Sunday Night Blues in Mr. Gino's Salt-of-the-Earth Lounge
That's approximately how Eugene Chevis, owner of Mr. Gino's Lounge (7306 Cullen), answers when asked how long ago he opened his blues-drenched Sunnyside establishment. It sounds a lot cooler rolling off his tongue than the numeral 1973 looks in our notebook, too.
That's also the year Chevis began the club's Sunday-night blues jam, which has gone from modest origins to being the premier blues night in Houston. Few other places in town have experienced such a run, and as such, Mr. Gino's has accumulated quite a roster of characters.
After only a few minutes inside Chevis's semi-hidden shack, it's eminently clear the place is full of regulars. We know this because when somebody in long-standing Sunday-night house band I.J. Gosey and the Supremes periodically mumbles something inaudible into a microphone, everyone else claps and howls while we sit there looking completely befuddled.
Also, Harold Brooks tells us.
Brooks is a neigborhood native who claims he's been to Mr. Gino's nearly every day for the past 20 or so years. It's the only blues club he'll visit. He's a tall, older black gentleman dressed in a black suit with a matching hat; his voice seems to scrape the floor when he talks.
"It's like family in here," says Brooks. "The people go to church, go out and eat, and then come here. Nobody ever starts any shit, it's just..."
Indeed, Mr. Gino's doesn't seem like the kind of place that has troublemakers. But is Brooks — or the whole crowd, for that matter — always so dressed up? It seems like half the men in here are in full-on suits.
"Nah, only on Sundays. Sundays I gotta come out with my shit on," Brooks says, pinching his jacket's lapel. "I'll drink my whiskey, and just..."
("Just," by the way, is a completely acceptable way to end a sentence at Mr. Gino's.)
A few minutes later, a short, round woman dressed head-to-toe in yellow — including hat and eyeglasses, thank you very much — walks up behind an unsuspecting man at the bar and gives him a squeeze until he grunts. Then she proclaims, "You know I know how to make a nigga holla" and wanders away laughing.
Nobody else seems to think this is odd.
The interior of the ramshackle venue is low ceilings, concrete floors and room-dividing plywood. Insulation is squirted into this corner or that, mastic is slapped on exposed a/c innards (that may or may not work) and electrical wires are jumbled together at intermittent pillars.
Gino's is Black Snake Moan to the Big Easy's [5731 Kirby] The Blues Brothers; the music is undeniably solid in both, but the former feels much closer to the blues' rural juke-joint heritage.
"Tom [McLendon, Big Easy owner] is great," says nationally touring blues recording artist and loyal Houstonian Trudy Lynn, who just happens to be here. "He books all kinds of acts. But Gino is just Gino. People come here for the blues — that's it."
"If you come in your high heels, you gotta go through rocks, you gotta climb over shit to get here," she adds, noting the less-than-polished walkway from parking area to front door. "That's the blues. It's the way blues used to be."
Without fail, every Sunday evening Gino's fills up to its 99-person capacity with a mostly black, working-class, over-45 crowd. Throughout the show, which runs from 5 to 9 p.m., Gosey and his bandmates introduce other musicians, each of whom performs a song or two before yielding the stage.
Tonight, Rockin' Douglas, Tha Lady D, Gosey himself and several others all have a go at it. Nothing seems planned; things just sorta happen.
Towards the end, during singer/guitarist Larry Guy's dead-on rendition of Al Green's "Love and Happiness," a warm gentleman sitting to our right — whom we haven't said two words to all night, and vice versa — feels compelled to grab our hands and inform us that he has spent the majority of his life "on warships."
He shouts that someone should remove the roof of the club so that the music can take him as high as it wants. It seems like an objective way to measure the strength of Guy's performance, and brings the night to a fitting conclusion. Guess what year "Love and Happiness" was released?
Of the many performers on hand Sunday evening, Tha Lady D was one of our favorites. (Rockin' Douglas was a close second, as he seemed on the verge of literally exploding with exuberance for the duration of his set.) D, born Donna McIntyre, is a 63-years-young fireball of a blues singer with a ton of credits to her name. She's toured through Italy, been mentioned in books, speaks in Montgomery College's Texas Blues: A Retrospective Series and is rumored to have once sang a Yorkshire Terrier puppy back to life. She performs April 3 at the Big Easy — definitely, definitely check her out. And feel free to bring along any sickly puppies you may know of. We're sure Tom McLendon will have absolutely no problem with that.
1972, actually. But it was still on the charts in nigh-teensehemtythree.
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