Clifford Jamal Antone
Born October 27, 1949, in Port Arthur, TX and died May 23, 2006, in Austin, Texas)
You couldn't understand Clifford Antone without knowing he was born and raised in Port Arthur, and knowing why that mattered. Born into a large American family of Syrian and Lebanese descent, Clifford had a deep and enduring love for them. His close-knit family included, among others, his grandparents Elias and Jamille Antone and Pete and Pauline Ashy, his parents Georgette and Jamal Antone, his sisters Susan and Janelle, as well as his niece Georgette Raad and nephew Jamal Antone Raad. Clifford’s love and devotion to his family and close friends were that of passion and loyalty.
Growing up in Port Arthur, he developed a love for the blues that started him on his path in life. That passion for music was nurtured in his hometown, as the city of Port Arthur sat at the crossroads between many powerful genres of music. A blue-collar refinery town lying east of Houston and just across the Sabine River from Louisiana, Port Arthur soaked up all the sounds of the region: Country music from Texas, Zydeco, Cajun, Swamp Pop music from Louisiana, Soul, Gospel, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and, of course, the Blues.
Clifford opened the first incarnation of Antone’s in an old department store on Austin’s East Sixth St., a rough neighborhood back then. From the get-go, he filled his club with an eclectic collection of artists, from Zydeco King Clifton Chenier and Texas bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Albert Collins to legendary sidemen-turned-bandleaders such as Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton, to giants like B.B. King, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Albert King and Buddy Guy.
The common denominator was always the blues. Antone’s operating principle was simple: Blues musicians like John Lee Hooker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Fats Domino, and Irma Thomas were American masters, just as William Faulkner and Georgia O’Keeffe in their own genres, and they were deserving of the same respect.
At the same time, he was booking his idols, Clifford was also mentoring an ever-expanding group of young Austin musicians who wanted to hear and play with the real deal. Every night, the veterans on Clifford’s stage took the young-bloods to school.
And out of that arose a thriving blues scene that Austin could call its own. The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Double Trouble went on to become bonafide stars, but locals like Angela Strehli, Paul Ray and the Cobras, Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton, Doyle Bramhall, Doyle Bramhall II, Denny Freeman, Derek O’Brien, Charlie Sexton, Sue Foley, The Moellers, and the Keller Brothers could hold their own anytime, anyplace.
Antone’s nurtured other kinds of Austin music besides blues. Multi-talented songwriter and artist Bob Schneider held down a residency for years. Country-rocker Joe Ely loved playing the club. The fabulous Doug Sahm and even Willie Nelson found themselves on the Antone’s stage from time to time.
Clifford inspired and encouraged young musicians all of his life. Gary Clark, Jr., who is enjoying international success today, started out on the Antone’s stage at age 15, with Clifford beaming from the side of the stage. Gary was one of the last of a long line of youngsters that he took under his wing.
He didn’t forget the aging bluesmen and women either. Time and again, when an aging blues legend would come down from, say, Chicago, to play the club, Clifford would dig deep and pay for dental work or a doctor’s visit, or help out with a bill. Towards the end of his life, he virtually adopted Pinetop Perkins, Muddy Waters’ famed piano player. It was part of his humanity, a small way of giving back.
In a way, Antone was always all about giving back. In the past 44 years, the club has survived five re-locations beyond its original venue. Today, it is still going strong downtown on East 5th St., not too far from its original location. Local musicians still mix it up with touring stars and Austinites and tourists alike still pay homage at Clifford’s “Home of the Blues.”
In 2004, Clifford and his namesake club were the subjects of a documentary film, Antone’s: Home of the Blues, (http://www.antones-homeoftheblues.com/entranceHigh.html), which won a “Keeping the Blues Alive” award at the 2007 awards ceremony presented by the Blues Foundation. That same group also gifted him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
For his efforts, Clifford was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 1985. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Austin Music Memorial in 2010.
After his passing in 2006, The Clifford Antone Foundation continues his legacy of honoring the past and investing in the future. This foundation is perhaps most important of his legacy. The Clifford Antone Foundation is an Austin nonprofit that partners with organizations to provide for veteran musicians as well as to encourage up and coming young people. During his lifetime, he gave back in other ways, most notably through his series of “Help Clifford Help Kids” benefit shows for American YouthWorks.
In the early 2000s, Clifford taught a course at the University of Texas and at Texas State University in San Marcos called “The Blues According to Clifford Antone.” That was only fitting. All of his life Clifford Antone was a scholar of the blues but it all started in his early years growing up in Port Arthur, TX.