Among all the music venues - both past and present, that have graced the city of Austin, it's likely that none is more fondly remembered than the Armadillo World Headquarters. Named after the Nine Banded Armadillo (Texas state mammal), it lasted for only ten years, but played host to an eclectic mix of some of the biggest names in music such as Count Basie, The Ramones, Kraftwerk, Robert Palmer, The Jam, Frank Zappa, Roxy Music, Roy Buchanan, Van Morrison, and Talking Heads. It was also host to the annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, and even has a resident ballet company - the Austin Ballet Theatre.
'I didn't find it, it found me'
By 1969, Eddie Wilson was already a mover and a shaker on the Austin music scene. He was well known at Threadgill's, and he was manager of local psychedelic rockers Shiva's Headband. At the time, Austin was largely a country music town, and its first successful alternative/underground music venue - the Vulcan Gas Company on Congress Avenue - had recently closed down after three years. Eddie wanted the music to continue.
According to legend, he and two other stalwarts of Austin music - John Reed and Jimmie Dale Gilmore - were taking an al fresco leak at the back of a south Austin club when he noticed a window high up in an adjoining wall. Realising that there must be a large building there he explored further and found a shutter which he opened up. He drove his car into the building, turned on his headlights, looked around at the vast warehouse-like space, and knew immediately that he had found what he was looking for.
What he had stumbled upon was a former National Guard armoury situated at the corner of South 1st Street and Barton Springs Road1. It had since been used as a sports centre, hosting wrestling and boxing matches, was a roller skating rink for a time, and was already no stranger to music, having seen a number of touring shows in the early 1950s, including one in 1953 featuring Faron Young, Johnny Horton, and an unknown singer from Mississippi called Elvis Presley. The building was hardly attractive (inside or out) being little more than a shell, and it wasn't even visible from the street, but within a year it had become the place to play in Austin, and it later spawned a new type of music.
Let's Do the Show Right Here!
Wilson enlisted the help of three others - Mike Tolleson, Bobby Hederman (who had been involved with the Vulcan Gas Company), and artist Jim Franklin. Together they scraped some meagre finances together and started work. A lack of money was to become a regular theme throughout the life of the business, but cheap rent, keeping everything simple, a communal spirit, and a workforce who were willing to work for little pay (and sometimes none at all) was what enabled it to last as long as it did.
Facilities at the Armadillo were always basic. A simple stage was constructed at one end of the building, and something was acquired which the Vulcan Gas Company had never managed to get for itself - a licence to sell alcohol. There was little or no seating for the audience (the venue could accommodate up to 1,500 people), most of whom had to sit on the carpeted floor, which gradually became more threadbare and beer-stained as time passed. Jim Franklin painted murals both inside and outside the building, and was also responsible for many of the concert posters over the years; posters which have now become highly collectable.
The Armadillo World Headquarters opened its doors on 7 August, 1970 with a show featuring Shiva's Headband, and Austin's brand new venue was in business. It benefited heavily from the fact that there were few other music venues of its size in town - the Paramount and State Theatres downtown had neither the easy-going, laid back feel of the Armadillo or a welcome for the sort of people who frequented it. This made it the perfect Austin venue for national tours by big name artists of all popular music genres. It also became a springboard for local artists, who were usually booked as the opening act for a show. Musicians who went on to become major stars in their own right, such as Marcia Ball and Stevie Ray Vaughan, were given vital exposure at the Armadillo.
Another factor in the success of the Armadillo was undoubtedly the Austin audience, who would accept any kind of music as long as it was good music. In most of the US at the time (and even at the time of writing), rednecks and hippies were about as likely to get on with each other as mods and rockers in the UK, but things have always been different in Austin. The two came together at the Armadillo, where mullets mingled with beards, cheap perfume with the smell of patchouli. The same people who showed up to see Captain Beefheart would also go to see country music stars such as Emmylou Harris or Charlie Daniels, blues legends like John Lee Hooker or Lightnin' Hopkins, British prog-rockers Gentle Giant, seminal punk rock band The Clash, vintage rock and rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis, reggae greats Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley, and jazzers Charlie Mingus and Jean-Luc Ponty.
