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-The Legendary Ash Grove-


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-String Band Music and The Ash Grove-
 
 



Las Vegas Blues News
Volume 1 No. 5
January 20th, 1997

The Legendary Ash Grove
By Larry Fuzzy Knight

Greetings from the Left Coast!  Im wishing you all a very Happy New Year filled with the best BLUES music that can enlighten your soul!

Ive got a real treat for you.  This months Club recommendation from Southern California has already secured its place in history as a musical landmark of great cultural importance.  In fact, the musical heritage of this club could fill many books about the musicians that performed there, the unbelievable musical heritage exposed before a public that never before had exposure to this ethnic experience, and the social and political changes taking place in history at that time.

On July 26th, 1996, Ed Pearl stepped upon the stage of his new clubs opening night and stood before a crowd of well wishers, blues fans and curiosity buffs.  In general, an audience with hope in their hearts that another moment of musical history would begin as it had once before in the past.

   
A BRIEF HISTORY

In 1958, Ed Pearl, a 21 year-old music enthusiast, opened a club in Los Angeles that became a Mecca for the emerging folk and rock musicians of the 1960s, and a focal point for the progressive cultural and political forces that shaped the times.  The original Ash Grove thrived for over 15 years, from 1958 to 1974.  A furniture factory and showroom on Melrose Avenue was converted into the club, (now the site of The Improv).  No place in the world offered better Blues or a wider variety of great Blues performers.

Muddy Waters sang and played at the Ash Grove, as did Lightnin Hopkins, many, many times.  So did James Cotton, The Rev. Gary Davis, Sleepy John Estes, Lowell Fulson, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Shakey Jake Horton, Son House, Howlin Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Albert King, Freddie King, Furry Lewis, Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, Magic Sam, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Shines, George Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Johnny Guitar Watson, Junior Wells, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams and Jimmy Witherspoon.  Many of these performers made this club their home.  The Ash Grove was the most important link between Black Blues tradition and the on-going rock revolution.  In fact, its had to imagine what rock music would have been like the last 25 years without its influence.

A new generation of Blues was making its presence felt before long, and a lot of new blues was born right on the Ash Groves stage.  Ry Cooder played his first-ever gigs there; so did Canned Heat, and Bernie Pearl (Eds younger brother), who has gone on to become a mainstay of the Southern California Blues scene.  In addition, The Ash Grove brought us Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, The Chambers Brothers, Hollywood Fats, Maria Muldaur, and numerous others

For 16 years, the performance standards and creative interplay of young and older musicians at the legendary Ash Grove created an ambiance that produced the pioneering sounds that transformed the world of popular music, and for an entire generation of music lovers and players.  These include Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Lenny Bruce, David Crosby, Phil Ochs, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, and countless others.  The Ash Grove was a magnet where cultures, politics and music merged; legitimizing the countrys unique multi-cultural heritage and giving voice to the political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s.

As the era developed, Ed Pearl became very involved with various political activities and often used the club to host political benefits for a variety of causes.  When the Vietnam War deepened, Pearl helped found the Peace & Freedom Party in 1967.  The Ash Grove produced multi-media events combining films, slides, photos, paintings and discussion, along with the relevant music in presenting issues of the time from around the country.  Ed was unabashed about his politics and was not afraid to say and present what he believed.  And it drew enemies.  The Ash Grove was first struck by fire on April 23, 1969, but reopened after benefits from many of the great regular performers.   Arson struck again on June 7, 1971 when a half-dozen men affiliated with the same group that later struck the Watergate invaded the club, causing minimal damage.  

The final fire was on November 11, 1973, and totally destroyed the club.  When Pearl reminisces about the Ash Grove its not only with sentimentality, but also with pride about the clubs accomplishments.  We dignified and popularized peoples cultures, developed musical standards among city musicians and brought much of it to the attention of Hollywoods recording and other industries.

   THE NEW ASH GROVE

 Based upon the ideal of the original club and drawing upon a new generation of musical innovators, the new 300 seat Ash Grove will showcase an extraordinary range of regional and ethnic music in an atmosphere of authenticity, collaboration and respect.  The Ash Groves intimate, elegant space and state-of-the-art sound system is designed to lend dignity to both audiences and artists.

 The Ash Grove of the 90s is not about nostalgia.  While old friends and heroes of traditional music and the 60s scene will perform, todays musical genres-Blues, Cajun, Jazz, Afro-Latin, World music, Tejano, roots rock, folk, hard rock, Bluegrass, Celtic, Gospel and others will be given a nurturing home to develop and grow.  Headed again by Ed Pearl, the Ash Grove has found a home on the famous Santa Monica Pier in the heart of this burgeoning new arts and entertainment community.


THE ASH GROVE. PROLOGUE
Dining and Conversation

I received a call from Ed after I had sent him a letter requesting an interview.  He invited me to come to the club and have dinner while we spoke.  Id heard rumors from people in the biz that Ed Pearl could be abrasive at times and could be headstrong and impatient.  If he didnt respect you, you could find yourself in an intimidating situation.  But there are always two sides to every coin.  He is also known as a person of great warmth, gentleness and courage.  He has a very large and human vision, and the tenacity to carry out his vision.  Here was a man with friendships and relationships with so many influential, visionary musicians and artists; its almost inconceivable to those of us lucky enough to meet a few of our musical heroes.  What a great legacy!

