“You’re just hangin’ out at a local bar/And you’re wonderin’ who the hell you are/Are you a bum or, are you a star? /Smile on through the rain/Laugh through all the pain/Flow on with the changes, till the sun comes out again.”
– Wet Willie, “Keep on Smilin’ ’’
Edward Grant Jr. unlocks the door of an empty storefront on Second Street that’s sandwiched between larger, active businesses, so it’s easy to overlook. He says this used to be his sister’s soul food eatery, Cheryl’s Restaurant. The inside looks abandoned except for several enormous stacks of what turns out to be old photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, and miscellaneous music memorabilia.
Weeks ago -- and soon enough again -- these artifacts hanged on the Wall of Fame at Grant’s Lounge, the gray and faded maroon trimmed survivor on Poplar Street that his father, the late Edward Grant Sr., started 40 years ago. Now, in honor of that anniversary, his son and daughter, Cheryl Grant Louder, have called on the legendary bar’s many friends for a celebration as family friend Don Jay scans and catalogs the whole collection for the new Grant’s Lounge website. Thus the stacks that surround his computer like high-rise towers in a paper metropolis.
“I’ve been saving that junk for a long time, and it finally came in handy,” Ed Sr. once told a reporter.
These bits and pieces of local history -- the yellowing paper and photo stock that make up the Wall of Fame are like the Roadrunner’s dust, just what remains from something that moved fast -- was so impressive, so alluring because it remains so elusive that it always feels present even after it’s long gone.
‘Grant’s Lounge’s Original Crew’
When Ed Jr. was just a teenager, his dad, who passed away in March 2005, came home with an announcement that everyone in the family would have to tighten their belts because he was starting a business. On Feb. 16, 1971, the family opened that business, Grant’s Lounge.
And it most certainly was a family affair.
“He was exploiting us,” Ed Jr., jokes now about his father’s management style, which crystallized when he was in charge of James Brown’s Golden Platter. His son says the bigwigs over the restaurant marveled at how Ed Sr. kept overhead costs so low. The secret was that he had his kids pitch in.
It was his success there that prompted Ed Sr. who’d also worked his way from caddy to bartender at Idle Hour Country Club, to go into business for himself.
“I guess his thinking was,” Ed Jr. says, ‘‘ ‘If I can do this for James Brown, I can do this for myself.’ ’’
When he did, it wasn’t his goal to change the way blacks and whites interacted any more than it was to create the “Original Home of Southern Rock.” But the force of personality that Edward Grant Sr. possessed made it happen.
He knew from his Idle Hour days some of Macon’s white elite, and several of them came to see Ed Sr., like former Mayor Buck Melton and current Macon Water Authority Chairman Frank Amerson. The same was true of the young white kids he bartended for at a basement bar on Riverside Drive, the Barrel House. As such, Grant’s was eclectic from the start and unusual in these parts for the almost seamless integration that marked it.
Ed Jr. fishes a photograph from the pile of “Grant’s Lounge’s Original Crew,” as it says on the back, dressed in the red vest uniforms his mother, Rosa Lee, made. The picture features a 16-year-old version of himself almost obscured by the twin pillars of his father and Maitland Webb, the man whose carpentry skill helped build the bar. In front stands a tiny blond woman, Elizabeth “Liz” Graham, their first bartender, who manages to appear in almost all of these pictures.
Another photograph features The Prime Stuff, the second band ever to play Grant’s. Their keyboardist, Ken Woodard, had a Hammond B3 Organ that Ed Jr. was mesmerized by. It began a lifelong passion for playing music.
“I was fascinated with the music,” he admits.
Grant’s today isn’t a place that most of the Idle Hour crowd is likely to check out. Windowless, it projects an air of mystery that can be read as something scary. Inside, the walls are covered in marker inked comments that have accrued for years. The U-shaped bar hides behind a wall with a small square opening near the door, invoking an image of Prohibition speakeasies. The stage sits alone and often bare, begging to be walked past for a visit to the Wall of Fame or just a game of pool.
