SIX: Goodbye Ol’ Paint
“What was any art but a mold in which to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” –Willa Cather
Buck Ramsey and I first met in 1957 during the summer prior to my senior year of high school, and not long after three missteps caused Buck’s expulsion from Texas Tech University. The first misstep began with a university dean’s letter of reprimand regarding Buck’s lack of class attendance. The letter required no reply and seldom, if ever, would any student have replied. But Buck felt compelled to communicate the overwhelming loneliness he felt from being away from home, family and friends for the first time in his life. In a letter of reply Buck expressed his happiness in knowing the dean was now a pen pal with whom he could correspond. Summoned to the dean’s office, Buck was given a stern warning.
One evening while working as a deejay on the campus radio station’s classical music program, Buck would read on air album liner notes, and after each flowery paragraph praising a given classical composer, he would testify that the particular sentiment expressed described precisely how he felt about the dean. When word of this mockery reached the dean Buck was placed on disciplinary probation. One more misstep would result in his expulsion.
A prominent statue of Will Rogers mounted on his horse Soapsuds adorns the Texas Tech campus where, according to the inscription the famous American cowboy, humorist and motion picture actor, and Soapsuds, are “riding into the Western sunset.” But a problem arose regarding the positioning of the statue since facing it due west would have meant the horse’s posterior faced downtown Lubbock. The solution of turning the statue 23 degrees to the north aimed the horse’s ass directly at Tech archrival Texas A&M. During one beer-drinking, hell-raisin’ evening, Buck climbed atop the nearly 10 foot tall, 3,200 pound statue next to Will. After some hearty whoopin’ and hollerin’, the arrival of the campus police soon had Buck headed north to Amarillo, and home.
During the summer of 1957 our family lived at 317 Mississippi Street, just two blocks north of famous U.S. Route 66, the nation’s Mother Road. In early 1956 Bob Venable and I formed our rock ‘n roll band when Buck was a high school senior so he’d seen our band perform and knew we shared an interest in music, although his was mostly an interest in jazz. Buck’s beautiful vocal style was much influenced by Chet Baker, and sometimes Buck would make a guest appearance at the Aviatrix Club on N.E. 8th (now Amarillo Blvd. East) when a big dance band played there. “My Funny Valentine” was his signature song and he could sweep away the heart of most any young lady attending his performance. A buzz would spread through the Amarillo High School community, “Buck’s gonna sing at the Aviatrix tonight,” which charged the excitement of his many admirers.
During that summer Buck visited 317 Mississippi Street on several occasions where we listened to our favorite records. I played Elvis Presley (the Sun singles), Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and buddy Holly. Buck brought jazz albums by J. J. Johnson, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Chet Baker and others. He had paid little attention to rock ‘n roll and I’d consumed almost no jazz. Those listening sessions significantly broadened my musical horizon and hopefully Buck’s too.
Buck was there at the beginning of my formative musical years and at the end for the swan song—our band’s final performance at the 25th reunion of the Amarillo High School Class of ‘58. Together, Buck and I made several trips from Amarillo to Dallas where Bob Venable, Mike Hinton and I, along with Dallas professional musician and bass player, Marc Jaco, held several rehearsal sessions at Bob’s home in preparation of our reunion performance.
Buck and I had lengthy philosophical conversations on these Dallas trips, and sometimes he told interesting stories—one about his search for a summer job. Visiting a friend who lived on a family farm, Buck inquired about summer work.
“You can shock hay for 10 cents a shock, Buck. Be here at six o’clock tomorrow morning,” his friend’s father offered.
Buck arrived early the next morning and situated himself upon a fence waiting for his friend and his friend’s two brothers to join in the work.
The father appeared and asked, “What are you doing sitting on the fence, Buck?”
“I’m waiting for your boys to come shock hay.”
“Aw, my boys won’t be shocking hay.”
“Raising three boys I learned long ago that one boy in the field is one boy working, two boys in the field is half a boy working, and three boys in the field is no boys working at all.”
Buck told a story about Mobeetie, Texas, which along with Clarendon were the first two towns established in the Texas Panhandle. When Texas became a state in 1845 each town was required to register its name with the U.S. Postal Service, but Sweetwater had been registered by a town located near Abilene. A town father asked a local Indian, “How do you say ‘Sweetwater’ in you native tongue?” The Indian replied, “mobeetie.” Many towns, rivers, counties, roads and geographical features had been given Indian names, so “Mobeetie” was adopted to maintain some kinship to the original town name. Years later, it was discovered that the Indian word “mobeetie” does not mean “sweetwater”, but instead, “buffalo dung.” Evidently, the Indian had simply tossed a curse word at the white man’s question.
According to Charles Goodnight, “Mobeetie was patronized by outlaws, thieves, cut-throats, and buffalo hunters, with a large percent of prostitutes. Taking it all, I think it was the hardest place I ever saw on the frontier except Cheyenne, Wyoming.”
When Buck decided to spend a few weeks in Nashville exploring country songwriting, I arranged lunch with famous country songwriter Harlan Howard at Bienvenida’s Mexican restaurant in downtown Nashville. Harlan’s credits include “Busted” by Ray Charles, by Johnny Cash and by other artists; “Heartaches By the Number” by Ray Price; “I Fall To Pieces” by Patsy Cline and others; “I've Got a Tiger By the Tail” by Buck Owens; “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” by Hank Thompson, by Buck Owens and others; “Why Not Me” by the Judds; and many other country hits. Just about every songwriter in Nashville and elsewhere would have given his left nut to write with Harlan, and these two unique men easily warmed up to one another. Harlan gave Buck his phone number and said, “Call me sometime, Buck, and we’ll fool around trying to write a country song.”
