It’s about 6:45 p.m. on a Friday, and Margaret Wright is remixing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Sitting beneath strings of multicolored lights, her voice wanders through the choruses of the vintage rock ballad, alternately bold and powerful, then aching, with a coquettish fragility. All the while, she effortlessly unwinds jazzy flourishes on the piano. As she finishes the song, she throws back her head and lets out a hearty laugh.
Wright’s history in Austin can be traced back 40 years, through upscale venues like Cedar Street and the Driskill to gay bars like Rusty’s and Rain. In her heyday, she was one of the most in-demand piano bar players in town, sometimes logging two or three gigs a night after a full day teaching elementary school. Determined to give his club an authentic East Austin vibe, Skylark Lounge owner Johnny LaTouf coaxed Wright, who lives around the corner, out of retirement when he opened the club in 2013. Now she holds court twice a week, charming audiences with her warm stage presence while astounding them with her phenomenal piano chops.
If you want to replenish your soul in old East Austin: Oh, this is your first time? Honey, Margaret Wright wants you to make yourself at home. Come say hello, then order some bourbon and settle into a booth. We’re all just friends who haven’t met yet.
The East Austin hideaway once housed the Airport Bar and Grill, a neighborhood hangout for black folk, and later a lesbian bar called Bernadette’s. When LaTouf took over the space in 2013, he wanted to create a space for both sets of former clientele, plus new transplants moving into a rapidly changing part of town.
“The other bar people in town told me, ‘Are you crazy? You cannot have a bar that is going to have gay people, African-American people, Hispanic people and white people coming to it. You need to figure out what your demographic is and you need to go for it,’” LaTouf told the American-Statesman in 2014.
He stuck with his vision. Five years later, Wright’s residencies draw one of the most diverse crowds in the city.
So take your mom. Take your friend from out of town. Take your sweetheart. All are welcome. Wright greets her regulars like family and newcomers like regulars she’s welcoming into the fold.
The sound: Wright meanders from classic blues tunes through jazz improvisations into songbook standards, putting her own spin on all of them.
“I’ve always been a person who never wanted to do anything the right way. To me music is a feeling,” she says.
Wright strives to make the music “personable,” to reach people with her songs. She invites friends and fellow musicians to join her onstage, and you never know who might show up to sit in.
The vibe: Tucked into a well-worn building in a row of body shops and used-car lots on Airport Boulevard, hideaway dive Skylark Lounge is easy to miss. Inside, the ceiling fans are fitted with dim orange lights. Small votives flicker on the tables. Paintings of musicians adorn the walls. It’s a sit-down club, with ample comfortable chairs, but if you want to grab stage-side seating or one of the cozy booths along the side wall, it’s a good idea to show up before Wright takes the stage at 6:30 p.m. The club also has a spacious outdoor patio where you can take a break between sets or while away the balmy summer nights.
Margaret Wright says: "I liked ... Johnny’s approach to establishing a club for a community and for everybody who wanted to venture out. Instead of (us) having to go there, they can come here, and they could get a little clearer understanding about the (East Austin) community."
Club owner Johnny LaTouf says: "Margaret Wright represents the very soul of East Austin with every word she sings and every touch of the ivory keys on that old piano. You feel her love, you feel her hope, but you also feel the years where the world wasn't always so kind and her assurances that it all works out in the end if you keep faith, love and music in your heart."
If you go: Happy hour runs from 5 to 7 p.m. with $1 off wells, wines and beers. Wright's official set time is 6 to 8 p.m., but she often hits the stage closer to 6:30 p.m. There's no cover for Margaret Wright's happy hour, but bring a little cash to drop in the tip jar, because she's absolutely worth it. If you're hungry, the club has the People's Soul Food truck on-site. The narrow parking lot might fill up, but if there are no spaces in the main lot, club patrons can park at Network Autobody next door after 5 p.m. or on nearby Theo Drive. There's a parking attendant available to assist folks Thursday-Saturday. The Skylark Lounge is located at 2039 Airport Blvd. More information at skylarkaustin.com.