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The Berkeley Cafe: an oral history in stories of sounds

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Editor's note: The following version has been expanded from the print.

The faded paint on the side of 217 W. Martin St. in Raleigh hints at the building's past life as the Carolina Cafe and Hotel in the 1930s and much of the 1940s. Archival records of the Raleigh City Directories dating back to the turn of the 20th century list it—or the neighboring property at 215 W. Martin—as home to Raleigh Marble Works, Cooper Monuments Company, and the Hollywood Cafe and Hotel.

But since the early 1980s, the Berkeley Cafe has served working-class lunch crowds by day and hosted blues music by night. As the venue outgrew its space in the late '80s—thanks in part to the popularity of its recurring open mics—it took over the adjacent property at 215 and began hosting bigger events. It has alternately served as a key hub for local electronic, metal, punk, hip-hop and roots music scenes—and as a hotspot for the rising stars of the area's wrestling community.

But after Southern Culture on the Skids plays there this Saturday night, the Berkeley's music hall will close and be turned into a tobacco shop as the venue returns to its one-room layout. We talked to dozens of those who worked, played or visited the Berkeley, recording their stories of one of Raleigh's longest-running venues.


PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

JOHN BLOMQUIST, owner: I tried several things here [since September 1980] before the Berkeley. With Brother Bargains, I bought stuff off the street for resale. The Crib had games—you know, Pac-Man and all that. R&B Lounge was mostly a black club. I try to forget that stuff since those businesses failed.

When I put some pool tables in and started serving drinks, I found out that you have to be both a bartender and a psychiatrist, too. That was a hard year. I figured if I got some music in here, then I wouldn't have to listen to everybody's problems, so that's why we started having music.

I named it the Berkeley Cafe because I just got out of the military in 1980 from over the pond and went to Berkeley, Calif., to visit, and said, "Man, what a cool place." I got back here and this place was named Hollywood Cafe originally, so me and a buddy of mine went over to the park thinking about what we could name this place and we came up with Berkeley Cafe—like from Hollywood to Berkeley. We kept thinking California. Anything goes in Berkeley. We expanded [around 1988] because somebody opened a big nightclub over on Hargett Street and I wanted to be as big as they were, so I got [realty company] York to give me that space.

I think people enjoy this place because it's got a nice feel to it. It's got a great atmosphere; when you walk in and see the brick and wood, it reminds you of something old you'd see in New York. We're still going to carry on, and I think we'll be successful. We're going to build a stage back in [the smaller room], put a sound system in and start serving food at night. If I had to walk away from this, I ain't got nothing to feel bad about.

JIM SHIRES, managing partner, 2001-present: We did a little bit of everything at the Berkeley, that's for sure. I remember one guy who'd just come into town for work wandered in on a Wednesday when the jam was going strong and he really enjoyed it. He came in the next night and we had a bluegrass band. He came back the next night and we had a hip-hop show. I said "Well, if you want to really do it different, this weekend we've got metal."

We tried to be a place for everyone, more than anything. Really, the concept I had to develop at the Berkeley was, instead of booking shows and having big guarantees, I tried to make it as reasonable as possible for a promoter or a band that wanted to put together a show to come in and do their thing where they could make as much money as possible and flourish.

Another thing was kind of stumbling upon doing drum and bass in the early days. Those people didn't have a home at all, but I ended up having somebody do a show or two and it just found its place. To be honest, no one else was doing it in Raleigh. We had a real strong drum and bass and electronic music scene going for a real long time. We had DJs like Goldie packing it out. That was something that I wasn't expecting but I enjoyed. We were kind of the home of that. People would tell me, "There's people that know of the Berkeley from all over the world," and I was like, "This little place?" We were getting DJs that were major, major DJs all over the world that'd come here and play the Berkeley.

PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

LARRY HUTCHERSON, guitarist and host of the Rhythm & Blues Revue, late 1980s-1995: The old Berkeley was cozy, with a kind of shaggy-dog appeal. Charles Meeker, the future mayor, used to come down for the jams. People who lived upstairs made it a kind of neighborhood bar, and folks who perhaps weren't comfortable in the bigger rooms found it easier to come in and hang out.After the Underground in Cameron Village shut down, Raleigh needed a place that was a little broader and more general-purpose than the rock rooms. It seemed to me that a regular, organized jam [at the Berkeley] could work. I called it the Rhythm & Blues Revue. It became a biweekly deal, as regular as church for a lot of people.

There was a moment in time when Motocaster, Dag, Cry of Love, the Backsliders and others were all connecting with major labels, and most of their players were coming to the jams on a regular basis. You might see an instant supergroup on any given night.

CHARLES MEEKER, Raleigh mayor, 2001-2011: A smoky place with draft beer and good music. One of my favorite memories is a fundraiser that our campaign held there in 2001, with a young UNC grad, Tift Merritt, performing a free concert to help us out.

BUDDY BLACK, blues guitarist/singer: Larry Hutcherson and myself, but mostly Larry, ran the Rhythm & Blues Revue jams there in the '80s. One night, I showed up with a wireless rig for my guitar. It worked as a receiver a little too well—it was picking up the dispatch broadcast from the police department across the park.

MIKE PITTS, open mic host, 1995-1999: I did the Tuesday night jam, which was the acoustic open mic, and the electric jam for a number of years as well. Everybody who ran one added their own personality to it and did their own kind of thing. More people cycled through the electric one because you could always create ensembles and after you did it long enough; you could kind of figure who got along with one another, playing-wise, and match people up. The acoustic thing was generally set up where solo acts would come, but occasionally we would have duets, trios or vocal groups.

That was a lot of fun and it got so wild and woolly, I had people coming in from as far away as Boston saying they'd heard of it and this was the one to come to. It got so crowded that I had to get a deck of cards and make everyone pull cards to see who could get up [and play].

One night, after they got done playing at Walnut Creek, Little River Band showed up. About four of them came in wanting to play, and I made them sign the list. I said, "Look, if I can get you guys to play along with me and sign the list, no one can come in here and give me any shit about having to sign the list." So I gave them the last hour, and they played from about 1:15 to 2:30 a.m.

There's a couple clubs around town that still do open mics, but no one's been able to really recapture that same vibe or feel or the whole communal, community thing. It was kind of an unspoken motto that we lived by back then—get up on stage and drop your drawers. Just get up there, leave your ego at the door and share.

Bonnie Stamper's the woman who painted the mural of all the blues musicians on the old side. She was bartending there and somehow the subject came up, and it was in one of her sketchbooks or something where somebody saw some of the pictures she had done of the old blues masters. And she wound up painting that, just working on it when it was slow. There were nights when the bands were in there playing and she'd be in there painting. I remember when Bill Morganfield came through there and she was [painting] some stuff, and he was in there telling stories about all those people that he knew.

PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

BILL CORBIN, American Aquarium: I got my first bass when I was 12 years old, and it wasn't long afterward that playing it consumed my every waking thought. I wanted to learn new techniques and new songs; I blew off homework for band practice, and during class I mostly daydreamed of being on stage. But being on stage proved to be the most challenging part for someone so young. Growing up in Garner meant you were generally limited to playing birthday parties and barbecues, or being a novelty child act at biker bars.

The exception to this was on Wednesday nights, when The Berkeley would have its open mic night. I would get my older friends—anyone with an instrument and a driver's license, really—to pick me up, and we would all go down there for the evening. It was such a great experience for someone in middle school and high school who was learning to play. You could see amazing bands, terrible bands, maybe a crazy guy with a pan flute that he had made himself or someone who might recite poetry. You never knew what you were going to get, but the best part was that you could jump up and play with any of them if you wanted.

It got pretty wild, especially for someone as young as I was. I quickly discovered that my parents never stayed up late enough to enforce my curfew, so I often stayed out until the bitter end. I felt so much older and independent than I actually was when I was there. No one treated you like a kid, and there was always so much to learn from the older and more experienced players. It was an experience that I am very thankful for.

