R.L. Griffin is standing outside his Blues Palace, a squat beige building a few tattered blocks from Fair Park. A sign in the parking lot touts "Blues Palace II: Live Entertainment," and without it there would be no way to tell from the street what you might find inside, unless you noticed the walls vibrating.
Griffin is talking to his parking attendant and a security guard. They're eyeing a cluster of people loitering outside a strip mall across the street who are standing around open car trunks and sitting in lawn chairs, illuminated by the strip-mall's light posts. The Blues Palace doesn't allow anyone under 25, so most of those kids couldn't come in even if they wanted, but they're watching them anyway. "When you're dealing with older people, you're usually dealing with people who know how to act," Griffin says.
He rents that strip mall's parking lot on weekend nights, when the traffic to the Blues Palace gets so heavy he needs somewhere besides his own lot to put cars. But he's not putting any over there tonight. He and his security don't like the looks of the scene. The kids look bored; "idle hands" and all that. Besides, they're taking up his parking spaces anyway. So parking attendant George is carefully directing people into R.L's own lot, meticulously blocking in the cars he knows won't need to leave before the show's over.
See also: Scenes From R.L.'s Blues Palace #2
Griffin is carrying his wireless mic, which he lugs around from the moment he enters the club each night, using it to direct his staff and MC the show whether he's on stage, back in his office or out here. Inside, the band finishes a song, and without breaking his gaze from across Grand Avenue, Griffin raises the mic to his lips.
"Please welcome to the stage Big Charles Young," he says. His voice comes through the P.A. inside loud enough to be audible out here, and carries with it the welcoming command of someone who's spent 50 years singing the blues.
Big Charles Young is leaning against the hood of a car nearby. He leans a lot, Big Charles. He leans on the stage when he plays; he slouches in chairs. It adds to his leisurely aura. He pushes himself upright and hustles through the door of the club.
The inside of the Palace is hardly more ornate than the outside. There are mirrors on half the walls and on the rest hang album covers -- Griffin's own releases, mostly -- and posters commemorating friends and performers who've died. There are a few framed articles and some neon domestic beer signs.
Young walks past the ticket counter and the security guards, his silk orange suit cast in the warm red light of the ceiling fans. He walks past the long banquet tables that fill the club on either side of the dance floor, past a birthday party that brought balloons and a full buffet in foil trays and several bottles of liquor. He brushes by a young black couple on a date and an old married white couple making their first trip to R.L.'s. They spent some giddy time on the dance floor earlier. There are already some 250 people in here, and it's still relatively early, 11 p.m. on a night when the music goes quiet around 2 a.m.
Young passes a photo on the wall of himself smiling broadly, shaking hands with B.B. King. The band on stage, the R.L.'s Blues Palace Show Band, works into a groove, something they do better than any other ensemble in the city. Young flicks on his own wireless mic and starts singing the blues standard "Rock Me Baby," which King himself made famous in a 1964 recording. Young's got a voice like a church bell and a salesman's easy smile. "Rock me baby," he sings. "Like my back ain't got no bones." The well-lit dance floor fills again as he climbs to center stage.
Griffin has been doing this for more than 25 years, spending his Saturday nights shepherding a flock of faithful Dallas regulars and curious out-of-towners. They came because Griffin had a reputation as a great entertainer even before he opened his own place. At some point his became the best house band in Dallas, an ensemble that plays doo-wop as well as New Jack, one that can make Muddy Waters songs sound like they were written yesterday and last week's VMA winners sound like they were written a half-century ago.
Griffin has purposely preserved what he describes as a back-in-the-day musical experience. And old-timers like Young, who's been hanging out at R.L.'s since 1987 and has served as everything from bouncer to cameraman to performer, will tell you that the show has remained basically unchanged since Griffin opened his first club, Blues Alley, across the street in the mid 1980s. He changed the name to R.L.'s Blues Palace after a legal request from a Washington, D.C., club, and by 1999 he'd outgrown the space. So he took over an old barbecue joint across the street and transformed it into the Blues Palace #2.
Griffin's own experience as a blues singer and entertainer has doubtless aided his steady leadership of his club. Born in Kilgore, he moved to Dallas in 1965 when Dallas saxophonist, blues label boss and noted club owner Big Bo Thomas offered him a job playing with Big Bo Thomas and His Arrows at The Empire Room. After nearly a decade with Big Bo, Griffin started his own group and started playing around town. They enjoyed a seven-year run at The Climax Club before he decided to open his own place.