Harlan's motto was "Three chords and the truth," which framed the musical simplicity of his songs while his lyrics pointed to some of life’s most basic truths. Harlan was given a guitar that had only the first two frets—all that was required to play the three basic chords of several different keys. He told Buck that poetry usually didn’t make very good country lyrics, but that sometimes it might lead to something worthwhile.
A week later, Buck hadn’t talked to Harlan. Over the following days I ask a couple of more times but to my chagrin Buck never accepted Harlan’s invitation. I’m certain Buck liked, even admired, Harlan who was an easily likable, down-to-earth man, but Buck said he didn't want to be “horning in” on Harlan's writing—a view spoken from a heart and wrapped tightly in the most sincere cowboy etiquette. I was unable to convince Buck that being invited to co-write wasn’t “horning in.” It seemed Buck had no interest whatever in self-promotion—a lack of interest to a fault. With his prodigious talent and creativity Buck could have eventually written some good, maybe even great, country songs, but any semblance that might suggest he was chasing success was unacceptable. He just wanted to be Buck and let success find him. And eventually, it did.
Here’s the Forward by B. Byron Price to Buck’s book, Grass.
“…Ramsey’s contributions to cowboy poetry and song garnered him national recognition. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in 1995 and received the National Heritage Master Artist Award from first lady Hillary Clinton at a White House ceremony the same year. The Academy of Western Artists honored the poet-singer with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. Individual books and recordings also won prestigious prizes, including three Western Heritage Wrangler Awards from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, formerly called the National Cowboy Hall of fame.”
“As personable and humble as he was talented, Ramsey delighted audiences across the country with rock-solid renditions of cowboy standards as well as his own lyrical works. Buck was a top hand by any measure when his tender heart unexpectedly gave out on January 3, 1998, one week shy of his sixtieth birthday. His unquenchable spirit, however, had taken flight years before, gliding over the range like a hawk on the wing, borne on the thermals of rhyme and meter—effortless, observant, elemental.”
After Buck’s death an Amarillo television station aired a tribute, in which Red Steagall was asked if he (Red) was a real cowboy. He replied, “I’ve always thought you’re not a real cowboy until a real cowboy calls you a cowboy.” Red stated it perfectly, and I’ve often applied this litmus test in determining a real “musician,” a real “songwriter” or a real anything.
Here’s Buck’s story about the Nighthawks’ swan song.
I don’t know Waylon Jennings. And he sure doesn’t know me. But I like his music all right and he comes across as a pretty good old boy. And his being from Lubbock and my being from Amarillo have nothing to do with what I am about to write. I am not trying to make Waylon mad or embarrass him by dredging up something in his past he would obviously wish left buried. I just can’t figure out how, in this case, to go easy on him and keep my facts straight.
I do know Eddie Reeves. I’d know his ashes in a whirlwind. And I like Eddie’s music and he is a pretty good old boy and happens to be from Amarillo. But all that has nothing to do with his getting the clear advantage in this expose of rock ‘n roll lore going back a quarter of a century.
Here is the matter in a nutshell: when Waylon was a disc jockey in Lubbock and a friend of Buddy Holly, Eddie was under contract with Norman Petty over in Clovis, Holly’s producer at the time, and it came about that both Waylon’s and Eddie’s first professional recordings were made in the same studio of the same song, and anyone listening to those two recordings with something more than bottle caps for eardrums would have from that dangerous side of prophecy put all their money on Eddie. I know I did.
This was back in the summer of ’58. Reeves and Bob Venable, fresh graduates of Amarillo High School, and underclassman Mike Hinton were the keepers out of a culling process that brought about the Nighthawks, one of the first rock ‘n roll bands in Amarillo. The group’s genesis dated from over two years earlier when Reeves and Venable quit the AHS Golden Sandstorm basketball team for the likelier glory of rock ‘n roll. Particularly in Reeves’ case the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport inspired moves fit for another arena and made his hair too long for the school team. The group in various combinations and under different names – the progression from Combo Kings to Nighthawks showed early a sensibility to rock-sophisticated band monikers that would stay with them to the end – played mostly floorshows till Mike got big enough to play drums with them, then it became the town band for high school dances. The group in one early stage even made a cocky gesture at fame with a couple of recordings in a local radio station, but it did not hasten to them.
From the beginning, Reeves, lead singer and rhythm guitarist, had the singing and moves and haircut down pat, though his smile was way too big and happy; Venable, the intellectual and lead guitarist, had his riffs smartly down fast and soon warmed to the spirit of the music, though he usually looked as if he were studying for a physics quiz even as he played; and Hinton, boyish, bouncy, grinning, was so irrepressibly and thoroughly a drummer that it was almost too much for such a band and the little amplifiers of those days.
They were good enough for Petty to sign out of high school. The plan was for their first single to be “When Sin Stops,” a bang-up number Venable wrote. It was – is – a Jim-dandy rock ‘n roll record. The Roses, who sang backup on Buddy Holly recordings, did the [background] vocals on the record and the next time they saw Holly they raved about the song. When Holly heard it he told Petty he wanted to record it as a single. Since the Nighthawks had paid Petty $250 for his recording services and a promise to attempt to obtain a recording contract for the band, Petty felt obliged to call Reeves for permission for Holly to record the song. Reeves explained that Venable wrote the song and soon enough Reeves was explaining all this to Venable. Reeves gave Holly’s request his blessing and let Bob know that such a move could even be of benefit to the Nighthawks. There was silence on the phone for a few seconds and at that point some rock ‘n roll history was not made. With dead serious confidence, Venable replied that Holly could not record his song, that the song belonged to the Nighthawks, that Holly would have to find another song and that Petty should do his best to deliver a recording contract for the band. Reeves couldn’t believe what he was hearing – that Buddy Holly, the great rock ‘n roll star, was being turned down by the Nighthawks’ lead guitarist. Petty did land a recording contract with Hamilton Records, a subsidiary of Dot Records, and the Nighthawks’ first and only record was released in August 1958.
