Stories from the front lines of the fabled Armadillo World Headquarters
By Jeff McCord
We’ve been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Armadillo World Headquarters all this month at KUTX, with many features and a radio documentary, Back Home to the Armadillo. Pre-COVID, a large concert was also planned for the festivities.
And despite laying out a case for the venue, many of you are no doubt wondering – why? What is the big deal about a club with a silly name that closed forty years ago? Lots of great music venues have come and gone. The pandemic is taking them from us right now. So what is it that made this funky, un-air-conditioned warehouse so memorable?
Happenstance, as much as anything. The Armadillo arrived at a pivotal point in time in this sleepy college town. The counter-culture was on the rise, clashing with a redneck vibe that had permeated the city. The Armadillo didn’t create the cosmic cowboy movement or any of the varied musical branches that grew from it, but it became its defacto clubhouse, a place to hang, drink beer, smoke pot, stop, and look firsthand at what was going down.
No one person made this happen. The Dillo was a collective, held together by the barest of threads. Eddie Wilson found the abandoned hulking shell, as detailed in his memoir, and while he oversaw the opening and the venue’s early era, he had a lot of help. Bobby Hedderman did most of the booking, Mike Tolleson was their attorney, and Hank Alrich would rescue the place from bankruptcy and oversee their final years. Surrounding them was a cast of characters as rich as any Dickens novel. They kept the place going, doing everything that needed to be done.
What follows are stories, remembrances and eyewitness accounts, taken from new interviews and from the Armadillo History Project ten years ago.
Everyone has a slightly different interpretation of the history of the Armadillo, the huge 1500 capacity building which opened in August of 1970 and closed a little more than a decade later, on New Year’s Eve, 1980. But everyone agrees on their spiritual leader, Jim Franklin. Franklin, whose original Armadillo poster inspired the venue’s namesake, is a serious artist whose discomfort with using his art for commercial purposes balanced his zeal for being their crazed emcee, decked out in his full armadillo regalia.
“I had found a handbook on the mammals of North America. And there was a painting of an armadillo. Franklin recalls. “It keyed a memory of a hunting trip with my father, where we were creeping up on a sound in the bush. And it was an armadillo. My father laughed. I slipped under the wire and when it stood up. I froze. It goes back to digging. I get right up to it. The damn thing turned around and walked between my legs.”
“I get a request to do a handbill for a love in concert at Woolridge Park. The armadillo was occupying my imagination for a couple of days. I did an ink drawing. It’s just come across a pack of papers and about three or four joints rolled and laying there on the ground, and the armadillo’s got one in its mouth puffing. And overnight it turned the armadillo on to all the hipsters. What struck me was that at the time beatniks were getting beaten up by bubbas from the university, frats in Austin. It was dangerous if you had long hair to walk around the streets of Austin at night.”
“So the idea of using the armadillo as to illustrate the beatnik audience, I thought, well, perfect, because we’re always getting run over by rednecks and pickups.”
Franklin had been involved in the Vulcan Gas Company, an earlier attempt at a counter-culture venue downtown on South Congress, which hosted the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the Velvet Underground, among others.
“I had been going to the Vulcan,” recalls writer Bill Bentley, “which was a great club. But, you know, it was unsustainable because the people that ran it just really didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t have a beer license. So there was never any money to be made there.”
In his memoir, Eddie Wilson recalls visiting the Vulcan in the daytime in a suit and tie, trying to warn them of an impending raid. No one would speak to him. When Wilson acquired the Armadillo building, the Vulcan had been closed for some time. Franklin was one of the first to approach him.
“Franklin came to me and said, you really need some help, And this is Bobby Hedderman. He’ll probably be able to help you.” Wilson explains. “We started recruiting people who heard about us from Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma. And they would try to get to Austin because they heard there was a little stronghold of tolerance for the same things they were getting whipped with rubber hoses for in Dallas.”
“ I had to create my own universe. I got [to Austin] in ’48. I was five years old. Mama had a nursery. Everything I’ve ever done has been an industrial version, kind of a nuclear version of what my mother did with her nursery school.”
Wilson recalls meeting Mike Tolleson. “Tolleson walked in while we were trying to get scrubbed up for the opening. We had the place maybe two, three weeks. We didn’t have time. We didn’t have money to do anything. So the only reasonable thing to do was, you know, charge a dollar and open the doors and see if we could start bringing some money in. When Tolleson heard me talking about what I obviously didn’t know anything about, he knew I was a receptacle for a lot of information. And he asked me if he could be a part of it. And I said, sure, I’ve got an extra bedroom and the house. I don’t have any money to pay for salaries or anything. And we suddenly had an entertainment lawyer.”
“When I walk into the building the first time,” says Tolleson, ”there was Eddie, and Jim [Franklin] had moved into space in the back and set up a studio. They were painting and cleaning up. I knew who Jim was. And I learned that Spencer Perskin of Shiva’s Headband was part of the organization, which was good because they were the only band in town that had a record deal. I mean, from the moment I got here, I could be doing this 24 hours a day. That’s the way it was from the beginning. There is no end of things to be done. So it was get up and go down there and do it, go back home to sleep, and get up and go do it again. The Armadillo for like five years is like having a party in your living room every night.”
“Well, it was a picture, the Hole in the Wall Gang, a place as big as a canyon in the middle of town, hidden completely from sight behind the Skating Palace.”
“You still had to keep asking to find it. Once you walked through that moonscape parking lot and then into that beer garden, you were suddenly on the set of a whole new movie. We called it the Beer Garden of Eden. It was a world in itself completely devoid of outside influences. And so people came. in and enjoyed stretching the limits of their own imaginations.”
Within the first week, Tolleson remembers, “we had no money. I mean, whatever money there was, got it open. And then after that, it was like a week to week to week to week to just make just to pay the rent, keep the lights on.”
“Eddie and Bobby and I would get up and go down to the Armadillo and spend all day trying to figure out how to put enough people in the place to pay the bills. The vision, I think, was always that we’re gonna make it. It’s going to get better. I think the first name that we had, other than local talent that would draw, was Freddie King. Another big act we had was The Incredible String Band. And we bet real wrong on John Sebastian. losing five thousand dollars, one of the biggest hits that I can remember taking. Nobody showed up. In those days when we opened the place, it had no connections to the outside world. One of the first things that I’m doing is getting on the phone with a major talent agents saying, hey, we’ve got a venue here, we’re looking for talent. That took a lot of effort just to get them to recognize us as being a viable facility in Austin, Texas, during those days when bands didn’t want to come to a redneck area.”
Austin writer and musician Jesse Sublett, who lead the Skunks and co-wrote Wilson’s memoir, discovered the Armadillo’s instant appeal. “I think for anybody who’s not a baby boomer, it’s really hard to really put your mind there because, anywhere else in Texas, the long hairs were getting beat up you just you didn’t belong anywhere. Here’s a place with things that you related to, and people that you related to, but it was big enough that the cops weren’t going to come in there and bust you for smoking a joint.”
