New ventures continue to spring up in the downtown Tulsa Arts District, but, in a year when Cain’s Ballroom is turning 95, here’s a reminder to look down.
Specifically, look under your feet.
One of the district’s under-the-radar attractions is a “walk of fame.”
On the sidewalk outside Cain’s Ballroom, 423 N. Main St., are stars with names of bands and individuals (among them George Jones and Merle Haggard) who contributed to the legacy of the historic-and-still-popular venue. Cain’s Ballroom was recently ranked the No. 22 club venue worldwide by Pollstar, a trade industry publication that used year-end ticket sales figures to calculate rankings.
Which names are on the Cain’s Ballroom Walk of Fame? Are there plans to add more names? And what’s the status of a documentary (“Raisin’ Cain: The History of Cain’s Ballroom”) about a Tulsa landmark that was once referred to as the Carnegie Hall of Western swing?
Let’s tackle the last question first:
“As for updates on the film, we’re still working on it,” filmmaker Tate Wittenberg said. “It has taken longer than planned, but it’s going to be a richer project due to that. We’ve had some speed bumps along the way, but we’re looking forward to a productive new year with the film and really the new goal is to have it completed before OKPOP opens.”
OKPOP is the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture, which will be constructed across the street from Cain’s Ballroom. Groundbreaking for OKPOP, which will showcase the contributions of “creatives” with Oklahoma ties, is expected to occur this year.
OKPOP came up when Chad Rodgers of Cain’s Ballroom was asked about the Walk of Fame. There aren’t any plans to add more names to the sidewalk stars.
“But with the addition of the OKPOP museum going in across the street, I’d hope that maybe we can work with them to redo all the stars on both sides of the street and maybe add some new names, etc.,” Rodgers said.
In addition to the 32 stars with names attached on the east side of Main Street, there are stars with no names yet engraved on both sides of Main.
The Walk of Fame came about in conjunction with a 2003 refurbishing of Cain’s Ballroom. A 2004 Tulsa World story said names for the walk of fame were chosen by a panel that included Tulsa-based booking agent Ray Bingham, Alice Rodgers and author/music historian John Wooley.
“I feel pretty sure that the choices we made with her were the ones that were put down in the initial round,” Wooley, a former Tulsa World entertainment writer, said. “I think a second round was added later.”
Wooley said he thinks everyone who got a star played at Cain’s Ballroom at some point (“either on their way up or on their way down”) with the exception of three nonperformers whose names are on stars.
The nonperformers are original owner Tate Brady, Madison Cain (the venue’s second owner; not the Madison Cain who is the daughter of Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain) and O.W. Mayo. Brady’s name has been removed from the Brady Arts District (now the Tulsa Arts District) and the Brady Theater (changing to Tulsa Theater) because of his ties to the KKK and, for the same reason, Brady Street is being renamed Reconciliation Way.
Brady built Cain’s (it was a garage) in 1924. Technically, the building (which Brady named The Louvre) was already a ballroom, or at least a dance hall, by the time Cain acquired it, according to Wooley.
Wooley said Cain turned the facility into a place where he gave dance lessons, hence the original name, Cain’s Academy of Dance. Because Cain danced and gave dance instruction there, maybe he sort of performed there?
Mayo was the manager and announcer for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys when a deal was struck for Cain’s Ballroom to become the group’s home base. As a result, the venue became “the” place for Western swing. He also owned Cain’s for many years and was the person responsible for the big photos on the walls, collecting them and putting them up in the early ’50s.
Many performers who were awarded stars have connections to Wills or the “Tulsa Sound” movement, according to Wittenberg. He said he has interviewed seven star recipients for the documentary and would still like to interview star recipients Hank Williams Jr. (“We interviewed Hank III already”) and Billy Parker.
Asked by the Tulsa World about being honored with a star on the Cain’s Ballroom Walk of Fame, Parker said, “Cain’s Ballroom has always been good to me through owner after owner and has been so much a part of my life — from a young ‘un when I used to go there to watch Bob Wills and later to watch Johnnie Lee Wills, til the later time when I appeared there with my band.”
Parker also said he played Cain’s Ballroom a number of times as a member of Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours.
“Cain’s has always been an important part of my life,” Parker said. “I am very proud to be included in front of Cain’s on the same sidewalk where many great friends and fans of all types of music walked Cain’s Ballroom into the future.”
If new additions are ever made to the walk of fame, Wittenberg said it would be cool to see locals like Don White and Dwight Twilley get stars. He said both have history at Cain’s Ballroom.
“It would be great to see former owner/managers like R.C. Bradley and Larry Shaeffer honored with stars, as well as more modern troubadours like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Jack White, who’ve both been outspoken of their love and respect for the venue,” Wittenberg said. “Also, the GAP Band and the Red Dirt Rangers would be nice.”
With help from Wooley, here’s a roll call of performers who have been awarded stars so far:
Asleep at the Wheel: Ray Benson and his band mates are keeping Western swing alive in the 21st century.
