Washington, D.C., and the suburbs in Maryland were once home to dozens of nightclubs that launched the careers of rock ‘n’ roll and country superstars like Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean, Link Wray, Frankie Avalon, Bill Haley and the Comets and Bo Diddley. One of the biggest names to come out of that vibrant club circuit, which ran ran from New York Avenue in the heart of the city out Bladensburg Road to Cottage City in Prince George’s County, was Charlie Daniels.
Today he’s known as the red neck fiddlin’ man from Tennessee, but the 81-year-old Daniels got his start at clubs like the Dixie Pig in Bladensburg and the Rocket Room in downtown Washington. Backstage before his performance at the Great Frederick Fair last month, Daniels reminisced about his early days before the beard, cowboy hat or fiddle.
“They were pleasant days to me,” he said. “They were learning days. It was my entre into a big market.”
“I didn’t know anything about big towns,” he said. “I came from a small town in North Carolina. Wilmington only had about 30,000 people at the time.”
Daniels said in such a small town, it was hard for him to make a living as a full-time musician.
“There was nothing really to play there except two or three beer joints. There was no way to advance,” Daniels said. “You know, there was no way to get any further doing what I was doing, so I came up to the DC/Baltimore area and started playing clubs.”
As local music historian Mark Opsasnick detailed in his book, “Capitol Rock,” Daniels’ first gigs when he arrived in Maryland were at Rose’s Musical Bar in North Beach on the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1958. Daniels was 22 years old. In December 1958, Charlie Daniels and the Rockets made their D.C. debut at the Famous, described by Opsasnick as a “hillbilly” nightclub at 1215 New York Ave. NW.
Daniels would spend his early twenties living in D.C. playing many of the nightclubs in the area.
“I played everywhere,” Daniels said. “I played at Stricts. I played at the Famous that was on New York Avenue, the Rocket Room. We were a four-piece rockabilly band. We were kind of a novelty, an anomaly almost, because rock music was just getting started and not everybody knew how to play it.”
Daniels would add local musicians from the D.C. area to his band, including horn players like Paul King and Robbie Robison. He said the local musicians he found in D.C. brought a jazz influence to his music.
As Daniels’ popularity grew, so did his band. By 1960, newspaper ads billed him as “Big Man Daniels and his 6 Jaguars.”
Daniels laughed when hearing about that ad today.
“Oh, mercy,” he said. “That’s a true ad. I was big and we had 6 jaguars.”
During his time in D.C., Daniels released a few songs on Epic Records including “Robot Romp” and “Rover Had a Party” and an instrumental that Daniels said got so much airplay on local radio stations, he changed the name of his band.
“We changed the name of the band to the Jaguars because that was the name of the first record we ever made,” Daniels said.
He spent most of his time during those years playing as the house band at the Dixie Pig on Bladensburg Road in the Cottage City area of Prince George’s County. Daniels said he played the Dixie Pig almost every night for more than a year.
“It was a great time,” he said. “The Dixie Pig was a great club. It had its own culture. Clubs used to do that. They had their regulars and a culture grew up around it and the people who were the regular ones, gave it personality.”
Daniels said he crossed paths with great musicians in those early days.
“Roy Buchannan, I knew Roy well, and Link Wary,” he said, recalling two of the great guitarists he would jam with.
Another musician Daniels crossed paths with was Sam Paladino, a keyboard player who still lives in LaPlata, Maryland, and performs regularly with bands in the area. Paladino was 14 years old at the time and played in a band called the Off Keys.
“He was a rock ‘n’ roller when I knew him,” Paladino said of his old friend Daniels. “He had slick back hair, was clean shaven, wore a tuxedo, wore glasses, you know, and played guitar. Charlie would get all worked up and the sweat would make his glasses slide down. Every once in a while, that thumb would come up like that and push his glasses back up his nose. I never forgot that.”
Paladino and the Off Keys played many of the same local clubs Daniels played.
“Some of them were rough, like the Dixie Pig, there were fights every night at that place,” Paladino said. “You know, Stricts was not so much.”
Paladino later played in Roy Clark’s Band. He said after Daniels left town, Paladino and Daniels’ sax player tried to start their own band.
“Paul King, I went to Boston with him and starved to death,” Paladino remembered with a smile.
Paladino also recalled a night his band was filling in for Daniels at the Ocean Plaza Ballroom in Carolina Beach -- Daniels had double booked himself and had to play at the Dixie Pig -- but the Carolina Beach police shut the show down after finding out how young the band was.
“The last night we were supposed to be there, the cops came in and started asking for ID and all this stuff, you know, and they were taking names,” Paladino said. “They threw us out. I don’t think any of us were over 18. He still has the posters from those shows.”
Daniels wrote about his early days living and playing in the D.C. area in his new autobiography, “Never Look at the Empty Seats.”
“When you’re a young musician, if you’re serious about making it, and I was, you’ll play just about anywhere for just about anything they’ll give ya, and for anybody that’s there, so you’re going to have a lot of empty seats,” Daniels said.
In addition to the autobiography, Daniels is releasing a companion album, which will include the original recording of “Jaguar.”
Those who have known Daniels since those early days say he’s a loyal friend. Backstage at the show in Frederick, after signing autographs for a line of fans, Daniels sat and recalled the early days with a group of old friends, including the family of his old band mate Robbie Robison who passed away this year. James Robison and his mother, Barbara, sat in the wings of the stage as Daniels performed. Midway through the show Daniels sent his band off stage, sat on a stool alone with his guitar and played the gospel standard, “How Great Thou Art.”
“This one is for my good friend Robbie Robison who we recently lost,” Daniels told the audience as James and his mother wiped away their tears.