Susan Antone

Susan Antone

Susan Antone, the managing owner of the world-famous blues club, Antone’s, is well known as one of the chief architects of Austin’s nightlife scene. But few know that she is also an accomplished photographer with an archive of thousands of photographs at UT Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History. I’m lucky enough to call Susan a friend and feel fortunate to have in our collection a photograph that she took of the great blues vocalist and harmonica player, Junior Wells. No one in Austin better blends the worlds of nightlife and art, so, for Tribeza’s Nightlife Issue, I had to ask for an audience with Susan Antone.

Susan, tell me how you became interested in photography and when you started taking pictures?
I have always loved photography and started taking pictures in 1975 when we opened Antone’s. I was around so much great music and great people like B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Jimmy Reed, and Pinetop Perkins and became privy to so many great moments. I saw things that I knew were rare and a big deal even if I didn’t understand them fully. There were just so many great expressions and such great camaraderie on the stage and backstage that captured my attention, and so I started taking pictures of those moments. I think my first pictures were of B.B. King. That was some fun stuff to take.

What has been most memorable about photographing musicians?
It was always so great to see musicians from Chicago or New York or New Orleans who hadn’t played together in a long time reunited on the Antone’s stage. There was always so much genuine excitement and you could just see the connection. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul and you could see everything in their eyes—love, appreciation, rhythm, camaraderie. You could really see it with the younger people like my friends Jimmy Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan. They so appreciated having the chance to play with the older greats. You could see incredible joy in their eyes, like the mantle was being passed. I just loved capturing those moments in music history.

Who are some of your favorite musicians to photograph?
The first to come to mind is Albert Collins, the great blues guitarist and singer. Everyone was just crazy about him. He had that magic thing that some people have and it came through in pictures. Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Etta James have it too. And I loved photographing B.B. King. He was the most fun person. Still is. He’s just so giving. He’s like Willie [Nelson]. They’ll stand and sign autographs, talk to fans and remember fans. The first time I met B.B. was at the club in ’75. I’d been sick, so B.B. went to the bar and got me a hot tea so I’d feel better. He’s as genuine a person as you can imagine.

Which of your photographs would we see hanging in your apartment?
You’ll see shots of Jimmy [Vaughn], Stevie [Ray Vaughn], B.B. [King], and Muddy [Waters]. But my favorite is one of Clifford [Antone] playing the guitar with James Cotton looking on. Cliff had been messing around with the guitar all day trying to hit a certain note. That night, we were all hanging out in the Green Room at the club and then Cliff hit the note with James looking on. The look on Cliff’s face as he hits the note is amazing. I just love that shot.

How do you judge your work?
For me to like a photo, I have to hear music coming through it. Like the ones I have of Jimmy and Buddy and another one of Stevie and Albert Collins. No matter how much time passes, I can still hear music coming out of those. It’s really all about music and rhythm. My instrument is the camera. I click it to the music I guess. And when I hear something I love, and I capture it on film, it’s like hitting a perfect note in my life. There’s just real joy in that for me.

What’s next?
I’m still taking lots of photos at Antone’s and have been taking some fun shots lately like Carolyn Wonderland playing the trumpet instead of the guitar and Dr. John playing the guitar rather than piano. And so many of the younger, newer people are just a trip and great to photograph—people like DirtyBird, Uncle Lucius and Bob Schneider. I’m also working with the folks at the Briscoe Center on a show. It’s been such a privilege to have seen and heard so much music over the years and I’m more excited than ever to be sharing that joy with others.

To view or purchase Susan Antone’s photographs, please contact the Briscoe Center for American History at (512) 495 4532.

Carla McDonald is the host of the Austin Arts Minute on News 8 as well as a wife, mother of two daughters, successful entrepreneur, community advocate, and fundraiser.