“I came to the Armadillo in 1971,” recalls writer Joe Nick Patoski.” I was a radio deejay up in Arlington, and I wanted to see why the bands, in particular Captain Beefheart and the Flying Burrito Brothers, shit that we were playing on the radio, how come these acts weren’t coming to Dallas or to Houston, but they’re passing through Austin. What was this place? So I drove down one Saturday morning and walk in about 10 am. I woke up Jim Franklin, hung out with him a little while. It took a little bit, it was confusing having to figure out the pecking order. Eddie seemed to be in charge more than the others did, and talking to him I tried to actually find out what their schedule was because I wanted to announce it on the radio. But I was more organized than they were.”
Bill Bentley was at Captain Beefheart’s first Armadillo show. “Ry Cooder and Captain Beefheart played in 1971, when the stage was still in the back of the venue. Ry was good. But, you know, being in Texas, we had a ton of great guitar players, so I was impressed by Ry but he didn’t knock my head off. Franklin came out on roller skates with his armadillo head on and introduced Beefheart, and then the Beefheart band came out, the original Magic Band, and just started blowing out.”
In a 2010 interview, artist Micael Priest (who died in 2018) recalled being there, too. “ I have a boy who was born the year that Armadillo opened. In fact, when he was nine weeks old, he and I went to see Captain Beefheart for the first time. It was after Trout Mask Replica come out. And it was just the most astounding thing I had ever seen in my whole life.”
“Beefheart had a soprano sax and stuck the microphone up in the soprano so that just there was cacophony,” says Bentley “A lot of people started leaving because they had not they did not know what Beefheart was about. This wasn’t “Diddy-Wah Diddy”, it was just out of control. A lot of people left. I remember telling my friend that night ‘You know what to do here, man. When Beefheart plays, let people in free and then charge them to leave.”
Alongside Beefheart and Freddie King, many other acts graced the Armadillo’s stage in their first year – Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, the Flying Burrito Brothers, even Ravi Shankar.
Rikke House, the famed Armadillo kitchen maven dubbed the Guacamole Queen by Jim Franklin, recalled the Shankar show in an interview a year before her death in 2011. “Oh yeah, Ravi Shankar. We thought, cool -macrobiotic food. Brown rice curry, organic tea. Instead, it was, ‘I like Lipton’s tea. I don’t eat curry.’ We ended up feeding him white rice.”
“He was not interested in health food,” concurs Wilson. “He wanted Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
For most though, the Armadillo kitchen offered a welcome respite from the usual road food, and actually helped pull in acts. House helped put the kitchen together. “We have hardly any money. So I went to San Antonio to these derelict places where they had stoves for a hundred dollars and we’d bring them up. All of the girls would take their bras off in the kitchen, wear real tight t-shirts and the guys would come up and repair everything. So we actually furnished everything for the kitchen real cheap and just it just kept going.”
House explained that the Beer Garden had similar origins. “The UT shuttle bus drivers went on strike. By then I was doing lunch specials or dinner specials and we had beer. Barely opened, but there was nothing out there, just tables and chairs in the hot sun. And they said, if you will feed us and give us a pitcher beer, each a day will come. And they came and built it. All the wood and trellises and plants. It was beautiful.”
Bentley laughs at the memory.
“When the Flatlanders [Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Buth Hancock] started playing in the Beer Garden, it got crazy ’cause people would get so drunk out there.”
“If I remember right, it was free. And the beer was like a buck a pitcher or even cheaper. So people would just, you know, I bet you anything the staff would come the next day and there’d be people sleeping it off.”
“The hippies at the Armadillo learned by experience.,” explains Patoski. “When Bill Ham four-walled [rented] the venue for a ZZ Top show, they saw how it made money. These people, even if they weren’t real pros, loved treating their entertainers with hippie love, feeding them, and doing all this stuff because they couldn’t provide other things. Never mind they didn’t have air conditioning. It was a kindness built on naiveite and an inability to come up with much capital. So, you know, Gram Parsons was crazy to score some weed and the Armadillo got him weed. And, for touring bands, it’s like, shrimp enchiladas.”
With the Armadillo gaining notoriety, it wasn’t long before a new arrival to Austin, Willie Nelson, would show up there. Wilson recalls meeting him at the bar and inviting him to play. Nelson’s triumphant return to Texas was marked on the Armadillo stage in July of 1972.
Rikke House recalls the show. According to her, Nelson was scared to play there. “And we were scared to have him play there because that was early 70s when the rednecks beat up hippies It was beautiful, though, because of the music. Everyone enjoyed it, no animosity at all. By the end of the night, he’s just grinnin’.”
This was a milestone in the Outlaw Country movement, but it wouldn’t last. The Nelson-Armadillo connection would unravel after a couple of more shows, “When you think about all that period of Willie and Waylon and then Tom T. Hall, it was short-lived. Willie settles on the Texas Opry House, which has air conditioning, sells drinks.” remembers Patoski. “Bobby Hedderman in the early years was really responsible for doing booking. Hedderman was also responsible for alienating Willie’s people forever.”
Eddie Wilsons remembers it differently. “We had an aversion to guns that some of his [Willie’s] cohorts couldn’t abide by. And so he ended up with his own place on the other side of Congress.”
In 1972, though, Nelson was inviting his friends down to the Armadillo. Waylon Jennings played with Willie on December 1st. On the next night, the opening band was a Bay Area band that began in Ann Arbor, and they would become one of the Armadillo’s unlikely mainstays – Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.
Their guitarist, Bill Kirchen, who calls Austin home these days, talks about that night. “I don’t think we’d met Waylon before. I’d been singing “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” since the 60s. I was a big fan. I mean, who wouldn’t be? I think a lot of people were there to see us, though. Waylon had not quite blown up like he would, you know, in a year or so later. He was huge, but he was still transitioning from the hard country to the alternative. And we were firmly in the alternative already. I remember him sitting on a chair there on stage, right offstage. We all come together at one point he just stood up and went, ‘I was talking to some friends and they said you weren’t country. And I said you were.’ And then he sat back down. I’m like, ‘Okay. My work here is done.”
“Another thing I remember was they invited us up to their hotel room after the show because they were playing poker. And we said, yeah, we’ll go to the game because we’d been playing poker on the bus. Of course, we played nickel-dime. We get to the room. Ralph Mooney is asleep on one of the two beds. Everybody else is sitting around on the other bed. There’s a big ass pile of money in the bed, and they explain the rules to us ‘This is a called pot-limit poker. In other words, there’s four hundred dollars in the pot. That’s all you can bet on that round.’ We’re like, ‘I think our mothers are calling us.’ We basically slink out of the room.”
Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen would become one of the Armadillo’s most successful acts, selling out and playing there more frequently than any other touring act, up until the band imploded in 1976. In late 1973, they would record a live album at the Dillo, Deep in the Heart of Texas, complete with cover illustration by Jim Franklin.
