Houston Barbecue History

History of Swayze Family Barbecue

Decades before her nephew Patrick Swayze became a 1980s teenage heartthrob in movies such as “Ghost” and “Dirty Dancing,” Jayne Swayze made a name for herself as one of Houston’s best known big-band singers.

An article from the July 8, 1953 issue of the Galveston Tribune newspaper profiled Jayne as the featured singer for Denny Beckner’s Orchestra at the Marine Room at Galveston’s Pleasure Pier. The article also mentioned that Jayne was married to prominent Houston restaurateur Donald Ray Swayze, of Swayze’s Barbecue restaurant at Main and Pierce.

Swayze Bar-B-Q 1950Houston Public Library

The story of the Swayze family is a classic Houston tale of fame, fortune and tragedy. And it all started in 1944 when brothers Donald and Jesse Wayne, who both grew up in Wichita Falls, moved to Houston after serving in World War II.

The brothers both had backgrounds as butchers at local supermarkets. Donald initially worked at a Weingarten’s on the corner of Taft and West Gray, and later with the Sullenger Select Meat Company. In 1946, he opened Swayze’s Barbecue at 2004 Main. In 1948, he married Jayne, also from Wichita Falls, who was fast becoming Houston’s most in-demand singer.

Swayze’s Barbecue was a classic roadhouse-style barbecue joint. In a picture from the era, the low-slung structure is covered with the obligatory signs claiming “Absolutely the best barbecue in the world!” The specialty of the house was “Home of heavenly baby beef” — probably a reference to barbecued veal, which was something of a delicacy at Houston barbecue joints at the time, preceding the arrival of brisket by many years.

By all accounts, the restaurant was successful and Jayne’s singing career was taking off.

Then tragedy struck. In July of 1953, during a fishing trip to Port O’Connor, Donald drowned in the Gulf of Mexico. His status as one of Houston’s best-known restaurateurs is confirmed in an obituary from the time in which some of Houston’s most famous restaurateurs were named as honorary pallbearers: Felix Tijerina, Bill Williams and Sonny Look among others.

Jayne had to choose between her singing career or taking over the restaurant. She chose the restaurant and became one of Houston’s best-known restaurateurs throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Often referred to as the “Barbecue Gal” and the “Queen of Caterers,” she became the go-to caterer for big oil company picnics throughout East Texas and southwest Louisiana.

Like many of the famous barbecue caterers of the era, like Walter Jetton of Fort Worth and Leonard McNeill of Houston, she turned barbecue into a performance, bringing a truck outfitted like a chuck wagon to catering events.

By the early 1970s, Jayne had retired from the barbecue business. It was around this time that her sister-in-law Patsy Swayze, who was married to Jesse Wayne, became a prominent dance instructor in Houston. Patsy founded the Swayze School of Dance in the 1960s in Bellaire and later in a shopping center off Ella Boulevard in the Greater Heights.

Undoubtedly, her most famous pupil was her son Patrick Swayze, who would go on to become an A-list Hollywood star in the 1980s through the 2000s. Growing up in Houston’s Oak Forest neighborhood, Patrick was known as “Buddy” or “Little Buddy,” and his father Jesse Wayne was called “Big Buddy.”

After Patsy became an in-demand choreographer — she worked on the movie “Urban Cowboy” featuring Gilley’s nightclub in Pasadena — she moved to Simi Valley, Calif., in 1980 to be closer to Patrick, who had moved there at the beginning of his Hollywood career, and his family.

Jesse Wayne died of a heart attack in 1982. Patrick tragically passed away in 2009 of pancreatic cancer. Patsy continued teaching dance in Simi Valley until her death in 2013.

Back in Houston, Jayne remarried and settled into retirement and became a regular on the craft-show circuit featuring handmade porcelain dishes. She died in May 2003 at the age of 82.

Even today when I visit a barbecue joint and strike up a conversation with an older patron, the conversation will sometimes go like this:

“Did you ever hear of a place called Swayze’s Barbecue? I used to go there. I wonder if it’s the same family as that famous actor?”

Turns out, it is.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
J.C. Reid
Houston Chronicle Barbecue Columnist
J.C. Reid
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