Drowning in a Whiskey River!
Phil Weir – owner James Comedy, The Pawn Shop and Whiskey River
By Paul Heckmann, Executive Director, Memories Incorporated
Paul Heckmann: Hi Phil, my gosh, you are one busy man. Realtor, SCUBA instructor, international man of mystery
Phil Weir: Ha, all of the above. Good to hear from you,
Paul Heckmann: Same here. Phil, can you kind of tell me a little bit about where you are from?
Phil Weir: I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and then at about 6 years old we moved to Dayton, Ohio, for a year and a half. And then we moved to Omaha, Nebraska. I went to grade school there. And then we – junior high and high school, we moved to a suburb of Chicago called Downers Grove. And then I went to Miami of Ohio college three times.
I managed a bar in college at a place called The Board Head, which was like the busiest college bar at Miami. I ended up being a manager there.
Paul Heckmann: I suspect there’s a story there, but that’s for ‘Memories of Miami Ohio’. Tell me more.
Phil Weir: I had a friend that I met in Fort Lauderdale. So this one time when I went to Fort Lauderdale for a weekend, then the weekend turns into spring break that turns into four months. I ended up quitting school. My parents weren’t real happy.
About that time a friend who was working back in Cincinnati called and so I ended going up there and running a beer garden called New Dilly Beer Garden.
Paul Heckmann: Love the name.
Phil Weir: And then another friend of mine went to work for a company called The Scene Incorporated. They owned all these nightclubs with electric dance floors called The Scenes. And they had one in Dallas called The Scene West over by Weir’s Furniture.
They asked me if I would come down. They were having a problem with their manager and told me if I’d come down, I would be the manager. I quit everything and ended up going to Dallas, running The Scene West in 1971.
And after I got that one back in shape, I went back to Cincinnati where they had a place there kinda like Hooters. They were having a problem there so I went there and got it back in working order.
Paul Heckmann: Interesting. And how did you make it back to Dallas?
Phil Weir: I had become good friends with a fella that had a little clothing store at The Scene West, Tony Goble
He says ‘Hey, Phil, they just opened a Friday’s on Greenville Avenue. Dallas has now gone liquor by the drink, Let’s do a nightclub down there.’
So, I went back to Dallas. We drove by Lovers and Greenville, and there was some kind of a hillbilly bar and they were selling it. We connected to them and went in, this pinball machine company had their pinball machines there and also a camera machine.
Paul Heckmann: I see.
Phil Weir: So we hit it off with these guys and they gave us a loan to open James Comedy in that building as long as we kept their products inside. So, we opened James Comedy on a $40,000 loan. I’ll never forget that.
Paul Heckmann: And I remember you telling me the story about the name itself, which is a good one.
Phil Weir: Yep, if you remember Charles Dubow, he was the designer. It was one of his first ones he did. He had pictures of Humphrey Bogart all over. So, I looked up Bogart one time and saw that he did one called ‘The Left Hand of God’ where he played James Carmody. Not sure what I was thinking or how many beers I had drunk but I thought it was James Comedy. And that’s exactly how we came up with that name James Comedy.
Paul Heckmann: Oh, my gosh, that’s a good one. So, did people come in thinking it was a comedy club?
Phil Weir: Not so much. Friday’s had just opened up across the street, then we opened up and folks were curious so within a couple weeks we were packed because we were rock and roll.
Paul Heckmann: What were some of the groups that you had there?
Phil Weir: Well, First State Bank was one of our regulars, Buster Brown, Vince Vance and the Valiants and also Headstone.
Paul Heckmann: Tell me about the crowds that used to come in there.
Phil Weir: Well, it was back in the 70’s, so I mean it was a bit of everything. We were one of the few rock and roll places at that time. There was disco and country. Not so much for rock and roll.
Paul Heckmann: So, this would be about what, 1972?
Phil Weir: Yep.
Paul Heckmann: Okay. And how long were ya’ll open?
Phil Weir: We were open until they changed the laws and let 18-year-olds buy liquor the next year. We were open for a couple months and then it kind of started going down. The older folks started leaving, the kids didnt spend money, the writing was on the wall.
And then we opened The Pawn Shop. Goebel had the idea, he wanted to do a Backgammon place there. So, we did that for a little bit and then that didn’t work very well. Then Tony did a magic place. That didn’t work either.