“We instantly fell in love with the whole shebang of the Armadillo.”
“We considered ourselves the out-of-town house band. We were treated just like royalty when we got there. One of the last times we landed at that old airport, they had their limos waiting on the tarmac, and a bunch of the Armadillo waitresses came out and were doing the can-can.”
Cody would soon bring along another Bay Area-based band to the Dillo, Asleep at the Wheel, and Ray Benson describes their instant love affair.
“You look out at the audience and they were you. The Armadillo was a very friendly place, probably a place you might be able to find a little marijuana if you turned to the right or left or right, other psychedelic drugs, and an incredibly diverse array of music. We parked our bus in the parking lot and lived on the bus. There was a kitchen, there was beer. They would feed you. They made these nachos, Rikke, the Guacamole Queen. Rikke was the ship.”
Frank Zappa would soon start a residency of sorts at the Dillo, too, falling in love with the atmosphere, dancing with the Guacamole Queen onstage (and later immortalizing her in song). Like Cody, Zappa would record his own live album there in 1975.
And there was Bruce Springsteen’s dramatic Armadillo debut in 1974, detailed here. “One of the most exciting shows I ever saw,” says Bentley. “And I’m not the big Bruce head like most people are. But I totally respect him. The first night there are probably about 300 people, respectable. The second night you couldn’t sneak in. They knew what they were doing. Because Austin had that great sort of musical grapevine. That band was just completely out of their minds great. They still had that crazy drummer, Mad Dog Lopez, who I loved. And those songs on Wild, Innocent. It was incredible.”
Just a few years into its existence, The Armadillo was making big impressions and getting written up in the national press.
“I moved here right away.” – Ray Benson, following Asleep at the Wheel’s first Armadillo gig.
He wasn’t the only one. We began our month of coverage with this piece describing how the Dillo led me here from San Antonio. Many others told me the same thing.
The Armadillo brought KUTX’s Jody Denberg here. “I was living in El Paso, Texas, and I was a big prog rock fan. I traveled to Austin to go see Genesis and the Armadillo booked this other prog-rock band the next day, Nektar. So I went to the Armadillo for the first time in 1976. Having grown up in New York and only seen concerts in big arenas and coming into this place, the intimacy of it, I couldn’t believe you could just walk in and get that close to a band. I thought, I want to move to Austin and I want to go to the Armadillo World Headquarters all the time. And I did.”
“I saw Van Morrison at the Armadillo. I think it was seventy-eight and seventy-nine. I know I saw Frank Zappa as soon as I could. I just went there all the time. It was that eclectic booking approach that appealed to the eclectic music lover in me and really symbolized what I found in the rest of Austin as well.”
Bentley was an early convert. “I’d been going to school up in Georgetown and I came down to Austin to take a couple of classes and I had a little night job down there for the summer. So August 1970 was gonna be like, back to Georgetown. And I went to the Armadillo opening night and I swear, after an hour I went like, screw Georgetown. I’m not going back to Georgetown. This is too cool.”
Few, if any other music venues held this kind of sway. The Armadillo became an indispensable part of the city’s fabric almost as soon as it opened.
And their kitchen-sink booking policy served them well until the end. You never knew what you were going to see there.
KUT/KUTX host John Hanson recalls great shows by Freddie King, Funkadelic, Ray Charles and Jimmy Cliff.
“The Armadillo was basically a white venue. When they started bringing in African-American acts and reggae acts, that’s what I actually started checking it out. Those audiences were maybe 75 percent white and maybe 25 or 30 percent African-American. I didn’t see any racial strife, people minded their own business, they were there to have a good time, drink a whole lot of beer and whatever. The venue reflected laid-back Austin at the time.“
“They didn’t have a lot of Black music,” remembers Bentley. “I know two of the best shows I ever saw there, though, were Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals, but they really didn’t have much soul. By the time Antone’s opened in 74, they started getting acts like Bobby Bland. For whatever reason, it wasn’t a soul joint. It would have been great if, like, Curtis Mayfield had come or somebody like that.”
“Hippies, people that are different offbeat. It was the cultural center, not just for Austin, but Texas in the 1970s,” recalls Patoski. “There are all these you know what I consider satellites in the forms of great music clubs, but there was a certain critical mass when you went to go see road bands and that was all the Armadillo. It was a local hang for the beer garden. It was always a good place to listen to bands outside, but mainly to drink beer and hang out with your friends.”
It was a cultural center for the employees holding the place together, too, and not without its share of drama.
Rikke House tells how she would run out of pot. “I’d go into the audience and follow the smells. I’d go, ‘Hey, the narcs are here.’ and they’d hand over their pot. I did it quite often.”
And she tells the story of the time no one scheduled showed up to help her cook 100 turkeys for a Thanksgiving benefit. Or when she first discovered Jim Franklin’s warning mural outside the men’s room, threatening to turn guys caught beating off over the Guacamole Queen.
“There was a shower for the employees that was there. So one day I stepped out, was drying off.
And I looked up and saw it [the mural]. I’d had no idea. I ran upstairs to Jim’s room naked. I was pissed.
“He opens the door, says “I wondered how long it would take you.” He throws a blanket at me to wrap up and he says, ‘This is so-and-so. He’s here for a New York Times magazine interview.’”
And there’s this story, from a time when the Armadillo was having a problem with overzealous security, told by longtime employee Bruce Willenzik.
“I shouldn’t have been working there that night. But we were trying to keep security under control and a situation happened. It was the Black Oak show, November of 77. And the fire marshal had given us a bunch of hell about people putting chairs in fire aisles. I’ve been back in the security office, had just burned a big one, and was headed back to the kitchen. And I see this big redneck put two chairs down in the fire aisle. He’s got this girl with him with glasses on and curly hair. He’s big. So I go over there to go talk to him. The first band had just started in. They’ve never played there before. Way too loud. The guy could not hear me at all. I’m trying to tell him he’s got to move. ‘You gotta move!’ He can’t hear me. He didn’t know who the hell I was. I’m probably not handling it well and I’m feeling the pressure of the fire marshal who said, we’re gonna ticket you. We’re gonna close you down. So I was fairly aggressive with the guy. He could not hear me at all. Finally, he stood up. I thought he’d heard me. So I grabbed his chair. She stood up. I grabbed hers. He took exception and took a swing at me.”
“I saw the swing coming straight in. He was much bigger than me. It’s only time a customer ever hit me.”
“By then the first song is over. ‘No, you don’t understand,’ I say. ‘I’m trying to help you.’ ‘What? What Do you mean you’re trying to help me?’ ‘You’re in the wrong place.’ And right as I said that, I saw a big arm, Jerry’s arm, go across the guy’s neck and I look and there’s terrible Tom cocking his fist to go right through the guy’s jaw. And I’m thinking, got to stop the brutality. I don’t know this guy, and he just punched me. But I’m not gonna let him get hurt. ‘STOP!’ I scream and I can be a human megaphone when I need to. They both froze. ‘He’s a friend from high school. Leave him alone.’ ‘Sorry, man.’ They back off. And the guy is totally freaked. So is his girl.”
