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The Palomino: An Oral History
The Valley’s legendary honky-tonk played host to country music’s brightest stars
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.
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BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN
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BEFORE THE NEXT TEARDROP FALLS
"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.
By the late 1970s, the Palomino patrons were aging along with the club. Midrange performers like Jerry Jeff Walker and David Allan Coe still pulled in audiences, but the Palomino had more competition with the opening of the Country Club in Reseda and Perkins Palace in Pasadena. There were still some memorable nights. Elvis Costello played a legendary set in 1979. Clint Eastwood featured the club in Every Which Way but Loose and Any Which Way You Can. It’s rumored that Burt Reynolds built the illegal back patio to accommodate scenes in Hooper. Thursday’s talent night remained hugely popular. There was often a line at the sign-up table. Cow punk was emerging in Hollywood, and in the early 1980s, its better-known practitioners occasionally drifted over Cahuenga. Lone Justice, Dwight Yoakam, the Beat Farmers, the Long Ryders, and the Blasters were a few who, if even for a night, lured in younger patrons.
Billy died in 1979 and Tommy in 1985. Billy Jr. took over. He preferred heavy metal to country. The vibe changed. Periodically the club generated transcendent moments reminiscent of the old days. Then in 1988, Ronnie Mack, a Baltimore-born musician, created the “Barndance,” a showcase for traditional country music that had a fanatical following and aired on KCSN radio. The Palomino again became the place to be, kick-starting the careers of Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, George Highfill, Dave Alvin, James Intveld, and Dale Watson. Americana sweetheart Rosie Flores, indie standout Chris Gaffney, and “I Can Help” crooner Billy Swan were regular participants. Mack also introduced a new generation to Watts-born saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, rockabilly pioneers Rose Maddox, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson, and “I Put a Spell on You” singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
“My dad had heard about the Palomino on KLAC radio. It was probably 1977. He said, ‘Hey, they have a talent night. Let’s go check it out.’ We drove up from Garden Grove. It was a big deal. The club was packed and pretty intimidating. My perspective as a teenager was that the place seemed three times bigger than it really was. We watched the first time, and he took me back the following week and I played. After that I began driving up by myself. I’d ask the ladies to put me on early because I had to go to school in the morning. The Palomino was the first professional stage I had ever been on. I was playing with these incredible musicians and thinking, Holy fuck! It’s impossible to fathom now, but anyone could walk in, sign up, and say they had enough talent to get onstage with that band and sing to a full house.”
[THREE-TIME GRAMMY-WINNING MUSICIAN]
“The main reason to go was that you never knew who you were going to see. It was such a scene. The exciting thing at that time was the ‘Barndance.’ They’d have the house band and then guest musicians who’d come up and play three or four songs. That’s how I first played there. I remember meeting Mary Chapin Carpenter when she started out. Dwight Yoakam would perform there, and Dave Alvin. I miss there not being a place like that now. It was great to have somewhere to go to meet people of like mind. It was a supportive group of musicians and friends. Another great thing is that you’d see people on the way up, like Dwight, hanging out with people who were just starting out.”
Anderson: “Dwight Yoakam could talk. He started ringing up Tommy on the phone and they kind of became pals, and he got the band a gig at the Palomino. We played a couple of times. We all still had day jobs. Somehow Dwight got Tommy to let us open for Lone Justice. They were the darlings. You could not pick up a newspaper where Judy Raphael and Todd Everett, the big music writers in town, weren’t writing about them. That was really the big catalyst for us. It may have been ’83, I’m guessing. We were in front of a big crowd. We really could play. It was Dwight with that voice—some of his songs, some covers, cool stuff. That was the door opener. That was what the Palomino did for us.”
“I had a night off from my newspaper work, and I drove out to the Pal to see Taj Mahal perform with a band that included the great Jesse Ed Davis on guitar. It was, as I recall, a Thursday night, and there wasn’t much happening at the club. It may even have been raining. In any event, the turnout wasn’t what Taj deserved—if there were more than 50 people in the room, including the Palomino staff, I’d be surprised. I tended to wander around the room from a base near the back bar. I spotted two familiar faces: Bob Dylan and George Harrison. The two had worked together on The Concert for Bangla Desh. I didn’t know that they hung out, but there they were, just chatting and laughing. I spotted another celebrity: John Fogerty. I had interviewed him a few weeks earlier. It had gone pleasantly enough, so I stopped by his table. ‘Did you see Dylan and Harrison over there by the back bar?’ I asked. No, he hadn’t, but he did cast a glance that way. ‘Do you know them?’ No, he didn’t. ‘Come here,’ I said, and dragged John over to where Dylan and Harrison were standing. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, interrupting their conversation. ‘This is John Fogerty.’ They didn’t know who I was and didn’t care. But they sure knew who John was and immediately started talking with him. Within minutes, Fogerty, Dylan, and Harrison were onstage with Taj and his band, trying to remember each other’s songs. It was a jumble but, God knows, a historic one. In retrospect, I think the most significant aspect of the evening was when someone—Dylan, maybe, but I’m not sure at this point—told Fogerty that if he refused to play ‘Proud Mary,’ it’d go down in people’s memories as a Tina Turner song. He sang it, and the old Creedence songs reappeared in John’s concert repertoire after that night.”
