Chapter 1: The Last Real Juke Joint (Book Excerpt)

The original Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall August, 1986, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The original Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall August, 1986, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

    In the summer of 1999, a new millennium loomed. Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, my dad’s famous ramshackle juke joint—which many deemed an immoral antediluvian relic—was targeted for demolition to make way for a road-widening project. Rumors predicting the demise of Tabby’s Blues Box had been commonplace since it opened in 1979. Yet, those rumors had been greatly exaggerated—until now. Gentrification was knocking at the door. The proverbial “Fat Lady” was approaching the beer scented microphone. The city’s bulldozers were out front revving their engines. The obit of the Blues Box was written on the bathroom walls. Indeed, the time had come for the alleged “Devil’s Music Hall” to face the executioner. Superstitious villagers, pitchforks in hand, gathered to witness its last rites read aloud. In hushed moral condemnation, they gawked, as the hangman readied his noose. 

This is the first of several excerpts I will post from my forthcoming book. ‘The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of My Music and Culture Therewith.’ Copyright 2019 used by permission only.
— Chris Thomas King

  City officials went public with their devised plan to ease downtown traffic by razing Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, my father’s juke joint. They proposed a bill to build an overpass over a nearby railroad track that would arch directly over it. “In case there’s a train derailment, people would have another way out of downtown,” said Fred Raiford, the public works director, to a reporter for The Advocate

There hadn’t been a train derailment in the area since the Blues Box opened twenty years ago. Many people in the black community could not understand why the overpass would remove a major landmark and historical attraction. The loss would further devastate the frail neighborhood. 

“We cannot always put infrastructure improvements on the people who can least afford the improvements” said Cedric B. Glover, a state representative from the community, expressing his dissatisfaction with the plan on the evening news. “If the burden is placed on Rose & Thomas Cafe—a black owned mom and pop soul food joint next door—and Tabby’s Blues Box, we haven’t gained as much as we think,” he said into the camera.

Baton Rouge voters, after much consternation, approved a tax to pay for the road project. The road widening of North Boulevard, which many deemed a harbinger of gentrification, was set to level every building remaining on the once burgeoning Negro thoroughfare, with the conspicuous exception being the Masonic Temple Theater across the street. The ominous project would cost about seven million dollars. 

The project’s main concern was the Kansas City Southern Railroad Line a block away from Tabby's Blues Box. The construction would also widen North Boulevard between N. 10th and N. 19th Streets into four lanes. The bridge would run above the Griffon building—built in the 1920s—which housed both Tabby's Blues Box and Rose and Thomas Cafe. Everyone understood if the city bulldozed North Boulevard, supposedly, to ease future traffic, the once historic black business district would be no more. 

My family, along with other North Boulevard proprietors, received a letter from the director of the Department of Public Works. We were invited to a Metro Council meeting on the third floor of a governmental building at 222 St. Louis Street the following Tuesday, July 28.

When I arrived at the adjudication hearing with my father, every seat in the sweltering room was taken. The assembly was boisterous, the tension thick. The attendees were split down the middle. Some wanted to preserve our juke joint and the character of the neighborhood. Others urged demolition. They demanded the officials’ destructive plans move forward. 

When it was my turn to speak from the podium, using notes I’d prepared the night before, I talked about our contributions to the city's culture and economy. I argued that our juke joint had been undervalued. For example, I had recently performed in Washington DC on a bill with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. In my hotel, I noticed a tourism ad for Baton Rouge. The ad featured a picture of a crawfish, a floating casino, and a picture of Tabby's Blues Box, “Home of the blues.” I couldn’t understand why our hall couldn't be interwoven into the cities plans. 

I urged they consider the attraction the iconic juke joint could be in a redeveloped downtown. To my chagrin, I was unable to persuade the myopic officials to reconsider. I felt helpless. The diagnosis for my beloved Blues Box was terminal. My grief was the type reserved for the death of a family member.  

“He's given so much over the years,” I said of my dad, to a local news reporter covering the event. “For the city to just bulldoze him down, I can’t even believe that they would do that. I still can’t believe it's gonna happen.”

Wire services picked up the story. Articles of Tabby's demise ran in major newspapers across the country. In Europe—the most lucrative festival market for blues musicians—blues magazines covered the looming raze as though a Picasso or Van Gogh was under threat from ignorant torch-wielding villagers. Rein Wisse, the editor of long-respected Dutch magazine, Block, brought over a dozen European fans to Tabby's for a pilgrimage. He expressed to my family how it was a pity the city was razing our club. He said he didn't believe Louisiana knew or appreciated its rich legacy. 