“So I explain to him, now that the band’s down enough, he can hear me. ‘I’m going to move you to a better place where you’re legal.’ ‘Oh, man. I’m sorry. I thought you were trying to steal my chair.’ Don’t worry about it, it’s all OK.’ ‘No, I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry.’ All these apologies I get people to scooch over. We get the chairs in there, we get them set. They’re still apologizing. And I said to the guy, ‘Look, you’re OK. Security is not going to touch you because they know you’re a friend of mine now. And I’m not a lawyer. I’m not going to sue you.’
“And she goes, ‘Oooooh!’ Oh, shit. I said the wrong thing. What did I say? She said, ‘We’re both lawyers.’ You got to be kidding me, I think. What kind of lawyer hits a stranger? She says. “My husband Bill is Attorney General of Arkansas, and my name’s Hillary. I work for the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.’ “
“’Oh, my God. Sorry.’ ’No, you don’t need to apologize. We need to apologize.’ So I go back to the kitchen and tell my little brother what just happened. And I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to get serious about the brutality here, because imagine the headline, ‘Attorney General of Arkansas gets Mauled at the Armadillo’. We’d have been out of business. During the break, I went brought him beer and nachos and I was all apologetic and they were all apologetic, it was really funny. So at the end of the gig, I went and gave them the whole tour, and left them with the band.”
“Twenty-two years later, I’m at the opening of the new airport, here’s Bill Clinton again. He was the chair of the new airport terminal task force. I was on the board. I was with all the VIPs and he comes right up to me. I said, ‘I met you at 77, at the Armadillo, the Black Oak show.’ ‘You know, Hillary and I were talking about that last night. What a great experience that was, our best night ever in Austin. Somebody on the staff was so nice to us. That was you, wasn’t it?’ He comes right through the thing. He’s all hugging me. He’s all friendly. He comes back four times to thank me. Mayor Watson, on the bus on the way back, asks ‘What’s the deal with you and Clinton?’ ‘Old times,’ I say.”
By 1977, Eddie Wilson had moved on and the Armadillo had gone through a painful bankruptcy and reorganization.
“I think it was a local radio station that blew the whistle on us, you know, we’re going to sue if you don’t pay.” Tolleson recalls. “And that led to an internal restructuring, a bankruptcy, Chapter 11. Hank Alrich, who had loaned us a fairly large sum of money, he took over. He had been part of our group and musician and an engineer and built out a studio in the back. It was a natural evolution. By then, the systems were in place. So we were able to scale down, scale back the staff, and continue going.”
Alrich would stir a new genre into the Armadillo cake — jazz. Over fifty prominent jazz acts would appear in the Dillo’s final years, including giants like Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus.
Dr. James Polk remembers performing there. “I had a band called James Polk and Company. They became Passenger later on, kicked me out when I went on the road with Ray Charles. The beatnik era, you know, you sat on the floor. And I met a lot of people there. Herbie Hancock, Eddie Harris. It was very nice while it lasted. I wish we’d had something like that again. If we could get rid of this coronavirus.”
Future KUTX host Jay Trachtenberg rolled into town around this time. “I was a grad student. I didn’t have a lot of discretionary funds, but I saw the Heath Brothers who were sensational. I saw Old and New Dreams. I remember at the Heath Brothers, there couldn’t have been more than 50 people in the house.”
“The way they gambled early on, they tried to run it like a Fillmore concert hall,” says Patoski. “ John Sebastian almost caused the place to close because they bet so hard on him. Money for an act like that was so big as opposed to a Old and New Dreams, which, you know, you learn to take a risk and you’re going to lose a little bit on this one. But they did that on the country end, and kind of on the roots bluegrass end they did it with country-rock, anything vaguely country.”
“I mean, you look at it — Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt playing with Little Feat and Bruce Springsteen for a dollar — seeing Alvin Crow scare the shit out of him before he went on the stage. That was great. Who could have predicted that?”
“There were some bad acts and, you know, cover bands and even some of the house bands weren’t my cup of tea. The local bands were less impressive to Armadillo than they were in other clubs. And I remember the air conditioning experiment when they tried to blow refrigerated air with big blowers into the club being such a joke. The carpets reeked of fermented beer and puke combined. But from the outside looking in by the time they emerge after bankruptcy, the Armadillo is an institution. Everybody wants to play there, even though it may be a dump. Why would anyone want to play CBGB’s or the Rat in Boston? I mean, these are toilets. It’s the rep. At the Armadillo, the bands were treated well. It gets beyond the money. By 1976, Austin was a music town. It wasn’t just, you know, cosmic cowboys anymore, but there were all these musical tribes and through Inner Sanctum, the record shop, and until the end of KOKE-FM in 1977, you had these arms. So it was like, service these music tribes.”
Punk and new wave were exploding on the scene, and the Dillo took note. The Police and Elvis Costello made their Austin debuts. Austin author Cindy Marabito recalls the Armadillo debut of the Dicks, one of the city’s seminal punk bands.
“You can blame the Armadillo for bringing hardcore to Austin. God bless the Armadillo.”
Micael Priest had lots of tales of this era, such as trying to dissuade a sickly-looking Joey Ramone from wearing his leather jacket during the heat of their summer ’77 debut. “I never had so much fun in 50 minutes. And when they were done, [Joey] just fell over. I went to pick him up and he didn’t weigh anything. It was like picking up a broken kite or a real old kitty.”
Or the time he was imitating David Byrne’s spasmodic moves backstage after the Talking Heads played, rolling his eyes up into his head, only to open them and see… David Byrne. “Yeah, just like that,” Byrne replied.
Priest also claims to have contributed to the band’s future repertoire. At a backstage party after the Head’s 1980 big band show, someone asked Micael how he was doing. “And I said, ‘High, high, high, high, high’. The next thing we know, it’s on a record.”
Larry Seaman was in Standing Waves, already making a name for themselves in the exploding scene at Rauls. He recalls opening the Austin debut of the Pretenders. “We played really well, people are cheering wildly. And it’s like, man, an encore. We get on the stairs to get up on the stage and the Pretenders rather large stage manager is there, dissuading us from continuing. So, our manager Roland [Swenson, soon to be co-founder and managing director of SXSW], comes running up saying, “What are you doing? Go, go!” and shoves us past the guy. We play the encore, and in turn, the guy shoves Roland down the stairs. The glory of rock and roll.”
Bill Bentley recalls the Clash/Joe Ely show as a pinnacle. “Ely was sort of like Texas punk anyway, the velocity that he played at was always really high. He played the most amazing — I’d never seen Joe play a set like that. And the Clash were like, well, holy hell, you know, who is that?”
“The wildest show I saw there was Iggy Pop. He climbed up on top of the speaker stack, almost to the ceiling. His chest was bleeding, he’s completely out of his mind, and he wouldn’t come down.”
