Gip's Place: A Blues Lover's Dream The Bessemer, Ala., juke joint offers young players an opportunity to hone their chops with the pros.
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Gip's Place: A Blues Lover's Dream

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Gip's Place: A Blues Lover's Dream

Gip's Place: A Blues Lover's Dream

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In a residential neighborhood in Bessemer, Alabama - about 20 miles from Birmingham - this is one honest-to-goodness juke joint left. Gip's Place is one of a precious few of these musical roadhouses that still hang on in this country. NPR's Peter Breslow paid a visit to Gip's and brought back this portrait.

PETER BRESLOW: You hear Gip's Place before you ever spot it.

(Soundbite of music)

BRESLOW: Tucked away down a small ravine with no sign out front and just some old Christmas lights strung about, you really have to work to find Gip's. The town of Bessemer has tried to help out a bit, putting up orange detour signs, which eventually lead you to the place, and to Mr. Gip.

Mr. HERMAN GIPSON (Owner, Gip's Place): My name is Herman. Everybody called me Henry, Henry L. Gipson, G-I-P-S-O-N instead of B.

BRESLOW: There is a temptation to describe Henry Gipson as straight out of blues Central Casting - that is, until you realize everything about the man is strictly genuine. His hand swallows yours when you shake, and his smile is just as embracing. In a red, white and blue nylon jacket and white fedora with its wide brim turned up on one side, Gip is nursing a crinkled can of Budweiser in a room adjacent to his tin-roofed establishment.

Mr. GIPSON: I love old blues: John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Slim Harpo and all. These are my type of blues that I love, and I can't get them out of my head.

BRESLOW: Gip has celebrated his 86th birthday about five or six times, we're told. In those years, he says, he's been struck by lightning and run over in a stampede. A singer who retired from the railroad, he's a gravedigger these days and owns a cemetery.

Gip has always been famous for his hospitality, whether it be with the locals he's known for decades or the wide-eyed college kids just discovering some gut-bucket blues. When he opened his place back in 1952, it was little more than a glorified tent. Now, still several degrees removed from spiffy, the roadhouse has been fixed up, but not so much that it's lost its down-home appeal, says guitar player Lenny Madden, who functions as the house emcee.

Mr. LENNY MADDEN (Guitarist): It's not like going to a bar. It's not like going to a club. It's like going to your best friend's house and putting on just the newest record and sitting there and enjoying it together. Literally, there is truly a mix between the musicians and the audience.

Welcome again. Y'all ready to get started?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. MADDEN: Guess what? We're going to start on time.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. MADDEN: Y'all know the house rules, right?


Mr. MADDEN: Men, you leave with the woman you brung, you hear me? Now, that rule does not apply to the women...

BRESLOW: Then things get serious for a moment.

Mr. MADDEN: All right. Everybody bow your heads. Hats off, drinks down. We're just gonna do our prayer. Dear Heavenly Father, I come to you tonight just a humble tramp on your street, father.

BRESLOW: Finally, it's time for the headliner, Little G Weevil.

(Soundbite of music)

LITTLE G WEEVIL (Musician): (Singing) You called my name, once upon a time. If I wasn't yours, you're still mine, but that's all right. I just want a little bit of thing, but that's a lie.

BRESLOW: Sixty or so blues fans cram shoulder to shoulder in here tonight, but people still manage find room in front of the stage to squeeze in a dance. The crowds have increased in recent years, as more people from outside the neighborhood have discovered Gip's. And that's fine with Henry Gipson.

Mr. GIPSON: We do not have no colors here. There's no black and white.

BRESLOW: In the warm weather, the crowd usually spills outside into the yard. Inside, the walls are festooned with posters of Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo and Robert Johnson and a large portrait of a crazed-looking cat with Gip's Place written above it. The town of Bessemer regards Gip's as a house party, so regulations are casual - hence, the cloud of cigarette smoke and the individual private coolers full of beer.

Ms. VIVIAN EYEKNER: This place is the bomb. I mean, a juke joint? You know, juke joint, it is the bomb.

BRESLOW: Vivian Eyekner - recently arrived from Tennessee - and her friend Marguerite have quickly become quasi-regulars at Gip's.

Ms. EYEKNER: I've come here about three times, and the first time I came I was hooked, because the music is so doggone good. I mean, it's all cultures, you know, black, white, Mexican, you know, whatever. It's just good soul music. And that's what it's about: people getting together and having a good time, no matter what.

(Soundbite of music)

MARGUERITE: And how could sit down at a place like this? How can you sit down?

BRESLOW: Ken Hoffman is a first-timer here.

Mr. KEN HOFFMAN: I've lived in Bessemer for about 15 years, and I didn't know this was here.

BRESLOW: Where did you hear about it?

Mr. HOFFMAN: The drummer that's playing tonight was at our house this afternoon hooking up my cable system, and said he was playing drums tonight. And I said, where are you going to be? And he explained how to get here. That's why we're here.

(Soundbite of music)

LITTLE G WEEVIL: (Singing) And I (unintelligible) tonight.

BRESLOW: Tonight, they're passing around the hat for Little G Weevil. When more famous names come through, the payment isn't significantly better, says Roger Stevenson of Birmingham's Magic City Blues Society, which has helped popularize Gip's.

Mr. ROGER STEVENSON (Magic City Blues Society): So, you know, we get bands like Bobby Rush. I shouldn't say how much we paid him, but, you know, about a fifth or a 10th of what he'd normally get. But he wanted to come on down here.

BRESLOW: Come on down, because Bobby Rush and other musicians know that Gip's is the real deal - not some House of Blues re-creation.

And what's equally important to Henry Gipson, adds Roger Stevenson, is that younger players are offered an opportunity here to sit in and hone their chops with the pros.

Mr. STEVENSON: And he said to me, you know, they might not be really good, but how are they going to get better if we don't get them up with the good guys and get them enthusiastic enough to do it themselves, you know, to go home and practice? So, he's very much about helping young people.

BRESLOW: And, yes, there have been offers from businessmen to transform this juke joint into a comfortable, 700-seat venue, complete with a nice, wide bar. But, then, it just wouldn't be Gip's Place.

Peter Breslow, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


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