The best music I've ever heard was at Antone's, and some of the best music I've ever played was there. I really don't know where I'd be today or what I'd be doing without Antone's.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
There's a good case to argue that Clifford Antone is the man who single-handedly turned Austin, Texas from a country music town into a blues town. There are many who certainly will argue it, but his club, simply named Antone's, put Austin on the map as far as the blues is concerned, and helped spark a nationwide blues revival. When Clifford opened Antone's in 1975, the blues was flagging. Even the grand old men of blues such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and BB King weren't finding it easy to get a show outside the main centres of blues (New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago) or big cities such as New York and London, while younger blues musicians were having a hard time finding a place to play at all.
The Blues in Austin
During the 1950s and 1960s there had been a thriving blues scene in east Austin, which was (and still is) a predominantly black and Hispanic part of the city. In fact, most towns in Texas - and perhaps the entire American South - had black neighbourhoods where the blues was regularly played. According to local blues musician WC Clark, 'The blues was in the air, it was up and down the highway. It was in the schools, and blues was in the churches too. When I was born blues was already happening on the East Side.' Toward the end of the 1960s, however, the blues scene had faded not only in Austin, but across the whole of the US.
By the early 1970s, Austin had gained a formidable reputation as a music town. The Broken Spoke had been open for almost a decade and was already carving itself a niche in the world of country music. Threadgill's was a haven for roots music of all types, particularly country and folk music. The Armadillo World Headquarters had recently opened its doors for musicians of all genres, including the blues. But there was no satisfactory blues-only venue that satisfied Clifford Antone.
The Birth of Antone's
Clifford Antone had arrived in Austin in 1969 with the intention of studying law, but instead he opened a small import business. He was already imbued with a love of the blues from having hung around the juke joints close to where he grew up in Port Arthur on the east Texas coast, close to the Louisiana border. The music he heard there would have been a mix of rhythm and blues, zydeco1, swamp blues, and slide guitar blues, and it left a strong and lasting impression on the young man.
After a few years of running his Austin business and cultivating the friendship of any blues player he could find, Clifford Antone managed to amass enough capital to lease a small space on Sixth Street, which at the time was far from being the entertainment area it later became. In the mid-1970s it was rather run down and seedy; a hangout for prostitutes and the homeless. Nonetheless, on 15 July, 1975, Antone's Club opened with a performance by the king of zydeco, Clifton Chenier and his Red-Hot Louisiana Band. Sunnyland Slim and Big Walter Horton were guests the following week, and when they returned to Chicago and told folks there about this brand new club with an enthusiastic audience, the popularity of Antone's began to escalate.
Clifford's motivation for opening the club was simple - he wanted to see his idols play before they died, and he wanted others to see them too. Before long the biggest names in blues were coming to Antone's. The list of bands and artists who have played there since 1975 reads like a Who's Who of the blues. The popularity of the club soon meant it outgrew its premises, and Antone's moved from Sixth Street to a location much further north on Anderson Lane. By now, however, the downtown area of Austin was cleaning up its act and new bars and clubs were opening. The crowds were drawn to where Antone's had been, rather than to where it was now.
In the late 1970s, Antone's closed its doors and moved again, this time to Guadelupe Street, closer to the University of Texas campus. A few years later it returned to the downtown area and re-opened at its current location - the corner of Fifth and Lavaca Streets in Austin's warehouse district. In subsequent years it has become not just the most important blues club in Texas, but one of the most well known in the US and around the world. From the outside it's hard to tell that this small, bland looking building has hosted performances by people rightfully termed 'legends' in their field. One could easily walk past it without noticing the Antone's logo and rather battered marquee signs on the front and at the side of the building. The interior is almost as unprepossessing, apart from the shrines at either side of the stage - one to Stevie Ray Vaughan and the other to Doug Sahm.
A very early tradition at Antone's was Blue Monday - the Monday night blues parties. The Fabulous Thunderbirds quickly established themselves as the club's house band and played most Monday nights. When the Thunderbirds couldn't play, the Monday Night Blues Band, an ever-changing group of local musicians, took their place. Indeed, the Monday Night Blues Band still play, although the Fabulous Thunderbirds are no longer Antone's regulars.
The blues is not known for a predominance of female musicians, but some of the best of recent years have honed their skills at Antone's, notably Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, Sue Foley, and Lou Ann Barton.
Another band which came to be associated with Antone's was the Texas Tornados - Doug Sahm, Augie Myers, Flaco Jimenez, and Freddy Fender. This was no blues band, however. The Texas Tornados leaned heavily on the Tex-Mex sound provided by Jimenez's Hispanic background and virtuosity on the accordion. The band all came from quite different musical backgrounds: Freddy Fender had long been a country music star and Jimenez was already a legend in the world of Hispanic music, while both Sahm and Myers had once been in the Sir Douglas Quintet - an American 1960s band with a British sound and a British-sounding name2. A strong bond of friendship and mutual respect developed between Doug Sahm and Clifford Antone, who must have been deeply saddened when Sahm died in November 1999, at the relatively young age of 58.
Probably the most well-known musician to have been associated with Antone's is Stevie Ray Vaughan, brother of Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie. Clifford persuaded several big name blues musicians, including Otis Rush and Albert Collins, to allow the young Stevie to play with them onstage. When Stevie was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990, many of Antone's regulars - both musicians and audience alike - felt that the heart had been torn out of the Austin blues scene. A good few of them feel that it has never recovered. On the right hand side of the stage at Antone's today is the aforementioned shrine to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the city has erected a statue of him by Town Lake.
Although the club was giving Clifford Antone's idols a place to play, he soon realised that some of them had no way of passing on their music, so he decided to start a record label. Its first release was an EP by Angela Strehli, 'Stranger Blues', in 1986.
Antone's Records has released a handful of albums by more well known blues musicians, but it tends to concentrate on recording local talent, both young and old, many of whom have been or still are regulars at the club, such as Guy Forsyth, Miss Lavelle White, and Gary Primich.
In 1997, just a few days before the club was to have celebrated its 25th anniversary, Clifford Antone was indicted (along with a number of others) on charges of conspiring to distribute almost five tons of marijuana, and laundering close to $1,000,000 in drug-related profits. Federal authorities claimed that he was the Austin agent of a massive drugs ring which operated throughout eight states and in Canada.
Clifford was released on bail, and in 2000 he pleaded guilty in a plea-bargain deal. He could have faced from ten years to life in prison, but after co-operating with the authorities, he was sentenced to four years in federal prison, fined $25,000, and ordered to perform 750 hours of community service. He was released from jail a year early.
Antone's continues to flourish, and today embraces a wide range of music, although the blues remains at its core. A condition of Clifford Antone's five-year parole, however, was that he was not allowed to enter any place that sells alcohol until his debt was paid. This effectively barred him from virtually every music venue in the US, including the club that bears his name.
On Tuesday May 23, 2006 Clifford Antone suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 56 years old.