Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Last Blues Club in L.A.

Found in the files:

The Last Blues Club in L.A.

© Nat Bocking 1994

November 1963 was the tragic end of the Kennedy era and a time of rising civil rights consciousness and when Laura Mae Gross moved from her native Mississippi to Los Angeles and purchased a small bar on Central Avenue. Its previous owner had gotten rich selling drinks to jazzmen resting between gigs at nearby recording studios and was selling out and retiring to Long Beach but first he swindled the bold young woman and took the liquor (spirits) license with him. She was not the kind of woman to take this lying down and she had some contacts in the music scene so she opened her doors only serving beer as Babe & Ricky’s Rhythm and Blues at 5259 South Central Avenue.

Since the Second World War the main thoroughfare going south from downtown LA had become the center of negro culture in the segregated city. Clubs such as Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse and The Club Alabam were legendary amongst the black owned restaurants, hotels and stores south of 48th Street. The peak was in the late 50’s when Dolphin Records at the corner of Central and Vernon broadcast a nightly Rhythm and Blues show. Carried nationwide, it influenced a generation of teenagers and laid its own tile in the road paved for Rock and Roll. By the Sixties, the avenue’s fortunes had turned the wrong the corner. Poverty crept in and clubs and businesses were shuttered one by one until the Watts riots in 1966 delivered the final blow. South Central Avenue became a ghetto, segregated not by law but by fear and economic opportunity.

Babe & Rickys has survived through it all. Even after the 1992 riots which did little else but remind people how little has changed since the Sixties. The original stage battered by all-nighters with Johnny Otis, Pee Wee Crayton, Big Joe Turner et al. remains. Now the former splendor of its furnishings are barely rehabilitated by a coat of black paint. Aficionados of dive interiors will enjoy this place as authentic to the Blues’ Mississippi juke joint beginnings. The musicians are lit by household lightbulbs focused in Folgers coffee cans and Christmas tree lights and cracked mirror tiles. The tiny club may hold no more than 80 people so when it is full, the pool table is covered with a home made bedspread. The stage is no bigger than a sheet of plywood so if a vocalist really wants to swing, they have to take their act onto the floor amongst the crowd.

The house band, The Mighty Balls of Fire, entertains you with admirable intensity and exceptional musicianship. Led by Bobby Briant on guitar with Deacon Jones on organ, who also does his thing for John Lee Hooker, the reticent but dapper Montel plays the drums and George “Stuff” Malone keeps the rhythm on bass. The honey-gravel voiced singer Delmar “Mighty Mouth’” Evans is has an engaging stage presence honed from his days as a fixture of the Johnny Otis Show. He often shares the mike with guitarist Ray Bailey, who is physically a dead ringer for Forest Whitaker but as able and brilliant as BB King. Other guest musicians drop in for a few numbers, step outside for inspiration and come back later. The mainstream superstar Eric Clapton dropped by once for an after hours jam following an LA arena appearance.

These bluesmen have professional gigs elsewhere so this is where they come to play for themselves. You can count on at least three sets a night. The club is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays while Monday nights is fried chicken night, a popular open-mike session for new home-grown talent to strut their stuff; although you would have to be sure of your chops before you got up because this is a discerning crowd who won’t tolerate dilettantes.

Laura, now in her 70’s, remains on hand to enforce standards of musicianship. Known to all as ‘Mama’ and as sharp as a tack, she holds court from a broken down booth next to the stage with a shoebox holding the bar receipts and a mass of legal papers, newspaper cuttings and blood pressure medications filling her ‘desk’ in front of her. A wrong note, a mistimed beat or off-color word gets a sharp comment from the wings and she can make herself heard anywhere in the club even over the amplification. Nobody messes with anybody in here. Mama doesn’t tolerate drugs and she makes sure she knows the face of every person who comes through the door.

Enjoy the music while you can though, because of her insistence for quality and accessibility despite her health, the club barely makes a profit and it has foundered recently. Every year for the past decade, Babe & Ricky’s has fallen behind on paying its live music license to ASCAP and it was eventually in the hole for over $9000 to the composers’ royalty organization. ASCAP had recognized the club’s long history and fragile situation and had given the club many extensions to pay up but eventually they felt that they had to enforce the law on behalf of their members. Last month they sought in the courts either full payment or a judgment for the club to close. The long time patrons of the club held several fundraisers but it was not enough until a chance meeting with a reporter brought the club’s plight to the attention of the media. A story in the LA Times was shown to songwriter Mike Stoller by his Californian wife over breakfast at their home in New York City. Appalled at the prospect of closure of a place that was part of his youth, he flew to the coast to present his check on behalf of himself and his partner Jerry Leiber.

In spite of the recent media attention and consequently the occasional ‘slumming’ trendy, the patrons inside and the street people outside are always civil, perhaps out of respect and love for the matriarch who has kept this haven alive by sheer force of will and faith in God, but just in case Mama packs a silver Colt.38. The club has no cover charge and a Budweiser or Heineken beer in bottles, still the only alcohol on sale, costs a paltry two bucks. I would advise not to drink too many beers only because of the primitive state of the toilet facilities and don’t forget to tip the short guy called ‘Willie’ outside the door when you go in if you want him to escort you to your car. If it weren’t for the neighborhood, perhaps Babe & Ricky’s would be thriving today like Harvelles, the Santa Monica collegiate hangout, instead of merely surviving amongst the burnt out misery that remains of the Reagan era but then perhaps it wouldn’t be the last true crucible of the blues either.


Babe & Rickys Inn remains in business although it has since moved to Liemert Park.

The story above has several discrepancies compared to the history on the website but mine is as it was told to me at the time.

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