The Blues, Alive and Well in a South Central L.A. Garage
Blues Workshop Founder Franklin Bell. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)
On a sun-baked residential street in South Central L.A., you hear the constant ebb and flow of jets cruising in line toward Los Angeles International Airport. Unless you’re in Franklin Bell’s garage, where you hear the blues.
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 dressed 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.
“We play R&B, we play a lot of pop music, but basically we go with the blues,” explains Bell. “That’s what people look for when they come to the Workshop. 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 his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1968. He ran a Chevron 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 passed. His eyesight was failing, “and I was getting tired of the travel, hotel, motel, and carrying them drums,” says Bell. He hit on the idea of setting up shop in the garage.
As the players onstage dig in, finding and changing grooves, trading fours and eights, 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 every 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 in the garage.
“The average age, you’re talking about 65. Average!” exclaims Bell. “So that means, we got people 75, 85, even 90 in the audience every Sunday. But young? Once in a while, maybe someone in their 50s, maybe under 50. Very few.”
Lester Lands is a guitarist and vocalist from Baton Rouge who cut his teeth on the southern gospel circuit. Lands looks about half of his 62 years.
“If you stop and think about it, the blues is for people that age, 60 and over,” Lands says. “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."
Workshop audience regular Betty Madison is a beautiful woman with a Lena Horne smile, another Bayou State transplant.
“I’m originally from Louisiana but I’ve been here since 1942,” she says. “I’m 84.” Eighty-four? Watching her work the dance floor, this is astonishing news.
“I’m here every Sunday,” Madison says. “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 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, who left Shreveport, Louisiana for the City of Angels in 1965.
“[I] graduated from high school,” Lee says. “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.
“I met Bell in the early ‘80s when he was playing in a band. Then he got this place going. I think it’s fantastic. It’s a great place for the neighborhood. Keeps the blues alive, right here in South Central.”
The relocated Southerners brought more than just regional music. “Blues and food,” Bell gushes. “We got something to eat! Got to have some food to go along with the blues.”
Supper is the handiwork of a number of Bell supporters who lend their culinary skills. Bell’s cousin Alice Cabile is among them. And what’s on the menu?
“Spaghetti and beans, a variety of salads, cake and pie,” Cabile says. “We have one lady that makes the bomb banana pudding. Chicken, pig feet, meatloaf, fish, hushpuppies, coleslaw. It’s always great.”
The buffet table is a mighty ritual at the Workshop, and Lester Lands is called upon to offer grace from the bandstand.
“Right now they telling me that some food is about to be served," Lands says. "We don’t wanna offend nobody but we give thanks to the Lord and savior Jesus Christ here. Now, let’s bow our heads … Father God in the name of Jesus we come to you right now thanking you for another beautiful day. We thank you for the Workshop, Lord.”
Post blessing, Lands explains that everyone is welcome in the garage. “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. 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,” Alexander 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 playing onstage in Tijuana. But this scene, he says, is a far cry from that.
“Here and there is somebody screaming, which is normal, you know, but nothing to scare you away,” says Ibarra with a chuckle. “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,” says Bell. “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.
This article was originally published on Oct. 10, 2015.