In the pantheon of Houston nightclubs that have celebrated their ultimate Last Call, Rockefeller’s was the gold standard. It looked like an important place, the only structure of any real heft on its block of Washington Avenue, just east of where Waugh becomes Heights Boulevard. Designed by renowned Houston architect Joseph Finger and built in the mid-1920s, the building housed a pair of banks for half a century before becoming a club, where the owners put its features to good use. The old vault became the artists’ dressing room, the roomy former lobby gave Rockefeller’s its great acoustics, and the split-level design, with wide balconies ringing the stage, made the audience feel practically on top of the performers.
In the course of its almost 20 years as a venue, from 1979 to 1997, Rockefeller’s welcomed thousands of musicians from all over the spectrum — jazz, pop, rock, rock, blues, soul, country, folk and beyond. Bruce Kessler’s shots of Bo Diddley, Edgar Winter, Ian Hunter, Leon Russell, Roy Orbison and Willie Dixon, among others, onstage at Rockefeller’s are part of the thousands of Houston concert photos now on display at rockinhouston.com. Our own research for a 2009 Houston Press article about bygone Washington Avenue live-music spots uncovered an astounding list of Rockefeller’s alumni, which still only scratches the surface:
Garth Brooks, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Ely, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Roy Orbison, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Jane's Addiction, Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, Dwight Yoakam, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Mogwai, Jerry Jeff Walker, Medeski Martin & Wood, Dixie Chicks, Los Lobos, Chick Corea, Leo Kottke, Ottmar Liebert, Graham Nash & David Crosby, Tom Waits, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Little Feat, John Prine, Roger McGuinn, Three Dog Night, Buck Owens, Jaco Pastorius, Richard Thompson, Kinky Friedman, the Church, Lionel Hampton, Bill Hicks, Townes Van Zandt, Chris Whitley, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, King's X
Around the turn of the century, the family behind Houston’s popular Star Pizza restaurants bought the property around Rockefeller’s and converted the building from a nightclub into a venue for weddings and other private events. Fast-forward to this past June, when the passing of Don Gomez, the longtime Houston manager and promoter who owned the club for several years between the late ‘80s and mid-‘90s, set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the eventual resurrection of Rockefeller’s. Tonight, as a sort of soft reopening, the room will play host to Texas Flood, Tommy Katona's Dallas-based Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute band, and Houston-based openers Sancho and the Lovetones. (Vaughan and Double Trouble, who played Rockefeller's early and often, are said to have written one of their best-known songs, "The House Is Rockin'," about the club.)
The idea to reopen Rockefeller’s as a music venue had been circulating for a while, recounts veteran Houston promoter and talent buyer John Escamilla, but gained more traction as Gomez’s friends and other members of the extended Rockefeller's family came together at the celebration of his life a few days after his death.
“The operations manager was there with everybody and he started brainstorming,” says Escamilla, owner of Jetspeed Productions. “We were talking a little bit, and said, ‘Well, maybe we should try to do something out here, you know? Because they had wanted to do this in 2017. But this all kind of came together real fast, and we said, ‘You know what? let’s try something out, reopen it for a night, see how everything works out.’”
Besides private events, these days Escamilla routes Jetspeed’s shows through local venues like Arena Theatre, The Pub Fountains, Warehouse Live and Concert Pub North. But taking over as a talent buyer at the new Rockefeller’s lets him come full circle, he says.
“Whatever was needed, [if] they wanted me to push a speaker or give away free comp tickets, whatever it was, I was there,” he recalls. “I think I was kind of a pain in the ass to a lot of people, but that’s kind of how I met Don and got his trust. He taught me a lot through the years, and we stayed friends until he passed away. He’s kind of like [a] mentor, and the guy that got me in this business on a full-time level.”
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Escamilla says he’s placed several “holds” — agent-speak for an informal agreement with an artist not to book a date somewhere else in the market — for future shows at Rockefeller’s, but the owners want to hold off announcing anything else until they see how tonight goes. Things look promising on that front: Although the tables have all sold out, Escamilla says whatever general-admission tickets didn’t sell online will be available at the door.
Realizing that many people who visited Rockefeller’s in its heyday may be getting a little on in years to indulge in regular nightlife the way they used to, Escamilla says the club is tinkering with new concepts and a variety of musical styles, at least some of which he hopes will interest a younger demographic. But the people who come out to tonight’s opening should recognize plenty of familiar faces, both in the crowd and behind the bar, he notes. And, although the venue may not look exactly the same as when Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Lee Hooker took the stage, Escamilla hopes those who weren’t around in those days will instantly understand why the venue earned its nickname, “the granddaddy of Houston nightclubs.”
“The general public has expressed a lot of interest in missing the club, and [we’re] hoping that we can bring some of those acts back in addition to some new stuff,” he says. “Keep the variety and the showcase-room aspect – keep it like it was, you know, before.”
Rockefeller Hall is located at 3620 Washington. Doors open at 8 p.m.