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INTERVIEW The Hard Rock Rolls To Dallas

Isaac Tigrett on Elvis Presley’s hat, John Lennon’s sofa, the God Wall, and the leveling of Calluaud for a parking lot.

Isaac Tigrett, thirty-seven, is a study in contrasts. He still retains his thick Tennessee accent, yet he has spent most of his life, since adolescence, in Europe. He comes from a family of considerable means, yet he is a self-made man. He is a vegetarian who owns one of the most famous burger joints in the world. In 1971. Tigrett, then nineteen, joined forces with pal Peter Morton, who at the time was managing his father’s restaurant, the Great American Disaster. The two young entrepreneurs took London by storm when they opened the first Hard Rock Cafe. The Hard Rock started out as a modest American burger and barbecue place, but quickly became one of the “in” places for the rock scene in London. With the Beatles, The Who, and the Rolling Stones ruling the pop world, London was the number one jet-set destination. Tigreti later bought out Morton and exported his concept to midtown Manhattan, where lines have snaked around the block till closing time since the first day of business in March 1984. A Hard Rock in Stockholm was next for Tigrett, and now he’s taking on Dallas. After purchasing the Wrecking Bar at the corner of McKinney and Routh, Tigrett moved into the penthouse of the Stoneleigh Hotel and set out to build the best Hard Rock Cafe ever, to be known as The Supreme Court of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Tigrett ’s commitment to burgers and barbecue is outstripped only by his infatuation with rock ’n’ roll memorabilia. He has amassed what is arguably the greatest rock ’n’ roil collection ever, a collection he values at roughly $5 million. He owns more than 1,000 gold records, countless guitars, pianos, drums, personal papers, and more from some of the most famous names in rock. The treasures are displayed at the Hard Rock Cafes and in Tigrett’s Dallas penthouse. The sofa on which John Lennon wrote some of his best work sits at the foot of Tigrett’s bed.

D: You spent the Sixties in England, during the Swinging London period. What kind of effect did that have on you as tar as your affection for rock ’n’ roll and the era?

Tigrett: Well, it was probably the most exciting era I’ve gone through in this lifetime. Rock ’n’ roll is absolutely in-credible. Every generation has its art form, and the Fifties and Sixties had rock ’n’ roll. |The London Hard Rock] became the first three-dimensional hangout for the scene. Now, in one room I have a million dollars worth of gold records. It’s the greatest collection there is in the world. Those records didn’t even exist when I started the Hard Rock Cafe, and that’s what’s become so exciting about it, too.

D: Weren’t things in London kind of winding down by 1971, when you opened the first Hard Rock?

Tigrett: It started to wind down, as far as the scene, really when the economic crash hit, like 1973.

D: How did that affect business for the Hard Rock?

Tigrett: Business went up. The Hard Rock is value for money.

D: When you were eighteen you were dealing in Rolls-Royces. How did you gel started doing that?

Tigrett: I saved up money in factories where I worked. I wanted to buy my mother a gift, so I was lookin’ around and I found these cars. I looked at about fifty cars and 1 finally found one for about 400 pounds; you could buy a Silver Wraith Limousine for. Jesus, 2,000 pounds in those days, in excellent condition. You could take it to America and sell it for $20,000.I just found a window in the market. I made 1,000 percent profit, minimum, on every deal. The first one, I didn’t even know how to do it. I got off the boat and took the car to a gas station. This cat came up to me and said “I’ll give you $18,000 for that car.” So I sold him my mother’s car and promptly started my business.

D: Starting a restaurant at the age of nineteen, weren’t you scared?

Tigrett: Me? (Laughs) No, I’ve never been scared in my life. But I made every mistake a man can dream of. But the sheer volume of business covered up my mistakes for years. I spent ten years learning the business.

D: You split with Peter Morton |co-founder of the London Hard Rock| around 1979. Was it just differences in style?

