I can’t even begin to say how glad I am that it looks like Sully’s, one of the best-known and most-loved blues clubs ever to draw an audience in the Detroit area, will finally be reopening this summer. If you’re a Sully’s fan, as I suspect most local blues lovers are, and all you’ve been hearing were rumors, then I’m happy to be the first one to let you know that the long wait is finally over. Jimmy Lesnau and crew are back in the saddle again.
Don’t hold back. Feel free to get on up and dance. I’ll wait.
You straight? Cool.
All right, here’s the scoop on the-all-new Sully’s Roadhouse, which will be located back in Dearborn at 22361 W. Village Drive. For the latest details and info, check out the club’s new Web site, www.sullysroadhouse.com. It’s a great site, complete with a depiction of what the new club will look like and fond memories of the old Sully’s posted by longtime fans. It also asks for suggestions about bands that you might like to see perform at the club once the doors are opened.
It’s been seven years since the old Sully’s on Greenfield was forced to shut its doors (after being around for 12 years), and the void has never quite been filled since. Everyone played there, from Dr. John, Mick Taylor and Delbert McClinton to Leon Russell, the Count Basie Orchestra and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Sully’s was one of those rarest of musical institutions that had the look, feel and smell of authenticity. Other clubs try so hard to manufacture it, but inevitably fall short. You can’t build a blues club like you build a car. You know? It just doesn’t work that way.
For starters, Jimmy knew he could burn some serious grub in the kitchen; sometimes he’d even whip up something special for you that wasn’t on the menu. He loved the music, and he believed in the music and musicians. Love of the music was all you felt the minute you stepped through the door, whether it was a packed house or a slow night. I can count on one hand, maybe even one finger, the number of clubs in the local area — or probably anywhere else — where a club owner actually cares about the music and the musicians. The work of Jimmy and the handful of local club owners like him paid off for just about everyone at the old Sully’s during its heyday, especially the grateful musicians and fans.
But, in the long run, none of that could save Sully’s from coming to an end. Jimmy, a father or four, has worked like the devil to reopen Sully’s, at no small cost to himself.
“As to what I am doing now, I have worked four or five years nonstop to reopen,” Lesnau explains. “You can imagine it has been very hard financially, especially with four kids. I have some part-time jobs but this has absorbed all my time.
“Yes, I have worked on this deal for a year now. Before this we looked at going downtown and other locations, but nothing worked out. The reality is that I wanted to come back to Dearborn.”
Lesnau is excited to be back in business and back in Dearborn. The man grew up near Vernor Highway in Southwest Detroit. He used to see blues bands at the old free WABX concerts at Wayne State and later the Rainbow Room and the Soup Kitchen. A bunch of kids from Western High School were the first to play Sully’s in 1983.
“The first band at Sully’s was the Latin Counts, guys from Western High School who were on Motown,” Lesnau recalls. “The first blues band was Chicago Pete. One day I ran into Paul Bauhoff and Rick Steiger at Tiger Stadium and that is how the Sun Messengers came to play Sully’s. Detroit had a vibrant R&B scene then and there were many very good local clubs and bands around. Mostly on the East Side. I think Sully’s was the first club on the West Side to have blues and R&B.”
The R&B and blues scene was especially rich and varied then. There were the Urbations, Sun Messengers, the Buzztones, the Suspects, Regular Boys, Black Market, Domino, George Bedard, Steve Nardella and the list goes on and on.
Lesnau: “I remember the live recording [Jimmy] Thackery did. Jim Gaines produced it and it was quite interesting to watch him work the band his way. The live NPR broadcast was a treat and people have come up to me from around the country saying they heard of Sully’s from that. That was cool because our old friend Mack Rice was backed by the Sun Messengers And some of the Falcons showed up. Having Ronnie Earl do that show with Thunderbird Davis, Earl King and Grady Gaines was a treat. Lonnie Mack played a show with Robert Ward. Delbert did a show in intense heat where he was hotter than the room. Danny Gatton showed us a new use for Bud bottles, and Dr. John had people dancing on Greenfield.”
Dr, John had people dancing out on Greenfield? Man, it won’t be long before they’re dancing again. Welcome back, Jimmy.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]