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1960s TEXAS MUSIC - STEPHEN HAMILTON INTERVIEW
the Catacombs, Of Our Own -- Houston Rock Clubs in the late 60's/early 70's

posterStephen aka (John) Hammond was a Memorial High School student in suburban Houston when he began to work for Houston rock music promoters Ames Productions in 1966. Working mostly at the Catacombs club at 3003 South Post Oak Road in Houston's west side, Stephen's responsibilities included being a chauffeur for the touring bands that traveled to Houston to play at the Catacombs.

During it's 5 year stay at the South Post Oak Road location the Catacombs booked an amazing array of musical talent. Without a steady income tax could have been placed on ticket sales or a door fee could have been collected to offset the finances of the club so it could remain open for band performances. Such bands as the Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck Gourp, and the Mothers of Invention (at the "Houston Pop Festival") performed their first Houston shows there. After moving to a new University/Kirby location in 1970 the Catacombs' closed and was reborn as 'Of Our Own'. This venue continued to book rock acts until it's closing until 1972.

We caught up with Stephen in the spring of '03 and he was kind enough to recount his experiences in the Houston rock club scene from the opening of the original Catacombs to the closing of Of Our Own. If you would like to print a version of the interview check your levels of laser toner, paper and printer ink first.

TIMELINE:
Catacombs 1 opens: 1966
Catacombs 2 (Kirby location) opens: 1969
Of Our Own opens: 1971
Of Our Own 1972

How did a Memorial High School student get involved with the Houston rock music promotion scene in the late 60's? What exactly was your involvement in the scene?

I'm really not exactly sure how I became involved; it was a long time ago. I think a friend of mine introduced me to the club and it just happened. A bunch of students at my school were also involved with the club, say about 6. The Club needed help with staffing and we worked for nothing. It was something to do on the weekend and it was fun. Working there was better than hanging-out at the local Jack-in-the Box, drag racing and getting drunk.

Tell us about the very early days of the Catacombs. Why was the space at 3003 S. Post Oak chosen and what was the space before?

I guess the building was chosen because of its proximity to the residences of the Ames brothers, Richard and Steve, and Bob Cope, the General Manager. I'm sure the price was right because it was vacant for a long time. Previously to the Catacombs, the building was used as a slot car racing facility. I only know that because I actually raced my slot car there a couple of times.

Did the Catacombs have a liquor license in the early days?

The Catacombs never had a liquor license, although sometimes you couldn't tell. It was a "Class C" license allowing 15-20 year olds to enter, thus no booze allowed. We also had at least 4 Houston Police Department officers on hand during operating hours, led by Ofc. Bob Horton who remained with the club until it's demise.

So was the original Catacombs primarily a teen club due to it's Class C license?

Yes. Our target market was the "boomers".

Was the club popular from the start?

Absolutely. This was a time of transition from popular "dance" music to concert-style. Initially, "the skate", the "boog-a-loo" and other dance forms were "in" but were replaced by music that was difficult to dance to. The local Larry Kane Show influenced the dance craze, but it soon died-out. A contributing factor was definitely the growing prevalence of drugs, mostly pot and hallucinogens. Difficult to dance to "Sunshine of Your Love" when you're stoned. And, the music changed. From Paul Revere and the Raiders to The Grateful Dead. I would say that is a significant change.

The Club was also an important venue for local talent to perform in front of an audience. During the early days, we had auditions on Saturdays for local groups. Some were asked to perform on our second stage as back-up to the main acts. And some even got paid for their exposure. I think we even had a few "Battle of the Bands" during the Club's early years. In any case, the second stage was always open to preview local "new" talent. It was a tenet of the Club.

What was the physical layout of the club?

Basically two large divided rooms with a stage at each end. The 1st room incorporated the main stage with the dressing room behind it, where performers could exit to the outside, mainstage, or to the 2nd stage. At the other end of the main room was the snack bar. Facing the stage, the box office and club office would be on the right. Low ceiling. Black walls with fluorescent designs. The main stage was "up close and personal" with red carpeting.

Tell us about Ames Productions and Bob Cope?

Ames Productions was the owner of the Club and Bob Cope was the General Manager. Richard Ames was the financial backer of Ames Productions and his brother, Steve, was musically inclined. Steve supported groups like Neal Ford and the Fanatics, Moving Sidewalks, Deuces Wild, and the Magic Ring. To make a long story short, Bob Cope was the magic behind it all. Simply, he knew talent and knew how to promote it. You might even say he was my mentor and role-model.

Was Steve Ames manager of the Neal Ford and the Fanatics, Moving Sidewalks, Deuces Wild, and the Magic Ring?

Yes.

What was his involvement with those bands?

I believe musical director, producer, mixer and backer would be the best description for Steve's various activities.

Any comments about the other rock clubs in Houston at that time like Love Street, La Maison, etc.?

You know, I went to the other clubs, but they didn't compare. They couldn't, they didn't have a Cope. Sure I'm biased, but just look at the record, which speaks for itself. Love Street was psychedelic and quite cool, La Maison was laid-back, and the others were wantabees. Harsh.

