King of Richmond Strip

Dennis Lange has almost complete control of the most lucrative live music outlets in Houston. You want to play? Then you play his way.

In 1969, after graduating from high school, Lange convinced his father to assign him the task of hiring live acoustic acts to play at the restaurant. This early schooling as a booking agent was cut short by a stint as a Navy photographer, after which Lange moved to Key West, where he co-owned a leather and jewelry shop with a Hopi Indian. By the early '70s, he was putting together small arts and crafts festivals with live acoustic music. But other than a little guitar here and there, he wasn't playing music himself. "I was really into being a hippie," Lange says.

Landing back in Michigan for a spell, Lange opened another small retail business, this one stocked with anything and everything he was into: leatherwork, crafts, natural foods, records, sound equipment and more. In keeping with his tendency to intertwine business and home life, he lived in an apartment above the shop.

Lange's first serious foray into live music came with a band called Luce Wheels. As Lange lore goes, he traded his leather coat for a bass, practiced for less than two weeks and found himself a group. Assuming the responsibilities no one else wanted, he became Luce Wheels' soundman, booking agent, manager, roadie and all-around problem solver. "It's a typical situation in a lot of bands," he says. "One guy is doing everything."

Though they did have some original material, Luce Wheels played mostly cover tunes. Their sets were heavy on folk rock, with an emphasis on the popular Southern California acts of the time -- Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and so on. Lange recalls the band's fateful first gig at a joint in rural Michigan: "There were like 15 people there. At the end of the night, I got myself a beer and I sat down and said to myself, 'Well Dennis, that was your big try at being in a band; at least you gave it a go.' Then the owner comes up to us and pays us 60 bucks and he says, 'You guys are pretty good. You want to play here all winter?' "

Luce Wheels took the job, and soon they were catching on in bars and nightclubs all over Michigan. The group began to travel around the Midwest, eventually landing in Colorado for a lengthy period. It was during these extended periods on the road that Lange caught the rock and roll bug for good. "There's no better lifestyle than living in motels," he beams. "I didn't pay rent for 12 years on the road."

Then suddenly, in 1977, Lange left Luce Wheels for a partnership with Jeff LaDuke, a singer/songwriter pal whose original material he truly believed in. He moved with his friend back to the Florida Keys, where things quickly fell apart. Within six weeks, says Lange, the two began butting heads over set content.

"I'm playing bass, and I've got the club owner tugging on my shoulder going, 'Hey, I'm losing people, play more dance music,' " Lange remembers. "This guy's out there playing beautiful ballads, and it wasn't that kind of a deal."

So Lange headed back to Michigan, where he formed another cover band, Blue Blazes. "I was traveling all over the country, but man, the competition was fierce up north," he says. "We were playing in fabulous hotels -- you know, chocolates and roses on the pillows, Lufthansa airline stewardesses [stifled laugh], the whole deal."

In 1979, a canceled show in Waco resulted in Blue Blazes being sidetracked to Houston. "The club owner died in a car accident," remembers Lange, "so I started calling around looking for another gig." He found one in Houston, and he never left. "We were all dressed nicely and had a show," Lange recalls. "People weren't used to that here. They were used to Texas boogie bands." By 1986, Lange had replaced himself in Blue Blazes with, as he puts it, "a younger, better-looking bass player" and had decided to devote his time to sound and production concerns, bookings and management. Soon, he began "building new bands," and his reputation around town slowly solidified.

The rest of it, as Lange explains it, just sort of fell into place. Back in the mid-'80s, Richmond Avenue west of 610 was hardly the gaudy spectacle it is now, and as the Strip grew, Dennis Lange Promotions grew along with it. "When I came to Houston, it was disco fever, man," says Lange. "Westheimer had more live music than Richmond."

Lange's first booking job came 12 years ago with Sherlock's Pub, a club that is, ironically enough, not on the Strip. Relationships with Sam's Boat and other venues soon followed. "The Strip would really be a mess if I wasn't here," Lange says. "I got clubs addicted to the top talent."

Talent, of course, that happened to be his.
"I hear the same complaints about Dennis as anyone else -- that he's got a monopoly -- and my answer to that is he worked for it damn hard," says Lange confidant Greg Pitzer. "Let a better man come in and knock him off his throne."

Rest assured, that man won't be Pitzer. Since the early '90s, he has devoted his own skills to the business of original music. Pitzer may stand by his friend. He might swear by Lange's strength of character and tireless work ethic, but that loyalty doesn't stop his less-than-glowing opinions of the scene Lange supports from coming out.

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