Venerable blues club and the family that built it featured in documentary film.
It’s not even 10 p.m. and they’re already dancing at the Northside.
As drummer and singer Larry Griffith smacks the snare and launches into the suggestive, grinding “I Want To Be Your Agent,” a woman in multi-colored hair happily twists on the dance floor while a group of frat boys enter the club, their hands in the air, shouting “Yo!”
This is a Sunday night at the Northside Tavern, Atlanta’s scruffiest blues bar, a place that, despite such adversities as death and development, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
In this sequence, Mr. Natural goes to the empty desert to meditate. While he is deep in months-long contemplation, a city grows up around him, and a cop tells him he has to get out of the way.
Similarly, the Northside Tavern was once an island of musical joy amid the empty warehouses, quiet factories and abandoned industrial facilities of Howell Mill. It was a bleak environment and mothers told their children to stay away.
Then, in the new century, came the invention of “West Midtown” and the infusion of $1.5 billion in development, and 1.3 million square feet of retail, housing and office space. Restaurants, hotels, condos, duckpin bowling, galleries, coffee shops, office buildings and yuppies proliferated. Today the Northside Tavern is a tiny cinderblock chunk of the past, in a canyon surrounded by glass towers.
“It’s unbelievable the way it looks now,” said eminent Atlanta guitarist Bill Sheffield, who performed at the Northside early in its life. “It’s like this little pimple in the middle of all these giant buildings.”
In addition to the pressures of development, the Northside Tavern has faced other threats, including the deaths of two owners and the neutron bomb called COVID-19.
Yet, the Northside lives on. This year the tavern is the subject of a documentary film celebrating its half century in business, though it’s really been longer than that. The venue was born in the 1930s as a gas station, then became a diner in the 1940s and a juke joint with pool tables in the 1960s.
The regulars were blue collar mill workers and fans of short-track racing at the nearby Peach Bowl Speedway. The drink of choice was Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Sometime in the late ‘60s, Butler Webb, an entrepreneur whose day job was tracking real estate records in the Fulton County tax commissioner’s office, bought the little building with a friend. Webb assumed control in 1972. At the time, the bar occasionally had live music but most of the tunes came from the jukebox.
It was Ellyn’s loving, indefatigable effort that turned the Northside into one of Atlanta’s most durable, iconic music venues with bands seven nights a week,and it is Ellyn Webb who is celebrated in “Northside Tavern: The Mostly True Account of the Golden Age of Atlanta’s Most Exquisite Blues Dive.”
The documentary premieres at the Plaza Theatre on Dec. 13, and it’s already sold out. Tickets are still available for a follow-up screening at the Plaza on Dec. 19, and more screenings are planned for 2023.
Created by Atlanta-based filmmaker Hal Jacobs, the documentary serves as a primer on Atlanta blues, going back to Blind Willie McTell. There are interviews with such notables as Grant Green Jr. and Oliver Wood and lively footage of performances by dozens of musicians — a deep-in-the-zone Sean Costello and an unhinged Donnie McCormick (who accompanied himself by beating on a chicken coop).
Jacobs spent a year interviewing more than 50 musicians and staff for the film. About the Northside, he said in an email, “Little music clubs where generations mix and pass down traditions may be more common in cities like New Orleans, Nashville, New York and Boston. But how many are in Atlanta? Maybe once upon a time on Auburn Ave and a few nightclubs near the West End. But from the 1990s, thanks to Ellyn Webb and Mudcat, Northside was the place where both old and young, Black and white, flourished.”
Mudcat refers to one-time busker Danny “Mudcat” Dudeck, now a fixture in the local blues scene. In the early ‘90s, Webb heard Dudeck playing at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack and invited him and a collaborator to come and play at her club.
“I don’t remember what she offered us but it was more than we were making playing on the streets,” Dudeck said recently.
Mudcat brought his own following to the Northside, and then went in search of other acts to fill out the week, focusing on the older generation that he revered.
“I was finding out that some of these people I was reading about on the backs of these albums covers, their contemporaries were around,” he said.
Dudeck sought outcountry bluesman Frank Edwards and pianist Eddie Tigner and brought them to Webb’s attention. At Underground Atlanta he saw Beverly “Guitar” Watkins and Adolphus Bell playing for tips. “I didn’t understand why these people weren’t playing out; nobody was hiring them. It didn’t make any sense to me.”
