Jumpin’ Jack Dunham is pictured at the site of the former Casa Del Club. In the days of the club wars, the Casa Del was nearly indestructible: A rival bar owner would bomb it, butbecause of its massive marble floor, the bomb “would just blow the roof off the building,” says drummer Chuck Farmer. “They’d re-roof it and go on.”
Before rock 'n' roll exploded in the late '50s, there weren't many places in Tulsa where a talented kid could play in front of a crowd.
Tommy Crook, who left rock 'n' roll to become the best-known solo guitarist in town, remembers.
"The Ritz and the Rialto and the Orpheum (movie theaters) used to have these stage shows on Saturday afternoons and Saturday nights, in between movies," he said. "They started out as talent shows, with the 10-dollar first prize for talent, and then turned into like a Saturday night barn dance, with 15 or 20 different acts. They'd have bales of hay up there -- it was just like the Grand Ole Opry. A guy'd come out and introduce the acts, and most everybody had comedy. I'd tell jokes and sing those old novelty tunes, like 'Smoke That Cigarette.' That's where I first met (J.J.) Cale.
"That's how I got started, and there wasn't anybody else doing anything then," he adds. " 'Course, there wasn't any place for them to do it anyway. Back in those days, there was one all-night grocery store, the Trenton Market. And as far as restaurants and clubs, there wasn't any such thing. They didn't even really have those brown-bag things in those days, because until '59, everything was bootleg whiskey."
1959 was indeed the year that the nightlife scene changed in Tulsa.
Before that, the only alcoholic beverage that could be served in Oklahoma bars was 3.2 beer. An election in 1959 made it legal to sell liquor and wine in package stores; clubs had to operate under strict guidelines. They couldn't legally sell liquor. A patron, theoretically, had to bring in a bottle and put it behind the bar. It was illegal for a liquor container to be sitting atop a table, so some clubs thoughtfully provided little bottle holders the tables, so people wouldn't have to panic in case of a raid.
Wes Reynolds stands with some of his bandmates in Tulsa in the late ’50s.
Of course, that didn't mean you couldn't get a drink in Tulsa club either before or after '59. According to many of the musicians, the bootleggers -- who sneaked in trunkloads of liquor from other states for local consumption -- also owned many of the town's nightspots. Since just about everything about a Tulsa club in the '50s was of, shall we say, dubious legality, it was only natural that the owners didn't pay a lot of attention to the ages of the band members that played on their stages.
For the underage musicians themselves, of course, playing a club was an entree into a seductive and exciting nocturnal world, one that could also be a bit frightening.
"When I was in the eighth or ninth grade, I made a friendship with a guy named Pee Wee Johnson who was, in his time, the finest technique drummer in the state," says pianist Jim Blazer. "He was a year older than me. One day he calls me and says, 'I got a chance for us to do a job, and it's with a guy named Jumpin' Jack Dunham out at the Casa Del Club.' I knew probably 20 songs, and he said, 'Oh, you'll know all this stuff,' because I'd learned three- and four- and five-chord progressions, and a few little licks, but nothing fancy.
"I told my folks I was playing a Rogers social-club slumber party, and Pee Wee picked me up. I was scared to death, up on this little stage, with a kind of a red light on it. The piano I played was out of tune. We played for five hours and waited until the owner quit playing craps in the bathroom, where he'd gotten enough money to pay us each our 12 dollars. I went home at 1:30 in the morning, and my folks never found out."
Eddie Vaughn and his band.
Crap-shooting and employing minors, however, were relatively benign offenses compared to some of the things that involved club owners in those days.
"There was a lot of bootlegging going on at the time, and the bootleggers -- or gangsters, I guess -- who were around would drive by and shoot at the club on the nights we weren't there," recalls saxophonist Johnny Williams of his days with the Starlighters, a band that included Lucky Clark, Leon Russell and Chuck Blackwell. "They didn't ever do it when we were there, but they'd come and do it when we weren't. I guess they were after the club owner or something. There was quite a bit of gambling going on, and I don't know how many nights I'd be playing and the vice squad would come in. 'Course, I'd recognize 'em and say, 'Watch out. Here comes the vice squad.' "
'Like a gangster movie'
Pianist Duane Collins remembers a club owner uncharacteristically making Collins and his band pack their gear – even though they had a return engagement. “The next night, the place burned down,” says Collins. “I think that fire had suspicious origins.”
"The clubs were just ," adds drummer Chuck Farmer. "The Casa Del was one of the most beautiful facilities you could go into, but it had been bombed several times. There was an awful lot of club-war stuff going on in those days. The clubs were real elaborate, with thick marble floors. One of the reasons the Casa Del could never be blown up was because of this massive, thick, marble floor. So the bomb would go off, and it would just blow the roof off the building, and they'd re-roof it and go on.
"I found it all so exciting," he concludes. "The club operators would say, 'Look, Chuckie, just stay in the club all night long and drink all you want to drink, and here's a pistol. If anyone comes in, shoot 'em.' " He laughs. "I thought, 'Man, this is like a movie.' "
Pianist Duane Collins remembers another Tulsa venue where he and a group that included bassist Bill Raffensperger and drummer Max Surry played every Friday and Saturday night.
"One night, (the owner) told us, 'Boys, you need to pack your stuff up and take it home with you.' This was on Saturday night, and we'd never done that before. We'd always just left it out there. We said, 'Pack up all this stuff?' And he said, 'Yeah, I think it'd probably be a good idea.'
