The Blues Finds A Home In A South Central Garage

Sep 19, 2015
Originally published on September 23, 2015 2:25 pm

One sun-baked residential street in South Central Los Angeles is regularly bombarded by the chorus of jets cruising toward Los Angeles International Airport. Unless you're in Franklin Bell's garage, where the walls soak up the raw, earthy chords of L.A. blues.

For the last decade, 81-year-old Bell has hosted his Blues Workshop every Sunday, as regularly as a church service, in a one-car garage rebuilt to hold about 50 people. The place gets crowded with folks dressed in their Sunday best; for a small voluntary donation, they eat, drink and dance to music that ranges from raw to graceful. There's a stage in the back, and anyone's welcome to sit in.

"We play R&B, we play a lot of pop music, but basically we go with the blues — and that's what people look for when they come to the Workshop," Bell says. "They love to come to try to participate, play the blues and listen to it. And I just love that."

Bell came to L.A. from Alabama in 1968. He ran a gas station that fell to the 105 freeway. A musician since high school, he picked up his drums and hit the road. The years passed, and as his eyesight began to fail, he decided to set up shop in the garage.

A dapper Tuscaloosa native, Bell sports a crisp dark suit and tie despite the heat. He wears a white cap tilted back on his head. He carries a plastic cup in his hand, sipping from it now and again. Even though he's legally blind, he still looks you in the eye when he speaks. It's just part of getting older, and there's a lot of that in the garage.

"The average age, you're talking about 65. Average! So that means we got people 75, 85, even 90 in the audience every Sunday," Bell says. "But young? Once in a while, maybe someone in their 50s, maybe under 50. Very few."

"If you stop and think about it, the blues is for people that age: 60 and over," says Lester Lands, a guitarist and vocalist from Baton Rouge who cut his teeth on the Southern gospel circuit. At 62, he looks about half his age. "A lot of them live the blues, coming out of the South and stuff, man. And still today, that's their soundtrack, the blues. So that's why it's so nice and so popular around here."

Betty Madison, a workshop audience regular with a Lena Horne smile, is another transplant. "I'm originally from Louisiana but I've been here since 1942. I'm 84," she says, working the dance floor like a younger woman. "I'm here every Sunday. I go to church and come home, get me a nap and then get dressed and come over and listen to the blues. 'Cause I enjoy the people, and the people be enjoying themselves. That's what I like, too."

Madison and most of the folks here fall into what's known as the Second Great Migration, a period that lasted from the early 1940s until about 1970. During the migration, African-Americans moved from states like Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana to cities in the North and West, seeking jobs in California and beyond. Many such Western migrants, like harp player and singer Sammy Lee, found them in the burgeoning defense industry.

"[I] graduated from high school. Started working at a car wash. Few years later I got drafted, went in the army. Came out the army. Went to work for Northrop Aircraft," Lee says. He made L.A. his home in 1965, and he still plays in clubs around town in addition to his Workshop Sundays.

Blues is among the biggest imports into this small South Central community, but the Southerners brought more than just regional music. "Blues and food, we got something to eat! Got to have some food to go along with the blues," Bell says.

Franklin Bell's cousin, Alice Cabile, offers a taste of the menu. "Spaghetti and beans, a variety of salads, cake, pie. We have one lady that makes the bomb banana pudding," she says. "Chicken, pig feet, meatloaf, fish, hush puppies, cole slaw. It's always great."

The buffet table is a mighty ritual at the Workshop. Lester Lands asks everyone to gather for a prayer: "Right now they telling me that some food is about to be served. We don't wanna offend nobody but we give thanks to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ here. Now, let's bow our heads ... ." Lands says everyone is welcome. "Here, it's not no mess, no racial barriers, none of that. It's just good clean fun, man."

Yet you don't see many young people showing up for the good clean fun of the Blues Workshop. Twenty-nine-year-old Donae Alexander is an exception. She says her generation just doesn't get the blues.

"I think that they need to just wake up, 'cause that's what time it is," she says. "If you don't know, basically, where we came from, far as in your roots and a certain type of music that you listen to — and what they have going on today, hip-hop is not the same, to be honest. It's not. Not without the old school. You have to go way back to come to present, that's how I look at it."

Guitarist and singer Tony Ibarra is one Workshop fixture who didn't come from the American South. The Guadalajara native played in primal Mexican rock combo Los Fugitivos, and came to Southern California in 1963. He's been slinging the blues for decades, and has seen his share of rough joints. In fact, he spent his Summer of Love onstage in Tijuana. But this isn't that.

"No, no, no, no ... I never seen anything. Here and there is somebody screaming, which is normal, you know, but nothing to scare you away," Ibarra says. "Everybody's cool. It's very unique. It's like the real thing to me, you know? Everybody's friendly, no fights. We eat, have a few beers, listen to good players, listen to good music, talk to the people. To me it's great."

That's exactly what Franklin Bell wanted all along: "It don't take no big crowd, it take a few peoples that you can get together and if they can get some joy and they can spread that as they go through life it makes a difference. That's what my thing is about." And, as the jets continue overhead, flying toward the future, in the garage the blues will continue to extend the past, thanks to Franklin Bell.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

From Crimea, now we travel back to Los Angeles in a spot where expensive wine is not the drink of choice. We're going to a converted garage in South-Central, where every weekend musicians gather to step back in time and play a little blues. Peter Gilstrap takes us there.

