In the 1980s, music magic occurred at Rockefeller’s. The resilient Heights nightclub still hosts live music, but four decades ago it thrived with near-nightly bookings of local, regional and iconic artists like Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Bonnie Raitt, all presented in an intimate setting. Sometimes the feats were so magnificent that today’s music fans consider them mythical. For instance, an Internet commenter recently questioned whether the legendary Houston blues guitarist Albert Collins actually once left the club’s stage, continued playing his Telecaster past the crowd and literally took the show to the streets, with fans following him onto Washington Avenue.
That did happen, there’s photographic proof of it on an upstart Facebook page dubbed Rockefeller’s – The Night Club. Houston, 1980s. Los Angeles-based film and television composer and former Houstonian Mark Holden curates the page, which is a tribute to the Houston music venue and one of his lifelong friends.
“I was the technical director of Rockefeller’s for a couple of years during the ‘80s. My friend, the late J.C. Ferguson, better known as ‘Fergie’ took over for me when I left,” Holden said. “Most of the materials you see on the page are from Jim’s collection.”
Including a glorious photo of Albert Collins, dressed in silver slacks, clutching his guitar and surrounded by smiling fans in front of the historic former bank building that houses the enduring club. Keep scrolling and there’s another picture, same scenario, but Collins dressed in different clothing, suggesting this scene happened more than once.
Blues players like Albert Collins, Albert King and B.B. King were regulars at 1980s Rockefeller’s.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
“Fergie became fast friends with Albert Collins. They liked each other. They got each other. And Fergie, as stage manager, he would carry a 300-foot coiled cable – this is before wireless – and he would follow Albert Collins out into the street, unfurling a 300-foot cable, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible in deference to the star. And Albert would go outside and play,” Holden recalled. “The crowd would go crazy upon exit and out into the street, would spill out, and then Fergie would also get him back in by recoiling that 300-foot cable.”
Holden worked at Rockefeller’s just over two years. He brought on Ferguson, his friend since the sixth grade. He said Ferguson started as stage manager and monitor mixer and moved into the technical director role when Holden departed. If you listened to music at Rockefeller’s in the 1980s and enjoyed what you heard, it was thanks in part to these two childhood friends.
“Jim was a walking technical department. Anything I did – I attended Johnston Junior High School, we had a band, I had a private band – Jim ran tech for it. He was a walking tech department and we collaborated since probably 1968 until 2012,” said Holden. “We were lifetime collaborators. Very unique situation. I know lots of technical people, great technical support in Houston, Los Angeles, Boston where I went to school, but the professional relationship and friendship with Fergie was unique. And I owed him this page.”
In its heyday, Rockefeller’s boasted a full calendar of local, regional and legendary acts.
Photo by Mark Holden, courtesy of Mark Holden
“My Uncle Mark has been working really hard on getting all of the material – there’s a ton of stuff – posted on to the page,” said Bailey Ferguson, Jim Ferguson’s daughter. “Growing up, my dad had a couple of friends that were lifers for him. Mark Holden and my father grew up together and there are a couple of men in that group that are still around and I call them all my tios. My father had a lot of life with those men and called them brothers. They lived life together. They had marriages, they had divorces, some of them had kids and careers and cross-country moves and they just always stayed in touch. They were family.
“My dad got pretty ill and was diagnosed with ALS a handful of years ago and started pretty rapidly declining,” she explained. “There’s not a lot that can be done, there’s not currently a cure or much of a treatment for ALS, so my mother and I ended up needing to move him out of his apartment and get him a little more help and into a safer environment because stuff you and I probably take for granted was becoming pretty dangerous and risky for him.”
She said she packed her father’s apartment and “there were a lot of gems in there. Music was a huge part of my father’s life. He was a musician but pretty quickly figured out his real talent, his real gift, was on the engineering side. My dad just had an unbelievable amount of A/V equipment and the most amazing record collection, which I still have, and family photos and other things I’ve come across that were really important that I didn’t really know what to do with, but also that we were not willing to get rid of.”
She said either her mother, Cara, or Holden devised the idea of sending the Rockefeller’s keepsakes to Los Angeles. Ferguson said her father approved the plan and “after he passed away, I packed up like three big boxes of all of this memorabilia from the Rockefeller’s days, knowing that my Uncle Mark was kind of the one that got him the job there.”
Some of the talent which passed through Rockefeller’s one February in the 1980s.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Ferguson passed away in 2017 and Holden made it his mission to honor his friend’s memory and, in turn, the memories of Rockefeller’s at its peak. He said the club hosted shows 23 nights a month back then and the vintage calendars he’s shared on the Facebook page support him.
“Jim Hazlitt did the booking, the co-owner, he was passionate about it, he included a lot of different genres of music, but his favorite was the blues. Having B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Gatemouth Brown. A particular favorite was Bo Diddley. That man was a lot of fun to be with,” Holden said.
