A Rock and Roll Remembrance: Luke Mondello
Editor’s Note: In the late 1960s-early 1970s, the humid bottom corner of Texas known as the Golden Triangle served as a greenhouse that grew rock and roll. Janis Joplin escaped to Austin, Johnny and Edgar Winter woodshedded with the blues and local heroes like Jivin’ Gene Bourgeois could still be heard at the corner drive-in.
Of all the souls from that era who drifted through our lives, Luke Mondello was pure rock and roll. He lived for the music – and as the years piled into decades he managed to make it his career. Luke got his start by pointing his camera at musicians for the underground Golden Triangle Free Press, and later in life he often photographed people at music venues around the Beaumont-Port Arthur region.
Mondello died this past May, and our friend Harvey Kahn – formerly the editor/mastermind behind the Golden Triangle Free Press – offers a remembrance of our friend and classmate Luke Mondello.
(San Bernadino, California)
When I got stranded in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1973, one of the first persons I was fortunate enough to stumble into was Luke Mondello, a stocky, gravelly voiced, gentle soul.
Luke was an ambassador of Southern Rock music and could rattle off names faster than Billy Gibbons’ guitar pickin’. I had never heard of ZZ Top at the time but Luke filled me in. How he used to see the group in 1969 at a teenage night club outside of Port Arthur. How the group befriended him and perhaps, Luke was ZZ Top’s first fan before they were ZZ Top. I believe Luke had a photo book filled with Polaroids of ZZ Top from the late 1960s.
When I first told Luke that I had some experience as a reporter, he started bugging me about starting an underground music newspaper. Luke knew the owner of the old Wine Shop Tavern out on Gulfway in Port Arthur- a mild guy named David Herd who agreed to front $175 and the use of a car to start the newspaper.
Luke coaxed Herd into hiring me as the janitor at the Wine Shop. The Golden Triangle Free Press was very crudely off the ground. Some of Luke’s former classmates from Thomas Jefferson High helped with articles and graphics: Tom the artist, Wizard, Denny Angelle and others.
Luke took all the photos – exclusives of Johnny Winter jamming at Chick Powell’s garage apartment on 8th Street. Edgar Winter at home in Beaumont. The G.G. Shinn and Jerry La Croix reunion with the Boogie Kings in 1974 at the Pelican Club in Vinton, Louisiana. We snuck in to the Sparkle Paradise in Bridge City to take pictures and interview Clifton Chenier.
Luke went to Austin in 1974 and covered the first Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic. Then to Lake Charles for ZZ Top, and to Shreveport for Montrose. Luke had a 1970 black Lincoln Town Car when he drove to Houston for pictures of Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1975.
Luke and myself were both terribly naive, which nearly led to us being killed on more than one occasion. The first time was when he lined up a photo shoot and interview with Lightnin’ Hopkins at Effie’s Go-Go in Beaumont. Well, Luke lined it up with Effie but not with Lightnin’, who was not very happy at all about a photographer and reporter barging into his dressing room. Hopkins proceeded to go into a loud tirade about how rude we were. Hopkins told us to “get the hell out of here.” I looked behind me and Luke was already gone. We did go back later and got the photos and story and Hopkins bought us two Pearl beers each.
Another quagmire came when Luke set me up with an appointment for an interview with Mike Joplin to discuss his sister, Janis. I don’t remember if Luke was there, but I met Joplin at Casey’s Lounge, located on Twin City highway near Beaumont. We were shooting a game of pool and all of a sudden the owner Casey came out with pistols in both hands. He pointed them at me and said he didn’t like a reporter at his bar without first clearing it with him. I left and never, ever got to talk to Mike Joplin.
Luke also introduced me to musician and historian Julian La Croix, and guitarist Billy Oubrey. He introduced me to former ranked boxers, Vic Graffio, Paul Jorgenson and Bubba Busceme. If it wasn’t for Luke I wouldn’t have stayed in Port Arthur. His mother and aunt made me feel like part of their family. I was invited for holidays and dinners, to the point where I could never pay them back.
Luke arranged for us to cover a Cosmic Cowboy Concert in 1974 at Hofheinz Pavilion – a benefit for Houston independent radio KPFT-FM. The lineup included Asleep At the Wheel, Michael Murphy, Doug Sahm, Spanky McFarland, Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman and others who at the time only Luke knew about.
Luke had carte blanche for photo access and took about 360 shots. But someone stole Luke’s camera bag with all the film. I lost my composure and on the way out of the crowded arena after the show, Luke bumped into me and I burned a massive cigarette hole in Mrs. Hofheinz’s chiffon dress. She didn’t realize it and we squeezed out the door without telling her. Luke and I were both mad about the lost photos and we didn’t speak a word on the drive back to Port Arthur.
I never talked to Luke again after I moved back to California in 1975. I never forgot about him and his family but I selfishly never made the extra effort to stay in contact. A few cards over the years. That’s why it bothered me deeply when I again tried to find Luke and only found his obituary. Without a doubt, Luke Mondello could get that difficult photo and is a first ballot member of heaven’s rock and roll hall of fame.