This Black History Minute has been brought to you by Ernie’s Chicken Shack. Get you a basket and have a seat.

By , on February 4, 2014, in the at





 Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

The iconic home cooking joint the Southern Dinnett, was just down E. 11th St. from Charlie’s Playhouse. Both buildings have been torn down. Photo: Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

The story of African-Americans, to come up from slavery and accomplish all that they have, is the greatest of them all. Our lives have universally been enriched by the experience and yet the focus these days seems to be on isolated incidents- George Zimmerman, “the Knockout Game,” Richard “Thug is the New N-word” Sherman and the like. The race card cheapens the fact that, for the most part, we really do all just get along.

Since living in Mississippi in the early ‘60s as a child, I’ve been fascinated by black history. Read “Manchild In the Promised Land” and all the James Baldwin books by junior high and never stopped. The last time I went on vacation, I bought a thick book called “Slavery In America” to unwind by the pool. February is officially Black History Month, but that denotation means nothing to me.

I read everything I can about black culture in Austin and if there’s no history, I’ll research and write it myself. Another thing I’ve done on vacation. Recently, I’ve become intrigued with a story of race in Austin in the late ’50s that comes from an unexpected angle. The era’s familiar protests by African Americans was present on E. 11th Street, but the picketing was against integration. White kids had become crazy for the blues after watching Cactus Pryor’s “Now Dig This” show on KTCB and so they’d been flocking to Eastside hotspot Charlie’s Playhouse. Which was fine except that the club’s regular black clientele was left outside if they didn’t get there early enough.

Cactus Pryor

Cactus Pryor

Co-hosted by teenaged singer Joyce Webb, who now owns an art glass business in Wimberley, “Now Dig This” was the Austin version of “American Bandstand”. Just as Dick Clark would feature black doo-wop groups and the like, Pryor brought in black bands from East Austin like Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets, Jean and the Rollettes and Major Burkes to play live every Saturday morning. The college kids wanted to know where they could see these bands and the answer was Charlie’s Playhouse, which used to be the Show Bar at 1206 E. 11th until 1955 when Charlie Gildon bought it from D.J. Tony Von.

Fraternities would reserve four or five tables in the 300-capacity joint. Double-dating couples showed up in Caucasian clusters. “Charlie’s Playhouse is where we went to learn all the new dances,” says Lucky Attal, the antique dealer who graduated from Austin High in 1959.

Gildon didn’t allow the races to sit in the same sections, but they danced together to house band Hubbard and the Jets, as well as touring acts like Freddie King, Johnny Taylor and Joe Tex. Guitarist Bill Campbell, a white man from Smithville, often sat in with the black bands, leading the way for the Vaughan brothers, Denny Freeman, Angela Strehli and the like. If you want to learn how to cook Creole cuisine you go to New Orleans. If you wanted to play the blues, you went to the black clubs.

Blues music integrated Austin like nothing before it. In 1960, rock n’ roll history was made when black band Clarence Smith and the Daylighters backed Joyce Harris, a white female singer on Domino Records. Their raucous single “One Way Out” is a classic, highly valued by collectors. But the logistics could get hairy in Jim Crow Austin. When I wrote a history of the Domino label, which was started as a night school project, Harris recalled looking for the Daylighters the day of a session they had apparently forgotten about. Finding them coming out of the V&V Club at 1112 E. 11th Street, she called out “Get in, fellas, we’ve gotta make a record,” but they initially refused to get in the car of a white woman in East Austin. They eventually got in and rode to Roy Poole’s studio on East Sixth Street, ducked down below the windows. The road to East Austin remained one-way until the mid-‘60s. Whites could enjoy authentic R&B, but blacks couldn’t go to the white clubs.

Blues Boy Hubbard (with guitar) was a jet mechanic at Bergstrom AFB so he named his band the Jets.

Blues Boy Hubbard (with guitar) was a jet mechanic at Bergstrom AFB so he named his band the Jets.

The initial consolation at Charlie’s Playhouse was to have “Soul Night” for blacks only on Mondays. “So many of the students, particularly from Huston-Tillotson and so forth, didn’t think that was quite right,” Tommy Wyatt of the Village newspaper recalled recently for an oral history project. “That we couldn’t go into any club on the west side, but yet we couldn’t go to our own clubs…The biggest club in Austin, for East Austin, was Charlie’s Playhouse and we couldn’t go there on Friday and Saturday night.”

Wyatt said the community had some empathy for Gildon’s position. “Now, economically you can understand that, you see, because this man was in business, that’s the way he was making his money. I mean he was making huge amounts of money on Friday and Saturday nights. But at the same time it was still offensive to the students over here. So some of the students from H-T started picketing the club on Friday nights and Saturday nights.” Not wanting to cross the picket lines, and, no doubt, feeling unwanted, the white flock dwindled to the hardcore and eventually Charlie’s became a Playhouse almost exclusively for African Americans again.

charlies02Integration ended up crippling the tight-knit East Austin community, especially when the hub, black high school L.C. Anderson, was shut down and its students bussed to McCallum High in 1971. The federal government sued the Austin school district and ordered district schools to desegregate, the first case of forced busing in the U.S., so it was a national news story for several months.

Even with its reputation for liberal attitudes, Austin has a racist history, going back to the 1920s when city planners tried to move all the town’s black population, which had pockets in Clarksville, Wheatville (24th and Rio Grande) and South Austin (West Mary Street), to East Austin by denying city services to those who refused to relocate. But let’s remember that it was an Austinite, Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed into law the Civil Rights Act in 1964, his first year as President.

With the African-American clientele permitted to shop, eat, dance, whatever, all over Austin, the shops and clubs along East 11th, which was nicknamed “the Cuts” because it slashed across East Austin at an angle, hit hard times.
Charlie’s closed in 1972 and became the Jackson “4” Club for a couple years and then was torn down. One of Austin’s most legendary live music venues, certainly up there with the Victory Grill, is now an empty lot across the street and up a block from the Longbranch Inn.

But in 1960, Charlie’s was so hoppin’ and nobody was ready to go home at midnight, that Gildon opened Ernie’s Chicken Shack at 1167 Webberville Road. Until it closed in 1979 after Gildon’s death, this was THE legendary after hours club in Austin. Whoever was playing at Charlie’s that night would pack up at midnight, legal last call at the time, and head straight over to the Chicken Shack, where they’d play ’til 5 a.m. on weekends. Gildon ran a gambling operation in the backroom, while illegal booze flowed in the main room.
Eastside, man. In the ’60s it was its own world with its own laws. Probably some grease going around, too, but if it didn’t impact life on the other side of East Avenue (now I-35), it didn’t seem to matter to the cops.

People will argue about which era of Austin was the greatest. Was it the ‘70s during the Armadillo heyday? Was it the ’80s when the Liberty Lunch/Beach/Continental Club axis put some euphoric jangle in your stride? To some, it was the ‘90s, when South By Southwest made Austin the live capital of cool every March.

Put me in a ripped vinyl booth at Ernie’s Chicken Shack in the ’60s. It’s 3 a.m. and Freddie King just walked in with his big, red Gibson guitar. Bury me there if you can.