“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Sam Pink
Interview by Baldwin "Smitty" Smith
Jazz Monthly: My guest at JazzMonthly.com is one of the true champions of live music and case in point is the fantastic club that he has in Houston, Texas. It is the number one club in Houston and you’ll have to come visit to see what I mean. Every night there’s great live performances, and a variety of talents that will slay you. Here to talk about this great night spot and a very unique career in music, please welcome the incredible and amazing Mr. Sam Pink. Sam, how ya doin’, my friend?
Sam Pink (SP): How ya doin’, my friend?
Jazz Monthly: All right. Sam, I’ve travel all over the country and I visit live venues all the time, and I’ve got to give you some serious props for what you have done over the past five years with this great restaurant / club because you have, from day one, really introduced some great live music to all of Houston. There has been several international events right here in Houston and each time you have always rose to the occasion to showcase some great talent and you keep it on a great level of quality and substance, so I’ve gotta give you some props for what you’ve accomplished with this restaurant.
SP: Oh yeah, thanks a lot, man. Really, you’re too kind.
Jazz Monthly: Well, now talk to me about how this all developed. I know this is not something that just happened overnight. You obviously are a great lover of live music and I know this goes back quite a ways in your life. Just talk about how you developed this love for fantastic music.
SP: Well, as a young child my father was very instrumental in us all being around music and he was a trumpet player and a professor. He’d always take us to these talent shows. That was the big thing to do back in the 70s. Also, his brother was a full-time musician all my life and at one point, when I was old enough to drive, I was able to go in and work with him as a sound man. I would set up the sound systems and I did that for a long time. His name was Captain Pink. It was one of the first bands I was ever around so I knew the guys from an early age. And it was always interesting to me. He would always load his van up and travel to far places like he’d go down to Corpus Christi, he’d go over sometimes to Vegas, he’d be in Louisiana or in Florida. As a kid, his life was very exciting to me. Who knew I would be doing it? I didn’t really plan this, it just kinda happened, but I’m glad it did.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, funny how the unknowns fall into place. So now talk about some of the things that really touched you as you followed your uncle with his band? What are some of those things that have really stuck with you that really influenced you about live music?
SP: Well, it’s the passion that the musicians have and there are some musicians who are out there who play just to have people listen and that always struck a chord to me, that music can touch you in such a way that people would do it whether it was one person in the crowd or 10,000 people in the crowd, and it never went away, that feeling that a person has for their art form could make them just love it that much. That has always intrigued me, and the more I listen to artists, the more you can see something different, and that the music they were doing, they were all languages. It’s like they had their own fingerprint to their style of music and it was always interesting to see which one would actually rise and make a national presence.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, well, I’m so surprised that you didn’t pick up an instrument yourself.
SP: Mm…I can’t sing, can’t play a drum, I can’t do anything, but I know good music when I hear it, though. That’s it.
Jazz Monthly: Well, that’s a talent in itself to have a good ear for music. There are people on this planet that have made a wonderful living with their great ears.
SP: We have to know our limitations.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. Well, I’m with ya, brotha. You have been involved in a different form of the arts or entertainment in that you were involved with television. How did that happen?
SP: Well, actually, to make a long story short, it all started from television and went back. (Laughs.)
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs)…
SP: I was accepted into law school in California. When I was in law school there, my wife at the time was pregnant and we actually ended up doing the Lamaze class at Cedars Sinai. While there, I ended up talking to some actors and struck up a friendship with one of the actors, and the next thing I knew, I started producing movies. The actor—it was Richard Brooks, actually, from the show Law & Order, Richard was playing a role as a lawyer and I have a background in law because my dad had a law practice for 30 years. So I worked in the law office and then eventually I decided to go back to law school. The curiosity between me actually having a background in law and him playing a lawyer on TV gave us something to really talk about, so from that point he started working on producing a movie and he asked me if I was interested in helping him out. Next thing I know, I became a producer, left law school, did a series of movies. I even did a film here in Houston called Fifth Ward. I was an associate producer on that one project. I think it came out in ’97.
