Crown & Harp's Owners Have Seen a Lifetime of Changes in 18 Years on Lower Greenville
Local music fans will likely pack Crown & Harp on Sunday to celebrate its 18th birthday
If you spend much time at Crown & Harp these days, chances are you tend to associate the place with Moody Fuqua. He's there pretty well every night, and while his job is technically general manager and talent buyer, you can often catch him slinging drinks behind the bar. Over the past couple years, Fuqua's had a big influence on the direction Crown & Harp has taken, right down to the recent renovations that include new carpet, new curtains and new hardwood floors upstairs.
If you've been around a little longer, you'll probably also remember the not-so-long-ago days when the divey little bar on Lower Greenville was known as The Cavern. But it may still be hard to believe that for the past 18 years the place has been under the same ownership, thanks to three guys who may be a little less familiar to regular customers: Cary Ray, Neil Connell and Jack Chaplin.
Ray worked with Chaplin at his restaurant, Chaplin's, which opened in 1989 at 1928 Greenville Avenue, where Nora Restaurant and Bar is now located. In 1993, they moved down to the small building at 1916 Greenville and opened Daddy Jack's as co-owners, with the new seafood restaurant again referencing Chaplin in the name. "In 1995, the guys from the Whisky Bar were telling us how much business we were sending them every night with people waiting for tables," Ray recalls. There's no place to wait inside for a table at Daddy Jack's, so customers went to other businesses.
This is when they decided to buy the bar next door, then known as Mara's Club. After renovations, they opened the spot as The Raw Bar in 1996. "The original impetus was a holding tank for Daddy Jack's," Ray explains. Peel-and-eat shrimp, shrimp cocktails and oysters on the half shell were served to satisfy the Daddy Jack's overflow during the early evening hours. After dinner, blues bands played. Ronnie Bramhall, brother of Doyle Bramhall, who performed and co-wrote songs with Stevie Ray Vaughan, played regularly. William "Willie" Willis, a Dallas bluesman who performed for over 50 years and had associations with countless blues legends, also played at The Raw Bar.
Once the staff at Daddy Jack's figured out how to manage the overflow without requiring a second business, the owners started making other plans for The Raw Bar. Connell became a partner in 1997. He was from London with some background in the restaurant industry. Ray had helped Connell open his first restaurant in Dallas after meeting him at The London Tavern, on the ground now occupied by Trader Joe's. Connell's idea was to reopen the space as a tribute to The Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles played early shows. He displayed original Beatles paraphernalia from England in the building, such as posters and magazines.
The business reopened as The Cavern Upstairs in 1997, but the name was quickly changed to The Cavern within a few months. Food was no longer served and the focus was the upstairs lounge with its tables and chairs and a jukebox that many considered the best in Dallas, along with shows downstairs on weekends.
Cary still prefers original jukebox machines to internet machines capable of playing anything at the push of a button: "A jukebox tells people what you like to listen to. It's part of your identity," he insists. Ray remembers the Pixies, New York Dolls, the Beatles, Elvis Costello, Built to Spill and Modest Mouse in the old jukebox.
The Cavern shows were often focused on indie rock music and tribute bands. But in 1998, Ray and Connell catered the Festival on Turtle Creek. The festival was rained out, but they did get to see Norah Jones perform before that happened and liked her enough to have her perform at The Cavern four weekends in a row. "She was a little bit too mellow for this street," says Ray. "We thought she was great even if the sales weren't that great." Jones moved to New York City soon after and, of course, went on to sell about 50 million albums.
In 2004, the sound was upgraded and the stage was expanded at the insistence of Lance Yocom from Spune. In August of 2005, Yocom was helping out with booking and brought Devendra Banhart to The Cavern after Hurricane Katrina cancelled his New Orleans show. Yocom also brought Dawes to the venue in the spring of 2009. Local Natives, the Black Angels and the Octopus Project also played at The Cavern before it closed in 2011.
It was at that time that Ray, Chaplin and Connell decided to have the space renovated and once again changed the name. The upstairs was designed as an English pub, the Crown. Downstairs was designed as the Irish pub, the Harp. The Crown & Harp opened as a neighborhood bar and brought back food from Daddy Jack's. The culture of the neighborhood had changed and the business changed with it. Originally the owners thought people would watch sports at Crown & Harp and planned to use it for private parties too large for Daddy Jack's.
But these plans never materialized and it was an uncertain time for the area. Many of the buildings were empty, the street and sidewalks were undergoing massive construction that made lower Greenville look like a warzone. The historic Arcadia Theater had burned down five years earlier and a massive fire claimed four area business four years after that. But once Trader Joe's confirmed an upcoming Greenville location, the buildings started filling back up and Greenville was again on the upswing.
This was about two years ago, when Fuqua, who previously worked at Bryan Street Tavern, stepped in as general manager and talent buyer. "I wanted a real emphasis on local music," Fuqua says. "A place where local musicians hangout." With a resurging neighborhood, The Crown & Harp was in a great location with the closest venue being Granada Theater, quite a ways down the avenue with a whole different capacity. Crown & Harp quickly became known as a place to see interesting music, both upstairs and downstairs, several nights a week.
Every Monday downstairs, Stefan Gonzalez of Unconscious Collective and Yells at Eels hosts the Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions, magnificently showcasing a variety of genres. "Established local acts are always working on other things," Fuqua explains. "In that sense it's like an open mic for musicians." An LBJ Experience also has a showcase every second and fourth Wednesday of the month with a focus on combining local talent from different genres, which is very much in line with Fuqua's vision. DJ Rob Viktum and Blue, the Misfit bring cutting edge hip hop and beats upstairs every Thursday with The Full Turnup. Too Fresh Productions also has its Fresh 45's series every Thursday downstairs, digging deep in the crates to spin incredible records, often with special guests.
After a great 2014, Fuqua is ending the year with some especially strong shows. Just last week on November 20th, hip hop legends DJ Spinderella and DJ Qbert both performed to a packed house, and on December 18th Breakbeat Lou, who helped hip hop transition from infancy to golden age with the landmark 25-volume series, Ultimate Breaks and Beats, will perform.
But most exciting at the moment is this weekend's anniversary party, slated to place on Sunday, November 30 from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. A.Dd+'s Slim Gravy will be hosting a stacked lineup of local artists that includes -topic, Blue The Misfit, Buffalo Black, Jenny Robinson, Dark Rooms, The Chloes and Dead Mockingbirds. As 2014 nears its close, it should be a great way to help celebrate the year. Fuqua has several ideas for the future and promises that 2015 will be an even better year for Crown & Harp.
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