Tigrett: Well, yeah, it was. We were children when we started the thing together. We grew up with the business but in different directions, with different friends, different ideas about life and everything. We sorta grew apart, and thought it was best that we split up.

D: The two of you went to court over rights to the Hard Rock name in 1983. Is that settled?

Tigrett: The suit was settled out of court. We own the name in the U.S. together. We both have territories we can operate in. He has everything west of the Mississippi, except for Texas. And in Texas. I’ve given him a franchise for Houston. I have everything east of the Mississippi except for Illinois.

D: You put a lot of thought into the locations of your cafes. How did you choose the New York location on West 57th? Tigrett: I didn’t want to be on the Upper East side or the Upper West side because it would become a neighborhood location; or the Village, for that matter. ] wanted to use my international reputation to gather the transient community as well. So being in mid-town was essential. Also because we have done something very unique, in that we are probably the most publicized restaurant in history. That is also because we are so closely associated with the entertainment industry. Within three blocks of the Hard Rock is ABC, CBS, NBC, every major recording studio, every recording company, every Broadway production office, every lawyer, every accountant, everybody that’s associated with the industry is within three blocks of our location. And we feed them every day. It’s their industry hangout. They’re in there cutting their deals and doing their business. It obviously makes the promotional side of it a lot easier. We do guitar presentations quite often so MTV will come. They’re directly across the street. And CNN will come from down the street, and “Entertainment Tonight” will come around and well do a guitar presentation. The last one, I think, was Peter Frampton. And 70 million people will see that, by the time all those syndicated shows are shown. It’s a massive audience because the media is so powerful.

D: How did you decide on the Wrecking Bar for your Dallas location?

Tigrett: Goodness, you come to Dallas, and you look around and you see the Wrecking Bar. It’s one of the oldest standing buildings in Dallas. It has such a presence to it. It’s a restaurateur’s dream, I have a tremendous image identity with a one-dimensional object, my logo. That is something that everybody has associated the Hard Rock Cafe with. The name and that logo are synonymous. It’s been my image, my identity for fifteen years. I’ve been looking for a three-dimensional identity. Something that I can also project. A monument to rock ’n’ roll. A monument to the music! A monument to the times, to the culture, what has all transcended down three generations. Finding that Wrecking Bar was that three-dimensional object that I had been looking for. It could have been anywhere. The fact that it was in Dallas, Texas, on the hottest restaurant street in town, the most coming area in town, and right down from the Crescent made it even better. It gives me. obviously, the lunch business. I wanted to have a place where people could come to lunch.

D: When you first opened the London Hard Rock, did it have rock memorabilia in it?

Tigrett: Oh no. no, no, not at all. It was more American-styled things, college pennants, and American signs, and sort of that TGI Friday’s look I guess, the look that Friday’s had at that time. Then as time moved on people would come in and give me things. Slowly. I began to realize how important these things were, not only to the restaurant but to growing fans of rock V roll.

D: Do you know of anyone who has a better collection of rock ’n’ roll memorabilia than you do?

Tigrett: I don’t know of anyone. We are the greatest collector. We have about $5 million worth of stuff. Our dream is to have such a surplus that we can change the interiors of the restaurants. For instance, what we want to do next year is we’ve just about gotten the entire Beatle collection together. Every gold record that was presented to the Beatles.

D: How do you get them? Don’t the Beatles want them?

Tigrett: Well. God. you wouldn’t believe, gold records are produced by the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America] every lime a record sells a million dollars worth. And every time a million units sell, a platinum record is struck. So if their record sold ten million copies, there would be twenty or thirty gold records. A popular record could keep going gold for years to come. And what happens with them is artists take them off their wall and sign them “To Jim, thanks a lot, see you next time I come to the States.” You know, something like that, If they take it off the wall and give it away they know they can get another one. They know they have another one somewhere. Or they’re put up in charity auctions. They just come through all kinds of bizarre ways. I have the Grammy presented to the Beatles in 1964. The actual Grammy for best new artist of 1964. That’s another fascinating story. It was presented to the Beatles. Now, the Grammy-this is interesting-is poorly designed. They’ve had this terrible problem with them breaking ever since they struck the first one. So. the Beatles had it. It broke. They sent it back to get it repaired. So they just gave them a new one and put the old one in a drawer. It stayed in the guy’s drawer for twenty years. When we found out about it, we approached him and said, “Can we have that one?” There’s all different ways they come to you. Sotheby’s now has an annual rock ’n’ roll auction.

