Where were you in 1986? Ronald Reagan was president. William Perry and the Chicago Bears enjoyed "The Super Bowl Shuffle." The Dow Jones Industrial Average was under 2,000. Jonny Lang was 5 years old. And Blind Willie's was opening its doors in Virginia-Highland.
More than 6,500 nights of live music later, Blind Willie's celebrated its 18th anniversary this year, and the Blind Willie's house band, the Shadows, still backs many of the performers.
Co-founders Eric King and Roger Gregory (who doubles as Shadows' bassist) built the club, literally, with carpentry and painting support from local musicians, among them Chicago Bob Nelson and guitarists J.T. Speed and Michael Catalano. "It was a real musicians' project," King recalls. "They worked their butts off. They just wanted a place to play."
King's background included a love for '60s folk music. At the time, he and Gregory were traveling with local musicians Piano Red and Roy Dunn, who often played at laid-back gigs for folklore societies and groups. It's no surprise then that King and Gregory originally envisioned Blind Willie's with a coffeehouse vibe, including nights with no live music. Initially, Luther "Houserocker" Johnson -- long among the rowdiest of Willie's regulars -- played there for several months in a drummer-less trio.
However, King and Gregory discovered almost immediately that crowds were hungry for blues bands. "They'd ask, 'When can you get Junior Wells, when can you get Johnny Clyde Copeland?'" King recalls.
Willie's responded by bringing in such locals as Billy Wright, Grady "Fats" Jackson and Sandra Hall, and booking regional and national acts. Lazy Lester was one of the first. The booking strategy filled a need not only for fans but for performers, providing one-nighters to touring bands whose schedule didn't permit them to take week-long gigs.
From the outset, King and Gregory have placed a particular emphasis on bringing older working musicians to town, including pianists Sunnyland Slim and Charles Brown, guitarist Johnny Shines and mandolinist Yank Rachell, all now deceased. "I'm just sorry that still you can't put time in a bottle," King says. "There are so many of our old favorites who can't or won't travel any more, or are gone.
Their involvement in Blind Willie's has afforded King and Gregory the opportunity to know this older generation of musicians on a behind-the-scenes basis. It's typical for them to take a visiting performer on a trip to the King Center, or to Decatur Street -- once home of the renowned 81 Theater -- or to Auburn Avenue.
"[Memphis R&B legend] Rufus Thomas had to go to the Picadilly Cafeteria at Ansley Mall every time he was in town," King says. During one visit, "somebody came running out of the kitchen who had opened a show for Rufus 25 years ago. They remembered each other."
Eric King is also involved in the Atlanta History Center's annual "Nuthin' but the Blues" concert series. Last year, The Atlanta History Center, in partnership with Blind Willie's, won The Blues Foundation's prestigious Keeping The Blues Alive (KBA) Award in the category of Historic Preservation.
Roger Gregory continues his labor of love as the rhythm behind The Shadows and the musical arranger for the many touring stars that The Shadows back up at Blind Willie's.
In the spring of 2004, new partners joined our team at Blind Willie's. Please visit our website often to keep abreast of the entertainment schedule and changes that we hope will make Blind Willie's an even better entertainment experience for Atlanta native and visitor alike.