On a Carousel
By Ken Lieck
AUGUST 3, 1998: "I had an uneventful childhood," recalls retired one-man band Jay Clark, centerpiece of Austin's eclectic Carousel Lounge for more than 30 years. "Except for two things." Those two things, unfortunately, were the loss of one eye at age 3 and the loss of the other at age 11. One would think that if fate were only going to strike a fellow with such ill fortune twice, it could at least manage a little variety, but at age 78, it's clear that the gracious Clark is more than satisfied with the course his life has followed. The loss of Clark's second eye brought him from the small town of McKinney, Texas to Austin's School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, where his early affection for Big Bands - Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller - led him to join Cecil Hogan's Swingsters, a local combo that featured several others from the school for the blind. Despite losing a key member to World War II, the group, in various forms, continued to play into the Fifties.
"I was trying to work every night with [the band] and operate a concession stand at Camp Mabry, " remembers Clark. "It got too bad; a lot of times I'd get home from work in the daytime and the guys would be sitting in front of the house waiting to go to Waco or Houston or somewhere, so I had to quit that."
It was in the early Sixties, however, that Clark set course for his long residence at the Carousel for which he is best remembered: "We had a little trio for a while back then," says Clark, "a combo called the Velvetones. We played at the old Playboy Club and when it burned down ... well, they tried to burn us out!" he chuckles.
"But we went over to the Carousel."
Austin's Carousel Lounge is in itself a timeless, arcane environment, which in filmmaker David Lynch's better days was commonly referred to as "Twin Peaks-ish." Dimly lit, with circus-themed decor that includes a giant pink elephant on the stage (and once upon a time, a much larger one on the roof) and a seldom-working carousel behind the bar, the beer and set-ups lounge was opened by Cecil Meier in early 1963 and named after Jack Ruby's popular Dallas club, just in time for the Kennedy assassination, to add a tinge of darkness to the title. That didn't keep people from coming, though.
"I know that when Jay first started, this place was packed with people - not the age that are coming now," burbles Stella Boes, a longtime waitress at the club who Clark calls his "frustrated cheerleader - she'd get up there and holler and applaud and stuff."
"It was a mixed crowd of mostly senior citizens that had been coming here for years and years," explains Boes. "They would come every time Jay played."
"Yeah, it was pretty much a popular place," agrees Clark. "It had a, you know, a regular clientele and a lot of the old guys would come in when the place opened in the morning and sometimes stay until I got through at night. I don't know how they did it - a bunch of hearty old souls!"
At that time, Clark was playing with the trio, then a duo, but he felt that things somehow weren't working out. Besides which, his cohorts were wanting to do other things. Clark decided to go out on a limb with a new idea.
"I proposed to Cecil that he let me try a one-man situation and he was kind of dubious and he didn't think we could do it. He agreed to try it, though, and it caught on real good."
And so began Jay Clark's solo reign at the Carousel, a stint that at one point saw him taking the stage at the small, colorful lounge seven days a week for around five years, into the early Seventies. Clark's one-man show was not only a success; you'd honestly have to even call it an innovation. Before Timbuk 3 found notoriety as a couple accompanied by a boom box, and certainly long before electronica was a gleam in some European scenester's eye, Clark had an inanimate mechanical friend performing with him as part of the show.
"I kind of got me a four-track tape recorder and made background music," explains Clark. "And then I played sax and I played clarinet along with it, and during the night interspersed other things with it."
The Eighties saw business at the Carousel beginning to wane seriously. With owner Cecil Meier passing away, and the club's older patrons growing older, it seemed that the heyday of the club was becoming naught but a fond memory.
"When Cecil died and Nicki [Mebane], his daughter, took over, we had a little slow time for a while," recounts Clark. "In the transition a lot of older people kind of dropped away."
So did Clark's appearances onstage.
"Jay was working about five nights a week," Boes remembers. "Then he went down to three nights and then down to one. When he went down to one, that's when a lot of the senior citizens stopped coming."
Luckily, before business died off completely, fresh new faces began taking their place.
"We had a couple of young ladies from the university that Nicki hired as bartenders and waitresses," explains Clark. "They brought a few of the folks from the university and for some reason it caught on, and they started coming in droves."
Perhaps it was the novelty of the place that first attracted the new, younger patrons to the Carousel, the idea of having somewhere different, a special "secret" place to go where they could plant their flag and claim as their own. As the crowds began to grow once again, it became clear that these twentysomethings truly loved the Carousel, and Clark especially.
