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VOL. 37 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 29, 2013

R&B legends find a home at Carol Ann’s

By Tim Ghianni

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Nick Nixon scans the room where some dance, many chat, others wash down “the best catfish in Tennessee” with frozen fruit-and-liquor concoctions, cold drafts or sweet iced tea.

The activity doesn’t disturb the venerable bluesman and trained opera singer who takes the throttle off the driving tale of “Mustang Sally,” leans into the microphone and begins a monologue about men, women and mustangs … mostly women, of course.

Surrounding him beneath the banner reading “Carol Ann’s All Star Band,” an assortment of R&B players lay hypnotic musical texture beneath Nixon’s ready rap.

The 50-odd fans jammed into the showroom watch and listen to the bantering man at center stage and his cluster of compadres – guitarists, drummers, keyboardists, horn men and harmonists. They make their livings in the city’s best show bands, studios and R&B outfits, but eagerly volunteer for duty the third night of every week at Carol Ann’s Home Cooking Café.

In R&B show band fashion nurtured by everyone from James Brown to John Belushi, the musicians help Nixon, a young 72, add as much drama as possible to the slow-and-steady storytelling before exploding in unison.

“Ride, Sally, Ride,” semi-screams Nixon – triggering a climax of claps and gasps – before he leads the band, full-throttle, back into the lyrics made famous by “The Wicked” Wilson Pickett: “I bought you a brand-new Mustang, a 1965. Huh!”

It’s Tuesday night at 407 Murfreesboro Road, where R&B fans venture with joyful purpose into this darkened heart of town. Some leave the cares of urban Nashville behind when they step into Carol Ann’s Home Cooking Café. Others come from throughout Middle Tennessee to visit this oasis in a warty section of Nashville that’s within eyeshot – though miles of dreams and cracked asphalt removed – of the Caucasian-centric Nashville skyline showcased by Hollywood cameras and tourism boosters.

This is an anomaly, a bastion of urban music that’s a “no-hip-hop zone,” where the flat-billed ball caps of youth are replaced by fedoras, fezzes and feathers on customers who wear their shimmering best to experience the music of under-appreciated R&B legends.

“It’s music for grownups,” says proprietress Carol Ann Jenkins of the establishment that’s equal parts Jefferson Street R&B time capsule and heralded meat-and-three.

“Can’t beat the free live entertainment, and there ain’t no guns in here,” says regular audience member Reginald Davis – “but everybody calls me Darnell.”

Neither gun-toting security nor beefy bouncers are necessary in this grownup world, a welcome relief for Davis, who regularly travels “from the Antioch side of town to get here. It’s a warm experience.”

Frank Howard & The Commanders, The Valentines (also featuring Frank Howard), Clifford Curry, as well as members of The Jimmy Church Band and The Super T/Tyrone Smith Revue are just a few of the folks trading stage turns during the free-flowing jam.

Neither interrupting nor missing a beat, musicians wander in from the night, amble onto the stage, plug in and/or strap on and enter the joyful fray. Meanwhile, vocalists as varied as Lady Di, “Big Jerry” Stockard and L.C. “Love Child” Scruggs grab the microphone, call out the next song and begin, the band easily following.

It’s a weekly old-fashioned R&B jam, like those that used to take place at Club Stealaway, Club Baron, New Era and the Del Morocco 40 years ago, before the champagne and menthols, neon-lit club life of Jefferson Street and North Nashville was rolled over and crushed by the heavy machinery that built Interstate 40.

Forty years ago, many of these same musicians would have been found in joints on that North Nashville thoroughfare where the only remnants of that glowing age are historic markers and the Elks Lodge, where the occasional musicians’ reunion takes place.

That same building, a half-century ago, was Club Baron, where Johnny Jones outdueled Jimmy (later Jimi) Hendrix in a legendary guitar battle. Jones, who died in October 2009, admitted late in life that the main reason he won “the shootout” was that he played louder than the skinny kid who had difficulty keeping his guitar out of the pawn shop.

If planners and fund-raisers succeed, eventually there will be a museum either in North Nashville or downtown that will memorialize Jefferson Street R&B history with displays of costumes, photos, instruments, lyrics sheets and other relics.

A half-city away, once a week, at Carol Ann’s Home Cooking Café, it’s not ancient history. It’s gritty and very real.

Sure Johnny Bragg, Bobby Hebb, Earl Gaines, Roscoe Shelton, Ted Jarrett, Jones, Hendrix and too many more are gone. But many of their contemporaries tote their grayer and thicker frames onto the small stage to demonstrate the vitality of Nashville’s “other side of the tracks” music.