Kevin Wommack, musician and manager/publisher, remembers the Armadillo as a vital part of his entry into the music business. “My brother and I were touring and actually playing really young. I knew Hank and his assistant Killer. The reason we had so many shows there, I would just go and look at the calendar go. ‘I don’t see any support there. We’ll take that one.’ When we weren’t playing, I actually worked there. I ran spotlights, worked making nachos, selling t-shirts. If I wasn’t working, I was there watching the show. A lot of what I do, you know, comes from the base of what I learned working there, watching Frank Zappa or Boz Scaggs, getting to sit and talk to them backstage. There were a lot of people working there. The kitchen, the bar staff, the bouncers, which were basically the same people doing the artwork upstairs, the P.A. staff, your back end people booking and running the joint. There were certain personalities, some leaders, and when we’d have a catastrophe happen, like the night when Ken Featherstone [an artist also worked security] was shot and killed in the parking lot while the Pointer Sisters were playing, everyone would pull together. The Armadillo was a community of people. And whenever there’s the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, I see a lot of them back. It’s like going to your any kind of reunion with people that went to the war, where there you have this common thread. None of us made any real money. It was all because we loved it.”
“Eventually, by the end,’ remembers Tolleson, “they had paid off the debts and were a bit in the black and probably could have continued for some period of time, except for the fact that the property owner, he and his sisters wanted to get their money out of the property. So that necessitated a sale. And our crowd couldn’t raise the money to buy it — a million dollars at that point in 1980. This was before the. the Chamber of Commerce, the people in this town who had the money and power understood what the music business was about, what the entertainment industry was about, or what it could become or what it meant economically.”
So the end drew near, the shows more sporadic, and for the final shows at the end of 1980, the Dillo returned to the country-roots-rock horse that brung them: A Lubbock night featuring the Flatlanders and the Supernatural Family Band.; Gary P. Nunn, Steve Fromholz and Jerry Jeff Walker, Delbert McClinton, and for New Year’s Eve, Asleep at the Wheel and a reunited Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.
The final night was sentimental booze and drug-fueled sendoff. Ray Benson remembers taking the stage again after Cody’s set and playing until the wee hours of the morning, wrapping with Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and walking home alone at 4 in the morning. Kirchen recalls serenading a sea of empty beer cups after everyone had left, a cowboy song written by a friend called “When the Sun Sets On the Stage.” You can almost hear it.
At some point early on the first day of 1981, the Armadillo World Headquarters locked its doors for good.
I asked Kirchen, in all his years traveling with Commander Cody, if he ever encountered another venue like the Armadillo. I barely got the question out. “NO! No, no, no, no, no. Really! There were other places that have varieties of acts.”
“But nothing with a vibe and a whole culture and a proud image… I mean, I wanted to move there! We played the Fillmore’s. the Avalon Ballroom and all around the country. There was nothing like the Armadillo.”
“What an education, what a breadth of entertainment crossed that stage,” marvels Joe Nick Patoski. “Frank Zappa, Commander Cody and Freddie King. Are there three acts that could have less to do with each other? The Armadillo succeeded for all the wrong reasons. And the sad thing is it towards the end, it really had succeeded as a business. My thirty-five-year-old son remarked, ‘It seems almost dreamlike.’ And, you know, it kind of is. If you look at a certain time and what was out there and what came past you because you were here, and the Armadillo was here, it’s pretty f**king remarkable.”
Poster by Jim Franklin. Image courtesy of Austin Museum of Popular Culture.
by Art Levy
When it opened in August of 1970, the Armadillo World Headquarters was not set up for success as a music venue. For starters, the space was a cavernous, former National Guard armory—no air conditioning, no seating, certainly no acoustic treatment or high-end sound equipment. The building could fit an audience of thousands, but there were no local artists with that big of a draw. As a city, Austin was something of a cultural afterthought, a sleepy town centered around the state government and the University of Texas.
“We would sit around for hours trying to figure out who we could get to play there that would actually break even or make money,” remembers Mike Tolleson, the Armadillo’s in-house lawyer. Cut off from the national touring circuit, Tolleson had to build connections with New York and L.A. booking agents, “just getting them to recognize [the Armadillo] as being a viable facility in Austin, Texas in those days when bands didn’t want to come to a redneck area.”
Freddie King soon changed that perception. Born in tiny Gilmer, Texas, King grew up in Chicago and immersed himself in the blues scene, first sitting in with Howlin’ Wolf’s band at the age of sixteen. He developed an idiosyncratic take on blues guitar, combining Chicago’s electrified sound with a Texan wildness influenced by Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. His booming voice traded punches with his searing lead guitar licks, sounding like a force of nature.
Yet King’s first national exposure came on an instrumental. “Hide Away” was a Frankenstein of a song, combining ideas from Hound Dog Taylor, Jimmy McCracklin, and even the theme to the popular TV series Peter Gunn. Released in 1960, “Hide Away” hit number five on the R&B charts and number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming one of the first blues songs to cross over to a white audience. A few years later, Eric Clapton covered the song, which helped spread King’s sound to British audiences.
Throughout his career, Freddie King was on the road nearly three hundred days per year, supporting acts from James Brown and Sam Cooke to Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad. In the late ‘60s, his constant touring first brought him to white Austin audiences. The Vulcan Gas Company was a counterculture-run club intended to showcase burgeoning psychedelic rock acts like the 13th Floor Elevators. But it also became home to a passionate and dedicated blues scene, featuring national stars like King along with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton and others. When the Vulcan closed, its sensibility seeped into the Armadillo. The staff hoped blues giants like King could help pay the bills and turn the Armadillo into an in-demand live music destination, for fans and musicians alike.
King soon became an Armadillo favorite. He played the venue thirty-four times, in the top ten of most appearances of any Armadillo act. “Freddie was tremendous. Freddie was wonderful. Freddie was so giving,” Bruce Willenzik, an Armadillo employee, told the Armadillo Oral History Project in 2010. “Every time we were really in bad financial straits, call Freddie and get him in for two days and pack this joint and make some money.” Those shows were legendary for a lot of fans. “It seemed like he’d always show up [in] August, when it was just the hottest time of the year,” Frank King said in 2010. “It was just brutally hot, and he would play a smokin’ [set]—just two hours straight.” Under the Armadillo lights, sweat poured off Freddie King’s towering frame, but he always kept that sense of Chicago cool. “I remember him always being dressed up in a suit, big lapel,” Susan Rose recalled. “Once he started, I don’t think he stopped for a long time…I was mesmerized. You really couldn’t do anything but listen.”
For Micael Priest, one of the Armadillo’s iconic poster artists, Freddie King had almost supernatural abilities. “In the middle of a gigantic thunder and lightning storm, he hits this long, leaning note. Everything gets real quiet. And then the biggest clap of thunder the world has ever seen, right on the end of that note when it was so quiet…[and] the entire audience just levitated! Actually left the ground.” In 1975, King sought to capture this intense Armadillo connection. He recorded part of his album Larger Than Life live at the venue, electrified by a full horn section and thousands of screaming fans. “At the Armadillo he was a bigger star than he was anywhere else in the world,” Willenzik recalled, and “the audience at the Armadillo made him feel 100 miles tall.”