Griffin's showmanship and Blues Alley's regular Saturday revue led him to the radio -- first a live broadcast on Dallas' premier soul and R&B station, KKDA-AM 730 "Soul 73," then, after a few years, a DJ gig on weekday evenings. For more than a decade, he played classic blues, soul and R&B tracks. And in his patter he often plugged the Blues Palace, inviting listeners to join "his family" that weekend.
Before the official start of each show, there's about half an hour when the band plays a few well-known songs and visiting musicians can sit in. Because of Griffin's connections in the local scene, the guests were often among the best players in town, even in the early years. Once word about the club spread, first through word-of-mouth and then through KKDA, the calls started coming from touring musicians, too. Internationally recognized names like Denise LaSalle, Z.Z. Hill, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Milton have played the Palace.
It's a testament to KKDA's influence, especially in the African-American community, that Griffin's show reached the people who had the ears of such big-name blues artists. Other shows on the station included a sports talk show hosted by black broadcaster Roger B. Brown and the Willis Johnson morning show, which was Dallas' longest-running radio program. Griffin was one of several soul and blues performers who were also DJs; others include Millie Jackson, Bobby Patterson and Johnnie Taylor.
But the economic realities of radio eventually caught up to him. On January 1 of this year, listeners tuned and, rather than Johnson's voice, they heard someone speaking Korean. After 42 years of music, Soul 73 was dead. Owner Hyman Childs had sold the station for $1.9 million to Scott Kim and Kimberly Roberts, who turned it into a Korean-language station. Listeners were stunned.
"This is stripping the voice," Dallas City Councilman Dwaine Caraway told WFAA in an interview that day. "I have no problems with Koreans at all, but as it relates to African Americans, this man [Childs] made millions and to say nothing to us at all?"
Griffin, like many others, lost his DJ job. He also lost his marketing vehicle: The Blues Palace has no website and no social-media presence, and he doesn't advertise. But for some Yelp reviews and YouTube recordings, KKDA was the only way he touted the Palace.
As it turns out, people didn't need the personal invitation to join his family on the weekends. Eight months later, attendance hasn't dropped at all. Nearly 300 people come through the door every Friday and Saturday night, and Griffin says he still gets calls from touring musicians. "Sometimes it's so crowded you can't see your feet," says one member of the security staff. Griffin added a Sunday show recently, and he's considering a couple weekdays.
It's a remarkable success story made more remarkable by how bad it's been for blues clubs in Dallas. The city has a proud tradition in the genre: The first blues song ever published is called "Dallas Blues." Some of the genres' local exports include mythical figures like Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'90s, Dallas blues flourished.
Chester, who plays guitar in R.L.'s Show Band now, remembers playing seven nights a week back then. Now R.L.'s is his only gig. In fact, he and other members of the Show Band can't even name another blues club still operating with this much regularity in Dallas.
The decline was inevitable. Music evolved. Juke joints like R.L.'s gave way to rock clubs like Trees. Austin took the title of Texas' live music capital away from Dallas. By the late '90s, blues clubs were shuttering at an alarming rate. Just last year, Tucker's Blues in Deep Ellum shut down. So did Pearl at Commerce. They both had websites, which now preserve their farewells. Pearl at Commerce's is a blog post entitled "Limbo" that reads: "As most of you know, we have ceased operations at 2038 Commerce St., this due to continued parking issues, gun incidents and general thuggery in the neighborhood. We will miss our dear old building. Stay tuned to this page for news updates!"
That was on June 25, 2012. There have been no updates. And while there are a few places regularly hosting the blues, R.L.'s now stands mostly alone. "This is about the biggest deal going right now," Chester says.
R.L.'s doors open at 7 p.m., and Alex is usually the first member of the band through them, somewhere around 9:30. He is a keyboard player from somewhere in Europe (he won't say where) who six months ago moved to the United States (he won't say why). He was playing where he could, and eventually got a regular gig with a local band that stopped at R.L.'s one night to jam. Griffin offered him a job in the Show Band.
Horn player Big Jack comes in next and sits with his sister, who came to the show with her two friends from suburbs north of Dallas. Big Jack has his own band, Big Jack and the Conspiracy. But the most impressive line on his résumé is the time he spent playing with Johnnie Taylor, who had a few big hits in the late '60s and early '70s, including a Billboard Singles Chart No. 1 with "Disco Lady." By the end of his life, Taylor could have been playing with anyone in the world. He chose Big Jack, as well as Show Band saxophonist Joe and four other Show Band regulars.
