God save the Cain's
Historical notes on the Cain’s Ballroom
by Thomas Conner
Tulsa World Pop Music Critic
© Cain's Ballroom
One day, I’m going to meet Malcolm McLaren, and I’m going to buy him a pint. Maybe two.
I owe him that, at least. He sent the Sex Pistols through Tulsa back in ’78 and put T-town on the rock ‘n’ roll map. Well, not Tulsa, really, but certainly the Cain’s Ballroom.
It was a shameless publicity stunt McLaren always was brilliant at causing a fuss though by the time the Pistols pulled up in front of the Cain’s that winter, the gas had pretty much spewed out of the band’s eight-show tour. This was the Pistols’ first jaunt across America, and it would be their only one until a lame reunion tour in 1996. Instead of sending them to New York City and L.A. where they would be easily adored and scrutinized, McLaren scheduled shows throughout the Southern states parading this snarling, angry Brit punk band before crowds who would understand them the least. The reactions were volatile, the carnage was massive and Johnny Rotten spent most of Jan. 11, 1978 hiding out in Larry Shaeffer’s office at the ballroom. The night before, in Dallas, he’d destroyed a $10,000 lens belonging to a documentary camera crew, and he was a walking target.
The Sex Pistols concert at the Cain’s was tepid. “They were hot for the first three numbers, then lost it,” said local music maven Peter Nicholls immediately after the show. Tulsa Tribune critic Ellis Widner wrote in his review, “It was too loud, too dull, and the songs were too much alike to make a serious, lasting impact.” But the quality of their performance never carried high expectations, nor was it even necessarily important in the long run. In the end, it was only relevant that the soon-legendary Pistols actually played here, and since the Cain’s is the only venue from that tour that’s still in operation, people know about it. The connection is made. The details are inconsequential. The Pistols played here and that’s enough to open many musicians’ otherwise tired eyes and ears to a ‘burg in the middle of nowhere.
This tidbit of Cain’s rock ‘n’ roll history has been brought up by countless stars during interviews with the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune. Members of Garbage, Van Halen, the Ramones, the Blackhearts, the Plimsouls and Cake have asked something along the lines of, “Didn’t the Pistols play there?” David Byrne knew about the Sex Pistols show, as well as the fact that the Cain’s was originally, as he put it, “a cornerstone of western swing music.” David Grohl, formerly of Nirvana and now the leader of the Foo Fighters, placed his hand in the hole that Sid Vicious allegedly punched in a backstage wall, like a kid trying to measure up to his dad’s handprints. The most telling remark, though, came from Rancid guitarist-singer Lars Frederiksen: “You hear horror stories about people from Arkansas and Oklahoma, but the Sex Pistols played there, so it’s got to be OK.”
Swinging into action
This, of course, is but one extreme in the rollicking history of the Cain’s Ballroom. This is how people my age came to know the place. We’re the third or fourth generation which has rocked the Cain’s-Bah. But one thing’s for sure: the place has always rocked. Long before the word “rock” meant anything more than stone, the building that would become Cain’s Ballroom was erected in the heart of a burgeoning oil-boom city. It was 1924, and the place was built as a garage for one of the city’s founders, Tate Brady (as in Brady Street, the Brady District, the Brady Theater). By the latter half of the decade, though, the garage already had transformed into a nightspot called the Louvre Ballroom a taxi hall where two-steppers could buy a dance for a dime. Madison W. “Daddy” Cain bought the building in 1930 and christened it Cain’s Dance Academy, where dance lessons were also 10 cents. The music folks were dancing to wasn’t yet called western swing and wouldn’t be for many years. Instead, people came to hear that “hot hillbilly music” or “hot string-band music.” Many of the tunes and most of the bands came from Texas. In Fort Worth during the late ’20s, an aggregate of nimble musicians was defining the music on a daily radio show sponsored by the makers of Light Crust Flour. They were called the Light Crust Doughboys, and one of the leaders was Bob Wills.
The band’s manager, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, was a slave-driver, insisting that the players work 40-hour weeks loading flour trucks in addition to their musical duties. Wills and the playboys didn’t like that arrangement, so they parted company and struck out on their own. That infuriated O’Daniel, and he dogged the former Doughboys every time they tried to set up shop elsewhere in Texas. Eventually, Wills, his players and a new manager, O.W. Mayo, traveled to Oklahoma, seeking a radio station out of reach of O’Daniel’s impeding influence.
The whole bunch of them drove to Tulsa with an appointment to meet the owners of 500-watt KTUL radio. But just for the heck of it, they decided to stop first at 25,000-watt KVOO radio. A skeptical station manager put them on the air at midnight, and Wills and his newly christened Texas Playboys played their first Tulsa broadcast. When letters of praise came from fans as far away as California, the station was no longer reluctant.
On Feb. 9, 1934, Wills and the Playboys played their first regular broadcast concert direct from the Cain’s Ballroom. For the next nine years, nearly all of their daily (except Sunday) shows originated from the Cain’s stage. In addition, they played dances in the evenings, including regular ones at the ballroom on Thursdays and Saturdays.
“We played six nights a week and funerals on Sundays,” recalled the late guitarist-arranger Eldon Shamblin in a 1981 interview with the Tulsa World. “I can remember doing 72 one-nighters without getting a night off.”
KVOO soon doubled its power, and its clear-channel signal reached all over the continent. The Playboys quickly became a national phenomenon, and Bob Wills was recognized as a big-time bandleader on par with Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. The music they were creating would soon be called western swing, and Wills’ name as well as the ballroom’s would be inextricably linked to it.