This, however, is also one of the best things about Grant’s Lounge: It is authentic.
“The first time I saw Wet Willie, I got excited as hell. You would, too, if you were in Macon, Georgia, whooping it up deep Friday night down at Grant’s Lounge call of the wildest bar this side of the frontier. Hambones and grease are cruising through the air like your very lobes flow deep in the marrow of the Gulf Stream...”
-- Lester Bangs, famed rock critic
“Music is our economic salvation,” Ed Jr. says. This year he finished up his appointment to the Urban Development Authority, where he has tried to drive that very message home. The fact that Macon hasn’t capitalized more on its impact on American music still bothers him.
He notes that several former Macon residents have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, such as Little Richard, Otis Redding, James Brown, the Allman Brothers Band and R.E.M., whose members Bill Berry and Mike Mills graduated from Northeast High School and worked for Paragon Booking Agency.
“How many cities can claim something like that?” he asks.
As he shuffles through the detritus of mid-’70’s Macon -- the Capricorn Records era -- looking for more pictures from this past, he tells short stories all the more fascinating for their brevity.
“Tom Petty played a whole week at Grant’s hoping Phil Walden would come down, but Phil never had a chance to.”
“Grant’s was in two movies. It was ‘Bubba’s Tavern’ in a movie called ‘Me and Mr. Griffin,’ staring Burgess Meredith.”
“The jam sessions were the highlight at Grant’s. They’d start playing and hours later it was just off the chain.” (It is, therefore, only apt that part of the celebration will include an attempt to set the record for longest Southern rock jam in the world.)
He tells snippets from other people’s stories that he’s gathered over the years. Someone saw Marshall Tucker and Wet Willie at Grant’s for just $2. Another told him, “My mother came to Grant’s when she was still pregnant with me.” Still another said they remember seeing Cher walk in with Gregg Allman.
It’s apparent that something bigger than a bar happened here. Capricorn may have been the great salt lick that attracted aspiring bands from all over, and music itself was obviously the driver, but Grant’s was the social glue, the place that closed the distance between the fan, the musician and the music they all loved.
The South also rises
Ed Jr. says his hope is to preserve Grant’s by turning it into a sort of living museum, similar to Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn. He envisions a nonprofit organization designed to foster the creative spark that the bar once cradled, renovating the debris-strewn upstairs floors to hold offices and classrooms, a studio and rehearsal space. He sees it as an incubator where the next generation of Macon’s musicians, promoters and professionals would learn how to ply their trade.
Meanwhile, he has already opened the door to new era music families like Macon Noise and the Blue Indian, whose bands and fans look, truth be told, a lot like the longhairs in these old pictures: scruffy, shaggy, bearded with unique face art. They are deviant good ol’ boys, like their forebearers, who have soaked up the influence of their locale and flavored their accents with interests from around the world.
This willingness to change with the times is part of what has kept Grant’s in business instead of in a footnote. During the intervening years, that’s meant the original home of Southern rock has hosted all kinds of sounds, from disco to hip-hop, the latter including Sonny Spoon, a Macon-based rapper who mentored the platinum-selling Young Jeezy.
That relationship with Sonny Spoon, who was released from federal penitentiary in 2009, echoes the communal hand-up mentality that defined Ed Sr.
“Two days don’t pass without someone coming up and talking to me about my father,” Ed Jr. says, adding that these stories gave him insight to a man he knew just as “Dad.”
One of the latest tales came from a jazz drummer who said he came in to Grant’s Lounge “dead broke” and asking for just enough credit to get a burger. But Ed Sr. did him one better. The next thing he knows, he told Ed Jr., he’s playing for Cher.
During the celebration of Grant’s Lounge, there’ll be an open mic slot for people to share their stories about the old bar. No matter what’s shared on stage, it’ll all underline not just how much Grant’s means to Macon -- past, present and going forward -- but also how much this city needed someone like Edward Grant Sr.
“Dad loved this city,” Ed Jr. says.
“Otherwise he would’ve gotten out of this business a long time ago.”