By Glenn McDonald
One of America’s oldest and most storied musical venues, Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Okla., doesn’t really have a claim to fame. It has a few dozen of them.
Here’s one — in 1978, Cain’s was one of the stops on the Sex Pistols’ ill-fated U.S. “tour” in 1978. In fact, it’s the only venue from that traveling freak show that’s still up and running.
The story goes like this: Sex Pistols’ promoter Malcolm McLaren, the mad genius of the confrontational public relations strategy, opted not to book the Pistols in hipster big city joints for their first U.S. tour as people might actually like the band in those places. Instead he sent the band, already on the edge of utter collapse, on a tour through the Deep South, looking for trouble.
They found it, naturally, and on the night of Jan. 11, 1978, the boys took the stage in the heart of Tulsa. They’d just been chased out of Texas, somewhat literally, after physical confrontations with various security personnel and audience members. According to reports in the Tulsa papers the next day, the boys blazed through a couple of songs before losing interest. Their next show, in San Francisco, would be their last before the Pistols famously detonated for good.
The band left their mark in predictable fashion — legend holds that a particular hole in the backstage area marks the spot where Sid Vicious put his fist through the wall.
At the time, the Pistols surely didn’t know, or care, but they’d just passed through a venue already steeped in 50-plus years of musical history.
The space that would become Cain’s Ballroom was established in 1924 in downtown Tulsa, originally as an auto garage for one of the oil-boom town’s municipal honchos. Later converted into a dancehall space, the building became a popular nightspot and was purchased in 1930 by a local businessman with the rather admirable name of Madison W. “Daddy” Cain.
The newly rechristened Cain’s Ballroom and Dance Academy hosted regular classes and public events, gradually drifting toward a Deep South variation on the Big Band sound sweeping through the northern states. Tulsa music fans were about to witness the arrival of an entirely new genre of dance music — an improbable mashup of big band, country, polka, jazz and blues — called Western Swing.
It all began with arrival of the man who would later be known as the King of Western Swing: Bob Wills. In 1934, Wills — already an established musician in the Lone Star state — relocated his band (the Texas Playboys) from Waco to Tulsa and began a daily radio show on the powerhouse local station KVOO.
The live daytime radio broadcasts, 45 minutes a day, Monday through Friday, came straight from the stage of Cain’s Ballroom and sent the pulse of Western Swing throughout the entire region. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys became the undisputed superstars of the emerging genre, and Wills joined the other great bandleaders of the day — guys like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.
For the next decade, Wills’ rotating band of musicians took the ballroom stage every day and virtually every night, playing dances in the evenings and the occasional funeral on Sundays. Cain’s Ballroom became arguably the single hottest venue in the South and one of the most famous in the nation. Ginormous crowds of 5,000-plus revelers would jam the space for marathon performances.
After Wills took his act to Hollywood in the 1940s, Cain’s remained a popular destination. Wills’ younger brother Johnny Lee took over the daily broadcasts and kept the party rolling through 1958. As the Big Band era faded and rock and roll came tumbling in, Cain’s changed with the times, as all venues must if they want to survive. By the 1960s, Cain’s had earned a reputation as a spirited, some would say rowdy, Oklahoma roadhouse.
Cain’s world-famous dance floor fell silent for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A new owner tried to re-open the space in 1972 as a traditional dance hall, but they heyday of the big Saturday night dance party had passed.
In 1976, concert promoter Larry Shaeffer bought the stately but declining Oklahoma ballroom, reportedly with profits he’d just pocketed from a single Peter Frampton show. Respectful of the venue’s rich history and legacy, Shaeffer didn’t so much refurbish the space as he did restore it to its original glory. But Shaeffer had a different crowd in mind.
Through the late 1970s and 1980s, Shaeffer brought to town a parade bands that almost certainly would never have set foot in Tulsa otherwise. The Sex Pistols, most notably, but also names like U2, the Police, the Talking Heads, INXS, George Clinton, Bow Wow Wow and Elvis Costello. An affable San Francisco bar band called Huey Lewis and the News came through a few times. Some rowdy Pasadena kids calling themselves Van Halen stopped by once, just before going supernova.
Cain’s Ballroom had once again become the locus for music and youth culture in downtown Tulsa, and Shaeffer was never afraid to experiment with other events — boxing, mud wrestling, the occasional indie circus act.
Through the 1990s and into the new millennium, a new wave of acts came through, ushered in by many of the frontline bands of the era when “alternative rock” was still the preferred term. Beck, the Foo Fighters, Rancid, Smashing Pumpkins and Social Distortion. Meanwhile, industry veterans like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson made Cain’s Ballroom a regular stop, as well.
These days, the historic music venue known as Cain’s Ballroom is as busy and popular as it’s ever been. Maybe even more so. In the first quarter of 2014, the venue was ranked 25th worldwide in tickets sold among club venues with a capacity of 3,000 or less. Cain’s official capacity is 1,800. In 2013, the venue ranked 21st worldwide with more than 425,000 tickets sold.
Artists continue to flock to Cain’s Ballroom, eager to be part of a musical tradition that goes back almost 100 years. On any given week, the music coming from Cain’s stage tends to be wildly diverse — indie rock, hip-hop, country, punk, EDM. Most shows are all-ages, though the club’s premium-ticket, limited-capacity mezzanine level is 21-and-over and offers a private bar and bathroom facilities.
Cain’s Ballroom is a one-of-a-kind place with a hell of a story. Filmmaker Tate Wittenberg thinks so, anyway. His forthcoming documentary film, Raisin’ Cain, promises to chronicle the full history of “Tulsa’s Timeless Honky-Tonk,” complete with appearances from pioneers like Merle Haggard and Wanda Jackson, all the way though to contemporary admirers like Elvis Costello, Billy Gibbons and Taj Mahal.
So what it that makes Cain’s so legendary?
“It’s the varied artists who have played there over the last eight decades, starting with Bob Wills and his noontime KVOO broadcasts,” Wittenberg said. “But unlike other venues that stayed consistent with the genre, Cain’s transitioned over the years.
“It’s the only remaining venue from rhe Sex Pistols tour and was a launching venue for U2 and the Police,” he continued. “As Arlo Guthrie said in the film trailer, there is a ‘residue’ of all the folks who played there. And the venue still remains similar to the way it looked when Bob Wills played there.”
Word is that Johnny Rotten has even committed to participating in the documentary project. Management might want to reinforce the drywall backstage.