Holly learned the Nighthawks record would soon be released and he knew that no permission would then be required to record “When Sin Stops.” Holly had been promising a Lubbock, Texas disc jockey friend that he would get together a recording session for him in Clovis. This would become the historic first recording session for Waylon Jennings. To say that competition was fair would be more than right. Not even Holly’s gesture of flying King Curtis down from New York to play saxophone added enough to bring that recording close to on par with the Nighthawks’. Win some; lose some.
So this is the story of how three kids from out in the American hinterland bopped into the Sputnik era, of how they became heroes in a place and time when they were very young and of how they brought the place back when they were a good bit older and became heroes again. It is the story of how three friends held on to youth with joy, of how one night they shared it with anyone who would have a part of it, and how they agreed to let it go on that night with grace. This is the story of the Nighthawks and of how they decided to get together after many years apart and play their music one last time on the occasion of the 25-year reunion of the Amarillo High School class of ’58, the people they had played for most in the beginning.
“When Sin Stops” came out after Bob and I went to the University. It was number one in Amarillo for five or six weeks and to have been in ones teens there in those days is to hear the song (as well as other Reeves / Venable numbers) with the same nostalgia that “Johnny B. Goode” brings.
“Rave On” had been the Nighthawks opening and closing number at dances, the other Buddy Holly recordings were staples in their repertoire and Reeves’ singing style showed the Holly influence, but they remember feeling no more at becoming stable mates with Holly than the frisky curiosity of colts thrown in with a saddle horse.
That was still the summer of ’58. This loose but cherished connection with Holly continued up to the second of the next February. On that evening while Holly and others were playing a concert in Iowa the Nighthawks were in Clovis recording. They might have been recording there in Holly’s studio as Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens and their pilot crashed in the Iowa countryside. Waylon Jennings, it is said, was supposed to have been on the plane, but the Big Bopper was coming down with the flu and Waylon let him take his place.
The Nighthawks’ fame remained fairly well closeted in Amarillo and on the University of Texas campus where they became authentic legends, mostly with the Reeves / Venable “Delt Party Song” (Delta Tau Delta, it’s a party shelter, Delta Tau Delta, that’s where I felt her…” Reeves said he was in Austin a few years ago  managing a rock group on tour and on a visit to the fraternity house was treated to a Delt pledge’s singing of the song just as they had written it). One college summer in Amarillo they became the Hysterical Society Boys, the court musicians for a lyrical bunch of revelers gathered close about Stanley Marsh 3. Under that society’s imprimatur the band recorded “I Go Shot (Out Of the Saddle)” and “Funny Face,” both by Reeves [and released on his own label EBR Records].
After college Reeves worked away from music as long as he could, then in 1964 he took a job as Norman Petty’s man in New York. After nine months he was hired by the music-publishing wing of United Artists Motion Pictures’ as a song plugger and was signed to an exclusive songwriting contract. In 1968 United Artists sent Reeves to establish a west coast music publishing office and Reeves spent twelve years in Hollywood as a music-publishing executive, songwriter, recording artist, record producer, and personal manager for recording artists. Hoping to move to London, England to continue his music business career, Reeves detoured to Amarillo for an extended layover.
As for Venable, only in the broadest sense that everything in our lives affects everything else could it be said he somehow parlayed Waylon Jennings’ recording of his song into his place among the big boys in the oil trade with headquarters in Dallas and homes in Highland Park and Northern Italy. He graduated from the University of Texas and its law school with honors and then worked as a lawyer for Clint Murchison before becoming fulltime executor for the estate of his uncle, Buzz Venable, a legendary gambler of old who parlayed poker winnings into a fortune in the East Texas oil fields. Venable years ago gave away his electric guitar, a Fender Telecaster, to some Beatle-struck kid.
Hinton followed Venable through the University law school and came back to Amarillo and Canyon to practice law as a prosecutor for three years before in 1970 becoming an ace crime fighter for Harris County District Attorney Carol Vance. He is now a hotshot criminal defense and plaintiff’s lawyer in Houston. He almost never sat down to the drums over the years, but he routinely taps, stomps, thumps and bounces in time enough to keep any stick-less drummer in shape.
Reeves had remained musical over the years so getting his parts smoothed out and the other parts taped and sent out for the others to practice by were easy enough tasks. And Hinton has always seemed to breakfast and lunch on whatever jitter pills it is drummers take that make them walk and talk to the beat of their drums, however distant, so he is nearly always ready to sit down among his set, change the look on his face a little and start rockin’ and rollin’. But Venable was another matter altogether.
Any former lead guitar player will tell you that skill is not something, like milking cows or riding bicycles, you lay aside for twenty years and pick back up with ease. From the moment, polished and quietly elegant, middle-aged with a slightly eccentric air, he walked in the instrument store and ordered a 1957 Fender Stratocaster to play in a ‘50’s kind of rock ‘n roll band, Venable had to coax the staid businessman in him to accept the rivalry of a much younger foster sibling.
“At first I felt pretty awkward when I was caught by my secretary or a business friend practicing away at my guitar, but pretty soon I just began telling anyone who seemed curious that while others might use drink, dope, hi-jinx, divorce or shrinks to get by, I was starting a rock ‘n roll band.”