In one of my travels back and forth to Los Angeles I met a chef who was actually trying to do a cooking show and I ended up befriending the chef, and so one thing led to another. He actually had a project that came up and he asked me if I was interested in being a part of it and I said “Yes,” so that was the restaurant that was formerly owned by Carl Lewis.
Jazz Monthly: Nice….
SP: Called Café Noir here in Houston, so I actually worked with him at that place. When we took over management we changed the name to Café SoHo primarily because we were all hanging out in the SoHo part of New York and Café SoHo was a hip place at the time. Needless to say, because of my experience in film and producing, I was anxious to do a cooking show for him and we actually produced a cooking show, so that’s how I got into the restaurant business. Through a cooking show that I was producing, a friendship, and then one thing led to another, came into the Red Cat one day and it was up for sale and I ended up taking it over five years ago, actually, in October. We opened October 2003, so it has been five years.
Jazz Monthly: All right, well, happy anniversary.
SP: Oh, thank you.
Jazz Monthly: So now you went from television to the restaurant business and then along came the music.
SP: Right, right. I had no intention of running a restaurant. Actually, the restaurant was supposed to be my cash cow so that I can continue to make movies (both laugh) and it just didn’t happen like that for me. God had another plan, so for one thing to another, I decided that things weren’t going just right and I said “Well, I think I need to look more into this restaurant because it’s not making the money I thought it was supposed to make,” so at some point my interest went from just making the money to trying to keep my money.
So having to come up here every day and be here every day, I started really developing a keen sense of what entertainment was and who were making a real impact with the crowd and what wasn’t, and I was like why aren’t these guys doing it because these guys are just as good as the guys on the radio right now, so I think we can do something about that. So it took about two to three years for it to come to fruition, but it finally did. We got our deal with Universal through Bungalow, a North American/Canada-type distribution deal. I still have my foreign rights open to shop around the world, which I’ll probably do in the months to come. We’ll fly over and talk to some people over in France and Germany, and sell the digital rights and all that other stuff to work on as well.
Jazz Monthly: Right, so it seems like you’ve met success with everything, you’ve kept your hands on it, and now you’re full blown in the music business.
Jazz Monthly: As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, you’ve really showcased some great talent and now you have an opportunity to get them out there for audiences around the world to see them.
SP: It’s such a blessing because I think that there are so many artists out there and I don’t think the music industry as it is should put as many restraints on what exactly is good music or who should be classified as….“This person’s too old, this person’s too fat.” But music is music and it doesn’t have anything to do with a style or color or anything—what these people sometimes try to do is say “Well, we don’t think they’re ready for the bigtime. They’re too old.” So those are some things that we try to dispel, those references, and I have no limitations on the person. If an artist has a good quality of music then it speaks for itself.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. I like that, man. That’s a great vibe and it’s a great approach. And I just want to talk a little bit about some of the music that has come through Red Cat Jazz Café.
SP: Well, I will be remiss if I didn’t say the first person signed to the Red Cat Music Group is Althea Rene, which happens to be someone that I heard about through you, yourself. (Both laugh.)
Jazz Monthly: Yeah.
SP: Five years ago.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed, and I thank you for listening. Once again, it goes back to you having an open mind and having a feel for listening to people’s recommendations because you could’ve easily blown me off and said “Oh, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
SP: Right. Well, I’ve always learned that since my background is in law that you have to look at all the evidence (both laugh). You don’t make a decision until you’ve checked out all the evidence, literally.
Jazz Monthly: True.
SP: So there was no way I was not gonna listen to anything. When I did listen to it, it was a done deal the first note, the first bar. So Althea’s a wonderful talent. She’s the first. A lot of people are wondering why, but she plays the flute like no one’s business, she has a great showmanship, we’re doing big things with her. She just left Washington, D.C., where she performed for the congresswoman from California, Maxine Waters’ gala, and we’re just really enjoying the fruits of her labor over this long stretch of time, having people tell her, no, she couldn’t do it. I understood she had approached about five or six labels to take a look at her and no one could see the obvious, that she was phenomenal, so maybe it’s just something waiting for us to do.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, and I agree with you. She’s a fantastic talent and I really want to congratulate you and thank you for all that you’ve done to let people know what a great talent she is. You have showcased her on all levels, you have produced her music, you have taken her on the label to get her music out there. As a result, you’ve had some great producers working with her.
