The film argues that three things combined to give Dallas legitimate claim to that title: radio, records and the blues. More specifically, radio station KZEW (The Zoo) was the most influential rock station in the Southwest for years after its inception; Dallas was a key player in the record distribution game with warehouses that provided records to the entire region; and the city was also home to Freddie King and boasted a rich blues history that includes Robert Johnson’s recording of “Hellhound on My Trail“ and both Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker holding court in Deep Ellum.
Warnock, who also narrates the film, played a role in that history. From 1976 to ’82 he served as editor of Dallas-based Buddy magazine, described in the film as “a sort of Texas version of Rolling Stone.“ And an integral component of the film is the countless photos of artists performing and hanging out in historic Dallas venues (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton and countless others) that were taken by Warnock and fellow Buddy staffers Stoney Burns and Ron McKeown. Those photos, along with the eloquent homage paid to blues legend Freddie King, are worth the price of admission, not to mention the priceless interview with Jimmie Vaughan in which he tells a story of how he once traded wah-wah pedals with Jimi Hendrix before a performance in Dallas.
Warnock’s love for that now-long-gone era of Dallas history is apparent, and those who had the good fortune of living in Dallas at that time will surely be entranced. But for those who draw a blank upon hearing names like John LaBella, Stoney Burns, Jon Dillon and John Rody, the lengthy, adulatory history of Buddy and radio station KZEW might prove taxing despite the film’s concise one-hour running time. And despite Warnock’s claim that the making of the film is not “sour grapes“ over Dallas’ nearly forgotten triumphant musical past, it’s hard to not to pick up on a sense of bitterness as he laments Dallas ultimately losing its battle with Austin for musical relevance.
As he makes clear — repeatedly — there was a time when Dallas was cool. “When the notorious punk band the Sex Pistols did their one and only tour of the United States,“ Warnock narrates, “they skipped Austin entirely and played the Dallas Longhorn Ballroom, a nightclub once owned by Jack Ruby. While the Sex Pistols got a bit out of sorts in some other cities, they seemed to enjoy their stay in Dallas, especially the women.“
Warnock admirably fulfills his goal of conveying a sense of Dallas’ nearly lost, grand musical past, a time before cell phones and social media, when people still listened to local radio, read local music magazines, bought records at local stores and packed local venues to see legends local and national, equally esteemed. And he makes clear that, in large part, Dallas has no one to blame but itself for now being barely a footnote in Texas music history. Dallas, unlike Austin, has failed to proclaim its musical heritage. Instead, he says, Dallas is keener on paying tribute to its business and civic leaders, with statues of businessmen Julius Schepps and George Dealey but none of local musical legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Blind Lemon Jefferson. Perhaps When Dallas Rocked can serve as a first step in changing that.
— LINC LEIFESTE