Willie Comes to Town
The growing reputation of this cavernous but somehow intimate venue with an attentive and appreciative audience encouraged a number of musicians to visit Austin, many of whom stayed on. Country singer Jerry Jeff Walker came in from New York. Native Texan Doug Sahm came back after a few years in California as front man for the Sir Douglas Quintet, and another native, Willie Nelson returned to central Texas from Nashville where he had spent a decade as singer-songwriter, penning standards such as 'Crazy' and 'Always on My Mind'.
A number of artists became 'regulars' at the Armadillo, and found that their music was beginning to evolve into something new. It wasn't quite country, it wasn't quite rock, or blues, but was an amalgam of different styles of music which came to be known as 'Cosmic Cowboy' or 'Progressive Country'. Willie, who played his first show at the Armadillo in 1972, became the figurehead of this new musical genre.
Many of these musicians had quite possibly never been exposed to some of the artists who played the Armadillo since so few places booked such a wide range of musicians, and the pairings for some of the bills must have raised an eyebrow or two. Country singer Waylon Jennings2 and psychedelic band Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen for instance, or western swing band Alvin Crow And The Pleasant Valley Boys opening for Bruce Springsteen.
Success...of a kind
After three or four years the Armadillo was flourishing musically, although during its lifetime it could never have been described as a financial success. There was always a community spirit among the people who ran it and those who worked there, but the owners had the same laid back attitude to business as the Austin audiences had to life in general. On one occasion, John B Sebastian was promised $5,000 for his performance, but a mere dozen or so people actually turned up to see it.
A small kitchen was built3 and a beer garden added, the Armadillo became not just a great venue, but also one of the hippest places in Austin to hang out.
In 1974, a local public broadcasting executive named Bill Arhos decided that a television show could be made in the same style as the shows at the Armadillo, and he persuaded Willie Nelson to appear for just a few hundred dollars in the pilot. A year later the show was taken up by PBS for national distribution, and Austin City Limits is now one of public broadcasting's longest running programmes.
A number of artists recorded live albums at the Armadillo, notably Frank Zappa, Commander Cody, and Doug Sahm. The venue was a particular favourite of Zappa who called it 'the last really fun place to play' and often began his tours there.
By 1976 though, Eddie Wilson was becoming disillusioned with running the Armadillo and he left to start a restaurant called The Raw Deal. A few years later he went on to buy the building which had once been Threadgill's and turned it into a thriving business. Wilson's replacement, Hank Alrich was forced to lay off most of the employees, and a year later the Armadillo filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The business managed to last another three years thanks to the dedication of the staff, and the now busy vegetarian restaurant which was operating out of the kitchen, but the writing was on the wall.
The Curtain Comes Down
After years of patience from the landlord he finally decided to sell up, and the building was demolished, to be replaced by a high-rise office building. Kenneth Threadgill is generally regarded as the father of the Austin music scene, but it was the Armadillo World Headquarters which shaped it and made it famous, and fittingly it was Threadgill who played the last show at the Armadillo on 31 December, 1980 (billed as 'One Last Rip-Snortin' Good Night), along with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (again), Maria Muldaur, local western swing band Asleep At The Wheel, and Austin magician/comedian Turk Pipkin.
The role of the Armadillo World Headquarters in the Austin music scene is undeniable, and some say that it drew so many people to Austin that it was a victim of its own success. From being a sleepy little backwater which also happened to be the capital city of Texas, the population of Austin steadily grew and property prices began to rise, forcing many of the 'starving artists' which the Armadillo relied upon for its workforce, its audience, and sometimes for its talent, to move on.
The closure of the Armadillo may have been the end of an era, but it was by no means the end of Austin music, which thrives to this day. Many of the artists who came to Austin during that decade have remained, and continue to contribute to the musical life of the city playing venues, many of which owe their existence to Eddie Wilson's desire to have a place to hear the sort of music he liked.
The Armadillo Christmas Bazaar
In 1976 it was decided to hold a Christmas Bazaar at the Armadillo as a way to ensure a little extra income, and to give an indoor space to the regular stallholders who sold their wares at the Austin Renaissance Market on 23rd Street, near the University of Texas campus. It was originally planned that the Bazaar should last two days - 17 and 18 December, but it was such a success that three more days were added on the following weekend4. Attendance mushroomed in subsequent years, and after the Armadillo was demolished, the Bazaar continued, moving first to an unused building in south Austin, and then to the Austin Opera House. In 1995 it moved again, this time to the Austin Music Hall at Third and Nueces Streets, where it has been held ever since.Top of the Pops 2BBC News