It is a Friday or Saturday night sometime between 1995 and 2005. I’m driving into Vancouver from the burbs out in Richmond, BC. It is raining out. I cross over the Granville Street Bridge, pass the Cecil Hotel and there it is with the neon sign with the saxophone on the corner of Drake and Granville, the 3 story building that dates back to the 1880s, the home of the blues in Vancouver for many years, The Yale Hotel.
I drive a little further up Granville Avenue. I can see the run down shops to my left and the second hand bookstores. Ahead of me is the movie theatre area that runs to West Georgia Street. The many neon signs are reflected on the wet pavement. I make a right turn and then another right turn and start heading in the direction I just came from. Off to one side of me I can see a line-up outside of some huge nightclub that caters to people in their twenties. The name of the nightclub escapes me. Parking is at a premium in this area on a weekend night.
I park my car underneath the Granville Street Bridge or on Pacific Boulevard. It isn’t exactly a well- lit area. I wait for a break in the traffic on Pacific Boulevard and run across the street when the chance comes along. There is a curved pedestrian walkway that leads up to Granville Street that I take. I pass the Cecil Hotel that is renowned for its strippers. As I near the front door to the Yale I peak in the front windows and can see some folks playing pool. A few people, maybe street people, are milling about the entranceway. The outdoor hotdog stand that is usually on the corner is just setting up for business.
Just inside the front door of The Yale is a small coat check room with a thin counter. Most people keep their coats with them if they are wearing one. An older gal behind the counter collects the cover charge. I walk up a few steps. I can see the stage at the far end of the room. It is about 7:30 p.m. and the joint is just starting to fill up. The carpet on the floor is well worn. The walls are made of brick. Off to the right is the bar seating area with about 20 stools. These are some of the choicest seats in the house. The service bar wraps around and faces the area where the two pool tables are. Behind the pool tables, on the brick wall, are some photographs of musicians who have played at The Yale in the past. There is a small area by the bar with a metal railing where the waitresses pick up their drinks.
The Yale drew people from all kinds of walks of life. On any given weekend night you might see older guys with pony tails who still had a bit of the 1960s in them, middle aged suburbanites or tourists out for a night on the town, the occasional pimp, businessmen in suits who hadn’t gone home to change into more casual clothes, some shuckers and jivers, old friends of the band that was playing that night, every now and then a few bikers, university kids who had had a few brewskies at the nearby Cecil Hotel as warm-up to the evening, mysterious looking guys in raincoats, gals in their forties and older who still had it going on, and younger couples on date night. To some well to do yuppie types this joint might be considered as “slumming”.
The Yale was also a great singles bar, particularly if you were getting up there in years. The first gal I went out with after splitting up with my ex was an Italian lady I met at the Yale. It was a short lived relationship that I just wasn’t ready for after 14 years of marriage. I hope her life has gone well.
Every once in a while a waitress would try and short change me. It would take me more than a few beers not to be able to count and I never had more than a few beers. In a way, I kind of found it funny that they would try that on me. My guess is I didn’t catch them every time. The smoking ban came in and the ashtrays were removed and for a year or two the staff would look the other way if you lit up a smoke. I am sure somebody along the way picked up a beer bottle with a few wet butts in it and gagged.
By around 9:00 p.m. the joint would be close to full with a line-up outside waiting to get in. Up on the stage the band for the night would be tuning up their instruments. There was a fair amount of noise in the room with people talking, glasses clinking, and some piped in blues music. A roadie or two might be seen scurrying around the stage doing last minute sound checks. The lighting guy was ready to go.
I think the stage had a curtain but I don’t remember ever seeing it. The band for the night would walk out on the stage, make sure their instruments were tuned. This was usually about 10-15 minutes before they started playing. At around 9:15 or 9:30 the music started. Usually there wasn’t any introduction. The music just began blasting. Almost always the first tune was kind of peppy to get the crowd in the mood. Those that were more confident about their dancing skills and others that couldn’t give a shit about those skills were often the first on the dance floor. If you were looking at picking someone up it was a good idea to make an early move. If you were a single guy you probably had the place pretty well scoped out way before the music started.
|Rocking the joint.|
So what is this thing called “rhythm and blues”? If the “blues” means sadness it hardly ever was reflected in the music played at The Yale. It was far more like party time.
If you came of age like I did in the 1960s, you were aware of the folkie years and coffee houses and hippie joints where people like B.B. King played. Even if you knew very little about R & B you had probably heard the song “The Thrill Has Gone”. If you were a little more curious you might have listened to 33-1/3 albums by John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, or Willie Dixon. You might be familiar with Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, or Taj Mahal. You might have heard something by Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Around 1980 in Vancouver there were two local bands that created a local following and got some exposure across Canada and the US. Both bands played at a small club in Gastown called the Spinning Wheel. One of the groups was Doug And The Slugs (Doug Bennett had a unique voice and died way too young) and the other group was a band called Powder Blues headed by Tom Lavin. His brother Jack was also in the band along with a cool saxophone player, David Woodward, who had previously been with The Downchild Blues Band. Probably more than anyone else, the Powder Blues created a wider interest in the blues in Vancouver.
|Powder Blues Band early years.|
If you followed the British invasion back in the 1960s at all you knew that bands like the Rolling Stones were heavily influenced by imported blues music records from the US. At one time Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Long John Baldry played in the same blues band in the UK.
It is interesting to note that many who have played The Yale over the years had settled in Vancouver after growing up and living in other places. Tom Lavin and his brother grew up in Chicago. Jim Byrnes came from the St. Louis, Missouri area. Long John Baldry was from the UK. I have to wonder if they still see Vancouver as the same city they discovered many years ago. That they decided to call Vancouver their home must have a lot to do with the friends they have met over the years. I don’t think they watch The Real Housewives of Vancouver and I don’t think they are probably totally thrilled when they see another hi-rise condo being built.
