A Night With Blues Legends at Tallahassee’s BBC
Moses Lane is cut from Georgia red clay like all streets in Leon County, Florida, once were. The road narrows in places so cars cannot pass, but they don’t need to anyway because this is an old blues road and it has a rhythm of its own — cars enter early, cars leave late, all together now. A quarter mile up the lane from the hard ball is a small cinderblock building set within a curtain of Spanish moss sprouting some oak trees. There are just a few small holes in the concrete for windows, several of which are plugged with air conditioning units. The blue vinyl tunnel leading to the front door is the foyer of the concrete structure, the lone welcoming detail that announces this is the Bradfordville Blues Club and not a meth lab.
It is already dark as a steady stream of headlights fills the fields around the BBC — as its patrons call the club — like fireflies in a jar. The five-foot flames next to the building instantly draw the eye to the bonfire, fed by 18-inch thick logs and the occasional shipping palette to produce taller flames and brighter light. This is in the county where open fires are legal, adding to the feeling the BBC is remote. But that is an illusion. The Bradfordville Blues Club is only one mile from Tallahassee city limits, three miles from a suburban Target store, and ten miles each from the Florida State Capitol and Doak Campbell Stadium where the Florida State Seminoles play football seven times a year. Historically and culturally this is the backwoods, but geographically the BBC is pretty close to urban.
In the blue tunnel a woman checks the list of paid guests. The BBC gets first-rate blues performers like Johnny Winter, Maria Muldaur, Lee Roy Parnell, even several Grammy winners like the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Fiona Boyes on the Yellow Dog label wrote “The Juke Joint On Moses Lane” about the club, and Duke Robillard penned the “Bradford Boogie” at the club and recorded it on his latest CD Passport To The Blues.
Sold-out performances are not unusual, so buying tickets early is prudent. On this night, Mac Arnold and Plate Full O’ Blues are playing. Arnold toured and/or recorded with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Otis Redding, and BB King. His first band had James Brown on piano (yes, that James Brown). Arnold retired for a few years so having him back out on the circuit is a big deal and the house is full.
The Bradfordville Blues Club has been around, with some interruptions, for almost a century. For most of its existence, the club was known as the CC Club; the CC stood, redundantly, for “Country Club,” a designation the resourceful property owners obtained through the assistance of a lawyer in order to avoid harassment by the “High Sheriff” who didn’t appreciate the parties, baseball games, and music that regularly occurred on the grounds. According to attorney Gary Anton, the BBC’s owner for a dozen years now, the CC Club was the only country club in Florida not to have a golf course.
The front door opens onto the dance floor, a stretch of concrete no more than 15 feet from the first row of cocktail tables. As Mac Arnold and Plate Full O’ Blues tear into the first song on the setlist, two figures are already moving on the floor, displaying that courage particular to women of being the first to get up and dance in public. Soon they are joined by a skilled older couple who look like refugees from the ballroom circuit, a few coeds from Florida State, and some weathered gals in flowing shirts and wide jeans with no room in them for wrinkles.
At some point, nearly every person in the joint files through the small dance floor for a spin. A few dancers are there the whole time, and they are regulars of both the club and the floor, known to anyone who has spent any time at the BBC. Nearly every face is white, a thoroughly modern development.
The BBC, for much of its history, served as an “after hours” club for musicians on the famed “chitlin’ circuit” — another interpretation of “CC Club” — who played other Tallahassee-area clubs and then would sit in with bands at the CC. In front of the building, a shiny new cobalt-and-gold sign from the Mississippi Blues Commission designates the BBC as a Mississippi-to-Florida Blues Trail site, and notes that some august bluesmen have played in Florida.
Anton says two different people have told him and his wife they saw BB King, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry in these after-hours jams, but the couple has not found anything in writing to corroborate this. The visits of these legends remain part of local lore, and an imminently believable part at that. The BBC is, after all, one of only nine sites outside of Mississippi so honored by the Blues Commission, and the only one in Florida.
On Friday night the BBC is smoke free, but on Saturday the place is divided roughly in half between the smoking section and the soon-to-be smoky section or, as the other side of the Non-smoking Section sign reads, “Second Hand Smoking Section.” The round, café tabletops are painted with blues legends like EC Scott, Percy Sledge, Bobby Rush, Clarence Carter, and James Cotton. There are 50 other tabletops hanging on the walls with musicians’ portraits.
All of these men and women have performed at the BBC — Mac Arnold is going to have to be added. Beyond his resume and energetic performance, Arnold also has a niche in playing guitars assembled from old metal gas cans and broomsticks screwed together, four strings, and a pick up. The performance is contagious and the club is filled with a raucous energy. Most of the tables have buckets of beer on top, and the empties are turned upside down to help the waitress keep track. She needs a little help because she dances a lot too.
At intermission the bar mostly empties as the crowd shuffles out for fresh air. There is no backstage, no hospitality rooms for the band. They set their instruments down and step off the stage. Most go outside, but Mac Arnold stays to shake hands and pose for photographs like a pol on the hustings. Outside, the bonfire, which burns every week unless drought or torrential rain prohibits it, gets as much attention as the band did inside. This is February in North Florida, when a fire is useful for a least a few days per year as it is on this night, and the audience has reconvened in a ring around the flames.
Danny Keylon is the bassist. One of the older members of the group, he has been playing since the late 1960s and has been with Plate Full O’ Blues since 2007. He is standing around the fire just like anyone else, and once recognized by the shock of white on his pate, Keylon falls easily into conversation about his travels in Europe. He very quickly turns the questions around and asks, “Where are you from?” and “What are you into?” He is a normal guy who happens to wail on the bass.
There are no houselights to dim, just the big fire with a new shipping palette on it, but like a flock of birds changing direction the crowd knows when the show is going to begin, and people start to file back inside. After intermission the vibe is different. Mac Arnold switches from guitar to bass. The lightweights and dilettantes are gone. Toward the end of the second set, Arnold invites 15-year-old blues guitarist Justin Willis from nearby Thomasville, Georgia, to sit in for a few songs, “passing along the opportunities he received when he began playing,” Anton tells me later. “That is how the blues are passed down generation to generation.”
The bar gets smokier, looser, and, of course, bluesier as Saturday night moves into Sunday morning, which makes sense. The BBC is historically an afterhours club, and the rest of the taillights won’t recede down Moses Lane until it gets a lot closer to dawn.
Note: Mac Arnold has since received his own tabletop in the BBC.