The Historic Victory Grill / Historic Premier Blues Club
Owner/Operators: John M. Holmes, Roy Harris, George Nichols, and Mrs. Mary Wadsworth
The center of East Austin’s remaining blues history resides at 1104 East 11th Street, the home of the Historic Victory Grill. Since its opening in the 1940s, the Victory Grill has hosted national and local blues musicians traveling the national Chitlin’ Circuit: the network of juke joints, bars, and clubs that welcomed black patrons and musicians. The Grill was an essential aspect of the East Austin music scene, one of the many bars and clubs lining East 11th Street during the mid-twentieth century. When segregation ended, more white customers began to patronize the Victory Grill, and black musicians took their acts to the previously forbidden venues on the west side of Austin. The Victory remained a popular music venue through the 60s and now resides on the National Register of Historic Places. The Grill stands as a reminder of the community is unified, the turbulent times it survived, and the crowded nights during which it hosted people and their music.
In 1942, Johnny Holmes was selling hamburgers from a stand on East 11th Street. It was not long after President Roosevelt had asked Congress to declare war on both sides of the globe, and the country was wrapped up in war mania. For three years, Holmes watched the war progress on the European and Pacific fronts. As 1945 arrived, an American and Allied victory seemed imminent. Sure enough, Victory came on May 8th in Europe and on August 15th in the Pacific, ending the Second World War and sending American soldiers back home across the seas. In Austin, Johnny Holmes moved from his hamburger stand to a café at the same address, 1104 E. 11th Street. He named this café, the beginnings of East Austin’s historic Grill, for Victory.
Holmes began hosting blues musicians on the front porch of his café, selling food and beer to those who came to listen. In 1949, he expanded his business to take on a new purpose: providing returning African American soldiers with a place to find good food and entertainment. Though American forces had achieved a united victory abroad, the country they defended was far from entirely cohesive. At the end of the Second World War, Jim Crow and segregation maintained their hold, especially in the Southern States. The legislation effectively confined African Americans to the neighborhoods on the East Side. Blacks could not go to school, draw out loans, or receive other essential social services elsewhere. Even private businesses banned African Americans: Blacks could not patronize nor play in the more upscale bars and clubs reserved for Whites on the west side of town. Johnny Holmes and his Victory Grill, therefore, helped to fill the void of available entertainment venues for the East Side community.
During this period, other venues in East Austin and across the nation catered to African Americans, forming what was collectively called the “Chitlin’ Circuit,’ a stretch of Black-friendly clubs spotting the Eastern coast and Southern states. These clubs fostered the blues culture of the 1920s to the 1960s, hosting musicians such as Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, and Billie Holiday. Other musicians made the 11th Street district their more permanent home, such as T.D. Bell and Blues Boy Hubbard.
Johnnie Holmes persuaded Tyler, “T.D.” Bell to remain in Austin’s East Side permanently during its 1950s heyday, hiring him to play a regular gig at the Victory. Bell played with the house band, The Cadillac, at the Grill and later remained an integral aspect of blues culture in Austin.
Blues Boy Hubbard was also a regular at the Victory Grill and other neighboring clubs. He and his band, The Jets, filled in on un-booked nights and played back up for traveling musicians.
The Victory Grill and neighboring 11th street businesses became the hub for the culture East of I-35. But though Holmes had initially intended to cater to the Black community, his customer demographic soon changed. His Grill began to draw White customers, mostly students at the University of Texas, who had more money to spend than the average Black patron. (This addition to the club crowds produced tensions between Blacks and Whites…) In 1954 the Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional, and the trickle of Whites to the East Side blues and juke joints widened. At the same time, Black patrons and musicians left their original haunts in the East to visit the previously restricted clubs on the West side of town.
The end of segregation produced an ironic twist in the fate of East 11th Street. Many people in the Black community, no longer forced to stay in the East, moved elsewhere. At the same time, the area attracted visitors from other parts of town.
The Eastside of Austin was no longer a contained environment exclusive to one ethnicity. Though Blacks from East Austin gained freedoms with the end of segregation in the mid-50s, they also lost some of the cohesiveness of their community.
The businesses and clubs on East 11th Street suffered the same ironic fate as the rest of the East end neighborhood. When more opportunities open for Black musicians and customers on the Westside, the Victory Grill and others lost their most regular business. The Grill remained popular, however, throughout the 1960s, when it hosted such performers as B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Ike, and Tina Turner, and Janis Joplin.
Today, the Victory Grill is one of the few standing stops on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” and it claims a spot on the National Registry of Historic Places. In present-day East Austin, the Grill represents the juke joints and clubs that lined East 11th Street in its heyday.
1104 E 11th St
“We had some great blues players too, and a lot of them are still active here. T.D. Bell, I remember his group at, playing at the Victory. He’s very great. In his prime, I tell you, you couldn’t beat him. The Victory was also the scene of some good jazz too. I remember when Bobbly Blue Bland used to come down. He was in the service up in Fort Hood. He would come down during the ’50’s. He’d sit in with the house band. The house band was made up of Sam Huston collegian musicians mostly. This was like, oh, when? It had to be ’52-53. Bobby Bland has been around a long time, he’s been on the scene a good while. But he was quite young then. The downstairs of the Victory was nice down there. You look at the Victory today, and you think, “My this was a dump.” But it wasn’t always like that. That’s another thing. The insides of the clubs then, they were beautiful.” from an interview with Pat Murphy conducted by Harold McMillan
Historic Victory Grill / Historic Premier Blues Club
1104 East 11th
Austin, TX, 78702