COVER STORY: Cliff Notes

Today, artists are still finding inspiration in Oak Cliff, whether in the blues tradition that made Vaughan and Walker famous, or in other genres entirely. The following are just a sampling of Cliffites whose albums are available for purchase, and who are performing at neighborhood venues near you.

The Cliffhanger Project
Robert Ware compares Oak Cliff to Liverpool, explaining that “this is Stevie Ray Vaughan territory,” and like the Beatles made famous the British port city, “because of Stevie, Oak Cliff has gotten a lot of recognition over the years.” It was Ware’s dream to gather up some of Vaughan’s contemporaries and create a blues album with Oak Cliff’s signature stamp.

Origins: This isn’t the first project on which some of these Oak Cliff natives have collaborated. In 1970 Ware, Jimmy Wallace and Mike McCullough were members of Sunset, Kimball and Carter high school bands, three of the five Oak Cliff high school bands featured on the album “A New Hi”. “We’d sell ’em, and we’d make $1 and give [the producer] $3,” Ware says. Vaughan, then 16, was also on the album as part of the Kimball High School band. “Stevie was one of us; he was the one who got the big break,” Ware says. “We knew him as Steve Vaughan.” Like their late friend, the 13 musicians who came together to make the new album grew up playing at venues like Candy’s Flare, Cooper’s, The Maverick, The Anchor, Paper Moon, the Kiest Park Pavilion, the stages at River Lake and Oak Cliff country clubs, the Rocket Skating Palace, Jaylee’s Head Shop and area high school gymnasiums. “I got to thinking it would be fun to grab all these guys and put something together again — while we’re still kickin’. Most of us are in our ’50s.”

Influences: “This generation grew up with Fleetwood Mac — before the two girls,” Ware says. Other idols were blues-rock band Foghat, and The Bluesbreakers headlined by John Mayall, “the grandfather of British blues,” Ware says, with whom guitarist Rocky Athas now plays. And, of course, Vaughan’s fingerprints are on every-thing they do. “We always say we ‘Oak Cliffed’ it, and that term to us means we gave it the Stevie Ray Vaughan sound,” Ware says.

Album: “I couldn’t include everybody from Oak Cliff because there are so many,” Ware says of the talented musicians who hail from our neighborhood. He decided to focus on guitarists, like Athas, McCullough and Wallace (a member of The Stratoblasters, and co-owner and founder of the Dallas International Guitar Festival). Other featured guitarists are Jerry Don Branch, Christian Brooks, David Brown, Michael Jeffrey (who played and recorded with Jimmy Buffett) and Russell Stonecypher. Brooks also plays drums on the album, as do Mike Gage, Craig Marlow and Jack Miller. Most of the guitarists sing on their tracks, but vocalist Larry Samford also is included on two on the songs. Ware, who worked with Glenn Hughes and the late Buddy Miles, plays bass. “The ones not playing full time are still what we call ‘back porchin’ it’,” Ware says. “The hardest thing about musicians is we have a lot of good ones who don’t get recognized.”

Songs: Though it’s obviously a blues album, “The Cliffhanger Project” hits on a few different themes. Of course, women are a topic — Athas wrote a song called “Texas Girl” — but Brooks also included what Ware defines as a “semi-religious song” called “What’s It Gonna Be” that talks about choices. Most songs include vocals, but a couple are instrumental, like Ware’s “OC Boogie” — “a kind of Jeff Beck-ish guitar boogie to let Rocky and Jimmy show their stuff,” he says. Both their original music and classic hits are part of the project.

What’s next: The album will be released by Topcat Records in October, and available on the label’s website, topcatrecords.com. Ware already is talking about a sequel album, and even trying to put a working band together. “I’ve already got people lined up who want to do the next one,” he says. Ware formed a company to produce this project — Clifftone Records — and hopes to produce others under this label.

Lisa Markley
She’s a folk musician, but when describing her influences, Lisa Markley points to artists ranging from Eastern-European composer Béla Bartók to Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto to Broadway great Stephen Sondheim to big-band leader Glenn Miller to singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. “And, of course, I was raised in the ’80s with all the trashy pop,” Markley says. “I learned to play guitar with my book of Paul Simon songs.”

Origins: “I remember reaching up to touch the piano keys,” Markley says of her early childhood days. “I don’t remember not wanting to play music. It’s been something I’ve been into forever.” She has spent the last 20 years in a number of different bands, and released her first solo album, “Goddess of Groove”, in 2000. 

Sound: “What I like to say is that I’m the love child of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Randy Newman,” Markley says. And when she teams up with husband Bruce Balmer, as she did for their first album compilation in 2008, “Markley & Balmer”, it’s a different feel. “We have yet to describe what Markley and Balmer does,” she says. “We’re just a little weird, a little strange — too folk for rock, but too rock for folk.”

Collaboration: Working with Balmer, whom Markley met at the Kerrville Folk Festival, “is always hard because we’re pretty passionate people about what we like,” she says. Last year’s album was their first “intense” collaboration, she says. “Once we got through it, it was, ‘wow, we can work together’, but it was a learning process.” She describes her husband as a guitarist and “really good boogie woogie piano player” who “like me, is all over the map.” The difference is that Balmer came of age in the ’70s — “Hendrix and stuff,” she says — and was raised in the Catskills in a little town outside Woodstock, where his family held hootenannies outside their house every week.

Album: Earlier this year Markley released the solo album “One Word”, which was “a lesson in giving up control,” she says. Instead of playing any instruments, Markley performed with only her voice, accompanied by J Paul Slavens on piano, Bach Wilder Norwood on bass and Jeffrey Barnes on clarinet, flute and tenor sax. “We had very little time to put it together — they were rehearsing the day of recording,” Markley says. “I am such a control freak, but it was so liberating to get to focus only on vocals.”

Songs: “Probably my favorite one [on the ‘One Word’ album] is a Little Jack Melody song called, ‘When I Was a River’,” Markley says. “It’s almost more like an art song that you might hear at a composition recital or classical recital. The recording on his website has full orchestration, and we took it down to just the piano.”

What’s next: Markley and Balmer will perform at Eno’s Pizza on July 31. Markley’s music is available on iTunes, and her CDs also can be found at soonasongs.com, the website of independent record label Soona Songs.

The Happy Bullets
In forming the band, husband and wife Jason and Andrea Roberts “did things backward,” he says. “Most people start a band when they’re out of college; we kind of got married, started a family and started a band. When we showcased at [Austin’s] SXSW,” says the 35-year-old, “we felt like we were the parents there.”

Origins: Jason Roberts and Tim Ruble work together, and they connected over a record Ruble was playing by a band called The Miners, which Roberts describes as “throwbacks to the Beatles’ stuff, but modern takes on that. There are probably only three people in the city that have this record, so we thought, obviously, we need to be friends.”

Sound: Roberts describes the Bullets’ music as indie pop — “maybe the equivalent of what indie film would be.” Like aficionados of film, coffee or wine, their audience is a “niche of like-minded vagabonds.” Roberts says he and Ruble admire groups like They Might Be Giants, find themselves in the same vein as Flaming Lips or Polyphonic Spree, and that the Bullets “take our cues from the late ’60s Beatles-esque psychedelic noise and effects and horns and harmonies.” Their music tends to do well critically, Roberts adds, because the critics are “nerdy, quirky people like us.” Concert audiences, however, tend to range from only 10 to 100. That doesn’t faze them, however. “It’s a social outlet — a way of continuing to get art out,” he says. “It was always meant to be something for fun, and it’s something we’ll never stop doing because it’s just fun to get together.”

Album: Their last album, “The Vice and Virtue Ministry”, was released in 2005 and “did a whole play on British aristocracy,” Roberts says. “We’re tongue in cheek and do a lot of pretending that we’re overly erudite.” Their most recent album, “Hydropanic at the Natatorium”, is in the process of being pressed onto vinyl for an upcoming release. “Our genre is a big fan of putting out LPs, which just adds to our pretensions,” Roberts quips. “Only people with record players can listen to us — that’s how exclusive we are.” Interested listeners also can find their music at iTunes, amazon.com, and “might want to check the used bins at record stores,” Roberts says.

Songs: One of Roberts’s favorites is lyrics he wrote for his wife about all the things that would happen “If You Were Mine”. “I was trying to do all these ridiculous sentiments in a song,” he says, and the list includes “read Kierkegaard to make you think I’m bright” and “talk exclusively of European wines.”

What’s next: Expect an album release party once “Hydropanic” makes its debut, and catch The Happy Bullets this month at Amsterdam Bar, 831 Exposition. The Saturday, July 18 show starts at 10 p.m. Find more information at amsterdambar.blogspot.com.

Bona Fide Blues
Their résumé includes a performance at the Nokia Theater in Times Square, but it’s a venue that these blues musicians would never have dreamed of only five years ago, when they began playing together in Kessler Park garages.

Origins: The band has undergone a few iterations, but it started out as simply a group of Oak Cliff friends. “We all used to go to the same parties, and found out we all played instruments,” says the band’s lead vocalist, Bill Ford. “Originally we got together just to jam, and we were sort of sitting around thinking, ‘Gosh, do you think we could ever play a gig in front of people? We knew three songs, I think.” “We used to wear our friends out with those three songs,” chimes in rhythm guitarist Richard Akers. “The only reason I’m singing is because no one else would,” Ford says, to which Akers adds: “And come to find out he has a pretty good voice.”

Influences: The musicians draw from Stevie Ray Vaughan, of course, as well as blues great Willie Dixon and guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Their set is mainly songs by Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton, but “what we try to find is blues songs that aren’t as mainstream, so people get introduced to a wider range of the blues,” Akers says. Every member of the group played in some sort of high school band — “These are my junior high and high school drums,” says Ben James, gesturing toward his set — and they appreciate the Oak Cliff blues heritage of people like T-Bone Walker. “Oak Cliff to us is really the nucleus of a lot of Texas Blues,” says vocalist and harmonica player Doug May. “We think it’s the right place to be to play the blues.”

Claim to fame: The Times Square gig was the “Battle of the Ad Bands”, part of an Adweek magazine conference. Bona Fide Blues, sponsored by May’s brand managing agency, May & Company, was selected as a finalist after sending in a demo of Lonnie Mack and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Oreo Cookie Blues”, then garnered enough votes in the online competition to be invited to New York City. “We were viewing it as the pinnacle of our careers at that point,” Ford says of the performance in front of a crowd of 1,500. “It may be,” May notes. The battle was an “American Idol”-esque setup where judges made comments following each performance. Their favorite remark came from producer Phil Ramone, who has worked with artists like Frank Sinatra and Madonna, and told them: “Boys, I love the blues, and you guys brought it.” Unfortunately, as Ford jokingly points out: “He didn’t sign us.”

What’s next: Bona Fide Blues has two regular gigs a month in our neighborhood, one at Jack’s Backyard and one at Eno’s Pizza — “both of which we actually get paid for,” says lead guitarist Mike Martin. “Which is rare in the garage band business,” Akers adds. Catch them at a special Belmont Hotel performance on July 4, at the Jack’s Backyard Battle of the Bands on July 5, and at Eno’s on July 17. The group eventually hopes to put out a CD of original songs, which so far include: “Low Down Dirty Woman”, “Bad Girls”, “Oh, Lynette!”, “Twister Sister” and “(I’ve Got the) Bona Fide Blues”. Listen to their music at bonafideblues.com.

Roger Simpson
Roger Simpson spent most of his musical career — 23 years — on the Big Island in Hawaii. And, yes, he does play the ukulele, but only on occasion. These days you can hear him perform everything from Stephen Bishop to Elvis to Don Ho every Friday and Saturday night at Hula Hotties, a new café and bakery on Davis run by Simpson and his wife, Jill Inforzato.

Origins: “When I was in sixth grade, the junior high teacher came in and said if we took an instrument in band, we could get out of class on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons,” Simpson says. “I thought that was a pretty good deal.” He chose the alto saxophone. Once in college, Simpson had decided to study nuclear physics and planned to design nuclear bombs. “Then I discovered music theory, and you don’t have to have the right answer in music theory — there are lots of right answers.”

Influences: In college, Simpson joined a bubble gum band in the same vein as The Archies. The group knew so many Monkees songs that it had a Monkees medley, he says. The band decided to go on the road, so Simpson dropped out of college during the Vietnam War — “Why stay in college when you can get called and go off to war?” he asks. He somehow wound up in Australia in a calypso band with a group of Trinidadians. When his visa was about to expire, he heard from a friend who had moved to Kona on the Big Island, and told him about a jazz gig at a restaurant there. By the time Simpson arrived on the island, the gig was no longer available. “I was about 35 by that time, and just got tired of traveling, so instead of going on and chasing the gigs, I just stayed there and washed dishes and whatever else I had to do to make the rent.” One tactic he tried was running an ad for vocal lessons. The only person who responded was Inforzato. “She just got it into her head that she wanted to be a singer in a rock band,” Simpson says. “She couldn’t really carry a tune, but she sure could cook.”

Album: Between helping Inforzato run a wholesale bakery and making deliveries around the island, Simpson would do “convention work — standing there in a tuxedo with a saxophone at the resorts on the west coast of Hawaii,” and play in clubs around Kona. After 9/11, all of the night jobs in Kona disappeared, so Simpson found himself sitting outside of a restaurant that had laid him off, and each night he sold Inforzato’s cookies, taught himself how to play the ukulele, and wrote 50 or 60 Christian songs. Some of them made it onto his first album, “Rejoice”, and others are on an album he wrapped up just this summer, “Bible in the Sky”. On the albums, he plays all kinds of instruments in genres ranging from Jawaiian, country, soul, blues and jazz.

Songs: One of his favorites is “This Is How a Cactus Grows”, inspired by the fact that cacti grows all over Hawaii in a tropical climate, as well as in the thickest rainforests and driest deserts. “Life gets harder for everything else, but it survives, and in fact it thrives because more of the weaker plants get out of the way,” Simpson explains. “In the Bible, it’s like leaven that grows all through the bread. It’s just something that occurred to me.” Another favorite is “Be Still and Know That I Am God”, in which the melody line is “quite monotonous — two notes keep repeating over and over — but everything else around it is changing, and you’ve got to listen to hear the melody. It’s not a very quiet song.”

What’s next: Both of Simpson’s albums are available for purchase or download on cafepress.com. Catch him on Friday and Saturday nights at Hula Hotties, Madison and Davis, where Simpson starts playing at 6 p.m. The café is a dream come true for both Inforzato and him. “I got my wish, which was having a place to play where I wouldn’t be fired or downsized,” Simpson says. “Jill got her wish to show off her baking — she can bake in her sleep — and develop her chef skills.” His set begins with mostly “light lounge stuff, so I don’t blow the parsley off the plates,” Simpson says. “Sometimes other people drop in and plug into my little PA system, and we jam.”

Floramay Holliday

The older girls at the all-female boarding school Floramay Holliday attended taught her how to play guitar chords when she was 15. She studied photography in college, and had a career in medical photography for about 10 years following, but Holliday couldn’t shake the music bug, and played the coffee shop circuit until that no longer satisfied her.

Origins: “I decided I had all these songs in my bag, and wanted to go record a record,” Holliday says. “Austin had been the mecca for me my whole life — my dad is from Texas, and I grew up watching ‘Austin City Limits’ — so I took off with my car and my dog and my guitar.” Once she arrived in 1998, Holliday was introduced to other musicians by people like the late Clifford Antone, whose legendary nightclub was known as Austin’s Home of the Blues, and by the “Austin City Limits” photographer, who hired Holliday to do his darkroom work. “When he couldn’t make one of the shows, I got to be the photographer,” she says. “I dove into the scene, and there’s no better school I could have gone to.”

