Written by Joah Spearman
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 barbershop 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 Saurage. 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, oftentimes 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.
Joah Spearman is the CEO of Localeur and Former Vice Chair of the Austin Music Commission.