Before Threadgill’s provided a home for traditional Texas musicians in the 1950s and 1960s, and before Clifford Antone opened his first blues club and the Armadillo World Headquarters helped usher in the age of Progressive Country in the mid-1970s, there was the Victory Grill. Located at 1104 East Eleventh Street on the edge of Austin’s “Eastside,” the Victory Grill, with a capacity of approximately 250 people, has long been one of the city’s most important live blues venues as well as the oldest.
Conceived by entrepreneur Johnny Holmes as a gathering place for African-American soldiers returning home after World War II (hence the club’s name), the Victory Grill opened in 1945. Built within the predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the eastern edge of racially-segregated Austin, the icehouse and music venue soon had a devoted clientele of African Americans looking for cold beer and great live music. In 1949 Holmes expanded his business to include a bar and grill. Eventually he added the “Kovac Room”—a performance area. In addition to the Victory Grill’s Black patrons, a steady stream of curious White Austinites, soldiers from nearby Fort Hood, local college students, and music lovers of all races packed the club each weekend.
In short order, the Victory Grill became a popular spot on the “Chitlin’ Circuit”—a nickname for the network of African-American juke joints that stretched across the segregated South and into the Midwest. In the course of its long history the Victory Grill’s stage hosted music legends such as James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. “We’re talking about Bobby (‘Blue’) Bland getting his start here. We’re talking about B.B. King getting his start here. We’re talking about Gatemouth Brown,” Rudolph Malvaux of Victory Grill Entertainment commented. W. C. Clark also started his professional career at the club, and T. D. Bell and Erbie Bowser played there.
Despite this rich legacy and solid reputation for providing great blues music, by the 1960s the Victory Grill had fallen on hard times. Just as segregation had led to the creation of the Victory Grill, desegregation led to the club’s decline. Desegregation helped bring an end to the Chitlin’ Circuit, and, as more affluent Blacks moved out of the area, Austin’s once flourishing Eastside slid into poverty, blight, and decay. Changing musical tastes from blues and jazz to rock-and-roll also contributed to the club’s decline. By the mid-1970s Johnny Holmes was forced to close down the nightclub section of the Victory Grill. The café portion continued sporadically for a time. However after a devastating fire on October 10, 1988, the entire building was finally closed.
Supporters launched various fundraisers and restoration projects in an attempt to revive the legendary nightclub. Austin Mayor Lee Cooke declared August 24, 1989, to be “Johnny Holmes and Victory Grill Appreciation Day.” On that same day blues music promoter and club owner Clifford Antone held a fundraising concert to help cover reconstruction costs. Despite these efforts it was not until R. V. Adams, a personal friend of Holmes, along with Eva Lindsey, intervened with additional funding that the club was finally restored. Reopening its doors in 1996, the Victory Grill once again became a thriving cornerstone in “The Live Music Capital of the World.”
In recognition of the club’s contributions to Austin’s musical heritage, the Victory Grill is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, is noted by the Texas Historical Commission, and is listed as a Texas Treasure by Preservation Texas. In February 2005 the Friends of the Victory Grill, a nonprofit group, was organized to oversee the management of and fundraising for the renovation and preservation of the club. The group’s mission was also to furnish educational programs to area schools as well as patrons and tourists to promote the cultural significance of the Victory Grill as Austin’s last remaining juke joint on the historic Chitlin’ Circuit. Eva Lindsey served as proprietor and general manager in 2008. By 2011 the Victory Grill was under the new management of Another Option Productions with assistance from Capitol View Arts. That year, it presented “Urban Austin” at the Cutting Edge Music Conference in New Orleans. The Victory Grill was open for private events, educational gatherings, and special performances (including as a venue at South by Southwest).
Victory Grill founder Johnny Holmes died in 2001. For his work as a music promoter of blues and jazz along Austin’s stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit and as a restaurateur, he was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2010.