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Remembering Henry 'Gip' Gipson

Oct 12, 2019
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Henry "Gip" Gipson died this week at the age of 99 - 99. Gip's Place is a music spot tucked into a ravine in Bessemer, Ala., one of the few authentic juke joints left in this country. NPR's Peter Breslow paid a visit to Gip's Place in 2011. We remember Gip today with this excerpt from that story.

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HENRY GIPSON: My name is Herman. Everybody call me Henry, Henry L. Gipson - G-I-P-S-O-N instead of B.

PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: There is a temptation to describe Henry Gipson as straight out of blues central casting, that is until you realize everything about the man is strictly genuine. His hand swallows yours when you shake. And his smile is just as embracing. In a red, white and blue nylon jacket and white fedora with its wide brim turned up on one side, Gip is nursing a crinkled can of Budweiser in a room adjacent to his tin-roofed establishment.

GIPSON: I love old blues - John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Slim Harpo, and all - these are my type of blues that I love. And I can't get them out of my head.

SIMON: Gip has celebrated his 86th birthday about five or six times, we're told. In those years, he says he's been struck by lightning and run over in a stampede. A singer who retired from the railroad, he's a grave digger these days and owns a cemetery. Gip has always been famous for his hospitality, whether it be with the locals he's known for decades or the wide-eyed college kids just discovering some gut-bucket blues.

When he opened his place back in 1952, it was little more than a glorified tent. Now, still several degrees removed from spiffy, the roadhouse has been fixed up but not so much that it's lost its down-home appeal, says guitar player Lenny Madden, who functions as the House emcee.

LENNY MADDEN: It's not like going to a bar. It's like going to your best friend's house and putting on just the newest record and sitting there and enjoying it together. Literally, there is truly a mix between the musicians and the audience.

Welcome again. Y'all ready to get started?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

BRESLOW: Sixty or so blues fans cram shoulder-to-shoulder in here tonight. The crowds have increased in recent years as more people from outside the neighborhood have discovered Gip's. And that's fine with Henry Gipson.

GIPSON: We do not have colors here. There's no black and white.

BRESLOW: The town of Bessemer regards Gip's as a house party. So regulations are casual, hence the cloud of cigarette smoke and the individual private coolers for the beer.

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BRESLOW: Tonight, they're passing around the hat for a Little G Weevil. When more famous names come through, the payment isn't significantly better, says Roger Stevenson of Birmingham's Magic City Blues Society, which has helped popularize Gip's.

ROGER STEVENSON: So, you know, we get bands like Bobby Rush. I shouldn't say how much we paid him, but about a fifth or a tenth of what he'd normally get. But he wanted to come on down here.

BRESLOW: Come on down because Bobby Rush and other musicians know that Gip's is the real deal, not some House of Blues recreation. And what's equally important to Henry Gipson, adds Roger Stevenson, is that younger players are offered an opportunity here to sit in and hone their chops with the pros.

STEVENSON: And he said to me, you know, they may not be really good. But how are they going to get better if we don't get them up with the good guys and get them enthusiastic enough to do it themselves, you know, to go home and practice? So he's very much about helping young people.

BRESLOW: And yes. There have been offers from businessmen to transform this juke joint into a comfortable 700-seat venue complete with a nice wide bar. But then it just wouldn't be Gip's Place. Peter Breslow, NPR News.

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SIMON: And Peter's story first ran in 2011. Gip Gipson died earlier this week. His family says that they plan to keep Gip's Place open. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.