As time before the reunion dwindled down to a few months, Reeves, who was more or less central coordinator for the band, began getting letters and calls from Dallas and Italy with Venable on the other end in moods blue to beaming about his rehabilitation as a rock ‘n roll guitar player and the coming of the last hurrah. Excerpts from a typical communiqué, this one from the Casa Della Duse in Asolo, north of Venice: “Nobody else will notice or care but you will die when you hear the guitar backup that I have learned for you -- particularly the Chuck Berry stuff. I have a friend over here named Reginato Fabrizio who builds guitars and other instruments and who is an excellent flamenco guitar player and who is crazy. I can always go over to Fabrizio’s house after midnight because I know that he has just gotten up and is starting to work and that there will be plenty of wine. Anyhow, he said, ‘Robert, goddamit, you’ve got to be prompt and dead on with the first note and the last one. Nobody listens to the rest of the crap.’ So with that sort of advice I am plugging along … Reginato also said that it is a good thing I still have two months to work…”
Sometimes before a letter arrived Venable would call with the same report contained in the letter and add postscripts. “You listen,” he would say, “while I lay down the phone and put on Elvis singing ‘Baby, Let’s Play House.’ I’ll play along with it and if all you can hear on the guitar breaks is Scotty Moore that means I’m playing exactly what he’s playing. If you can’t hear me that means I’m getting there, Edward.”
A rehearsal was called in Dallas five weeks before the final concert. It also turned into something of an audition and jockeying time for those who would be roadies and groupies to sustain the band till it played its last and stay hooked through the wake. Sometime during the revelry of that weekend an auditioner raised her hand to hush the crowd and announced, “I’ve got to get off by myself for a while and do something with this big mental thing I’ve got.” Someone thought she said “big metal thing,” which inspired many puns and double entendres, and t-shirts were ordered which fixed the band in its last days with a name to fit the times, “The Big Metal Thing.”
A vital member, Marc Jaco, an excellent young bass player from Dallas, was added to the band. (He told me after the experience was behind him that his job interview reminded him of the famous Coyle & Sharp interview, “The Pit,” where they tell the job seeker on the streets of San Francisco “there are certain risks involved.” He says that’s fine, and as they keep on raising the ante, telling him it involves intense flame, people throwing objects, you have to get out of the flames, the 98 percent death rate on the job, he says, “I like to take chances.” They tell him maniacs in fireproof suits will try to keep him from his tasks and snakes will curl around him, and he says, “Yeah. I’d like to try it.” Jaco said his interview pretty well harbingered the job).
Remarkably, considering everything else going on during the Dallas rehearsal, the group did a single-take run-through of their repertoire in a studio and laid a foundation, which, with a few vocal overdubs and some remixing, would make an excellent cassette recording. (The taping was completed during a flurry of a trip to Dallas the weekend before the reunion. Reeves and Venable did most of the over-dubbing – all but some, uh, pretty fair ooby-do kind of backup vocals by a friend there thinking of writing a story about all this. The tape was judged good enough to offer on sale at the reunion to defray some studio expense; it is, in fact, good enough for anyone’s rock and roll library).
Reeves, though he’s roan-headed now, is still very youthful. He sang his heart out for the recording and dubbing sessions, and it never occurred to anyone, least of all him, that his vocal chords wouldn’t hold up as well as Venable’s guitar strings through those late, long tapings and the big weekend. But he came up hoarse following the last strenuous session in Dallas and stayed glum and silent through the week. His wife nursed and coddled him, some prayed, some wrung their hands.
Venable rented the Presidential Suite at the Hilton Inn where the reunion was to be held, and a slow coming together began Friday morning, continued through the day and came with a rush that night. While the class reunion was scheduled for Saturday night, many hometown fans of the Nighthawks had come through school on either side of the class of ’58 and the band would accommodate them with a Friday night concert and dance. Reeves spoke enough to say he could sing, which he did to the peril of the final concert.
Saturday afternoon there was a class reunion picnic in the park under the blazing sun. Backing off and looking on, the impression was one of spans and spectrums: colors (cloths, not skins – this was the class of ’58 in Amarillo), styles, distances, talk, emotions. Even guesses on ages would have a 20-year spread. Class reunions are nothing like a convention of gaudy hawkers or clubsters decked out in hip bourgeoisie, they are heterogeneous as a generation.
Reeves was not there. He was in bed and could not talk. The rest of the band skipped the picnic, too, but because there was a general looking forward to the night and because there was about as much talk of Reeves’ condition as anything else, the band’s presence was felt. It was as if they were playing a little background music to all those strange and lovely feelings flowing at flood stage. Some with looks or words attempted fixing others with a certain feeling or memory, trying to raise up old, dead moments. There was surprise that an old rivalry had become a bond of affection as strong as the affection that has caused the rivalry. There were meetings of sincere and open delight and some of cloaked displeasure. And all around, in more than would confess it, the sexuality of nostalgia aroused itself, perhaps to attend some old unfinished business. (Even if we would be moralists we were there, for moments at least, voluptuaries, regretting not the ones we did but the ones we didn’t—I write as sexist as my memory and gender inform me. Are there any moments more heightened in memory, was there ever anything so tentative and restless as the thought, the will, the hand upon the soft legs bare above the cuffed bobby socks, legs pressing slightly against the wishes beneath the rude crinoline?)
The class of ’58 began picking up their nametags around seven that evening. One guy had a greeter change the name on his tag before pinning it on, explaining that he had been told he was plenty schizophrenic all right but that he had had 346 shock treatments and was told he wasn’t dangerous.
About this time Reeves, whose voice had not made a sound all day, managed to convey an order through a groupie for a giant hot toddy to be sent to the Presidential Suite. The others had grown almost as quiet as Reeves out of apprehension. Even Hinton’s frenetic sociability had turned to almost funereal deportment. The toddy had little chance to cool before Reeves downed it, then he washed some Allerest down with beer after beer and sucked on Sucrets. He sat on the couch with his guitar on his folded legs, strummed an E chord and opened his mouth for “Roll Over Beethoven” to come out, but nothing happened. First, the looks, then the aimless movement of panic filled the room. A groupie, or roadie (the pecking order had never been quite worked out), ran to the party to see how far along the program was.
Reeves downed more medicine and took on about him the look of a plan. He went to the bathroom, stood on the commode, turned his face to the ceiling where the heat lamp would glow upon his throat and began making noises.
