Babe's And Ricky's: The Real Deal Blues If you're in Los Angeles and you love the blues, Monday nights ought to find you far away from the glitz of the ersatz blues venues on the Sunset Strip. You're likely to be waiting to get into Babe's and Ricky's Inn, a little club in the Leimert Park section of the city that serves as the last link to Los Angeles' storied musical heyday.

Babe's And Ricky's: The Real Deal Blues

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris in Washington.


I'm Melissa Block at NPR West in Southern California.

And back when Los Angeles was a hub for the blues, Central Avenue was the place to go. Everybody there knew Laura Mae Gross. They called her mama because she nurtured so many young blues performers at her nightclub. She died recently at age 89, but mama's club lives on, and so does the music, as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

(Soundbite of song, "Hound Dog")

Ms. WILLIE MAE THORNTON (Musician): (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snoopin' around my door.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Years before Elvis made it a hit, Willie Mae Thornton's "Hound Dog" was a standard on L.A.'s Central Avenue, the heart of the city's black community and the soul of its music. Veteran jazz composer and conductor Gerald Wilson says there's a reason blues is so essential.

Mr. GERALD WILSON (Jazz Composer, Conductor): No matter what you can play on your horn or your instrument, if you don't know the blues, you can't play anything because the blues fit anywhere.

BATES: In Los Angeles, the Central Avenue jazz scene faded long ago, but there's one survivor.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: A little nightclub called Babe's and Ricky's Blues Inn, which is now in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: If Babe's and Ricky's is a shrine to the blues, Laura Mae Gross was its high priestess.

Mr. DEACON JONES (Organist): Babe and Ricky's is the real deal blues.

BATES: That's organist Deacon Jones. He's a club regular and one of Mama Laura's boys, as they proudly bill themselves. Jones dropped into jam night, where anyone with blues aspirations is welcome to hop on the bandstand to check out a few newbies. He's played with everyone from John Lee Hooker to Eric Clapton, and Jones knows what Mama Laura expected.

Mr. JONES: Laura's number one rule was she didn't care how good you were. If you weren't playing the blues, she'd have you excuse yourself off the stage. I saw her do it many, many times.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: Punk? Funk? Rock? Nope. Nothing but the blues. Mama Laura came to Los Angeles from Vicksburg, Mississippi with her husband Riley in 1944. Back then, Central Avenue was where performers like T-Bone Walker showed up when they came to town.

(Soundbite of song, "Call It Stormy Monday")

Mr. T-BONE WALKER (Musician): (Singing) They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad.

BATES: Laura's husband was robbed and killed in 1954. A few years later, she opened a barbecue joint to support her four children. Then in 1964, she took over a club on Central Avenue, named it for her son and nephew, and Babe's and Ricky's was born. People poured in to hear artists like Mickey Champion shake the walls.

(Soundbite of song, "Rock Me Baby")

Ms. MICKEY CHAMPION (Musician): (Singing) Rock me, baby. Rock me all night long. Yeah. Rock me, baby. Rock me all night long. Yeah. Rock me like my back ain't got no (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: Mama never made a lot of money, but she made a ton of friends. In 1993, an ASCAP fine for nonpayment of royalties for the music played in her club almost put her under. She survived that only to be bumped out of her Central Avenue spot a few years later when her rent tripled. Then this guy stepped in.

Mr. JONATHAN HODGES (Co-Manager, Babe's and Ricky's Inn): My name is Jonathan Hodges, and I used to play over at Central Avenue at Laura's old club.

BATES: Hodges got together with some musician friends, stored Laura's equipment and eventually found their current location in the new heart of the city's black community. He says Mama Laura was responsible for launching a lot of blues men.

Mr. HODGES: A lot of guys out there who are on the circuit right now, who are touring, who are touring all over the world, who got their start here and got instruction from Laura. And the ones who listened are the ones who, really, are doing really well.

BATES: The small club is always crowded with an eclectic assortment of folks: Hollywood hipsters, blues devotees from Europe and Japan, regulars from just around the corner. They come for the music, the camaraderie and the Monday night soul food buffet. Deacon Jones says Mama Laura expected visitors to behave as if they were in her home.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: She treated this club like it was her front room.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) As he sat right by you.

Mr. JONES: Don't put your feet in the seat. Don't have no drinks on the bandstand. No cussing. No loud talking. Oh, it was just like her front room.

BATES: Mama Laura may be gone, but her legacy is very much alive in this real house of blues she built here in L.A.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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