Bayou City

Six Perfect Nights at Rockefeller's: A Look Back

Houston’s reputation for preserving its historic sites is less than commendable; ask any local who’s witnessed favorites like AstroWorld or the Shamrock Hotel tumble under the weight of the wrecking ball. No sooner than an establishment here breathes its last breath, the bulldozers are on the scene like the Ghostbusters to ensure there’s not even a specter left behind to haunt your memories.

So, hearing that Rockefeller’s is reincarnating back to a former life of hosting live-music events for public consumption is a bit incredible. Things like this just don’t happen in Houston. Good fortune and a stream of private events booked in the building since its concert days ended ensured the former Heights State Bank Building avoided demolition long enough to return to its former self, and what a self it was. The venue was integral to Houston’s growth as a city serious about music. In its heyday, it hosted local legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble and touring acts like Bonnie Raitt and Randy Newman. It gave music lovers a chance to see these acts in an incredibly intimate setting.

The Houston Press covered the venue's exciting future in a pair of articles last month, and "Rockefeller's 2.0" continues its measured progression to full-time music booking with The Jayhawks this Saturday and The Weight — featuring members of The Band — next weekend. (Both shows were relocated from the new Heights Theater as its renovations continue.) All the buzz got us thinking about some fun nights we spent there in the club's first run. Here's hoping the renewed efforts bring lots of shows and thrilling moments to today's local music lovers.

Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows infused soul and even some funk into its Chicago blues. Led by the late Larry Nolan (the inimitable Big Twist), the eight-piece band was a frequent and welcome visitor to Rockefeller’s, sometimes playing in support of acts like Albert King and often as headliners. The band’s 1983 album, Playing for Keeps, was a next logical step for anyone who’d been turned onto the music by the Blues Brothers movie/routine.

New Year’s Eve at Rockefeller’s was a coat-and-tie affair. Free champagne flowed and confetti littered the smallish wood-grained dance floor, which was packed with revelers waiting for the band’s take on “Auld Lang Syne.” The Fellows delivered, then kept the groove sultry and romantic for anyone who’d just shared a midnight kiss with someone special, but by the end of the show, barefooted women stood on chairs gyrating to the band’s raucous intro/outro song, “300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy.”

The venue’s stage wasn’t necessarily small, but it was put to the test when the Genius of Soul arrived to play with his full orchestra in June 1986. Dressed in shiny tuxedo jackets, they went through the hits like “Busted,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Hit the Road Jack.” It was difficult to focus on the songs with the realization that, no matter where you were sitting, even if you were tabled near the glass doors at the back of the room, you were only feet away from an American musical treasure.

If memory serves, Bill Hicks opened the set. If you attended even a few Rockefeller’s shows back then, you were likely to catch him, with his face contorted in gooberish ways that belied the smart, biting cultural commentary he was delivering. By then, Hicks had already appeared on Letterman, but he was still making the Houston rounds, drinking at Leo’s next door and killing onstage at Rockefeller's and elsewhere. That night – if memory serves – you got two American entertainment icons for the price of one.

These shows were held on separate nights, just ten days apart, but were connected by the venue’s commitment to local musicians and touring acts. Back then, Whalum was the former, a Houstonian by way of Memphis who’d come to study at TSU, then stayed to make his bones in clubs like Rockefeller’s. In 1988, he was delivering songs from his first album, Floppy Disk, and its stellar follow-up, And You Know That! He played the space plenty and you were lucky to be in the crowd watching, from the balcony or any corner of the room, because the music was note-for-note perfection and Whalum was a funny, warm showman who made you glad you'd bought a ticket. Added bonus: That was the beginning of a career that would span four decades, yield more than two dozen albums, include work with acts like Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, and land Whalum in the National Museum of African American Music.

Benoit’s also enjoyed a long, successful career as a jazz pianist. He was touring as a GRP act in those days, bringing original music inspired by the likes of Vince Guaraldi and Bill Evans to town. He delivered songs from "Freedom at Midnight" and "Every Step of the Way," still two of the very best in a catalog 25 albums deep, including three Grammy nominations. It was a thrilling show, which is something people aren’t inclined to say about “smooth jazz.” Call it what you want, Benoit and saxophone sideman Eric Marienthal were nothing short of technical perfection blended with a whole lotta heart on this long-ago night.

When the Dirty Dozen Brass Band arrived at Rockefeller's this particular Friday night in 1993, they were clearly taken aback by the smallish crowd on hand. After all, the New Orleans-based band was a Houston music-fest darling, known for making asses shake during sets at the Houston International Festival and the like. But Houston's spring showers — also known as "catastrophic flood producers" — kept fans at home. The band's trumpeter and de facto leader, Gregory Davis, stared right at us and asked, "Where is everyone? Doesn't Houston know how to party on a Friday night?" We must have looked dumbfounded because Davis didn't await our reply. He simply assured us we were going to get a full, nothing-held-back set from the Dirty Dozen, and we did. We cleared the vacant round tables and wood-backed chairs for the freedom to dance to the band's best tracks, like "Eyomzi" and "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now."

The acoustics in Rockefeller's was like an unlisted but accomplished performer sitting in with any band booked there. Joshua Redman didn't need help sounding fantastic, but it didn't hurt that many of us were seeing him for the first time at one of the best-sounding rooms in town. He was playing songs from Freedom In the Groove and his eponymous debut this night. The music magazines had all but declared the California saxophonist jazz's next big thing. Anyone passing the clear-windowed double doors of the venue could see Houston fans excitedly taking in the set, never knowing it would be one of the last booked there for nearly 20 years. Redman lived up to the hype and primarily plays festivals these days, but it would be great to see him back at a rejuvenated Rockefeller's now that he's fulfilled that early promise.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.