“I never do sound checks, but it was the first time we were there, so I thought I should. I did this rockabilly song called ‘Shirley Lee,’ and who was at the bar but Jerry Lee Lewis. James [Intveld] knew Jerry Lee, so he introduced us. He was as sweet as could be and said, ‘I haven’t heard “Shirley Lee” in 30 years.’ I said, ‘Mr. Lewis, we’re doing this radio show. If you’d like to come up and do a song, we’d be honored.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’d like that, but let me get a little drunker first.’ I called the radio station and asked for extra time and explained about Jerry Lee having to get drunker. Then I had to go talk to Wick, the soundman, who was really good but such a jerk. We hadn’t started the show yet, and I said, ‘Wick, Jerry Lee Lewis is here, and he might want to do something, but the piano is down on the floor. Can we get it up on the stage?’ He said, ‘Fuck him. Why did he have to show up tonight?’ So we lugged the piano onto the stage, and we did our set. I went down and asked if Jerry Lee wanted to come up, and he said, ‘I’m gonna come up. Let me get a little more drunk.’
“About an hour and a half later, Lucinda [Williams] was just getting started when I see Jerry Lee walking through the crowd with a real young girl on one arm and another real young girl on the other arm, and he’s heading for the side door. James said, ‘Go ask him if he’s going to come up.’ I’m like, ‘Well, obviously he’s not going to. He’s on his way out with a girl on each arm,’ but I went. We met up at the door, and I said, ‘Mr. Lewis, did you not want to come up?’ Now he’s really drunk, and he starts pointing at Lucinda and screaming, ‘What is this shit? It’s the worst shit I’ve heard in my life!’ The place is packed, and everyone around us is looking, and I’m so embarrassed. Everything I had ever heard about him was true, but he had those good-looking girls regardless.”
Intveld: “Every time you’d walk into the Palomino, it had that same vibe. You’d see all those pictures of country and western stars up there, and you’d turn to your left, and just before you’d get to the stage, there was that big picture of Johnny Cash on the wall. You’d recognize all the photos and all the stuff that had been there for years. It was like being in your own living room. The backstage was cool. You came in the front door, and you’d walk down past the bar, up past the bathrooms, and there was a skinny hallway. You walked down the hallway, and there was a rectangular room with those stackable metal chairs all around. That’s where all the great shit was happening. You could be there for three, four hours and not even know what was going on in the other room. Everything would go on there, from people smoking weed to drinking moonshine to jamming. There was all kinds of storytelling. Really wonderful stuff happened in that room, probably more there than even onstage.”
This feature originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
Occasionally a famous band seeking a unique venue would take over the Palomino. The Red Hot Chili Peppers shook the building in 1988, as did Green Day in 1992. But the end was near. In May 1994, Tommy’s widow, Sherry, a former Palomino waitress who had retained co-ownership of the club, wrested control from Billy Jr. The building was deteriorating—the roof leaked whenever it rained—and the bar frequently ran out of liquor when Billy failed to pay the distributors. That August, Sherry told the Los Angeles Times that she was intent on restoring the Palomino to its former glory. A year later, without a word to anyone, Sherry put the place up for sale. She locked the doors and walked away.
Mack: “I’m not sure how much Sherry really knew about how Tommy ran the club. I think she had inherited a lot of debt from Billy, too. She asked me, ‘Why doesn’t Garth Brooks play here or Dolly Parton?’ I said, ‘They don’t play honky-tonks anymore. They can fill the Forum. You need to get Delbert McClinton, Commander Cody, or Albert Lee, the kind of people who would still play this sort of place.’ She wasn’t aware who they were.”
[BARTENDER, 1994 TO 1995]
“Anthony Roberts was the soundman at the end, and he went to get his gear out of the place. He had to break in. He said it was really sad. All the pictures were still up. Nobody had gotten any of that. I would assume they were all thrown away.”
[FOUNDER AND CURATOR, SAN FERNANDO VALLEY RELICS MUSEUM]
“Not long after the club was first sold, a fan named Scott McNatt asked the new owner if he could have the sign. It ended up in one of Scott’s warehouses in Chatsworth. He knew it had historical value, so some friends suggested he call me. We’re in the process of restoring it. You can see it every Saturday we’re open.”
This feature originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is an L.A.-based freelance writer. This is her first piece for Los Angeles.