DAVE WILSON, Chatham County Line, Stillhouse: The Berkeley Cafe was the first place I ever played in Raleigh. The open mic was an all-welcoming affair. Occasionally, you would see something that took your breath away, but usually it was something that made you want to stop breathing altogether. When I first began playing the open mic years ago, it was held on the small side, where I guess everything will end up shortly. I would play a few originals to the other hopeful and sometimes hapless musicians in the audience. I have one distinct memory of playing a song and some dreadlocked bongo player jumped onstage and began to beat two bottles of Heineken together to add a rhythm to whatever I was doing. He was hitting them together too hard, and one of the bottles broke and rained its contents down on my notebook of songs. I finished the song and quit going there for a couple of months.

My favorite memory is of playing a "secret" show there with our Norwegian buddy Jonas Fjeld. When we [Chatham County Line] are in Norway, we play a lot of buttoned-up theaters where the crowd is quiet and respectful. I think it blew his mind to be on a stage in a small club where the crowd is so intimately involved in the show. Every nuance onstage was answered with a holler from the crowd, and to this day he refers to that show as one of his favorites.

JOSH PRESLAR, blues guitarist and jam co-host, 2000-2010: When [co-host Turner Brandon and I] started, it was pretty slow, but then after a year or two, it started to get really crazy packed. Around this time, there were probably 200 to 300 people coming out every Wednesday.

We saw everything you could possibly imagine, from Russian classical string quartets to a teenage Asian punk band. I don't know how we got everybody to get out there, but it was a mix of college students and hippies and blues musicians and people from God knows where. Everybody that came out just had a blast, and they couldn't believe what they were seeing; it really was an exciting time, but I really think it kind of ran its course. All those different little scenes split up. I think it was just a freak thing because we allowed anything to happen at the Berkeley.

This lady—and, just to be fair, I want to say she was in her 70s but she could have been in her 80s—took a bus down from Philadelphia because she heard of our jams somehow. I don't know how she heard about them; it couldn't have been online because she probably didn't use a computer. She was an old blues singer from up in that area; she was a really small lady. She had a beautiful old '50s semi-hollowbody archtop Gibson, a small-scale guitar, and I'd never seen one like that before. To me, she was unheard of, but she may be famous in the blues [community].

She played and sang like the real deal. There were no Stevie Ray Vaughan licks, obviously; she played old-school blues. We were proud to have her and to be able to play with her. But that's just the kind of magnet that that place was; it was amazing how people really did know about it and it was an underground thing. So that's one thing that really stands out to me—how this lady, who had no business doing so, came all the way down here just for that jam.

I kind of see Raleigh as a different town now than it was then. Downtown has changed so much; there's bar strips on Fayetteville Street and Glenwood South that weren't there at the time. It was a different thing. I don't know how we got everybody to get out there, but it was a mix of college students and hippies and blues musicians and people from God knows where.

PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

GREG MOSORJAK, Southern Championship Wrestling and booking agent, 1993-2002: I hit lightning in a bottle, and we had a several-year period when that place was packed. We put as many people as we could stuff into that room. The shows were on the level of what ECW was doing at that time where we did a lot of crazy hardcore stuff. We had some of the best wrestlers on the independent circuit living in this area at that time, like Steve Corino, Joey Mercury and Christian York, who were all within a close drive. We had the last Thursday of every month; we kind of locked into a hipster college-student crowd. and it was also at the peak of the WWE/WCW Monday night wars. Wrestling was popular and we really rocked that place.

We had a ladder match with Joey Matthews—who later became Joey Mercury in the WWE—and Steve Corino where Joey was trying to grab the belt from the top of the ladder and grabbed the electrical conduit and pulled the power to the whole building. The thing exploded and there was fire, sparks flying everywhere, and the emergency lights came on. One night Jeff Hardy climbed the top rope to do a Swanton Bomb and he jumped off, grabbed the girders—which were so low-hanging he could hit his head—and changed his flip in midair and went in the other direction. I had guys coming from all over the East Coast who wanted to work at the Berkeley on Thursday nights because it was the place to be.

