Clifford Antone - Connoisseur of fine blues and marijuana
Clifford Antone was born October 27, 1949, in the seaside city of Port Arthur, son of a well-to-do food-importing family. He acquired a taste for the blues at a young age, first from gospel music imparted to him by childhood caregiver Sister Mary Hinton, then by joining scores of other thrill-seeking Gulf Coast youth (including future Antone's fixture Marcia Ball), who ventured "across the river" to Louisiana juke joints like Lou Ann's and the Big Oaks Club.
Antone moved to Austin in 1969, planning to study law at the University of Texas but dropped out after he was arrested in Laredo for smuggling a bag of marijuana across the border (a case that was later dismissed). He ran the local branch of his family's business, a delicatessen on 15th Street, but his true passion was the blues.
On July 15, 1975, Antone opened Antone's nightclub in a converted furniture warehouse at Sixth and Brazos, in what was then a desolate patch of downtown. Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band played the grand opening, soon joined by virtually the entire pantheon of blues and R&B legends: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Albert King, Albert Collins, and a memorable Independence Day 1976 show featuring B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland. Antone had a special affinity for, and struck up deep friendships with, several of the era's oft-overlooked sidemen, including Sunnyland Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Taylor, Walter "Shakey" Horton, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Calvin Jones, and Willie "Big Eye" Smith. He was responsible for moving Sumlin, Cotton, and Perkins to Central Texas in their later years, as well as assisting with day-to-day needs, such as doctor's appointments and hospital bills.
Antone's had a twofold effect on the blossoming Austin music scene of the mid-Seventies, then dominated by the progressive country sounds emanating from the Armadillo World Headquarters, Soap Creek Saloon, and Castle Creek. Besides bringing the aforementioned names to town, Antone further fostered the blues' local ascendancy by arranging for local musicians to open shows for major acts and act as their backing bands.
From this pool, springing from North and East Texas, with a few Lubbockites thrown in, arose bands that went on to challenge and ultimately usurp progressive country as Austin's reigning sound: the Nightcrawlers featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Ferguson, and Doyle Bramhall Sr.; Southern Feeling, with Strehli, Denny Freeman, and W.C. Clark; Paul Ray & the Cobras, with Vaughan on guitar; the Fabulous Thunderbirds, with Stevie's older brother Jimmie, Ferguson, and California import Kim Wilson; and Triple Threat, with SRV, Clark, and Lou Ann Barton. Bands swapped nights, and sometimes members, and grew into a close-knit community headquartered at Antone's. "Clifford showed up at the right time, when everybody was looking for a place to play," says Paul Ray. "It was like a family."
The blues was and is hardly lucrative, and Antone's original location closed in 1979 but reappeared months later in a former rug dealership on Anderson Lane, a location that hosted James Brown but only lasted a few months itself. In 1981, the club took over the old Shakey's Pizza Parlor at 2915 Guadalupe, and because of Vaughan's and the Thunderbirds' concurrent rise to national and international fame, this location became the definitive version of Antone's for many people in Austin and around the world. It's where everyone gathered when Vaughan's helicopter crashed in August 1990 and where U2 stopped by on the Joshua Tree tour. Here and at the club's current location at 213 W. Fifth, where it moved in 1997, Antone continued welcoming and nurturing new talent: Charlie Sexton, Doyle Bramhall II, Ian Moore, Bob Schneider and others.
Antone's colorful life was also marked by convictions in federal court for marijuana trafficking in 1984 and 2000. He was forced to cede ownership of the club to a corporation headed by his sister Susan after the first one and started the ongoing series of "Help Clifford Help Kids" benefits for local nonprofit American YouthWorks while serving his sentence for the second. When he was released in December 2002, the gregarious Antone became a greeter at GŁero's restaurant, a regular at the Broken Spoke's hardcore country night, and beamed ear to ear the night in June 2003 his probation expired and he was again allowed to enter the club that bears his name.
Antone was a principal organizer of the Neighbors in Need benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims at the Frank Erwin Center in 2005. At the time of his death last May, he and Sarah Rucker were collaborating on a book, an outgrowth of his popular history of blues and rock & roll courses at the University of Texas and Texas State University. "My job is done if one kid is inspired to buy a Muddy Waters CD who didn't know who he was," Antone said in February 2004. The lifelong Longhorns and Houston Astros fan was seldom seen in public minus a Longhorn cap and an adoring young lady on each arm. The word is, when he wasn't on probation, he usually had somewhere on his person some primo skunk buds to get rolling with as well.
Clifford is the first nightclub owner to be inducted into the Texas Hall of Musical Excellence, a testimony to his brilliant musical tastes. GATOR