"The significance of any building is what we put into it. A building is just bricks and mortar. But 508 Park Avenue is one of two buildings that has a connection with and is part of the story of two of the most important recording sessions in American history. I think the significance is in the event that took place there, every bit as much as the site at Gettysburg is as important as the battle that took place there."
—Michael Taft, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
Michael Taft uttered those above words in early January 2009, during one of several conversations we had for a story I wrote about a downtown building that appeared, at the time, destined for a date with the wrecking ball.
This building sits tucked away on the southeast end of the city center, a sliver of marble and concrete on a stretch of street only a few hundred feet long—Park Avenue, the opposite of its glitzy, storied counterpart in Manhattan.
I thought of Taft's words again just days ago, on the final Saturday of April—an oppressively hot, humid, Houston-y afternoon. I pulled up in front of 508 Park Avenue and popped into the CD player Disc 2 of Robert Johnson: The Centennial Collection—the one marked "Dallas Recordings." It contains the 13 songs Mississippi-born bluesman Robert Johnson recorded at 508 Park Avenue on June 19 and June 20 in 1937, with producer Don Law for Brunswick Records. There are also seven alternate takes of such songs as "Me and the Devil Blues," "Love in Vain Blues" and "Traveling Riverside Blues," and whispers of echoes of Johnson speaking and fiddling with his guitar.
I'd heard these songs before—some dozens of times, others hundreds ("Hell Hound on My Trail," especially), though Johnson's November 1936 San Antonio sessions resulted in the more famous recordings, among them popular hit "Terraplane Blues" and the immortal "Cross Road Blues." But never while sitting in front of the building, never from start to finish. And never so clearly: The producers of the boxed set have wiped clean the hiss and pop of the previously available recordings. "What remains," writes Centennial Collection producer Stephen LaVere in the liner notes, "is every bit of the clarity of Robert Johnson's recordings made during those halcyon days in Texas in the late 1930s."
The results are palpable, eerie, visceral. What used to sound ancient—this faded template for all the popular music that followed—again feels relevant and whole. You can now hear the bottleneck as it slides against the strings; you can now hear the crack in Johnson's high moan. And you're reminded of the breadth of his small oeuvre, which contains just 29 official recordings but encompasses blues, jazz and gospel—the black American musical experience, pared down to a point.
Ah, so this is why Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Jack White stole his act! Robert Johnson, who turns 100 on May 8, was poisoned to death by a jealous husband before he turned 28. But Robert Johnson lives again.
So, too, 508 Park Avenue, which stars in a second disc that accompanies the deluxe addition of the boxed set. Columbia has added songs cut by other artists in the same building at the same time—among them the Crystal Springs Ramblers and Zeke Williams & His Rambling Cowboys (who recorded at Park Avenue on June 19, 1937) and the Light Crust Doughboys (who fiddled around on "The Eyes of Texas" and "Stay Out of the South" one day later). One can only imagine it: Johnson and the Doughboys in the same makeshift studio on the same day, bumping shoulders on their separate paths to immortality.
The men who own that building, collectively known as Colby Properties, have spent much of the last two years trying to convince the city that they should be allowed to tear down 508 Park Avenue, insisting it wasn't sound enough to merit survival. In truth, they'd grown tired of being hounded by the city, which used code complaints to bring lawsuits against the owners, who said they wanted to sell, although their high price tag suggested otherwise. And so they asked to whip out the wrecking ball, and the commissioners and preservationists said, time and again: No.
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Last summer, it was the neighbors, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, who made an offer to buy 508 Park Avenue and the adjacent building and empty lot. But the deal was contingent on the city allowing the church, which also operates the Stewpot, to tear down an unrelated building next door, at 1900 Young, and replace it with an outdoor amphitheater for church socials and concerts. The Landmark Commission went into last Monday's meeting with angels on one shoulder and devils on the other: The commission's task force suggested approval; city staff, denial. The latter would have sent 508 Park Avenue back into purgatory.
But Landmark OK'd the plan, and the church says it will restore 508 Park Avenue to its former glory, inside and out—including the construction of a real recording studio where Johnson once sat and played "Hell Hound on My Trail."
The church promises: It has musicians lined up to participate, but it can't yet reveal who. The church promises: 508 Park Avenue will be resurrected.
One hell of a birthday gift for a man who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil.