BACK IN THE DAY, Odessa was one of the meanest towns on earth. While the Chamber of Commerce may pooh-pooh the notion, a check of FBI capital crime statistics indicates Odessa has more than its share of shenanigans and skullduggery and always has. Currently, the FBI regional office for Midland/Odessa is the busiest in the country, although these days the emphasis is more on white collar crime and real estate swindles than first-degree murder or barroom brawls. Not surprisingly, music, money and crime frequently run together, so Odessa wound up with more than its share of music notables, particularly from 1949 (the year I was born) to 1973 (the year I left town for good).
Over the half century I’ve been away, I’ve gradually come to the conclusion Odessa was essentially another Las Vegas — give or take a few ordinances. The thesis is simple: draw a crude box around Odessa extending north to Lubbock, east to San Angelo, south to the border and west to Van Horn. Conclusion? The square mileage without alcohol is mind-boggling. While in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, male workers — and in their footsteps, the mob — flocked to Las Vegas for jobs on the massive federal Hoover Dam project (work commenced in 1931) and, eventually, night life, booze and gambling, 1,000 miles east sat Odessa with its saloons, dancehalls, liquor stores and private (but illegal just the same) poker games, a literal Sodom and Gomorrah smack dab in the middle of a massive potential market fueled by prolific petroleum production, cattle ranching and military bases. While Odessa never had the huge hotels that drew crowds that could support the Rat Pack and other national celebrities, Odessa had its share of talent, both imported and homegrown.
VISITORS’ REGISTER: (clockwise from top left) Waylon Jennings (l) and Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Tommy Allsup of the Texas Playboys, Roy Clark, Elvis Presley and Moon Mullican all came to Odessa / allmusic.com
The greater Permian Basin is the definition of arid, but water was discovered in the area in 1880, and Odessa was settled by 1881, originally as a water station and livestock shipping point on the Texas and Pacific Railway. (Las Vegas wouldn’t come into being until 1910.) The town was isolated, sleepy and dry — and not just the climate, either. But in 1891, Sheriff Elias Dawson and his wily brothers skirted deed restrictions by literally building an “open saloon” in the middle of a street, as the restrictions forbade any alcohol establishment “on a platted lot.” A group of Methodist women called the White Ribboners eventually filed suit against the establishment, and the 1896 trial ended Odessa’s first attempt at insobriety — although in the turmoil leading up to the trial the Methodist college and church mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground.
While the court ruled against the Dawson brothers, it also ruled the deed restriction wasn’t legal. Finally, after two more establishments were closed due to legalities in place, Sheriff John Thomas and partner Mollie Williams opened a saloon/pool hall at the corner of Second Street and Grant Avenue, the town’s main streets, in 1927. (Ironically, sheriffs have figured heavily in Odessa’s wild and wooly history, usually erring on the side of the wild and wooly rather than the righteous and indignant.)
OIL AND WINE: (from left) The Penn Well, 1929; historical marker commemorating the city’s first saloon, which skirted the law and was ultimately closed / odessahistory.com
The discovery of oil on the Connell Ranch — the well discovered oil but wasn’t commercial — triggered the arrival of oil prospectors in 1927, which was just the fertilizer fresh local drinking establishments required to flourish. The first mayor was elected the same year, and the population had grown to 1,100 before numerous nearby commercial oil discoveries swelled the population to 4,000 by 1935. (By ’35, Vegas had 25,000 inhabitants; the first casinos began in 1931, and the city got electricity in 1937.) With saloons and a hard-scrabble workforce with money in its pockets, Odessa rapidly became the Sin City of a vast area where alcohol and adult entertainment — music, dancing, gambling and “dance partners” — had been as rare as rain.
As the country transformed itself into a major world power, Odessa became a magnet for military personnel from a handful of new airbases at where-the-hell places like Pyote (near Pecos), Big Spring, Marfa, San Angelo and even as far away as Church of Christ bastion Abilene. Add to the soldiers thousands of cowpokes and roughnecks, ranchers and wildcatters, and cotton farmers and truckers, and the market for booze, gambling, women — and later narcotics — was, like a West Texan’s thirst, virtually unquenchable. Criminal elements multiplied like fleas on a mangy dog.
Founded in the same year only 20 miles apart and similar in size, Odessa and Midland were separated by a huge social gulf. Home to all the major oil companies opening offices in the exploding Permian Basin, Midland had “skyscraper” office buildings and eventually took on “The Tall City” as its civic ego. Odessa was a blue-collar town populated by drilling crewmen and oilfield service personnel, while Midland was dominated by oil company executives, engineers, landmen, attorneys, office flunkies and preachers — like the George H.W. Bush family — who transferred in from the East Coast.
CRUDE AND REFINED: Downtown Midland, with its upright sense of self, served as a stark contrast to Odessa’s racy nightlife, which attracted many a Midland inhabitant seeking excitement / midlandtexas.gov
Uppity, stodgy and pretentious, Midland fancied itself refined — it had a symphony, a playhouse and the Midland Country Club, one of the most exclusive in the state. So, naturally, Midlanders preferred to slip 20 miles over to Odessa for any sinning they needed to do rather than sully their own respectable burgh with bars and all that came with them. Given the socio-cultural divide between the two cities, the old saw in the Permian Basin became: “Raise your kids in Midland; raise your hell in Odessa.”
Gambling never became legal in Odessa, but anyone with a roll could find a game any night, whether at a private home in Country Club Estates or at the Golden Rooster Club atop the city’s largest hotel, where a deputy sheriff checked “membership” at the door. It’s not a coincidence that many of the gamblers who became famous when poker moved to television were just people you saw around Odessa. There was a lot of money in town looking for excitement.
Just how much did Odessans — and their brethren who drove miles through the dry hinterland to slake their thirsts — like their alcohol? Only a decade after legalization, Odessa boasted more than 350 establishments that sold alcohol, a per capita number that would embarrass the most back-sliding minister. Writing in the book Odessa 100, former Texas secretary of state and Odessa leading light John Ben Shepherd declared: “From 1936 to the early 1950s, there were more bars and package stores in Odessa than all other retail outlets combined.” Let that soak in for a minute.
BIG AND TINY: The Golden Rooster Club atop the Inn of the Golden West (left photo); Tiny Colbert (third from left in right photo) and his Sunshiners at the DanceLand Club in Odessa, early 1950s / From left: odessahistory.com; allmusic.com
Similar to Fort Worth’s notorious (and mob-dominated) Jacksboro Highway, bar fights, knifings and shootings were common as jackrabbits along the notorious Andrews Highway (US 385) in north Odessa and in parts of west Odessa. In a remote city flush with money and party-seekers starved for entertainment, club owners began to book bands, both local and touring. That was the terrain encountered by popular musicians and bandleaders like Western swinger Tiny Colbert and piano boogie monster Moon Mullican, who smelled money and good times among the roughnecks and roustabouts.
A rowdy, hard-drinking East Texan who’d been a star in Houston and Nashville before relocating to Odessa circa 1949, Mullican, whose country boogie piano was a template for Jerry Lee Lewis and others, was just one of many notable entertainment figures associated with the thriving Permian Basin oil economy. My father recalls seeing Roy Clark playing slide guitar — using some audience member’s loafer as the slide — in a west Odessa tonk one night long before Clark became a well-known country picker and television personality. A roustabout from Oklahoma with acting aspirations named James Garner was often in attendance. Another old family story involves my dad’s cousin Cliff New buying an underage Roy Orbison a beer at a tonk called Frady’s, where Roy and his band were performing on the back of a stake-bed truck in the parking lot under some elm trees on a hot afternoon. Roy would immortalize his wife, Odessan Claudette Frady, the owner’s niece, years later with the hit song “Claudette.” While attending Odessa College, Orbison met Bonham native Joe Melson, who had a rockabilly outfit called the Cavaliers, and the two collaborated to write “Only the Lonely,” the first operatic ballad, in 1960.
KING OF THE HILLBILLY PIANO PLAYERS: Moon Mullican (left), who was the first performer to captivate the author, once said he could “make the bottles bounce on the tables.” Among the venues he played in Odessa was the Ace of Clubs (right photo) / From left: allmusic.com; courtesy ace of clubs
Ironically, rock ’n’ roll and television arrived in West Texas almost simultaneously. My first memories of television mingle in a childhood that included Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Bill Haley, the birth of rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino. Midland station KMID went live in 1955, the year rock ’n’ roll blew up, and KOSA in Odessa began broadcasts the following year. So my earliest memories of television heroes involve Mullican, the flamboyant hillbilly boogie king tonker. A hard drinker himself and too old-school to fit the image of the new rock ’n’ roll, Mullican did two stretches in Odessa during the period and, although I was totally unaware of his presence in Odessa, he’s my earliest television memory via his electrifying appearances on the Grand Ole Opry.
My widowed grandmother had the first TV in our family, and I often spent weekends at her place, where she was somewhat liberal with the official bedtime. I studied the television for any hint that Mullican might appear on the Opry a certain Saturday night almost as much as she studied Oral Roberts, a budding televangelist. On nights when Mullican was billed to appear, I was allowed to stay up late to catch my hero’s performance. With his eye-magnetizing hereford rawhide suit and matching hat, Mullican made guys like Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb seem rather bland, staid, tame — shall we say “un-rock ’n’ roll”? So before I was aware of Chuck Berry, Elvis or Fats Domino, I had a visual of Mullican tearing it up. He was the forget-what-your-parents-say wildness of rock ’n’ roll no matter how “country” or “hillbilly” his stage get-up.
Trust me, Mullican didn’t move to Odessa because he thought it was going to be glamorous — he went for the money. He augmented his income with an afternoon DJ slot on KECK-AM, after which he probably tried to grab a nap before running to his show at the Ace of Clubs or DanceLand, the largest dancehall in West Texas (my parents expressly forbade me to even pass by the Ace of Clubs, the Pelican Club, the Drillers Club or the notorious Nip ’N’ Sip, which police eventually closed as a public nuisance after so many killings and brawls). Making good money, Mullican put together legendary bands that served as the score for whatever barroom brouhaha went down. A master of Texas barroom beats, he knew what the job was: if the dance floor was empty, you wouldn’t be working DanceLand or the Ace of Clubs anymore.
KILLER POSE: The author in his living room, 1973. He was working at KOYL radio in Odessa at this time / Courtesy William Michael Smith
Two Mullican sidemen went on to their own fame after a meeting in the green room at the Ace of Clubs prior to Mullican’s 1958 New Year’s Eve show. Buddy Holly, who had broken big and was planning a long winter tour to restart his career, drove down to Odessa on New Year’s Eve and enlisted Mullican’s bassist Waylon Jennings and guitarist Tommy Allsup for the fateful Winter Tour. A big fan of Mullican’s, Holly even played drums with the band that night.
Jennings’ history with Odessa is short yet storied. He drifted into the murky world of radio DJs and barroom musicians and had known Holly in Lubbock, where he’d DJed and also cut some sides with Holly as producer. (Jennings always credited Holly with telling him, “Don’t let them make you just a country singer — you’re better than that.”) During his Odessa period, Jennings deejayed at KOYL-AM, one of three country stations in the area, and played in Mullican’s band at night. According to my father, Waylon just disappeared from Odessa one night — headed to Phoenix with someone else’s girlfriend.
Author’s Note: So one windy, dusty, boring winter Sunday in early 1973, I’m working my usual 12-hour solo Sunday shift at KOYL, by then AM and FM. Owned by Yale graduate Edward Roskelly (a.k.a. “Ross the Boss”), the station was the first fully automated operation in the U.S. I snagged a job there in 1972 after getting a broadcast license at Odessa College. Since there were no live DJs, my duty that Sunday was to sweep out all the cobwebs and dust under our extensive control console. I’m down on hands and knees with a rag gathering cobwebs when I spy a stack of 4-track cartridges, the ones used back in the day to cut commercials. I pull them out into the light and read “Waylon – Tower Food Market” on the spine. Waylon was rolling hard at that time, mostly due to his role in the Nashville Rebel movie, and he and Willie were about to make their big move.