But about that time I was living with Charlie Waters and Mike Montgomery. And Willie Nelson came to visit one night.
Paul Heckmann: Wait, wait, wait, wait a minute! How did you get Charlie Waters and Willie Nelson in the same breath? Let me backtrack just a second here. You were roommates with Charlie Waters. Now tell me, how did that come about?
Phil Weir: Charlie and Rex Kirby and Mike Montgomery had this house on Fair Oaks. And somehow they had an extra room when a roommate moved out. And Charlie, Rex and Mike used to come into James Comedy, which is where I met them. So, I moved in there for a while.
Paul Heckmann: Wow, that’s pretty crazy.
Phil Weir: I know, man.
Paul Heckmann: I was trying to figure out how a Dallas Cowboy, Charlie Waters and Willie Nelson got into that same sentence, if you know what I mean. So lets go back to the night Willie dropped by the house.
Phil Weir: You bet. So I says to Willie. ‘Hey, Willie, what if we opened a nightclub called Whiskey River and gave you one third ownership? Would that work?’ And, of course, at that time he didn’t give a shit. And, he simply say ‘yeah.’ And that was that.
And so we already had the location and some of the equipment and we through on a few coats of paint, a little bit of rustic stuff and that’s how it opened, Willie Nelson’s Whiskey River.
Paul Heckmann: All because Willie dropped by the house one day.
Phil Weir: All because Willie dropped by one day.
Paul Heckmann: Okay, so you’ve met Willie Nelson, you’ve thrown out the pitch to him, that he’s gonna be a one third ownership. Now, tell me a little bit about how that thing kind of developed and what the format was, who came up with the business plan?
Phil Weir: What do you mean?
Paul Heckmann: I mean who put the plan together, the business plan?
Phil Weir: Yeah, I think we just kind of threw it together. You gotta remember back in those days it was pretty goofy. Yeah, there was a lot of drugs and alcohol involved too. So I guess you could simply say it was my idea and it worked.
Paul Heckmann: So the club opens. Lets talk about some of the groups you had there, from what I could find, an absolutely incredible amount of talent. Gatemouth Brown, Rusty Wier, Gary P. Nunn. Wow!
Phil Weir: Yeah, we also had Ray Wylie Hubbard and Michael Martin Murphy. I remember Michael really well, great guy. I had dinner with him at The Pawn Shop and he came over to Whiskey River and we really hit it off. B.W. Stevenson was there. Hoyt Axton. Delbert McClinton, Bees Knees, Shake Russell, Bugs Henderson all played there
I’ll tell you one story – Paul McCartney from The Beatles came in one night. I think he was with Wings then. He was sitting with Jay and the Five Americans, I think Freddie King was playing that night.
Angus Wynne: My partner Jack Calmes once got Freddie King, whom we co-managed, to play an afternoon gig at Whiskey River for one of Freddie’s greatest admirers, Sir Paul McCartney, who remarked that he was “completely chuffed”, blown away, by the blues superstar.
We had folks like Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas all the way to old school comedian Bob Hope in the audience.
Paul Heckmann: So tell me something nobody else has ever heard about Whiskey River.
Phil Weir: Well, there was a time that Willie was going to do three nights. He had never played there before so those tickets were hot! And we sold out every night.
And so the first night rolls around, he started out playing and then all of a sudden he wheels and throws his guitar at his sister, who was playing the piano.
Paul Heckmann: What? Why did he throw his guitar?
Phil Weir: Because we did some THC.
Paul Heckmann: Oh, no, no, no!
Phil Weir: And we were all so loaded, after he threw that guitar at his sister, we had to pull him offstage yelling and screaming. We cancelled the whole night because of that. We had to give the money back.
Paul Heckmann: Oh, no. What happened in the other two nights?
Phil Weir: Yeah, I guess all was forgiven, they worked out fine. You know it was just crazy packed.
And another one nobody knows, Willie was doing a concert at North Texas State in Denton, and they had a pre-concert party up there that he wanted me to come to. And he said, ‘Hey, Phil why don’t you come take a ride my buddy Joe and I, and we’ll drive around a little bit before the concert’. And he tells me Joe is a car dealer from Austin.
Paul Heckmann: Okay.