D: How much of what you have is donated?

Tigrett: About 50 percent. The artists have been incredible. In tact, Eric Clapton was the first person to give us a guitar. We got it in London and the word spread throughout the community that Eric had given the Hard Rock a guitar. Maybe four or five days later, here comes Pete Townshend’s roadie with a brand new beautiful guitar, custom beautiful guitar, with a note from Pete, “Mine’s as good as his.” It’s just been amazing, the guitars we’ve acquired. We’ve got Bo Did-dley’s ’58 Gretsch guitar, the very famous guitar that Bo played all his career. Waylon Jennings brought us his leather black and white Telecaster.

D: Who’s been your most generous donor?

Tigrett: Oh, Kenny Jones of The Who. probably. He gave us four or five drums.

D: The guitar that Eddie Van Halen gave you is shown at the different clubs, isn’t it?

Tigrett: Sometimes, yeah, we take it around. That’s what I’m getting at. Like Dallas will open and then next summer we’ll say, “Okay, all summer long we’ll show nothing but R&B.” Or all Beatles stuff, and the place will just be Beatles stuff. So that there is a changing atmosphere. And that’s what we hope to do.

D: What are some of the major pieces you have in the New York collection?

Tigrett: I’ll tell you a heavy piece we have down there, Brian Jones’s [the former Roll- ing Stone who drowned in his swimming pool] teardrop Vox guitar, the white one. It’s a really serious piece.

D: What are your personal favorite pieces in your collection?

Tigrett: Jimi Hendrix was famous for two guitars. One of them was a white Stratocaster. Nobody knows where that is. The other was what he played the last two years he was alive, his black. Flying V custom Gibson that he played at the Rainbow Bridge Concert. We have that guitar in Dallas. We have Elvis Presley’s hat that he wore in the Army and the only guitar that Elvis Presley ever played in public. It was a prop all the rest of the time. He used it in his ’68 comeback special for Singer sewing machine company. The show in the round, where he’s all in black. That tape is the only evidence that he was a good guitar player. He did some serious picking. The guitar is so interesting because he was known to be so shy about the guitar. He took foam rubber and stuck it down underneath the strings to mute it down lower. And he’s got this weird thing like a capo, but not really. It just mutes the strings, so you can barely hear the thing. D: Why did you decide to open a Hard Rock in Stockholm?

Tigrett: Well, these boys were runnin’ all over me for two or three years trying to get me to come over there. And I went over, and if I ever saw a place that needed a Hard Rock, it was Stockholm. Talk about a depressed race, my God!

D: What do you mean?

Tigrett: It’s like a police state without the police. You know the Bergman films? It’s exactly like that. The hottest film in Stockholm the last time I was there was a Bergman film about a family that gets together for a reunion at Christmas time, and they become so depressed that one couple commits suicide. That’s Sweden.

D: After opening a Hard Rock in New York, London, and Stockholm, three major international cities, why was Dallas your next choice? It doesn’t seem to fit the equation.

Tigrett: Dallas does fit the equation. Dallas is, I think, the most exciting town in America. It’s built for the future. It’s demograph-ically set where it’s a market center. It has an international airport with three flights a day to Paris, London, and Frankfurt. Most exciting of all, Dallas has always had its distinctive personality.

D: When did you first decide to put a Hard Rock in Dallas?