Jazz Monthly: Like Michael Broening, Rex Rideout, Chance Howard you know, great talent on her project, her latest project, which was just released, what, last month? Or this month.
SP: It was released two days before Hurricane Ike.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, that’s right.
SP: The 9th of September I think it was.
Jazz Monthly: That’s right.
SP: So he hit us right when we released, so that gave us a little setback but it also brought attention to what we’re doing here in Houston, so it all worked out in the end. So we’re back on tract, but more importantly, she’s hit the stage with great people and some here in the restaurant. Joe Sample came in one night and sat in with her on her show, actually, and was blown away by her. Hubert Laws, another one who came to the show, Ronnie Laws, Bobby Lyle. You know, Kyle Turner, he sets up our house band in-house, Kyle Turner, is a mellow music director for us.
Jazz Monthly: And a great talent too.
SP: And I mean just all around. He’s actually on the label as well.
Jazz Monthly: Yes.
SP: One of the other guys that I’m signing is—the music is diverse—is Robert Wilson, who’s Charlie Wilson’s brother from The Gap Band.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah.
SP: We had a conversation with George Duke, who’s agreed to work with us on producing one song for him at least, which is really phenomenal, and we were glad to hear about that. Some other guest artists are gonna be a part of it and, of course, Charlie’s gonna be there, I’m pretty sure, so it’s really an exciting time. I can’t let the cat out of the bag too much, but there’s a lotta stuff coming down the pike, some of the music. The music is one side of it, now we’ve also evolved into—you’ll hear it down the road—something called the PBC, which is the Pink Broadcasting Corporation. We’re about to start airing a TV show called Red Cat Live, which will be hosted by Marion Meadows, and the first show will be shot here in October, October 24th and 25th, so we’re really looking forward to that. Of course, we’re gonna debut my number one artist, which is Althea, and the house band will be directed by Kyle Turner and Marion Meadows is gonna host it and we’re gonna have, I think, Miki Howard’s gonna be involved, Ronnie Laws, Bobby Lyle, and a host of other guys. That same weekend we’re doing a hurricane relief fundraiser at the Church Community of Faith with Bishop Dixon and we’re having Forrest Whittaker, Angela Bassett, you know, all those guys, come in to help rally support for this cause to help people who have lost so much due to Hurricane Ike.
Jazz Monthly: Okay. All right, well, that’s very cool, man. And once again, I want to applaud you for your efforts to rally around Houston, not only with great talent but also your humanitarian efforts. And it goes back to these great musicians giving of themselves once again to help others and I think that’s a cool thing about the people that you have surrounded yourself with, which is a very cool thing.
SP: Right, and I cannot have the interview without saying that we have a wonderful host here who introduced me to you, actually, Donna Franklin. She’s still here, she’s our hostess and she just makes this thing work for us. I mean, she makes it worth me coming to work when she starts talking.
Jazz Monthly: She’s great, no one can do it like Donna.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, she’s the best. Once again, man, you’ve got such great people around you that have just made this a great success along with your talents, and it’s always a comfortable thing to know that we still have live music and we have good quality live music in Houston, because I’ll tell ya, everywhere I go, when I mention Houston, people will always say “Red Cat. Yeah, the Red Cat, right? It’s in Houston. Yeah, I’ve been there,” or “I was there last week” or “I was there last month.” So people automatically associate Houston and the Red Cat. It’s synonymous, it really is.
Jazz Monthly: A lot of us just call it “The Cat”.
SP: Well, I don’t take it for granted. I know it’s all just a blessing from God and He just happened to let me have this portion to control down here, but He lets us all have our certain day in the sunshine, I guess. Now it’s really shining on us.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. So tell me now, you’ve got a second club in the works, right?
