TODO Austin 1:5 (October 2009)

"Dr. Antone: The Real Deal"

by Tom Palaima

"You know, if people wanna know why a brother can do down, can get down so much and really do the blues, it's cause he lived the blues, he lived the blues."
&npbsp; -James Brown, "Like It Is, Like It Was" 1970

One of the happiest turns in my life was getting to know Clifford Antone personally through our mutual friend Gavin Lance Garcia. We became friends at lunch with Gavin at Hoover's on Manor Road just after New Year's Day 2004. I had, of course, seen Clifford at his club at least a hundred times since my first time there in late December 1983, when, in my memory, Cliff had managed to bring in the reclusive jazz-inflected bluesman Fenton Robinson. What made Cliff special, even from a distance, was the respect and courtesy he conveyed in introducing the blues artists who graced his stage and his own child-like happiness in being able to hear them live, close-up and personal, and to give the gift of their music to people like me who were smart enough to realize that a night of music at Antone's was the best thing Austin had to offer.

I brought to our lunch at Hoover's a paper I had presented at a Fulbright conference in Austria in November 1992. I had discussed blues and race relations in the United States, which was then a hot topic in circles such as Living Blues magazine. My sweetheart back in the States Carolyn had gone to the old Antone's on Guadalupe one afternoon and, with the kind permission of Susan Antone, had taken slide photos of the whole interior and its many memorabilia, so that I could show Austrian students the environment for the music I was playing them: Zuzu Bolin, Herbie Bowser and T.D. Bell, Jimmy Rogers and the Antone's House Band, master-of-the-telecaster Albert Collins, Junior Wells and James Cotton. Well, talking about all these blues legends was okay twelve years later at Hoover's, but it was when I mentioned a special set I had heard at Cliff's club by the great husband and wife team Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon that Cliff said to Gavin, "The man knows his blues."

When the bill came, I went to pay. Cliff insisted that he pay. I said I would take $20 from him, but only if he signed it. That bill is now framed on the wall of my office, Andrew Jackson staring over at the big C in Clifford's signature and the Antone 04. Below in the same frame is Cliff's business card with Pinetop Perkins' autograph from the interview I did with Pinetop for an American-Statesman commentary. Cliff had brought Pinetop to Austin and had seen to all of his living arrangements when it became known to him that Pinetop was being taken advantage of by music people up in Indiana.

The Cliff I knew was the real deal. I think that Cliff, like Bob Dylan, heard music all the time. Once we had him to dinner with a small group of aficionados of other kinds of music. I thought it would be nice to put some Antone's Records cd's on softly as background.

Impossible. In the middle of a conversation, Cliff would suddenly say, "Listen to what Kaz (Kazanoff) is doing here." Or his conversation would stop as he was transported away by Kim Wilson playing harp alongside Jimmy Rogers. Most remarkable was this. Denny Freeman had then just started to play with Bob Dylan. I had put on a bootleg which had Bob and his band doing a beautiful, spare, bluesy version of "Standing in the Doorway." Cliff, again in the middle of talking, said, "Hey, listen to Denny."

Cliff was the real deal and he respected real music. I remember getting a call from him saying, "The place to be tonight is Jovita's." When I got there, Cliff was dreamily taking in the Cornell Hurd Band. And it was Cliff who turned me on to Hard Core Country Tuesday at the Broken Spoke, with James White and Alvin Crow and Johnny X playing genuine country music. Cliff heard the reality in their non-amplified, front-room renditions of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and country blues yodeler Jimmy Rodgers.

The place where Cliff's deep love of blues music, music-makers and people in general really came across was in the course he taught with Kevin Mooney at UT Austin, "The Blues According to Clifford Austin." I was lucky enough one semester to be able to sit in regularly.

Cliff would walk in with a suitcase full of dvd's, vhs tapes, cd's, books and photos and then give as much of it as he could to the students. Enrollment grew from 60 in 2004 to 180 in 2006. As Kevin recalls, "Cliff's excitement was infectious, as it always was when he showed us an extremely rare film of B.B. King sharing the stage with T-Bone Walker or a video clip of a young Stevie Ray Vaughan taken from his private collection." Cliff often said: "This film is so great, I can't even watch it." I can corroborate what Kevin says, "He liked to answer questions and showed an enormous amount of respect for the students. He would ask them if they had ever heard of a certain musician and often seemed shocked when only a few hands went up, but that reinforced how important it was for him to be there."

Cliff died just weeks after the spring 2006 semester ended. I remember getting a call from Gavin while at a dinner before a lecture I was giving in New York City. The bad news sucked the life out of me. What one student wrote on his course evaluation sums Cliff up perfectly, "I have never seen someone so passionate about music. He wanted everyone to feel what he felt and he kept everyone interested with the hundreds of stories he had." He lived the blues.

Back to the Editorials page