Ever heard the story about a Cain’s Ballroom owner getting Eric Clapton out of jail in the nick of time for a show at the historic venue?
We’ll get to that eventually, but here’s why you are hearing about it now:
A preview of coming attractions is usually the appetizer at a movie theater, but a preview of a coming attraction was the main event for folks who paid a Wednesday visit to Circle Cinema.
The coming attraction is “Raisin’ Cain: The History of Cain’s Ballroom.” It’s a still-in-progress documentary that is expected to be released in 2021. Invited guests to a Nov. 6 Circle Cinema event were treated to a sneak peek of documentary excerpts and a post-screening Q&A with individuals blessed with knowledge about Cain’s Ballroom and its place in history.
Director Tate Wittenberg, who told the crowd he first got the idea for the documentary about 10 years ago, said “Raisin’ Cain” is 70% done and entering the post-production stage.
The preview was staged to kick off a campaign to raise funds for the documentary’s completion. The guest list included individuals who have expressed interest in the documentary and would like to help it reach the finish line. The teaser they saw tracked Cain’s Ballroom’s transformation from dance academy to Carnegie Hall of Western swing through a period in which former owner Larry Shaeffer booked international acts that would later become some of the world’s biggest rock stars, including U2 and The Police.
“Yeah, I’m the guy that brought in the Sex Pistols,” Shaeffer said during the post-screening panel. “I can’t live it down.”
The panel was moderated by Jeff Moore of the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture and panelists included Shaeffer, another former owner (Jeff Nix), Wittenberg and author/historian John Wooley, who is working on a book about Cain’s Ballroom.
One of the best stories to emerge from the panel came when Nix talked about getting Clapton out of the clink. Nix got a call from a Tulsa World reporter. The reporter informed Nix that Clapton had been jailed for public intoxication and the reporter wanted to know if Clapton was in town to play Cain’s Ballroom. Hmmmm.
Actually, Clapton wasn’t supposed to play at Cain’s, but the call set wheels into motion. Nix fast-talked Clapton out of jail early even though there was supposed to be a mandatory six-hour staying period for public intoxication. Nix accomplished this by saying the people who were waiting to see Clapton at Cain’s Ballroom would tear up the place if Clapton didn’t get freed in time to play there and, hey jail worker, can you give me your name so I can tell people who is responsible for keeping Clapton in jail?
Clapton wound up playing Cain’s Ballroom, sitting in with the band that had been booked to be the headliner that night. (It was his band.)
Nix and his ownership partner were tapped out of funds before Clapton’s surprise visit. But that show generated enough cash to open Cain’s again the following weekend and so on and so on.
Nix said the funny thing about Cain’s Ballroom is when you needed something magic to happen, it did.
“That place is haunted in a really, really good way,” he said.
Added Shaeffer: “There is a spirit in that place, and it’s not evil.”
Nix said Tulsa takes Cain’s Ballroom for granted, but it is famous all over the world. How famous? Elvis Costello and Stewart Copeland from the Police are among music figures who have been interviewed for the documentary.
Wittenberg tackled three topics, including the one that was just mentioned, for this story:
1. Who has been interviewed for the documentary?
“We’ve interviewed quite a few famous Okies, including Wanda Jackson, Dwight Twilley, Jim Keltner, J.D. McPherson, the Red Dirt Rangers and some that are no longer with us, like Leon Russell, Roy Clark, Rocky Frisco, Clyde Stacy, Tommy Allsup and a couple other Texas Playboys,” Wittenberg said, adding that Ann Bell and David Teegarden were recent interview subjects.
Said John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers: “It’s the greatest honky tonk in the universe. It’s pretty much that simple.”
Other notable interviewees: Kings of Leon (Oklahoma roots), Merle Haggard, Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel), Mike Ness (Social Distortion), and Al Jourgensen (Ministry).
Music historians (including Bob Wills’ biographer, Charles Townsend), Wills’ daughter Carolyn, and past owners also were interviewed along with former Cain’s workers and the American Strings, a house band in the 1960s that backed acts like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.
Wittenberg said he would still like to interview members of the Rodgers family (the current owners), additional locals who have worked there and more past and present “Tulsa Sound” players.
On Wittenberg’s wish list: Willie Nelson, Jack White (White said Cain’s Ballroom is probably his favorite place to play), Jeff Tweedy, Vince Gill, Ronnie Dunn, Robert Plant, Sting, David Byrne, St. Vincent and Emmylou Harris. Wittenberg said he also would like to interview Jeff Moore, Dr. Bob Blackburn, Billy Parker and Ray Bingham.
2. Five great moments in Cain’s Ballroom history?
• “When Bob Wills started broadcasting live from Cain’s, that really put Cain’s on a bigger national map and Tulsa, too,” Wittenberg said. Cain’s became known as the Carnegie Hall of Western swing.
• “When Hank Williams Sr. played, he was supposed to play two shows that day and passed out after the first one,” Wittenberg said. “He died a few months later, but all three Hank Williams have played the ballroom.”
• “When Johnnie Lee (Wills) took over the broadcast after Bob left, Johnnie Lee at one point had the longest-running radio show in the nation.”
• “When R.C. Bradley and the guys came in and first rented the place from Marie Meyers and booked that first Freakers Ball, starring the GAP Band, it really opened up the ballroom to more of a variety of music and (likely) stopped the place from becoming a boat storage or even potentially being torn down.”
• “When the Sex Pistols played, that really opened the ballroom to every genre of music and it became a punk haven for a while. A month later, the Ramones played and other bands from the CBGB (famous NYC punk club) scene came, like Talking Heads and Patti Smith. In (Larry) Shaeffer’s era is when those international acts started coming and many would later become superstars. Also, you have to give props to the Rodgers family for really doing an incredible job restoring the place.”
3. What does Wittenberg know now that he didn’t know before he started work on the project?
Wittenberg said Cain’s was initially called The Louvre (like the museum in Paris) after Tate Brady built it.
“Nobody seems to know why,” he said.
Wittenberg said Cain’s almost became a Hupmobile dealership early in 1925, but it remained a dance hall. He said Cain’s was the third Cain’s dance academy in Tulsa and there were others in cities like Drumright and Oklahoma City.
“Madison Cain was a dance instructor from the East Coast who studied under some big-name instructors there,” Wittenberg said. “He knew there was oil money here and figured the oil barons’ wives would have money for dance lessons and would like some culture.”
That red neon star on the ceiling of Cain’s Ballroom? It’s there as homage to Red Star Milling Company, who made Play Boy Flour, the primary sponsor for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys’ radio broadcasts in the 1930s.
One more thing Wittenberg said he learned:
“There were no springs in the dance floor,” Wittenberg said. “I kinda wished that legend could’ve lived on.”