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Los Angeles Club Still The Hub Of Musical Talent

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The Los Angeles music club Babe's and Ricky's Inn dates from the 1940s and 1950s, when Central Avenue was the hub of the West Coast Harlem Renaissance. Today, the club has moved west, but remains a magnet for young talent and local legends.

ED GORDON, host:

In the 1940s and 50s, Central Avenue in Los Angeles was the hub of a west coast Harlem Renaissance. A club called Babe's & Ricky's Inn dates from that time. About a decade ago, it moved west to the black community's new center in Leimert Park.

From NPR member station KQED in San Francisco, we have this audio postcard narrated by Cy Musiker.

(Soundbite of music)

CY MUSIKER reporting:

Babe's & Ricky's Inn in Los Angeles is 42 years old, among the oldest blues clubs on the west coast. It's also one of the last survivors of LA's Central Avenue jazz scene. No surprise, the owner is a survivor herself, 85-year old Laura Mae Gross. Still, Gross says she strives to showcase the freshest young blues artists of today.

Ms. LAURA MAE GROSS (Owner, Babe's & Ricky's Inn, Los Angeles): Kids that want to be musicians, the one that's really going to make it, I can tell right when they hit the place if they're going to do something. And some that's - the real good-looking boys, is, you know, like I'm so good I don't have to play. I say, there's a lot of good looking guys out there, but you got to play.

MUSIKER: Musicians carrying instrument cases file past Gross, warmly addressing her as Mama. She's sitting by the door, as she does every night, dressed in her Sunday best and sporting a stylish sequined headband in the style of a 1920s flapper. Two nights a week, local musicians drop in for the chance to jam on stage with the house band, Mama's Boys. These unseasoned performers often seek out Gross' opinion after they've played. What they find is a tough critic.

Ms. GROSS: 'Cause I know that I don't have to say anything. I know they going to come ask well, how did I do, Mama? I say you got didn't do worth a damn. You've got go study some more. And the one that listen, some of them do, they turn darn good. But I tell them above all, keep out of the gangs, and pay attention to what your mother and father tell you, and please, no dope. Concentrate on your music.

Let Tray(ph) step out there. Do something, Tray. Don't come down.

(Soundbite of music)

MUSIKER: With motherly instinct, Gross nourishes young talent and appetites. On Monday nights, the club is packed with a young crowd there for the soul food buffet dinner. It's included in the $8 cover. Gross carried over the tradition from the inn's old location on Central Avenue. The buffet features Gross' secret fried chicken recipe, passed on to her just before she moved here from Mississippi in 1944.

Ms. GROSS: Well, I did - I started really for the college kids at USC, because I didn't think they was getting home-cooked meals. And I started with fried omelets for them.

MUSIKER: Babe's & Ricky's was forced off Central Avenue a decade ago when the landlord tripled the rent. Local politicians helped her find a new home on Leimert Boulevard, the cultural heart of black L.A. The club cherishes its history as a showcase of the blues. The original jukebox is stocked with 45s by legends like T-Bone Walker, Little Milton, and B.B. King. All have played on Babe's & Ricky's stage.

Ms. GROSS: Oh, I had B.B. King, who is a doll. He's just down to earth; he's really good. I had Albert King. And some would perform, like Little Milton, and Percy Mayfield, and all of them, they at least do one or two songs with my band.

(Soundbite of music)

MUSIKER: Gross met her business partner, Jonathan Hodges, when he was just another musician looking for a place to play. Hodges has a day job. He's a successful prop manager in Hollywood, but he still treasures the shot Mama gave him to perform at Babe's & Ricky's.

Mr. JONATHAN HODGES (Co-Manager, Babe's & Ricky's Inn): For young musicians to have to go through that process is not only daunting and difficult, but in some cases, impossible. And they have to conform to the marketplace, and that's not the greatest thing for people to do when they're starting out expression-wise.

(Soundbite of music)

MUSIKER: This night at Babe's & Ricky's Inn, the performer, dressed neatly in a shirt and tie, pays his respects in song to club founder, Laura Mae Gross.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I should have listened...

GORDON: That profile was narrated by Cy Musiker and produced by Dana Lehman(ph).

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I should have listened...

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