Did you ever visit any of the other Texas rock clubs from that era like Austin's Vulcan Gas?

Yes. Vulcan Gas-Armadillo, The Living Eye, Liberty Hall, La Maison, Love Street, The Box, Act III and others.

How did they compare to the Catacombs and the Houston clubs?

Each club was unique in their own way. Probably due to the "regulars" who performed in them.

Any remembrances on the 'Houston Pop Festival' held at the Catacombs on 8/31/68?

I'll never forget the 'Houston Pop Festival'. I'm sure anyone who was there couldn't forget it either. The Mothers, Canned Heat and Country Joe & the Fish under one intimate roof. That, my friend, cannot be duplicated. 12 hours of hot and sticky rock and roll by the best! Nuf said. No, one more thing needs to be said. Much of the proceeds from that Concert went to Jerry's Kids (Jerry Lewis Telethon for the MDA). How about that!

What about the local bands that played there...was there alot of support for them? (13th Fl. Elevators, Neil Ford, Moving Sidewalks, Fever Tree, etc.)

I don't remember the Elevators ever playing at the Catacombs, they were mostly at Love Street. Neal Ford (at least to me) was simply "bubble gum" and catered to the dance crowd. This is not to say they were not popular...they were very popular. Fever Tree was a "one hit wonder" and I think they played at the Catacombs. At least I remember seeing Scott Holtzman walking around the club in his black cape.

What was the top drawing local band when the original Catacombs opened in '66?

Neil Ford & the Fanatics were the most popular early band.

The Moving Sidewalks, named after the pedestrian conveyance at Denver's Stapleton Airport was the sleeper. My opinion? No one would let Billy go. You know, do his thing. It was a group kinda thing, all for one, one for all. Those who followed the Sidewalk's over the years saw Billy evolve. And evolve he did. ZZ Top is the most successful Rock & Roll talent to come out of the great state of Texas. I believe the person who most influenced Billy was Jimi Hendrix. Just listen to the Topp's early tunes, sounds like Jimi's on lead.

What's that story you mentioned to me of Billy and Jimi hopping a freight train to Dallas?

Rumor had it that they were bored on day while staying at the Statler Hilton and hopped a freight. Why not? Have you ever hopped a freight?

Where they close friends? I've read where the Sidewalks opened up for Hendrix several times...

Close acquaintances would be a better description. Billy admired Jimi's talent without question. Listen to some of ZZ's early tunes and you would think Jimi's at lead.

Why did the Catacombs move to the University/Kirby location? Was the vibe at that location radically different?

posterLet me remove some cobwebs. I vaguely remember moving for two reasons. More space and the building was up for sale. The Catacombs was, in fact, intimate. It had character. Low tech and funky. On the other hand, Catacombs II was high tech in comparison and had a superb sound system and stage. The Club had a balcony and a movie projector for showing cartoons (mostly Roadrunner) and the back-stage area was a little cozy. Yea, the "vibe" was very different. More like a hall than a "club" environment. And the groups loved to play in Catacombs I. I guess it was the low ceiling, maybe the blacklights and fluorescent paint.

How did the shows go down at the Music Hall and Coliseum that Ames Productions promoted?

Most all of the Concert Hall shows were very successful. With acts like Cream, Vanilla Fudge, Young Rascals, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Traffic and Jethro Tull, how could we miss? Even Tommy James and the Shondells was a sell-out.

Any stories about the groupie scene at the time for the bands?

Groupies were there, especially with the name acts. They were just a part of the woodwork. Harsh again. Sometimes I felt like a pimp. You know, "please let me in, please, please".

What about the drug scene?

Drugs were also prevalent, as I said before. Perhaps that may be a reason why the Vanilla Fudge out-performed Cream, who knows?

Did the Houston Police Department hassle the club staff, club patrons, and musicians about drugs?

Not really. They were present to maintain a safe environment for everyone. They understood that the patrons were our market and the musicians were our product. Sure, a few drunks and "bad trips" were taken downtown to sober-up.

Were there any drug busts at the Catacombs and/or Of Our Own?

I don't specifically remember any busts but I'm sure there were a few if people were obviously dealing.

What was Larry Kane like to deal with?

Larry Kane was a nice guy and respected the groups who played on his set. Of course he had a more congenial relationship with the locals like the Fanatics. His studio was in the KTRK TV station, an ABC affiliate.

How was the Catacombs and Of Our Own tied in with the Houston underground FM radio (KFMK, KLOL, KPFT pacifica) scene?

The ties were symbiotic, plain and simple. We bought spots, they aired the appropriate tunes and "sponsored" a few events. If you should ever run into Roy Estrada, ask him about the elevator ride leaving KFMK after an on-air promo. Simply put, on the way down the elevator dropped a few floors and the a couple more. Imagine, Frank, Roy, Ian and Motorhead? Bedlam cannot begin to describe the scene. Paradoxically, Frank was sitting in a corner calmly reading his comic book.

What in your opinion was the top underground rock station in Houston during that era -- the one everyone listened to?