Bringing these older artists to the Northside helped introduce white college kids to African American blues originators and was an education for the young white blues players who shared the stage.
Dudeck also connected older artists with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a non-profit that provides rent and health-care assistance to elderly musicians. In addition, Dudeck and the Northside operated their own relief activities, raising money to help strapped musicians through the yearly Chicken Raid and Giving it Back festivals.
“That was a great place for the older musician and the upcoming newer musician,” said Albert White, 80, who used to tour the country playing backup for his uncle, Willie Lee Perryman, also known as Piano Red. “Ellyn made it her part to make sure the Atlanta musicians would have a place to show some of their talent.”
There are other blues bars in Atlanta, from Fat Matt’s to the reigning king, Blind Willie’s, in Virginia Highland, but few have Northside’s wild flavor.
“We started King Johnson out of the Northside,” said roots music guitarist and singer Wood. “That’s where we found our drummer.”
Now Wood, the front man of the Wood Brothers, plays 2,800-seat theaters, but still looks back fondly on “homecomings” at the Northside, when King Johnson would come back from a tour. “That was the thing we looked forward to the most. Our friends would be there and they would be dancing, and we had to move all tables out and all the chairs out to make room for the melee.”
The Northside, said Stephen Talkovich, “gave us the freedom to play the blues and the ability to hang around with great musicians, like Eddie Tigner.” Talkovich spoke while enjoying a few tacos at La Fonda Latina, across the street from the Northside. Later that evening he would go onstage with his band, Uncle Sugar.
Resplendent in a Carnaby Street-style paisley shirt, Talkovich and his colleague Larry Griffith wore matching pork pie hats and reminisced about Ellyn Webb.
The club, they said, was a labor of love for Ellyn, who would occasionally supplement the musician’s take with money from her day job as a bookkeeper.
“I asked a thousand people what I should do to improve it, and they said do not change a thing,” he said.
Webb followed their advice, except in a few areas. He kept the burglar bars, the neon, the blues portraits behind the stage, the black-painted interior and the PBRs, but he has fixed the roof, installed better HVAC equipment, upgraded the sound system and improved the women’s bathroom, which once had an “emergency toilet” out in the open. “Apparently it was well-used,” said Jacobs.
As Griffith sang “Sweet Home Chicago,” (in honor of some visitors from out of town), patron Kathryn King swayed in the club’s dark interior and joked about the improvements. “Tommy has ruined everything,” she teased. “Who the hell would put a door on the stall in the women’s bathroom? And why isn’t there any water on the floor out here? There used to be buckets everywhere.”
Tommy Webb also assented to the city’s ban on smoking, which he said has made the club more pleasant. “You couldn’t go in there without going home and going straight to the washing machine and taking your clothes off.”
Before he helped create the Star Metals mixed-use behemoth that dwarfs the Northside, Chris Faussemagne, founder of the Westbridge commercial real estate development company, consulted with Ellyn Webb, and told her what he was up to.
“To me, what makes this neighborhood great is the Northside,” he told her. “There’s going to be people approaching you who are going to want to buy this thing. Please don’t sell it.”
Tommy Webb is unfazed by the growth of West Midtown. “For every new apartment or condo complex that goes up, that’s 400 new customers.”
It helps that Webb and his siblings own the building, which his father bought for $60,000. (”He overpaid.”)
What propelled Jacobs to make the documentary was the sense that a place such as the Northside Tavern plays a critical role in the cultural and musical life of a community; that it needs recognition; and that it is a fragile ecosystem, easily lost.
“When the glass-fronted buildings started going up, I thought it was the beginning of the end of the world,” said Griffith. He was pleasantly surprised to see that the world didn’t end.
“Bless its heart, some of the last soul of the city is right there,” said guitarist Sheffield. “It shocks me that it stays there. I hope it does. I’d like to see it last my lifetime, but who knows.”
“Northside Tavern: The Mostly True Account of the Golden Age of Atlanta’s Most Exquisite Blues Dive.” A documentary film by Hal Jacobs, 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 13; sold out. 6:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 19, $15. Plaza Theater, 1049 Ponce De Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta. For tickets go to hjacobscreative.com.
The Northside Tavern. Live music nightly. No cover weeknights; $10 cover after 9:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; 1058 Howell Mill Road N.W, Atlanta. 404-874-8745; northsidetavern.com