Babe's & Ricky's Inn: Keeping the Light On For the Blues | KCET
Babe's & Ricky's Inn: Keeping the Light On For the Blues
Editor's Note: Babe's and Ricky's Inn was founded in 1964 by Laura Mae Gross, affectionately known by many as 'Mama Laura,' when she took over the old Atlantic Club on Central Avenue. Originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi, she arrived in Los Angeles with her husband in 1944. The club was named after Miss Laura's son (his nickname was Babe) and her nephew. As a result of her tireless dedication and undying support of younger Blues artists, Babe's and Ricky's survived on Central Avenue for 37 years before having to shut its doors. In August of 1997 Babe's and Ricky's Inn re-opened on 4339 Leimert Boulevard and enjoyed several years of renewed success. In 2006, Laura Mae Gross passed away, four days after her 90th birthday. Several months back, a source close to Mike Davis mentioned that he used to take out of town guests to Babe's and Ricky's. We asked Mr. Davis to share his thoughts on this mythical Blues venue and he kindly obliged.
In the late 1980s and through the early 1990s, I was a weekly regular at Babe's and Ricky's Inn on Central Avenue. I even had my wedding party there. But my memories are bitter/sweet. The sweet part, of course, was its proprietor, the regal Laura Mae Gross, the house band with Sonny Green (who on a good night was as drop-to-his-knees-thrilling as James Brown), and regular players of the caliber of Lowell Fulson, Butch Mudbone, Lady G.G., and the incomparable Larry "Texas Flood" Davis. Everyone said that B.B. King stopped by whenever he was in town but I wasn't lucky enough to catch one of his surprise appearances.
The bitter part was that this was all for free. A couple of bucks for beer and you might have an evening that you'd remember for life. But it would be an evening shadowed by the fact that the West Coast's blues greats were performing for pennies in a room that was often half empty. True, on Sundays when families long moved to Rialto or Lancaster returned to their old churches, the club would become a joyous neighborhood reunion with Laura Mae presiding as the queen of Central Avenue. But she still operated at loss and musicians lived on food stamps. Younger African-Americans -- a generation syncopated to funk and rap -- seldom walked through the door of Babe's and Ricky's. Blues, the tap-root of rock-and-roll and soul, was mostly of interest to white boys and older Southern immigrants.
Largely thanks to the former constituency, there were a few blues super-stars like BB and the other Kings (Albert, Eddie and Freddie), but full employment eluded most of those who performed at Babe's and Ricky's. They might be "legends" but they weren't celebrities. And white people, fearing crack addicts and (imaginary) rioters, rarely bucked up the courage to spend an evening on the southside despite the warmth with which Laura Mae greeted all of her "guests." ("Come sit next to Moma," she'd say.)
Although his name is strangely omitted from the new Babe's and Ricky's documentary and website, the commanding presence at the club in those days was unquestionably Larry Davis. He was the chief reason that I went down to Central Avenue so often. In a lifetime of listening to live blues, including super-nova nights in Chicago, Memphis, and the old Ash Grove in L.A., the words "it's floodin' down in Texas, all the telephones lines are down..." are still what I most yearn to hear. Stevie Ray Vaughn became famous because of "Texas Flood," but he was only the cover. Larry Davis was the man. With Fenton Robinson, he made three or four classic singles for Duke Records in Houston during the late 1950s, including "I Tried" and "Angels in Houston."
But he ran afoul of rip-off artists and exploiters, including Duke's owner, the gangster Don Robey. He then had a bad accident that removed him from the scene for several years. Although his enormous voice was famed in the blues clubs of Little Rock and St. Louis, he became a ghost outside the South. L.A. was a chance to relaunch his career but Davis was indifferent to white people and white audiences. At the end of the day, he didn't have a gold tooth or a $20,000 electric guitar. Instead of appearing on the stage with the Rolling Stones or doing the blues festival circuit, he sharecropped a living in the surviving blues dives of California and Texas. He continued to make albums but good luck trying to find one.
Once, during my brief return to the road as a long-distance truck driver in 1988, I was passed on I-5 by an old car or van pulling a trailer with the sign "Larry 'Texas Flood' Davis Blues Band." Some weeks later in Babe's and Ricky's, I asked him where he was headed. He said he had a regular gig in Stockton. I can't imagine that it paid much more than his gas.
All blues lovers rhapsodize about the rare thrill of hearing the music performed in an authentic juke joint on the other side of the tracks. But few reflect on the simultaneous tragedy of musical legends living on almost nothing, except perhaps an occasional festival. Thanks to Laura Mae Gross, who subsidized the music with her earnings as a blue-collar worker in the aircraft industry, L.A. blues at least had a roof over its head and a community of memory, if not money in the bank.
I always feared that the club, the last reminder of the glory that once was Central Avenue, would simply vanish one day. Instead due to Laura Mae's grit and the support of many friends, Babe's and Ricky's had a splendid second life in Leimert Park, in the heart of an African-American renaissance. In a city where all good things usually die premature deaths (e.g., Shelley's Mann-Hole, Rhino Records, the Ash Grove, Midnite Special Bookstore, and many more), the stubborn perdurance of Babe's and Ricky's was been a minor miracle.