As I walked into the club, my first impression was that there had been quite an investment in setting the décor, stage and sound just right for the artists and audience.  There was also an upstairs level, which also provided excellent viewing and listening.  The soundboard was set up like the cockpit of a 747 jumbo jet, toward the rear of the room, and the acoustics have been finely tuned to Carnegie Hall standards.  Beautiful!

There was an air of casualness, warmth and comfort as I waited for Ed to come down from the office.  He seemed quite relaxed and in good spirits.  Speaking of Spirit, we had something in common.  Ed is the uncle of Randy California, star of the legendary band Spirit, of which I was a member from 1970 to 1980.  We spoke casually for a few minutes, and then went into the kitchen to get dinner; prepared every evening for all the employees.  We found a table in full view of the stage and proceeded to eat and talk.

LFK: What does one do for 23 years while waiting to re-open the Ash Grove?

EP:  Ive remained active by producing many different sorts of concerts and events.  Ive been very involved with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and have presented many of their performances.  Ive staged many concerts by great Latin American musicians, whove had little exposure here, some of whom have been repressed by regimes in their own countries for their politics.  Ive helped organize funds and consciousness raisers for a wide variety of causes, from protesting nuclear war and US involvement with dictators in Central America to advancing Civil Rights and Liberties, including electoral politics.  For eight years I also hosted a radio show on Pacifica, appropriately named Up From The Ash Grove.  I produced Folk and Blues Festivals at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, among other venues.  Through the years Ive thought about reopening the club, but the right situation hasnt developed.

LFK: Why did you settle on the Pier?

EP:  A long time friend, Denny Zane, became mayor of Santa Monica.  On and off, Ive lived in the area since 1968, so felt comfortable checking out locations with him, and quickly chose the Pier.  Theres a lot of artistic activity in the area, plus entertainment and dining everywhere.  I never made any money at the old Ash Grove, so this time Ive aligned myself with business partners and management people to run the business side of things.  Ill handle the artistic side.

 While we sat eating and talking, various employees would walk by.  Whether they were waitresses, reception desk personnel, cooks, managers or soundman, Ed would stop the interview and tell me a little bit about the background of each.  He knows them all and it felt a bit like a family atmosphere.  By the way, there is also a large dance floor.

 LFK:  There seems to be a renewal of interest in the Blues and Rhythm & Blues music of the past throughout the Country.  Would you agree?

EP:  Well, the real Blues is disappearing and, for the most part, wont survive in its original forms.  There are few Black Country blues players or singers coming out of the rural areas anymore.  The survivors are aging and will soon be gone.  Younger black people arent so interested in carrying on the old traditions, with the exception of artists here and there, like a Keb Mo.  Besides, conditions are different, times are different, and most probably, a new form of blues, maybe rap, maybe both or something else will provide new standards, more meaningful to the community and its artists.

LFK:  Do you think venues like the House of Blues help perpetuate the Blues genre?

EP:  Unfortunately, these clubs are corporate businesses, theme parks run by rich, white businessmen in league with record companies and managers, many of whom are guided strictly by bottom line.  I see little presenting of traditional or roots music programs, or exposure for beginning and talented artists, locally or regionally.  Often, the acoustics and staging are very poor and sometimes quite uncomfortable, as well.  Quite disappointing!

LFK:  Whats the goal of the new Ash Grove?

EP:  First and foremost is keeping a high artistic standard.  I want to provide meaningful musical programs for the community.  Id like, eventually, to put on music events for older people and children here during daytime hours.  And I have a commitment to talented, unknown musicians of every ethnicity.  They will be given that opportunity. 

 Our conversation went on for an hour and a half.  Joining us for her birthday celebration were Eds niece and her friends.  Eventually, Bernie Pearl and Harmonica Fats arrived and began to set the stage for the show that night.  It was like family night at the club.  The customers started to arrive, and everyone was in a great mood.  Ed got up from the table, thanked me for the interview and began to greet guests as the wandered in for seating.  The music was soon to start.  The Ash Grove is open once again!
 




From the program for the 30 Year Reunion Celebration at the Wiltern Theater June 1988
Melrose Avenue Home of the Blues
by Dr. Demento
While Beale street may be the legendary home of the blues, from 1958 to 1973 the real home of the blues was The Ash Grove at 8162 Melrose Avenue, right here in Los Angeles. No place in the whole world offered better blues, or a wider variety of great blues performers. 

Muddy Waters sang and played at The Ash Grove, so did Lightnin' Hopkins, many, many times. So did James Cotton, the Rev. Gary Davis, Sleepy John Estes, Lowell Fulson, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Shakey Jake Hor-ton, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt,Skip James, Albert King, Freddy King, Furry Lewis,Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, Magic Sam, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, Memphis Slim, Long Gone Miles, Johnny Otis, Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Shines,George Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Junior Wells, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Robert Pete Williams, and Jimmy Witherspoon. 