Perhaps they aren’t fueling up quart jugs of gin and orange juice. And they lack the stamina that kept them out all night a half-century ago. Still, from about 6:30 until 10 p.m. every Tuesday, they aren’t recapturing “glory days” but rather displaying decades-gained expertise while mentoring younger players on show band technique before an appreciative, to-the-nines, crowd.

Sonny Tyler, 75, who was co-owner of the Club Stealaway – “I seen them all, all the big stars came through my place, Rufus Thomas, Joe Tex, them all” – is pleased to be among the crowd at Carol Ann’s.

“It’s always good artists,” he says, simply. “Old-school music is good music.”

Many music-makers sneak from retirement or “real” jobs to climb on this tidy stage, camaraderie the simple payoff.

Maybe Robert Knight can be coaxed from a quiet dining booth long enough to do “Everlasting Love” or Clifford Curry can delight with “She Shot a Hole in My Soul.”

Frank Howard might be there with Herschel Carter and Charlie Fite – The Commanders – to do “Just Like Him.” Herschel may even be talked into doing the flying splits, like he did 50 years ago on TV variety shows and stages from Guthrie, Ky., to Clarksville, to Pulaski to Jefferson Street.

“That boy’s crazy,” marvels Howard, who used to be able to do the splits himself, decades before he became a bank executive and Midstate gospel hero.

It’s just another Tuesday at Carol Ann’s Home Cooking Café, a warm and lively spot in South Nashville’s tattered and battered heart.

The crowds brave all types of weather, from ice to snow to thunderstorms, to visit this L-shaped “Lunch and Lounge,” as Jenkins calls it, for catfish, music … food for the soul.

“I think it’s important,” says Nixon, later, when asked why he performs for free on many, if not most, Tuesdays.

As one of the most durable rhythm and blues players and singers in Nashville, he’s a veteran of jams around town, including a weekly hard blues jam at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar in Printers Alley downtown. He also has participated in the Sunday blues jams at Carol Ann’s. Those gatherings are dedicated to hard blues, the stuff of Muddy, Wolf, B.B.

At Carol Ann’s, it’s R&B, a music that melds Robert Johnson’s Crossroads with dashes of black gospel harmonies and choreography worthy of Memphis or Motown.

Nixon acknowledges there is something special cooking here, and he’s not talking catfish.

“It’s a family situation. It’s almost like going home or coming home. I think it’s good when people can meet and shake hands and hug. You notice you see a lotta hugs at these jams.”

Jimmy Church, 74, legendary king of Nashville R&B, is the genial master of ceremonies. The ringmaster in denim and ball cap alters the lineup sheet and set list based on who comes in the door, introduces the artists and, with easy banter, engages the audience.

The late Vic Danger, he explains, was the first emcee of this R&B night five years ago.

But it was Church, whose family revue stars in the wedding and corporate party business around the country – with the leader driving the bus – who developed it.

“Vic started it out and he got sick, and I came in to take his place until he got well.”

Church – who briefly owned his own R&B club, The Place, downtown – saw what was going on at Carol Ann’s and got a sense of its promise.

“Before, it was just a jam and everyone could come off the streets and play anything you want to play: Rap, jazz. I don’t know what it was, to tell you the truth.

“But it was like people comin’ in, all kinds of folks, kids comin’ in with their pants down. Just open mike. People would come in and say what they wanted to say.”

Church, who is accustomed to providing elegant and choreographed R&B in his traveling band, is not a “Pants on the Ground” kind of guy.

He also noticed the stagnant crowd. Where others might see boredom and complacency, Church saw opportunity.

“There really was nothing going on Tuesday nights, 10, 11 people sitting around. Wasn’t nothin’ to bring them in. When Carol Ann asked me to do it for her, I changed it around,” says Music City’s undeniable R&B Godfather.

“I just decided there was nothin’ for grown people to do, with kids coming in with this rap ‘music’ and all that stuff. I decided to have somethin’ for grownups, where they don’t got to run into those kids.”

After outlawing rap, he decided to each week highlight a different figure from the city’s rich R&B heritage – like folks who were featured in the ground-breaking and Grammy-honored “Night Train to Nashville” exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum a few years ago – and single them out for a night of honors.

Sure, many of them have died. Many more sit, surrounded by 45 rpm memories, in virtual anonymity in a city whose international musical trademark consists increasingly of silly love songs and trailer-trash, redneck posturing.

Focusing the spotlight on a different artist each Tuesday helps in the variety of tunes played by the pickup band, guys who can switch from the wickedly driving “Mustang Sally” to the sweetly harmonic “My Girl” without so much as drawing a breath. It also brings in the family and friends of that artist to enjoy the greens, boiled cabbage, macaroni and cheese … and the catfish, of course.