That was also a good period for the blues. I had a who's who of the blues playing in there—Big Bill Morganfield, Otis Rush, The Kinsey Report, Tinsley Ellis, John Hammond, Bob Margolin—and I was doing some alt-country stuff there too because I was booking The Brewery at the same time. We had Whiskeytown, The Backsliders and Six String Drag all on one show. Ryan Adams had a bunch of his famous flare-ups and fights there.

One of my favorite stories from my whole time booking the Berkeley is when we had Richard Buckner. There was a pretty packed house for him. John [Blomquist] and his girlfriend at the time were hammered and it's a quiet show. People were listening and Richard's real soft-spoken, but John starts heckling him. "You're trying to be James Taylor, you ain't no James Taylor!" And [Richard's] blowing him off. This was the week Sonny Bono got killed in the skiing accident. So just out of nowhere, Richard finishes a song and John goes, "I miss Sonny Bono! He was a friend of mine. I'm sorry he's dead." Buckner freaks out. He goes behind the stage—which I didn't know we had anything behind the stage at the Berkeley—and he crawled behind the wooden partition back there, got in a ball and the show was over, from John talking about Sonny Bono.

CW ANDERSON, Southern Championship Wrestling, 1997-1998: [The Berkeley] was one of the most fun places to work. It was always on a Thursday night, and that place turned out to be like the ECW Arena was to me when I went to ECW, with all the memories and how the crowd was on top of you. It would only hold maybe 70 people max, and I think we were putting 150 in there. People were standing on top of each other; you could hardly get to the ring.

All the guys who wrestled there on a regular basis made it famous, every one of us. We were the largest group ever to come out of one area and all make it big time, from the Hardys [Matt and Jeff], the Hurricane [Shane Helms], Joey Matthews, Christian York, Steve Corino, Joey Abs, Mike Maverick, Otto Schwanz, Toad—and I know I'm leaving out some people. We didn't make any money—20, 30 bucks maybe—and we were killing ourselves, hurting people with chairs.

The fans would bring in pots, pans, cookie sheets, hockey sticks, whatever, and we would incorporate it into the match somehow. There was a core of seven or eight [fans] who would always be there and follow us around to other shows we worked, and I still talk to those guys to this day.

JOHN TEER, Chatham County Line, The Jackets: The earliest memories I have of playing at the Berkeley were as the Howling Brothers with Rick Brockner. We would play the open mic every Tuesday back in the mid-'90s and were a pretty hot act at the time. There would always be a big crowd, so it was one of the first spots where I was able to play in front of people, get a crowd response and really become addicted to that enjoyment of performing for people. There were always interesting groups that played the open mics that would have like a snare drum and vacuum cleaner kit or like a big wooden flute, some very avant garde bands. It was like a family atmosphere where everybody knew everybody and everybody appreciated what everyone brought to the table. For a kid right out of high school, it was cool to see that kind of support, which made it a good launching pad.

PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

SAM HERRING, Future Islands, Art Lord & the Self-Portraits: My first time I ever performed in Raleigh was at the Berkeley Cafe. I had driven up from Greenville with [Future Islands bassist] William Cashion to see a show. It was my freshman year, the fall of 2002. He told me after the show we should head to this open mic blues jam [at the Berkeley] and try to get on. We hung around all night waiting. We didn't have any instruments, but William figured he could play drums and I could improv something. Then we met this girl who had a trombone, so we asked her if she wanted to play too. We begged these guys to let us on all night, and around 1:50 they finally did. Basically, it was one of the weirdest sets I've ever been a part of. William was kicking some nice beats but he couldn't hold one down for more than 30 seconds at a time, this girl is switching right with him just killing this trombone, and I was on some Latyrx freestyle head trip. The people in the crowd didn't know what the hell was going on. We were the perfect act to help them clear it out.

Years later, we would frequent the Berkeley again. It was actually a saving grace for Future Islands in Raleigh. We didn't know where to book shows because Kings had been closed for a year or so. The crowds just got bigger and bigger That would all culminate for us in the first year of Hopscotch: We curated a show at the Berkeley, [which was a] truly stellar evening, all drenched in sweat with Javelin, Pictureplane, EAR PWR, Double Dagger and Future Islands. That was one hell of a show and one I won't forget.

