Coffee houses. What an archaic term. If you said that today the closest thing to come to mind would be a Starbucks. But in the 60s and 70s they meant something entirely different. And I’m not even sure they actually served coffee. I digress.
On a pretty busy thoroughfare called McKinney Avenue in the middle of Dallas, Texas was a little place called the Rubaiyat. It was longer/deeper than wider and didn’t look like much of anything. There was some sort of counter/office area in the front where you could pay your money to get in and I think a restroom or two and a small kitchen in the back. I remember pitchers of beer. But even more I remember music.
I think the owner/manager’s name was Bob Johnston and I may have even met him once. I think he was a pretty big deal in the folk music scene. But to call what emanated from the Rubaiyat “folk” limits it greatly.
The Rubaiyat was almost always crowded. I don’t remember it costing very much to get in – I think cover charges were around $2 – 3 but remember now this is the late 60s and early 70s.
I don’t even know how we (more about “we” later) found this place but I guess college-age students had a pretty good grapevine even in the days before MySpace.
I can’t even begin to list everyone who played there because I couldn’t afford to go all that often but I’ll bet we went once or twice a month at least – usually on a Friday or Saturday night.
The “we” part. I had two real close buddies and we thought we just might be big stars. So we played lots of guitar and tried to do our own covers of the hits of the day – John Denver, the Eagles, America – mostly main-stream stuff.
The Rubaiyat was never main-stream but some pretty main-stream people passed through.
I first heard Mickey Raphael there. Who is Mickey Raphael? If you follow Willie Nelson you know he is his harmonica player and I’d put him up against Stevie Wonder as the best that ever was. If memory serves, he started playing for B.W. Stevenson, aka “Buckwheat” long before his hit “My Maria.” People hear that song now and think Brooks & Dunn wrote it. BW played and wrote “Texas Morning”, “Say what I feel” and many more.
Back in the 80s I was working on the east coast and a show I worked on had Willie Nelson on as a guest. I’m always intimidated by celebs so like to find a common point of reference to start up the conversation. Something beyond “Like, wow, love your music, man.” So I bumped into Willie in the hall and for some reason BW popped into my head and I asked about him. Little did I know he had passed away. He was a big guy and maybe weight or a weak heart or something. But he had a sweet voice.
At the Rubaiyat the worst seat in the house was not very far from the stage. It might not be an exaggeration to say we could see the calluses on the fingers of the people playing guitar.
A not-quite-so-young man named Michael Murphey (now aka Michael Martin Murphey of Cowboy music fame.) played there often and would even play a BW song or two. This was in the days before “Wildfire”. Michael Murphey’s songs included “What am I doing hanging ‘round”, “Geronimo’s Cadillac.” I think MMM was also my counselor at a week-long camp in north Texas in the early 60s. And now he is close friends with some friends of ours who help him put on his Cowboy Christmas shows here every year.
Larry Groce. Our local public radio station used to air his Mountain Stage program every Saturday night. Back in the 70s I saw him play there once or twice. I had the same music teacher as Larry (and many others) in junior high-school; Jeanne Brown at W.E. Greiner.
Another regular – who later became “regulars”, was Robin Williams – no not the comedian/actor guy. But the Robin of Robin and Linda Williams that frequently appear on Prairie Home Companion. Robin came in with his own sweet voice and fancy guitar licks and we’d sit and soak it all up. When he announced he was getting married and then brought his new bride Linda along – we were initially disappointed. I think she did change his style and sound but eventually we grew to like both of them.
I have a Robin Williams story. One of my guitar buds and me were at a music store on the north side of Dallas, taking guitars down, playing a chord or two and putting them back up. And down the aisle was Robin. So we walked up, started talking, mentioned the Rubaiyat etc. He told us he was going to play a “House Concert” at his dad’s house in Dallas and why didn’t we come over that night. My friend couldn’t come but I got directions and showed up. It was a great evening of music and fun with about 20-30 people crammed into his dad’s house. I saw him again in Springfield years later when he was playing a “paying” house concert and he even remembered the thing at his dad’s.
I’ll bet there were dozens more who played there. Some may have even gotten their starts at the Rubaiyat.
Willis Allan Ramsay played (before the Captain and Tenille got hold of Muscrat Love). Townes Van Zandt. I’m sure other names will come back to mind before long. I think Asleep at the Wheel may have played there but I have no idea how all of them would fit on the Rubaiyat’s small stage – wasn’t even a stage as I recall but just a short carpeted riser to put the performers just a little higher than the audience.
Steve Fromholz wrote one of the most touching songs that evokes mid-west Texas. Actually it’s three songs – Texas Trilogy. Fromholz was another regular. I recall him being alone but his group was called Frummox so there must have been somebody else. He’s still alive and kicking. I found him on the internet looking up song lyrics and trying to track down another performer. He emailed back but I don’t think he remembered me.
Russ Kirkpatrick. Anybody have any clue where he ended up? I learned one of his songs, “Timothy Tucker” but have since lost some the lyrics and can’t find it anywhere. No offense to the others mentioned but I think he was our favorite of all those we saw. Pretty good picker but more of a chord guy with good lyrics and voice. We always tended to like the people we could play along with.
Sometime in the early 70s the Rubaiyat moved. I imagine it was to get more space so they could book bigger acts and therefore make better money. The one on McKinney had to be a labor of love.
It was never the same. The newer place was on Lemmon Avenue. This was still near downtown but no longer in a funky neighborhood and there were tons of used car lots in the area. But it did allow for more business and indeed bigger acts.
I can’t pin-point the year but I actually took a date (“we” hardly ever took dates to the Rubaiyat – it was always about the music) once to see a little known comic named Steve Martin. SNL was not on the air yet and he spent a good deal of his performance with the arrow-thing through his head and he played a lot of banjo – pretty good picker.
One thing that was very different about this type of music and place is that often you couldn’t find the performers music. Most of these acts (MMM excluded and BW later) were not on a label so the only way to hear them was live in small places. Radio would play little if any of this style of music. Record stores – that’s what they called them back then – usually didn’t have this stuff either. And records were so expensive to produce that few acts ever showed up with anything to sell. I bought a couple over the years but mostly just listened live.
The Rubaiyat will always be my favorite music place. Up close and personal. The performers played mostly their own tunes and talked to the audience. Sometimes between sets they’d come down to sit and chat and act just like real people.