“Primo’s Mexican Restaurant was right next door,” Holden remembered. “Bands would load in, typically in the early afternoon, we’d set up and do sound check and then go have a late lunch at Primo’s. Just the camaraderie – these were road-weary musicians in many instances, and we could give them a heck of a good meal on the house, wasn’t even in their contract rider, and over a couple or a few appearances, over a year or a few years, there were some friendships developed. It was a blessing. We had a lot of fun despite how much work it was.”
All the Facebook page entries are written by Holden, so if you want first-hand recollections of those nights, you’re getting them from someone who was there, behind the scenes. His favorites included Maynard Ferguson, (“great trumpet player and exceptional band leader”); Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, (“tremendous musicianship”); and, Roy Orbison, (“the man was spooky good. He could conjure that stuff nightly. He must have been at kind of a downward point in his stellar career. This was before all of those tribute concerts with Bruce Springsteen and everybody suddenly realizing, ‘Oh, he really is a national treasure, let’s pool our resources and make him a star again.’ But Roy Orbison was just marvelous”).
Kirk Whalum was one of many Houstonians who used Rockefeller’s as a launch pad to successful careers.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Holden said the club was known for its diverse booking and could switch from gala, multi-night engagements with B.B. King to crowd-pleasing regional party bands like Vince Vance and the Valiants and Johnny Dee and the Rocket 88s. They booked acts that would go onto widespread prominence, like Kirk Whalum, Omar & the Howlers and Bill Hicks. The late Houston comedy legend performed many sets at Rockefeller’s to prep for gigs on Late Night with David Letterman and the like. Holden said Rockefeller’s was a launchpad for other Houston talents, many from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. He’s a member of the school’s first graduating class, and it’s Bailey Ferguson’s high school alma mater, too. Another HSPVA grad, the brilliant drummer Herman Matthews, has visited the Facebook page to recall his days playing the club, before joining the likes of Tower of Power, Kenny Loggins and Tom Jones. Holden said it’s been fun watching people share their memories through Facebook comments and posts.
“One little story, one of the waitresses, a very professional young lady named Madeleine Connor, she’s now on the bench, Houston judiciary, she’s a judge. She spent five years waitressing at Rockefeller’s. She found the page about six months ago and she was just out of her mind with glee that we had pictures of her and the waitstaff from those days. It was very gratifying, an unexpected blessing from putting the page up,” he said.
“He really took it on and ran with it, created a Facebook page and sort of decided to share those memories not only as a memorial or tribute to my dad and their time together, but to all of the people in Houston that had started coming forward and saying ‘Oh my God, this place is really important to me, I saw so-and-so there’ or ‘I spent every Friday night of my twenties there,’” Ferguson noted. “A lot of the people that knew my dad, I’ve gotten to sort of be a fly on the wall, read the comments and the nice things that they say. It’s been pretty awesome to get to see that and share that with my mom, too.”
The intimacy of the nightclub meant Houston music fans were often mere feet from legends like Ray Charles.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
She has her own Rockefeller’s story, even though she was born in the late 1980s, near the end of her dad’s tenure there.
“Again, I don’t remember it, this may very well be family legend, my mother swears this is a true story, I cannot prove this,” Ferguson said. “My dad swears, hand to God, that B.B. King carried my baby picture in his wallet because he and my dad were so close. That was the story that I got the most because it was about me when I was a little kid.”
Ferguson said one Rockefeller’s story she can confirm is how important the place was to her father and her family.
“It was a big part of my parents’ early days and a lot of their romance was live music at bars in Houston in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Music was a family deal,” she said. “I think it was really important to my dad that he was, in his own way, an artist. He loved and appreciated music and finding the balance and working the board in the back, it was not something that he did to pay the bills. It was something that he loved and he was really good at it.”
The sun still hasn’t set on the longtime Houston music venue
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Holden said Rockefeller’s was more than a job, more even than a chance to get to work with a best friend. It helped launch his career. He took the practical experience of it, combined with a degree from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and followed his aspirations as a composer and arranger. His many credits include themes and scores for eight feature films, documentaries and tons of television programming. He’s still proud to note his music was used in the 1980s “Houston Proud” campaign.
“It was the paid education of it,” he said. “Somebody was paying me to mix sound for these bands and that was a wholly new experience for me. Not from a technical aspect, but from the interaction with touring bands, burned out, overworked, sleep-deprived people who were working magic every night. And it gave me an entirely new perspective.”
Holden said the work he and his friend Fergie did at Rockefeller’s – dubbed “Houston’s Premier Showcase Nightclub” – also showcased something important about Houston.
“In a sense, the unsung richness of the fourth-largest city in the country,” he said. “It’s kind of unheralded in many ways from a musical aspect, but it shouldn’t be. The place was rich and is rich with talent and to get to participate in that kind of greatness was a privilege. It was a joy.”