Before Berry Gordy started Motown—before Russell Simmons and Suge Knight were even born—Don Robey epitomized what it meant to be a black music mogul. Working in Houston from the 1930s until his death in 1975, Robey discovered Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. His record company released the original version of “Hound Dog,” and he made Bobby “Blue” Bland a star. Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, and Little Richard were clients of his booking agency, and T-Bone Walker, “Big” Joe Turner, and Wynonie Harris all regularly graced the stage at his nightclub, where legendary after-parties saw the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe jamming with Big Bill Broonzy and Louis Jordan.
A profile of Charlie Sexton, from the 2014 Texas Music Issue.
The circus had left town. Rolling toward the end of the Seventies, all the high-dollar distressed denim, heavy turquoise bracelets, soft and scuffed Lucchese boots, and even the brain-blowing snow-white cocaine weren’t quite as ominous in Austin’s nightclubs. It was starting to feel a little more like home again, back before the so-called redneck rock invasion. When the cosmic cowboys first started raiding the city, hijacking all the musical attention in our little Austin oasis, it was the mid-Seventies and the Lone Star state was slightly sedate. But that’s how we liked it, actually, because it let the city’s hippies and beatniks create their own fantasies and live on inexpensive fumes. Before the onslaught, the dozen or so honkytonks and nightclubs took care of their own. There were no record business people to promise what rarely got delivered, and the long days and nights spread before central Texas like the promise of a pot hit and a hot kiss.
“We was on the radio at Del Rio,” recalls one of the Cowboy Kings in Clem Maverick, R. G. Vliet’s multi-voiced epic poem about the high-lonesome lovesick rise and fall of a country-western singer. “That night Clem yodeled from his toes up. Had to tote him from the mike.” Clem and the Cowboy Kings tore up their tunes as phantoms of a poet’s muse, but their flesh, blood, and whiskey kin conjured their sound into every corner of North America and beyond. Clem’s audience would have known that “the radio at Del Rio” meant one of the high-powered radio stations that dotted the northern frontier of the Republic of Mexico and blasted their signals northward in English from 1930 to 1986. Over the course of those fifty-six years, border radio’s continent-spanning coverage played a major role in popularizing just about every kind of music that came out of Texas: hillbilly, cowboy, gospel, Mexican, Tex-Mex, country-western, blues, r&b, rockabilly, and rock & roll.