Mike Reeves, who powered Atlanta’s music and restaurant scene, dies

Entrepreneur co-founded Cotton Club, Smith’s Olde Bar, Fox Bros. bbq
Michael Reeves co-founded the Cotton Club and Smith's Olde Bar with Dan Nolen, brought comedy to the Excelsior Mill and helped start two restaurant chains. Photo: courtesy Michael Reeves

Credit: Michael Reeves

Credit: Michael Reeves

Michael Reeves co-founded the Cotton Club and Smith's Olde Bar with Dan Nolen, brought comedy to the Excelsior Mill and helped start two restaurant chains. Photo: courtesy Michael Reeves

Mike Reeves loved music, food and people, and he created an entertainment empire that brought all of those loves together.

“Mike was just a very gregarious, very generous soul, a likeable person,” said singer-songwriter Kodac Harrison, who put out his first album, “Just a Disguise,” with Reeves as executive producer.

“He never met a stranger,” said Reeves’ business partner of 40 years Dan Nolen.

A broad, bearded bear of a man, Michael Reeves died in his sleep last week at his Cumming home, according to family. He and his wife Shelley had planned an Alaskan cruise to celebrate his 70th birthday this month.

“Now our whole family is just trying to put one foot in front of the other,” Shelley Reeves said.

A cause of death was not released.

Reeves and Nolen established clubs and restaurants that became gathering spots, helped feed Atlanta’s music ecosystem and launched many young bands.

“Any of the guys in Widespread Panic, they would say their trajectory started at the Cotton Club,” said blues rocker Tinsley Ellis, whose own career was boosted by performances at clubs run by Reeves and Nolen.

“He loved music and he had a real ear for talent,” said Ellis. “He also skewed young. Mike and Dan would always find those college bands that were on the cusp.”

Reeves went to high school in Fairburn and college at what was then West Georgia College — now the University of West Georgia — according to his Facebook page. While he was still an undergraduate, he ran a bar in McDonough called the Peanut Palace.

In the late 1970s, Reeves put on shows in a retrofitted factory on North Avenue that once manufactured packing material and was transformed into the Excelsior Mill, a pizza parlor and music venue complete with a Wurlitzer theatrical organ. It later became the Masquerade, a legendary venue for hard core, metal and new music.

A young Mike Reeves (left) served as executive producer on Kodac Harrison's first record, "Just a Disguise." Photo: courtesy Kodac Harrison

Credit: Kodac Harrison

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Credit: Kodac Harrison

Among the artists Reeves hosted was blues/R&B rocker William Lee Perryman, also known as Piano Red, who played the Excelsior four nights a week.

Reeves also created a venue in the Excelsior’s basement called the Comedy Shop, featuring Atlanta comedian Matt McCoy and comics from “all over” said McCoy. “I consider him the godfather of Atlanta comedy,” said McCoy, who also hosted a public access cable television live comedy show, produced by Reeves, called “Hump Night Live.”

“There were no comedy clubs here at all before that.”

In the 1970s, Reeves started Mellow Mushroom pizza with his brother Rocky, then sold out to open the Cotton Club in Midtown with Nolen, who had operated successful clubs in Birmingham and Jacksonville.

In 1989, Reeves and Nolen expanded their empire, buying the Point in Little Five Points.

In January 1991, a Georgia Tech student left a fraternity party and visited the Cotton Club in Midtown during a show, then drowned in a lake at Piedmont Park. The city of Atlanta revoked the liquor licenses for the Cotton Club and the Point, and the student’s family filed a lawsuit charging Nolen and Reeves with serving their 20-year-old son alcohol.

Nolen and Reeves countersued the city, charging that the Cotton Club had been made a scapegoat in the student’s death and that there was no evidence he had been served alcohol at the club.

Eventually, the pair sold both clubs and, in 1994, opened Smith’s Olde Bar on Piedmont Avenue, in the building that once housed the restaurant and cabaret Gene and Gabe’s.

Nolen credits their longevity to their tenacity. “We went hard in this business. If you’ve got quit in you, then you’re (sunk).”

Mike Reeves (left) enjoyed having lunch with the "old-timers" (such as, from the left, musicians Marvin Jackson and Jonny Hibbert and lighting expert Farrell Roberts) to tell war stories about Atlanta rock and roll. "We were planning to do it this week, we’re talking a long lunch," said blues rocker Tinsley Ellis, "and now Mike’s gone." Photo: courtesy Jonny Hibbert

Credit: Jonny Hibbert

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Credit: Jonny Hibbert

Smith’s hosted such stars as Lenny Kravitz and David Bowie, and up-and-coming bands with no track record. Nolen commented to his booking agent, “Kings of Leon? That has to be the worst band name I’ve ever heard,” when he programmed the young retro rockers for one of their early gigs in 2003. Twenty customers showed up.

A few years later Kings of Leon were playing Philips Arena and gave a shout-out to Smith’s Olde Bar.

Smith’s improved its pub food menu in 2004 with a one-day-a-week pop-up featuring barbecue from twins Jonathan and Justin Fox. A few years later the Fox brothers were serving their pulled pork and sliced brisket at Smith’s seven days a week.

In 2007, Nolen, Reeves and the Fox brothers teamed up to open a brick-and-mortar Fox Bros. restaurant on DeKalb Avenue in Candler Park. Now there is a catering facility on Ottley Drive, a partnership with the Terrapin Taproom at Truist Park, a store on the West Side, plans to open a Fox Bros. in Brookhaven and Fox ‘cue being served on Delta Air Lines flights.

What did Jonathan Fox learn from Mike Reeves, besides how to run a restaurant? “Loyalty,” he said. “He was fiercely loyal, and he would bend over backwards for us. He had a big heart.”

He might have also learned teamwork. “I’m a firm believer in ‘we,’” said Nolen. “I didn’t do it. Mike didn’t do it. We did it.”

The family plans a private service.