RIP, Rory Miggins
Another day, another terrible blow to the Houston music community.
We just received word that Rory Miggins, the long-time owner of East End bar Local Charm and grand man about town, has passed away at 50 of melanoma.
The Irish (and northern English and Scots too) have a word for what followed in Rory Miggins’s wake: crack. No, it’s not the crack we know and abhor over here; over there, the crack means something like “good times fueled by wine, women and song,” and that was Rory Miggins.
I have known of Rory, if not known him in the flesh, for as long as I can remember. The Taylors, my mother’s family, and the Migginses have been intertwined since the 1970s through school and church affiliations and many a St. Patrick’s day celebration with the Ancient Order of Hibernians around the Dick Dowling statue in Herrmann Park. My aunts and Rory’s younger siblings (there are about a dozen of them) were very close; we were practically cousins.
For years, I would hear legends of Rory, the black sheep of the Miggins family who owned a bar “over by the Ship Channel,” as my grandmother would say in scandalized tones. I imagined him to be about 6’ 5” and covered with tattoos, his scarred knuckles often brandishing a club or pistol, a sort of Irish version of Randall “Tex” Cobb or Houston’s answer to Gerry Cooney.
He sounded like my kind of guy, for sure. And he didn’t disappoint when I finally got to meet him about ten years ago. No, he didn’t look like an Irish Bandido, but he fully lived up to the image I had conceived of him.
Wherever the best times and music were at any given moment, you were fairly sure to bump into Rory, right up to the end. Just a few weeks ago, a visibly ailing Rory was spotted at the Mavis Staples / Charlie Musselwhite / North Mississippi All-Stars show at Miller Outdoor Theater.
Here’s hoping the tunes are sweet, the crawfish perfectly spiced and boiled, and the beer good and cold where he’s bound…
I collected a few tributes to the man over the past week. -- John Nova Lomax
Mike Barfield, Hollisters/Rounders Lead Singer: There’s been nothing in Houston quite like Local Charm since it closed. We started playing there in about 1986. Both versions of the Rounders played there, the one with Eric Danheim and the accordion version. I always loved the regulars from the neighborhood you’d see in there. There was always someone in there with some scraggly Lil’ Rascals-lookin’ dog, and there was this guy in there everybody called Joe Weingarten, even though his last name wasn’t Weingarten. He had just worked at Weingarten supermarket for 30 years and taken the name for his own. There was another guy there we all called Mister Henry, this skinny, dried-up guy with dyed hair. He always wore leisure suits and was always dancing crazy, and he’d come up to the musicians and shake hands with us, and he’d slip some pill in there. You’d kinda have to guess what it was – usually like a Mandrax or a Quaalude or something like that.
Rory would always hand us a sack lunch after we played – a deli sandwich and always, always a slice of carrot cake. Back then, I rarely did a gig sober, and it was a nice touch, even if the meat was gristly.
Rick Mitchell, former Chronicle music critic and current music director for the Houston International Festival: My first visit to Local Charm was in 1989, shortly after I moved to Houston to take a job as a music critic at the Chronicle. My colleague Marty Racine was showing me around and he told me about this club on the east side that I needed to know about. I think Jerry Lightfoot might have been riding with us as well that night. When we got there, my first thought was that the building looked too small to be a functioning music club, but it seemed a little bigger on the inside. OK, it was kinda cramped in there, but it had the feel of an old-time Southern juke joint, with an ancient wooden bar and a big tub of iced down beer right in the middle of the room. I think Pete Mayes' band was playing, but it might have been Joe Hughes. On a break I introduced myself to the second guitarist, who told me his name was Johnny Brown. I said, "Texas Johnny Brown?" He said "Yes." I said "The Texas Johnny Brown who played with Amos Milburn on 'After Hours Blues'?" He said, "That's me." Long before I ever imagined I'd be living in Houston, I knew about Houston blues from records -- Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Lightnin' Hopkins. One of those records was the Atlantic R&B piano anthology that included a couple of cuts from Amos Milburn, including the instrumental "After Hours Blues," credited to someone named Texas Johnny Brown. And now here I was shaking hands with the man in this tiny juke joint. "I might learn to like this job," I remember thinking...
Local Charm became one of my semi-regular stops. I particularly enjoyed taking out of town visitors there. One time I was hanging with my old friend from Portland, Ken Butler (famous for making stringed instruments out of everything from spatulas to pick axes), who was in town from New York for a Da Camara gig at the zoo. We started out at a jazz club and soon got bored. I said, "Come on, I'm gonna show you what Houston music is really like." When we got to Local Charm, Mary Cutrufello was in full-shred Chuck Berry mode, and Ken's eyes lit up. He said, "There's no place like this in New York." He might have added there's no place like it in Portland, either. Local Charm was Houston to its soul.
Over the years, Rory and I became friends and we remained friends since the club closed. I remember more than a few nights hanging out on the town, buying each other drinks, talking music, talking baseball, talking politics. (He was a walking contradiction in this regard -- a conservative libertarian who's devoted much of his time to helping disadvantaged minority musicians.)
