The Legend of Speakeasy

On Friday, first day of June 2018, Joe Wilson, the owner of Speakeasy, made an announcement that he shared as a post on the Facebook page of the business. “After 18 plus years in the business the time has come for a new adventure in my life. I want to personally thank all the patrons and musicians that have played such a huge part of my life over the years,” he wrote. 

Within hours, the post generated tens of shares and hundreds of comments. 

“End of an era”, said Merritt McNeely. 

“I met my fiancé there 4 years ago,” said Justin McCoy. 

“Truly the only reason I ever came to Five Points,” read Lamaria Jameson’s comment. 

“Heartbreaking,” said Tiffany Gonzalez, “So many great birthdays spent here, so many amazing people. Can’t imagine Columbia without it!” 

“This pace welcomed me into Columbia, SC,” confessed April Lewis, “I went there not knowing anyone or where anything was.”

There were many more statements, containing farewell wishes for the owner, expressing sadness, and lamenting the fact that no other venue could ever be like the Speakeasy. 

Having worked with Joe, more commonly known as House, for the past year as marketing director for his businesses, and having been a patron of Speakeasy myself since I reached the legal drinking age, I felt in dire need of some sort of… Closure. So I decided to do my best at writing an article - a farewell piece to commemorate the venue that has come to mean so much to so many. I’ve interviewed House, Tony Lee, Reggie Sullivan, and have received written statements from Robert Gardiner and Mark Rapp, key figures in the history of the Speakeasy in Five Points. 

When I spoke with House, I made it clear that I do not want to focus on the present moment in my article and try to find out exactly what his plans are, or what will happen to the building in the future. Instead, I wanted to discuss the Legend of Speakeasy, its eternal spirit - what it meant to people living in and visiting Columbia, and what was it about the venue that captivated the hearts of so many.

House told me that him and his business partner, back in the day, first opened Delaney’s Music Pub - a venue that still operates in Five Points under different ownership. After the initial success, they were looking to expand and start another venture, the one that wouldn’t necessarily compete with the first. 

“Originally Speakeasy was intentionally opened up as a cigar bar and back then you were allowed to smoke inside restaurants. We just wanted a bar with good music, we wanted to go with that jazzy vibe, the old school, like you see in the old movies - dim lights, couches, musicians with the spotlight on them playing jazz - that’s what we wanted, a throwback to the old days. That’s kind of what we were doing.”

Having lived in Greenville prior to opening Speakeasy in Columbia, House recalls seeing bands like Hootie and the Blowfish, Root Doctors and Cigar Store Indians performing in small venues where you can sit at a table and enjoy a drink. He admits to being a big Sinatra fan, and has always liked that style of music. Considering his experiences in Greenville and his love for music, the idea for Speakeasy seemed a natural fit. “Columbia didn’t have anything like that - guys dressing up old school, suits and ties, no TVs. If people would come, they would come for the experience.”

Speakeasy kicked off on a high note: “Speakeasy was the breadwinner as far as cost benefits go I guess - I mean it was really a good, profitable, easy to run and manage place. Killed it! Absolutely killed it - because there was nothing else like it! Once again - you want to listen to jazz? That was the only place. And we used to have the late Skipp Pearson there all the time and he played a gig every other week for probably 10+ years. Robert Gardiner, Tony Lee, these guys - killed it!”

However, things changed quite a bit when a new law was introduced. “The very first month the smoking ban came into effect, our sales dropped almost ten grand. That was a big, BIG blow to us. You might say $10,000, oh my God, that’s huge! I don’t want to attribute it all to the smoking ban, but it’s one of those things - like for example, a guy comes in, spends $10 on a cigar, but he’ll drink two $20 scotches. So that’s $50. You have 10 people do that a day, which was easy, so that’s $500 times seven, that’s almost $3000 dollars a week, times that by 4 - it’s pretty easy to see how things add up.”

There was another factor that has affected sales in recent years. “The happy hour is not like what it used to be when we first opened,” admits House. “I don’t think happy hour in Five Points is what it used to be back in the day. But I don’t know if it’s necessarily a Five Points thing: people are working more hours, people are more stressed out. The new generation, the younger generation, just doesn’t necessarily do the happy hour. It’s a little bit of a cultural thing, too. We looked at happy hour differently - for us, you know, people my age, that was our social time! That’s when you did your networking, that’s when you did all the stuff that now you can do online. Text or email - we didn’t have that. That was the way to network, that was the way to have communication. No cellphones, either. That was a way to talk with peers, meet new people outside your job, whereas now you just basically get online to do that. You get someone’s phone number, you shoot them a text or you message them via Facebook, LinkedIn - you have all these social media groups and we did’t have that back then.”