I would say KFMK since it was the first. But KLOL would later develop a strong audience. Personally, I liked KLOL the best.

Any experiences with Space City News newspaper and other parts of the Houston underground counter culture scene of the era?

Some good, some bad. Space City News printed an article calling us "rip-off, pig promoters" which actually was the battle cry for the formation of Of Our Own. Many in the "hip community" felt that paying $6.50 to see Cream or Hendrix was just a way of lining the promoter's pocket and capitalizing on the community's music. They didn't have a clue on how expensive it was to promote a good rock concert, so some of them rallied behind the rag and attempted to boycott the Catacombs and concerts.

So Space City News singled out the Catacombs in particular to boycott?

I don't know that that the Catacombs was "singled out" but we were the biggest kid on the block.

Did you feel Space City News was a little self righteous in thinking it was the voice of Houston's "hip community" at that time?

Absolutely! They tended to shoot first and ask questions later.

Why did the Catacombs shut down and morph into Of Our Own?

The Catacombs closed for a number of reasons. Bob Cope, was the proverbial glue that held it all together, became ill and was unable to lead. Neal Ford and the fanatics lost their audience while the Sidewalks broke-up and ZZ Top was born. Since we still had time remaining on the lease and the "community" desired "a place of their own", Richard Ames said "why not". So a group called the Houston Community Assistance Project was formed to run the operation. The Board consisted of community leaders to run the club's operations. Me and a long-time club associate, Officer Bob Horton with the HPD, oversaw the operations in the interest of Richard Ames.

The "Houston Community Assistant Project" sounds dangerously political to me. It seems like things must have changed considerably from when the original Catacombs was opened up just 5 years earlier. Was this the direction in which the Houston music scene was going by the early 70s?

In a way it was like going from a capitalistic society to a socialistic society. A club operated by a committee. The Houston music scene was changing all the time, just like the industry as a whole. Remember Disco?

Was it necessary for a "Board" to be assembled just to open up a rock music club?

Yes, since it was a non-profit corporation.

Did other Houston rock clubs have a "Board" like the Houston Community Assistant Project to dictate club policies and provide leadership?

I hope not. The board dictated policy without leadership. That was the main problem.

Where there a lot of factions within the "hip community" by then?

Yes, pretty much like the rest of society.

Where was the "hip community" based geographically in Houston at this time -- The Montrose/St. Thomas area?

That would be the place.

Was Of Our Own as successful as the Catacombs?

It did fairly well but not spectacular by any means. This is about the time Of Our Own, in association with Ames Productions, gave the community what they asked for -- cheap seats. So we presented the Allman Brothers, Cowboy and Little Feat at the Sam Houston Coliseum for $2.50 a head. Believe it or not, only 4-5,000 tickets were sold. A profound lack of community support, wouldn't you say?

Luckily, a Ten Years After concert helped recoup the difference.

What was the top drawing local band at Of Our Own in the early 70s?

Most likely Saturnalia.

Why did Of Our Own shut down?

A lack of leadership and a lack of interest from the community.

Did Ames Productions move on to another venue?

To the best of my knowledge, no. But Steve Ames is still producing with DuneTX being his latest mix. I believe he also continued with Rampart Recording through the 90's.


Stephen recounted some stories from his days at the Catacombs and Of Our Own:

  • One incident comes to mind regarding a Traffic-Mountain Concert. As you would suspect, the concert was sold-out. Outside, were a few thousand people who wanted in and the Fire Marshall didn't think it was a good idea. We didn't care if they could come in for free, but history has shown that capacity regulations are for a good reason. A small-scale riot ensued at the doors. There was some damage to the building, mostly windows broken and some seats were torn but the show went-on.

    One Saturday night after the last gig at Of Our Own, Horton (we called each other by our last names) and I were sitting in the upstairs office when Richard came in with a brown paper bag, a couple of limes and a shaker of salt. The rest is history.

  • Jimi Hendrix taught me how to light book matches with one hand - since I only have one hand. From then on, Kerry Richards, the director of the Larry Kane Show, would bring-in different matches (as a challenge) for me to strike. I never failed Jimi! May he rest in peace.
  • I remember sitting around the office one day when Cope returned from NYC. He was telling us of a guitar player he saw at The Scene who was better than Clapton. "Yea right Cope. Better than Beck too, I guess." We're all entitled to our opinions. The guitarist? Alvin Lee.
  • Imagine yourself in the lobby of a Holiday Inn with The Mothers of Invention walking about. The front door opens and a very drunk red neck walks-in and to his astonishment bumps into Frank Zappa.

    In a very slurred voice he asked "hey are ya'll in some kinda of hippy combo, or sumpin". "You look like you couldn't play anything let alone good music like cuntry". Frank, with perfect diction, said "SIR, see that man over there (pointing to Ian Underwood) he has a Masters Degree in music from Julliard and actually made his own complex electronic organ. Oh, and that gentleman with the green moustache, he used to play for the Cinncinatti Philharmonic Orchestra. Any more questions?" The drunk staggered-off.