For a few years in the 1980s, the coolest guy in Washington was a tall, deep-voiced rockabilly singer with the cognitively dissonant name of Tex Rubinowitz.
Fronting a band that included some of the District’s best musicians — including agile lead guitarist Bob Newscaster — Rubinowitz was a regular at the Psyche Delly, the Wax Museum and Twist & Shout. He opened for cult groups like the Cramps and chart-toppers like the B-52’s.
In a 1987 Washington Post review of a Rubinowitz compilation album, Geoffrey Himes wrote: “Like most rockabilly singers, Rubinowitz has an excited edge to his voice, as if anything could happen next and he can hardly wait to find out what it is. Like too few rockabilly singers, Rubinowitz’s vocals all possess another quality, a deep resonance beneath the agitation; it’s as if he’d seen so many surprises come and go that he can appreciate the larger pattern.”
By 1988, the larger pattern was clear to Rubinowitz. He wasn’t going to get the big record deal he hoped for.
“I remember talking to Newscaster,” he said. “I said we could flog this thing for another year or two, but I didn’t want to flog it.”
Rubinowitz had become a big fish in a small pond with no obvious route to the open sea. He stopped performing.
On Sunday, Rubinowitz, now 73, will perform again, with some of the same musicians he worked with all those years ago. It’s part of a tribute at Pearl Street Warehouse to Billy Hancock, the local roots-rocker and Rubinowitz collaborator who died in January at age 71.
“We both wanted to do rockabilly music, even if no one cared,” Rubinowitz said.
Both recorded songs for Easton, Pa., label Ripsaw, including Rubinowitz’s rollicking “Hot Rod Man.” As propulsive as a naturally aspirated V8, it includes such lyrics as “Gonna head over by the lake and park/ Snuggle up real close in the dark./ Tell you something, baby, you oughta know:/ The Hot Rod Man don’t ever move slow.”
The song was featured in a commercial for Anco windshield wipers and a 1984 Judge Reinhold movie, “Roadhouse 66.”
“We paid a fortune for a VCR so we could see it,” Rubinowitz said.
Rubinowitz figured that selling out shows around Washington would bring the A&R scouts to him. That didn’t happen.
“I waited and waited, and finally I think I knew it wasn’t gonna move forward,” he said. “I quit playing because I didn’t reach the goal I wanted to reach. I know I did the right thing quitting. Nothing was going to happen. I felt like a phony getting up there and playing.”
Not long after that, Rubinowitz’s elderly mother became ill. He visited her every day in the nursing home, providing care the staff couldn’t. After her death, his father needed help. So did Rubinowitz’s developmentally disabled brother, Ben, who died two and a half years ago.
When Rubinowitz had time, he’d build guitars in a machine shop behind his house. And he thought about the kind of music he’d like to make, if he ever made it again. He decided it would be an amalgam of rock-and-roll guitars and Dixieland horns.
In 2012, he reunited with Newscaster, and they started recording “The Old Man Mississippi,” a “Dixieland rock” album released last year by Patuxent Music. They’ll play some of it Sunday in stripped-down arrangements.
Earlier this week, Newscaster and pedal steel player Bobby Martin were at Rubinowitz’s Springfield, Va., house practicing. Rubinowitz, his silvery gray hair gone white, was lamenting recent back surgery that had left him in pain.
Newscaster has been slowed by health problems that have kept him close to home, too. For years, people had been asking him whether he would ever play out again. He always gave what seemed to him a safely when-hell-freezes-over response: “Well, maybe if Tex Rubinowitz calls.”
Laughed Newscaster: “[He] called my bluff!”
Rubinowitz said there was a period — 20 years — when he and Hancock didn’t talk. But they had renewed their relationship.
“It was better than it had been, at least as two old friends,” he said. “It really meant a lot to me. That’s the reason I’m doing this show.”
Among others on Sunday’s bill will be Switchblade, the Nighthawks, the Echo-billys and the Rock-A-Sonics. There will be several incarnations of bands Rubinowitz has played with, including the Tennessee Rockets (with Virginia Lawrence), the Bad Boys (with Martha Hull) and his Dixieland rock project.
“Then I’m gonna go take a nap,” said the Hot Rod Man, who never — well, sometimes — moves slow.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.