Tigrett: Four years ago. We were starting construction in New York, I knew it was only a matter of time before I needed another spot. So I started simultaneously looking at Washington, D.C., Boston, and Dallas.

D: In 1982, things were a lot better economically in Dallas than they are in 1986. Does that concern you at all?

Tigrett: I disagree with you. Definitely, the oil business has been hurt, but that’s a small minority in Dallas. It’s not like Houston where the whole town is based on oil. Very little of this town’s based on oil. I don’t appreciate some of the negative attitudes I’ve heard from these people who, a couple of years ago when I first ca]me here, were all going, “How much did you get?” And now they’re going, “Oh, God. man, it’s such a horrible time!” It’s sorta strange. No, but I don’t think Dallas has been affected to any great degree. I think there’s a year or two catch-up period for real estate to look more attractive to people.

D: What’s your personal relationship with Dallas?

Tigrett: Well, my father’s been associated with the oil business for a long time and has many friends here. And we’d come down, be guests of Bunker Hunt on occasion. Years ago, when 1 was a child, he was in partnership with my father. So I know Dallas. It’s not completely foreign territory to me.

D: How do you feel about your friend Vitas Gerulaitis putting in his club, Rasha, just up the street?

Tigrett: Oh. I think it’s fantastic. You know,we can teed ’em at our place and they candance the night away at his.

D: What kind of shape was the Wrecking Bar .in when you first found it?

Tigrett: It was in bad shape. If someonehadn’t gotten to it in the next two or three years, it could have gotten dangerous. Theroof needed replacing and the foundation ,needed shoring up.

D: The rumor has been that the Hard Rock was not going to be built because of structural problems. How bad a shape was it in?

Tigrett: Well. I’ll tell you, the company that had the demolition contract to take all the interior out, they broke even. That thing is built like you would not believe. I’ve never seen more nails in anything in my life. The masonry is about two and a half feet thick. It would be tough to push that building over. The building was in fine shape as far as that foundation. But we had to build a new floor and put new metal underneath the ground floor to hold up the new required weight per square foot. Then we had to build new mezzanines out of steel. We took the old mezzanines down because they wouldn’t hold the weight. They were, you know, built in 1904. I wouldn’t want to put fifty people up there. There were no structural surprises, except for the bees, of course. We were taking the old roof off and we found this hive that was black as the ace of spades, about four or five feet tall, three feet wide, a monstrous thing. We found 450 pounds of honey in it.

D: What do you have planned for the opening of the Dallas Hard Rock?

Tigrett: We’re negotiating with ABC and NBC to televise the opening of The Supreme Court of Rock ’n’ Roll. And we hope to induct the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court at that time. Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown. Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, a few others. Dan Aykroyd will be the master of ceremonies, and ZZ Top and Van Halen are gonna play. They’re both new partners of ours. We’re working on it. It’s not set in stone.D: What date are you shooting for, for the opening of the Dallas Hard Rock?

Tigrett: November 23. my guru’s birthday. D: Tell us a little bit about your guru. Is he very important to you?

Tigrett: Guru is a very deceptive word. We have a Western view of it that is probably through the media. It’s a seven-thousand-year-old Sanskrit word. It really means teacher. I’ve been involved in parapsychology and psychic phenomena since I was twelve years old. I’ve had voices in my head, and things I call directives. It’s something I can’t convince you of, but I’ll tell you if it happens to you, it scares the daylights out of you and you have no choice but to try to define your spirituality. I was very confused for a long time. In fact, Norman Vincent Peale became a very close friend of mine. He’s a friend of the family. He was kind enough to guide me over the years and set me on a path of trying to define my own personal spirituality. After buying the rights to the book The Secret Life of Plants, we decided to make a film on the subject of parapsychology and I spent the next two years traveling around the world, visiting all the phenomena on the planet. From Duke to Johns Hopkins to UCLA and the University of Chicago to the University of Mexico, places in Canada. Germany, everywhere. Eventually we were doing research in India. I heard of a great master in the south of India named Sat Baba and he had a tremendous monastery. So I went to visit this monastery and while I was at the monastery. I discovered my spirituality. All the answers. I returned there, and I have been returning there every year for the last twelve years.

