The Rainbow Music Hall, located at Monaco and Evans in Southeast Denver, opened on January 26th, 1979 with a “Gala Opening” featuring Jerry Jeff Walker. For almost 10 years and over 1,000 shows the Rainbow offered up a wide variety of musical acts, including U2, Roxy Music, New Order, The Talking Heads, and many others. Underemployed and underfunded Denver music fans were fond of the frequent $2 ticket prices, including shows by Devo and the Police. The final show was Warren Zevon in November 1988. More on the history of the Rainbow can be found on the Twist & Shout blog, Spork.
B50 Note: Thanks to Kim Allen for providing the opening night program.
Willie Lewis is a bonafide Denver hero. I am very serious when I say that there should be a statue of this man in a Denver park somewhere, holding a scratchy ’50s-era 45 RPM record in his hand. Willie Lewis is an acclaimed rockabilly singer/songwriter/performer, president of Denver’s Rock-A-Billy Records and a world-class record collector. If you have ever met him, you would say that he has the unaffected personality of a wild west icon, like maybe Buffalo Bill. But most of all Willie Lewis is a hard boiled survivor.
He has survived a horrible childhood blood disease (a disease that had killed all male victims prior to Lewis surviving his own procedure). He survived a rough childhood that took him in and out of orphanages, in and out of trouble and eventually landing him in Buena Vista Correctional. He survived an attack on his house and home by a PCP-crazed maniac who jumped through his window and attacked his family (forcing him to be the first in Denver to exercise the famous local “Make-My-Day” law. Yes, this is true!) And most of all, Willie Lewis has survived numerous heart attacks that have led to him having a pacemaker, a defribilator and so many stents that I cannot count them.
What keeps this man alive? He is simply: Too Ornery To Die.
Truthfully though, there are two other factors keeping him going, the love of his life Mary Lou and his respectful dedication to the music he loves… rockabilly. And Lewis knows rockabilly. I guarantee you, no one else knows rockabilly better. Willie Lewis could be recognized as the living breathing embodiment of rockabilly personified.
If you are a Denver resident and you are thinking “I have never heard of Willie Lewis”, this has a lot to do with the fact that he has never cared about commercial pop success. He knows his audience and his audience knows him. In Europe, his records from the ’80s and ’90s sell for as much money as collectable original rockabilly records from the ’50s. One rockabilly band even moved to Denver from Portugal to learn from this man.
Way back in the late 1970s, after having collected every rockabilly, doo-wop, country and blues 45 many times over, Lewis thought it was about time to try to record his own 45. He released the famous R-101 45 “The Rockin Blues” on his own Rock-A-Billy Records, distributed by Denver’s Wax Trax store. As a matter of fact, for at least a decade, the only way you could get your hands on a Rock-A-Billy Record was through Wax Trax! Travelers from countries like Japan, Germany and Finland would always stop at Wax Trax and “load up” on rare Rock-A-Billy Records’ releases.
Since that first release, Rock-A-Billy Records has put out over thirty 45 RPM records (on colored vinyl, a Rock-A-Billy Records trademark), a handful of 10″ EPs, a couple of 12″ LPs, 4 or 5 CDs, and even one 10″ 78 RPM record (!) by High Noon. Not only is Lewis himself represented under names like Willie & The String-Poppers, Billy & The Bop-Cats, King Cat & The Pharoahs, The Bop-A-Whiles and Delmer Spudd & The Spuddnicks (who did an incredible show at The Oxford Hotel for the 1996 Best of Westword Showcase), but he has also released records by High Noon (from Texas), Go Cat Go (from Maryland), Ronnie Dawson (famous for his ’50s record “Rockin’ Bones”), Carl Sonny Leyland (boogie woogie pianist from England), Kidd Pharaoh (from Denver), The Road House Rockers, The Hal Peters Trio (from Finland), The Original Stablemen (from Germany), ’50s rockabilly singer Don Rader, The Barnshakers (from Finland), Little Roy & The Ramblers (from Denver), and 1995 Westword cover-story band the Tennessee Boys (from Portugal). He recently put out a great new CD by Denver band Jimmy Lee Rollins and the Rocks (starring Jim Holdridge).
