Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jimmy Vaughan, Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds

This one is written by my good friend Denny Angelle. Denny and I covered music together for a number of years in South Texas, Denny with his wit and magic words and me with my camera. Hanging out with Denny is like a PHD classroom on music, so extensive is knowledge and love for it. He is also the author of a great Music blog. Please check it out in my links, it's one of the very best.

The Home Of The Blues

At the Port Arthur News in the late 1970s-1980s, we had plenty to keep us busy. But for some reason we also had a lot of time to goof off. Our editor sensed this, and he gave us a truly dismal assignment – drive to Austin and interview people who are from the Golden Triangle (Beaumont/Port Arthur) area of Southeast Texas.

It was 1980, and the first couple of expatriates were predictably boring. But one guy who ran a restaurant said, “You oughta talk to Clifford … he’s from Port Arthur.” Wha? Clifford Antone, the guy who ran the hot blues club in Austin. And the restauranteur offered to make a phone call to set it all up.

So, late in the afternoon, we found ourselves squinting in the darkness of Antone’s club and talking to a squat gentleman with unruly hair and a soft almost-Cajun accent. “Our original club, on Sixth Street, was a great success until we lost our lease,” he told us. “The owners wanted to tear down the building.”

Antone came from the Amuny family of Port Arthur, a family that owned a liquor store and other businesses in the area. Clifford grew up listening to the blues and rock on local station KOLE-AM and dreamed of one day becoming a musician himself. “That didn’t happen,” he snorted.

Antone’s in 1980 was in the northern reaches of Austin, in a suburban strip center. There were posters on the wall and foam fire retardant sprayed onto the ceiling. The funk factor in this joint was about a minus-5. But people came in, streamed in, and the band picked up their instruments.

The house band at the time was the Fabulous Thunderbirds – Jimmie Vaughan, Kim Wilson, Keith Ferguson and Mike Buck. The bluesiest bunch of white cats you have ever seen. They were road-managed by our good buddy Billy Cross (also from Port Arthur) and they had some attitude. Kim Wilson, the lead singer and harmonica player, would jive you and if you didn’t laugh, well, too damn bad. A few years later he read one of my writeups on the group and gave me some shit about saying he played the “harp.” “Who do you think I am,” he needled, “Harpo Marx?”

But they could lay down some blues – and Art was snapping away. He shot one of the best photos of any guitarist I’ve ever seen, the shot of Jimmie Vaughan, his bare toes sticking out of a cast, playing the guitar behind his head. Of course we couldn’t run the picture in a family newspaper (check the sticker on the back of his guitar) but for me it will always be a classic.

Clifford Antone died in 2006, a victim of the excesses he embraced throughout his life. But he left a giant shadow in Austin and the world – he helped begin the career of the T-Birds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others, and the club that bore his name is still rockin’ and jumpin’ every night in Austin (now in a much hipper location). Art’s photos of Clifford may be lost in the files of a small Southeast Texas newspaper, but that shot of Jimmie Vaughan is the keeper – a look back at a golden age of Texas music and a moment that lit the fuse on a music that was about to be heard throughout the world.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Genesis of a Groupie-Sweet Sweet Connie

In 1973 Grand Funk Railroad officially dropped the 'Railroad' from their name and became Grand Funk. Their November album release that year "We're An American Band" was produced by Todd Rundgren and signaled a new. more commercial direction for the band. It's autobiographical title song was sung by drummer Don Brewer. Released before the album, that song became an instant, gold number one hit with it's matter-of-fact detailing of life on the road for Grand Funk.

The song's classic opening of "Out on the road for 40 days...last night in Little Rock put me in a haze. Sweet Sweet Connie doing her act. She had the whole show and that's a natural fact" made everyone who wasn't in a band wish they were just for the groupies.

