Monday, August 26, 2019

Music and Mayhem on Main Street:

R.D. Hendon and his Western Jamboree Cowboys in Context

Part 2: "The Dance"

A lot is made of "Texas Dance Hall Music," though this social phenomenon is now largely a thing of the past. A music enthusiast born after 1960 can live his entire life without ever experiencing a dance hall, or understanding the special purpose such buildings once served. Dance halls have become so antiquated that the ones still standing have applied for special historical markers in some cases, designating a building where something significant happened a long, long time ago. A small number of them remain open and thriving, but most are only spoken of in past tense. This includes R.D. Hendon's now almost-forgotten Western Jamboree Club (105 1/2 Main) in Houston, which was demolished 60 years ago. 

The point of going to a dance hall was to dance. That might seem obvious, but for the last 50 years, the most common way of experiencing live music has been at night clubs (not dance halls), in which the patron stands the entire evening gawking at the band on stage -- not dancing -- and applauding after each song. There is typically very little, if any, dancing at modern night clubs, even when the band specializes in dance music, like rockabilly. It sometimes seems like people don't understand that virtually all pre-1960s popular music was dance music. Not dancing to dance music doesn't make much sense, but once something becomes passe in American life, there's no going back.

No one going to the Western Jamboree Club went there to stand around and watch the band all night -- anyone who did so would have been pitied by the other patrons, for it would show that sadly, they had been unable to find a dance partner. They did not go to the club to see the band. The dance itself was the main event of the evening. 

The 100 block of Main looking south, Houston, Tx., c. 1957. The Western Jamboree Club (105 1/2 Main) was located on the second floor of the first building on the left (the F.W. Heitmann Building). (Houston Chronicle Photo) All photos: click on photo to enlarge.

A typical evening at 105 1/2 Main would begin at 8 o'clock and last until about midnight. Some patrons drove to the club and parked in a nearby garage or lot -- parking was a serious problem for all downtown nightlife, even then -- while some took a cab. Many took the city bus, a method of transportation unthinkable to future generations of club goers. Some still lived close enough to walk from where they lived. 

Under a flashing neon sign that read "Main St. Dance Hall," patrons would open the door and ascend a flight of stairs to the second floor. A small cover charge would be accepted by a doorman -- sometimes R.D. himself -- and one would be ushered into a huge room filled with tables and a long bar at one end. (The "one-half" address designated garage apartments and other small living spaces when used residentially. When applied to commercial property, however, it usually applied only to the doorway that was separate from the building's main doorway. New patrons at 105 1/2 may have been confused, and went in expecting a small club.) One wall featured a large, detailed mural of a western ranch scene, the only attempt at decoration. Large ceiling fans circulated a smoke-filled room. This was the extent of the "air-conditioning," and while off-putting, it also facilitated the thirst for more beer. Like all night clubs in Texas at the time, 105 1/2 Main only sold beer and wine, mixed drinks being forbidden by state law. The club and patrons got around this absurdly archaic rule by bringing their own whiskey and purchasing "set ups" -- a bucket of ice, a Coca-Cola, and drinking glasses for a small fee, usually $1.00 or so. R.D.'s brother E.J. tended the bar most nights. (Only in the 1970s did Texas become so "liberal" as to allow mixed drinks direct from the bar.) 

On an elevated stage with a band stand in the middle and a "kitty"(for tips) underneath, stood the Western Jamboree Cowboys in matching suits. It was a medium-sized band, usually no more than six pieces. Emceed by guitarist-vocalist Harold Sharp from late 1951 to 1955, their set list would consist of the hits of the day, plus a smaller percentage of standards ("San Antonio Rose," "Pistol Packin' Mama," "It Makes No Difference Now," "Slippin' Around"), and one or two square dance numbers per set ("Put Your Little Foot"). On rare occasions, they would play an original. "No Shoes Boogie" was a hit with the crowd early on, but when its singer and writer, Charlie Harris, left the band, his song left with him. Longer lived was Eddie Noack's "I Can't Run Away," introduced in 1951. It became perhaps the only original song associated in the public mind with the Hendon band, and was a local hit when they recorded it for 4-Star. 

The dance floor would be full. After each song, the couples would return to their tables. There was no applause. A visitor from today's night clubs would find this  -- after the dancing -- the most striking aspect of the dance hall experience, as applause after every song is simply automatic in night clubs. Finally, at around 11:40, the band would play one last song, typically an instrumental, that would signal to the crowd that the evening was finished. There would be no phony "encores," a stupid charade that today's night clubbers have been conditioned to enact at every show. 

The band's set list was oriented toward a variety of dances. A waltz would be followed by a jitterbug number, followed by a square dance, followed by a polka, then by a schottische, and so on. You would never play the same style of song twice in a row. After 45 minutes, or about 15 songs, the first set (of four) would conclude, and the band would take a break. The four-hour set, broken by 15-minute intervals, was a standard established by the musician's union, and would remain the norm for most bands until the 1970s or even later. Since the union had little sway in Houston, it's doubtful any punishment would have been visited on musicians had they only played three hours. But such a break would have angered club patrons, and this was unthinkable. 

"105 covered one-sixth of a block," remembered guitarist Hamp Stephens. "It was the old F. W. Heitmann Hardware building. Brick, three stories. It was on the corner of Commerce and Main. The bottom floor was an interior decorator, and there was a gym on the third floor."

