Looking Back

Why does Dallas write its musical history with an eraser?

The building at 508 Park Avenue isn't much of one, just a shell, really, not that different from the dozens of other abandoned husks cluttering downtown Dallas. It's still worth plenty to the Glazer family (whose main concern is Glazer's Distributors, a major food and beverage supplier), owners of the building and everything else on the block. Not long ago, the Glazers were trying to sell the entire package for $10 million. Sounds like too much, maybe, but the street is definitely a prime piece of property, a couple of blocks from City Hall, a couple of more from Farmer's Market and, as real estate agents would say, convenient to freeway access. Someone will buy it eventually and turn it into lofts or something. Way it goes.

And it will be yet another Dallas musical landmark razed in the name of Progress. Jim Beck's old studio on Ross Avenue--where he recorded legends like Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins and Ray Price, before accidentally suffocating on cleaning fumes--is now a parking garage. The old Central Track rail station where Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson came to Dallas to play for pennies on street corners? An apartment complex. The Sportatorium, once home to the Big "D" Jamboree, still stands, but barely; it's little more than a whitewashed pile of decay. No plaques, no statues, nothing. Brandt and Brady Wood have tried to put their bars (Gypsy Tea Room, Umläut and others) into some historical context. That, however, is merely the exception that proves the rule: Dallas writes its musical history with an eraser.

How does 508 Park Avenue fit into that history? On June 19 and 20 in 1937, legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson recorded at the building, which was then the Brunswick Records warehouse and the office of Don Law, who produced Johnson, among many others during his storied career. It was one of just two recording sessions in Johnson's abbreviated career. Johnson, who died the next year at 27, recorded only 41 songs during his short life, including standards such as "Sweet Home Chicago," "Love in Vain" and "Crossroads."

But most people don't know or care what happened there. Don Ottensman, who hosts a weekly blues show on KNON-FM (89.3) as well as running Don O.'s Dallas/Fort Worth Blues Page (http://geocities.com/bluesdfw/), hopes to change that. In conjunction with the Dallas Blues Society, Ottensman has put together Dallas/Fort Worth Blues History Week to be held June 16 through June 23, in part to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Johnson's recording session. There will be lectures on Johnson, Jefferson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King and more, as well as jam sessions, performances of Johnson's music and a tribute to another local blues great, Aaron "T-Bone" Walker. (Head to Ottensman's site for a full schedule.) Which is great. But it brings up a big question. Or maybe a couple of them. Why isn't there a museum devoted to Dallas music? We have two museums dedicated to our city's darkest day (The Sixth Floor Museum and the Conspiracy Museum), but when it comes to music, you'd think our biggest accomplishment was Flickerstick winning Bands on the Run.

There almost was one, actually, located (conveniently enough) at 508 Park. Ottensman and the Dallas Blues Society's Chuck Nevitt toured the building a few years ago with a prospective buyer who imagined the site as a combination museum-restaurant-recording studio, not unlike Memphis' Sun Records. "Imagine the opportunity to record in the same place where Robert Johnson recorded 'Hellhound on My Trail,'" Ottensman says.

Unfortunately, the Glazers' $10 million asking price was too steep for a building in terrible disrepair. It would have taken several million more just to get the space up to code, let alone turning it into the multipurpose enterprise the developer had in mind.

Ottensman says he assembled the forms and materials needed to apply for a state historical monument for 508 Park several years ago but hasn't gone through with the process. Why? Directly across the street from the building is The Stew Pot, a church-run kitchen for the homeless. "Any plaque erected would probably be vandalized or stolen within a few weeks," Ottensman explains, pointing out previous break-ins and destruction. "Therefore, I decided it would be best to wait till the Stew Pot is moved or closed to start such a project."

Which means another Dallas musical landmark will likely become a nondescript pile of bricks in a landfill somewhere. Sadly, that's not all that different from what's already happening.

 
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