Can you imagine the stories if those walls could talk at Cain’s Ballroom?
Finally, they did — sort of.
Hank Williams Sr. and Eric Clapton weren’t entirely sober when they arrived at Cain’s.
Hank Williams Jr. changed the life of a Cain’s Ballroom owner.
Freddie Hart, famous for “Easy Loving,” was fighting mad.
Dave Grohl broke a sweat; Johnny Paycheck broke a country singer’s ribs.
Ernest Tubb wanted to record a live album at Cain’s, but the crowd got too loud.
Pat Benatar, because of a slip of the lip, was only booked there once.
And Cain’s Ballroom survived a Sex Pistols show and a problematic highway built to the north.
Walls can’t talk, of course.
But Willie Nelson, who wrote “Hello Walls,” is among many people whose experiences at Cain’s Ballroom are chronicled in “Twentieth-Century Honky Tonk: The Amazing Unauthorized Story of the Cain’s Ballroom’s First 75 years.” Co-authors John Wooley and Brett Bingham went on a deep dive to cover a period of years from 1924 through 1999.
Cain’s Ballroom was originally intended to house automobiles before it became a dance academy/dance hall.
Thanks to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Cain’s blossomed into the Carnegie Hall of Western swing.
When the glory days of Western swing faded away, Cain’s evolved by providing a stage for “cosmic cowboys” and rockers. Van Halen and U2 played Cain’s Ballroom before exploding into arena acts. Cain’s once accepted a great deal to book Tom Petty and his band, then known as Mudcrutch. How great? You’ll have to crack open the book.
You could make a case that Wooley and Bingham were ideal candidates to write a book about the history of Cain’s Ballroom. In Bingham’s case, maybe he was born to write this?
Bingham was born at Oklahoma Osteopathic Hospital (now the OSU Medical Center) in downtown Tulsa, which means he was introduced to the world a few blocks away from Cain’s. He was a late-night arrival.
Bingham’s father, Archie, and a couple of family members celebrated by heading to Cain’s Ballroom, where Johnnie Lee Wills was playing. Archie, who played Western swing music in the 1950s, got up on stage and sang “Corrina, Corrina” but revised the lyrics to “Darena, Darena” because his wife’s name was Darene.
Archie’s brother and Brett’s uncle, Ray, booked acts at Cain’s Ballroom in the 1960s and beyond. Lil’ Brett, exposed to the Western swing music scene in Tulsa, grew up to become a Bob Wills and Western swing fanatic. He ran the Original Texas Playboys Fan Club while in junior high.
“I would go so far as to say the Texas Playboys and all the peripheral musicians from that scene and era were my Beatles,” he said.
Brett grew up in northwest Arkansas and moved to Tulsa after college. While in a cowboy band, he romanced the female singer and got married at Cain’s. Now, he’s the business manager for Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, a group under the direction of Jason Roberts.
Wooley? In 1981, Cain’s Ballroom was the site of one of the best shows (Sir Douglas Quintet, Skinner Brothers Band in support) he has ever seen.
“It’s also the first time I remember going there, although my mother had told me a lot about the place and I was aware of its stature as the home of the Wills boys and their bands,” he said.
Wooley became an entertainment writer for the Tulsa World a couple of years later and became intimately acquainted with the legendary venue.
“In the 23 years I was with the World, I spent probably a few thousand hours there and wrote tens of thousands of words about my experiences under its roof,” he said.
Bingham said Wooley’s knowledge of Western swing music/history (and Tulsa Sound history) is peerless. Meanwhile, Bingham soaked up Cain’s Ballroom stories because they were inevitable.
“I have been in and around the music business all my life,” he said. “And it seems everywhere I was with my uncle Ray, if the artist or tour manager or band guys figured out we were from Tulsa, they all had a Cain’s Ballroom story. And just based on the research and knowledge I had accumulated and (the knowledge) Ray had first-hand, we found ourselves educating these guys on Cain’s stories and history. And they were all interested.”
Bingham said that’s where the idea was hatched for a book, at least from his standpoint. Like Bingham, Wooley was equipped with accumulated intel and invaluable contacts. Because Wooley partnered with legendary Tulsa disc jockey Billy Parker on KVOO for a Western swing show, he became friends with former Cain’s owner O.W. Mayo. Another former owner, Larry Shaeffer, remains one of Wooley’s best friends.
“People talk about six degrees of separation,” Bingham said. “Well, for us it was more like one or two degrees. We either knew the person or knew someone who could get us directly to the person we wanted to talk to. And everyone wanted to talk to us and knew someone who wanted to talk to us.”
Shout-outs: When Mayo sold Cain’s Ballroom, he asked Oklahoma City collector Glenn White if he wanted documents, letters, etc., that were on the verge of being hauled to the dump. White rescued the items, and they proved to be invaluable when research was being conducted for the book.
Also, Wooley said Russ Florence and Steve Higgins started a book about Cain’s Ballroom in the 1990s and generously volunteered their research. Said Wooley: “Among other things, they’d interviewed the late R.C. Bradley, one of the pivotal figures in the transition from country to ‘hippie’ music, and that was important material to have.”
Labor of love
If you’re going to tell the history of Cain’s Ballroom, you can’t tell it without devoting a hefty chunk to Bob Wills. That’s the case in the book.
Did you know Wills wound up in Tulsa because he had a nemesis who became the governor of Texas?