When you think about it, most of those who play R & B are in their 50s and 60s. You hardly ever see a younger guy up on the stage. I think R& B is kind of like Viagra to a lot of them. Most of these musicians like jazz but probably find it too sedate. Rock and roll kind of died a long time ago and a lot of it was kind of saccharine. Playing R & B shows that you have made a long time commitment to a music that can’t be learned in 5 minutes. It also shows that you still have some shit disturber in you. You have seen the good and the bad times and R & B was always about the good times.
Over a period of about 10 years, I must have been in The Yale 50 times. I saw Brickhouse, Russell Jackson, Widemouth Mason, Doc Fingers, Long John Baldry, Jim Byrnes, Powder Blues, Gerry Doucette, and many others. I was never ever disappointed.
|The late Long John Baldry|
The dance floor has filled up. Occasionally somebody will go bouncing into a nearby table. The place is packed with people standing on the emergency exit steps and it is standing room only. If you were going to make your move it is now probably too late unless you are standing beside some good looking gal. A young lady in a long dress wanders through the place selling roses. Buying some flowers for some gal you had just met moments before might just be a tad on the cheesy side.
I used to have a routine at The Yale. I drank a maximum of 3 beers (usually Heinekens) and about an hour before I planned to leave I would order a coffee. One night I went out and got into my car for the trip home. I rounded a corner and lo and behold I was faced with a police roadblock. When it was my turn to answer some questions a women cop said to me “Have you got decals for this rig?” I thought for sure I was going to have to blow into breathalyser. It turned out that I hadn’t put the decal on my back plate. I got out of the car and started fumbling with the backing on the decal. It was raining out and the woman cop came over and gave me a rag to dry off the area where the decal was supposed to go. I lucked out that night.
The last time I was at The Yale was about 4 years ago. The billing for the night was Jim Byrnes and Bill Henderson and Chilliwack. I went with my girlfriend Linda and my son Dean. Up ahead of us in the line-up was Jack McIlhargey, the former Canuck player and coach. The Yale was a popular spot for the famous and near famous. One night a gal I danced with claimed to be professional Canadian golfer Sandra Post. It was great evening with Linda and Dean and the joint rocked. I was very glad to expose some more people to the unique place that the Yale was.
|Bill Henderson and Chilliwack|
Nobody ever got rich playing the Yale. Rich or not, a lot of the musicians had big hearts. A lot of fund raising was done over the years at The Yale for good causes. When I was doing a bit of research on this story I went through some videos on YouTube. One of the videos had Dave Woodward on it. He was one cool looking guy back in the day with his head bobbing when he wasn’t playing his sax. He spent 20 years with Powder Blues and 10 years before that with The Downchild Blues Band. For the past several years he has been working with senile older folks and involving them in music. The dude seems like a class act.
I highly recommend looking at Youtube videos of the great musicians who played at The Yale. It will bring back a lot of good memories if you ever happened to stumble into The Yale.
I left Vancouver for Vancouver Island several years ago. About 4 years ago we went a club in Nanaimo called The Queens. The joint reminded me a lot about The Yale. The Queens Hotel dates back to the 1890s. In all the dives and nightclubs I have been to over the years, this particular night was one of the best. Buckwheat Zydeco was the entertainment for the evening and the place shook. Our seats were just a few feet away from the band. I got to shake hands with Buckwheat (Stan Dural) as he left the stage after their last song. As he would say….”It don’t get much better then dat!”
Last Christmas Linda bought me guitar lessons for Christmas. I already had a guitar that my son had let me have that wasn’t being used. My guitar teacher’s name is Doug Thring. Doug is a pretty laid back type. After my first lesson Linda asked Doug if he could find an acoustic guitar at a reasonable price. He did just that. We see Doug about once a week for an hour and there are always a few laughs. That G Major is a bitch! I don’t have big expectations. I don’t think I will ever be on any stage but I will learn how to play a few tunes….”Scotch and soda, mud in your eye, baby do I feel high”?
The Yale closed on November 20th, 2011. I have no idea when the new Yale Hotel is supposed to open. As I understand it a deal was cut where the old Yale would be updated and incorporated into a new condo complex.
I’m no R & B expert, but I actually do know how to walk my dog. I will close this story with a song recommendation for people who like the blues. Look it up on YouTube. It is the blues version of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five by Jimmy Johnson……
“Right now ladies and gents we’re going to take 5 so we can stay alive.
We might take 10 but we’ll be back again.
We might take 20 but when we come back we’re going to play a plenty.
We’re not going to take 30 because that would be kind of dirty.
So if you want to be somebody, get yourself another beer and stay here.
Don’t be a clown and go to town or be a square and walk out and go somewhere.”
One last note…I used to make a lot of homemade CD’s that had themes to them. If I was doing something on bluesy stuff I would often run the following 3 tunes back to back.
#1 Somewhere Down The Crazy River- Robbie Robertson…”I followed the song of a jukebox coming from up the levee.”
#2 Blue Bayou-Roy Orbsison…”I feel so bad, I’ve got a worried mind…”
#3 Blues In The Night-Peggy Lee…”From Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe…”
I was in Vancouver a few days ago and took the following photo of The Yale. The restoration is way behind schedule. I had a brief look inside and it looks like the place has been gutted. A security guy told me I couldn't come in. He also told me that he thought it was a waste of time rebuilding the place and if it was up to him he would have levelled the building. The Yale was built in the 1890's. Vancouver has very few buildings that old. It is well worth restoring as far as I'm concerned.