Detail of the above photo. The first floor below the Western Jamboree Club is highlighted in red. The club's neon sign ("Main St. Dance Hall") is clearly visible behind the street lamp. "Dancing"is painted in vertical letters on one of the columns. 

It was a popular place, even with stiff competition nearby at Cook's Hoedown Club, plus other downtown nighteries. Steel guitarist Joe Brewer, who worked in the band off and on for several years, believed that the hall could hold 500 people, and many nights, the building was at capacity: "Full house – six nights a week," Joe said. There is no reason to doubt him.  It was what musicians called a "sit down job," meaning that -- unlike most bands -- they didn't roam from club to club or town to town. The crowd came to them, not the other way around. Infrequently, they would play another club, or travel out of town. But for most of 1950 to 1956, you could find the Western Jamboree Cowboys planted right there on Main Street. They played every night except Monday.

"He had a mixed crowd up there," Brewer remembered. "If you played up there every night, you could spot it. You could see five or six couples come in together, men and their wives. They probably never went out but two or three times a year – those type of people. Clean-cut people…their mannerisms. I could spot 'em every time they come into the club. They’d sit there real stiff, you know, just afraid to move, because we had a very mixed crowd. You had a crowd that was noisy…you had everything there. But along about mid-range of the dance, you'd look out there, and that same crowd that come up there that was so nice, the wives would be out there dancing and darned near stripping the clothes off of 'em. They probably got up the next morning and thought, 'My God, what did we do?' I could spot those people."

Patrons posing for a photo at the bandstand at 105 1/2 Main c. 1954. Harold Sharp peers out above them. (Harold Sharp Collection)

If this all sounds rather innocent and idyllic, it wasn't. Fist fights were fairly common in Houston night clubs during this period, but only 105 became infamous for them. It's not too difficult to speculate here. In addition to regular country music enthusiasts, the club attracted its share of tough customers who came to the dance looking for a fight. After a few drinks, a man would want to dance with another man's woman (or wife). If the man said no (the woman having no say in the matter), the recipient was expected to accept this rejection. Many instead used this as a challenge to their manhood, and fists would soon begin flying. Hendon himself would get in the middle of such fights, and heaven help anyone whom he wrestled to the door. They were not simply shoved out of the door, but forcibly pushed down the stairs, undoubtedly resulting in broken bones, skull fractures, and smashed teeth many times. Such brutality would be unthinkable in a club today, not the least due to the lawsuits that could result from such assaults -- by the club's owner, no less! But Texas courtrooms in the 1950s had no time for such "frivolous" legalities. If the club owner decided you broke the (unwritten) rules of his club, it was simply assumed that the law was on his side. Most would never have considered a lawsuit, regardless, since this would have constituted public admission of being a wimp. It was better to remain anonymous, and lie to your doctor privately. 

R.D. Hendon acted as his own bouncer. "He was bad about fighting," Brewer said. "If you made a mistake in his club -- it didn’t have to be very much -- you could get beat up on the way out and thrown down the stairs. By him. He was pretty tough, but E.J. was a lot tougher. If he couldn’t handle a fight – if two or three guys got on him – E.J. would come over the counter, and it was all over after that. And then all of 'em went down the stairs. And the music played right on, you know."

E.J. Hendon. "R.D. was pretty tough, but E.J. was a lot tougher." (Courtesy Bill McClung)

Harold Sharp said that fights would break out "every night. They used to call it One-Oh-Fight and a Half. It got so bad that the city made R.D. hire a cop (i.e., an off-duty policeman).  Two of 'em on Saturday." 

Joe recalled the times that a customer would make the mistake of bringing his own set-up into the club. This would be a minor infraction in any other club except 105: "You could bring your own liquor, but not your own ice. R.D. would go over there and tell them they couldn’t do that, and if one of 'em said something, he’d just grab 'em. There went him, and the ice, and everything. (Laughter) That was unreasonable. He did a lot of unreasonable things like that."

The young Frankie Miller, just beginning his career, remembered dropping in at 105 every chance he was in Houston. "I had a cousin who lived there who liked country music," Miller said. "I'd stay with him, and we'd make the clubs. 105 1/2 Main was upstairs. It got a little rough down in that area after dark. Me and (my cousin) decided we'd go up there one night. First time we'd ever been there. So we're going up the stairs, and all of a sudden, the bouncer (probably E.J. or R.D.) comes out at the top of the stairs -- he has some guy by the seat of his pants, and he throws him down the stairs ... we had to dodge him. My cousin turns to me and says, 'Frank, maybe we better come back another night.' And the bouncer goes, 'You fellas come on up and have a good time!'" Miller recalled meeting Eddie Noack at the club, so this had to have been no later than 1952, when Noack still sang with the group. 

After midnight, R.D. and E.J. and their wives would begin counting the evening's money, sweeping up the cigarette ashes piled on the floor, washing down the bar, and shutting down the club. The 500 revelers would descend the staircase, swarm Main Street, jump into a cab or bus, and begin planning their next visit to 105 1/2 Main. 

Next installment: the Freedom single

Below: artist's recreation of the neon sign above the door at 105 1/2 Main. 

Joe Brewer, interview by Andrew Brown, November 14, 1994.
Harold Sharp, interview by Andrew Brown, April 24, 2004. 
Hamp Stephens, interview by Andrew Brown & Kevin Coffey, September 25, 1994. 
Frankie Miller, interview by Andrew Brown & Kevin Coffey, 1994.


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