Nestled in CPCC's increasingly imposing shadow, the decidedly unimposing Door and proprietor Nick Karres celebrate 30 years of operation December 22 from the same 77-year-old Elizabeth-area house on Independence Boulevard. Since the days when Belk's and Ivey's anchored downtown and neighborhoods like Elizabeth and Dilworth were hippie/artist havens, Karres and staff have been keeping the Queen City's mojo working. Local talent bookers say the Door is the oldest live music venue in North Carolina and probably the second oldest blues club in the US, which our research shows is likely accurate. (See sidebar.)
Over the years, the club has attracted a fascinating mix of people, so regulars aren't surprised when people like Bill Maher, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., comedian Rich Hall, or a variety of visiting pro athletes, from Kenny "The Snake" Stabler to Dave Cowens, show up unexpectedly.
In April, Darius Rucker and the other Blowfish came to see producer/bassist Don Dixon (who produced REM), with Hootie's Jim "Soni" Sonefeld on drums, and performed a few tunes while there. Peter Tork of the Monkees and his band Shoe Suede Blues also played there this past spring. Even Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead, has done several shows at the Door -- on bass for Anson Funderburgh.
But imagine lounging at the Double Door one Monday night, listening to Les Moore's Monday Nite All-Star Band, scanning the small room, and seeing Tom Jones in the audience. He visited in 1998 while in town for a concert and stayed all night. "He seemed to be a great guy," says Moore, "and very human. He was so gracious to all the people, men and women, coming up to him. He'd turn their compliments around, saying, "I can't believe you know who I am. Aren't you too young to know?" Guess that's why the ladies love him.
The number of famous names who've played the Door through the decades is too big to estimate, but it includes Sam and Dave, Leon Russell, Matt "Guitar" Murphy (a Blues Brother), The Turtles, Koko Taylor, Gatemouth Brown and J.J. Cale. And then there's the night in 1982 when Eric Clapton walked into a record company after-party and sat in with the Legendary Blues Band (Muddy Waters' last band before his death -- featuring guitarist Bob Margolin and harmonica player Jerry Portnoy).
Still, some of the most interesting performers at the Door have been lesser-knowns. North Carolina's Link Wray, born in 1929, has recently been rediscovered as a pioneer of the electric guitar. Wray's biggest commercial hit, "Rumble," from 1958, was a dissonant, menacing instrumental, banned by some deejays in bigger cities because they feared it would incite teen violence! Wray was 68 years old when he performed at the Double Door, and nonetheless, "played his butt off," says Karres.
One of the Double Door staff's most often mentioned performances was an incredible night in 1995 when bluesman Luther Allison played, just two years before his death from lung cancer.
He had returned to the US after many years in Europe and, Karres says, he played like he'd come back with a score to settle. Nighttime bartender Mike Martin remembers, "Usually with a big-name older gentleman, the band plays about 20 minutes and then the headliner plays only around 40 minutes. Allison's band played about two notes before we heard Luther coming down the steps playing guitar. By the time he hit the stage, the whole place had risen as one, watching this man play nonstop from 10:15 to 1:45. The crowd walked out in a daze." Another nighttime bartender, George Mandrapilias, concurs -- and talks about getting his ponytail stuck in Allison's guitar during picture-taking.
"The Double Door is a high point of my tour," says Austin, Texas, guitarist/Silvertone artist Chris Duarte. "It's one of the top spots to play in America. When I think of the Double Door, I think of ambience. If only those walls could talk -- there's an epic novel of musical history soaked into all that wood."
As walls go, they're pretty expressive, containing press shots of many of those who've come to play. And the history is incarnate through employees, many of whom have been there since the beginning. Daytime manager Basil V. Coston -- 27 years; bartender Mandrapilias -- 27 years; bartender Martin -- 26 years; entertainment buyer Missy McCall -- 24 years; and doorman Todd Smith -- 19 years. Doorman Tracy Abernathy's been there 10 years, daytime bartender Tracie Phillips -- seven years, and Ben Joplin has handled cleaning there for five years. And do they have stories.