Harvelle’s blues club in Santa Monica bills itself as the oldest blues club in west Los Angeles. Crammed between a parking garage and a restaurant that used to be part of the club, it is arguably one of the, if not the, most influential blues clubs in the city and maybe on the West Coast. For over eighty years the tiny, narrow little venue, whose space is half-filled with a bar and shoehorned stage so small it can make a quartet feel cramped, has been the home of the best in blues, soul, and burlesque anywhere. It has seen the best in blues and soul and it has launched the careers of some of the greats.
Harvelle’s was founded in 1931 by a female jazz and blues singer by the name of Harvell as a supposedly “dry” supper club when Santa Monica was a quaint little beach town surround by sand, pre-war bungalows and barley fields. It is reported – but not proven – that the club was a gift from a mob-boss boyfriend. It was never “dry”, despite Prohibition, and at some point in the 1950’s it was split into a restaurant and a small blues club.
But what a club!
You name a bluesman or blueswoman and they have played there. Keb Mo, Albert King, Albert Lee, Stevie Nicks, and Ike Turner all played there. Tom Petty celebrated his 30th anniversary party at Harvelle’s. People say they saw Jim Morrison there regularly. Bo Diddley graced the stage. Don McGee was discovered there, as was Vintage Trouble which went on to fame in the UK. Fuzzy Knight’s Blowin’ Smoke R&B Band managed to cram onto the stage with the Fabulous Smoketts dancing and singing. And many more too numerous to mention, but you can find many of their photos on Harvelle’s walls.
I had that history in mind when I decided to go to Santa Monica earlier this week and check out Harvelle’s without even googling who was playing. I knew the band that night would be good because they are always good, and I was well rewarded. The band that night was Café R&B fronted by the incredible screamin’, writhin’ beltin’ blueswoman, Roach.
Discovered by Ike Turner and Buddy Guy in 1996 while playing at the Troubadour in LA, the married couple Byl Carruthers and Roach have blasted real, authentic, incendiary blues around the world. They have played every blues festival known to humanity. They have played the House of Blues, Staples Center, the Troubadour, the Roxy, Buddy Guy’s Legends, Lionel Hampton Jazz Lounge in Paris, The Borderline and the 100 Club in London, the La Boite in Barcelona, and of course, Harvell’s.
I came in a little early, as I always do, to get one of the bar stool seats right across from the steps onto the stage. That gives me a vantage point without the standing and dancing fans getting in my way. I didn’t bring video equipment (I am on vacation!) but I was close enough to get great images with just my Android 10.
The band blew me away and kept the packed club dancing way past my bedtime. They could have gone unit 5 am and I would have stayed with them – there is no sleeping when Roach is three feet away from you, gyrating, belting, dancing and doing her Holy Roller imitation while she twists and shouts. There is good blues in Guadalajara and even in Ajijic, but there is nothing like Café R&B and nothing like Roach.
At some point, I could remain passive no longer, put my camera phone down and joined the throng on the dance floor. The band, and especially Roach, just compels you to move, to headbob, to shake and dance – maybe even rattle and roll depending on your age and inclination. They also remind you of what authentic crowd-pleasing blues can be, led by a nuclear-powered singer and backed by musicians who are pure professionals whose music transcends technique and hits the stratosphere of emotion, as blues should do.
Feels good to be back in LA LA Land.
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