Historic club becomes meeting place for King's fans, friends

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Posted: May 16, 2015 2:34 PM
Historic club becomes meeting place for King's fans, friends

INDIANOLA, Miss. (AP) — Club Ebony was once a hopping juke joint, a place where blues masters B.B. King, Little Milton and Howlin' Wolf performed for residents of this humble farming community looking to spice up their Saturday nights with dinner, dancing and maybe some drinks.

On Friday night, the historic club in Indianola became a meeting place for friends and fans of King who talked about his influential music, his friendly personality and his effect on the town where he used to live and returned every year to perform as their own personal guitar hero.

King died Thursday in Las Vegas at age 89. Fans in Indianola and around the world have been mourning since they heard the news.

Annise Strong James, 67, used to get into the club as an underage teenager, and was able to see Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Milton perform. The club was something of a town hall, a locale where folks would gather at football games to eat burgers and fish plates, where the fun would extend until early in the morning. James' brother would drive around in a van, picking up residents and driving them to the club, she said.

"It would get packed. We had a ball," said James, who enjoyed a beverage with a friend as others sat around tables and chatted with King's music playing in the background Friday night. "This was a spot for us to enjoy life."

James said one of the thrills of her life was meeting King at a one of his homecoming shows in 1978.

"You would not believe his voice was from Mississippi," she said. "It was so elegant."

King bought Club Ebony in 2008, after its previous owner Mary Shepard retired. He later donated the roughly 70-year-old building to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.

According to the Mississippi Blues Trail historical marker outside the green wooden building, Club Ebony was built just after the end of World War II by entrepreneur Johnny Jones, opening for business in 1948.

In a memoir, Jones wrote "there were no other clubs for Negroes in Indianola at the time." It was part of the "chitlin' circuit," a collection of juke joints and clubs where blacks could forget their hardscrabble existence and enjoy themselves in the racially divided South.

Under Jones and other owners, including a white bootlegger named James B. "Jimmy" Lee, the club's early performers included Ray Charles, Count Basie, Albert King and Willie Clayton.

Ruby Edwards took over the club in the 1950s. When King came from Memphis to play Club Ebony in 1955, he met Edwards' daughter, Sue Carol Hall. King and Hall were married in 1958.

Mary Shepard and her husband Willie bought the club in 1975. It would go on to play host to James Brown, Ike Turner and Bobby Rush.

The club had live music from Thursday through Sunday for a time after King donated it to the museum in 2012, said Dion Brown, the museum's executive director. However, it no longer has regular shows; it only opens for tour groups and special occasions.

The wooden exterior of the club is painted green, and the entrance has a small portico. Interior walls have wood paneling, and they are decorated with posters advertising concerts by King and Rush. Photos of Charles, Bland and Albert King also line the walls.

A wall behind a stage near the front of the club has a painting of a wild juke joint, complete with two men fighting and patrons lining a bar. The rear of the club is a large dance hall, with recessed lighting and a long dance floor. Red light gives the club a sultry feel.

Alphonso Sanders, a musician and educator, said the club was the town's most popular place, an oasis of fun for countless music lovers. But it also was a refuge for neighborhood folks who needed help.

"They took care of you. You could come here and get a meal," said Sanders, who runs the B.B. King Recording studio at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena. "This was a place where people in the community could get away."

Club Ebony is scheduled to be open for King's fans and friends again on Saturday night.