The Tuff Enuff Story
Our story takes place between the years 1974-1985. Austin was a tiny little college town in the middle of Hill Country. Nobody had even heard of the town other than parents sending their kids to school at the University of Texas. Back then, Austin was more about football than the music monster it’s grown into today. When Kim Wilson, Jimmie Vaughan, Mike Buck and Keith Ferguson came to town, it was pretty much a caucus of senators and Cosmic Cowboys who’d followed Willie Nelson here.
I don’t think when The Fabulous Thunderbirds formed the band, they had any idea they were going to change Austin, Texas forever. I don’t think they set out to do that with any kind of plan. Keith had blown in from the West Coast with shoulder-length hair, having just dropped out of Black Kangaroo headed up by Peter Kaukonen, Jorma “Jefferson Airplane’s” brother. Jimmie came to Austin from Oak Cliff, a suburb of Dallas, Texas. Oak Cliff gained notorious fame as the sites Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested coming out of the Texas Theater. Jimmie brought a prized possession with him to Austin, a wah-wah pedal given to him by another Jimi, Jimi Hendrix. He spent a couple of years playing with local bands, Paul Ray and W.C. Clark. Kim Wilson was from Detroit originally but grew up in Goleta, California. He’d bounced around with his now-infamous harmonica making a reputation for himself among the blues community. He had and still has the voice to back up the incredible notes he hits with the mouth harp. The T-Birds first drummer was Mike Buck, a Fort Worth boy who’d been playing since the age of twelve.
These four men shared a passion for the blues. Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo, Little Walter just to name a few. And, of course, Muddy Waters would play a huge role in their lives and their career. In the early days of the T-Birds, Lou Barton, another Fort Worthian, was their lead singer. Lou Ann had a voice that ranked up there with Etta James and Irma Thomas. Besides a shared love of music, they loved to dress. You used to see one of the T-Birds or Lou Ann out and about like it was some kind of Hollywood noir come to life. When one of them walked into a place, people stopped eating or drinking and dropped their jaws wide open. You felt like you were a part of something happening. And you were. It was a special time.
There were cool places to eat around town where these cool cats would hang out. La Reyna or Cisco’s for a big Mexican breakfast. Or late in the evening at the Night Hawk where C-Boy Parks was the all-night manager after he got done with his shift managing the classic Rome Inn. Another late-night place, After Ours on Congress Street served pretty decent food after the clubs closed down at 2 a.m. with live music. Sometimes the T-Birds, W.C. Clark, Lou Ann Barton. In those days, there was always something to do, literally at any hour of the day or night.
This film has a job to do. It wants to tell you what Austin used to be like in a time capsule. It was one of a kind, like something conjured up by a seductive psychedelic purely by accident. When the T-Birds formed, things began to happen. It went from a sleepy place to a happening. There was no social network, of course, just plain old word of mouth, a poster on a telephone pole, from the cool student newspaper The Daily Texan to the local daily, the Austin American Statesman. Radio airwaves were dominated by saturated playlists featuring the Eagles and Wings songs. We are going to tell the story of how against all odds, these four guys set the town on its ear, the people following quite willingly.
But, it wasn’t easy. The T-Birds had a hard uphill battle from their 1975 beginnings, maybe as rough and tumble as the backroads on the constant touring driven by hardcore fans we’ll be talking to like Denny Angelle and Jon Monday. Denny, Jon and some other prime T-Birds characters are lined up on our itinerary to talk about the thousands of swamp country small clubs, the kinds of joints many of us have only seen in the movies, like Otis Day and the Knights kinds of scenarios. This was real life for the T-Birds and not always with a comical story like Animal House.
They finally got that record deal in ‘79, but still, it wasn’t the big rooms like Rockpalast show in Germany that came later. Our boys were still playing small clubs like the Austex Lounge on South Congress and the One Knite Tavern on Red River. This was long before they became the house band at Clifford Antone’s blues club on 6th Street, even longer before 6th Street was 6th Street as we know it today. They weren’t alone on these local stages. Several of the bands who played with the T-Birds like Delbert McClinton and Little Charlie Sexton, Smokin’ Joe Sublett and others who love the Thundrbirds and will be sharing stories in this documentary. We’ll hear from W. C. Clark, the Godfather of Austin Blues, who has played with all of the greats and goes back to the very beginning at the One Knite. The legendary Cobras, headed by iconic Paul Ray who featured little Stevie Ray Vaughan in his early Austin days. Paul’s widow Diana Ray was a fundamental part of this early Austin scene and will tell us some of the insider stories of an Austin that no longer exists.
