Watch this space… I’m not yet done blogging about Eddie Wilson’s Armadillo World Headquarters & Threadgill’s Collection Auction. The auction is at Burley Auction Gallery in New Braunfels, Jan. 17. Details here. I’m enjoying this, hope you are, too.
Before we get started, I wanted to share something amusing. Be careful Googling for more info on the Armadillo World Headquarters’ famous piano. With the search term “Armadillo piano,” you get this, the Renzo Piano building in Paris, France.
The following article was published in the Spring 2012 Star, a publication of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, promoting the exhibit, Texas Music Road Trip, of which the legendary house piano at the Armadillo World Headquarters was the star exhibit. See Fats Domino, superstar of the 1950s, radiant faces of a rapt audience, close enough to get every click of the great man’s fingernails.
Note the byline: John Schulian. Successful screenwriter, revered sportswriter, he’s produced some of the best books about boxing ever published, including, At the Fights (co-edited with the late George Kimball); he wrote Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. He’s up there with the best of the best at literature about the art of bruising. He also wrote for Miami Vice and Xena: Warrior Princess. That’s out of your league and mine, too. To hell with the Alamo. Forget the Alamo. He wrote for Michael Mann in the eighties. He’s hammered a few hundred thousand words about Muhammed Ali, Sonny Liston, Battling Siki, Roberto Duran, Manny Pacquiao. Get outta here. Forget the Alamo, tell me about the Armadillo.
Making Music History
By John Schulian
Beulah Wilson was as proper as a church supper, which is to say that under normal circumstances no piano of hers would have ended up in a honky-tonk, no matter how hallowed it was. But the honky-tonk in question was Armadillo World Headquarters, and it happened to be the brainchild of her son Eddie. Of course Beulah never stopped calling him Edwin, and she really wasn’t that comfortable with the fact that the ‘Dillo would gain a reputation as a place where cheap pot could be had as readily as cold beer and great music. In its early days, however, when disaster lurked around every corner, her Edwin wouldn’t have had anything going for him except prayer if she hadn’t given him that Mason Hamlin baby grand.
The old brick pile had no air conditioning, a fact that was duly noted by the rednecks, hippies, and unlabeled music lovers who showed up on a sweltering opening night in August 1970. Come winter they discovered there wasn’t any heat, either. Nor did the Armadillo have stage lights, curtains, or a sound system. Things were no better behind the scenes where there was no furniture, no office supplies, and too often, no money.
And yet Beulah’s boy continued to book acts that inspired the Dillo’s famous posters—big acts from the worlds of rock, country, blues, and jazz. There were sitar pickers, too, and dancers and comics. But what there may have been more than anything else were piano players: Count Basie, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dave Brubeck, Phil Woods, Mose Allison, Leon Russell, Earl Poole Ball, Bill Evans, Donald Fagen, Floyd Domino, Fats Domino. And that’s not half of them, but you get the picture.
When Beulah bought the piano that ended up at the Armadillo, it was, her Edwin says, “old but beautiful.” He was 12 then, and his mother’s idea was that he would play it well enough to take his place among the world’s great ivory ticklers, or at least entertain visitors at home. Alas, Beulah, like many a mother before and since, vastly overestimated his talent. He walked away from his weekly lessons, and after that, the only hands that were laid on it belonged to his mother’s mother, dear old deaf Granny Risher. She tortured it daily, banging out favorites from the Broadman Hymnal that assaulted the ears of listeners like so many crooked nails.
Then the piano sat quietly, tucked away at Beulah Wilson’s Day Nursery School, on Avenue B, in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. It was as if it was waiting for the night when Eddie Wilson, seeking nothing more than a private place where he could relieve his bladder, stumbled into the abandoned armory where the inspiration for the Armadillo struck. The need for Beulah’s piano arose not long afterward.
Over time the ‘Dillo would shake off its rough edges and replace them with good acoustics, a huge curtained stage, a kitchen staffed with hippie girls, and bars everywhere. There was a tiered seating system of risers that gave every ticketholder a clear view of the stage. Radiant heat warmed the winter nights, but there was still no air conditioning in summer. Miracle of miracles, the crowds came anyway, earning them Wilson’s praise as “the loosest, sweatiest music fans in America, if not the whole world.”
At the heart of Armadillo’s magic was Beulah Wilson’s grand piano, all five feet, eight and one half inches of it. Every time Robert Shaw, Austin’s king of barrelhouse boogie, finished playing it, he would lower the cover respectfully and pat it. “I’m used to banging on dilapidated uprights,” he’d say.
No one, however, gave more of his heart to that piano than Fats Domino did. Eddie had fallen for the Fat Man’s music as a kid, when Lavada Durst (AKA Dr. Hepcat) played it on his “Rosewood Ramble” radio show. The first chance there was to book Fats at the ‘Dillo, Eddie jumped at it. Here was the kind of national star on whom he wanted to build the joint’s reputation, and Fats responded with a show that had the crowd going crackers from the first chords until the last chorus. Fats said thanks by belly-bumping Beulah’s baby grand all the way across the great wide stage, and they called it love.