Swag Pants: The Adventures of Capt’n Skully & Crew, Volume 1 (click on cartoon)
Legend of the pirate pants
With push from friend Johnny Depp, Austin songwriter and chef turned hobby into a business
Friday, January 04, 2008
Ruth Ellsworth is best known for helping create a classic Stevie Ray Vaughan song. But she’s also a culinary expert — and lately, she’s making clothes for Johnny Depp.
One day, she’ll write a song in her head while shopping for produce. The next day she might be found working up soup and recipes in the kitchen of the Eastside Cafe. Nighttime usually finds her painting or messing with fabrics and looking at old sewing patterns for fashion ideas.
Songs, soups and sewing have long been passions for Ruth Ellsworth, 53. The straight-shooting Oak Hill resident is best known as the co-writer of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s signature tune “Crossfire,” but she has also written five cookbooks and is planning a new clothing business based on pants she made for famed actor Johnny Depp, who is a close friend of Ellsworth and her husband, songwriter Bill Carter.
“I’ve never known anyone less content with doing nothing,” Eastside Cafe owner Elaine Martin said. “Ruth is always doing something with her hands.”
True to her calling as an expressive, independent Austin artist, she usually does it her own way.
“There are things that I’ve learned in the music business that I’ve been able to apply (to fashion),” Ellsworth said. “We used to watch the industry try to change Stevie (Ray Vaughan). You know, ‘You need to play more rock and less blues, and your solos are too long,’ that kind of stuff. But Stevie wasn’t malleable. He wasn’t going to change his style for anybody.”
Before her songwriting career took off in the 1980s, Ellsworth helped pay the bills by doing alterations for musician associates. Her seamstress gift has come to the forefront since she made a few pairs of baggy, three-quarter-length trousers of Irish linen for Depp while he was on the set of the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. . The actor started giving the “pirate pants” to people in his inner circle, including Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards.
Carter said he ran into Richards’ manager recently, and she jokingly gave him grief about the pants.
“She said ‘the only thing Keith ever wears is those blasted pirate pants,’ ” Carter said.
As word spread, folks were clamoring for more of the clam diggers than Ellsworth’s modest Singer sewing machine could handle, and she decided to start the clothing and accessory line, called SWAG, which stands for “sea wear and gear.” Production on the pants, which will retail for $165 a pair online (Web site is pending) and at select boutiques, will take place at a union shop in Los Angeles. “I’m not going to make some 9-year-old Chinese girl go blind just to increase the profit margin,” Ellsworth said.
The clothing enterprise began accidentally when Depp, who has been tight with the couple since 1993, gave Ellsworth $1,000 to buy fabric from International Silks and Woolens, a shop in Los Angeles owned by the father of Depp’s business manager. She spent it all on Irish linen and designed the one-size-fits-all pants with big pockets that Depp and Carter, who’ve trained together for several years, could wear at the beach. Depp owns a small island in the Bahamas, as well as homes in Los Angeles and southern France.
A guitar player who was in bands before stardom struck with TV’s “21 Jump Street” in 1987, Depp met the couple at Antone’s when he was in town filming “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” After the movie shoot, Depp moved in with them for a few months to avoid the glare of Hollywood.
“Whenever Johnny tried to leave, his 1950 Mercury would break down, so he ended up staying longer than expected,” said Carter, who subsequently formed the short-lived experimental blues-rock band P with Depp and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers. Depp, Ellsworth and Carter later collaborated on the song “Sands Theme” for the soundtrack of the movie “Once Upon a Time In Mexico,” but mainly they just hang out together.
Ellsworth and Carter, who have no children but do have a couple of rambunctious dogs, have watched their friend’s popularity surge ridiculously since the first “Pirates” movie five years ago. “Johnny can’t go anywhere in public anymore — he’ll be mobbed,” Carter said.
Ellsworth said one of the main reasons they’ve remained such such good friends is because the she and her husband don’t treat Depp any different than anyone else. “He’s just a great friend with an amazing job,” said Ellsworth, who, with her husband, is godparent to Depp’s two children with French singer and actress Vanessa Paradis.
Ellsworth and Carter met in 1976 at Inner Sanctum Records, where Carter, who had just moved down from Washington state, was playing an in-store set with local songwriter Jubal Clark. A native of Bethany, Okla., Ellsworth had moved here to study English literature at the University of Texas, but her true goal was to become part of Austin’s singer-songwriter scene.
She’d been cooking and sewing long before that. She learned to sew from a family friend who lived to be 99. “Gertie was a master of needlework,” Ellsworth says of the woman who raised her mother.
A natural inclination as a hostess fueled Ellsworth’s desire to be a great cook. She started throwing dinner parties for her friends in high school.
She didn’t cook for a living until the early 1980s, when she was waiting tables at the Dorsett 221 truckstop in Buda one day and the cook didn’t show up. “I loved working in the kitchen,” she said. “You can listen to your own music and wear what you want to wear, plus you didn’t have to kiss anyone’s ass.”
Ellsworth and Carter, who married in 1984, were working at Xalepeno Charlie’s on South First Street two years later— Ellsworth in the kitchen and Carter busing tables — when the Fabulous Thunderbirds recorded their song “Why Get Up” on the double-platinum album “Tuff Enuff.” Good fortune hit even before the record took off when the Carters were contacted by representatives of General Mills, who made a deal to pay the couple $25,000 to put a hold on the tune, while they decided if it was right for an upcoming cereal commercial.
“We were living in a dump in Manchaca and we were more than a month behind on the rent,” Carter said, setting up one of the greatest “mailbox money” stories ever. “I kept telling the landlord that we had money coming in any day now, but he was losing his patience. One day the check for $25,000 arrives and we’re just besides ourselves. So we get back inside and right then the phone rings. It’s the landlord and he’s screaming ‘I want you outta there today!’ and I said, ‘No problem, man.’ Ruth and I went and rented a big house in Tarrytown.”
The song was never used for the commercial, but Ellsworth and Carter were finally making a living a songwriters.
Ellsworth retired from cooking, but the break was shortlived when Elaine Martin, who used to work with Ellsworth at Moveable Feast catering, bought Carla’s on Manor Road in 1988 and renamed it the Eastside Cafe. She needed a soup chef, Ellsworth’s specialty. “I missed the camaraderie of the kitchen, plus you get a lot of ideas for songs when you’re cooking,” said Ellsworth. “Nothing frees the mind like a cutting board.”
Or guiding fabric under the throbbing tattoo of a sewing machine needle. Keeping busy has always been easy for this former Girl Scout, whose badges of merit now come from all sorts of creations of her own design. Gertie taught her to pay close attention to detail, that anything worth doing was worth doing right. “Gertie was so meticulous in her garden; everything had to be perfect,” Ellsworth said. “But then as she got older, she couldn’t work on it as much and the garden grew out a bit. But it was still quite lovely. Gertie said, ‘if I had only known that the wild garden was more beautiful. …’”
It’s a philosophy Ellsworth says guides her creative pursuits. “I don’t try to impose my will on what I’m working on,” she said. “A simple word may inspire a song, just as something from the garden leads to a recipe or a piece of fabric inspires a clothing design. I let it speak to me and as I work I see what unfolds.”
–Reprinted with permission from Austin American-Statesman and Michael Corcoran.