SCOTT MILLER, Available Jones, Econoline, Six String Drag: I had this pickup band called Chester Cash & Chromeheart, and we were doing a bunch of stuff like Dylan, The Band and some blues stuff. We were playing the Berkeley, and it was totally dead because The Allman Brothers were playing Walnut Creek. This was 1993 or 1994, and Cry of Love, which was a big deal, was opening for them.

Someone talked Gregg Allman into coming out to the Berkeley. So we were playing and we asked if he wanted to sit in. He said, "Nah, I just got done playing a gig," but you've gotta ask. First his harp player got up and played a song or two, and then Gregg got up and played guitar. He did an instrumental thing and then we did "Stormy Monday," which was really ironic because in all the blues jams we did, that one was kind of a no-no.

RICK MILLER, Southern Culture on the Skids: SCOTS liked the ambiance at the Berkeley—kinda dark, kinda dirty, lotta fun. Great sound too, both on stage and in the room. The room was just the right size for music—not too big, not too small, so the band could be heard and seen by all. And what about that Marianne [Taylor]! She sure could bake a ham! A good stage mom she is. Most promoters give you a little cash for dinner or a cold pizza, but Marianne would prepare a buffet with her hands for her bands. And she'd spend days before the show working on that meal. Her home cooking made sound check more like a belly check. A word of caution: When deviled eggs are placed by the stage, you must exercise self-discipline.

DAVE HARTMAN, Southern Culture on the Skids: Since there was no dressing room, Marianne [Taylor] would set up a buffet on the side of the stage that would rival most people's Christmas dinner table. The crowd could look over and see it during the show, wondering, "What the...?" while we stood watching the opening band and eating ham biscuits. After most shows, I might have a fridge full of beer, but after Berkeley shows, my fridge would have half a ham.

MARIANNE TAYLOR, promoter: I told people when I came to the Berkeley [to promote shows] that I liked it because it was old and funky like me. The sound is really good here and so are the soundmen. Jim [Shires] has been great to work with and so have the bartenders. I feel comfortable here. Some shows haven't done as well as they should have here, but that's been because of the bad economy, not the place itself.

With a place that's been here this long, you lose some of the history of Raleigh when you lose this room. You can put up four more walls, add another sound system and build another stage [elsewhere], but it'll never be the same.

MARY HUFF, Southern Culture on the Skids:We had some really good shows there. My favorite was probably the Halloween weekend we played in 2010—well, technically it was two days of Halloween. I thought everyone was dressing up, but I guess no one got the memo! There I was trying to put on my "sailor cutie" costume in the van as folks were filing past me into the club and tapping on the window. But the sound that night was killer and the crowd was wild!

PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

HANK WILLIAMS, Thrashitorium Booking: Around 2009, I started to put on shows at the Berkeley [after an attempt in 2006] and had my first annual birthday show there. Bands like Parasitic, Atakke and Devour played, but Vektor happened to come through on their first tour and just kind of showed up at the doorstep and asked if they could get on the bill, which was a gift in itself. Since they've become one of my favorite bands, that was the best birthday surprise I've ever got.

The way that marble floor was set up, all it took was two kids and one beer and it could become one of the most intense mosh pits in town. The Berkeley also offered the underage kids a place to go. I think [losing the room] will be a big blow to downtown Raleigh as far as all-ages shows and because of the way some other venues perceive heavier shows.

EVAN LAMB, resident audio/lighting engineer, 2005-present: One aspect that makes the Berkeley Cafe's sound unique is the location of the stage and speakers. The room is a rectangle, and the stage is located in the center of one of the long walls with speakers on either side. This makes the sound reflection quick, with a wide area for decay. This creates a natural warmth of tone, or a blending of the high-mid and low-mid frequencies. Many venues of similar capacity construct their stage on one of short walls of the rectangle-shaped space for longer sound throw, allowing for more separation between the high, low and mid frequencies.