“That was W. Lee ‘Pappy’ O’Daniel, who kept trying to quash Bob and the Playboys after Bob left the Fort Worth-based Light Crust Doughboys, who essentially worked for O’Daniel,” Wooley said. “It wasn’t until Bob got to Tulsa and, in 1935, the Cain’s, that he was finally able to shake himself free of Pappy and freely do his own thing — to great success. I always like to bring this fact up to my friends south of the Red River, especially those who insist on calling this music ‘Texas swing.’ ”
Nelson, an admirer of Wills, played Cain’s Ballroom in the early 1960s, before his image makeover. Wearing a business suit and a skinny tie, he drew only about 30 or 40 people at his Cain’s debut, according to the book. He wrote a letter to Alvin Perry at Cain’s saying it was an honor to play there and he would love to return. The response he got was: “Thank you for your recent letter. But please be advised that the management of the Cain’s Ballroom doesn’t intend to ever bring you back.”
Nelson, who kept the letter, made a triumphant return in 2001 and packed the house for two shows.
Let’s not give away all the book’s goodies here, but you can rest assured that significant ink is devoted to two legendary moments in Cain’s Ballroom lore.
Former owner Jeff Nix provided recollections of the instance when, to Cain’s Ballroom’s benefit, he rescued Clapton from a Tulsa jail in 1975. And three years later, Cain’s was the site of one of seven stops the Sex Pistols played on the band’s U.S. Tour. It was the next-to-last show the British punk band played before splitting.
The book includes recollections from Chris Tyler, who, along with Johnny Ray Vanderveer, watched the Sex Pistols from as close to the stage as you can get.
Wooley, asked how he found a witness to history, said, “I’m pretty sure that I was talking to Chris Tyler, my fellow Chelsea High School alumnus, at some point years ago when he told me that story. Sadly, both he and Johnny Ray Vanderveer, who was also a friend of mine, have passed away — entirely too early. But I’m so glad Chris told me that story. Honestly, it’s my favorite one in the whole book. And there are some dandies.”
Cain’s Ballroom once was purchased by a woman in her 80s who — bullet dodged — almost turned it into a boat storage facility. Cain’s has been home to mud wrestling, pig racing, a mechanical bull (blame the “Urban Cowboy” craze), a makeshift roller rink, toy giveaways and a Halloween event dubbed the Freakers Ball. Ultimately, Cain’s Ballroom is home to the state’s best music stories, now in book form.
Bingham called the book a labor of love. Asked what he wanted to achieve, he said he hoped it will spark people who have been to Cain’s Ballroom to learn about its history — or maybe it will work in reverse and people who learn the history will be sparked to pay a visit to the revered honky tonk.
He concluded with this: “And, lastly, I hope and expect to hear a lot more stories about Cain’s Ballroom.”
Cain’s Ballroom history: The authors speak
John Wooley and Brett Bingham collaborated on the book “Twentieth-Century Honky Tonk,” a book about the first 75 years of Cain’s Ballroom. Among places the book is on sale locally is Buck Atom’s Cosmic Curios, 1347 E. 11th St.
It’s pretty amazing no one had written a book about Cain’s Ballroom yet. This book needed to be written?
Wooley: “As the home court of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys during the years they were popularizing the uniquely American music that became known as Western swing, the Cain’s of the ’30s and early ’40s certainly deserved a book.
“But, as significant as that was, there was so much more to the story than that. Since our book covers only the Cain’s first 75 years, ending in 1999, it breaks neatly into 50 years of country and Western swing (1924-1974), and 25 years of rock and other, sometimes implausible, acts. I think the last quarter-century is every bit as compelling and important as the first two.”
Bingham: “I agree that it was a surprise that it hadn’t been written and I think the challenge was similar to the one we ran into. How do you tell the story of something that’s approaching 100 years old in one volume?
“Well, the answer is you don’t, as we figured out. There are some very distinctive periods of the life of Cain’s Ballroom and each one probably deserves a volume of its own, but for whatever reason, the early periods weren’t written about in real time, probably because they didn’t realize the impact on history. That’s a big reason we stopped where we did — in 1999.
“First, we needed to keep it a manageable size. And second, the Rodgers era (of ownership) is still being written. The impact of renovating the ballroom and the resurgence of downtown Tulsa, which Cain’s is an integral part of, is going to be a great story as well and will need to be told when its impact on history is more understood and able to be chronicled.”
Did you go into this project thinking you knew quite a bit about Cain’s history and then you discovered additional “wow” things?
Wooley: “We absolutely turned up stuff that was neat and surprising to us. Brett worked a lot with Glenn White, the man who may know more about the Wills brothers and Western swing than just about anyone, and they came up with some remarkable stuff, including a very rare newspaper ad for a bogus Bob Wills girlie show.
“The time between Johnnie Lee Wills and Bob Wills leaving the Cain’s in the late ’50s and the hippie boys coming in to revive it in the mid-’70s is the least chronicled time in the history of the ballroom, and I think that’s really a strong point of our book. Brett deserves most of the credit for that. Among other things, he got a terrific interview with Jim Hardcastle, who leased the place in the late ’60s.”
Bingham: “Having access to all the correspondence from (collector) Glenn White really connected a lot of the dots for the early period of the ballroom, since most of the folks who had ‘lived it’ were gone by the time we started the project. Also, for me, learning about how the ballroom just managed to evolve into what the public needed it to be — and how the right people came along at just the right time to keep it from becoming something else — was simply amazing to me. I know ‘amazing’ is an overused term and I also know it’s in the title of the book, but it is quite appropriate for the Cain’s Ballroom story. And it’s still being written.”