"You can have a lot of fun at the Mile High Club."
-- "Mile-Hi Club" by Joe Louis Walker
The glory of electric blues filled Eli's Mile High Club. The elbow-to-elbow crowd rocked and sweated with headliner Joe Louis Walker. His howls were met with hoots of approval, and his lightning guitar licks left those hooters in stunned awe. Fans lined up outside, waiting for someone to leave so they could get in. And when local guitarists Craig Horton and Levi Lloyd sat in, things really got wild.
This isn't nostalgia -- it happened this month. Looks like Joe is right: You can have a lot of fun at the Mile High Club. Right now.
Eli's officially reopened on Saturday, June 6, and you'd never have known that Bay Area blues is at low tide. But it's true. Few blues clubs remain. The best of the Bay's blues artists are gone. And the remaining fans don't have many places to go.
But on Eli's reopening night, at least, blues was king. And there's great hope that the refurbished Oakland club will rejuvenate a diminished scene.
A Hot Spot and a Cool Living Room
Eli's was once the heart of the East Bay blues community -- the self-proclaimed "Home of the West Coast Blues," at a time when that meant something. Blues clubs proliferated in the area -- places like Larry Blake's on Telegraph in Berkeley (now just called Blake's), along with the Deluxe Inn, Esther's Orbit Room, the Continental Club, and Our Place in Oakland. In the 1970s, while the national spotlight focused on Chicago bluesmen in the tradition of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, the West Coast was doing its own thing: a jazzier blues with more horns and less Delta influence.
In 1974, Eli Mile High Club, as it was then called, was a neighborhood joint with blues, food, drinks, and dancing. Owner Eli Thornton hired mostly local acts to play: J.J. Malone, Mark Hummel, Troyce Key. Eli then assured his club's place in blues lore by getting killed in his own club, when a former waitress with whom he was having an affair gunned him down. Troyce Key then bought the place and turned it into the hub of West Coast blues in the 1980s.
Hummel, a harmonica player and singer who now heads up Mark Hummel and the Blues Survivors, began playing Eli's in 1976. He credits the change to Key's decision to bring in such national acts as Percy Mayfield, Lowell Fulson, Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton, and Charlie Musselwhite. The Rolling Stones were rumored to have stopped by. Robert Cray had been there. And James Brown came in once to see one of his old horn players perform.
The infusion of big-name blues big shots made all the difference: "Once they started playing there, it became a hot spot for everyone from college kids to hippies to local older blues fans from the neighborhood," Hummel says.
"Eli's made the blues real," says Carlos Zialcita, another harmonica player who played in the Eli's house bands of the 1980s. "It gave it a venue that had history as well as pedigree. It validated artists. You're not a blues artist until you've played a blues club. You can't play Starbucks. You've got to play a blues club in a blues neighborhood."
The joint quickly represented more than just music: Key made Eli's a community. He lived next door, and basically turned the club into his living room. "We'd go upstairs in the club and hang out," Zialcita says. "Troyce would have a mayonnaise jar that was like his glass, and he'd go next door and fill it with Southern Comfort and come back." Key let people sleep in the area behind the dressing room when they needed to. Touring performers sometimes stayed at his place when they played the club.
And then there was the food. Zialcita fondly remembers Miss Barbara (who ran the kitchen and lived two doors down) fixing ribs, greens, and corn bread.
But Key died in 1992, and everything slowly faded away. His widow Margaret ran the place, but she didn't have the same passion Troyce had. Miss Barbara stopped working there. Many of the regulars passed away, or moved out of the area as the mid-'90s boom brought higher living costs and the blues revival of the '80s passed. Eli's management tried some new things to pull in the crowds -- Zialcita remembers Reggae Fridays and Rap Sundays. Then Linda Lawrence bought the club and tried to revive it as a blues place, but couldn't make it work.
Zialcita hosted a jam session at the club the last night it was open in 2002. He found out the next day that it had shut down. "[Musician] Frankie Lee told me that Eli's died when Troyce died -- it's just now getting buried," he recalls.
And now, evidently, it's resurrecting itself.
Remodeled, but Not Too Remodeled
Frank Klein, the new owner of Eli's Mile High Club, presented two original bar stools to Ron Kriss and Michael McDonald as a thank you on the night the club reopened. Kriss and McDonald bought the building from Lawrence with the idea of turning it into live/work lofts. But after an outpouring of requests to keep it a blues club, they decided to find a club owner who would buy it from them and restore it as a nightclub for the community.
Klein, who also owned Biscuits & Blues, one of the last all-blues clubs in San Francisco, won the bidding and the chance to pull it off. "If you're going to buy something in a bad economy, it's better to buy something that at least has a history," he says. Klein set out to improve the club, but to leave as much of the old feeling as possible. He had the plumbing fixed, the electrical wiring repaired, and the floor leveled. He painted it red and black. The kitchen's open, too, with fried catfish, fried chicken, and more.
But he kept all the memorabilia. He preserved the old concert posters featuring Bobby Blue Bland, Percy Mayfield, and others. He also has collections of old Eli's signs, and photos of Troyce Key and other regulars. "It will be an Oakland and Eli's blues museum," says Klein, who recently gave up his Biscuits & Blues gig to tend to his new project full-time.
Better yet, it doesn't feel like a museum. On opening night, the place pulsed with life. Unlike a place like Biscuits & Blues, the new Eli's feels like an authentic blues club -- not too polished. The bar still has cracked old tiles spelling "Eli's," and the men's-room graffiti was left intact. But the upgrades make it just nice enough to please a wide-ranging audience, including a white crowd not used to visiting West Oakland.
San Franciscan Dorothy Hill has been coming to Eli's since the early 1980s. A tried and true blues fan (and a blues columnist for JazzNow magazine), Hill was there in the heyday, and she was there again on opening night until the late hours. She gives the reopened club her approval: "At least it smells good now.
"Eli's was the glue that held West Coast blues together for so long," she continues. "Hopefully it will reenergize that feeling and experience for people."
That's what all blues fans are hoping. The local blues scene is in a woeful state by all accounts. Of the clubs open during the Bay Area blues heyday, only the Continental Club and Esther's Orbit Room remain, and few people even know they're still around. "Larry Blake's isn't even Larry Blake's anymore," Zialcita notes mournfully. He's convinced the addition of Eli's can only be a good thing for blues artists and fans: "Oakland needs as many blues spots as it can have, especially if it's based in the community."
Still, ultimate success depends on getting the crowds to come out to Martin Luther King and 37th. You have to want to go to Eli's -- no one's going to come by accident, with no other clubs or hip bars in the area. But Hummel knows that a fan base exists. He plays two nights every year at Yoshi's, and it always sells out. Blues festivals are well-attended. But new blood, Hummel believes, is what will truly keep Eli's alive.
"What it will take is young people getting back into blues," he says. "That was what kept Eli's going so strong. There was a constant younger audience coming in and finding out about the blues through their Eli's introduction."
For the die-hards, at least, that introduction's worth the trip, even if it means leaving the cozy confines of San Francisco. "I hate crossing that bridge," Hill admits. "But for Eli's, I'll go."