Quick… name another Dallas club or bar – besides the one pictured here -that hangs its hat on Blues music. If you’re stumped that’s because it’s a short, short list.
One of my few disappointments upon first moving to Texas was the absence of Blues music venues. This seemed such a paradox since more Blues musicians have come out of Texas than anywhere except the Mississippi Delta or Chicago.
Between the World Wars railroads passing through Dallas made it a prominent way station for the Black migration to the industrial north. Before the Texas & Pacific Railroad laid track up Pacific Avenue on its westerly expansion and the Dallas rail station was moved to Reunion Station, tracks of the Houston & Texas Central railroad running north and south through Dallas passed through a terminal that long remained a popular stop-off in what came to be known as Deep Ellum.
Beginning in the 1920’s and continuing through the 1930’s, Deep Ellum was the site of an burgeoning cluster of nightclubs, saloons and domino parlors that also served as venues for Blues musicians. It was rivaled only by Beale Street and Bourbon Street. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins were only a few of the notables who often performed in Deep Ellum and who earned for Dallas a reputation as the “one of the hottest cities in the South”.
Deep Ellum was also a place where up-and-coming Blues performers polished their art before moving on to Kansas City, Chicago, or New York City. D.A.R.T.’s Deep Ellum station now stands where the Good-Latimer underpass once featured inspired graffiti art, and across from it curbside sits a statue of a banjo player which is one of the few remaining testaments to Deep Ellum’s rich Blues heritage.
There were so many Blues performers in Dallas in those years that recording companies regularly came here to scout talent. In 1937, Blues legend Robert Johnson recorded 13 tracks in a building which served as a film distribution point for Dallas movie theaters, and which still stands at 508 Park Avenue. (Johnson’s only other recording session occurred the year before in San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel.) The deserted building on Park has fallen into disrepair and its current owner, repeatedly cited for code violations, has on more than one occasion been thwarted by Blues aficionados from having it demolished. Its future is still in limbo.
I don’t know if Stevie Ray Vaughn adopted Austin or if it was the other way around, but the well-known association often obscures the fact that Stevie Ray was from Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood.
This statue sits on the walking trail not far from Austin’s Zilker Park along the riverfront. For a time there was a standing display of SRV memorabilia in Dallas’s Southside-On-Lamar, but it’s disappeared.
I know of no memorial to Stevie in Dallas other than his tombstone at Laurel Land Cemetery.
I can’t resist, though, sharing a photo of a Dia de los Muertos alter dedicated to Stevie Ray and seen at the Bath House Cultural Center’s Day of the Dead exhibition in 2010.
All of this brings us back to the question: Where in today’s Dallas can you find Blues-dedicated venues?
Blues Palace. This nightclub is owned and operated by “The Right Reverend of Dallas Blues” R.L. Griffin. He also DJ’s a classic blues and R&B show on Dallas radio station KKDA and he broadcasts live from the club on Saturdays from 11 to midnight. Located at 3100 Grand Avenue just a few blocks west of Fair Park, this is the closest you’ll get to an authentic juke joint experience in Dallas. This neighborhood isn’t exactly the Plano Shops At Legacy, so you might want to leave the Rolex and the Mercedes at home for this visit. (I’m just sayin’.)
More info here.
Pearl @ Commerce. This stands on the edge of Downtown at 2038 Commerce, not a mile from Deep Ellum and a few blocks from 408 Park. There’s metered street parking and nearby pay parking runs $5, but it’s also only a couple of blocks from DART’s Pearl Station.
Closed briefly last year, it’s now back in operation and well worthy of a visit. There’s open seating downstairs and a reservation-only V.I.P. lounge on the mezzanine level.
More info here.
Alligator Café. Alligator Café recently relocated to the Casa Linda Shopping Plaza (the northeast corner) from its former site on Live Oak.
There’s a Cajun ambiance here and an authentic menu to go with it. (Boudin, fried pickles, oysters, catfish and, yes, fried alligator tail).
This is an intimate little venue that features Texas style acoustic blues Thursday through Saturday.
More info here.
Bedford Blues & BBQ Festival. I’ve attended this on each of the past two Labor Day weekends, and have found it not only to be one of the Metroplex’s better organized outdoor musical events, but also a place to see some great talent: Buddy Guy last year and Robert Cray the year before. This year’s headliner is Keb’ Mo’.
More info here.
If you’re traveling outside of Dallas, check out these two of my all-time favorite Blues bars:
Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago, (no Blues fan should pass through Chicago without taking in a show there)
Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi (film star Morgan Freeman is one of the owners). Ground Zero is one of those places where so many patrons have written on the walls that every inch of it seems covered. Here some drunken fan approaching the edge of consciousness scrawled this appropriate Robert Johnson lyric:
“Standing at the crossroads, believe I’m sinking down”