Gardeners of the Music World

Nightclub owners provide a feeding place for musicians

A Nashville music business veteran once told me a story that you might think beautiful or sappy; though given the man's sincerity, I lump for the former. Explaining why he had spent the better part of his adult life managing artists who were often outwardly ungrateful, selfish, childish, dishonest and foolhardy, he told me that he viewed musicians as butter- flies. He wanted to protect them, to share their beauty with the world, to shield them from the predators (groupies, deranged fans, crooks, the IRS) that hunt down and devour their artistic souls.

And if we accept the musicians-as-butterflies analogy, then nightclubs -- brightly colored and fragrant with nicotine nectars and beer bouquets -- are the flowers on which they feed. Without nightclubs, the butterflies would have no place to land, and we would have no place to observe them.

So that leaves us with nightclub owners, the gardeners of the music world. And there's never been a more successful one in Houston, and when you get right down to it, in America, than Dale Soffar.

With Rex Bell, Soffar founded and ran the Old Quarter on the corner of Austin and Congress. Though it hasn't happened quite yet, one day the Old Quarter will take its rightful place in the world consciousness alongside such legendary nightclubs as Liverpool's Cavern Club, New York's CBGB and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville. Few clubs have ever done as much to launch a whole new style of music, with a new way to write songs and a new crop of legendary figures, than this ramshackle pile of red bricks with its infamous pot-smokers' rooftop porch in the long, dark shadow of the Harris County Jail.

"What I want to be remembered about the Old Quarter is that it was only open for six years," says Soffar. "All that creativity in only six years." And looking back, it is hard to believe that the first-edition Old Quarter (Old compadre Bell re-opened the club in Galveston in 1995) was in existence only from 1970 to '76. That's a mighty tight time frame for the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Vince Bell, Nanci Griffith, Eric Taylor and Steve Earle to squeeze through. All of the above artists either made their debut at the Old Quarter or regarded it as their home club. For these butterflies, the Old Quarter was a warm cocoon.

Not just for them, either. The Old Quarter was among the first white nightclubs in town to book black acts. Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Big Walter the Thunderbird and Juke Boy Bonner were regulars. Soffar remembers a time when he almost made his debut with Lightnin's longtime drummer Spider Kilpatrick. "One time his bass player was late," he recalls. "We waited and waited for him to show up. Finally, Spider turned to me and said in that nasal voice of his, 'Hey, man, you play bass.' I said naw. He looked at me, handed me a bass and said, 'Try.' "

It was that kind of place. One night a not-yet-even-almost-famous Allman Brothers sat in with Van Zandt in an after-hours jam session. And at an Old Quarter reunion in 1980, ZZ Top took the stage in a rare post-stardom performance. Top's manager Bill Ham was not keen on his star act giving free performances, but how this gig happened defines impromptu. Ham was powerless to stop it.

Rex Bell and Mickey White were onstage when all hell broke loose. "Donna Lamell's brother came in and told Rex he had just wrecked his car," says Soffar. "So Rex goes up on stage and announces it, and says somebody has just ran into a car, license plate so-and-so, so-and-so, and then says, 'Wait a minute, that's my car!' Her brother had to go to the hospital. Rex jumped off stage, Mickey jumped off stage, and I think Dusty was already up there playing with them. Then Billy jumped onstage and so we had ZZ Top playing there."

Then there were the Old Quarter's regulars. There was white-haired wino Sinbad, "the elevator man in a cheap hotel" about whom Guy Clark sang "Let Him Roll." There was also Pup the house dog, about whom stories abound. He had a penchant for stealing the beers of the heroin-addicted customers (hey, this was the '70s) who nodded off in the ladies' restroom. "He got to be real good at it," recalls an Old Quarter vet. "He would know as soon as they got up that they wouldn't be coming back for a while." Then there was the time that Pup got lost, to the great alarm of a barful of customers. They fanned out all over downtown to bring back Pup, to no avail. About three in the morning a phone call came in from one of Soffar's fellow tavern owners who had a below-ground bar on the bayou near Market Square. Pup was in the house. Evidently he had gotten bored at the Old Quarter and decided to go barhopping a mile away.

Though he's childless, Soffar's progeny are many, in a sense. He looks back with deep satisfaction at the burgeoning Texas music scene he helped bring into existence. "Now, Guy and Townes are like the grandfathers of Texas music," he says in pleased disbelief. "Behind them is Lyle, Jimmie Dale & the Flatlanders and Robert Earl -- the fathers of it. Now we got these new guys like Charlie and Bruce Robison, the kiddies." Told that some in the media are calling Australian troubadour Kasey Chambers "the new Lucinda," Soffar beams with pride that his spiritual granddaughters are doing fine, too.

To say Soffar has had a bad year is an understatement on the order of saying September 11 was a bad day for New York. He was diagnosed with incurable bone cancer in the spring, and his house was washed away in June's deluge. Though he's lost his health and many of his worldly possessions, he's wealthy beyond the dreams of most of us in memories and the legacy he will leave behind. He's living in old buddy Jim Ohmart's little hippie fiefdom tucked away between the Fifth Ward and the Ship Channel with his wife, Gail, old friends, his two dogs and a parrot at his side.

"Worst thing in the world, man, to lose your health," Soffar allows, before quickly changing the subject. He's in no mood to wallow in self-pity.

Our interview is interrupted by his landlady's sister. She comes bearing gifts from the West U Five-n-Dime. Soffar, who grew up in Texas City's tiny Jewish community, is most pleased by a battling rabbi hand puppet. He slips it on his now-bony hand and adopts a Yiddish accent, "Vat are you looking at, ya meshuggenah." The pugnacious little rabbi is made to start throwing punches. His mixed-breed dog Princess comes over to investigate. Soffar picks up the bagel he has been nibbling at and offers Princess a few crumbs.

"Yeah, I know how to share, don't I," he says to himself. Indeed he does.

Perhaps Soffar's greatest legacy is Van Zandt's Live at the Old Quarter, indisputably the one truly indispensable document of Van Zandt's genius. Townes is utterly alone on the album, but for the Old Quarter founders. While Townes sang about Bell in "Rex's Blues," Soffar's is the only other voice on the record. His introduction of Townes to the stage -- which this writer knows by heart -- runs as follows: "A few announcements for the people that just came in, the other people have heard it five times, I'm sure. The restrooms are upstairs. Pay phones, upstairs. Pool tables, upstairs. Foosball, upstairs. Cigarette machines, upstairs. No, we ain't…we ain't talkin' about that. The Old Quarter's been lucky enough to have Townes Van Zandt for four nights, and we're gonna have him for one more night. Townes Van Zandt."

Now Townes is upstairs as well, and has been for five years. Here's hoping that they have all that other stuff up there too, even the stuff that Dale didn't want to talk about, for if heaven ain't much like the Old Quarter, Racket doesn't want to go. And neither would Dale.

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