Chuck Berry once gave its owner a guitar, and Keith Richards has played there unannounced. So too have Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Tonight, it's the Franklin Tully Band out of nearby Birmingham, Alabama, who are regulars on the pocket stage at what might be the last juke joint in the United States: Gip's Place.
Juke joints were once common throughout the segregated south, informal places – often in someone's home – where African Americans could gather and enjoy drinking, dancing, music... and maybe a few other things besides.
Gip Gipson has been throwing his backyard Saturday night parties in the tin-roof garage at his home in Bessemer, Alabama, since 1952. As a part-time musician and blues fan, he decided to invite other musicians in to entertain friends and neighbours on the weekend. Now, at the age of 96 (give or take, no one knows) he's still playing host to anything from a few dozen to a couple hundred blues fans who bring their own booze to help keep Gip on the right side of the law.
'I can't run a business,' Gip said, 'but no one can stop you from having a party in your own backyard.'
At least I thought that's what he said, as apart from being almost as old as the blues, Gip’s thick Southern accent was well lubricated with regular sips from a glass of clear liquid.
Gip first worked building railcars, but later became a gravedigger, a job he still holds to this day, and he now owns the Pine Hill Cemetery a few miles from his home. Over the years, Gip has been raided and closed by the Bessemer Police, and warned by the city attorney that he can stay in business as long as he doesn't run a business. This means no selling T-shirts, liquor or food, or charging a cover, but it's an elaborate dance that's been going on for 60-some years. And as a local legend, Gip's Place remains resolutely open.
Gip still dances, if a little unsteady on his feet and sometimes in need of a helping hand, usually from the prettiest woman nearby. The night I was there, he wandered around amiably, chatting to people or sometimes just sitting listening to the music and letting people come to him, like a king holding court. And this is a place of pilgrimage: blues fans from all over the world have somehow heard of the spot.
It's one thing to know about Gip's; it's another to actually find it. There are no signposts in the dark cluster of streets on the edge of a ravine, though as you get closer, you might hear the music and spot the Christmas lights, which illuminate Gip's all year round.
'How d'y'all find this place?' a young guy shouted in my ear as we stood drinking beer and swaying to the band. Someone told us about it and brought us here, was the answer. You need to know someone local, or to have heard about it on the musical grapevine.
One such pilgrim is a Dutch music journalist, Marc Stakenburg, who's written a book about the music of the American Deep South and has travelled widely in the region.
“I've always wanted to come here but never made it till now,” Stakenburg told me, excited to be at one of the seven wonders of the blues music world. “As far as I know, there are only half a dozen places you might call juke joints in the old tradition. But to me, you're not a juke joint if you don't have live music, and I only know of two such places: Gip's Place and Po' Monkey's near Merigold in Mississippi.”
Sadly, a few weeks after talking to Stakenburg at Gip's, Willie Seaberry, the man who started Po' Monkey’s in 1963, passed away at the age of 75 leaving Gip Gipson as probably the last juke joint man standing. As for how long he's been standing, neither he nor his children know for sure.
“I got 11 brothers and sisters,” Gip’s son, Keith Gipson said, wiping the sweat from his brow at the barbeque, “and none of us know how old my dad is. But going by our own ages and family history, 96 could be about right.”
In his dapper floral hat and white-and-gold silk shirt, you’d likely knock a couple of decades off Gip’s age when you see him leading yet another lady out onto the dance floor, despite the back brace that he also wears.
The highlight of my night, though, came when the band took a break and Gip was persuaded to climb carefully onto the stage, where he sat at the side in a chair. He picked up his white Fender Stratocaster, and started to pluck some chords. He played simple old-time blues, sounding like the ancient 1930s recordings of Robert Johnson, one of Gip's blues heroes, along with Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker.
Gip's accent was so thick that whole verses went by where I couldn’t understand a word he sang; and his fingers, almost a century old, understandably hit a few bum notes. But it didn’t matter one bit. For a while, I was transported back 100 years to the front porch of someone's rickety cabin in the Mississippi Delta, an old man seeking refuge in a blues song after a hard day's work in the fields. Or digging graves.
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