Down a dirt road just northeast of Tallahassee stands one of two markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail within Florida. The sign announces the cinderblock building, set beneath the oak trees and a neon-lit tunnel, as the Bradfordville Blues Club.
A local couple opened the club in 1964 on family land dating back to the 1800s, hosting artists on the Chitlin Circuit, the venues that welcomed African-American musicians and fans during Segregation. Longtime Tallahassee residents Gary and Kim Anton took over management in 2002, becoming stewards of the club’s legacy. Patrons pay cash for the cover to hear national blues acts while the longtime cook, Miss Ernestine, sells catfish by the plate. Her stand predates the venue and she’s as known to BBC regulars as the music is.
The last few years have tested the small but mighty club, which sustained damage from a tropical storm in 2018 and rebuilt with donations. The pandemic only increased challenges, but the BBC has the support of the Tallahassee community behind it, says Gary. We chatted with him to learn more about the legacy of the Bradfordville Blues Club.
Can you tell me about the history of the club?
Allen Henry and [his sister] Inez Haynes built the club in 1964 as a community club. Before that—depends upon who you talk to and how much they’ve had to drink—there was a speakeasy back up in the woods.
They had a baseball team that played there from the thirties to the eighties. Large crowds would gather … then some people would stay overnight and they would make music around the bonfire. Impromptu music would be played with whatever instruments they could find and eventually when the club opened in ’64, some of that music moved inside.
They were closing down clubs at two o’clock and … some of the players would come to [Bradfordville] after they shut down Frenchtown [a historically black neighborhood]. They would come out to the club and sit in with bands that happened to be playing. I’ve gathered from two different sources that they saw B.B. King, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry play.
How did you become involved with the club?
In 1992, Dave Claytor reopened the club as Dave’s CC Club [after the club closed in the eighties]. He started bringing in nationally renowned touring acts on a regular basis and really put the club on the map.
Kim and I had been going out there for years. We fell in love with the place and helped Dave and his wife out quite a bit, helping them run the club. I would tend bar.
We were quite familiar with the place and really loved it. And so when Dave decided to close, Kim and I decided that we couldn’t let the club die. We had no experience other than helping Dave run the club and we were novices, to say the least. We had no idea that twenty years later, we’d still be doing it.
How do you find acts to perform?
We don’t have to find them—they find us. It’s a great problem to have. We have far, far more requests from bands to play there than we have opportunities. We’re only open Friday and Saturday nights.
Many of the older players, the first generation starting in Mississippi, Memphis, St. Louis, and Chicago, they would walk in and look around and say, “This is the kind of place I cut my teeth on. These don’t exist anymore.” We still have that sentiment from many of the bands.
How did you adapt to this past year?
Our last show was March 14, 2020. Of course, nobody had any clue how COVID would run its course. We would bring in a band and we would bring in musicians who would play online and on social media. And we have a tip jar. The bands donated their time and the community continued to donate to the club to keep us going until we started our outdoor shows in March of 2021.
[Since the Delta variant], we had the smallest crowd we’ve ever had since we’ve been running the club, just a week or so ago. We just received a grant from the federal government which allows us to pay the bands and without that grant and without the community support, the club just wouldn’t be here.