House has noticed an interesting shift in Columbia’s jazz music scene that he believes also affected the attendance of music nights at the Speakeasy over the past few years. “Before, there was Speakeasy and one other place, or two other places, like Hunter Gatherer’s jazz night. But I don’t think there was any place like Speakeasy, that concentrated strictly on jazz music,” he points out. Things have changed since then: “I think we had a little resurgence in jazz music - while back in the day you would have two or three nights a week with shows outside of Speakeasy; now, almost every night of the week, you can find jazz somewhere. You can look in the FreeTimes, you can look online, and there are eight or nine different places that have either a jazz night, or some kind of jazz thing going on. So we just have more places now that offer that.”

Throughout the years of running Speakeasy in Five Points, House has never charged admission fees. He mentioned to me during our interview that one of the comments on his announcement post on Facebook had stricken a cord: someone pointed out that in Atlanta people are used to paying to see the show and be admitted into a venue that features live music. House had a different strategy. His goal was to get patrons addicted to the live performances to have them keep coming back every week. “I mean those live performances, it’s a different experience every time. You can get addicted to that stuff! It’s not like you go see somebody and they are playing cover songs; and yeah, they may switch up the order, they may switch up a couple of things, but generally that cover song will sound the same as the cover song they will play three days from now at another place. With jazz you don’t get that - every performance is just different… You’ve got people switching out, so you can’t have the same performance. But I just felt that to get people to come in to listen to that you should take a chance… ‘I listened to the jazz on the radio and I didn’t like it,’ someone might say - well it’s a whole different animal when it’s live. And once you come in and listen to that and sit down, an you are in the right atmosphere, with the right people, you kind of get hooked on it! I mean you’re just kind of like 'man, this is really raw!'… You know what I mean, the experience is just raw. It’s like a river - you never see the same river twice. Well you never really hear the same jazz composition twice. Because there is always a difference in each one of them.”

I asked House the hard question last - what will it be that he will personally miss most about Speakeasy. He said that the staff, the customers and the musicians have all become like family to him, and that of course he will miss them all very much. “I think what I’m going to miss most about the Speakeasy would be the uniqueness of the atmosphere. I’ve never seen a lot of people on their cellphones necessarily. It was a place that people went to to converse, and there wasn’t a lot of distractions. If you go to a sports bar, and people are running around, the music’s loud, there is so much going on. You just didn’t have that in a place like Speakeasy. We didn’t have TVs, the music was never too loud, it wasn’t crazy. Always a chill atmosphere. You wanted to go there and sit down, and you wanted to talk, you wanted to pay attention to whomever you were there with, to whomever you were meeting. Because the environment was conducive to that. And I think that’s something that’s missed in today’s bar and restaurant scene. It was just a unique place to go in - and the emphasis was actually on the music and being able to talk and communicate with people that you’re there with.”

Reggie Sullivan who now heads the Reggie Sullivan Band and has successfully built a career of performing music has started playing at the Speakeasy during his first semester at the University of South Carolina. “I was also playing in school a little bit but that’s when I started playing gigs. Hunter Gatherer, Speakeasy, and then the third gig was a band called Sabor - we played at a salsa club that used to be on Beltline - it’s closed down now, but back in the day it was called Salsa Cabana. That’s how I got better - those gigs made me a better musician.”

I asked Reggie to describe what Speakeasy was like back in the day. “You know, it was a cigar bar. So… They had three or four cigar displays on the bar: you kind of pick out your cigar, you can go sit down on the couch, lay back and enjoy… Just alive. A lot of people came, it was always packed, always super laid back. It was a smokeys bar, but it was so cool, man… Monday nights they would have an all-night happy hour. I was in college, and on Monday nights we would have men’s meetings. The Monday Night Men’s Meetings. It was pretty much all music students, and every Monday night we would go to Speakeasy for their all-night happy hour. It started out with 3-4 guys and by the end it was 25 or 30 of us. It was crazy. We just kept putting tables together because we couldn’t fit behind the bar. That’s what Speakeasy was like, kind of like a gathering spot. Everyone met there to unwind. They stayed open until 4 am back in the day. 4 pm to 4 am. So you would hang out there as long as you wanted to.”

I was determined to find out what, in Reggie’s eyes, has always set Speakeasy apart from other venues, what had never changed thought the years it has been around for. “Music - that’s the one thing they ended up holding onto for the longest. They always kept their music. Especially on Saturday nights and Thursday nights - because you always knew you could go there, for Tony Lee or Robert Gardiner. Or the big band, Columbia Jazz Orchestra, every other Monday. That was ridiculous - there was no way you could see a 17 piece big band anywhere else in town! Don Russo used to play a gig there. I probably played in four or five groups at Speakeasy. Speakeasy was like a rite of passage I feel like for musicians and certain types of college students.”

