Op-Ed written by Austin Music Commissioner, Joah Spearman
Bevis, Black, and Boundless
Bevis Griffin, a dynamic vocalist, drummer, and songwriter, spawned from the classic Texas rock scene of the early 1970s, and continuing throughout the new millennium to the present, has always been years ahead of his time. With his adventurous musical exploits and a career spanning the eras and sounds of Heavy Metal, Glam-Rock, Punk, New Wave, Reggae, Blues, and Funk, Bevis stands alone as Texas’ original missing-link to the musical genres popularized by Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Parliament Funkadelic and later optimized by superstars Prince, Living Colour and Lenny Kravitz. In telling the story of Texas’ modern musical history one comes across many stories of achievement, camaraderie, creativity, disappointment and, of course, Austin. Bevis M. Griffin, irrefutably the first Black man ever to become a significant force in Texas’ rock music history, but is ironically and inexplicably seldom mentioned on page one, two or three of that history, although he is perhaps the perfect embodiment of Texas’ musical growth over the last few decades since Janis Joplin’s early days in the Lone Star State. From W.C. Clark to Gary Clark, Jr., the legendary Texas’ blues scene has long-since achieved a level of notoriety seen only in Chicago and Memphis over the last half century. With Willie Nelson and Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, and the half dozen or so times they’ve played Austin City Limits together, you learn of musical kinship fostered by a love of live music. With the more diverse sounds stemming out of Texas from Austin indie favorites Spoon and Houston rapper Bun B to up-and-coming bands all over the state pining for SXSW gigs, you see extreme creativity put through the rigors of the billion-dollar music industry. Bevis Griffin’s story is one that combines all these elements and demonstrates what Texas music has always been about a desire to share one’s creativity with others no matter what the hurdles may be. Born in Los Angeles in 1953, the year Elvis Presley was making his first recordings and Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ was a hit, Bevis was quickly introduced to an increasingly progressive American music landscape. His father owned a barber shop not far from The Five-Four Ballroom where Bobby Blue Bland, Jackie Wilson and Ike Turner played further pushing a young Bevis along a musical path. By the time he was learning to beautifully play the clarinet and oboe in school, he’d already become so enamored with the sounds of Detroit (Motown), Memphis (Stax) and New York City (Atlantic) that a drum set seemed a more logical and promising instrument to see the world through a musical lens. It didn’t hurt that he was in the midst of the most prolific era in drumming history with Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, Cream’s Ginger Baker, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, James Brown’s Jabeaux Starks, Sly Stone and the Family Stone’s Greg Ericco and Funkadelic’s Tiki Fulwood. In the aftermath of his parent’s separation, Bevis was inadvertently relocated to Wichita Falls, TX, where he graduated from high school at the tender age of 16. Bevis then took his drum-set and musical intrigue across the U.S. as a freelance blues drummer, until arriving in Austin during the winter of 1971.
His arrival in Austin came at the same time that the capitol’s live music scene was starting to reap the benefits of having attracted a concoction of college students, musical prodigies and established touring acts. From 1968 to 1975, everything from Armadillo World Headquarters to Antone’s was founded and everyone from Marcia Ball to Joe Ely moved to the city, giving it the incomparable vibe of an affordable, energetic and promising musical hub. By the looks of it, Bevis showed up right on time, and quickly inserted himself into the scene by becoming the drummer of Franklin’s Mast, a flashy 3-piece hard-rock power trio fronted by Jimmy Lee Sausage. The band would go on to open for the likes of ZZ Top, already a seminal Texas band getting tons of attention out of Houston, and British funk-metal pioneers, Trapeze. “…As far as we were concerned, Austin was where all the new music was happening…we immediately decided to settle there no questions asked…” Bevis recalled. Even still, this was the early 1970s in Texas and Bevis, often times as the lone Black musician in the scene, stood out just as much for his skin color as he did for his glam-rock swagger and Hendrix-inspired flair. And although Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone were his most influential role models, with their careers flourishing in larger and more diverse musical metros like San Francisco, New York and London, Bevis had no such stylistic predecessors to align himself with in Texas’ “melanin-deficient” rock-music community. By his early 20s, Bevis had established himself as Texas’ first Black Hard- Rock maverick in a city and state known primarily for blues and country music. Hobnobbing with Tommy Shannon, Keith Ferguson, Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Denny Freeman, Bevis was warmly embraced and allowed to mature within the close-knit society of Austin’s musical elite. Around the same time, Armadillo World Headquarters and Antone’s were bringing all sorts of national attention to Austin by booking everyone from Zappa to Springsteen, Muddy Waters to Freddy King, and Slade to Dr. John. With Franklin’s Mast gaining more attention, a national tour ensued and Bevis began showcasing his charismatic, eye-grabbing fashions–facial makeup, black nail polish, multi-colored platform boots, skintight velvet trousers and lace shirts – and performance styles that were making artists like David Bowie and The New York Dolls notable during the glam rock movement, not to mention the pharmaceuticals prevalent during the times. Bevis nonchalantly stated that he “...never intended to live past my 20s…because sleep meant that you might miss something special...” But despite this cavalier attitude towards self-preservation, he miraculously continued to thrive, and subsequently, more special things did materialize.