SP: Yeah, we have a location that’s in the new development being brought to downtown. It’s more of a mix—it’s an urban mixed use type of facility. It covers about—it’s a $200 million project I think it is—and they have Lucky Strike in there, a bunch of different places that have done well in other cities like in L.A. and Chicago and places like that, I’m pretty sure. The whole new concept of entertainment is changing, so this whole mixed use—we have retail and entertainment, restaurants all in the same three, four-block span is where we are. That location will probably be called Red Cat Live and Red Cat Live will be distinctly different from the Red Cat Jazz Café itself so that we don’t saturate the market brand. I’m actually leaving to get on a flight on Wednesday to go to Baltimore, then leave Baltimore to go to Kansas City to look at locations in those two cities, so we’re looking forward to that.
Jazz Monthly: Excellent, man, excellent. Well, I certainly appreciate you keeping live music out there and expounding upon that through other cities that certainly welcome it and that’s a very cool thing.
SP: Well, the whole key is that in order for the artists in the jazz genre to make it, there has to be venues for them to play.
Jazz Monthly: Right.
SP: And so I’ve taken it upon myself to create the venues which help facilitate our growth because if we actually open up 20 locations around the country, then we can put together our own little tours within our own little network and they’ll keep the artists working and it’ll let the customers see the new artists and then they can further their careers, and it’s just a wonderful thing.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, it is. And by the way, before I forget, I want to thank you for having me on your first show in Houston, on the new Red Cat TV show. I want to thank you for having me on there, that premiere show. (Both laugh.)
SP: You got a chance to see that, right? How did you get a copy of that?
Jazz Monthly: Well, you know how it is, man. I have a way.
SP: You’re funny.
Jazz Monthly: Well, hey, Sam, seriously, talk about what some people that have come through the Red Cat Jazz Café as fans are saying that inspire you to continue to do what you do.
SP: Well, it is so mind blowing to have someone—for the most part, it seems as though every time there’s a major concert in town, after the concert’s over they beat feet it over here to come see my bands. I think Marion Meadows was one of the first ones. That’s how I met him. He actually came over after a show some five years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. Same thing with—and I think Jonathan Butler came over and some of the guys like Rayford Griffin, the drummer, Nathan East, Bob James. I can’t forget, and I’ll be remiss if I forget—I’m the number one fan of Frankie Beverly and he came over after one of his gigs and hung out with me and just likes the place a whole lot. I have no pictures in my building. If you notice, there are no pictures with celebrities because I want people that when you come here, there’s just no telling who you’re gonna see. I don’t wanna brag about it, but you just never know who you’re gonna see. I only have music artwork.
Jazz Monthly: That’s true, yeah.
SP: And we don’t like to—and a lotta people like to come only because they know that we’re not prostituting them. We’re not saying “Come to the Red Cat because this person’s gonna be here.”
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, you’re not pimping it.
SP: No, I’m not gonna pimp anybody.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and that’s cool, that’s real cool.
SP: We want people to come and enjoy themselves and be relaxed and not be bombarded by anybody, but if some customers wanna come by and say hello—because it does make their day if someone walks down and they say “Oh, that’s Michael Bolden! Oh, I never even knew he was there.” They say hello to him and they see that’s just a person, a real person.
Jazz Monthly: And I wanna say something about the staff that you have there. You have one of the most innovative and the most polite group of people working there as your hostesses. They’re just great people, they take great care of everyone in the club, they always know their business and they do their business and they do it well, and it’s just a wonderful thing to see that. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen everywhere else, but it really adds a great deal to the whole ambience of the club.
SP: And we can’t forget about the chef.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed.
SP: Is totally, totally awesome, Chef Ray. Chef Ray, he’s something else. He came from New Orleans during Katrina. I met him sometime ago. His brother is one of my good friends and told him to come down to see me, you know, it might be possible to get him a job and I did. He worked out wonderfully, he’s just a godsend.
