How R.L.'s Blues Palace #2 Survived Dallas' Blues-Club Crash
Danny Fulgencio R.L. Griffin (left) has been operating blues clubs in South Dallas since the '80s.
R.L. Griffin is standing outside his Blues Palace, a squat beige building a few tattered blocks from Fair Park. A sign in the parking lot touts "Blues Palace II: Live Entertainment," and without it there would be no way to tell from the street what you might find inside, unless you noticed the walls vibrating.
Griffin is talking to his parking attendant and a security guard. They're eyeing a cluster of people loitering outside a strip mall across the street who are standing around open car trunks and sitting in lawn chairs, illuminated by the strip-mall's light posts. The Blues Palace doesn't allow anyone under 25, so most of those kids couldn't come in even if they wanted, but they're watching them anyway. "When you're dealing with older people, you're usually dealing with people who know how to act," Griffin says.
He rents that strip mall's parking lot on weekend nights, when the traffic to the Blues Palace gets so heavy he needs somewhere besides his own lot to put cars. But he's not putting any over there tonight. He and his security don't like the looks of the scene. The kids look bored; "idle hands" and all that. Besides, they're taking up his parking spaces anyway. So parking attendant George is carefully directing people into R.L's own lot, meticulously blocking in the cars he knows won't need to leave before the show's over.
See also: Scenes From R.L.'s Blues Palace #2
Griffin is carrying his wireless mic, which he lugs around from the moment he enters the club each night, using it to direct his staff and MC the show whether he's on stage, back in his office or out here. Inside, the band finishes a song, and without breaking his gaze from across Grand Avenue, Griffin raises the mic to his lips.
"Please welcome to the stage Big Charles Young," he says. His voice comes through the P.A. inside loud enough to be audible out here, and carries with it the welcoming command of someone who's spent 50 years singing the blues.
Big Charles Young is leaning against the hood of a car nearby. He leans a lot, Big Charles. He leans on the stage when he plays; he slouches in chairs. It adds to his leisurely aura. He pushes himself upright and hustles through the door of the club.
The inside of the Palace is hardly more ornate than the outside. There are mirrors on half the walls and on the rest hang album covers -- Griffin's own releases, mostly -- and posters commemorating friends and performers who've died. There are a few framed articles and some neon domestic beer signs.
Young walks past the ticket counter and the security guards, his silk orange suit cast in the warm red light of the ceiling fans. He walks past the long banquet tables that fill the club on either side of the dance floor, past a birthday party that brought balloons and a full buffet in foil trays and several bottles of liquor. He brushes by a young black couple on a date and an old married white couple making their first trip to R.L.'s. They spent some giddy time on the dance floor earlier. There are already some 250 people in here, and it's still relatively early, 11 p.m. on a night when the music goes quiet around 2 a.m.
Young passes a photo on the wall of himself smiling broadly, shaking hands with B.B. King. The band on stage, the R.L.'s Blues Palace Show Band, works into a groove, something they do better than any other ensemble in the city. Young flicks on his own wireless mic and starts singing the blues standard "Rock Me Baby," which King himself made famous in a 1964 recording. Young's got a voice like a church bell and a salesman's easy smile. "Rock me baby," he sings. "Like my back ain't got no bones." The well-lit dance floor fills again as he climbs to center stage.
Griffin has been doing this for more than 25 years, spending his Saturday nights shepherding a flock of faithful Dallas regulars and curious out-of-towners. They came because Griffin had a reputation as a great entertainer even before he opened his own place. At some point his became the best house band in Dallas, an ensemble that plays doo-wop as well as New Jack, one that can make Muddy Waters songs sound like they were written yesterday and last week's VMA winners sound like they were written a half-century ago.
Big Charles Young. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Griffin has purposely preserved what he describes as a back-in-the-day musical experience. And old-timers like Young, who's been hanging out at R.L.'s since 1987 and has served as everything from bouncer to cameraman to performer, will tell you that the show has remained basically unchanged since Griffin opened his first club, Blues Alley, across the street in the mid 1980s. He changed the name to R.L.'s Blues Palace after a legal request from a Washington, D.C., club, and by 1999 he'd outgrown the space. So he took over an old barbecue joint across the street and transformed it into the Blues Palace #2.
Griffin's own experience as a blues singer and entertainer has doubtless aided his steady leadership of his club. Born in Kilgore, he moved to Dallas in 1965 when Dallas saxophonist, blues label boss and noted club owner Big Bo Thomas offered him a job playing with Big Bo Thomas and His Arrows at The Empire Room. After nearly a decade with Big Bo, Griffin started his own group and started playing around town. They enjoyed a seven-year run at The Climax Club before he decided to open his own place.
Griffin's showmanship and Blues Alley's regular Saturday revue led him to the radio -- first a live broadcast on Dallas' premier soul and R&B station, KKDA-AM 730 "Soul 73," then, after a few years, a DJ gig on weekday evenings. For more than a decade, he played classic blues, soul and R&B tracks. And in his patter he often plugged the Blues Palace, inviting listeners to join "his family" that weekend.
Before the official start of each show, there's about half an hour when the band plays a few well-known songs and visiting musicians can sit in. Because of Griffin's connections in the local scene, the guests were often among the best players in town, even in the early years. Once word about the club spread, first through word-of-mouth and then through KKDA, the calls started coming from touring musicians, too. Internationally recognized names like Denise LaSalle, Z.Z. Hill, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Milton have played the Palace.