The Juke Joint
An authentic blues experience lies only a few miles west of Birmingham.
August 07, 2008
(Photographs by Mark Gooch.)
In the backyard of Henry Gipson’s Bessemer home sits a tin-covered shack, a relic of a by-gone cultural phenomenon: the juke joint. Known as Gip’s Place, the ramshackle club was packed on a recent Saturday night when the legendary Sam Lay, former drummer for Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, and Paul Butterfield, played guitar and sang. Patrons sat at tables drinking beer from coolers at their feet, munching on fish fried in a kettle in the yard. A middle-aged woman with a cigarette seductively rolled her hips to the music, garnering almost as much attention as Sam Lay.
Henry Gipson, or Gip as most know him, grew up in Uniontown, Alabama, more than 80 years ago. He worked at the Pullman Standard railcar company in Bessemer for 25 years, then began digging graves for a living. He now owns Pine Hill Cemetery, some 15 miles west of Birmingham, and still digs the graves himself with a backhoe. Sitting in a chair on the dusty stage late one afternoon strumming an electric guitar, he reflected on the years spent at his blues joint. “I’ve been fooling with this here for about 50 years . . . It wasn’t built like this at first,” he said. “It wasn’t until Lenny and Hank started coming. They put the tin top [roof] up there. I used to have just a net around it. It wasn’t as big as it is now.”
A Colt 45 Malt Liquor sign illuminates a wall plastered with posters advertising decades-old shows from the chitlin’ circuit. Next to the stage is an upright piano. Tinsel and Christmas lights are strewn about for decor. Gip’s Place draws a mixed race clientele comprised mostly of the over-40 set. “I don’t want too many young people down here, ’cause you know how they act,” he says with a slight grin.
The aforementioned Lenny Madden and Hank Moore are a pair of blues fanatics who discovered Gip’s Place in the late 1990s. Both white, their visits to Gip’s weekend jam sessions were an anomaly in the predominantly black neighborhood. Eventually, other members of the Magic City Blues Society learned of the place, and then cars began to line the street in front of Gip’s home on Saturday nights. Gip recently celebrated his 86th birthday at his backyard club. “I think we’ve celebrated his 86th birthday about three years in a row now,” noted Moore. “I don’t think even Mr. Gip knows how old he is.”
Another frequent attendee is Earl Williams, a 56-year-old hairdresser and guitarist whose résumé includes tours with rhythm ‘n’ blues greats Johnny Taylor and Latimore. “When the whites started coming around, [some neighbors] thought they were watching some of the guys in the neighborhood . . . They thought [the white patrons] were the FBI!” says Williams, howling with laughter at the notion. “I’ve always hung around Gip’s. I love to jam. That’s my place I like to go play for free. I get a chance to let my hair down and be me. I can try whatever I want to try up in there. It’s just a brotherly-type thing, you’re just doing it for the love of music.”
Williams began coming to Gip’s at age 10 to learn to play guitar from the regulars. “Gip would do everything he could to lure good players to come up there. He’d be out there barbecuing, and he might have a little corn whiskey,” he recalls. “He’d have three or four grills going. He’d have a raccoon on one, he’d have a goat on one, a whole pig on another. He loves music, and he don’t want to do it for a profit. He ought to have a cover charge, but he can’t come to terms with charging people money.” &
To find Gip’s Place, take I-20/59 South to Exit 112 in Bessemer. Turn left, under the interstate, which will put you on 18th Street heading south. Go one mile, across the railroad tracks, turning left on Carolina Avenue at the “T” intersection. Go one block and turn right on 19th Street, then go four blocks and turn left on Dartmouth Avenue. Drive 1.2 miles to a right on 33rd Street. Go two blocks and turn left and then immediately right. Go up the hill two blocks to Avenue C. Turn right and drive a couple of hundred feet and you’ll see Gip’s, a dilapidated shack in the backyard of Henry Gipson’s home that sits beside the big curve in the road. Gip’s is open a couple of Saturday nights each month. Contact the Magic City Blues Society at www.magiccityblues.org for info on upcoming events at Gip’s. As the good folks from the Blues Society are fond of saying, “Don’t worry . . . the neighborhood is safe.”Additional info, and two recordings by Mr. Gip, can be found at www.myspace.com/gipsjukejoint.