Waylon Jennings on his Fender Telecaster, 1972
Elton John goes rhinestone cowboy for an appearance, 1980
Emmylou Harris and George Jones backstage, 1981
A famous name glows for a show, 1971
Pete Anderson and Dwight Yoakam, 1985
Lucinda Williams, 1985
Ronnie Mack performs ten years before establishing his popular "Barndance" program, 1978
Jerry Lee Lewis visits Tom Petty post-performence backstage, 1984
The Silver Fox, Charlie Rich, at the piano, 1980
Tanya Tucker at the Nashville Network live telecast, 1983
Linda Ronstadt, 1974
Etta James showcases her R&B revue, 1981
Rick Nelson crosses over, 1972
Neil Young onstage, 1984
Leif Garrett and Linda Thompson in the audience, 1979
The sign outside the squat rental hall reads Le Monge, an odd faux-French touch for a North Hollywood neighborhood that never had any pretensions, not even when music’s elite came cruising past the liquor stores and auto body shops lining this stretch of Lankershim Boulevard. Back then the low-slung building was the Palomino, aka the Pal, a honky-tonk that would reign for more than 40 years as L.A.’s top country spot. Now it’s just a banquet facility that’s seen better days. During the Pal’s prime, from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s, such country icons as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Hoyt Axton, Kitty Wells, George Jones, Charley Pride, and Ernest Tubb played the foot-high stage, sweating under the hot lights, the audience inches from their feet. Emmylou Harris sang with a band that included Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton and his pianist Glen Hardin. The Flying Burrito Brothers, who were fronted by country-rock artist Gram Parsons, entertained on Monday nights. (The hard-living Parsons, whose mix of country, blues, and folk influenced a generation of musicians, was beaten up one night by a group of rowdy marines.) The crowd was just as star studded. Jerry Lee Lewis was a fixture. Linda Ronstadt had a boyfriend, Jerry Brown, who was let in for free but insisted on paying the cover. Liza Minnelli was a fan of Tony Booth, the leader of the house band, the Palomino Riders. Hugh Hefner often arrived with his teenage companion, Barbi Benton.
The Pal was born in 1949, the baby of Hank Penny, a renowned radio and TV personality, bandleader, musician, and songwriter. He and business partner Amand Gautier had owned a successful club and were looking to start another. Penny happened upon the Lankershim building. The rent was cheap at $200 a month, and it didn’t bother the pair that the previous three tenants had failed. But the place’s name, the Mule Kick, didn’t sit well with Penny, who subsequently dubbed it the World Famous Palomino. He erected a massive neon sign, a rearing bronco balanced in an upturned horseshoe, which was visible for miles against the Valley’s night sky until its dismantling in 1995. Penny ran a respectable club, insisting that cowboys remove their hats when they entered the building. If they refused, Tiny, the enormous bouncer, escorted them out. By all accounts the club was a hit, but Penny had taken on so many outside commitments that he decided he had to let it go.
The club’s second owner, Tommy Thomas, was the Palomino’s P.T. Barnum. He and brother Billy took over the lease in the early ’50s and bought the building soon after. Thomas spent nearly a decade casually hewing to Penny’s model, save with a greater emphasis on the drinking. In 1959, his only local competitor, the Riverside Rancho, closed. A much larger venue, the Rancho had maintained a stranglehold on the country music headliners. Now Thomas owned the premier stage. He chose acts not because he loved their music—he wanted performers who could fill the house. He knew better than anyone in the business how to take a cultural obsession and turn it into money. Inside, posters advertising the night’s lineup were hand drawn with fluorescent paint and illuminated by little black lights. They would be replaced regularly, but the staples accumulated, the walls so thickly studded with sharp metal that it was unwise to lean against them. In those days just about everyone at the packed club smoked. When the back door opened, smoke billowed out in waves that made it look as if the building were on fire.
"Amand and I bounced all these names around, but nothing seemed to grab either one of us. I dropped into a men’s shop to get myself a shirt. I opened the package, and it was like something out of a cheapie musical. The logo read Palomino Sport Shirt. I said to Amand, ‘I’ve got the name of the club.’ Amand went to see a friend of his in Glendale who made neon signs and asked him if he could give us a duplication of a portion of the logo."
"I first went to the Palomino in 1962. I had never been in that part of town before. They had a house band that I wanted to hear. It was Gene Davis, and Red Rhodes was playing steel guitar. They had Delaney Bramlett and a guy named Jerry Inman, who should have been as successful as Delaney but never was. I came out at the end of that first evening, and somebody had stolen my battery. It was a shitty neighborhood. After that, I was always careful where I parked."