"Well, a lot of them said that they liked the music, that they had been raised with that music in their homes," says Clark. "They appreciated it so much when I played some of the real old ones, you know, that they hadn't heard for years. A lot of times we had standing room only and things like that which was really gratifying for me. Meeting all the young people kept me feeling young and appreciated a little bit."
If Clark was surprised by his new clientele's knowledgeability of the big band music, he was also patient and understanding with those who weren't quite so in touch with the past. If someone couldn't come up with a title to request a song, he was perfectly content to listen to a bit of off-key humming from an audience member that was attempting to request a childhood favorite.
Clark was also attentive to whatever happened to be going on at the club on any given night - so much so that it was hard for many to remember he was blind. If bartender Chris Noah played a particular Mills Brothers song on the jukebox more than once, for instance, Clark would begin dedicating that song to her when he played it - never mind that he couldn't have seen who had been feeding quarters into the machine. And though much has been made of the fact that Clark managed to avoid being tainted by the rock & roll era, the truth was that he could play any song, according to Noah, including "a rocking version of 'Bad, Bad Leroy Brown!'"
With new blood pumping through the club, there was no question that the magic had returned in spades to the Carousel Lounge, and there was no question that it was Jay Clark who had brought it back. For a time, there in that tiny, colorful room, one could find the most bizarre yet charming array of people sitting and dancing side by side. Old women would fill a table immediately next to a booth full of punk rockers, pleasantly smiling, chatting and passing smokes from one group to the other, despite the fact that the only thing they all had in common was their blue hair.
Elderly gentlemen politely asked young college gals to cut a rug with them, never even flinching at the sight of a pierced nostril or eyebrow. All the while, Clark brought on the best music from a time gone by - a waltz here, a fox trot there - at a time when so-called "lounge music" was otherwise still a thing to be shunned, long before it returned as a tongue-in-cheek joke and later as a seriously accepted form of dance music.
Time continued marching on, as it's wont to do, and as the Nineties bloomed, the older crowd that had stayed to mingle with the new continued to dwindle.
"It's not that they didn't like the UT people," observes Boes. "It's just that they started fading away and passing on, and it made a change."
It was at this time, also, that Clark's own age began to betray him. Now in his 70s, he once again began curtailing his appearances at the club as various illnesses vied for his time. Clark would not perform for weeks at a time, and there were often rumors that he wouldn't be back at all, as the Carousel sought new performers from the now-growing pool of swing acts that were beginning to gain popularity in town. It was difficult getting acts to keep a residence at the Carousel; the mostly tip-based income was hardly enough to keep a large band coming back for more. On top of things, nobody else was Jay Clark.
"I'll tell you what about the new crowd," remarks Boes. "When they would come and Jay was off and they knew he was [supposed to be] playing, they'd ask, 'Where's Jay?' I would say he wasn't feeling good and you know what they would do, then?' They'd turn around and walk out. They come here for Jay Clark. Jay was the Carousel Lounge!"
Increasingly, the times Clark wasn't seated at his organ began outnumbering the times that he was.
"It's been a real interesting thing," states Clark with some finality, "but after 30 years it's got to where I just can't do it anymore. I started missing a lot of jobs, so I decided finally that I had done just about all that I could."
"It's not what Jay wanted to do," Boes adds mistily. "It's just what happened."
A retirement party for the much-loved performer was scheduled for late last month, but alas, instead of the joyous reunion with his bandmates from the Velvetones and a celebration of years of bringing joy to the ears of those who crossed the Carousel's threshold, that week brought instead only sad news; Clark had suffered a stroke during the previous weekend and the announcement went out that the event had been postponed indefinitely.
It turned out that "indefinitely" was not that long a time, however. The bash was back on two weeks later, and on July 10, Clark finally got his official retirement party. He didn't join the Velvetones onstage that night, though those close to him say that the weakness that kept him from performing that last time was one borne of joy, not pain.
In either case, after more than 30 years on that stage Clark had definitely earned the right to rest. These days he can be found with his wife Shirley in his Austin home, where he's still recuperating from the effects of his recent stroke. He claims you may soon see him checking out some of the young musicians who have embraced the music that he never abandoned in all these years.
"I was so busy at the Carousel I had no time to go out and hear anything," says Clark.
Has the world heard the last of Jay Clark? Well, he may no longer be a fixture of the Carousel Lounge stage, but you can't keep the man away from his music.
"Now I'm retired," he muses. "I think I will try to make some tapes here around home and distribute them out somewhere..." .
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