Venue Without Pier: ZZ Top and The Musical Heritage of Galveston's Balinese Room
Immortalized in a 1975 song by ZZ Top, and demolished by a hurricane, Galveston Island's Balinese Room hosted music legends of the 20th century.
Birth of the Balinese
The Balinese Room, opened in 1942, was fabulous. Air conditioning, casino gambling, superb food and drinks, and stellar entertainment, all on a pier that was suspended over the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles from my Houston hometown. If I went, it was for dinner as a kid in the 1960s, as the nighttime entertainment was certainly adults-only.
Operated by Sicilian barbers-turned-bootleggers, Sam and Rosario Maceo, the Balinese Room (aka Maceo’s Grotto), booked nothing but top stars: Headliners included Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Duke Ellington, Mel Tormé, Jayne Mansfield and Gene Autry. Also appearing were Sophie Tucker, Joe E. Lewis, Peggy Lee, Guy Lombardo, Ted Mack, and Jimmy Dorsey.
In 1997, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the early morning hours of September 13, 2008, the structure was destroyed by Hurricane Ike.
Billy From the Block
I was born in Houston, TX five years and four months after William Frederick Gibbons. We didn’t live far apart from each other: Billy Gibbons aka Billy F Gibbons, grew up in the “uptown” west Houston ‘hood of Tanglewood, while I rode my bike up and down Beechnut St., between Chimney Rock and Rice Blvds, all major thoroughfares in SW Houston, in Meyerland near Bellaire.
Billy and I attended high schools a short distance from each other, but several years apart. In fact, Billy attended Lee High School in southwest Houston (shortly after it opened), while I attended Bellaire High. My days as a music stringer for Bellaire’s Three Penny Press mimeographed daily are chronicled fully, here (along with me unwittingly startling Bonnie Raitt backstage at Liberty Hall in 1972).
Lee High (re-named Margaret Long Wisdom High in 2016) opened its doors in 1962 to relieve high attendance at Bellaire (it was for his 13th birthday that year that Billy received his first guitar, a 1961 sunburst Gibson Melody Maker):
From a Big Band to The Little Ole Band: Somehow, a Thread
Gibbons had graduated long before I started at Bellaire in 1969 (in fact, Billy had a substantive music career started by then). While I never bumped into a 1960s-era Billy, it’s possible my folks and his folks might’ve crossed paths at some point! Freddie Gibbons, Billy’s dad, was an entertainer, orchestra conductor, and a concert pianist.
Dad was an ad exec at the Houston CBS-Radio affiliate, and my mom was an entertainment booking agent, working out of the Shamrock Hilton Hotel (a long-gone Houston landmark) for Shep Fields in the early ‘60s, for his newly-formed agency. Shep, a noted big band leader in the ‘30s thru early ‘60s, recorded for RCA affiliate, Bluebird Records, for many years with his Rippling Rhythm Orchestra.
Shep and his wife, Evie (short for “Evelyn,” she pronounced “Evie” with a short “E”), would drop by the house on occasion, for smokes, cocktails and a round of Pinochle! These were 1964 (or so) nights my brother (a year older) and I would be sent to bed early, ‘cause company was coming!
Shep, by the way, was the older brother of Freddie Fields, who helped to establish CMA (Creative Management Associates), and was once Judy Garland’s manager, before heading up MGM and United Artists Studios.
Mom took me to see The Supremes open for Judy in December 1965 in the newly-opened, 8-month-old Astrodome; it was at this point Mom had asked Shep to encourage Freddie to get us back, after the show, to meet Judy.
After initially receiving a “yes,” Freddie backed out at the last minute. As has been fully-documented over time, Judy was very protected and shielded by “her people,” especially in the twilight of her career.
So, it’s possible Shep and/or my mom booked Freddie Gibbons to play at local clubs or conventions in the ‘60s. During this same time frame, and following his Lee High graduation (1967), Billy Gibbons got his start founding several short-lived rock bands, and then started psychedelic-rockers, The Moving Sidewalks, a band my mom used to book in Houston clubs on a few occasions (she also briefly booked fellow Houstonian, the late Kenny Rogers, in the mid-’60s, pre-New Christy Minstrels and pre-First Edition).
Gibbons was inspired by friend, Roky Erickson, fronting Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators, to fashion his Sidewalks after the “psychedelic rock” of the Elevators. One album followed, 1969’s Flash, where they happily took a heavy dose of distortion to this classic Beatles tune (released as a bonus track only on their 2000 album re-issue):
By 18, Billy and the Sidewalks were opening for Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. It was backstage at a Doors show that Gibbons was introduced to Dallas natives, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard by their future manager, fellow Texan, Bill Ham. “The Little Ol’ Band From Texas” was born.
At the time, Ham was working as a record promotion man for H. W. “Bud” Daily Distributing, the company behind Cactus Records (now known as Cactus Music), the large Houston-based retail records chain for whom I worked in the late ‘70s (at their Post Oak and Shepherd locations).
Top’s fourth album, Fandango! was released in April 1975 on London Records, produced by Bill Ham. Written by Dusty Hill, “Balinese” was the third track on Side 2.
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