.

"She's my mama!" he exclaims. "She's a part of me."

Do Unto Others

"I told 'em, 'Johnny, I don't wanna do this [interview].'"

Margaret Wright's first words validate her unofficial entourage, but she's evidently been persuaded.

"Ain't too much to tell," she says, though information provided by others proves otherwise.

Born in 1942 at the first integrated hospital in the South, Austin's Holy Cross – closed in 1989 as the last of its kind on the Eastside – Wright enjoyed a pleasant childhood in a musical family. She admits to being rough around the edges, especially with her sister.

"I was a destructive little girl. I was not a good child. I think I did it for the attention.

"I wanted to play the piano, because my mom played for church. My sister played piano, and also taught music. She was older than I was. Naturally, there was a sibling rivalry, but she was smarter than I was.

"She played more instruments – violin, piano. I wanted to do it like she did."

Already performing, Margaret enrolled at Huston-Tillotson, then the only college option locally for blacks. After graduating in 1964, she became an educator. Five decades later, she still teaches music to children at the Texas Preparatory School.

"I teach music, and I mean I teach it," she emphasizes. "Music is discipline. Music got my attention, and it calmed me down. I wanted to do something where I could really feel successful. We all want to feel successful."

Wright looks over at her popcorn-snacking husband of 50 years, Joe Wright, a burly former Marine with a friendly disposition. They met in church and reconnected when he was home on leave. The two hit it off, but his military service proved problematic. Involvement in the Vietnam War, given the period, would've been likely, so an ultimatum was placed.

"She said, 'Well, if you're gonna stay in the Marines, we can't get married. I don't want to be married to somebody that might go fight and get killed,'" explains a bemused Joe Wright. "I said, 'You know what? That ain't no big deal.' I got out."

Joe, like Margaret, went to the original L.C. Anderson High School, which was then a mostly black school. A former football player, he played on its 1956 3A championship team. The current school displays nothing from the original, which is both curious and telling.

"Lord, we don't have time to tell you about East Austin, honey," snorts Margaret Wright about the changes to the Eastside, a transformation she says has been accomplished with overt malice and hostility. "Instead of building on what was already here, they destroyed it – took it away. You don't do that, but it is what it is. Nobody has to agree with me.

"My mother would say, 'Be careful how you treat people,'" she continues. "There's a biblical scripture that says you have to be cautious on how you treat people, because you may be entertaining angels."

As showtime closes in at the Skylark, the multicultural crowd grows. All persons, from all backgrounds, walk up or wave, excited for Wright's performance. For someone born, raised, and performing in Austin since Jim Crow was alive and well, this remains no small feat.

"Why do I play gay clubs? Why do I play wherever? I don't label. [Growing up], I played all kinds of churches. Everywhere. They wanted us to be exposed to different types of people. I just kept going.

"I'd play the Driskill from six to eight, because I had school in the daytime. I played Ego's, Cloak Room, Back 40, 505, Charlie's, you name it – Cedar Street. When Johnny called, I was like, 'What do you want me to do?' He said, 'I want you to do what you always do.' That made it very easy for me."

Wright's anxiousness grows visible. She's ready to give the people what they want. She's gracious in exit, but doesn't hide her relief in escaping. Playing with no set list – as she's always done – the pianist enjoys the pleasures of spontaneity and the alleviation of life's pressures.

"People come out to be uplifted, not to be put down. I've come through enough struggle. We all struggle. Every day is a struggle. I've had all kinds of surgeries. [I thought], 'Am I going to get through these?' And I was a young woman. I didn't expect to live this long. I'm the last of my family, after my sister, my mother, my grandfather, grandmother.

"I'm it."

A Bottle of Crown Royal

Having frequented the original Airport Club & Grill, East Austin native Johnny LaTouf opened his iteration, the Skylark Lounge, to re-create the former's black heritage. Most recently adored queer dive bar Bernadette's, his business – open since June 2013 – favors inclusion of all communities. He thus had to tackle the rather important issue of finding the ideal resident performer, effectually the identity of the club.

"My first thought was, okay, I want to find someone who can play music that is blues, and gospel, and from the era," he says. "It came back to being someone who was African-American, who could capture the essence of the bar. I started going around to all the churches, asking the head people."

He scoured East Austin. Put the word out. No one fit the bill until an old friend tipped him off.

"He came to me and he goes, 'Johnny, quit looking.' He says, 'You want Margaret Wright.' I go, 'Yeah, I kind of thought about a guy, you know, an older guy that could play the piano.'

"He goes, 'No.' He said, 'I'm going to tell her your name, and here's her phone number.' I said okay."

After viewing a YouTube video, he still wasn't completely sold. Nevertheless, he put in a call as directed. Wright had finished a prior engagement, leaving her open to perform. The call went well up to the point that it didn't.

"I said, 'I really need to hear you to make sure that it fits what I'm thinking about.' She was quiet, and there was nothing on the other end of the line. I said, 'Hello?' She goes, 'You want me to audition?' I said, 'No, ma'am. Yes, ma'am, I do. No, I don't.'

"She said, 'Johnny, I'll tell you what. What do you drink?' I never talked to her in my life. I go, 'Ma'am?' She says, 'What do you drink?' I said, 'Do you mean alcohol?' She says, 'Of course.' I said, 'I drink Crown Royal.'

"She said, 'I'm going to tell you, honey. Here's what you do.' She said, 'You take your little self to the liquor store. You get you a bottle of Crown Royal. You come over to my house and sit in front of my piano. You pour us both a drink, and I'll audition for you.' I said, 'Miss Wright, that won't be necessary. You are the right person for my bar.'

"The first day she showed up to play, there was no one here, [but] she played like this whole place was full. I said, 'Miss Wright, you know it's not always going to be this way.' She goes, 'I know it isn't, Johnny.' I said, 'I just want you to know that I'm committed to this.'

"She goes, 'I know you are.'"

Mystic Chords of Memory

Lincoln's first inaugural address speaks of "the mystic chords of memory" swelling to "the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Those chords remain separated largely by blood-red lines, and the fuzzy decisions and incisions that provide its color. Prologue to some, a past of seemingly uninterrupted losses remains tangible to others, like Margaret Wright, who can still recall former glories now buried.

"I don't like what they did to [East Austin], and I think it was mean in nature. I think it was spiteful, hateful, [and] disgusting. Why do you take stuff from people? Don't move them. Build on what's there. They may have something to offer. And don't run them out, because you may have to go get 'em."

When cultures begin to fade, the people with them inevitably follow suit. One has to wonder if what has happened to East Austin, similar to other American metros, runs analogous to hastily building over ancient burial grounds, tomahawk blades still sticking up out of the soil.

Wright is surely among the last of a generation built on promise and opportunity. She's inclusive in the face of a life that endured segregation, a practice illegal in structure but remaining in strategy. The question remains whether there will be an environment for future African-American entertainers like Wright to be cultivated.

Perhaps the efforts for more touched unions of the past to the present, like the Skylark Lounge, could still yield some continuity of an old and new East Austin. Things could be made right. Tonight, for those in need, the bar's resident entertainer plays grace notes with contoured fingers, as Margaret Wright has surely been one of East Austin's better angels.

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