The roadie came back to report. “They are giving out all those awards,” she said. “The guy, who had the youngest baby before he married the woman who is the baby’s mother, was married 16 years to the woman handing out the awards, and the crowd wouldn’t let him go back to his seat until they hugged and kissed. The guy who got the award for being the least changed, which, I take it, means he’s the most youthful-looking, made a short acceptance speech. He had apparently been a real awkward head-scratching overgrown crew cut jock when he was in high school but now looks like the type who beach bums in the summer and ski bums in the winter. Anyway, he said, “Thanks, I guess. You can figure out how much I appreciate this award when I say I have been working to change my image for 25 years and now you tell me I haven’t changed a goddamn bit.”
A sound, not quite a note, came from the bathroom, and everyone gathered at the bathroom door to watch Reeves up there at his vocal warm-ups. He had begun on sighs, passed through croaks and now was softly yodeling. He had maybe another fifteen or twenty minutes before show time to do his therapy.
Someone said it was time for the band. They strummed and thumped their moment of preparation and Reeves tapped his microphone and said in a quiet voice, “Ladies and Gentlemen, because I am not as young as I thought I was my voice is not as it should be for this great occasion, so while the band plays I am going to whistle all the songs.”
The crowd was hushed, then it groaned. Hinton said, “Well, anyway, Ladies and Gentlemen … IT’S THE NIGHTHAWKS – ROCKIN’ AND A ROLLIN’!” And when Reeves came out sizzling and bellowing with “Rave On,” I can tell you I wouldn’t have traded being there for two red blankets.
It was rock ‘n roll straight out of that pristine time when white boys were still trying to learn the licks of black men, giving the sensual rifts a kind of cherubic edge and dealing with despair on the level of not getting the family car for a date. They were wondrous and necessary and maybe eternal, but those hard-earned, deeply felt lumps in the black music had to be for a while smoothed out to make the music right for sifting into the consciousness of the folks buying. And right there on stage was music about as siftable for times as you would hear.
Reeves’ voice held up, less than it was supposed to be only to those few who knew how good it had been through the tapings, and Jaco kept the foundation solid with his bass – after all, these two were musicians still in the trade. So the whole was to be done or undone by the lead guitar and drums. Some liftings from a fan’s notes:
“…For this time warp tonight Bob is as right for the ear as a ’55 Chevy would be for the eye. He picks and frets his way to the right place on the anxious edge of late and looking, each chord and note in his lead breaks arriving like the almost too equivocal groom at the instant to allow the wedding without a hitch…”
“…Was that drum flourish of Mike’s random as hailstones on a roof or was it just what he meant? Sometimes the spirit should take hold like a holy-roller woman with the Holy Ghost. He does move the song and fill it up. Mike can come off addled as Ensign Pulver, yet he is a clever and deliberate courtroom tactician much admired. During the second break Bob came over, cool cucumber pickled on the music, and said, ‘If you have Mike you don’t need much more to have a rock and roll band.’”
The band’s final concert, its last waltz, seemed everything anyone could have wished it to be. And because of it there was surely more to this class reunion than most, but all the clichés held true. One was surprise that so many fine feelings could come back fresh after lying dormant so long. I confess that late in the evening I began trying to mix from the feelings, the looks and sounds and scents, a potion to serve myself like Proust’s madeleines and tea, but nothing came as in an epiphany, nothing whole and clear to memory. As I made my way from the crowd to get some thoughts together I encountered, separately, two men whose connections with me had never been more than vague. One, glowing with success, was tickled to tell me the biggest thing that ever happened to him in high school was showing up in the senior yearbook with the high school queen. The other held his hand over his nametag, said you don’t know my name but it doesn’t matter at all, no one has remembered me and never will and furthermore will never see me again because I will soon die and it doesn’t matter at all.
As the Nighthawks brought their own special, almost private era to a close, before joining the group (did I tell you I was a roadie?) to begin the winding down that would surely take days, I sat on a shrubbed patio where the party, muffled and set away, became, in the poet’s words, an eerie faint carouse. I tried to make my thoughts appropriate. And well, I thought of crinolines cracklin’, of stuffing crinoline petticoats in the narrow seats at the picture show and quieting them down before the movie started. I tried to think of other things.
And I simply came to an early spring afternoon when the windows were thrown open to let the stale steaminess of the long winter out and the voice of the teacher became the taut rope strumming the hollow flag pole in the breeze, and I—Eddie and Bob and Mike, too—drifted, soared, mind and spirit, out the window where waited all time and things.
Reprinted with permission of Bette Ramsey.
For seven weeks in July and August of 1961 I traveled around Europe by auto with friends Bob Venable and Kenny Wagner. We drove through East Germany into West Berlin on August 2nd and on the afternoon of August 3rd we drove the streets of East Berlin only ten days prior to the East Berlin-West Berlin border being sealed by the USSR on August 13th. Barricades were erected in preparation of building “The Wall,” which brought grim physical reality to “The Iron Curtain”—Winston Churchill’s famous description of the Soviet Union’s political domination and physical control of Eastern Europe after World War II. The August 15th headline of The Amarillo Daily News informed, “Soviet Troops Beef Line.”
After entering the Soviet-controlled city of East Berlin, we drove along the mostly deserted, two kilometer-long main thoroughfare Stalin Alley (Stalinallee between 1949 and 1961 and now Karl-Marx-Allee), which was lined with false storefronts decorated by rows of colorful plastic flowers, creating the impression of a robust retail district. The color of these flowers singularly broke the city's dismal palette of desolate tones—tones of a dead or dying city. Only 16 years had passed since the end of the World War II and many—possibly most—of the bombed-out buildings of East Berlin had not yet been rebuilt. We wondered why the plastic flowers were being watered and learned they were actually being washed clean of the coal-burning soot from East German factories.