When the International Festival saluted Ireland a few years back, I got to meet his whole family, including his mother, who was particularly insistent that someone should sing "Danny Boy" at the festival. I arranged for Don Walser and Johnny Bush to sing it together on the Texas Stage. I think she liked it.
Rory also loved the ladies. My wife is alternately impressed and disappointed by how he always seems to have a different girlfriend on his arm. "He's a catch," she'd say. "How come he never got married?" "Guess nobody ever caught him," I'd say. Actually, I never figured that one out myself. Maybe when you have as many younger siblings as Rory did, that's enough family for one lifetime... Of course, that didn't stop him from flirting with my wife...
And then there was the time when we were sitting at the bar at Rockefeller's listening to the Houston Cajun band Bayou Roux. Some guy from Louisiana sitting near us kept badgering us about how this wasn't real Cajun music, because he was from Louisiana, and the only real Cajun music was from Louisiana, and on and on and on. Finally, Rory -- who'd had a few beers by this point -- reached over and just shoved the guy right off his stool. The guy jumped up, ready to fight. I got between them and apologized to the staff at Rockefeller's and escorted Rory to the door. Once we got outside, I bust out laughing. Wasn't nobody gonna trash-talk Houston in front of Rory.
I am proud to say I knew you, brother.
Texas Johnny Brown, blues legend: When I first came out of retirement I started back playing over there at Local Charm. I think for a while it was Pete [Mayes] and myself and Joe “Guitar” Hughes until I finally put my own outfit together. We had some fabulous times over there. We did a couple of interview things for the radio too. I had some wonderful times with him. He was a good person. I remember we used to do those Blues for Shoes shows. He used to tease me all the time about my shoes, about all the different kind of shoes I had…
Jaime Hellcat, frontman for The Flamin’ Hellcats: He gave us our start. He gave us a Thursday night gig when we first started the band, and he kind of a father figure to us. He would feed us, make sure we had enough to drink and got paid at the end of the night. And man, he was wilder than all three of us put together, and that’s saying something. He always a bunch of really hot women around him, so we knew he had it going on. He’s always been a straight-shooter with us and a super-cool guy.
I.J. Gosey, blues legend: He was just a great guy. Oh, he was the best. He gave the musicians, everybody around, a chance to play. I played for him when he tried to open that club on Washington Avenue. [Miggins tried to re-establish Local Charm there a couple of years ago.] He was just a nice guy. The greatest. We all gonna miss him.
David Beebe: [Local Charm] wasn’t technically an underage bar, but let’s just say if you had a half-decent ID you could get a beer. And there were lots of parents there, and all in all it was a whole lot safer than going over to the Richmond Strip. He hired a local to do security and there were lots of parents there too.
I just got this CD collection, and it’s some weird Czech-made bootleg of the greatest hits of Cosimo Matassa. Whenever I hear that vintage New Orleans stuff, I think of Rory, or stuff like Big Mama Thornton or Big Joe Turner, I think of Rory, ‘cause he always had that stuff blasting when you walked in his club. He would say, “You guys need to hear this stuff, and you need to make friends with people like Pete Mayes, Texas Johnny Brown and Grady Gaines.” And then he would introduce me to people like Mary Cutrufello, who was into similar music. He worked really hard to introduce us to the blues and to each other.
He really forced the issue, he pushed us not to be scared of the local legends. That went right up to a few years ago, when I had my heart failure. I had to quit playing on Mondays, and he told me about the Blue Monday jam at Miss Ann’s Playpen and said I really needed to be there every week. He was right, and I did go there every week for awhile and I met [Miss Ann’s proprietor] Bobby Lewis and a bunch of great musicians there. He hooked me up with T-99 Nelson and helped bring him out of retirement and that seemed to add years to T-99’s life.
Everything I do is rooted in the blues, even though I don’t really play the blues, and I owe a lot of that to him.
For a long time, the Road Kings subsidized the other shows he would have, like the zydeco gigs and the Jimmy Dotson gigs. They were a big draw and he would sell a lot of beer and he could take chances on bands with smaller draws. A little later my band Banana Blender Surprise became that band after the Road Kings moved on. Later the Flamin’ Hellcats became the big band over there.
Our shows went from us playing for an older crowd to barnstormers full of people in their late teens and early twenties. The best New Year’s Eve show I have ever played was at Local Charm in 1991 going into ’92. There was a $3 cover, Rory cooked a huge meal for everybody, and we made $1000 at the door. We played for four or five hours without a break and it was so rockin’ and crazy that we missed midnight by 20 minutes and nobody even noticed.
He could be abrasive and aggressive, but that was just part of the deal with Rory. He never tooted his own horn – ever. He didn’t talk about the things he did, he just did them.
He was always working on something, and that something was to bring people together. Nobody was ever prouder of his family or of being a Houston Catholic guy or a union steward over at the Ship Channel. He was all about walking the walk.
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