I shoved one of the carts in, pushed play, and sure enough it’s Waylon plunking on an acoustic guitar and singing the Tower Food market jingle. On others, he earnestly sang the week’s specials. When Ross stumbled in late that afternoon after the AA meeting where we sold all the best advertising, I showed him my discovery. He pushed play and listened to the jingle. “Yeah, that’s Waylon.” And he scooped up the pile and headed toward his office, tossing the tapes in the trash as he walked out. I left them. I liked that job. I also found rare Waylon 45s like “My Baby Walks All Over Me” on Wendy Bagwell’s Trend label at the station that year.
RED HEADED STRANGER: Willie Nelson (center of left photo) played Odessa’s then-new nightclub, the Stardust (middle photo). Above, he’s shown at the Stardust in 1964. The price of entry to see Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings at the Ector Theater (right) was two Foremost Milk carton tops / From left: Courtesy Reddit; Courtesy Stardust; Courtesy Ector Country Coliseum
Tommy Allsup’s Odessa association is filled with kismet, hard work, talent and more than a little financial acumen. A great player and judge of talent, Allsup would actually become best known as a record producer, both for major labels in Los Angeles and Nashville and at his own studio in Odessa, where he recorded the one-hit wonder “The Year 2525” in 1969 and the Flatlanders’ legendary 1972 “demo” for producer Shelby Stephenson — described as one of the earliest examples of alternative country/Americana — that was finally made widely available in 2012.
While I never saw Mullican, I saw Roy Orbison, Odessa’s first true teen star, a handful of times before Jerry Lee Lewis loaned him the $50 Orbison calculated he’d need to get to Memphis and impress Sun Records founder Sam Phillips in 1956 as rock ’n’ roll washed over the country. Orbison and the Wink Westerners were already a popular West Texas band, having won a local talent contest that secured them a slot as regular performers on a weekend afternoon television program on KMID before being lured to rival Odessa station KOSA in 1956 as the featured weekly entertainment on a television program broadcast direct from the showroom floor of Pioneer Furniture, just blocks from our house. While the parents wandered among the recliners and bedroom suites, the kids gathered in front of Roy and the band, waiting for the next jolt of excitement. Orbison was already semi-famous around the area for his rocking version of “Ooby Dooby,” which he’d learned from writers Dick Penner and Wade Moore during a semester at North Texas State University, where Orbison briefly studied geology. He transferred to Odessa College, where he met singer/writer Joe Melson who fronted his own band, the Cavaliers. Orbison and Melson would both relocate to Nashville, where both continued to record and compose hits for Orbison and other Monument Records artists.
My earliest brush with live music was Roy and the Teen Kings playing on the back of a flatbed truck on Nickel Cone Night at Otto’s Ice Cream in south Odessa. I saw him again at a show at the Ector Theater (the price of entry was two Foremost Milk carton tops), and again that one afternoon in the parking lot at Frady’s. I was considered too young to attend, but my aunt Ruby Briley hired Orbison to play my cousin Judy’s 16th birthday party. Roy packed up and split for Memphis when I was in first grade, and I never saw him again.
ROCKING THE HOUSE: The Ector County Coliseum was built in 1954, just in time for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. In April 1955, a concert by Elvis Presley was moved from Odessa High School to the coliseum to accommodate the crowd / elvisconcerts.com
With its excess cash, Odessa drew regional and national touring bands, and during this period my parents took me to see my first big professional show — stage lights, sequins, Nudie suits — when the Louisiana Hayride touring ensemble played the Floyd Gwinn (Ector County) Auditorium. Meanwhile at Odessa High, my cousin Paula Briley attended two performances in the school auditorium by budding star Elvis Presley in January and February 1955. By April, Elvis was too big for the school gym, and his shows were moved to the Ector County Coliseum, which still serves as Odessa’s largest concert venue to this day.
With the arrival of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 (I was in eighth grade), the Odessa scene adapted. Honky tonk certainly didn’t go away — Willie Nelson (a close friend of Odessa sheriff Slim Gabrel), Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Bob Wills, Hoyle Nix and Ernest Tubb gigged constantly at the new nightclub in town, the Stardust on Andrews Highway — but bands like Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs and even the legendary British invasion band Them played Odessa while I was in high school.
Of course, golden ages always manage to end. By 1973, Nashville-based Monument Records had discovered another Odessa act who’d go on to flood country radio with 33 saccharine countrypolitan Top 40 hits over the next decade — Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.