Jazz Monthly: Well, I gotta tell you, when Donna Franklin first told me about you, she said “Smitty, you gotta come down to the club.” The first thing she said was “Smitty, you gotta taste the food.” (Both laugh.) Because she knows I love to eat, so she said “Oh, the food is unbelievable, Smitty.” And she was right. Everyone talks about the food, you know, the kitchen is the bump.
SP: The killer part is that we forget that it is a restaurant.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly.
SP: The music takes you so far away and then most people say “Oh, the club.” I keep saying it really is a restaurant that happens to have live music, but because the music is such a dominant force, it takes on the presence of being a club, but it’s really a restaurant and the food is good, and that was one of my main focuses. When I took over 100% ownership of the place, we actually decided to focus on the food being good so it wasn’t just microwave stuff. That was my goal and we’ve done okay with that.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and I gotta tell ya, I love the bar.
SP: The bar is good. The drinks are always good. I mean, you can’t mess that up. (Both laugh.)
Jazz Monthly: I love to come in and get my drink on, with in reason of course.
SP: Yeah, well, you know, I have been known to get my drink on too.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man. And I guess what we talked about is what a complete establishment, complete venue you have, and it’s a one-stop. Customers can come in and fans can come in, they can have a drink, they can have great food, great live entertainment, a wonderful atmosphere, and then there’s always the element of surprise because I know the last time I was in there, I walked in and there were Ronnie and Hubert Laws sitting over there at the table. I was like, okay, Ronnie and Hubert’s in tonight, you know?
SP: Right, right.
Jazz Monthly: And that happens. You don’t know who may come in. I’ve seen NFL football players come in, MLB baseball players. When we had the All Star Game in Houston, some of the ballplayers came through for the baseball All Star Game; for the Super Bowl, there were football players coming in and other celebrities. So there’s that surprise factor too that everybody knows that the place to be in Houston is the Red Cat Jazz Café, and that’s a wonderful thing and it’s a testament to what you have created with this great venue of live music and just a—how do you say it—topnotch night spot for people to go and have a great time.
SP: Yeah, we’ve been very fortunate because there are no books, there’s no magic formula. You just kinda have to be able to roll with the punches as they go or just have a hunch that this might work or just be nice, just be real. That’s one thing we really do pride ourselves in, is to try to keep it really, really, really real.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah.
SP: You know, we’re a home—we’re a mom and pop organization. We never wanna become this big corporate conglomerate. We just wanna be a mom and pop deal because those are the places that survive, the hole-in-the-walls, the bars like Cheers, a place that everybody knows their name, you know, the place you’re walking in, “Oh, hey, how are you doing?” Those are the things that are gonna make the difference between us staying and going.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, keeping it intimate.
SP: Right, right. And I never wanna get past the size we are. The intimate boutique type feel is gonna always prevail because who wants to be in a big ol’ room that’s empty?
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. Talk about some of the compliments you’ve received about the Red Cat Jazz Café.
SP: Well, we’ve gotten so many….We were in National Geographic Traveler as being one of the best places for jazz and America Online gave us all those accolades for years. City Search, the City of Houston has us as a part of their marketing campaign for selling Houston to people outside for conventions in Houston. We are showcased in most of the hotels and the in-room advertising on the televisions, you know, those things. And those things are what I can remember off the top of my head, but people just like what we do and appreciate us for being sincere about making sure that they have a great time.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, man, and that’s always very cool. Well, Sam, I wanna say that I know I am right on the spot when I say that this is the number one night spot in Houston for all the reasons that we have talked about and then some.
Jazz Monthly: And I would say to you, keep your flava strong, my friend, keep doing what you’re doing, because you are loved and appreciated for what you have accomplished and what you have put together here in Houston.
SP: I appreciate it, man. Thanks a lot. Again, you’re just too kind.
Jazz Monthly: I’m shooting from the real, you know?
SP: Keeping it real.
Jazz Monthly: Yes indeed. We have been talking with Sam Pink, the proprietor, owner and president of Red Cat Jazz Café, Red Cat Jazz Music Group, and also the wonderful talent that he has on his label. Sam, thank you again and all the best to you in 2008 and beyond with all the projects you have coming in the future, my friend.
SP: Thank you.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
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