If you ever wondered, Sweet Sweet Connie is real and lives in Little Rock, name checked in the song. During the 1980's while photographing concerts in Little Rock, I got to know Connie since I saw her at almost every show I went to. In the 10 and more years since the song and she'd lost a bit of her 'youthful' look. Her skin wasn't aging well and she was starting to look a bit worn and hard from the life. Still, bands then occasionally sent a jet to pick her up for a distant show. I liked Connie and would have a hard time saying anything negative about her. Yet, her lifestyle was so far from conventional, it was hard not to think negative about her sometimes. Connie was petite, dark, enthusiastic and had a quick smile.

After she became comfortable with me being at the same shows all the time, she started to open up some to me. Show after show, she promised to bring me her photo albums to show off. Finally, back stage at a Eddie Money show, she brought them. Small, square and thick with polaroids, they were a visual biography of her life as a groupie. She thumbed through them, sharing with me without shame. In fact she was proud of them and the life they portrayed and the stars she'd had. Many photos were simple group shots of her, arm and arm with the rock stars she so worshiped. Many were also of her in the act of providing her mouth and body for the stars, some with faces, many just a bit 'tighter'. At one point as we flipped through she said, "oh, I know one you HAVE to see. It's the biggest 'male part' (not the word she used) in Rock and Roll" Seeing is believing too. I mean, I haven't compared or anything but...who knew, Huey Lewis has a...uh...LARGE one. Connie knows!

Connie made her living as a substitute elementary teacher which allowed her to have time off when she needed it. She carefully kept the two worlds apart. But she also enjoyed 'partying', often to excess. Over the years she pressed me to shoot some 'photos' of her. I really didn't want to and avoided it politely. While shooting Edgar Winter and Leon Russell in concert at the Little Rock Convention Center one night, she finally got her way. I was standing directly below Edgar Winter photographing him as he played Frankenstein on his keyboard. Connie was drunk and draped on me, yanking on my clothes, trying to get me to agree to photograph her. In order to get to shoot, I agreed that if she'd let me shoot one more song, I'd meet her back stage. After i finished up, I headed "backstage". In a convention center that meant a long concrete block hallway with florescent tubes for lighting. As soon as I put on my flash in that dark hallway, she started by pulling down her top or pulling up her skirt. Since this was long before digital, I was shooting slide film, not a good formula for 'artful' shots. But there was nothing 'artful' about it. As I was shooting her, heel in the air above her head, a door opened down the hall. A gangly looking high school kid came down the hall with a cart full of food for the dressing rooms. He got about twenty feet from us, stood still and wide-eyed for a moment, swallowed his adams apple and ran back where he came from, leaving the cart of food. Fortunately, that broke up the shoot.

It's been 35 years since she became immortalized in song and I hope wherever she is, she's doing well and is happy. I am a true music fan and I know at heart, nobody was a bigger fan than Connie.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley - He Was a Man

Bo Diddley never got his due from the public but his influence among musicians is well acknowledged. Just ask Keith Richards about Bo. Bo Diddley's unique style was a starting point for many who followed to create their own sounds. Hendrix was extremely influenced by the sounds and tones Bo got out of his homemade guitar and that opened Hendrix up to a world of ideas of his own. His best known hits came in the 1950's and 1960's, including "I'm A Man", "Mona", and "You Can't Judge A Book By It's Cover". Go listen to U2's 'Desire' or the Stones 'Not Fade Away' and you'll hear Bo Diddley. Just about everyone in early Rock cribbed from Bo.

His death today at his home in Florida left me thinking about the time I shot him. He was like the guy that is cool because he doesn't try to be cool. I shot him in a small, dark, back alley club playing for mostly drunk frat boys in Oxford, Mississippi. He traveled with his manager, a small wiry jewish 'kid', in an old smoking beater Volvo wagon. Because he never really made any money, each place he played, he just used a pick-up band which often left him on stage teaching as much as playing. After playing that club date, he stayed overnight in a local motel. The next morning, I got to meet him for breakfast in a local cafe. Quiet and humble, he had little to say but lots to eat. He had at least three large oval platters of eggs, sausage, pancakes, biscuits and gravy and potatoes and a glass of milk. After breakfast he and his manager walked out, got in that smoking volvo, with his famed guitar in the back, and drove away to the next gig down the road. I hope he's playing a better gig tonight.

Thanks Bo.