“It’s one of the nicest clubs and one of the most original clubs in the South,” Wisse said, to The Advocate during his visit. “If it wasn’t for Tabby, the blues in Baton Rouge would have been almost dead.” 
— Rein Wisse
Rockin’ Tabby Thomas performing at his blues club August, 1986, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Rockin’ Tabby Thomas performing at his blues club August, 1986, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“It's one of the nicest clubs and one of the most original clubs in the South,” Wisse said, to The Advocate during his visit. “If it wasn't for Tabby, the blues in Baton Rouge would have been almost dead.”

Many music aficionados shared his sentiment. There was the possibility of Tabby's moving to a new location, however, Rein Wisse believed, like many devoted fans, the old beautifully weird Americana Tabby’s Blues Box represented, would be lost in a brand-new location. 

Later, word came to me at my New Orleans home—from my family in Baton Rouge—that dad’s eviction was near. He was planning a farewell jam and wanted me to attend. On the day of Tabby’s last jam, I packed my guitar and went to visit him at the Blues Box to pay my respects. I wanted to catch up with my father during the calm hours before the throng of musicians and supporters arrived, knowing it would be our final chance to talk before eviction. 

The narrow rectangular shaped building was scarcely patronized when I entered. Only a few club goers sat nursing drinks at the L-shaped bar. The haze of cigarette smoke hung in the dimly lit room. The bar’s tall antique wooden shelves, decorated with Christmas tree lights, were scarcely stocked with the usual juke joint commodities, near empty off-brand whiskey bottles, cartons of cigarettes and jars of pickled pig’s feet. The colorful old jukebox, the soundtrack to many fond memories over the years, illuminated against the far wall. Like an open scrapbook, pictures of local blues legends taped to the plastered walls—including my dad, “Rockin’” Tabby—reminded me of the glory days of the Blues Box. 

I found dad sitting alone at a table near the bar and joined him. We talked about the situation and reminisced. Dad was resigned to just move on. “Everything happens for the better,” Dad said, wistfully. “This place has served its purpose. So many musicians learned to play here, went on to become band leaders, recording artists. It opened doors for all the old musicians to get a chance to come and be feted, be on festivals, and the young people, too.” 

As he spoke, I surveyed the rows of faded placards along the walls featuring guitar pickers who’d played the club over the years. Some had passed on, while others were still carrying on in the spirit of the Blues Box. 

“The time has come to say farewell,” Dad said. 

While listening to him talk so calmly about the tragedy, I questioned, why am I so anguished? Was it because Tabby was from the old school, content to go along, to get along? Was I some kind of agitator, using the Blues Box as a rallying cry for some larger grievance? No, I didn’t have a hidden agenda. I had no ulterior motive. I believed it to be the end of something good. 

For some, Tabby’s had been a reminder of a crude past, best forgotten. The demolition would be a victory for moralist and old-time racists, who from the start, never approved of our risqué interracial late-night Hoodoo Parties. I was sixteen when dad founded the club in 1979 to reclaim Louisiana’s blues heritage. Over the years, the Blues Box had become an iconic hall representing a slice of Americana. Through the power of music and dance, Tabby’s helped to bring our segregated community from Post-Civil Rights era race riots to the door of America's promise and Martin Luther King's dream. Despite its significant cultural impact, the club could not cross the threshold of time and enter the promise of a new millennium. On the eve of its demise, it was evident, that sometimes, the past must remain in the past.

Later that night, we held an unspoken jazz funeral for the Blues Box. I had expected a somewhat somber event, but spirits were high. Drinks flowed. The music was intoxicating. 

“Ain't never gon’ be another place like this,” Dad said, in between songs from the bandstand to a cheerful audience. “This the first heritage hall, this the first real blues club, in the state of Louisiana,” he proclaimed to loud applause. 

With everyone on their feet he sang one of his most requested songs, “I Love Big Fat Women.” The upbeat refrain was a tongue-in-chic anthem serenading voluptuous women. It never failed to pack the dance floor. I even grabbed someone and danced—a rare gesture for me—knowing it would be my last opportunity.

Club goers juking in a Mississippi blues club.

Club goers juking in a Mississippi blues club.

At the end of the night, the music fell silent. For all those who loved the Hoodoo Parties Tabby hosted weekly, the serendipitous social experiment was over. Our guitars and amplifiers were packed away for the final time. The glowing rainbow of Christmas tree lights decorating the bar went dark, closing the curtain on the most crucial era of my life. As I drove away, Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall disappeared in my rearview mirror. I bid farewell to my beloved sanctuary.

Back in New Orleans, in the days and weeks that followed, I became disillusioned and aloof. All the friction, as I came of age under the watchful eye of my dad; all the weight and responsibility of carrying on the family business, was now, water under the bridge. I'd become a wayfarer, adrift. Resigned to carry on and let bygones be bygones. Forced to live out of a frayed suitcase, I found refuge in nonstop touring, faceless fans, indistinguishable hotels, clubs, and festivals. The road became my new asylum.