I asked Reggie if he thinks that the closing of Speakeasy will have any lasting effects. “I think it’s definitely going to affect Columbia jazz scene, at least for a while. Because it was a pretty major club for music and there was a certain amount of freedom you had at Speakeasy musically that mainly you can’t get at other clubs here. Because if you are playing for people eating food at a restaurant, there is a lot of barriers. It was easy to play at Speakeasy - you don’t have that freedom in other places. You know, sometimes playing at Speakeasy felt more like a concert than a gig. Sometimes you have to play for people that don’t care, or sometimes you are playing music for people that are eating, and the restaurant tells you to be quiet the whole time, because food is king always. But Speakeasy was about playing music for the people, and they came in there for that. The main thing that we have lost is the place that had that freedom of self-expression with the music flowing as freely as we could play it there.”

Reggie told me he will miss recommending Speakeasy to the visitors and the newcomers. “I’m going to miss having Speakeasy to brag on for music. And now we just kind of have to talk about it in the past. And that’s kind of a bummer. And now it’s not there anymore… You always knew what kind of night it was and what type of music was playing.”

One of Reggie’s first gigs at the Speakeasy was with Robert Gardiner’s band. I was unable to schedule an interview with Robert, but he kindly sent me a statement that I promised to include in its entirety. “I have wonderful memories of playing at the Speakeasy! It was a very important part of my life and central to our jazz scene here in Columbia. The Speakeasy was my musical home for 15 years, it is where I had the most fun making music and home to experiences I will never forget. We were able to play jazz exactly the way we wanted to play it. We were able to experiment and be creative. The Speakeasy welcomed a crowd that included people of all ages and walks of life. The Speakeasy ‘scene’ allowed for the development of many special friendships that will last a lifetime…”

Another Speakeasy ‘regular’, Tony Lee, head of the Tony Lee Group, spoke to me about finishing on a “high note”. Recently, he noticed a surge in attendance of his Thursday night gigs, and said it reminded him of the old days at the Speakeasy. He observed a new crowd of young patrons that started coming to his gigs regularly, and each time they brought more of their friends along with them. That deeply inspired him: “It’s a different kind of attention, a new crowd. Regulars come and then stop coming, but this new crowd felt exactly like the crowd we had on Thursdays 8-10 years ago. It was exciting EVERY Thursday night, and that’s how it was for the last few weeks of Speakeasy’s existence.” 

Tony told me that Tony Lee Group formed in Speakeasy. One of the original members of the band moved to Asheville, and the group took on the rotating nature, featuring and highlighting a different musician every month. Before, he told me, the rotation was weekly, which proved to be quite chaotic. The group always had fun performing at the Speakeasy. When I asked Tony whether or not Tony Lee Group will look for an alternative venue to host regular performances, he didn’t sound so sure: “We will definitely give it a shot, but we don’t want to be disappointed. I’ve always told the band that what we have here at the Speakeasy is a very special situation. We’ve tried playing at other venues before but it was just never the same. So it’s like going home again… We will try, but it will never be like Speakeasy. I’ve always said to the group that we should treat every performance, every week, like it could be the last. And I am glad that things ended on a high note, at least with our shows.”

Mark Rapp who was selected to succeed the late Skipp Pearson as the South Carolina Jazz Ambassador, who frequently performs music and successfully runs Cola Jazz - an initiative that has grown over the past few years to include a popular jazz festival and a summer camp for budding musicians, found a few minutes to answer a couple of my questions in writing.

I asked him to share where he was in his career as a musician when he first got introduced to Speakeasy. “10 years ago, I released my debut record in NYC at the Blue Note and that performance earned me a spot at the famed Newport Jazz Festival. Shortly after, I was living in Europe playing a myriad of clubs, festivals and event shows all over. Some “life” happened and I found myself back in Columbia around 2011/2012. Speakeasy was pretty much the only jazz spot in town at the time. Both Robert Gardiner and Tony Lee welcomed me on their bandstands and we quickly developed a great camaraderie. Eventually, I started playing some of my own shows on Friday nights and had a Wednesday night series for awhile.” 

I wanted to find out more about what it was like at the Speakeasy back in the day. “Speakeasy has always had a cool, underground, and welcoming vibe. The room sounds great for live music. It’s a unique venue in the Five Points area as it presents America’s classical music in the midst of typical college bars pumping out cheap beers accompanied by pop tunes. Speakeasy was on a different level musically and especially in the drinks they offered. Some great mixologists have worked there.”

So what really made Speakeasy different from other venues, I wondered. “Every venue has its plusses and minuses. Different venues have different decor, some are cleaner, some just feel more like home, some rooms sound better acoustically, attract different audiences, etc. Speakeasy had a long history and therefore a deeper root in the jazz community. It felt great in there, sounded great and the people who went there are some of the coolest people you’ll meet.”

Finally, I asked Mark what he will personally miss about the Speakeasy. “Everything” was his reply.