JEANNE JOLLY, singer-songwriter: Berkeley Cafe was the very first show I did after moving back to Raleigh. That place holds a special place in my heart for being the room [where] I first shared my own songs, and a few years later, I had my first sold-out show in my hometown.

ANDY MILLER, KIFF: I first became aware of the big room in the mid-to-late '90s after stumbling in on a lame Wednesday night. There was an open mic blues jam going on, and I thought the drummer seemed really familiar. I soon found out he was Jackson Spires of the legendary Southern hard rock band Blackfoot. I wound up meeting him; I told him about how they had always been my favorite of the old Southern rock bands and how I had seen him as a teenager in a huge arena opening for Ted Nugent. He laughed and joked about the paychecks being much bigger in those days. He's dead now, but I'm glad I got to meet him in a small club on a weeknight.

My band KIFF has played there four or five times since 2005, and it was always a positive experience. Our friends and fans seemed to like the place. The soundman was cool. Jim and his bar staff were always great. We have been known to have a crazy crowd, and our stage show has pissed clubs off [since there can be] smashed TVs, blood and fire, but the Berkeley was always cool with whatever you wanted to do on stage as long as you didn't wreck their equipment or hurt anybody. Believe me, a band like KIFF appreciates a club like that.

L.E.G.A.C.Y., rapper: The Berkeley Cafe is a staple in the Raleigh music scene. As far as hip-hop goes, it was one of the only outlets that artists had in the early 2000s. I can't count how many shows I've been to there, put together, or performed at, for that matter.

CHRIS "SNACK" OBERLE, DJ and promoter: When doing EDM events, one thing that good promoters do is put thought and effort into the production itself, the little things that people remember. I remember one New Year's Eve not too long ago, we had to get in particularly early because we needed to blow up hundreds of balloons and rig them to the ceiling. Jim always made sure we could get in when we needed to; he was so easy to work with and respectful of our clientele. Even when it came to business details, he was always flexible and accommodating, making it very easy for just about any legitimate promoter to contribute to the continuity of the scene by hosting an event.

MIKE SWINEY, SMS Booking & Promo: I've had the pleasure of making a lot of good and bad memories at the Berkeley. Even the bad memories were good—I'm just referring to the nights I lost a lot of money. I started off booking there when Jim Shires offered a chance for my band, Enemy in Disguise, to book our own show there, and it quickly escalated because of my love for the local hard rock and metal scene—hence why I started SMS Booking & Promo. I'd have to say that the Berkeley has been my home, along with [the home of] many others, in our adventure to try and re-create the music scene.

LAURENCE ANTHONY, GruvGlu: GruvGlu started hosting events at the Berkeley around 2004, promoting DJs and underground dance music. Very few venues in Raleigh at that time would accept these types of events. Jim Shires not only welcomed it but supported it. We made so many friends over the next few years that the venue felt like Cheers. We've booked acts there—like Bassnectar and Glitch Mob—that now fill stadiums. The Berk was a place people could go and be themselves. No one held expectations on each other.

DANIEL LUPTON, Sorry State Records, Devour: The first time I walked in to the Berkeley's big room, I thought to myself, "this place was made for stage dives." My friends and I proved that statement correct numerous times over the course of the past several years as I watched some of the best—and, to be honest, some of the worst—hardcore and punk bands in the world play the club. As an audience member, I loved the Berkeley's classic "rock club" layout and good sound system; as a musician, I appreciated their professional stage monitors and competent soundmen.

It drove me nuts that I never once received an email response from the club when I attempted to book shows there, but in retrospect, the management's erratic communication style seems quaint and delightfully old school. You never knew what bands would get booked at the Berkeley, but you did know that between bands you'd be hearing the No Thanks box set on repeat; I think I heard that compilation at just about every single show I attended there.

At the end of the day, the Berkeley may not have been particularly innovative or even special—it doesn't have the status of legendary scene-birthing clubs like CBGB, the Masque or even The Brewery. However, it was a solid, no-frills, small-capacity rock club, and one of the few such places in Raleigh to admit underage music fans. I think that's what I'll miss about the Berkeley: all those wild, enthusiastic teenage kids who made shows at the club so much fun.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Last call."

PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

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