PETER GILSTRAP, BYLINE: On this sun-baked residential street, you hear the constant ebb and flow of jets cruising toward Los Angeles International Airport, unless you're in Franklin Bell's garage, where you hear this...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on. All right...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GILSTRAP: For the last decade, 81-year-old Bell has hosted the blues workshop every Sunday, regular as church, in a one-car garage rebuilt to hold about 50 people. The place gets crowded. Folks dress to the nines. For a small voluntary donation, they dance, eat and drink to music that ranges from raw to graceful. There's a stage in the back, and anyone's welcome to sit in.

RENEE: (Singing) I got me a man named Dr. Feelgood...

FRANKLN BELL: We play a lot of pop music. But basically, we go with the blues, and that's what people look for when they come to the workshop. They love to try to participate, play the blues and listen to it. And I just love that.

GILSTRAP: Bell came to LA from Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1968. He ran a gas station that fell to the construction of the 105 freeway. A musician since high school, he picked up his drums and hit the road. The years past, his eyesight was failing, and he hit on the idea of setting up shop in the garage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GILSTRAP: As the music plays, Bell works the crowd. He's dapper, sporting a crisp dark suit and tie, despite the heat. He wears a white cap tilted back on his head. He carries a Styrofoam cup in his hand, sipping from it now and again. He looks you in the eye when he speaks, despite being legally blind. It's just part of getting older, and there's a lot of that going on in the garage.

BELL: Average age of - you're talking about 65, average, so that means we've got people who are 75, 85, even 90, in the audience every Sunday; maybe, every once in a while, under 50, very few.

LESTER LANDS: If you stop and think about the blues, man, it's for people that age - 60 and over

GILSTRAP: So says Lester Lands, a guitarist and vocalist who cut his teeth on the Southern gospel circuit. Lands looks about half of his 62 years.

LANDS: A lot of them live the blues, coming out of the South and stuff, man. You know, and still today, you know, so that's their soundtrack, the blues. So that's why it's so nice and so popular around here.

GILSTRAP: Workshop audience regular Betty Madison is a beautiful woman with a Lena Horne smile, another transplant.

BETTY MADISON: I'm originally from Louisiana, but I've been here since 1942. I'm 84.

GILSTRAP: Eighty-four.

MADISON: (Laughter).

GILSTRAP: Watching her work the dance floor, this is astonishing news.

MADISON: I'm here every Sunday. I go to church and come home, get me a nap and then get dressed and come over to listen to the blues because I enjoy the people, you know, and the people be enjoying themselves. That's what I like, too.

GILSTRAP: Madison and most of the folks here fall into what's known as the Second Great Migration of African-Americans, people who moved from states like Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana to cities in the North and West, a period that lasted from the early 1940s until about 1970. They came searching for jobs in California, and many found them in the burgeoning defense industry, as did harp player and singer Sammy Lee.

SAMMY LEE: Graduated from high school, started working in a car wash. A few years later, I got drafted, went into the Army. Came out the Army, went to work for Northrop Aircraft.

GILSTRAP: Lee made LA his home in 1965, and he still plays in clubs around town in addition to his workshop Sundays.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GILSTRAP: The Southerners brought more than just regional music.

LEE: Their blues and food, yes. I believe (laughter) got to have some food to go along with the blues.

GILSTRAP: Franklin Bell's cousin Alice Cabile offers a taste of the menu.

LEE: Spaghetti and beans, a variety of salads, cake, pie...

GILSTRAP: The buffet table is a mighty ritual at the workshop.

LANDS: They're telling me that some food is about ready to be served. And before we do that, we always like to say some grace. We like to give thanks. We don't want to offend nobody, but we give thanks to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ here. Now let's bow our heads.

GILSTRAP: Lester Lands says everyone is welcome.

LANDS: Here, this is not no mess, no racial barriers, none of that. It's just good clean fun, man.

GILSTRAP: Yet you don't see many young people showing up for the good clean fun. Twenty-nine-year-old Donae Alexander is an exception. She says her generation just doesn't understand the blues.

DONAE ALEXANDER: I think that they need to just wake up because that's what time it is. If you don't know, basically, where we came from, far as in your roots - hip-hop is not the same, not without the old-school. You have to go way back to come to present. That's how I look at it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GILSTRAP: Guitarist and singer Tony Ibarra is one workshop fixture who didn't come from the American South. The Guadalajara native played in primal Mexican rock combo Los Fugitivos and came to Southern California in 1963. He's been slinging the blues for decades and has seen his share of rough joints. In fact, he spent his Summer of Love playing on stage in Tijuana, but this ain't that.

TONY IBARRA: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I mean, here and there is, you know, somebody screaming, which is normal, you know? But nothing really scare you away, or - no, no, no, no. Everybody's cool and everybody's friendly, no fights. It's very unique. I mean, it's like the real thing to me. You know, it's listening to good players, listen to good music, talk to the people. I mean, to me, it's great.

GILSTRAP: And that's exactly what Franklin Bell wanted all along.

BELL: It don't take no big crowd. It take a few people that you can get together, and if they can get some joy and they can spread that as they go through life, it makes a difference. That's what my - my thing is about.

GILSTRAP: And as the jets continue overhead, flying toward the future, in the garage, the blues will continue to extend the past, thanks to Franklin Bell. For NPR News, I'm Peter Gilstrap in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.