Veteran bluesman Rufus Thomas stood on a terrace over the starkly modern courtyard at Universal CityWalk, a world away from his Memphis roots.
“Blues and barbecue,” he mused on a recent summer afternoon. “You like that?”
Nothing about his surroundings suggested such fare. But one of Thomas’ best friends, the legendary B. B. King, has opened a nightclub amid the tourist trappings at CityWalk. To step through the club’s wood-and-glass doors is to step into another world.
B. B. King’s Blues Club looks like an old opera house with garish New Orleans touches, purple curtains and gold accents. Tables, walls and floors are fashioned of dark wood. The place has a close-up feel, with steep balconies that hover above a wide stage.
On that stage, musicians like Thomas find a new home in Los Angeles. The 499-seat house promises nightly blues and R & B performances by local and touring acts. Every Sunday brings a Southern gospel brunch. All of this is accompanied by helpings of Mississippi Delta cuisine.
“Fried dill pickles and catfish,” King explained on a recent stop in town. “We want it to be a good-time place.”
The club officially celebrates its debut with all-star performances Tuesday and Wednesday. “B. B.'s Birthday Party” will feature King himself, joined by unannounced musical guests. Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, among others, have shown up at his birthday parties in previous years.
Next week also marks the opening of Lucille’s, an adjacent cafe named for the bluesman’s trademark Gibson guitar. The 85-seat room will feature acoustic acts, the kind of music that King insists is “the core of the blues and R & B.”
What with the recent opening of the House of Blues in West Hollywood, this has been a good year for such music in Los Angeles. Long relegated to small clubs, it now rings from two shiny platforms.
Still, King never intended to bring his act here.
Several years ago, MCA recorded an album of live blues at a club he owns in Memphis and corporate executives took a liking to the place. It stands on Beale Street, infamous for its juke joints and pawn shops, establishments that once harbored not only blues but illegal gambling. Underground tunnels that gamblers used to escape police raids still exist.
King first gained prominence in this neighborhood. Arriving in Memphis with his guitar and $2.50, he performed with Bobby Bland, Johnny Ace and Earl Forrest in a group called The Beale Streeters. Known by his given name, Riley B. King, he also worked as a disc jockey and acquired the moniker “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which in time was shortened to “Blues Boy” and then to B. B.
“Beale Street was where it all started for me,” King said. “That’s where it all came from.”
His club opened four years ago and quickly became a favored nightspot along that road. Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney have dropped by. Bette Midler, recently in Memphis for a concert, climbed on stage for an impromptu jam session.
So MCA asked King and managing partner Tommy Peters if they could duplicate the feat in Southern California.
The CityWalk version offers as much of Memphis as the owners could muster. Woodworkers were flown west to construct the elaborate bars that serve each of the club’s three floors. Black-and-white photographs honor such Memphis recording greats as Otis Redding, Al Green and Booker T. and the MGs. The walls on the second floor are painted the exact blue that graced the interior of the famous Stax Records studio.
The heart of the place--its music--takes a cue from King, whose formative years in Memphis led him to blend traditional blues with jazz, pop and jump influences.
On weeknights at his club, the house band works its eclectic way from John Lee Hooker to Aretha Franklin to Stevie Ray Vaughn. Local veteran Arthur Adams and Jeannie Holliday front the eight-piece group that infuses such music with the upbeat and brassy Memphis sound of blues and soul. The horn section keeps things joyful while singers engage the audience in call-and-response.
This club lacks the size to attract top-name acts on a consistent basis. Still, the likes of Maria Muldaur, Tinsley Ellis and Little Charlie and the Nightcats are scheduled to perform on weekend nights in the coming months. Sunday evenings will bring a rotating diet of Motown and New Orleans bands. And King will visit a half a dozen times each year. When he plays in Memphis, well-known guests often sit in.
Above all, the club will try to maintain a loose feel. Clyde Avant, a master of ceremonies brought from the original club, warms the crowd with rapid-fire patter. The food--be it the blackened catfish or the Louisiana gumbo--is tasty and reasonably priced. When the waitresses and waiters find themselves with a spare moment, they drag customers onto a small dance floor. “This is not necessarily a concert hall, it’s a hangout,” King said. “We’re not cool. We just want to have fun.”
Rufus Thomas couldn’t agree more. The way he sees it, such casual good times were a long time coming in the land of hip.
As he put it, “You can’t lose with the stuff we use.”
WHERE AND WHEN
What: B. B. King’s Blues Club.
Location: Universal CityWalk, Universal City.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Performances begin at 8 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Price: Cover from $5 to $10. B. B.'s Birthday Party on Tuesday and Wednesday costs $30. Major credit cards accepted. Parking $6.
Call: (818) 622-5464.