Phil Weir: So, we drive the back roads snorting coke and smoking Thai sticks. He’s supposed to start the concert at 8:00 and we get there at 10:00. We go onstage and I sing Whiskey River with him. That will tell you just how stoned we were.
Paul Heckmann: And I thought your were shy!
Phil Weir: Anyway a few months later I get a call from my manager, he says, ‘Phil, you need to come down to the club’. And I went, ‘It’s 3:00 in the afternoon. We don’t open until 8:00. I’m like, why?
He said, ‘There are a couple guys here that want to talk to you and they are not taking no for an answer’. So, I go down there, walk in the club, and they open their badges, DEA. And they sit down with me and say ‘You can’t tell anybody that we talked to you. What about the night you and Joe Hicks and Willie Nelson rode around the back roads in Denton, Texas for two hours?’
And I’m going, what? How do you know this? Then it turns out I’ve gotta go to the federal grand jury for the other guy that was in the car that I didnt even know was Joe Hicks. Turns out he was importing massive amounts of heroin from Vietnam in jeep tires and engine blocks
The good thing I guess, I didn’t know enough at the grand jury to go to trial. As it turns out Joe Hicks is still in prison today.
Probably the biggest dealer snared by the law in recent memory is Joe Hicks, a heroin/cocaine smuggler who some law enforcement officials believe supplied 50 percent of the hard drugs to the black community here. Hicks’ operation was sophisticated, employing 12 couriers and an intricate smuggling scheme between Bangkok and Dallas.
Described as “a used car salesman,” Hicks began dope smuggling in the wake of the Vietnam war. He set up a salvage operation for military vehicles as his front, found a cab driver in Bangkok to supply him with pure Asian white heroin and began smuggling the contraband through Los Angeles in the tires and engine parts of the vehicles. What started on a shoestring quickly grew to an organization that accounted for the smuggling and sale of 200 kilos (440 pounds) of heroin and cocaine in two short years.
Courtesy D Magazine 1977
Paul Heckmann: Oh, my gosh. Doesnt sound like knowing Willie was very healthy for you. Just think if you all had got busted in that car, no telling where you would have been, man.
Phil Weir: I know.
Paul Heckmann: I mean you can come back from like the marijuana or even cocaine, but heroin is another matter.
Phil Weir: Exactly, yes.
Anyway, the drugs and alcohol were tearing me up. I remember one-night driving home in my Porsche and I was going like 130 and I went through a barbwire fence backwards, end up in a farm field.
Phil Weir: Then I guess let’s see, was it summer of ’76? And then all hell broke loose
Paul Heckmann: Okay. And what happened there, Phil?
Phil Weir: I had moved out of Charlie’s place and was living in a house that was owned by Clint Murchison. It was north of LBJ and had a swimming pool and everything. It was a GE Home of the Future at the Texas State Fair, they moved it out to this 35-acre parcel that Clint Murchison owned
I had this girl come over and we got pretty loaded and I passed out. Then she went home to her boyfriend and said she was at Phil Weir’s house doing cocaine and so he called the vice squad. And so at 9:00 in the morning I am still passed out and BAM BAM, there go both bedroom doors. And they came in and freeze, MF, or we’re gonna blow your head off.
And they searched that whole house and found a quarter of a gram of cocaine in the attic. So, anyway, I went to jail that night or that morning, I mean, it was a Thursday morning and I got bailed out by a bail bondsman that was a friend of mine. And then Friday morning it made the frontpage of Dallas Morning News, ‘Club Operator Busted – Phil Weir. Owner of Whiskey River with Willie Nelson, was apprehended with unknown quantities of drugs.’
And it turned out that I had used to play racquetball with three assistant district attorneys in Dallas County. So, one of them being Bill Hill, who ended up being the DA of Dallas County for 25 years. Bill had gone into private practice and he took my case.
Paul Heckmann: So the pooh hits the fan. And how did that turn out?
Phil Weir: I remember when the judge said, Mr. Weir, I sentence you to two years in the state penitentiary.
Paul Heckmann: Oh, wow.
Phil Weir: In Huntsville, Texas. I thought I was gonna die. And then he pauses a minute to let it sink in and goes, ‘sentence suspended’.
I cannot tell you the relief there. And then he said, Mr. Weir, I understand you have permission to move to Aspen, Colorado. I’m aware of the sin in Pitkin County, he said. And then he goes, you better keep your nose clean. Eyes are on you.