One night in 1978 at the punk music venue Raul’s, Bevis was introduced to guitarist and songwriter Chris Bailey, a fellow Southern California native who shared an inexplicable love for both Parliament Funkadelic and Black Sabbath, something uncommon at the time to say the least. Soon thereafter, Chris and Bevis enlisted Jimmy Saurage to form The Skyscrapers, and would soon join-forces with The Shades also, both of which were high-profile bands that would more fully leverage their dual musical talents by leading them to opening slots for punk-rock legends The Ramones, Iggy Pop and The Clash.
“I was very fortunate to meet Chris Bailey at Raul's, where we subsequently formed our first noteworthy project, The Skyscrapers,” said Bevis. “...My musical chemistry and personal synergy with Chris is strangely empathic and effortless, and therefore, we have been successfully working together off-and-on over the past 3 decades…he is arguably one of the greatest musicians I've ever known, or had the privilege of working with, bar none, hands-down.”
With The Fabulous Thunderbirds securing a recording contract in 1979 it seemed destined that Bevis and Co. would follow suit and put their reckless abandon toward the live show on wax. Always looking for new and hungry collaborators, Bevis and Chris teamed up with bassist Courtney Audain and ex-Skunks drummer, Billy Blackmon to form The Bats. They soon became regulars at the newly reopened Continental Club, Mother Earth and a brand new venue curiously named Club Foot, and was finalist for the 1980 debut of The Austin Chronicle music poll in the “Best New Rock Band” category while gaining rare publicity in Esquire, Texas Monthly and Rock Scene magazine. By this time Stevie Ray Vaughn was building significant hype around Texas and Ray Benson was showing interest in managing both he and Bevis Griffin. As a matter of fact, due to explosive live performances, ever-mounting local and national press and viral street buzz, Bevis’ stock had never been higher.
In 1980, The Bats recorded an impressive six-song demo at the recently opened Third Coast Studios, with D-Day’s manager Lisa O’Leary – having already gotten her band a major record deal – financing the sessions as executive producer. Aptly supported by chief engineer Patterson Barrett at the mixing-board, Bevis confidently showcased his burgeoning prowess as a lead vocalist, drummer, and songwriter. Eventually, with the demo making the industry rounds highlighted by their single “I Ain’t Keith Richards”, The Bats eventually had to change their name to the enigmatic moniker Banzai Kik in order to avoid trademark and identity conflicts with an up-and-coming New Zealand band who were already touring with the same name. After opening for touring acts such as Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, The Pretenders, and Split Enz, Bevis had acquired sufficient showings.
In 1990, with a head-full of new songs he forged an exclusive management agreement with the new and aptly named Resurrection Management. With his newfound financial resources firmly intact Bevis next rented a large home in S. Austin as a temporary Texas base-camp while springing back to NYC as often as needed during his hunt for the next-big-thing on his musical agenda. During these halcyon days, he would effectively collaborate on a number of disparate projects and bands with the likes of avant-synth-savant Kurt Otto, (Rawhead-TechX), Will Sexton and Alejandro Escovedo, (The Cosmopolitans) and still tour state-wide with blues mavens, Solid Senders. The Continental Club owned by his former Chill Factor manager Steve Wertheimer, became Bev’s musical laboratory and social playground. He was finally back on top!
In 1997, Bevis joined the swamp-funk-mob Papa Mali and The Instagators and within a few months they quickly became a highly sought after local sensation by opening for the likes of world renowned acts such as Maceo Parker, The Funky Meters, War, and The Neville Brothers in the late ’90s at Liberty Lunch, Antones’, The Backyard and a host of notable Austin venues as the city enhanced its profile as “the Live Music Capital of the World”.
Having evolved from an upstart musician, to talk of the town, to the “next big thing”, before epitomizing the cliché of the “near-miss” story, Bevis knows that although his story isn’t one of Grammys, platinum records, or headlining gigs around the world, but instead, his is one of tireless ambition, audacious creativity, indomitable optimism, and the undaunted quest for artistic bliss.
In today’s society, we praise the industry-lauded artist with one hit song or sound who popularizes themselves via YouTube, Twitter and pop culture sensationalism. Bevis’ musical career, spanning some four decades, is the exact opposite, emanating cutting edge sensibilities, integrity, tenacity, and kindred musical kinships (with Stevie Ray Vaughn and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid to name a couple) and a genuine lust for musical expression.
Even after receiving a mayoral proclamation ceremony and an eponymous key to the City of Austin in 1998, a crowning achievement for any musician who can call the “Live Music Capital” home, and continuing on to his recent induction into the venerable halls of the Texas Music Museum, Bevis Griffin boldly continues along his time-worn path of music’s allure, investigating uncharted musical vistas, navigating, and collaborating his way toward the future, never resting on his laurels as Texas’ first Black hard-rock maverick.