Legend of the Lounge
Legend of the Lounge
Published by The Eleventh Hour and Written by Kenneth Rollins
Edward Grant, Sr. ought to be a Georgia Music Hall of Fame nominee. That’s no editorial comment, but a statement that upon examination of his role in etching the city’s public face, let alone Georgia music history, rolls off the tongue, logically and cool.
Such pronouncements come easily, of course, in light of Grant’s death on March 17 at the age of 76. There is a tendency to shroud the deceased in a gentle hue, downgrading the essential matter that all people are flawed and vulnerable, with feet stuck in “the mire-y clay,” as the old hymnal goes, all needing redemption. In the face of death, triumph is preferred, perhaps, more for the living, than the newly departed. So here it goes:
In truth, Ed Grant was an earth-bound pioneer in post-segregationist Macon during the 1970s, when he became an independent businessman, which meant that he was no stranger to danger or peril.
As proprietor of Grant’s Lounge, he was a general, a behind-the-scenes tactician not unlike Eisenhower, Davis, MacArthur and Patton. Grant’s Lounge was the battlefield that helped determine Macon’s contemporary profile, the public image of a city that ultimately chose to issue its raucous, celebrated musical heritage as its calling card, not its racist, mean-spirited, Jim Crow-sodden underbelly.
Indeed, Grant’s Lounge was the site of a microcosmic struggle—but with universal import. It was a struggle to determine Macon’s very soul, a soul that is inimitably wrapped around a clef note, and that makes Ed Grant a kind of local hero.
Grant’s saga mushroomed inside a three-story, brick-faced structure at 576 Poplar Street. The current exterior is so nondescript, so commonplace to the point of being forgettable, a dull battleship gray façade, broken only by a high block of maroon paint, which even covers the doorways. Currently, the nightclub opens two nights a week to a rather tough—some say unsavory crowd. However, it sits inside a smart, interesting piece of architecture, possessing a trio of elegantly arched windows and ornate appointments that bespeak of a finer, grander period.
In the 1970s and 80s, so did Grant’s Lounge. It became the legendary nightspot, where the red and white sign suspended above the nightclub’s entrance, pointing to the entertainment experience in the city. Inside, the joint was practically claustrophobic, a postage stamp of a place that nonetheless brought virtually every name in Southern rock to its stage. That made Grant’s Lounge sort of like Rome.
Indeed, the roll call constitutes its own hall of fame, a collection of Southern rock giants like the Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels, Eric Quincy Tate, even an Allman Brothers knockoff band, called the Almost Brothers. “I think everybody heard about Grant’s Lounge,” says his daughter, Cheryl Louder, who manages Riverview Ballroom, the Walnut St. six-story hotel, as well as the historic nightclub.
Obviously, Edward Grant was molded from a distinctive fist of clay. He learned the mechanics and dignity in matters of business early, primarily from his father, Willie, who operated a small shop on the eastside, according to Louder.
Later, he worked at the most exclusive enclave of Macon, the Idle Hour Golf and Country Club. Here the men – the white business and governmental leaders of Macon – relaxed. Here, they let their guard down, and Grant, clad in the garb of a servant, bartended, waited tables and absorbed it all. He observed their mannerisms and noted their parlance. He listened to how big deals and big plans were constructed, obviously, not always in the boardroom or at the conference table. He discovered that business agreements and community decisions were often cast over a martini or a Delmonico, or between tee times and cigar puffs.
Grant watched how these titans of business conducted themselves. And he concluded that he could too. He could talk the talk and walk the walk. His father may have been his initial inspiration, but his true grooming occurred at the Idle Hour Golf and Country Club, just like the heirs and scions of the local elite. How revolutionary – a black son of the South who dared to think of himself as comparable to the white men he served!
“There were a lot of people who admired him,” says Rosa Grant, his wife of 52 years. However, the lounge was an outrageous risk, regardless of the owner’s popularity. His daughter recalls when he father obtained a second mortgage on the family’s Fort Hill home to open his nightspot.
“[My father] sat the whole family down at the table and he told us he was getting ready to go into a venture where we would have to tighten our belts and we would have to do a little sacrificing,” says Louder.
It was the proverbial crossroads for Grant, his family and Macon, in fact. When it opened in 1971, Grant’s Lounge was immediately affixed in the cultural crosshairs, the target of police surveillance, occasional drug raids and, in the case of a few corrupt detectives, the routine but futile shakedown. “The first three years were really rough because the police gave him a hard time,” remembers his daughter.
“It was the only club that was owned by a black man,” says Elizabeth “Liz” Graham, who worked off and on with Grant for 17 years. “And that was unheard of.”
Or as Ray Brown, the legendary WIBB radio personality “Satellite Pappa,” succinctly offers: “Grant was the only black man with a white club in Macon.”