While King’s incredible shows earned sold-out crowds and awed fans in Austin, he also helped spread the Armadillo far and wide. “Freddie was probably our number one promoter,” says Eddie Wilson, the venue’s proprietor until the mid-1970s. Everywhere he went, King told musicians about the devoted audiences he was finding at the Armadillo. It was King who first convinced superstars like Leon Russell to take a chance on this funky venue in Austin. “Leon signed Freddie to Shelter Records,” Wilson explains, and King told Russell “you’ve never heard an audience like this, and forced Leon to come to play [the] Armadillo.”
One of the biggest markers of the Armadillo’s success: the staggering amount of beer the venue sold. “We were selling more Lone Star than any other outlet other than the Astrodome,” artist Jim Franklin remembered in 2010. The beer brand teamed up with the Armadillo for a statewide radio advertising campaign. King voiced a number of these spots and even recorded the jingle “Nights Never Get Lonely,” a Lone Star-themed blast of blues-rock that became a regional hit thanks to the extensive airplay.
Yet King’s years of travel soon caught up with him. He developed stomach ulcers and pancreatitis in 1976, dying at age forty-two. King left a big hole at the Armadillo. He helped the venue stay financially solvent in the turbulent early years, connecting the club’s black blues roots to its later national ambitions with some of the most memorable shows in the Armadillo’s ten years. “Whenever there was a blues act that played the Armadillo, they would play ‘Hide Away’ as sort of an homage to Freddie King,” Armadillo fan Michael Wimer remembered in 2010. Jim Franklin visualized his impact with a gruesome but accurate painting: King, deep in blues ecstasy, with a bloody armadillo shooting out of his heart. But the biggest nod to King’s outsized legacy? The Armadillo World Headquarters’ quasi-official slogan: “The House That Freddie King Built.” Austin wouldn’t be the “Live Music Capital Of The World” without the Armadillo’s success, and the Armadillo couldn’t have succeeded without Freddie King.
Artwork by Jim Franklin. Learn about KUTX’s plans for the 50th anniversary of Armadillo World Headquarters HERE.
In August of 1970, a music venue opened on the corner of Barton Springs Road and South First in Austin, Texas. The building was an old National Guard armory—no air conditioning, no seating, just a giant cavernous space that frankly, was not well suited for music. Yet this local eyesore would go on to change the identity of Austin, culturally, politically, and artistically. Its reverberations would be felt far and wide, helping turn Austin into the Live Music Capital of the World. This is the story of how that happened. This is the story of the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Join KUTX as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this historic music venue. On August 15, hear an hour-long oral history featuring staff, musicians, and fans. They trace the Armadillo’s immense impact as a music incubator, community gathering space, and home to hundreds of life-altering concerts: Willie Nelson to Frank Zappa. The Runaways to the Ramones. Freddie King to the Clash. You’ll learn why 50 years later, the Armadillo World Headquarters is still a beacon for Austin’s past, present, and future.
Production/original music by Art Levy. Special thanks to Jeff McCoy, Ann Liefeste, Nick Marcotte, Eddie Wilson, Mike Tolleson, Jim Franklin, Jesse Sublett, Danny Garrett, Cole Hunt, Lydia Fortuna, the 2010 Armadillo Oral History Project, and the Austin Museum of Popular Culture for helping make this celebration possible.
Back Home To The Armadillo features interviews with: Bill Bentley, Craig Calvert, Matt Coldwell, Connie Cooper, Peggy Crakes, Deborah Davidson, Roger Edmonson, Jim Franklin, Stephen Hansen, Charlotte Jernigan, Anna Jones, Tim Jones, Frank King, John Kunz, Cindy Marabito, Becky McCarty, Jason Mellard, Debi Moen, Bill Narum, Willie Nelson, Max Nofziger, Michael Osborne, Meredith Patterson, Micael Priest, Bobtom Reed, Susan Rose, Fran Rush, Jane Smith, Jesse Sublett, Soll Sussman, Mike Tolleson, Kathy Valentine, Bruce Willenzik, Eddie Wilson, and Michael Wimer.
KUTX’s month-long celebration of 50 years of the Armadillo World Headquarters is made possible with support from Silicon Labs.
(Learn about all of our plans for the 50th anniversary of Armadillo World Headquarters HERE)
by Jeff McCord
When I first arrived in Texas, my time in Austin was limited to a drive-through on I-35. I knew Willie Nelson, the Longhorns from watching college football, and the notoriety of Charles Whitman, but really, not much else.
Relocating to San Antonio for college in the fall of 1975, I had expected to be swallowed up by a big city (it was the 10th largest city in the country in those days, it now ranks 7th in terms of population). Instead, what I found was a city rich in culture and history, but one that in many ways resembled the world’s largest small town. They had the Spurs, and a thriving tourist economy on the Riverwalk. But lacking the affluence of other big cities, little spilled out beyond downtown.
And San Antonio was a heavy metal mecca. They managed to land other types of touring shows – I remember seeing the Faces on their final tour, astounding shows at the Carver Center like the Art Ensemble of Chicago -but as a music-obsessed teen working for my college radio station, I was soon hitting the Texas highways to catch a lot of the shows I wanted to see.
Houston came first – a November trip with friends east on I-10 to catch the opening night of the Who’s 1975 tour at the Summit (now Joel Osteen’s mega-church). But soon I discovered the much closer Municipal Auditorium in Austin (the Long Center now occupies the site), where I caught a number of roadshows. It was on those trips where I first laid eyes on the hulking, non-descript building across Barton Springs Road, nestled between a cafeteria and a skating rink, and calling itself the Armadillo World Headquarters.
There was some name recognition, mostly from Commander Cody’s 1974 live album. And in haunting local record stores, I had noticed the occasional poster or flyer. But I was still new to town. And 1975 was a different world. There were no weekly arts papers (San Antonio’s It’s Only Rock and Roll was still a few years off, and The Austin Chronicle didn’t publish until 1981). Austin had some print music coverage going on, but it was hardly reaching San Antonio, and shoestring operations like the ‘Dillo, if they advertised at all, didn’t reach beyond city limits. Pre-internet, finding out what was going on was a constant challenge.
Decades later, it’s hard to pinpoint the date of my first visit to AWHQ, but it was undoubtedly to their outdoor beer garden, either before or after an Auditorium show. Roadshows at the Auditorium were like concerts anywhere, composed of large, faceless crowds. The Armadillo was the opposite; intimate, full of flavor, sweat and character. The nachos and beers were cheap and plentiful. Depending on the time of day, the garden could be full of happy hour working stiffs or late-night partiers. Given the casual vibe of Austin, it was not that easy to discern between the two.