I know - I saw and heard them all, and many more, singing the blues on The Ash Grove staga (That was when I was just plain Barry Hansen, studying folk music at UCLA and writing for The Little Sandy Review. before I became possessed by Dementia and began broadcasting mad music and crazy comedy. The Ash Grove was like a second home even after that happenedone of the last shows at the original club was an evening of Dementia.) 

Mick Jagger came to The Ash Grove too, and Linda Ronstadt, and hundreds more young performers who would go on to shape the rock and pop music of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's.Club owner Ed Pearl's devotion to the blues combined with the club's location near the heart of the West coast music industry to make The Ash Grove the most impor-rant link between Black blues tradition and the ongoing rock revolution. It's hard to imagine what rock musicwould have been like in the past twenty-five years without the blues influence. 

A new generation of blues was making its presence felt before long... and a lot of that new blues was born right on The Ash Grove's staga Ry Cooder played his first-ever gig there; so did Canned Heat, and Ed's brother Bernie Pearl, who would go on to become the main-stay of the Southern Cali-fornia blues scene in the 1980's. In additiop, The Ash Grove brought us Taj Mahal (who performed there countless times, before and after he became famous) the Chambers Brothers (likewise), Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Charlie Musselwhite, and numerous others. 

Today's Southern California blues is livelier than just about anyone expected a few short years ago... but it could sure use a new home, a place with comfortable seating and a great sound system, a place where blues (and reggae, and jazz, and country, and folk, and world music of every kind) could forge new links to the popular music revolutions of the 1990's and beyond... a place where the world could beat a path to the door of enlightenment, and learn from the art and soul of people like Willie Dixon, "Cleanhead" Vinson, Cash McCall, Mickey Champion, Papa John Creach, and Harmonica Fats (most of whom were also heard at the original Ash Grove), plus other great talents yet to be discovered. 

This weekend's concerts offer just a tiny sampling of what The Ash Grove could mean to Southern California and the world in the future. 

The Ash Grove of the 1960's was the high point of my musical experience thus far. . . The Ash Grove of the future should be even better! 
 


From the program for the 30 Year Reunion Celebration at the Wiltern Theater June 1988

String Band Music and The Ash Grove
by Phil Boroff

The story of The Ash Grove and string band music is really the story of a turning point in the survival of an American musical tradition. It was a passing of the baton, not only to the next generation, but more significantly, from the last surviving great rural artists to a large, inter-ested urban audience, and more than a few serious urban players. 

String band music was, in its most obvious sense, music performed by ensembles consisting essentially of stringed instruments, such as fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and occasionally, a bass. More importantly, how-ever, it was also a living embodiment of the melting pot theory upon which this country was founded. At first combining English and Irish fiddle and vocal music with the banjo which came from Africa, and later adding the mandolin and guitar and evolving into a full band, these bands were a composite musical profile of all people that created them. 

There were many dozens of string bands in this country throughout the South in the first thirty years of this century. They created and recorded pretty extensively. Ultimately, most of it died oft or evolved into Bluegrass, a more high-powered form of string band music. By the early 50's, it was pretty much a dead music, surviving only in a few bands still in the hills, playing for small commun-ity functions. 
 

We all might never have heard any of it had it not been for the great folk music wave which swept it up to our doorstep in the early 60's. As it happened, a Bluegrass band from the urban East coast went to North Carolina and discovered and recorded Clarence Ashley and his neighbors Fred Price, Clint Howard, and of course Doc Watson. 

Their first performances on the West Coast were at The Ash Grove, and the rest is history. At first, we were all just stunned by Doc's prowess as a guitarist, and by the warmth and charm of his singing. In time, however, city audiences began to notice little things about the band. Fred Price's fiddle playing was understated, never cliche', and had an almost covert lilt to it. Clint's vocals were evocative and his guitar, though simple, was elegant and always ensemble conscious. Finally, Clarence Ashley was the perfect ballad singer, raconteur and banjo player. 

To sum up, we, the city audiences, gradually became aware that this band was in possession of a tradition and music of which we had known nothing, and yet were somehow a part of just by being Americans. We began to research that tra-dition and found a wealth of music recorded on forgot-ten but reissued 78's. 

Through it all, The Ash Grove, with its policy of em-phasis on tradition-based music, was really the only place to be. It was there that city players got to hear for the first time Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, The Kentucky Colonels, and many others. Just as important, it was the arena in which we, ourselves, got to take lessons with these artists and try our own performing skills. 

The biggest names to emerge from The Ash Grove country music experience would be Ry Cooder, Richard Greene, David Lindley, and of course, Clarence White, who went from being the greatest all-time Bluegrass guitarist to lead guitarist for The Byrds. 

It was my greatest musical good fortune to have been at The Ash Grove in the 60's, to have studied with Clar-ence White and others, and to have been in a musical environment with standards other than the pop world. I have come to love many musics other than what I heard at The Ash Grove, but none more deeply. 

At this hour, on the eve of the rebirth of The Ash Grove, the need for an alternative to the whole planet rock & rol-ling to the big beat America sound is greater than ever. How much can we hope for, how high is up?

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