The prospect of any Atlanta establishment, let alone a tiny blues joint that began with a modest capacity of 98, celebrating its 25th anniversary probably never occurred to Eric King when he co-founded Blind Willie's together with musician Roger Gregory and two other partners in February 1986. Not only has the North Highland Avenue storefront (formerly the A1 Electric Company) with its signature guitar-wielding neon alligator become a nationally known and respected institution, it has persevered through an unpredictable economy and the commercial ebb and flow of roots-based music that fills the dimly lit room weekly. That's a testament to King's tenacity for a music style that has never been, and likely never will be, mainstream.
A lot of rugged, sweaty and intimate shows — 7,500 is King's approximation — and classic musicians have passed through Blind Willie's weather-beaten wooden doors over the past quarter century, which helped it win 1997's Blues Club of the Year award from the international foundation Keeping the Blues Alive. A showcase for an assortment of such local acts as Francine Reed, Luther "Houserocker" Johnson, Sandra Hall, Delta Moon, Chicago Bob Nelson, Tommy Brown, Burnt Bacon and longtime house band the Shadows, Blind Willie's has also consistently featured world-renowned talent for Atlanta's small but fervent cult of blues and Americana aficionados. Musicians such as Lonnie Mack, Taj Mahal, Maria Muldaur, Townes Van Zandt, and Keb' Mo', who might not have found any other place to play in Atlanta, highlight a diverse lineup of touring talent equal to any similarly sized venue in the South.
King, a blues historian who also booked a series of award-winning performances at the Atlanta History Center, can regale you for hours with anecdotes and memories of past performers. Here are a few:
Father of funky Memphis soul, Rufus Thomas: "A classy, outrageous guy who worked the Shadows to death with a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal. They came out smiling because they realized they had gone to school with one of the greats."
Mississippi Delta guitarist, R.L. Burnside: "He didn't have an agent or a phone so I had to call the drug store in his hometown of Holly Springs, Miss., and he called me back. He drove all night in a beat up Chevy pickup truck to get to Atlanta. He recycled the aluminum cans strewn throughout the back so he'd have gas money home. A total down-home blues guy."
Outrageous Cincinnati based jump-blues pianist, H-Bomb Ferguson: "Fishnet stockings, florescent mylar wig and a tank top. He was triple-X rated."