In July we visited Pamplona, Spain for the Fiesta of San Fermin celebrating the city’s patron saint and coinciding with the famous “Running of the Bulls” as popularized in the 1926 Ernest Hemmingway novel The Sun Also Rises. En route to Pamplona we traveled through Madrid where we visited a hat shop with a huge collection of hats of every sort. I’ve never liked wearing hats, but Bob and Kenny bought expensive, beautiful hats they immediately donned as we drove the streets of Madrid in our Simca slide-top automobile.
Immediately, we realized something extraordinary, possibly controversial, could be associated with these hats. Polar reactions had some people laughing, while others proffered disgust but we hadn’t the slightest clue about the reason for such diametrical behavior. While stopped at a traffic light a man in the car alongside us asked in English if we were Americans. “Those hats could get you boys in a lot of trouble. It’s the kind of hat a priest wears.” Enough said. This was still Franco’s Spain, and disrespecting Catholicism was a critically serious matter. Bob and Kenny tossed the hats onto the ledge behind the back seat and we continued our odyssey, thankful to have dodged a political bullet.
In Pamplona we joined friends Tom Marsh, Mike Marsh, Tom’s friend John Fink, and another young man and young lady whose names I don’t recall. Our party of eight young Americans drank much wine from sheepskin flasks, or “botas,” arm wrestled Spanish guys in the middle of the streets, wandered about aimlessly, and ran with the bulls. We also attended a bullfight after which we learned our Simca slide-top auto was not only parked illegally, but parked directly in the path of the post-bullfight parade—an integral part of the religious celebration of the San Fermin Festival. All eight of us had piled into our little car just as the grand parade of bullfighters, musicians, civic officials, religious leaders, and throngs of spectators approached and engulfed the car.
We were three in the back seat with two sitting in our laps and two in the front seat while Tom Marsh sat on the top edge of the front passenger seat with his upper body protruding through the open slide-top. His advantageous view of the parade also made him conspicuous—even more so given the blue and white, broad-striped t-shirt he wore. But his prominence rose to unfathomable dimensions when noticing a hat lying on the back ledge of the car he plopped it on his head. From the crowded back-seat position I wasn't aware of Tom's action, although it was quickly evident a disruption of some sort had occurred—a disruption abruptly evidenced by a panorama of screaming Spanish voices and Spanish necks with throbbing veins bulging with Spanish anger surrounding us. It was a frightening scene soon supplanted by contorted Spanish faces pressed against, and clinched fists pounding on, the windows of our little Simca automobile. I thought surely the windows would break, as the animosity imprisoning us grew more frenetic. “Tom, take off that hat,” someone yelled, just as both doors on the right side of the vehicle flew open. Two policemen began dragging us from the vehicle, but Bob and I didn’t move. “Let's just stay here,” we agreed, but when the car doors closed the hysteria of the Spanish Catholics refocused on the two remaining culprits. The shouting and the pounding intensified as the car began to rock wildly.
“They’re gonna turn the car over,” Bob yelled.
“I think I’d rather be in jail,” I replied.
We attempted to open the back door, but the crowd was pressed too strongly against it.
“Bob, lie down on the seat and put your feet against the door. I’ll lie down on the floor and do the same. On three, push hard.”
On the third or fourth attempt the back door finally popped open and we crawled, clawed, and pushed our way past flying fists, and what surely were the most severe Spanish insults possible. The crowd gave chase until we joined the police and our friends about a block away.
We were taken to a police station, and then another while John Fink and his friend clearly and repeatedly defined the seriousness of the crime committed—disrespecting the Catholic religion by mockingly wearing a priest’s hat. Their verbal angst continued until our arrival at a third facility, which looked more like a prison than a police station. As we entered the gate two orderlies exited carrying a man on a stretcher—a man who definitely appeared dead. His face was ashen and sunken as that of a body where blood no longer circulates—something I’d previously observed only in caskets. The combination of our friends’ histrionic description of our crime and the sight of an apparently dead man being transported out of a facility we were being marched in to, decided panic was triggered. My mind raced, then flooded with thoughts that included the price to immediately be paid for our crime here in Franco’s Spain would be a firing squad and I wouldn’t even be allowed a phone call to tell Mom goodbye and to say I love her. For a few seconds I imagined my life was about to end with nothing more than a paltry whimper—a frightening and truly devastating thought by a human being who is of a species that strives to ensure, above nearly all else, that our lives are of significant import and not meaningless. “Killroy was here!”
“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” –William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Inside the facility our passports were confiscated, and after waiting a few hours were directed to return the following morning. Without passports we were stuck in Pamplona, so a mission was undertaken to locate an American who could recommend someone qualified to explain our innocence regarding the priest’s hat. Late the second day we found our savior, who accompanied us before a Spanish minister and successfully argued our ignorance. A stiff fine was levied, which we calculated as greater than the annual salary of a Spanish soldier.
While visiting the beautiful coastal town of San Sebastian in northwest Spain, Bob and I drove just west of the resort town to a cliff we previously noticed that overlooked the Bay of Biscay. Five or six hundred feet below ocean waves spectacularly crashed upon the outcroppings of many large rocks. We climbed down the steep rocky cliff for a close-up view of the dramatic waves, but neither of us paid close attention to the particular and separate routes we had taken. Walking along the top of the cliff allowed a view of the various possible routes, but walking along the rocky edge by the ocean was difficult, which limited our choices of potential return routes. I reached the top first, and looking back down it seemed Bob had come to a precarious position from where proceeding seemed difficult—maybe impossible. He had two choices—either climb back down and find another route to the top or make a risky jump upward to a dangerously small foothold. It was late afternoon and choosing to go back down could mean climbing after dark, which seemed a troublesome choice. Bob jumped upward to the small foothold and grabbed a small plant growing from the face of the rocky cliff. As he precariously held his position Bob calculated it would be impossible to precede further up and looking back down to his previous location it seemed any attempt to return was fraught with great risk. If he did not land on exactly the right spot and with the proper balance, he risked falling several hundred feet—a fall certain to cause serious injury or even death.
