60 Years Ago: Robbie Robertson Plays Jack Ruby’s Nightclub
Robbie Robertson of the Band played a lot of gigs in his life — from backing Ronnie Hawkins in the Hawks to becoming Bob Dylan's right-hand man on the road. But there was one show in the early '60s he remembered for the rest of his life.
It was sometime in the latter half of 1963. The 20-year-old Robertson was playing guitar in the Hawks and performing all around the country. A weeklong booking brought the band to Forth Worth, Texas, and a venue called the Skyline Lounge.
When the band arrived, they soon discovered how the club got its name. It was, as Robertson described in his 2016 memoir, Testimony, "burnt out, blown up" and it didn't have a roof, giving the place a dismaying view of the local skyline.
"Well boys, you live and you learn," Robertson recalled Hawkins telling them. "If we can get through this alive, we can do anything."
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Any hopes of an audience quickly vanished, too. "All told, the audience numbered less than 10," he noted. "The place was so empty you could make out individual conversations in the crowd."
Spending the Night at the Skyline
Things picked up a bit as the night went on, but not exactly how the band wanted. Near the end of the evening, a fight broke out and one man tear-gassed another in the middle of the dance floor. There was also a particularly memorable one-armed go-go dancer employed at the venue.
More bad news followed: The club owner told the band that the venue "ain't exactly secure enough" to leave their equipment overnight unattended. So the band members took turns sleeping in shifts and guarding their gear. At one point, the police (and their dogs) came by in the middle of the night and gave the musicians a good scare.
The club's owner, usually high on uppers, also stopped in occasionally. The band learned he owned another venue in Dallas that he was trying to get off the ground. By the end of their weeklong job, the band was exhausted, hungry and still reeling from tear gas fumes.
"We got paid — not as much as we'd hoped — and hit the highway, thinking the strangeness was over," Robertson remembered.
A Dark Day in Dallas
But it wasn't. According to Robertson, a few months later in November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. Oswald was then killed by Jack Ruby, who was described in newspaper reports as a nightclub operator with ties to the mob. As the news unfolded, it dawned on the band that Ruby was the same person who owned the Skyline Lounge.
"I'm not completely sure Ruby owned it," Helm skeptically told the Tampa Bay Times in 1994. "We did play a place in Fort Worth that you had to show your razor to get in, but I don't think there was a proprietor. At least there wasn't one when it came time to get paid."
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Robertson, however, was certain. "As the assailant's face was splashed repeatedly across television and newspapers for days on end, a bizarre realization settled in for all of us Hawks," he said, "Jack, the owner of the Skyline Lounge who always seemed to be tweaked on pep pills, was none other than Jack Rubenstein — otherwise known as Jack Ruby. The man who had hired us only a few months before to play his weird, burned-out Skyline Lounge in Forth Worth, Texas, had shot and killed the assassin of President Kennedy."
The Band, 1971: Exclusive Photos
Gallery Credit: Allison Rapp