Bobby “Blue” Bland: A blues singer, Bland is in the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His touring band once included Tulsans Mike Bruce (guitar) and Jim Karstein (drums).
JJ Cale: An important figure in the Tulsa Sound crowd, Cale won a Grammy Award for an album with Eric Clapton. Cale’s songs “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” were recorded by Clapton.
Roy Clark: Nicknamed the “Super Picker,” Clark was a musician and entertainer who relocated to Tulsa in the 1970s and co-hosted the country variety show “Hee Haw.”
Alvin Crow: The Oklahoma-born artist carried on in the path established by Wills. With his Pleasant Valley Boys, he was a frequent visitor to Cain’s in the ’70s, during the Cosmic Cowboy craze. Crow was a bit unusual in that he didn’t have the usual three names most of those singer-songwriters had (Ray Wylie Hubbard, Michael Martin Murphey, Jerry Jeff Walker, etc.). Cain’s was an important stop on the Cosmic Cowboy circuit.
Tommy Duncan: Duncan was the most famous of all the Texas Playboys vocalists, working with Wills from the beginning of the Playboys until the late ’40s and again in the ’60s.
Arlo Guthrie: A folk singer and songwriter, he is the son of Woody Guthrie. Tulsa is home to the Woody Guthrie Center.
Merle Haggard: A music superstar and poet of the common man, Haggard is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He paid tribute by re-creating a Wills radio show at Cain’s Ballroom in the early 1980s.
Ray Wylie Hubbard: An Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter, Hubbard is an important Cosmic Cowboy who played at Cain’s many times, often with bandmate and fellow Oklahoma singer-songwriter Terry “Buffalo” Ware.
Wanda Jackson: The Oklahoma-born “Queen of Rockabilly” is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
George Jones: One of the biggest stars in country music history, Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992.
Curly Lewis: Lewis won a fiddling contest (sponsored by Wills) when he was 11 and became a legendary Western swing fiddler.
Leon McAuliffe: A Western swing steel guitarist, McAuliffe was a member of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. McAuliffe left Bob Wills in the early ’40s to enlist. After World War II, he returned to Tulsa, put together his own band and started the Cimarron Ballroom, Cain’s Ballroom’s biggest rival venue.
Billy Parker: In addition to being a five-time national country music DJ of the year, Parker was a performer who, at one time, was a member of Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours.
Texas Playboys: Wills’ legendary band is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ray Price: With enduring hits like “Release Me,” “Crazy Arms” and “For the Good Times,” Price earned his way into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Leon Rausch: Rausch was known as the voice of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. There have been lots of great “voices” of the Texas Playboys, but he was arguably the band’s last great vocalist. Up until last year, he was, with Tommy Allsup, leading the Texas Playboys group that continued after Wills’ death.
Leon Russell: A Tulsa music legend, Russell is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Eldon Shamblin: An Oklahoma- born guitarist and arranger, Shamblin served tours of duty in Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and in Merle Haggard’s band, The Strangers. Eldon was also in Leon McAuliffe’s group and worked with Johnnie Lee Wills as well when the latter was based at Cain’s (1943-1958).
Red Steagall: A country artist with a career spanning more than 40 years, Steagall is one of Western swing’s great purveyors. His song “Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music” was a chart single in 1976. He narrated and performed in a shot-at-Cain’s documentary (“Still Swingin’ ”) written by Wooley.
Hank Thompson: Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys excelled at Western swing. From 1948 through 1974, Thompson charted nearly 50 top-20 singles.
Cindy Walker: Walker was more of a songwriter than a performer. She wrote more than two dozen songs for Wills but likely took the stage at Cain’s Ballroom more than once, according to Wooley.
Jerry Jeff Walker: Maybe the leading cosmic cowboy of them all. A singer-songwriter, Walker is best known for writing the song “Mr. Bojangles.”
Speedy West: A great steel guitarist, West moved to Tulsa in 1960 after having been a session player for Capitol in Hollywood for more than a decade. Wooley said he feels sure that West played Cain’s Ballroom as a sideman for a band.
Hank Williams Jr.: The son of a superstar became a star in his own right with his own rowdy brand of music. He started playing Cain’s prior to his superstardom in the early ’80s and hooked up with Cain’s owner Larry Shaeffer, who ended up booking Bocephus just as he took off.
Billy Jack Wills: The youngest brother of Wills, Billy Jack was a member of the Texas Playboys who later formed his own band.
Bob Wills: The king of Western swing.
Johnnie Lee Wills: A brother of Wills, Johnnie Lee was an original member of the Texas Playboys. He took over a long-running KVOO radio show after Bob left for California and actually led a band at Cain’s longer than Bob. Johnnie Lee and his group (variously known as the Boys or All the Boys) took over after Bob left for the service in December 1942 and continued there until 1958. Bob had first played Cain’s on New Year’s Day 1935, almost a year after he arrived with his group in Tulsa.
Luther J. Wills: Another brother of Wills, Luther J. Wills was the “Luke” in Luke Wills’ Rhythm Busters. He also played and sang with the Texas Playboys.