“I can’t go up from here, but don’t think I can go back down,” he calculated with serious concern.
In the stress of that moment I felt compelled to bolster Bob’s confidence. “I think you can jump back down. Look, I’ll toss this big rock down where you need to land to show you can easily land there.”
I gently dropped a rock the size of a small melon only to see it bounce once on Bob’s potential landing spot and then rebound hard several times as gravity quickly increased the speed of its journey down into the ocean below. The realization that a human body could not survive such a fall propelled our concern to new heights.
“I can maintain my foothold indefinitely by holding on to this plant.”
As his last word faded the plant broke loose from the rocky soil and Bob was left perilously balancing on a very small foothold—one large enough to support only a portion of one foot. After the plant broke loose and the rock crashed into the ocean below, a large wave washed over us—a wave of stark fear.
“Bob, hang on. I’ll get my jacket from the car to use as a rope to pull you up.”
I was overwhelmed with concern for my friend, and didn’t know if my jacket—from the end of one sleeve to the end of the other—would be long enough. I quickly visualized a longer rope of tying my jeans to my jacket.
When I returned to the cliff, I witnessed the most determined physical exhibition I have ever seen by a human. Bob’s panic had released an adrenaline-rush transformation of hominid to mountain lion—strength and claws included. At about the height of Bob’s shoulder the cliff began slightly sloping to his favor and continued its gradual slope for another five or six feet to where I stood at the top. The composition of this sloping area was loosely packed pebbles and coarse dirt in which Bob was clawing his way upward like a leopard climbs a tree—a fight for his life he slowly, but eventually, won by virtue of relentless determination and strength. We were both shaken by the experience, and throughout the years made reference to this event only a time or two. We were naïve, adventuresome young men way in over our heads.
At a young age Bob’s Uncle Buzz was an Amarillo soda jerk who later turned gambler, and eventually a successful Dallas oilman. He once bet he could drive to the Texas town of Borger and back to Amarillo in a certain amount of time, and in his haste to succeed lost a race with a train at a railroad crossing that branded him with a permanent, prominent scar across one cheek. A small man in stature, Buzz had a stern, cold demeanor that along with facial scar conveyed a dramatic, memorable impression—poker-faced if ever there was one.
During a poker game on an upper floor of Amarillo’s old Capitol Hotel (not the largest but the swankiest it’s been said), some badass guys who thought Buzz was cheating grabbed him by his ankles and hung him outside the hotel window.
“Buzz, admit you been cheating us or we’re gonna drop you.”
“If I say I’ve cheated you, I know you’ll drop me. But I didn’t cheat you, so you need to do the right thing and bring me back inside.”
“After you give back our money will you promise to leave town and never come back?
I don’t know if Buzz ever returned to Amarillo after the Capitol Hotel ordeal other than for his brother’s (Bob’s dad’s) funeral. At Bob’s request I met Buzz at the airport and drove him to the family residence on Bowie Street. It was the only time I saw Buzz, and he appeared to be as cold as any man could ever be. I imagined that ice water was running through his veins. Neither of us spoke one word during the 15-minute drive to Bowie Street.
In The Ware Boys by Thomas Thompson, Dick Ware states that against his better judgment he loaned Buzz $3,000 in 1931 (nearly $50,000 in 2016), which Buzz parlayed into about $20 million in the oil business. The book includes a photocopy of a seven-page, handwritten letter on Blackstone Hotel stationery dated Sunday, 1931 from Buzz to Dick Ware describing the early oil play around the Tyler, Texas area.
For many years Buzz lived in the Governor’s suite of the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, where he kept a hundred thousand dollars cash in the hotel safe for his poker games that sometimes included a famous Texas oilman who Buzz described as “a great oilman and a terrible card player.”
After Buzz died on February 22, 1967 at age 69, Bob was executor of his estate and spent his professional life as a Dallas oilman.
Here’s a transcript of Bob’s final letter to me.
8 January 1996
We had the pleasure (fun) of going to see Buddy again. We saw it first in New York years ago. It’s been going strong for seven years in London. Just moved from the Victoria Theater after six years, to the Strand. Wonderful. You would love it. The simplicity of the drum parts, the guitar parts, etc. and the wonderful power of that voice and the nasal twang. It just get better and better with time! Dear old Norman: he did indeed find a diamond in the rough. The way the guitar bits are done! I tried to make them so hard. Do you remember when Norman stopped the recording session and told me to play the “When Sin Stops” interlude in a higher “register” (an octave higher). Lord, I was so “untrained.” “Buddy” played all his stuff jumping from one octave to another (so simple if you can bar the guitar). And he could run and jump and sing while he was doing it. So can I. I just never took the time to see how he did it. Poor Edward. You were at such a huge disadvantage. Billy Sansing probably could have copied the precise drum bits. We’ll never know!
They’ve made several changes over the years—taken out the part about the “Crickets” being about to go back with Buddy, and Buddy’s many phone calls to his wife while on the road—and turned it into a happy songfest of his songs (every one of them). Norman is given a fairly accurate, if favorable, portrayal. Also Vi. The music and Buddy’s performance—is “dead on.”
The boy currently doing Buddy is about six feet tall and ugly as sin (you cannot be too ugly to play Buddy). But, wow, does he come across.
We thought of you!
Robert & Gabrielle
When Bob was in his early 50s our friend Kenny Wagner died, and at the time Bob was in the midst of a divorce from his first wife. I called one day to see how he was doing and in one of his classic, dry-witted replies he professed, “Well, it seems like everybody I know is either dying or suing me.”
