Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Music feature: Boca club owner hangs on, testifying for the blues

Blues entrepreneur John Yurt.
(Photo by Skip Sheffield)

By Skip Sheffield

It’s never been easy playing and singing the blues, especially here in South Florida, at the extreme southern end of America.

The last couple years have been unkind to area blues fans. First, Musicians Exchange co-founder and blues champion Don Cohen died. Then the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth, the finest blues venue in South Florida, closed indefinitely. The all-genre concert club City Limits went dark in Delray Beach in early 2009 as well.

But John Yurt hangs on. Now in its third year in a modest 1946 vintage blockhouse at 7200 N. Dixie Highway in Boca Raton, Yurt’s blues club, The Back Room, is a tribute to one man’s love affair with the blues, America’s true roots music.

It’s an affair that began when he was a lad of 7 or 8 in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa. Little Johnny was watching The Ed Sullivan Show with his family, and one of Ed’s guests was blues great B.B. King.

“It was just about the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Yurt said recently in his Delray Beach home, just a chip shot away from the city’s public golf course. “I didn’t know anything about the blues, but I thought I’d better learn.”

Yurt, 46, has been learning ever since. The Back Room is one of the last sources for blues in Palm Beach County, and all of South Florida, for that matter. Some clubs have blues nights or blues-themed parties, but the Back Room is (almost) all blues, all the time.

And like many a paramour, Yurt isn’t getting rich pursuing the object of his devotion.

“It’s been the worst summer ever,” he admits. “We’re barely hanging on. Comcast (Yurt’s immediate neighbor) has been hassling me about people parking in their parking lot when we do have a good night. We do have a lot of good acts coming in October and November. It will be the time to see if people really want the blues.”

Yurt fled Johnstown at age 25 in 1988, following a girlfriend to what is now Lynn University in Boca Raton. That relationship didn’t work out, but then Yurt met Evelyn Cunningham, now his wife and mother of his two children, John Patrick, 15 and Catherine Rose, 11.

Evelyn’s mother is Carolyn Cunningham, widow of Bill Krauss, a legendary Delray Beach character who founded the Arcade Tap Room, the Patio and West Side Liquors. The Arcade Tap Room was famous as an artists’ hangout in the 1930s. The Patio was a posh place with fine dining, dancing and fancy fashion shows.

West Side Liquors was a humble concrete brick house just west of Swinton Avenue. Its main clientele was Delray Beach’s black community. Carolyn Cunningham still owned West Side Liquors when Yurt began dating her daughter. Yurt persuaded Carolyn he could convert a storage area, literally a back room, into a small blues venue.

Carolyn was skeptical, but when West Side Liquors got the contract to cater the first Virginia Slims International Tennis Tournament in 1993, everything changed.

“We catered the VIP area with really fancy wines, liquors and beer,” Yurt recounts. “I told people about West Side Liquors and the Back Room, and celebrities began showing up. After that it really took off.”

It took off so well neighbors began to complain about the noise and the crowds. After only a year or so, Yurt closed the first Back Room and looked for a larger venue. He found it about a block away on East Atlantic Avenue, across from Old School Square.

It was here that the Back Room enjoyed its greatest success, with virtually every blues great short of B.B. King visiting, and Yurt, a blues guitarist himself, often sitting in.

“I can’t tell you what a thrill it was hearing and playing with greats like Johnny Johnson, Gatemouth Brown, Sam Myers, Junior Wells and James Cotton,” he reminisces. “Sadly, they are dropping like flies. James Cotton still plays, but he has to carry an oxygen tank around.”

Sometimes careers were made in the back room. One night, Fort Lauderdale guitarist Albert Castiglia was in the house when Junior Wells was playing.

“Junior was looking for a guitarist and he invited Albert to sit in,” Yurt said. “He hired him on the spot that night. Albert played and toured with Junior Wells until Wells died.”

Albert Castiglia is now a rising young blues star in his own right. He’ll be returning to the Back Room on Oct. 24.

“Albert may be a local boy, but the last time he played the Back Room, it was our best night in Boca ever,” asserts Yurt.

J.P. Soars and the Red Hots.

Another local boy is guitarist extraordinaire J.P.Soars of Boca Raton. Soars hosts an open mic night on Wednesdays. On Thursday he plays with his own group.

There is no cover either night. Not bad for seeing a guy who won this year’s Best Guitarist and Best Unsigned Group award at the 2009 International Blues Challenge (IBC) Awards in Memphis.

“Since it opened three years ago, the Back Room has been a godsend for me,” said Soars, 40. “It is the only actual blues club in South Florida, as far as I know. Having a steady gig there has enabled me and the band to hone our craft and get really tight. We just played Montreal and it was great.”

Yet another “local boy” is Junior Drinkwater of Delray Beach. Drinkwater was the very first act at the first Back Room, and though he is now a senior citizen, Drinkwater is still going strong.

Other October attractions are Tinsley Ellis (the only St. Andrew’s School graduate to become a blues star) on Oct. 3; Eric Culbertson on Oct. 10; a “Harmonica Blowout” on Oct. 16 with Mark Hummel, Watermelon Slim, Magic Dick and RJ Mischo; and Larry McRae on Oct. 24.

When this year’s third annual Florida Blues Festival Nov. 6-8 at Nova Southeastern University in Davie was abruptly canceled, Yurt stepped into the breach.

”They had planned all the groups’ Florida dates around the festival,” Yurt explained. “This is a chance to salvage something for the musicians and fans.”

The relocated, downsized festival begins with an evening of J.P. Soars and IBC winners on Friday, Nov. 6; Kenny Neal on Saturday, Nov. 7, and Bernard Allison on Sunday, Nov. 8.

Yurt normally charges a nominal $10 at the doors for national acts.

“If I were still in Delray I could do it for just $5 because of greater attendance,” he says. “I’ve got to charge more in Boca because I just can’t attract as many people.”

In addition to seeing his blues heroes vanish one by one, Yurt had his own wakeup call in April: A mild heart attack.

“I had my last cigarette on the way to the hospital,” he confesses. “I’ve quit drinking other than a little red wine, and no more cheeseburgers for me. They put in some stents in my heart. I’ve lost 10 pounds and I’ve never felt better.”

There may be a number of promising newcomers, but Yurt does not foresee a huge blues resurgence any time soon.

“How many original tunes can you write with three chords?” he asks. “I think all the best stuff has already been written.”

Skip Sheffield is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

For more information, call 561-988-8920 or visit www.thebackroombluesbar.com.

Nick Curran and the Lowlifes, live at the Back Room.
(Photo by Skip Sheffield)


Anonymous said...

Great article. Brought back a bunch of memories. All good. We need more blues music in SoFla!

Anonymous said...

Oh My God...Thank you for writing this article...I found my first LOVE ! I met John Yurt In St. Pete Fla. when I was 14 and he was 16. He moved back to Johnstown and I moved back to Chicago and we held on for a little while and eventually it faded away. I miss John and think of him all the time. I thank you for letting me re-connect and see his picture. Great article. Sharon Ceragioli