Professional photographers like Tracy Anne Hart and journalists Ken Leick, David Mac and Michael Corcoran documented this extraordinary piece of history and will provide a look back into the past for us. Most importantly, the fans who, like the T-Birds, like other musicians, and like the words in the old Buck Owens song, “Streets of Bakersfield” all came here looking for something. That was the common denominator of 1970’s Austin, Texas. More, much more than ‘keep Austin weird,’ it was more like Buck said:
“I came here looking for something, I couldn't find anywhere else. Hey, I'm not tryin' to be nobody, I just wanna change to be myself.”
They ended up ‘making it’ so to speak. They got that record deal with Benchmark Recordings and cut their first album named by Mike Buck, “Girls Go Wild.’ It’s on Billy Gibbons top ten records of all time. That’s an endorsement for you. Well received, but the record didn’t sell. They toured Europe and Jimmie broke his leg during the trip. As luck would have it, another guitarist subbed for Jimmie on The Old Gray Whistle Test. It seemed like every time the guys got a break, it was two steps back.
Mike left the band to pursue other projects and Fran Christina became the T-Birds long-time rhythm section. Some of the brilliance between Frannie and Keith’s bass playing are a religious experience. They cut three more records with Benchmark, whose Jon Monday and Denny Bruce will be sharing the backstory. Can you imagine the hijinks in the T-Birds studio? The third album “Butt Rockin’” sizes that up for you.
Fran Christina and Julie Speed, his wife who is an acclaimed painter will be participating in the film. Julie was a huge part of the community. Julie’s iconic Austex Lounge tee shirt design of a couple of pink cats jiving to the local blues beat on a cool flesh-colored backdrop was worn to see-through sheerness by yours truly. They all lived in cool houses in close proximity, a true enclave of creative and talented individuals. At the time, Keith and Lou Ann Barton shared a home in South Austin and would have the coolest parties. I actually went to a few and this old Beaumont girl was mesmerized. They had leopard-spotted sheets on the bed and I’d never seen anything like it, in real life, that is. I was at a party there one night when Stevie proposed to Lenny, the woman, not the guitar. He gave her a woven ring made out of grass and it was the most romantic thing ever. Everybody there wanted to be her.
Stevie Ray started taking off and it was kind of strange, even though he was so incredible. But, always humble. He would always say Jimmie was the better guitar player. B.B. King would come to town and holler out, “Get me Little Stevie up here.” Mid 70’s, Muddy Waters played at Antone’s and met Kim Wilson, Jimmie and the boys for the first time. From Clifford Antone, “We put Jimmie Vaughan on stage with Muddy, he played slide and Muddy’s head snapped. He told me that Kim Wilson was the best harmonica he’d heard since Little Walter. The blues players had never seen no kids like this.”His mind was blown and it set up a lifelong friendship. Muddy began telling the people up north and a pipeline was formed where the Austin people would play Chicago and the blues greats, down here in Austin.
“Antone started flying blues legends from Chicago like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Jimmy Rogers, and Muddy Waters down to Texas to play at this club. He paid them well, put them up in the Stephen F. Austin Hotel across the street, and generally treated them like the great artists that they were. Word got around quickly in the blues world that Austin had the best club and some great local players, and every name blues singer or player came through town. Antone installed Jimmie Vaughan’s new band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, as his house band, and Austin enjoyed a kind of Golden Age of the Blues for several years.” Again, something was happening.
Around 1978, the T-Birds were the only white act on an outdoor yearly Juneteenth celebration. There was a big hush in the room when they took the stage that hot, heavy Houston afternoon. The crowd went wild. That was something else about the Fabulous Thunderbirds. There was no color code. It was all about the music and music was all that mattered. And what music it was. They went on to open for the Rolling Stones at the Astrodome in 1981 and Jon Monday of Benchmark had an idea. He asked the Stones video team to tape the T-Birds. He is sharing that never before seen footage with this film. What a story.
There were some dark times on the horizon. Keith suffered from longtime heroin addiction and had gotten to the point of not wanting to tour. This played hard on the rest of the band who knew touring was fundamental to selling records. After the release of the fourth album, T-Bird Rhythm, Keith left the band. Preston Hubbard, a great bass player from Roomful of Blues hired on in Keith’s place. But, just like history can and will repeat itself, their next record, Tuff Enuff and also the name of this film, took off. The title song garnered an MTV-style video with a bunch of girls going wild. It is still fun to watch and good to see the T-Bird fellas getting some well-deserved attention on and off the screen.
Ten years is a long time in anyone’s life, but in T-Bird time, it’s like a century. We have so much material, interviews, recordings and performances to share in this story. The people whose lives were forever touched have responded wholeheartedly to be a part of this documentary and to share their wonderful memories. The story is not going to be one of those Behind the Music he said she said ordeals with everybody overdosing. The reason I chose the title Tuff Enuff from their song is that they are survivors. They changed a whole town and paved a destiny they never imagined would mushroom into the huge music capital of the world as Austin has. So, take a little trip back with us to a very cool and special time. Let me tell you a little story.
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