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Calling for an Encore : Man Behind the Ash Grove Awaits the Rebirth of Legendary Club

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This time, Ed Pearl is sure, it will happen. By next April, June at the latest, the legendary Ash Grove will be reborn.

In its first incarnation, the Ash Grove was the heart of Southern California’s folk and blues scene. From the time it opened on Melrose Avenue in 1958, it was a Mecca for kids who wore out the records (yes, records) of Joan Baez and Muddy Waters, feasting on the sounds like addicts until the static got so bad it drove them back to the record store for replacements.

Before the Ash Grove closed Nov. 11, 1973, it entertained and educated several pre-MTV generations in all things aural, and especially acoustic. Careers were born there, including those of David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, guys who called themselves the Byrds. Ry Cooder, too. Pearl gave Cooder his first professional gig playing for Jackie Deshannon, who chose the Ash Grove as the most simpatico place to change her direction from pop to blues.

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Though people often want to talk to Pearl, 56, about the club’s illustrious past, he is full of plans for the future. The new Ash Grove will rise next to the carousel and will anchor the new, improved Santa Monica Pier, Pearl said. He has facts, figures and, above all, a vision.

The pier draws at least 2 million visitors a year. And Pearl believes that if he builds it, a significant portion of them will come to the Ash Grove. An architect has drawn up plans for a club with 300 seats, the best sound system money can buy, comfortable dressing rooms, and patios fore and aft where customers can eat and drink while waiting for the show.

Pearl figures it will cost $1 million and says that half the money has already been committed by investors. He doesn’t doubt there will be glitches along the way. Last year, for example, some community activists mounted a major, if unsuccessful, challenge to plans by the club and another pier establishment to sell alcohol. There is the pier’s rather seedy reputation to overcome. And there is the official permit-and-approval maze to finish.

But Pearl is confident. In addition to having name acts at night, he wants four or five mini-shows a day, where people can catch a rising star for, say, three bucks. He wants to put on shows for children in the mornings. But, most of all, he wants the Ash Grove magic back.

The closing of the original Ash Grove after a series of fires was the end of an era. Pearl had dropped out of UCLA when he opened it, after discovering an unexpected talent for music promotion and producing. He proudly claims that the club at 8161 Melrose Ave., where the Improv is now, was the very first of the hip businesses that would eventually define that strip. The building that would become a cultural landmark had originally been a furniture factory and showroom.

But it was the club’s programming and ambience that made it a magnet for the young music lovers who were creating the West Coast version of the ‘60s.

Legendary blues performers like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt played there. And bluegrass greats like Doc Watson and Flatt & Scruggs. And prodigies like Bob Dylan who were transforming the music of the young. And musicians just starting out who would eventually become major figures in the industry, including Linda Ronstadt and Jim Croce and Bonnie Raitt.

As Pearl recalls, both the musicians and the audiences were fiercely loyal to the club, which soon began to attract industry talent scouts as well. From the beginning, Pearl hypothesized, part of the club’s appeal was that it showcased all kinds of regional and ethnic music, from gospel to jazz, from Jewish to Latino, and presented it with respect.

The Ash Grove “educated a lot of people to the cultures of America” (and indeed the world), Pearl said. “It legitimized the American potpourri and gave it a dignified stage.”

As for the performers, they liked the Ash Grove because its founder didn’t care much for show business, “but what I did offer was a profound respect for their art.”

Pearl came from unionist, Zionist roots, and he always tried to find performers who said something and stood for something. That idealism, combined with an endless stream of innovative artists, drew hordes of young regulars. Pearl is obviously proud of the youthful community that grew up around the club, which he would open up during the day so student protesters from nearby Fairfax High and other schools could hold meetings there.

It was a place where values and music were important, and it was so squeaky clean that the police would sometimes recommend it to kids, Pearl recalled. “As a social phenomenon, the Ash Grove was a very healthy place for young people to be.”

For a few musically gifted youngsters, the club was a university, a place where they could study the masters. Cooder was one of those who started out emulating the great blues men and pickers note by note, Pearl said. And Jackson Browne was another who made the Ash Grove his study hall.

In retrospect, Pearl said, he realizes he didn’t give Browne the encouragement he deserved. Browne’s early style was too soft-rock, too personal, to appeal to Pearl’s interests at the time. Now, Pearl said, he admires Browne’s work enormously, for its articulateness and its values. And Pearl respects the courageous path Browne took when he might have gotten by on looks and musicality alone.

In 1987 the media ran stories about the imminent rebirth of the Ash Grove. That earlier attempt to resuscitate the club at a Hollywood location failed, despite the support of big-name alumni. The reason, Pearl said: timing. The planned opening coincided with the October stock-market crash.

But now, there are 100,000 people out there, he figures, including a number of local movers and shakers who remember the Ash Grove as fondly as a high-school prom date. “I think people 40 and up are just going to jam the place the first year.”

But it’s not just the boomers Pearl wants to bring in.

He covets their children as well, the 20-somethings who can turn a club into a phenomenon. Pearl thinks the young will soon flock to the reprised club, lured away from the Promenade and other popular venues by first-rate music, the chance to encounter each other and “a closer connection to the sand and sea.”

Pearl did it once, and he can do it again. The Ash Grove will be back. Pearl hasn’t a doubt.


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