Sometime in the late 1950s, a swarthy-looking, cigar-chomping, ever-smiling Greek fellow named Jimmy Menutis bought The Wayside, an east end suburban movie theatre on Telephone Road, near Wayside Drive, and turned it into a club for contemporary music and dancing. For about five years, the place flourished as the biggest big-name rock ‘n roll music venue to ever hit Houston.
Jimmy Menutis’s place boomed fast as no ordinary club in town ever had – and with good reason. Jimmy started bringing in some of the biggest, most popular rock ‘n roll, jazz, and blues stars in the country – and they were all pumping their talents into the lore of the Houston East End at a scale and rate that no one could ever have predicted, or accepted as reality, until it actually landed on top of us and happened.
Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Brook Benton, Sam Cooke, Earl Grant, Jimmy Reed, and countless others were simply a few of the headliners who played at Jimmy Menutis. Except for Elvis, and I’m not sure what happened there; Elvis loved playing Houston; just about everyone else made it here to play this hottest venue in the South.
Menutis had gutted the old theater seats, replacing that area with ample table settings and plenty of room left over for dancing. The old stage remained for performers, but acts were free to wind their away into the seating areas and perform up close and personal for members of the audience.
As a young man who got to experience the greats of rock and roll in live performances because of Jimmy Menutis, all I can tell you is that it was one “cool and crazy” ride, my friends. For me personally, on a site that stood no more than two miles from my childhood home in Pecan Park, I was getting to hear all of my major music heroes in person, doing all the popular music I then still owned on vinyl .45’s and very breakable .78s.
“Maybelline” by Chuck Berry, “Good Golly, Miss Molly” by Little Richard, “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino, “Jeepers Creepers” by Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World It Will Be” by Sam Cooke, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and “Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby” by Jimmy Reed, are just a few of the great songs that came straight to the heart of Houston because of Jimmy Menutis.
Jimmy Menutis closed sometime in the mid-1960s, during the time I already had moved to New Orleans for graduate school at Tulane. Music was changing by then and so was the country. By then, the Beatles had captured the hearts of the even younger generation and Viet Nam and the Civil Rights Movement had put a final wrap on our old 1950s age of innocent denial or oblivion to weightier matters.
Rock ‘n Roll wasn’t going away with the death of places like Jimmy Menutis. It was simply heading into a quieter phase of it’s still continuous evolution as an American musical art form. Those of us who came of age with Chuck, Fats, Jerry Lee, and Little Richard will keep their brash bashing of words, beat, and melody alive for as long as we all last and longer.
By the time I came back to Houston from school and teaching at Tulane, some of the old rock ‘n rollers were still skirting through Houston for a few gigs and, as a still single young man at that time, I did what I could to catch their acts whenever any of the biggies came to town.
My favorite memory dates back to 1970, when my date and I went out to the Club Bwana in Pasadena to hear a weekend performance by Chuck Berry. It’s good we made early reservations for the Saturday night show because the little place was packed with people waiting on stand-by in the hope of getting in. Our small table was right near the performer’s dressing room, which was great because Chuck Berry would have to pass right by us to get to the stage. My back was to his dressing room door, but I kept looking over my shoulder, hoping to catch him from the moment he appeared.
I didn’t make it. I got distracted by the emcee’s introduction. Then it suddenly dawned on me that he was no longer doing a blah-lah about someone else. He was introducing Chuck Berry.
I turned to my left and abruptly found myself staring eye-level into the shine of a beautifully red-surfaced, heart-shaped guitar. Lifting my gaze, I just as suddenly found myself staring into the eyes of the one and only Chuck Berry. He was standing right beside our table, waiting for the emcee to finish his intro.
“Hi Ya, Chuck!” I blurted out.
“How you doin’, man?” Chuck Berry answered.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, … THE ONE AND ONLY … CHUCK BERRY!” The emcee boomed.
The golden moment had ended, but the imagery lives on forever in my brain, right there with the time I made eye contact with Joe DiMaggio in April 1951, right after he caught a fly ball in the outfield at Buff Stadium and I was standing behind the SRO crowd ropes in left center field near the spot of his catch.
People like me never forget a conversation with someone like Chuck Berry, even one as short as ours in 1970.
The rest of the night was legendary for all who crowded into the Club Bwana that night. Chuck Berry played on violently for about two hours, stopping only long enough to wipe perspiration and slug down another glass of water. He was getting all of our love that special night and he fed on it with a non-stop heart and soul performance.
I don’t get around much, anymore, but I sure remember the times I did. And I wouldn’t trade any of them for anything in the world. And places like Jimmy Menutis and the Club Bwana hold a lot of very special memories for me.