The R&B timeline in reverse via Cotton Exchange and The Real Sammie

Franklin Mint

There is never an appropriate time to play Nick Cannon's five-year-old single "Gigolo." It's a corny, brainless, flute-laden mash-up of a song that even a catchy chorus from the pied piper of R&B couldn't save. Ergo, its presence at Cotton Exchange (202 Travis), downtown's upscale contemporary R&B lounge, signifies only one unfortunate thing: You're there about an hour and a half too early, sucka.

"I do it on purpose," admits Cotton Exchange regular spinner DJ Rheamarkable, whose last name (Rhea) accounts for the spelling. "I want the bar to make their money, so I don't play stuff that'll make you wanna get up and dance early, just what makes you want to bob your head."

Rheamarkable continues his trip through the front end of his MacBook's e-crate. Murphy Lee confides that he just likes the fact someone's tushy is big, R. Kelly informs us that he has the key to the hotel, Mary J. Blige ironically whirrs about being a strong black woman and needing a man. All is right in 2003.

In about an hour or so, the soundtrack will catch up to today's hits (mercifully sans Cannon) and the dance floor will be sweaty and suggestive. Rheamarkable grants the bar no leniency after midnight.

Given Cotton Exhange's emphasis on contemporary R&B, it's not exactly groundbreaking to report that the crowd bows towards the urban (read: not white), 25-plus crowd. And given that the bar's Victorian housings have stood since 1884, it's no surprise that the venue is replete with some of the finer accent work in the city.

"Just walk inside and look — the place speaks for itself," says operations manager Aimee Bopho, who nonetheless proceeds to speak for it. "A lot of bars, when you turn the lights up, you see all the little ugly details that you didn't before. Cotton Exchange is not like that. It's classy when you walk in; it's classy when it's closed."

The room's ceilings approach 20 feet; strong pillars with ornate designs sprout up out of the hardwood floors like oak trees; and an all-access granite-topped bar sits smack in the center of the room. There's very little seating outside the lounge area — bottle service required — but if you can't haphazardly order a $250 bottle of Grey Goose, you really don't deserve to sit down anyway.

Ninety minutes, 300 feet and many years away, Houston soul-singing legend Sammie Relford is onstage at his newest venture, the three month-old The Real Sammie (711 Franklin), a venue dedicated to preserving the sanctity of soul.

Accordingly, Relford is performing Luther Vandross's seminal 1988 smash "If Only for One Night," and it's hard to imagine Luther singing it any better.

Yes, we recognize the enormity of that statement, but consider the ­circumstances.

Sammie came to be on this stage via a financial dispute with the owners of the still-operating Sammy's at 2016 Main. Naturally, we assumed proclamations like "You'll never play in this town again!" or "I'm getting too old for this shit, Riggs!" were made during the ousting, but Relford assured us otherwise.

By most measures, The Real Sammie is less aesthetically appealing than The Fake Sammy's. Industrial carpet dominates the floors, save for a small wooden dance floor in front of the stage. The caramel-colored walls and black trim seem muted, contradictory to Relford's colorful persona.

But it's late in the evening, well after 1 a.m. Not including staff, there are only four other people left in The Real Sammie. A near-empty room is normally a spirit-pulverizing situation for a performer, but somehow not this evening. In this lonely context, Relford's words seem ­momentous.

His body is inched forward toward the mike stand, eyes closed tight like he's afraid of what he's about to reveal. His mustard-colored suit jacket is long removed, his shirt soaked through. We're quite certain Sammie sweats soul.

As Relford belts his way through Vandross's song, it's clear that he could be petitioning any number of things to be with him for this one night — a woman, success, peace of mind, it doesn't matter. At the moment, he is a man possessed.

But book Relford to perform in a bus station bathroom and you'll get the same show. He's passionate in all things. The venue's aesthetics are as meaningful as "Gigolo"; talking to him after the show reveals as much.

"[R&B] makes the world more peaceful," Relford says. "It's the good between a man and a woman, the love between a man and a woman. These are the songs that I'm gonna sing to make the world a better place. I'm just a doctor giving everyone the medicine to make them feel good."

Last Call

We glossed over two other venues within walking distance of The Real Sammie and Cotton Exchange, because we're not huge fans of fistfights and our slight frame makes us susceptible to being picked up and tossed down the bar like that guy in Superman 2. Cavernous booty-music clubs Pink Monkey (709 Franklin, directly below TRS), and Toc Bar (112 Travis, catty-corner to Cotton Exchange) are both 18 and up, so you'll probably be able to impress people by telling them you've got an actual checking account.

 
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