TEXANS REGARD honky-tonks with a certain reverence. Some dance halls are even state historical landmarks. Need a conversation “icebreaker” in a crowd of Lone Star denizens? Mention Gruene Hall, Luckenbach, the Broken Spoke or London Hall.
But quick! Name a dance hall that hosted Ray Price, James Brown, the Sex Pistols and 2 Live Crew? Name a dance hall where soul star Johnny Taylor, Bob Wills and Merle all recorded “live” albums? Name a dance hall mentioned in the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy?
The answer? The Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas.
It’s a safe bet that the multifarious musical acts who’ve played the Longhorn Ballroom is unmatched in America. Mix in a list of famous quirky Texas characters, and you have to wonder why Gilley’s was chosen over the Longhorn Ballroom for the movie Urban Cowboy.
Any history of the Longhorn must start with the man who built the ballroom for Bob Wills in 1950: O.L. “Ocie” Nelms. Nelms was born “sometime” in 1907 near Palestine, Texas. Leaving school after the third grade, the eccentric Nelms loved to brag that “he started by selling possum hides for 25 cents a piece,” saved $30 and bought a tobacco and snuff business during the depression, then parleyed that business into real estate. He built and owned shopping centers, motels, a race track and a wholesale candy and tobacco outlet with his brother. At one time, Nelms was the largest property owner in Dallas.
Nelms was famous for his newspaper ads and billboards, which read, “Thanks to all for helping O.L. Nelms make another Million.” Nelms claimed he’d set aside $5 million for his funeral — he termed it “the dead man’s party.” Ultimately, the city of Dallas would prohibit the party when Nelms died in 1972 because Ocie wanted his coffin present at the cocktail soiree.
In late 1949 after living lavishly for years in California, Bob Wills was broke, drinking heavily and in debt to the IRS. Wills moved briefly to Oklahoma City — till Nelms offered to build him a club in Dallas. In 1950 the Bob Wills Ranch House opened at 200 Corinth St. A few blocks away was the famous Sportatorium, which hosted the Big D Jamboree and wrestling events. At the time, the Bob Wills Ranch House was the largest ballroom in Texas with a capacity to hold 1,250 two-steppers (often, in later years, more than 2,000 could squeeze in). With fiberglass Indians, teepees and cactus out front and a giant Longhorn bull beckoning under a sign, the Ranch House was pure Texas kitsch.
Inside, you walked past huge stuffed Longhorn heads on the walls to view the largest stage in the Southwest. A bar with 1,700 embedded silver dollars covered one entire wall and, of course, the waitresses all wore Dale Evans outfits. Wagon wheel light fixtures, steer skulls and murals of cowboys adorned the ballroom. There was even a custom stall for Bob Wills’ beloved horse Punkin. Punkin would wear rubber shoes when Bob road him across the dance floor. The Longhorn was a goat roper’s dream come true.
With three small children at home (after six marriages), Wills planned on using the Ranch House as a home base. He’d tour during the week and play Dallas on weekends. Wills was famously trusting and also famous as a binge drinker. After allowing unscrupulous managers and lawyers the run of the books, Wills was financially ruined in just a year and a half. He sold the rights to most of his music and accidentally included “San Antonio Rose” in the sale. The song would earn millions in later years. Nelms then leased the club to a newcomer to Dallas — Jacob Rubinstein, better known as Jack Ruby.
Ruby had shown up in Dallas a few years earlier replete in his sharkskin suits and fedora. With his usual brashness (he’d often ask total strangers for loans), Ruby had started broke but was operating the Silver Spur Club. Ruby borrowed $3,700 dollars from a friend named Ralph Paul and leased the Bob Wills Ranch House from Nelms in February 1952. But Ruby never fit in with the country and western crowd in his slick suits and his Chicago accent. Trying to operate two clubs at once, Ruby went bust, abandoned his debts and eventually high-tailed it back to Chicago. He’d resurface in Dallas six weeks later and in a few years opened his famous strip club, the Carousel.