[COCKTAIL WAITRESS, 1969 TO 1976]
"You never could tell who was going to be onstage. Literally you did not know. When Willie Nelson first performed there, he looked like he worked for IBM. You saw the biggest names in the world. They were playing, like, the Forum, but they’d also be at the Palomino. For God’s sake, we had half the Beatles show up one night and the Rolling Stones on another. One night I saw Leon Russell playing with Jerry Lee Lewis. They don’t play the same kind of music. And then who jumped up there with them but Glen Campbell! You’d think he was pretty conservative, but he had a wild streak and he was a great guitar player. His bass player, Billy Graham, would hop up there, and then you’d have some of the rock musicians jump in, and they piled on the stage. Everybody wanted to jam. Nobody knew what they were going to play. And they would just start, and you’d think, Oh, my God. The next day you’d tell people, and they’d say, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ But it’s not like anyone knew it was going to happen."
[LEADER OF THE PALOMINO RIDERS]
"It was the place to be seen. Even guys who were in town for other reasons, like Haggard and Jerry Lee or Hank Jr., would come and sit in with us. Then it became a place for the Hollywood set, too. It was very exciting to see all the actresses. Victor French was a regular. Athletes started coming in. The Dodgers showed up. Ron Cey and Don Sutton were there. Some of the Rams used to come out. Conway Twitty and Mac Davis would come in a lot. George Hamilton showed up one night after he got through filming the life story of Hank Williams. He fancied himself a country singer at that point. He got up and grabbed my guitar. The set was over. The night was over. He had all the girls gathered around, and he had my guitar. We just left. I assumed he wouldn’t steal it. When we walked out, he was singing to the girls."
[PEDAL-STEEL PLAYER FOR THE PALOMINO RIDERS]
"You could have Waylon Jennings playing and Willie Nelson would show up. If they were in town, that’s where they went, to the Pal, just to hang, and the hang was the best part of the whole deal. Musicians came in, many of them every single night they weren’t working. A lot of them would sit in and just get up onstage and play with us. We’d still do our regular songs, but if someone wanted to sing, we’d do their songs. It was a real community of players."
"I probably went to the Palomino for the first time in the mid-’70s. Jerry Inman and the Palomino Riders were playing. The PA system was a Shure Vocal Master, which was actually just bizarre because it wasn’t very powerful. I was young and I wasn’t very sophisticated, but they sounded like a record. I never heard a band that good on the stage. I don’t even think there was a headliner that night. Back then there was an element of danger in the bar. There were people drinking and people in the parking lot. There was whiskey flowing. It wasn’t really a super-drug-era place—maybe weed. A lot of honky-tonkers would take uppers so they could drink more. I remember seeing Johnny Paycheck standing at the bar once, and Waylon Jennings. It was just a very impressive, kind of frightening place to be young and go into. When you’re 21, 22, 23, your ‘hanging out at the bar’ chops aren’t up yet. You’re not a man-man, where you go in, stand at the bar, put your money down, and get your drink."
Shields: “When Tommy thought about the artists, he didn’t think about their music. He thought in terms of how much money they’d be worth that weekend. There was a waitress named Mona, who used to put a bug in Tommy’s ear because Tommy didn’t listen to the radio and wasn’t a fan. She was the one who got him to book Merle Haggard for the first time. I was there. He said, ‘Who?’ She kept saying, ‘Have I ever steered you wrong?’ Of course she got a real feather in her cap because Haggard played there several times prior to ‘Okie from Muskogee’ in 1969, and after that, well…But he did come in as a customer. Tommy counted on some of the girls to keep him hip as to who was good. He was aware of the advantage of getting artists in there before they got too big.”
Maness: “Tommy spent a lot of money papering the place. He’d leave free tickets on the table. He’d advertise on all the country stations and in the newspaper—never missed. He spent a lot of money, except on the band. He would bring us in periodically for a band meeting and would noodle on a piece of paper with a pen and make all these lines and stuff and use language like a sailor. He’d say, ‘You effing guys, there are 2 million people in the Valley and you can’t even bring in 400. What’s the problem?’ On the other hand, we’d go back out into the club and he’d want us to move chairs. One time I said, ‘Tommy, I don’t get paid enough to move chairs. I’m not gonna do it.’ He said, ‘Out! Get out, and don’t come back!’ I came back the next night, and it was like nothing had happened. I give him a lot of credit because he made the place work. He would dodge the fire department on the crowd capacity. The club was well known for the steaks and the cheese bread. I saw him give an armload of raw meat to the firemen so they’d leave him alone. They actually did, and they’d say, ‘OK, Tommy, but be careful.’ It’s the truth if I’ve ever told it.”
This feature originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.