A Guided Tour of the Best Operational Juke Joints in the South

By
Share:

The age of the juke joint — those beloved ramshackle Southern hole-in-the-walls where folks gather to sip cheap beer and listen to boogie-woogie and blues music — is long over. The old, humming Wurlitzers have been replaced by slick touch-screen jukeboxes, and the proprietors of the old joints are gettin’ up there in years. Of course, that is partly because brutal segregation laws that forced rural blacks into these informal spots are also gone (obviously a cause for celebration), but it’s sad to see that the juke joint as cultural landmark is fading fast as well. Although you can find tourist versions on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Beale Street in Memphis, the real ones — where the decor is layers of grime and ancient Christmas lights and the beer list is limited to 40-ounce bottles of Old English — are getting hard to find. After the jump, a guided tour of the best operational juke joints in the South.

Gip’s Place, Bessemer, Alabama

Image courtesy of al.com

Henry “Gip” Gipson, an 88-year-old ex-boxcar worker, built a tin-roofed shack in his backyard in 1952 so neighbors and friends could stop by and play music. His place is tucked out of the way in a predominantly black neighborhood, a place so off-the-beaten-path that regulars cringed when an article in The Birmingham News publicized the spot earlier this summer.

It costs $10 to get in — collected when a hat is passed around later in the night — and the beer situation is fairly BYO, though if you leave your cooler at home you can probably find someone to accommodate you. Dancers crowd around the tiny stage inside the shack, or you can pull up a picnic table in the back to sit and listen to some music and pet the resident dog. Gip’s is a must for those on a blues pilgrimage in Alabama — every Saturday, blues greats from around the South come to jam until late at night. You can usually spot Mr. Gip greeting newcomers and trying to convince more reticent ladies to get up and dance.

Club Ebony, Indianola, Mississippi

Image courtesy stlblues.net

B.B. King’s hometown joint, Club Ebony was built after World War II by local John Jones and his wife Josephine before eventually passing into the hands of Mary Shepherd, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Jook.” The centerpiece of Indianola’s black nightlife, Club Ebony nabbed artists from the “chitlin’ circuit” — everyone from Howlin’ Wolf to Ray Charles to James Brown to Ike Turner. When Shepherd retired in 2008, B.B. King stepped in and bought the place to preserve it. Every year, at his homecoming celebration in July, King finishes the celebrations by performing a set at Club Ebony.

Red’s Lounge, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Image courtesy tripadvisor.com

From the street, Red’s looks like an out-of-business barbecue joint: There are rusted smokers on the sidewalk, and the awning has seen better decades. Before Red’s was a juke joint, it was a music instrument shop that Ike Turner and other locals would frequent.

Red’s is only open sporadically — weekend nights are a pretty safe bet — and there aren’t a lot of amenities. A couple couches with the stuffing hanging out for lolling on after you’re tired from dancing, a bunch of folding chairs, and some Natty Ice posters are what pass for decor. I once made the mistake of asking for a Jack and coke here — the bartender, an elderly black man wearing wrap-around sunglasses at 11 pm — laughed and replied, “They wouldn’t let me stay back here if I had that stuff!” A Bud Lite will have to suffice. The music is blues, the dress code involves overalls, and the band is close enough that you could sit in the drum kit, which is how it should be.

Wild Bill’s, Memphis, Tennessee

This famed “social club” in North Memphis was founded by William “Wild Bill” Story, who passed away in 2007. Wild Bill’s still attracts college students, local blues aficionados, and tourists intrepid enough to venture off the neon-spangled stretch of Beale Street. The seating is picnic tables, and the beer is served in 40-ounce bottles, or, if you prefer to bring your own brew, the staff will provide ice buckets. Most of the tiny dance floor is taken up by the house band. Wild Bill’s also serves food to patrons seeking respite from the sweaty dancefloor. Try the chicken wings — they’re delicious.

Teddy’s, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

A relative newcomer to the juke-joint scene — it was founded in 1979 — Teddy’s was founded by ex-DJ Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson. The little dive was Teddy’s childhood home — the stage used to be the front porch — and the walls are covered with old photographs and memorabilia. Teddy’s is a little more diverse in its drink and dining options, but it still sticks the the cold beer-and-macaroni formula that Southerners know and love. Teddy’s claims to be the last juke joint on Highway 61 before you edge from blues into jazz territory, so travelers take note.