There’s no cover charge, but business booms on Tuesdays, not just on the restaurant hot table, but also at the full-service bar. The Rainbow, an icy concoction worthy of any Parrothead conclave, is a female favorite.

While R&B history is being celebrated on her stage, Carol Ann Jenkins sits around the corner, in the small end of the “L-shaped” room, where that bar is situated.

She and her daughter, Farrah Young, are partners in this business, as well as in the soul-food takeout over on McFerrin Avenue.

Jenkins has seen the music – and the business – flourish since she turned Tuesday night organizing chores over to Church.

“It’s all because of Jimmy,” Jenkins says. “All of the musicians respect and love Jimmy, that’s the honest truth.”

There are three other nights of music here: the neo-soul Tennessee Rhythm and Blues Society house band plays Fridays and Saturdays. And there’s the Sunday night hard-blues jam.

Even the owner has her preference. “I’m always here on Tuesday nights,” she says, eyes dancing to the R&B soundtrack.

“We – Farrah and I – have made it a good place,” she says. “Your name is your credibility. And that’s the same way for Jimmy Church.”

Like Church, Jenkins puts the emphasis on the mature audience when talking about her lounge.

“This whole thing was set up to preserve the music, rhythm & blues music, keep the rhythm & blues music alive. It’s grown folks’ music,” she says.

“Grown folks like to be with grown folks,” she says, adding that while she’s no musician, “Mustang Sally” and her kin drive the beat on the stage, the mood beneath the disco balls and the customers’ appetites.

“It’s old school music,” she says. “It’s in my bones. It’s in the genes. I’m a very quiet person, and the music lounge brings a lot of joy to my soul.”

And the Tuesday night success breeds confidence. At 60 and “planning on putting on music until I’m 100-plus years old,” Carol Ann is eyeing expansion.

A bigger and better stage might be in the future. And so might a second floor, giving her enough seating to attract national and international touring shows like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Gorgeous George used to offer up on Jefferson Street.

“I’d also like to do some recordings of the band,” she says. A “Live at Carol Ann’s” CD series could come sooner rather than later, if she can work out the logistics.

“It’s not about getting into the recording business, it’s keeping the old-school music alive,” she says. While life offers no guarantees for the mostly graying performers, she wants their music to reach immortality on these discs.

Out near the stage and dance floor, white bluesman Don McNatt awaits his turn on stage.

“I’m from Memphis,” he says, noting he moved to Music City long ago. “I grew up playing with people who were blues legends there. Until I found Carol Ann’s, I couldn’t find anything like that here.”

This Murfreesboro Road joint in the shadow of the massive I-40 flyway – beneath which homeless seek shelter and swap cheap pints – a wide and lonely world removed from Beale Street glitter. But, McNatt, who has just gotten back from two weeks of European gigs, says Carol Ann’s is something special. “It’s better than most of the bars I play in” around the world.”

The sense of family that joins audience to musicians helps fuel the buzz that draws regular fans, who leave as proselytes, going forth to bring R&B jam virgins along for future celebrations.

“I come every Tuesday. I love the music. I love to support it,” says Wanda Smith.

Retired Metro schools employee Delois Williams echoes that comment. “I love the music and the different people they get.”

Seldom are young people in here on Tuesday nights, and that suits Williams just fine. “There’s too much drama with the younger people. It’s a peaceful, nice place and the food’s good. I love it.”

“I feel safe here and I love the music they play,” says Charles “Buddy” Burkes. “I don’t do no rappin’ and line-dancing.”

Burkes, 81, is sipping along and waiting for his time to become a part of the show. “I come to dance,” he says, nodding his black fez toward the small, glistening dance floor at the foot of the stage. “You stick around. You’ll see me. I’m the dancing man.”

Indeed he proves that later that evening – every Tuesday for that matter – as the widower glides over the floor with the lithe grace of a retired male nurse who spent his youth in AAA baseball. “I also played six months with the Globetrotters,” he says.

No one worships this experience more than a quintet of women who put on their nightclub finery and drive from Lewisburg every Tuesday.

“We’ve been coming the last eight months,” Martha Lyttle says of the gang from Marshall County, a good hour from this battered stretch of Nashville.

Church, on the stage to introduce the next guest artist, looks to the women, most of whom are enjoying Carol Ann’s famous catfish.

“It’s good to have Lewisburg in the house,” he says, happily. The applause is reciprocal as the women smile at the recognition.

One of them, Norma James, sets down her slushy Rainbow and looks to the stage. “There is nothing like this in Lewisburg,” she says, lifting the colorful, high-proof slush to her lips.

The band begins its slow, bass-driven crescendo into “Stand By Me.”

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