(Almost) 30 Years Out: 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.  So photographer Art Meripol and I climbed into the company car.

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 hottest 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 around the world.

MP3: “Down At Antone’s” by the Fabulous Thunderbirds

Antone’s Home of the Blues club official website

Art Meripol’s Concert Photography Blog


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