Dewey Groom, a hillbilly singer from Mabank, discovered by radio personality Pappy Horton in 1946, was an acquaintance of Ruby’s. Groom regularly played the Silver Spur and Bob Wills Ranch House and had himself owned or operated a couple of clubs. Nelms and Groom became close, and Groom became the manager-bandleader-singer at what was now called the Longhorn Ranch House.
In 1958 Nelms sold the Longhorn to Groom for $6,000. Groom would own the dance hall during its heyday. Almost every star in country music played the Longhorn, including Willie, Merle, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Groom was well-liked by most everyone who met him. Nelson even covered a song Groom wrote called “Dallas” on his 1968 album Texas in My Soul. In the ’60s Groom changed the name of the dance hall to the Longhorn Ballroom.
On Nov. 24, 1963, Ruby would assassinate Lee Harvey Oswald on national television in front of millions of viewers. The FBI would investigate Ruby, the Longhorn and even Dewey Groom. All were mentioned in the Warren Commission Report on the death of President John F. Kennedy.
In the late 1960s, the Longhorn became host to many African-American artists. African-Americans often worked in the service industry and weren’t off on Saturday nights. Because of this, the black community considered Sunday or Monday their night out on the town. The Longhorn Ballroom hosted R&B stars on Monday nights. James Brown, Otis Redding and almost every famous blues performer played the Longhorn. Ray Charles, who lived briefly in Oak Cliff, was a regular.
The Longhorn became the home base for famous Dallas soul artist Johnnie Taylor. Groom hired African-American police officers and waitresses for Monday nights, not to arrest anyone but to keep the peace. Longtime Dallas promoter Angus Wynne said “It was the coolest night to see a show — everyone brought their own bottle, and reefer smoke filled the air.” Bobby Charles, who led the Longhorn house band for six years, said, “You could see George Jones on Saturday and B.B. King on Monday. No one matched our shows.” The zen was incredible.
On Jan. 10, 1978, the Sex Pistols came to the Longhorn. The club had hosted Alice Cooper previously, but it wasn’t ready for the English punk rock sensations. Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols’ manager, had purposely booked the group in smaller country venues to create tense atmospheres and culture clashes. The Sex Pistols’ show at the Longhorn Ballroom became worldwide news when a riot nearly ensued. A woman head-butted Sid Vicious after he taunted the crowd. Vicious smeared blood from his nose on his chest, cut himself and yelled “Cowboys are queers” to the crowd. More than 100 police officers earned their pay that night. A year later, Vicious would die from a heroin overdose.
It wasn’t unusual during the 1980s for the Longhorn to feature the Flaming Lips followed by Conway Twitty. Groom sold the Longhorn in 1986 to Ira Zack, an entrepreneur who owned another club called Belle Starr. The Longhorn began to feature newer bands, including George Thorogood and the Destroyers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Winter and the Georgia Satellites.
In October 1986, Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics almost caused a second riot at the show when she got into a fistfight with the manager of the heavy metal rockers Motorhead over who’d open the show. Williams, an Amazon with a mohawk, was famous for performing raucous punk rock nearly nude. Heavy metal-loving bikers pummeled punk rockers, and the mosh pit turned bloody. The floor was covered in vomit. Ira Zack, who loved the Longhorn’s history, clearly felt he’d somehow violated his stewardship of the iconic ballroom. After the show he stuck a gun in his mouth and committed suicide.
Zack’s suicide seemed to put a curse on the Longhorn Ballroom, which would open and close over the next couple of decades. The club continued with a variety of owners through the ’90s and early 2000s. In 1991 the hip-hop group 2 Live Crew refused to go on stage, and another near riot ensued between their fans and police. Lucinda Williams and the Old 97’s played the Longhorn as late as 2008. Currently the Longhorn is owned by Raul Ramirez, who also owns a Mexican restaurant next door. Raul leases the Longhorn out for parties, weddings and an occasional show. Today, vintage show tickets from the Jack Ruby era (marked “Bob Wills Ranch House, presented by Jack Ruby Ent. Inc.”) sell for hundreds of dollars.