It’s almost 10 O’clock, on a Monday night, and the street outside is quiet. But inside the door, which is just a little hole in the wall, life is teeming.
Like some kind of forgotten anthill or left over from the golden age of the Big Easy the legendary blues club, Babe’s and Ricky’s Inn, on Leimert Boulevard, still flourishes underground.
Like a queen with a bright purple beret of a crown, founder Laura Gross, 88, sits just inside the door adjusting the cover charge from $8 to $10 as she runs out of change. For 44 years, and two locations and the threat of bankruptcy, Gross has reigned over Babe’s and Ricky’s with an iron rule.
The mirrors along the back wall make the room seem bigger and fuller than it really is. Not that it isn’t full, people are lined up against the bar and almost every seat is taken. The crowd is a mix of college students looking for an old-school experience and middle aged patrons for whom this is probably a regular hangout.
The big red pleather booths are occupied by people just starting to feel the effects of their alcoholic beverages.
On stage, several bands play in succession. They’re good, but not what you’d expect for a blues club where legends like B.B King used to perform. Amateurs and greats alike still play here.
The musicians tonight are mostly young white males, but they’ve got soul. Some are eccentric, following in the modern “emo” style of young bands they are dressed in black, or skinny jeans, with hair just covering their eyes having perfectly mastered the look of socially competent “geek“, meanwhile one older artist expresses himself in a bright red sequined scarf.
There is a list by the door where musically talented club-goers can sign up to play the instrument of their choice.
A college student in a black and white striped shirt steps onto the stage for a turn on the drums. He is announced as a recently freed jailbird, the announcer enjoys the joke more than the crowd.
The drummer plays with the attitude of an entertainer, pulling faces, bopping to the music. It’s clear he’s played for crowds before and enjoys it. Every time he hits the drum the light reflected in it jumps to the rhythm of the music.
The other college students are cheering for him, whistling. Some are his friends, some are feeling their drinks. He’s good though, the job offers he gets when he steps down are proof of that.
Around 11p.m. dinner is served. From the back of the club, no announcement can be heard but word spreads and a lazy S-shaped line is formed from the front to the back.
You can serve yourself from dishes of collard greens, black-eyed peas, and potato salad, but two strict looking women, one of them Laura Gross, serve only one slice of hot link sausage, one piece of fried chicken, and one fried corn biscuit per person. It’s Jam Night so the meal comes with your cover charge. The regular menu has only three options, chicken wings, hot links, and fried fish.
You can order drinks all night, you may not get exactly what you ordered, but you’ll drink it anyway. The food is taken back to tables decorated with plastic white doilies and red, white and blue flowers.
The flowers match the dark red walls, covered with old photos and posters, and the blue Christmas lights, and the partly deflated red, white and blue, balloons that look like they’ve been left behind from some 4th of July celebration a decade ago. Somehow, it just escapes being tacky.
From the corner of the middle wall, an old Central Avenue street sign juts out, reminding customers of the club’s first location. You know this place has history, even if you don’t know it.
As people finish eating they slowly trickle out. They come as much for the food as the atmosphere and music. Gross has something to say to everyone. She tells some college girls not to get fat and she tells the jailbird drummer to put on some weight.
It’s just about midnight and Babe’s and Ricky’s Inn is dying down, strange for a Los Angeles night club, but maybe not so strange for a bustling blues club left over from the 60s.