Paul Heckmann: Yeah, this was all ’76. So, you were still a part owner of Whiskey River, though, right?
Phil Weir: I let go of my ownership of the club and I moved everything to Aspen and started over.
Paul Heckmann: Oh, man. So, okay, you have – you’re in Aspen now. Now, how did you end up down in Central America?
Phil Weir: Oh, well, I got so – there were restaurants and real estate in Aspen and then I got sober in ’84 and was still helping with the restaurant and selling real estate. And then I got involved in mountain rescue and that Aspen Mountain Rescue, became an Aspen Leader.
Paul Heckmann: Wow.
Phil Weir: In 1990 I went with a friend of mine down to the Bay Islands, where Roatan is, to an island called Cayos Cochinos. I went down there diving and the guy that owned it was from Louisiana, an older man. And he wanted to sell it, so I came back to Aspen and I raised $400,000 to buy it. I had eight investors. And one week before it was supposed to happen, the guy called me and said, Phil, I sold to someone else. I was devastated.
Paul Heckmann: Yeah.
Phil Weir: So, I opened a restaurant called The Silver City Grill in Aspen.
Paul Heckmann: Okay.
Phil Weir: And I ran it through the winter of ’90 and the spring of ’91 three other people and myself went to Borneo scuba diving.
Paul Heckmann: Okay.
Phil Weir: And we came back from that and I said, you know what, hey, I’m gonna sell this restaurant. I’m gonna go become a scuba instructor. And I ended up in Destin, Florida, for two months, became a scuba instructor, and called the guy who bought this – that resort out from under me. I called him up, said, hey, my name is Phil Weir; I was the guy bidding against you.
And he goes, I know who you are. Bob Braudis, who was the sheriff of Pitkin County, where Aspen is for 20 years as sheriff, he was just here on a sailboat and told me all about you. And I went, ‘what? You gotta be kidding me!’
Paul Heckmann: It’s a small world. Oh, my gosh.
Phil Weir: So, I said, well, you wouldn’t by chance need a scuba instructor? And he said, you know, Phil, as a matter of fact, I do. And I was there in two weeks.
Paul Heckmann: Oh, wow.
Phil Weir: And I spent 20 months on that island of this resort and then one day I went over to Roatan to Anthony’s Key Resort. And the manager came up to me and said, hey, Phil. How can I get you over here to run our dive operation? And I said, what? Pay me. And I ended up going over there and working at Anthony’s Key Resort. Then we built the first scuba school on the island and became the PADI course director.
Paul Heckmann: Oh, wow.
Phil Weir: The guy that taught instructors to teach. And then I started the real estate association on Roatan because nobody was working together. The Roatan Realtors Association. And at 54 I met a 21-year-old island girl, got married, and had kids. And in 2008, said we need to move back to Colorado for school and sports for the kids and then moved back here.
Paul Heckmann: Isn’t that amazing?
Phil Weir: Yeah.
Paul Heckmann: And just think, if you had got busted with that heroin dealer, that stigmata would have followed you and probably none of all the great things would have happened.
Phil Weir: I know.
Paul Heckmann: So, I’m so happy for you, my friend. I really am, I really am. They say things turn out the way they are supposed to turn out and you are a prime example.
Phil Weir: Oh yea. I mean I got great kids. My daughter, who is graduating, she’s a student body president, 4.3 grade average. Four years varsity soccer. She’s got a full academic scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis. And she’s gonna do premed because it’s one of the top premed medic schools in the country. And my son is a sophomore and I got another daughter that’s in fourth grade. And my wife got her citizenship and she works for the school district here at the special ed program. Life is good.
Paul Heckmann: That is absolutely incredible. Phil, thank you for your time so much, buddy. I will let you know when this thing gets published.
Phil Weir: Sounds great.
Paul Heckmann: Hey, you take care, okay?
Phil Weir: Thanks for doing this.
But before you leave, let me tell you something – I love what you guys are doing at Memories of Dallas. You are documenting so many of our old memories that nobody else ever gave a damn about. Without you, they would be long gone. I’m a huge fan.
Paul Heckmann: I cannot tell you what that means. Thank you very much Phil. And stay tuned, there is so much more to come!
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