"The next night, the place burned down. So, you know, I think that fire had suspicious origins. But I appreciated him at least being considerate enough to tell us, 'Boys, pack your stuff up and take it home,' when he could just as easily have let it go."
When the club owners weren't wreaking havoc on each other's places, or their own, patrons could often be counted on to provide thrills. Rocky Frisco remembers an incident he calls "the worst thing I ever saw."
"We were playing the Jer-Re--Co Club one night, and a lady came through the door wearing a housecoat and hair curlers," says pianist Rocky Frisco. "And she had a pistol. She closed her eyes, and she started shooting that pistol with her eyes closed. Her husband was in there with some girlfriend, see, and somebody had called and told her. So I ran and got behind the piano, because you've got a six-inch piece of hardwood there, and she shot the piano and broke two strings. She didn't hurt anybody. Somebody reached up and grabbed the gun away from her, and they called the cops."
Steve Benningfield and Ralph Brummett led the Swingin’ Shadows in the mid-’50s. “We would be introduced,and the curtain would fly open, and the girls would literally scream their heads off,” recalls Brummett.
Guitarist Tom Rush, one of the Tulsa rock 'n' roll pioneer bandleaders, remembers a night at the Paradise Club when the Swingin' Shadows were playing. On a break, he went out to use the pay phone and found several five-dollar bills in the phone book.
"Back in those days, I was probably for five dollars," he says. "I didn't know why they were there, and I wasn't about to find out. I took 'em and went back in, and it wasn't very much longer before the biggest ruckus fight you ever saw broke out. Ol' (Jimmy) Markham was announcing it over the microphone like a fight announcer. I was afraid we were gonna get killed."
Life at the hop
Most of the bands played both teen shows -- like sock hops, Friday events at the Cherie-Bob dance studio, dances at the Continental Roller Skating Arena, and parties sponsored by then then-popular high school social clubs -- and nightclubs, although David Gates and his band the Accents generally eschewed the club scene. Sometimes, venues that were usually clubs became teen hangouts for a night, including Leon McAuliffe's famous Cimarron Ballroom, where KAKC would stage sock hops.
While there wasn't that slightly disreputable alcoholic aura at the teen functions, they could get pretty wild as well.
"We played a Catholic high school over on 15th Street, near Peoria, and you would've thought we were superstars," says bassist Ralph Brummett, recalling his days with the Swingin' Shadows. "We would be introduced, and the curtain would fly open, and the girls would literally scream their heads off. I can't tell you how the feeling was. I can't describe that. I mean, it was just amazing."
That's the same feeling pioneer rocker Crose got in the early days, when "girls would try to tear my clothes, and the tassels off my shoes. You'd sign autographs, and they'd try to take the pen."
Still, you could be brought back down to earth in a hurry, too -- as Crose recalls happening on the stage of a theater where, years before, Tommy Crook had gotten his own start.
"It was either the Ritz or the Rialto, and we played down there for a talent show, for Don Wallace," he says. "We'd played a record hop for him first. We made eight dollars. Then we went down and did this talent show. I had my band, Johnny (Cale) and George (Metzel) and everybody.This one kid sang 'But Love Me.' But he didn't have a band; he had a record, and sang it to the music.
"So then we got up there, and I started off on 'Shake, Rattle and Roll' -- and we'd just gotten into the first few bars of the song when a fight broke out. I guess we had a crowd, and he had a crowd, and they were fightin'. So Don Wallace stopped it. He said, 'If you're gonna fight, we're gonna stop.' And a kid yelled out, 'It's fixed. It's not fair. It's rigged.'
"Don Wallace said, 'What do you mean, it's rigged?' And the kid said, 'Well, that guy doesn't have a band.'
"So to keep things from happening anymore, Don gave him the $15 first prize. He made $15 for singing one song, and I played for three hours out there at that record hop and made eight bucks!" Crose laughs. "That's a story I don't like to tell."
Fred Borden led the Twilights, a tenacious Tulsa rock band in 1959.
Love of the music
Ultimately, he and every other musician will tell you that while playing for money -- even for a living -- was nice, it was the playing itself that kept them coming back to those stages across our town.
"I remember playing places where they tried to run us off," says drummer Jim Turley, who played with Cale, Russell, and Crose, among others. "We were sounding so good -- I guess now they'd say we were gellin'. But, I mean, they were ready to go home, and we just kept on playing until they ran out out of there.
"I don't think most people know enough about music to know if you sound good or sound bad," he adds. "I think most of the time patrons don't know the difference. But I guarantee the musicians do."
"What else would a young man want to do but be where the party is, the good times, and to be able to contribute to that?" asks drummer Chuck Blackwell. "And to see people dancing to your music. Oh, I loved to watch people dance."
Bobby Taylor on the former site of the Cimarron Ballroom, the site of the TulsaTransit bus depot.
What is Rock of Ages?
Sunday began a five-part series on the early history of rock 'n' roll in Tulsa. We'll continue it in The Scene through Wednesday, skip Thursday (no paper) and conclude it Friday in Spot.
Sunday: The birth of Tulsa
This is Monday: The venues, from clubs to the hop
Tuesday: A laboratory for racial integration
Wednesday: Teens tuned into the radio
Friday: The Tulsa Sound comes around
John Wooley 581-8477