By Jonathan Olivier
Old, dilapidated buildings line parts of North Boulevard as it cuts through some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, making a beeline from downtown until it abruptly ends near Baton Rouge Community College.
Hardly a business resides there now, and most of the traffic is just passing through on morning and afternoon commutes.
It wasn’t always this way, though, as “The Strip,” as it was once called by those who frequented the area, was a thriving hub in the Baton Rouge blues scene.
“It was like Bourbon Street in New Orleans,” recalled Maxine Crump, emeritus member of the Baton Rouge Blues Foundation.
Crump spent her Saturday nights in the late ’60s as an LSU student making her way up and down the strip with groups of friends hopping from bar to bar, dancing and swaying to the sound of local blues musicians.
The Blue Bull, the Peppermint Club and the Glass Hat were just a few of the once thriving blues joints found on The Strip.
On Saturday nights, The Strip buzzed with the sound of the Baton Rouge staple swamp blues, a leg of Louisiana blues derived out of the metro area in the early to mid-20th century. The sound is distinctive, and contains moans, groans and wails coupled with playful and lively tones.
It wasn’t just blues clubs that flourished there, either. Local businesses set up shop that catered to the throngs of African-Americans spending a night out on the town.
“Afterward, if we stayed out late, there was a place called Bernard’s that sold food; it was a seafood place,” Crump said. “It was probably some of the best seafood you could buy.”
Now, the buildings have been lost to time, with the only memory of the clubs coming from old photographs and warm recollections from people like Crump.
In the ’70s, The Strip was virtually deserted as a result of varying social-economic factors that led to a dispersion of the African-American community.
“Once desegregation came, blacks could go anywhere,” Crump said. “So those clubs lost their clientele because they didn’t have as many people on the weekends. Plus, the economy started changing.”
Also, Crump said a majority of the white community, which had no vested interest in The Strip, in addition to some black church leaders disproving of the nightlife, almost sealed the fate of blues in Baton Rouge for good.
“At the time, Baton Rouge was turning its attention to other things,” Crump said. “I don’t think the larger community saw that area as something to keep.”
The Strip saw a bit of revitalization in 1979 with the emergence of Tabby’s Blues Box. The club’s founder, Ernest “Rocking Tabby” Thomas, was a Baton Rouge blues musician who made a name for himself by recording blues hits with J.D. Miller’s Excello Records out of Crowley.
The joint opened with the help of Thomas’ son, Chris Thomas King, Grammy Award-winning blues musician and an actor in films such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
King and his father opened the doors to Tabby’s to create a place for blues musicians to once again play, after being shut out of other clubs by the popularity of disco in the ’70s, King said.
“That was the atmosphere the club opened in,” King said. “Musicians didn’t have anywhere else to play, really. [Dad] longed to have place to play; it was his passion.”
King got his start in Tabby’s along with many other blues musicians, and the spot quickly breathed new life into The Strip.
“Dad’s club brought a diverse group of people together,” King said. “Not just black and white people, but people of different classes, as well. It was more than just a club, but a cool, cultural thing to take [people] to Tabby’s. It played a key role in helping this music shift to another generation to pick it up.”
For 20 years, Tabby’s served as the only reminder of The Strip’s former glory; a place where people could go to hear authentic blues music in the city’s historic, once bustling area. Crump, too, made a regular presence at Tabby’s.
“I ended up going there almost every week because it was some of the best blues people you could hear,” she said. “It was a breeding ground for blues players.”
The Strip, however, was dealt a final, defeating blow when Thomas was forced to relocate Tabby’s in 2000. Thomas moved the club downtown to Lafayette Street and it only lasted a few more years before closing for good in 2004.
The blues scene in Baton Rouge, though, has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years with the opening of The Blues Room in the downtown location of what was once Tabby’s.
Events such as The Baton Rouge Blues Festival and more conversation on reconnecting Louisiana with its blues past may one day help the Baton Rouge community realize what a cultural gem they lost.
“People would’ve come from all over had Baton Rouge promoted the strip,” Crump said. “A lot of businesses were doing very well in those areas and all of that was lost. We lost a lot of culture.”