Next to the stage is bassist, singer and band leader Leroy, who's been playing at the Palace for 12 years. He's a lean, powerful figure, bald and wearing a purple suit and sunglasses. He's got a killer falsetto.
The usual drummer -- a young, energetic dude the old-timers call Fat Daddy -- is out tonight, so former Show Band regular David is behind the kit, which sits at the back of the stage on a riser. He exchanges a fist-bump with Leroy, who turns to greet a second birthday party group seated beside him stage left.
Griffin's playing DJ from the sound booth now, blasting something smooth, sitting on a stool next to Hal Harris. Harris has been with Griffin since the beginning. He was the Show Band's first leader, before Leroy. Now he runs sound. He puts plenty of reverb on the trumpets and makes sure the low end is loud enough that you'll never lose the beat.
When the clock strikes 10:30, the old TVs switch with a blink from ESPN to a live feed of the stage. Alex leads off a cover of The Temptations' "Selfish Reasons," and the rest of the band kicks in. To make it in the Show Band, you have to either have 50 years of experience or play like you do. Chester never checks his fret board to find his notes. Leroy takes on "Blurred Lines" and hits the notes Robin Thicke can't. Big Jack gets a trumpet solo in "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," where he plays a riff two lesser players couldn't get if they each took the burden of half the notes.
On this Friday night, one of the birthday parties is for Don, who's turning 60 and can't stop smiling. His group keeps leaving the buffet they brought to get on the dance floor. They're leaning into each other to trade snippets of small talk, and the server is perpetually filling the empty ice buckets in their liquor setups. The Show Band plays "Shout" by the Isley Brothers and Don's oldest guest gets up to Duck Walk, lighting up his
The party and the three adjacent ones. One of Don's other friends starts offering strangers food, and another offers a dance. The house lights stay on at R.L.'s, so people can see each other. The long tables prevent anyone from getting too isolated. "I've been coming here for 13 years," Don says. "Hasn't changed a bit."
The Show Band usually wins converts, and those people work better than any other advertising Griffin's ever had. They tell their friends to come on down, bring a bottle of booze and some comfortable shoes. They guarantee a good time, because the atmosphere is so friendly and the band plays such great music so well. "Mouth-to-mouth advertising has been working real nice," he says. "We get a lot of the same people, but we have people coming from Houston. We have people from Waco, from Oklahoma. The word has gotten around real good about the club."
Griffin himself takes the stage for a short set at the end of each night. Around 1:15 a.m., he goes back to his office and changes from his work clothes into stage clothes. He's got shiny shirts with wide collars and matching pants. His shoe collection includes a pair of bright green alligator loafers. "Down in Shreveport and in Fort Worth, they have a lot of stage stuff," Griffin says. Sometimes he commissions a woman named Miss Virginia here in Dallas to make something custom. "She's one of the top sewers in this town for making costumes."
He comes back out in his new clothes, plays a couple covers and a couple of his originals, and then he kicks off the night's most popular segment.
"Are there any hens in the house?" he asks, and then again:
"I said, are there any hens in the house?"
There always are. Women line up beside the stage, the band settles in, and the women step up, one by one, and dance. Griffin punctuates their gyrations: "Uh!" A regular, always in a fedora, has some distinctive head-bobbing moves. "Work that neck!" Griffin barks, and the crowd screams.
"Everybody's loving that," Griffin later. "People come from everywhere saying they want to be part of that Hen Show." They know to ask because the Hen Show is the only aspect of R.L.'s Blues Palace #2 that has much of an online presence. There are dozens of recordings of the dances on YouTube. Several of them have view counts in the tens of thousands. "You can't stop recording like you used to," Griffin says. "Now everybody's recording it, so I just leave it."
Just leaving it has worked pretty well for him these last 13 years. He says he's thinking about getting a website, though he expresses no urgency. "I just have a hard time, when things be working for me, to change in the middle of the stream," he says.
He finishes the set and the Show Band winds down close to 2 a.m. People close their tabs and pack up their buffet trays and head out to their cars. If there were threats out there tonight, they didn't touch the Palace or its parking lot. George the parking attendant has his orange flag. He smiles and cracks jokes with people through their open windows as he directs them out onto Grand. Many of them will be back this way soon, and Griffin will be here waiting for them.
"To be honest with you, I think I'm just going to stay where I am because we've been here so long," he says. "We're just going to stay here and have some fun."
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-- Daniel Rodrigue contributed to this story.