Sammy Relford is killing the stage! His face, slick with sweat, is permanently locked in a passionate scowl as he scans the enthusiastic audience for approval. The stage gel lights change from red to blue to green -- each color bouncing off his wet head in turn. Eyes open wildly, arms spread wide like a condor from outer space, he looks like Screamin' Jay Hawkins without the bone in his nose. Meanwhile, his patent-leather wing tips spring back and forth like he's walking in wet mud or running the tire drill at football practice.
As he reaches deep into his gut and screeches the famous Prince refrain, "I never wanted to be your WEEEEEEEEEEEEKEND lov-ah!!" you sense there's no place on God's gorgeous green earth he'd rather be than in this moderate-size club on the ground floor of 2016 Main. After all, the marquee bears his name, and a place of his own has been a lifelong dream for this performer.
"I feel like I'm an uncrowned superstar," Relford tells me while dumping four packets of sugar into his iced tea at the new Midtown Mexican haunt the Thirsty Cactus Cantina. "Now I'm ready to get my crown."
Between puffs of Misty brand cigarettes, he recounts for me the long and arduous quest of opening his own nightclub. His life has been spent in anticipation and preparation for this very moment.
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As a child, Relford would sit alongside his mother Amanda as she cooked for him and his eight siblings. She would hum gospel hymns while whipping up dinner, and it was there, Relford says, that he began to see the power of music. "We didn't have much money, but Mama did what she could. When she would start that humming, it would make the beans she was cooking taste like steak."
Originally Relford dreamed of being a pro wrestler, but his string-bean frame never filled out. Eventually he decided to follow mama Amanda's advice. "Mama said sing," he says, too excited to munch on his beef enchiladas with extra gravy on top.
Relford did just that, dropping out of high school and performing around town for experience and pocket change while earning a living doing everything from flipping flame-broiled Whoppers at Burger King to cleaning up Foley's as a porter. "I had about 60 jobs," he recalls.
He also began to make headway on his music career. There was a stint as a backup singer for an Isaac Hayes tour, and he headlined at the Apollo in Harlem. He spent some time "carving out a niche" in both Memphis and California, but his beloved Houston called him softly in the good night. "I've been everywhere, and there's not a city like it," he says sternly. Once back in town, Relford began a ten-year engagement headlining at the soulful Gallant Knight.
About three years ago, fan and real estate investor Jon Deal began to convince Relford to turn his ethereal and elusive dream into something concrete. At first, Deal just encouraged Relford to go for it on his own, but eventually he decided to become an investor, and he's even stayed on as a managing partner.
Relford says opening a nightclub is anything but easy, and he has the mileage on his odometer to prove it. "You know, I drove all the way out from Highway 6 down Richmond into downtown, writing down every number on a commercial 'For Lease' sign," he recalls. "When none of that panned out, I drove all the way out from Highway 6 down West Alabama calling numbers, and then all the way down Westheimer calling numbers." The singer was at his wit's end.
Enter Jeff Kaplan, a broker with commercial real estate agency Wulfe & Company. Folks call Kaplan all the time with delusions of grandeur, wanting to open up the hot new spot downtown. And as you might expect, most are flighty, and the sharp-as-a-tack Kaplan quickly learned not to put much stock in them.
But something was different about Relford. "You could hear the enthusiasm in his voice. I scheduled an appointment with him that day," Kaplan recalls.
Kaplan showed Relford the space where Sammy's now resides. And today, he's not just Relford's real estate agent -- he's also an investor. (A typically magnetic performance at the Gallant Knight won Kaplan over.) Now all the dominoes are in place for Sammy's and its group of investors to be what the Gallant Knight once was: a Saturday-night must.
"Saturday is Sammy's night!" Relford agrees. "On Saturday you want the best -- you don't want to ride the mule, you want the racehorse!" He smiles wickedly. "I am showtime," he throws in for good measure.
The thing is, I need no convincing. I had just seen the racehorse the Saturday prior, and it was all the proof I needed to crown the superstar's head with jewels so heavy they'd crush vital vertebrae.
Perhaps it's the liquor or the low-set stage, but something happens to you when you enter Sammy's. White girls do their most free-swinging and sensuous Elaine Benes-inspired chicken dance. Frat boys with nary a baseball cap full of bent-billed rhythm get in on the act. All eyes face forward, while feet, hands, legs and arms flail any which way but loose. Relford is a mickey slipped in your drink. You lose your inhibitions.
Between songs, Relford chats up the crowd. "When you here, you happy!" he screams. And he's right. He's part P.T. Barnum, part James Brown. If this were a jungle in Guyana, you'd drink his Kool-Aid -- and it would taste like a porterhouse.
And this is the only rub. When speaking to Relford you can't help but wonder if he's just some cunning snake oil salesman -- an overamped hustler selling you the keys to a house built on quicksand. His animated demeanor and quick hugs for strangers he's just met set a cynic's central nervous system atwitter.
But damn if he doesn't win you over. Is he a con artist? No -- it's just that you've never met anyone this genuine. Mama Amanda don't make no junk.
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