As one grows old, the big wide world one encounters as an adventurous young person begins to shrink as it heads toward the final room of one's own deathbed—an abating world born of diminishing desire to explore and to seek adventure. As a young man I was ready to take on the world. Now over 75 years of age as of this writing, I hardly want to take on my yard. I have no need to wonder if I will climb Mount Everest before my life is done. I will not. Instead, I will quietly walk the small hills and broad valleys of my mind.
Bob’s letter to me dated July 20, 1993.
"It probably went all-wrong when I copied your jump shot. It was a sort of two-handed thing that looked like it was designed by a committee. I've really thought about it and I'm sure that was where it all went wrong. You need to take the ball off the dribble in one hand (like it was a tennis ball) (as if it were a tennis ball, if you admire proper use of the subjunctive), jump until your feet are three feet off the ground (I'm six feet tall so if I did that my hand, with the ball in it, would easily be above the basket, and cram the ball down the chute."
"I understand that now. I think that Coach Hull understood it but just couldn't explain it."
"Do you suppose that if we really practiced our jump shot we could make $45 million a year (with endorsements)?"
"Do you really care?"
"I think that the worst thing in the world to be would be to be a Bob Cousey, who was one of the best basketball players in the world and only made a few thousand dollars a year. It never occurs to me that if I had been born fifteen years later that I would be a multimillionaire. But it must occur to him."
"Perhaps we were blessed by not having TOO MUCH TALENT."
"BUT I STILL WONDER IF WE SHOULDN'T WORK ON THE JUMP SHOT."
Bob said the great thing about not being very good at something when you’re young is that you’ll be just as good at it when you’re old. He claimed that as a young man he could not play Scott Joplin piano pieces very well, which meant that in his early 50s he could play them as well as ever! In reality he played Joplin pieces superbly well.
Here’s the transcription of a letter Bob wrote on Grammy night, 1992.
25 Feb 92
It’s Grammy Night, and you were thought of.
“All’a Your Love” was our top of the charts. A tire mechanic who started on the lowest note he could reach, followed by a guitarist who struggled with every note. God, Edward, you did try to do it against the odds!
But we love you and miss you. We tried to call and tell you that you’d won, but, alas, busy…busy…busy.
I’ll always remember you and the jollies, happiness, silliness, fun—and the wonder of it all. From all of your best friends, Robert, Robert,
Bob’s claim to be all of my best friends, “Robert, Robert, etc.”, may be more true than I will comfortably admit. The “tire mechanic” is David Bigham, bass singer in the Roses who sang background vocals on “When Sin Stops” and “All’a Your Love.” “A guitarist” was Bob’s reference to himself.
About four months before Bob’s death, he and wife Gabrielle met me and my mom in Amarillo to attend the Texas Panhandle Cowboy Poets Association award ceremony at the Big Texan restaurant in honor of Buck Ramsey. It was a wonderful event, and Buck deserved such an honor for his poem Grass, which is also known as, And as I rode out on the morning. Many aficionados o cowboy poetry believe that Anthem, the prologue to Grass, is the best contemporary cowboy poem ever created.
After presentation of the award, Buck sang some of the cowboy songs he loved so much, and then we all gathered at a bar on West 10th Street where some of Buck’s cowboy-musician friends sang cowboy songs and played fiddle music late into the night. And Buck sang “Goodbye Ol’ Paint” from his album “My Home It Was in Texas.” Here’s a part of the lyric:
Goodbye Ol’ Paint, I’m leaving Cheyenne.
Goodbye Ol’ Paint, I’m leaving Cheyenne.
Ol’ Paint was a good pony she paces when she can.
On Buck’s recorded version he sings a different version of this song and doesn’t sing the lyric “she paces when she can,” and according to Buck’s wife Bette, he often sang varying versions of songs or sometimes even changed the lyrics to suit his fancy. But Bette doesn’t think Buck sang the words of “Goodbye Ol’ Paint” as “she prances when she can,” which evidently was what either Bob or Gabrielle thought he sang that evening at the bar on West 10th.
Bob had battled cancer for several years before his death at age 56 on March 30, 1996. Gabrielle came to Amarillo for the graveside service at Llano Cemetery, and after meeting her at the airport we joined some of Bob’s friends who gathered at Buck and Bette’s home. Gabrielle explained that Bob had directed his gravestone be inscribed with, “He pranced when he could,” which had upset some members of his family who claimed the epitaph emanated from one of Bob’s “morphine dreams” in his final days of suffering.
Upon our arrival at the graveside service, Bob’s daughter Brent, his sister Ann, and Ann’s husband Richard quickly approached us. Brent was in her early to mid-20s, and I’d not seen her since visiting their home in Asolo, Italy when she was only eight or nine years old. While Brent and I talked, Ann and Richard were questioning Buck about the lyrics of “Goodbye Ol’ Paint.” Later Buck and I ruminated about what eventually would be inscribed on Bob’s gravestone.
At the end of the graveside service a man unknown to me announced that since no one in Bob’s family currently resided in Amarillo that he would host visitation with the family at his home. He stated his address, but I didn’t clearly hear it and assumed others in our group did or would at least know the man’s identity. But back at Buck and Bette’s home we realized no one knew the identity of the man or had heard the address, which made it impossible for us to visit Bob’s family.
Buck died less than two years later, and after attending his wake in Amarillo I visited Bob’s grave and viewed the inscription on his gravestone.
“Like Old Paint, he pranced when he could.”
Given the inscription Bob had directed, I found the addition of “Like Old Paint” to be curious and wondered if it might have been the result of some homophobic fear regarding a reference to "prancing" without clearly defining what the "prancing" was all about. Bob wasn’t gay, but possibly some extremely religious family members desired certainty that his memory be free of any such misinterpretation. Unfortunately, it’s unclear if Buck knew about the final inscription. I hope he did.