In 1943, Wills left for Hollywood where he continued to play and began appearing in movies. His brother, Johnnie Lee Wills, who had formed his own band in 1940, took over the daily broadcasts and dances without missing a beat. Johnnie Lee Wills kept up the shows all the way to 1958. In fact, many people who recall seeing and dancing to Bob Wills at the Cain’s during the ’40s and ’50s actually saw Johnnie Lee.
Regardless of country music’s current wholesome image, these dances weren’t always wholesome family gatherings. Those who decry alleged violence and craziness in today’s rock ‘n’ roll shows clearly never braved a night at a Cain’s western dance. In 1947, the city prosecutor declared the ballroom a menace, saying, “We have more trouble there than any place in town.” The Tulsa World reported that “some of the city’s roughest gang fights have been staged there.” In the late ’50s, the story remained the same, and the place became such a rowdy roadhouse that not many music promoters wanted to get involved with the place.
Throughout the ’60s, the Cain’s Ballroom struggled to stay open. Mayo had purchased the ballroom from the Brady estate the same year Bob Wills left for California. Alvin Perry and his wife, the Willses’ secretary, ran the place from the ’50s on. But once the Wills brothers were gone and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll shoved the great bandleaders into the shadows the Cain’s fell out of use and favor. For many years it sat virtually empty, until Marie Meyers bought it in 1972.
Meyers was 83 years old when she acquired the Cain’s. She wanted a dance hall more than a concert venue, and she tried to revive regular dances every Saturday night. Instead of the crowds of nearly 6,000 that jammed in and around the place during the Wills heyday, Meyers dances were lucky to bring in a hundred. Times had changed.
Over the next few years, there were several squabbles over ownership. Numerous local concert promoters leased it, made some improvements, then moved on. Late in 1976 one year after Bob Wills died a scrappy concert wizard named Larry Shaeffer bought the ballroom for $60,000 the profits he had made from one Peter Frampton concert. During the next several months, he put another $40,000 into refurbishing the place, being careful not to alter or mar the original look and feel of the already historical venue. In early September 1977, he reopened the new Cain’s Ballroom with a concert by Elvin Bishop.
If the Wills-Mayo era was a triumph for country music, the Shaeffer era was and still is a triumph for rock ‘n’ roll. Five months into his Cain’s reign, the Sex Pistols were on Main Street throwing snowballs outside Shaeffer’s new office. In the months and years that followed, Shaeffer booked a veritable who’s-who of new rock talent into the Cain’s. In most cases, the acts were not yet enormously famous, and some audiences you could count on two hands saw amazing concerts by bands who months later became huge international stars the Police, Pat Benatar, Huey Lewis and the News, the Greg Khin Band, Talking Heads, INXS, Bow Wow Wow, the Blasters. Heck, Van Halen played the Cain’s for $500 before anyone knew who they were.
Ever unsure of himself, Shaeffer would, during the early ’80s, announce about once a year that he was selling the ballroom. Investors would swoop in for the buy, but the deal somehow always would fall through. Shaeffer just couldn’t let go of the place. A Bob Wills disciple himself, the Cain’s history had entrusted itself to his care. During one attempted 1982 sale, Shaeffer received what he later would call “a kick in the rear from ol’ Bob.” “The day I told my employees I was going to sell, one of the ceiling panels in my office slipped down, and out fell three fan letters addressed to Bob Wills.” The prices bandied about one offer was reported at $290,000, another at $400,000 were clear indication of the ballroom’s new stature and success as a rock venue.
Shaeffer didn’t just expand the Cain’s music capabilities, either. Throughout the ’80s, he tinkered with an array of hilarious and bizarre entertainment events in the ballroom. In 1980 he began a series of mud-wrestling events, as well as some boxing matches. At one point, there were pig races. Things evened out once rock took hold. By the 1990s, Shaeffer had partnered with another Tulsa promoter, David Souders, who helped to lure the cutting edge of modern rock the way Shaeffer had earlier attracted the newest of the New Wave. Since then, the Cain’s has borne the impact of alternative acts ranging from the industrial rock of Ministry to the lewd bombast of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult.
All of this has been watched over by the silent portraits on every wall. Roy Rogers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb, Tex Williams, Leon Mcauliffe, Tex Ritter, Eddy Arnold, Kay Starr, Roy Acuff, and Bob Wills himself hang around the ballroom, grinning wistfully, languidly … eerily. Their presence provides a sometimes alarming and often amusing contrast to the modern rock acts of the ’90s. They kept grinning when someone threw a burning Bible on stage during Marilyn Manson’s concert at the Cain’s. They’ve kept straight faces while Mr. Lifto picked up a car battery chained to his nipples during the Jim Rose Circus Side Show at the Cain’s. They even tap their frames when beat-heavy acts like Crystal Method have rolled into the Cain’s, putting the spring-loaded dancefloor to the test.
It’s that heady mixture of old and new that makes the Cain’s such a vibrant venue. Everybody has their Cain’s story, whether it involves fiddles and a pickup or Marshall stacks and crowd-surfing. The Cain’s can handle anything. On my watch thus far, as the local pop music critic, I have learned volumes about music just because of the people this silly building attracts.
I’ve met country and rock legends. I’ve seen shows I never would have approached. I’ve sat on the Cain’s stage and talked to Billy Bragg about the social implications of traditional American music and to members of the Dandy Warhols about post-Pistols noise rock. For over 75 years, the Cain’s has offered everything to everyone, and its ghosts belong in its rafters and in the heart of every music lover who lives in or passes through Tulsa. Even if, like the Pistols, you’re just looking to cause a ruckus.
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.