D: In the New York Hard Rock there are many slogans: “This is not here,” “All is one.” and others. Is there a theme to all of that or are you just having fun?

Tigrett: No, I’m very, very serious about it. Spirituality is the most important part of my life and I try to somehow put it into my business. That was what excited me about coming to New York. We have a God Wall there, but I don’t think there’ll be a God Wall in any of the other Hard Rocks. But I thought, what does New York need more than anything else? What can I do to make ’em think a little bit? 1 think I’ll represent everybody’s icons, somehow or another. The Krugerrand that we have up there, I had to represent Lord Money somehow. It says “Is this what you want?” under the coin. I also wanted to represent Hinduism, which I did with an Om sign up there. Christianity is done with a Madonna, which came out of a fabulous old church. And the Buddha that I had cast in England. But that was the theme of it all.

D: So it’s not necessarily a temple to your own beliefs?

Tigrett: Just trying to stimulate anyone to think. You know, raise the consciousness a little bit.

D: I was struck by the four-foot Quaalude on the wall.

Tigrett: Yes, I had to represent two pretty serious icons of the day. One was money, and the other was drugs, which is the sad part of our culture, I think. I had to think of what drug was least offensive, so I put a pill up there, and in the middle it says, “Victims Wanted.”

D: What’s going to be different about the Dallas Hard Rock, as opposed to New York, London, or Stockholm?

Tigrett: There’s so much more of it to begin with. It’s about 30 percent larger than New York. It’s going to be so much different. This is an $8 million project. I don’t think there’s been an $8 million project in this town on a restaurant scale. I don’t know of one.

D: Are you going to vary the menu regionally at all for Dallas?

Tigrett: I think you have to have some local ethnic favorites. We’ll have nachos. We’re gonna have fajitas, which I’m excited about. We’re gonna have cabrito-goat. We’ll probably have some calf fries.

D: Do you cook?

Tigrett: I don’t eat meat. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1974. Every time I get near the kitchen, all the chefs pull the knives out. They say, “No way you’re comin’ in here, son!”

D: Don’t you sample your own burgers?

Tigrett: Oh yeah, but I spit it out.

D: Would you rather be curator of the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll museum or owner of the best burger joint in the world?

Tigrett: I’m already both of those things.

D: How much longer do you plan on staying here after the Hard Rock opens up?

Tigrett: Well, I have a four-year lease on this apartment, so I’ll be here for awhile.

D: Celebrity backers have been a key ingredient in other Hard Rocks-Dan Aykroyd, the late Yul Brynner. Who are some of your Dallas partners?

TiRrett: Andy Williams and Cubby [Albert] Broccoli, the gentleman who owns all the Bond films.

D: Why does Cubby Broccoli want to be involved with a Dallas restaurant?

Tigrett: He is a supporter of the Hard Rock and has been for fifteen years, I think these people are very proud to be associated with the Hard Rock, to say, “Hey, this is something we think is really great.” People don’t even understand what it’s going to be. Most of the people out there think it’s a nightclub, or a disco.

D: When you first purchased the Wrecking Bar, did you originally intend to purchase Calluaud for parking or did you look elsewhere?

Tigrett: We had additional parking undercontract down the street. The Fuddrucker’slot. We weren’t aware that Calluaud was evenfor sale. About a week before we were aboutto close on the other location down thestreet, we found out that indeed Calluaudcould be purchased. I met with Guy [Calluaud] and his wife. We had a delightful double magnum of wine that afternoon. It wasa very French sale, I’ll tell you that right now.

D: What does it mean that this ultimateburger emporium is leveling one of the finestFrench restaurants in the city?Tigrett: It means the times they are a-changin’.