I was already getting my own musical taste of Austin down in SA. Willie and Doug Sahm were frequent visitors there, as were the Cobras, other fusion-y acts like Too Smooth and Starcrost. The blending of hippies and cowboys was happening everywhere in Texas by the mid-seventies – this would reach its zenith when the Sex Pistols played the San Antonio kicker bar Randy’s Rodeo in 1978 – but the ‘Dillo’s eclectic bookings of rock, blues, jazz, country, and ballet (!) made this especially true. Part of their variety was due to their chief competition in the latter half of the seventies, the Austin Opera House. Their air conditioning and fixed seating (the ‘Dillo lacked both) enabled them to cherry-pick acts. But most of the credit for the ‘Dillo’s wide-open ears goes to the staff, and the loyalty of all types of bands who loved playing there. Local opening bands rarely had anything in common with headliners, covers were considered excessive at $5. So the locals showed up, took chances, and were rewarded for their efforts.
Getting there from San Antonio was another matter. I treasure the memories of the two dozen or so shows I was able to attend, but they were haphazard in nature, dependent on transportation, extra drivers for the late trip back home, who might or might not among my group of friends have a test the next day.
At AWHQ, I was a tourist. At first, I knew little of the Armadillo’s backstory, its heroes like Eddie Wilson and Hank Alrich, the cast of characters that were barely holding things together, its production company and recording studio. And I was only vaguely aware of the legendary shows that had already happened in their first five years – Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Gram Parsons, Little Feat/Linda Ronstadt, ZZ Top, and of course, Willie Nelson (his partnership in the Austin Opry House kept him out of the ‘Dillo in their second half).
And there was no denying its magic. Even before walking in its doors, the Armadillo’s imaging, defined by the stunning graphic art of Micael Priest, Guy Juke and Jim Franklin, set the tone. By contrast, the real place was almost comically plain. It looked like a warehouse (one of its previous incarnations was a National Guard Amory). I remember my first time through the door, laughing out loud at Franklin’s warning murals that fronted the cavernous restrooms. (The women’s room featured the kitchen maven, Big Rikke House, known the Guacamole Queen (and later immortalized in song by Frank Zappa). “If I catch any of you guys in the girls john… I’m gonna mash you up ‘n spread you on a salad.” The men’s room featured a furious infantryman: “If I catch any of you pussies beatin’ off in this bathroom… I’m gonna turn you over to the Guacamole Queen.”) Not subtle.
Once inside, the place was no-frills, cavernous, high ceilinged, dim, the air thick with humidity and pot smoke. Most of what light there was came from the kitchen in the east rear corner of the building. Giant warehouse fans roared on the sides of the stage, attempting to move the air around. But even in the winter months (the ‘Dillo had no heat, either), it was, um, thick in there. People wore little clothing, men often stripped off their t-shirts. They milled about, drinking epic amounts of beer, waiting for the shows to begin.
All shows were general admission, and most everyone stood, few used the rusted-out metal chairs on the floor. I usually headed for the risers on the side, covered in filthy carpet, to get some elevation off the flat floor. The stage was large, and had a good rise to it, so you could see the performers from most anywhere. I remember the sound system being better than decent.
On the left side of the stage, a gruesome Jim Franklin painting of Freddie King hung under a spotlight’s glare, portraying the Texas blues legend in full grimace as a bloody armadillo burst from his heart. I recall staring at it, while waiting for shows to start, with equal parts amazement and trepidation.
While, unbeknownst to me, a reorganization was going on at the time to help make AWHQ profitable, to me, little seemed to change in my five years of sporadic attendance. Some unmemorable shows I attended with more enthusiastic friends – Trapeze, Savoy Brown. I saw Zappa (entertaining, but without Beefheart, sadly – they recorded the Bongo Fury album at the ‘Dillo months before I arrived), but I also managed to catch performers I was excited to see: Van Morrison, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Bruford, saxophonist Phil Woods (the most sparsely-attended show I saw there, though Woods would later release an album of the concert.). And, best of all, new artists who would go on to define the eighties – Elvis Costello, Dire Straits, Rickie Lee Jones, Rockpile, the Pretenders and Talking Heads. Seeing the Pretenders original lineup, and Talking Heads’ 1980 big band premiere with Adrian Belew, hang around in my memory as my most mind-blowing AWHQ moments. But there were many others.
This is what haunts my admittedly hazy memory of the Armadillo today. Perusing the spreadsheet of the ten years of Armadillo shows assembled post-mortem, I can pinpoint most of what I saw but also what I missed, often within days of when I was there, shows I just couldn’t get to, or ones that I had no idea were happening. Concerts by seminal artists I would not get to see perform until years later – John Prine, the Kinks, Blondie, Jimmy Cliff, Joe Ely, Tom Waits, Sonny Rollins, Freddie King, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, the Ramones, XTC, Sun Ra, the Clash, Devo, Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Randy Newman. Even worse, I missed artists I would never get to see at all – Captain Beefheart, Spirit, Old and New Dreams, Gil-Scott Heron, Bill Withers, Roxy Music, Magazine – all just out of reach a few miles up the highway.
This dizzying lineup represents only a fraction of the talent coming through the doors of the Armadillo in their final five years and doesn’t touch on the excellent local musicians taking the stage nightly, in headlining or support roles. I can think of no venue, before or since, in Austin or anywhere else, that took so many chances with their booking. The ‘Dillo wasn’t always a hippie utopia. Testosterone reared up among beer drinkers now and then. And while booking was diverse at times, like most institutions in 70s Austin, a majority of the staff and customers were white.
The ‘Dillo’s first five years were precarious, but they were turning a profit in their final years, only to have their landlord sell the place out from under them. Ten years isn’t a long run when you look at the Austin institutions like the Continental Club, Antone’s or the Hole in the Wall. But it was enough to lay down a blueprint for all to follow.
In one of my early AWHQ visits, I wandered into the venue from the Beer Garden in time to see Nashville songwriter Larry Gatlin ask from the stage for the fans to be turned off, in hopes that people could listen more intently to his solo acoustic set. Bad idea.
First, the crowd got hot. Then they got loud. Exasperated, Gatlin threw a fit. “These songs are my babies,” he shouted. “When you don’t listen, you’re disrespecting my children.” A chorus of boos quickly followed, and Gatlin stormed off the stage. It was an awkward thing to see, like a comedian having to explain a joke. But also, an astonishing one. Had Gatlin been more compelling, none of his scoldings would have been necessary, and everyone in the place seemed to know that. This tough crowd displayed a collective musical sophistication I had not witnessed before, one I would see repeated time and time again in every future Austin venue I attended. That stuff might play in Peoria. But if you come to Austin, you best bring your A-game. Anything less than authentic won’t work. The bullshit detector is always on.