Aside from releases on own Rock-A-Billy Records, Willie Lewis has also released recordings on Lewmann Records, Waterhole Records, Bop-Land Records (out of Germany) and Goofin’ Records (out of Finland). There was even a large book put out in Germany with the lengthy title “The Story of a Hep Cat: Life and Music of Willie Lewis and His Rock-A-Billy Record Company” by Sven Bergmann in 2003. Lewis has recently come out of retirement and started issuing new Rock-A-Billy Records colored-vinyl 45s and has a new LP “Don’t Shoot Me Baby” on France’s Hog Maw Records that sounds ace!
BuckFifty is about Denver history and here we have this amazing Denver artist who has flown under the radar for many years and is a true Denver legend. So help me here, who do I talk to about this statue? I just saw the esteemed Mayor Hickenlooper introduce X at the Bluebird on Tuesday, maybe he would be sympathetic if he knew that Denver is home to one of the truest rockabilly recording artists of all time and would realize that future generations will be hunting down the story of this amazing man.
B50 Note: For more on Willie Lewis and Rock-A-Billy Records visit their website or their myspace page. Tom Lundin is an illustrator, photographer, and chronicler of mid-century modern architecture in Denver. Find out more at his website, modmidmod.com.
In 1982, I was a bar fly. Six days a week, my friend Janice and I went to Walabi’s at 22 broadway. We’d meet around 9 pm after our jobs; Janice was a tele-marketer or somesuch and I worked days at my parents hardware store. We’d dance for hours, stopping to only to smoke, pee or to take a quick hit from a warm beer. Occasionally we’d ask guys to dance. But Janice was my main partner, we’d rigorously hop up and down for hours to music that sounded so good and so original and was wholly homegrown.
We were accepted as regulars pretty quickly, by the bands and friends-of-bands, and most importantly by the bouncer and doorman, Jim Scott. I was just 21 and pretty naive about things. Jim, a black guy at well over 6 feet tall and older than us, kept an eye out and became a friend. He ministered good advice — “Donna, don’t drink your beer with a straw” — and tips on who was good to hang out with and who was not so great. And he’d see us safely to our cars.
Most of the music was new wave with some rock-a-billy and punk. We’d wear un-breathable plastic pants in black or red with anything tight on top. We’d park on Broadway, lock the car and walk as fast as we could to the safety of the club. We’d pogo all night in short heeled ankle boots and leave at closing to go have a 3 am breakfast at Reed’s on 8th and Speer. Whether Reed’s was a gay and drag place all the time or just late night I don’t know, but Janice was hopelessly in love with one of the regulars so we’d go and eat eggs and drink coffee before going home to start all over again the next day.
I left for art school late in 1982, leaving the town and all the music I loved. I plastered my Kansas City dorm room with flyers from my time at Denver clubs, memories from nights at Walabi’s, Straight Johnson’s and the Mercury.
My favorite bands were The Pink, The Aviators, and The Rock Advocates. Great nights were also spent with the Astrobeats, Crank Call Love Affair and the Rotisseries — I don’t remember seeing anything I couldn’t dance to.
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B50 Note: Walabi’s closed its doors in 1985. Show flyers are courtesy of Trash Is Truth, where you will find images of hundreds of flyers from concerts in denver between 1977 and 1986. Donna Stephenson (formerly van horn) is an artist who lives in Denver. Her most recent exhibit was at Ironton Studios; her work can be seen on her website, donnastephenson.com.
For over 33 years, Marilyn Megenity and her crew at the Mercury Cafe have been providing Denver with healthy, organic, local food and a venue for an incredibly wide range of music and performance. There were legendary shows at the old location at 13th and Pearl, including X, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedy’s, and great local musicians ranging from Johnny Long to Kenny Vaughn to the Aviators and The Young Weasels.
And they’re still at it at their current home at 22nd and California, offering everything from poetry slams to tango lessons, documentary film to Vox Feminista, jazz piano with Joe Bonner to the experimental sounds of the Super Secret Messengers (who will be playing a concert this Thursday, December 4th at 9:30pm).
Denver is a city of alleys, not like, say, Portland (where dumpster diving is so much more difficult). In this video, Ravi and Matt (the bathhouse crew) rap their way through alleys in Denver until they discover some of what the alley holds…