That was only one ingredient in this explosive recipe. Grant’s Lounge did indeed attract a largely white clientele. Its drawing card was the emerging new sound ushering from the Southern heartland, an uncommon musical aesthetic that blended R&B, rock n’ roll, blues, bluegrass and country and western. Music aficionado Hewell “Chank” Middleton claims the dubious distinction of having “grown up” in Grant’s Lounge, hanging out with both Greg and Duane Allman, who routinely jammed with the club’s steady stream of musicians, who appeared somewhat alien to the local constituency.
“The club attracted a lot of hippies,” says Middleton.
“They didn’t care about the racial barrier. The locals cared, but the hippies didn’t.” Overall, the musicians were an iconoclastic bunch, with long hair and free-style morals, given to excesses and experimentation with drugs and sex. Hippies and blacks together – that looked far too much like a Berkeley-inspired war protest or a civil rights boycott straight out of Montgomery – and were targets that the local police saw as threats to the status quo.
“That just didn’t sit well with them,” adds Graham, who also recalls the thinly veiled harassment they often encountered. “We used to pull a game on the police,” she continues. “Every night at closing time, we would crank up our cars and sit and wait. And they would come cruising by. When they got past the light at Third Street, we would take off and go in different directions. And then, we would end up at someone’s house, but they wouldn’t know who to follow.”
It was comic relief within a civic atmosphere dominated by the mien of “Machine Gun” Ronnie Thompson, the reckless ex-mayor who parlayed a Sunday morning gospel television broadcast into a political hay-maker. Eventually, Thompson emerged as the physical incarnation of the fear, uncertainty and intolerance rampant in Southern white communities in that era. A white political leader brandishing an assault rifle on the precipice of martial law would be another prevailing image the world identified with Macon. It would be one the city later regretted—and is still straining to dismantle.
In its day, Grant’s Lounge was the combustion chamber for creative and social upheaval. Grant’s become the proving ground for a new legion of bands tuning up for their “big break.” During the 70s, a synergetic relationship developed between Grant’s and Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records. Once Walden converted his talent pool from R&B singing blacks to white southern rockers, Grant’s Lounge became a pivotal place.
“It was real exciting,” says Graham. “They had just started with the bands and the good music. Oh my goodness!”
They all came to Grant’s Lounge, from the future mega-stars to the future wannabes, from the potential legends to the futile and the hapless. Here, for better or for worse, it was always open mic night. In fact, the Marshall Tucker Band owes its fame to Grant’s, as chronicled by Cameron Crowe, the journalistic tyro of Rolling Stone magazine. It was here in March, 1974, that the band auditioned for Phil Walden one night and inked a record deal when the sun rose the following day, he writes.
Happily, dizzily, Grant’s Lounge spun in its own orbit of eclectic entertainment. In addition to the Southern rock staple, the nightclub programmed blues. It boasted having the longest “Happy Hour” in Macon, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. When it opened its jazz loft upstairs on Thursday nights, it was another first for Middle Georgia. In its zenith, the entrance was painted in psychedelic designs, ebullient enough to make Peter Max steam with jealously.
Edward Grant, Jr., himself an independent businessman today, joined his father at the Poplar Street nightclub on Day One. He remembers the period fondly. “The people just came out and we just had a ball,” he says. “For a very long time it was like that. People were just enjoying themselves.”
The 31st President of the United States Herbert Hoover is credited with the famous line “The business of America is business.” For Grant that holds true, too. During its halcyon days, the nightclub employed 35 people, which included waiters, waitresses, bartenders and band members, according to Louder. It is a testament to a businessman who understood that the art of making money had plenty to do with the science of pleasing people.
“Nothing came before his businesses,” notes his wife, laughingly. “Not even me.” Ed Grant was a benevolent Caesar, a shrewd businessman who relished the dynamics of being a black gentleman in the New South. He was an avid golfer and motorcycle enthusiast. He was also deeply civic-minded – the Boy Scouts couldn’t have found a better friend. When Grant joined the Chamber of Commerce, the year he opened the club, his photograph was conspicuously absent in the new members’ corner, unlike his white counterparts. But three years later, in 1974, he was given a glowing profile in the chamber’s publication, complete with a huge picture. He has even been likened to an earlier African American entertainment and commercial magnate, Charles Henry Douglass, the legendary builder of the historic Douglass Theatre.
“He was nice gentleman, very business-like in a way he you had to respect,” says Hampton Swain, another popular WIBB radio personality. “Any club that can stay in existence for 20 to 30 years, well–you have to be doing something right.”
Perhaps, one of Grant’s oldest acquaintances was Gene Dunwody, Sr., an architect and member of Idle Hour. His firm, Dunwody-Beeland, has communicated to the world for nearly a century how Macon truly regards itself. He shares these respectful words about Grant:
“I think he should be remembered like any other good leader who influenced people in a positive manner. He probably touched hundreds and hundreds of lives of people he didn’t necessarily know. When I saw his obituary in the paper, I knew I had to attend [the funeral.] And I did.”
Enough said. Simply pass the hall of fame application.