As much as anything, it was this attitude, an open-mindedness combined with very high expectations, that would zero me in on Austin. I never got to hang out at the Armadillo as a local, go there on nights just to see what was happening, as I would do with so many other Austin venues I came to love over the years. When I finally made the move to Austin in late 1980 – I was mostly settled by the Gang of Four’s fabled election night show at Club Foot – the Armadillo had only weeks left to go. And visiting family for the holidays, I missed out on their closing nights.
In the years before I moved to Austin, I would make arena shows at the Erwin Center, discover Inner Sanctum Records on UT campus, play in bands that gigged at Raul’s and Duke’s Royal Coach Inn. But for some time, the Riverside Drive exit I took to the Armadillo was all I knew of Austin. It was there I first experienced the real community, watching locals on stage and in the crowd who would eventually become good friends. I couldn’t be there as much as I would have liked, but it proved to be more than enough. The Armadillo wasn’t just another place to go to see music. It was a community center for a rapidly evolving college town, a lab experiment that pushed the limits of what was possible. And a beacon that led me straight to my new home.
photos and artwork courtesy of Austin Museum of Popular Culture
Bruce Springsteen rolls into Austin for a stop at the Armadillo World Headquarters in March of 1974
(Learn about all of our plans for the 50th anniversary of Armadillo World Headquarters HERE)
by Bill Harwell
Even in the early seventies, a lot of people wanted to move to Austin. So I was feeling pretty lucky to have been offered a job at KRMH-FM (Karma Radio), an eclectic, free-form ‘progressive rock’ station, in the summer of 1973.
At Karma, we could, and did, play pretty much what we wanted – with some guidance. While the station’s business office and production studios were on West 10th Street just off of Lamar, their on-air studio was at the transmitter site in a pasture near Niederwald, some twenty miles south of town in Hays County. We’d all go to the office for production duties and meetings, then make the drive out to the remote facility for our air shifts. Somehow, it worked. We’d even get musical guests to trek out to the studio for performances and interviews. It’s hard to believe now, but Michael Rutherford of Genesis spent an hour on the air with me prior to their show at a converted National Guard armory on Barton Springs Road known as Armadillo World Headquarters.
The Armadillo had opened in August 1970 and was already legendary among local music fans. Featuring a pleasant outdoor beer garden that served Texas comfort food, and a 1,500 person capacity music venue with folding metal chairs, AWHQ was just the place for beers after your softball game, a relaxing spot for state workers and hippies to mingle over lunch, and a go-to destination for music lovers of all tastes. It was a true community center. Austin was a very different place then, of course. The population was under 300,000, and pre-home computers and cell phones, a ‘tech industry’ was almost beyond imagining. Highland Mall was the main shopping destination, Mopac Expressway was still a construction project, and rent was cheap. (Our two-story apartment in Barton Hills cost $165 a month.)
Bruce Springsteen was in a different place then, too. In the spring of 1974, things were not going that well for the up-and-coming artist. After the major label hype surrounding his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and some modest acclaim, Bruce’s second effort, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, had been released in November 1973 to little notice. John Hammond and Clive Davis, the legendary figures at Columbia Records responsible for the signing and early promotion of the young artist, had left the company. No one left on the staff seemed to be taken with the eclectic collection of long, wandering songs that made up the record. Springsteen openly complained in one interview of a lack of support while on tour: a visit to a record store in a city where the band was playing found no copies of the new album on the shelves. And in February, Bruce had made the tough decision to fire Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, his drummer on the first two releases. Ernest Carter, a local Asbury Park musician and friend of pianist David Sancious was quickly brought on board, and the group headed south for scheduled tour dates.
Most of the DJs at KRMH were leaning pretty heavily on The Wild & the Innocent and getting a good response. We’d also scored a copy of “The Fever”, a bluesy unreleased track from that album’s sessions that, rumor had it, Bruce’s manager, Mike Appel, had leaked to some influential stations to tweak the folks at Columbia.
Following poorly-received gigs in Nashville and Atlanta, Springsteen and his band were coming off of a successful four-night stand at Liberty Hall in Houston when they rolled into Austin and the Armadillo World Headquarters for a weekend of shows on March 14, 15 and 16. The scheduled opening act, Alvin Crow, recalled in the March 16, 2012 issue of The Austin Chronicle that AWHQ owner Eddie Wilson was so unsure of how the new-to-Texas Springsteen would draw that he suggested to Appel a cover charge of $1. Bruce was even convinced to come by the Karma studios for an interview, and played a few of his favorite tracks from our library: stuff like Major Lance, Martha and the Vandellas, and anything produced by Phil Spector.
Against that backdrop, you’d expect Springsteen to hit the stage with a bang, trying to win over the uninitiated. Instead, the six-piece band (augmented by a female violinist) opened with the atmospheric street-poetry of “New York City Serenade,” a ten-minute, mostly acoustic album cut that opened with a dazzling David Sancious piano solo that was more Gershwin than rock ‘n roll. We were all transfixed. By the time Clarence Clemons played his first sax fill, there was an ovation. And when it was all over, the audience was on its feet, cheering wildly. Never looking back, Bruce strapped on his 12-string Fender, launched into The Crystals’ “And Then She Kissed Me” and an unforgettable night was underway. Cuts from his first two albums like “Growin’ Up”, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”, “Spirit in the Night”, and “Sandy” would be interspersed with bar-band staples such as “Let the Four Winds Blow”, “634-5789” and “A Quarter to Three”.
The on-stage enthusiasm and energy was so palpable that you couldn’t help but wonder how long the group could keep it up, much less night after night. “Rosalita”, a track that we’d been playing a lot on the radio, was the set closer, as I remember it. And when I noticed the group of out-of-place clean-cut looking student types in front of me singing along with every word, I knew that Bruce was going to make it.
Speaking in 2012 to The Austin Chronicle, Waterloo Records owner John Kunz recalled people rushing mid-show to the club’s phone booths, urging friends to get to the Armadillo to see what was taking place. Folks who’d been enjoying a plate of nachos outside in the beer garden, hearing the crowd reaction from inside the club, decided to join in as well. The next day, I phoned a former roommate in Dallas telling him that he had to go catch the band’s shows at a club on Lemmon Avenue called Gertie’s, their next stop on their tour. He did, but the crowd was very disappointing; he thought that there were fewer than fifty people there on a Monday night. Even so, he reported a performance just as compelling as what we saw here in Austin.
Bruce would return to Austin and the Armadillo for two more two-night stands that year: one in June and another in November. By that time, Carter and Sancious had left the group and were replaced by Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan. The November shows were memorable for the encore of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, complete with Clarence Clemons in a Santa Claus hat and Christmas lights twinkling on the PA stacks.
There was such a feeling of having witnessed something rare and special that March that no one in attendance was at all surprised by the adulation and success that would surround Springsteen in the years ahead. After leaving Texas that spring, Bruce went home to record Born to Run. It was just over two months later that Springsteen’s future manager, Jon Landau, would review a Cambridge, Massachusetts show that included the now-famous quote, “I have seen rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” But at The Armadillo for a few glorious nights in March, we all got a sneak preview.