Influences: Holliday grew up listening to “The Outlaws — Willie and Waylon — and the old country, like Hank Williams,” she says.

 

Singer-songwriters from the ’70s like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown also made their mark. “All of my records sort of have that diverse genre thing,” Holliday says. “It’s hard to peg it because it’s cross genres, blues then a bluegrass song. It’s all different styles.”

Album: Love brought her to Oak Cliff (husband Gabor Racz, more specifically), and this is where Holliday recorded her third and most recent album, “Dreams”. The big difference between this album and her last is that she is now married with children, so whereas the second album contained a love song to her dog, the third one is “more mature, and sort of from a woman’s perspective.” This record is also the first that Holliday has produced on her own. “I learned I can trust my own ear and my decision making, and unless I find Sheryl Crow to produce the next one, I’ll probably do it again.”

Songs: The song “Girl’s Night” was written after the birth of Holliday’s first child, 3-year-old Flora. “The husband in the story is doing his own thing, and the wife says, ‘That’s OK because I have girls night tonight,’” she explains. Holliday is part of a couple of female collaborations — SASS (South Austin Soul Sisters) is a duo with 2008 Texas State Musician Shelley King, and the two co-created Sis Deville, “the Cadillac of girl rock bands,” she says. All of these girlfriends were invited to the studio to sing the last chorus of “Girl’s Night”.

What’s next: Holliday spends a couple of months every summer in upstate New York, but she returns in August and will perform at Bolsa that month. Her music can be found at floramay.com, and Indigo in the Bishop Arts District carries her “Dreams” record.
 


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  • Being from OC (five gereations, starting in the late 1800’s) I was thrilled to read these articles. When you have IC blood flowing through your veins, it’s hard not to read about all of the famous people from Oak Cliff and not get teary-eyed.

    Thank you so much for the articles.

  • yolanda nix

    that’s BluesQueen to you Russell..214-664-2579…since I know how you loose numbers…
    Miss you!

  • Robert Hernandez

    Where is Russell Stonecypher?? Would like to have a chance to say hello ole friend. Yo know where we are. Call Yola Nix.

  • Jim Dawson

    I was a member of Image, one of the bands on “A New Hi”.
    It sure would be nice if we could have some type of reunion. Even though the album cover said 1971, we actually did the recording in late 1970. So next year will be the 40th anniversary of a small event which influenced all of our lives. I can help locate whoever we still need to find.

  • Carlos

    Hey, I am one of the Oak cliff artist from the Sour Grapes Crew. Check me out at http://www.carlosdonjuan.com and http://www.sourgrapes13.com

    Carlos

  • Jay Vinton

    I was next door neighbor to Russell Stonecypher mentioned in Robert Ware’s project, for 15 yrs on Winston St. in Oak Cliff. Being a guitar player myself, I robbed him blind all those years. 😉 A better musician and guitar player you will not find anywhere on the planet.

    I miss my friend and jam partner of so many years. Moving to Hawaii, I brought all of my stolen licks with me…. Eh, Where you learn dat?? Oak Cliff, I miss ya!!!!

  • Larry Burns

    Good story,I was the singer in a band at that time and played around many of these guy’s.The names Brown, Stonecypher,and Wallace bring back memories of jammin with my half brother Dan Kinney and Samford many years later at Dan’s house on Tyler street near Wynnewood. I am a writer, own a music venue and would love to sponsor a live reunion. Larry Burns email citizenempowered@gmail.com

  • Stephanie, Tefi Designs

    This is a great article! I’m so fortunate to live in such a cool town where I can make and design my own jewelry line, and be surrounded by other creative people from all genres and tastes. I could not have picked a better place to buy and home and start a family.

  • Kevin at The Cube Creative

    I feel so fortunate to know so many of these awesome people. I knew there was a karmic reason we opened our art studio & gallery here. Everyone’s so creative – so intertwined – and so productive. I love Oak Cliff from the graffiti artists of Sour Grapes to the shops like Make in the Bishop Arts Square. Even Dallas’ only REAL local arts Magazine, THE Magazine are my neighbors. Rock On talented O.C.!!