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Club Ebony, a Historic Blues Venue Tied to B.B. King, Rises Again

Club Ebony, a famed blues venue in Indianola, Miss., that was part of the chitlin circuit — a loose network of Black-owned clubs and venues in segregated American cities — has hosted hundreds of memorable moments. Bobby Rush, the 89-year-old blues singer, recalled one of his favorites in a recent interview: a scene from B.B. King’s 2014 homecoming concert.

As King was meandering through an extended take on Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he noticed Rush had dozed off. “‘Ladies and gentlemen,’” he began, according to Rush. “‘I got my best friend in the house. I’m playing this music. And he’s laying over there asleep on me.’”

The audience cackled, and Rush joined King onstage with his harmonica to cap his friend’s final performance there, ending a tradition of annual concerts that began in 1980. King passed away a year later.

Club Ebony was more than King’s hometown club. After opening in 1948, it gave Indianola’s Black community a place to gather to eat, dance and socialize, and it provided generations of blues, rock ’n’ roll and soul performers the rapt audiences they needed to make a living.

King bought the venue in 2008 from its third and longest-tenured owner, Mary Shepard, and donated it to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. But after his death, it slowly succumbed to the effects of time and disuse. The mathematics of keeping the 6,400-square-foot club operating four nights a week in a town of 9,000 people proved a hill too high in the middle of the vast Delta.

“The traditional format wasn’t financially feasible — times had changed,” said Malika Polk-Lee, the executive director of the museum. The organization turned Club Ebony into an event space, but when the tourism industry began to reopen after pandemic shutdowns in 2021, museum staff noted the condition of the wood-frame building was poor.

“We realized there was structural damage. The roof and walls were deteriorating, and water was leaking inside,” she said. “That year closed was tough on the building.”

The museum had no choice but to keep the club shuttered while it scrambled for support to save it, which it found through public and private money including a grant from the regional, National Endowment for the Arts-affiliated organization South Arts and a City of Indianola tourism tax. Its dormant period will end on Thursday, when after $800,000 spent on repairs, the venue is scheduled to open its historic doors once again.

Before mainstream America first glimpsed Ike and Tina Turner when they brought the rave-up “A Fool in Love” to “American Bandstand” in 1960, and before Ray Charles won four Grammys on the strength of “Georgia on My Mind” the same year — and long before King stunned a crowd of white hippies at San Francisco’s Fillmore West in 1967, sealing his mainstream success — they were all regulars at Club Ebony.

The Indianola entrepreneur Johnny Jones opened it in 1948, when the postwar economy was in full bloom. New industries like the Ludlow textile plant had injected money into the town, and workers left plenty of their wages on the table at its juke joints on Church Street, the town’s notorious home of gambling and vice.

But Club Ebony offered a different experience. Jones’s new club was large, designed to host the big bands of the 1940s, like the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra. Revelers dressed in khakis and pinstriped suits could buy bonded whisky and bootleg corn whisky, and men and women danced to jump blues and mingled on the ballroom floor.

“You didn’t have much socializing in homes,” said Sue Evans, who was married to King from 1958 to 1966, and lived in the back of the club after her mother, Ruby Edwards, bought it in 1958. Houses were small, she noted, and “families were large, so nobody went to someone’s home to sit down and be entertained at that time. The club became a social outlet.”

Venues on the national chitlin circuit included glitzy palaces in large cities like Indianapolis and Houston and glorified jukes in smaller towns. When a club wasn’t available, promoters rented halls; some shows were held in private homes. One-night-only live engagements fed the circuit ecosystem, as clubs, recording studios and record labels sprang up to both capitalize on and fuel the festivities.

The circuit arose from a need for self-sufficiency. Black musicians, promoters and audiences needed places where they were welcome and could be themselves. Even musicians in King’s band traveled with mess kits and canned goods for times they couldn’t find a restaurant to serve them.

Although some Black musicians, as Rush said, “crossed over” to white audiences “and crossed out” the Black clubs, performers were able to make a living in these venues when they weren’t welcome elsewhere. Club Ebony’s closure and deterioration represented a larger problem, according to Evans: the loss of those Black community spaces that once held it together.

“There’s no club open in the Delta anymore that could have music like that,” she said. “So much of our culture is going south, so to speak; it’s not there anymore. And this is a continuation of that culture.”

Since December 2021, the museum has raised and invested nearly a million dollars in electrical, plumbing, kitchen equipment, furniture and painting to bring the club up to modern codes and Americans With Disabilities Act compliance. Some features, like the tin ceiling tiles, are original.

The exterior sports a new pea-green paint job, color-matched to the historical record at least since Shepard took over. On a warm afternoon in early May, a crew was installing interpretive panels inside to provide visitors with the club’s back story. Museum staff compared their work to old photos to keep it historically correct.

In the 15 years since the museum acquired Club Ebony, music tourism has given Delta towns like Indianola hope for a future based in part on interest in their past. In front of the club stands a historical marker for the Mississippi Blues Trail, a network of more than 200 sites important to the evolution of the music and its culture, created in 2006.

“It’s important that Black-owned clubs be supported,” said Dr. William Ferris, a blues historian and author who spent summers in the ’60s traveling the Delta. “Just like Blacks owning their land and farming, it gives the independence and the stability to businessmen and families that is very important, and music is one way to do that.”

For young Black blues musicians today, like the 24-year-old Clarksdale, Miss., native Christone “Kingfish” Ingram — widely seen as an heir to King’s Delta blues crown — historic venues like Club Ebony are still places where they can stretch out away from the pressures of higher-profile gigs at festivals and theaters.

Like King before him, Ingram occasionally drops in to his own hometown clubs, like Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, where he’ll stick around for three or four sets, often ending in the early morning hours. Club Ebony, where he performed earlier in his career, will surely be on his itinerary again.

“Any time I’ve been there, I’ve always hung out with the O.G.s of the blues, guys like Mr. Rush and Kenny Neal, and absorb some history,” Ingram said. “It takes me back to when I first started, and I feel like it keeps me humble.”

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