Augusta-Aiken’s social scene has undergone a metamorphosis during the past 30 years, with many once-thriving entertainment venues ceasing to exist. A recent conversation with several “mature” socialites reveals the consensus that “there’s nothing like the good ol’ days,” when the metro area’s social scene was “rockin’ and rollin.'”
Several former nightclub patrons, musicians and club owners recently offered reflections on some of the many nightclubs, lounges and social establishments that have gone by the wayside.
Kim Midgett-Swain and her husband, Mike Swain, fondly recall the days when they were budding club-hoppers in their early 20s – eagerly making the club circuit when Surrey Center was the city’s hottest West Augusta shopping plaza and featured the now-closed Surrey Tavern.
“Before it was Surrey Tavern, it was Agastino’s,” said Midgett-Swain. “In the mid-1990s, everybody flooded to the far corner of Surrey Center where Studio 54 (later renamed Chevy’s, Coconuts then Surreal) and the Surrey Tavern gave you a choice to hear the best live bands, or the disco dance floor and dee-jay dance music,” she recalled.
West Augusta was hotbed for golf patrons
For visiting Masters Tournament patrons, Surrey Center was “the place,” mainly due to its proximity to Augusta National Golf Club at the other end of Berckmans and Washington roads.
Midgett-Swain fondly recalls Agastino’s.
“They had a piano bar and backgammon tables in the back. After work, that’s where everybody went. You got your hors’ d’oeuvres from Calvert’s and your crawdaddys from French Market Grille,” she smiled.
Brent Allen of Columbia County, is a former owner of Surrey Tavern.
“I owned the club when PlayBack, Tim Sanders, Bobby Bush, Lil Butch and TuTu D’Vyne ruled Augusta’s live music scene,” said Allen. “That’s when we attracted all the visitors from the Masters – people from all over the world. I’m talkin’ movie stars, pro athletes – that was Surrey Tavern’s prime time,” he recalls.
Allen owned the club in the mid-to-late 1990s. Annette Christian was Surrey Tavern’s original owner.
Bassist Willie Joe Perrin Jr., of McCormick, S.C., said he played the club when it was known as Annie’s 16th Hole, along with bandleader/guitarist Will Noble, saxman Bobby “Cigarette” Jones, drummer Junior “JR” Cook and pianoman Lasker Watson.
Matty Widener owned Surrey Tavern for about 15 years before the popular Highland Avenue venue closed two years ago.
Other once-trendy night spots on nearby Washington Road included Marti’s Faded Rose, which featured nightly live entertainment, and Marlowe’s on Bertram Road. Marlowe’s was later renamed the Great Escape and was most recently a hip-hop club.
Fat Tuesdays was also located near the Masters Theater strip mall, and is another hotspot-gone-away, says Dennis Williams, a Richmond County school teacher who said he thoroughly enjoyed visiting Fat Tuesdays in the early ’90s upon returning home from his stint in the U.S. Navy.
“Fat Tuesdays was a unique watering hole with its fruity-flavored, smoothy-type drinks,” said Williams. “It was never clear why they closed down – they used to have cars parked all along Washington Road. They definitely drew a large crowd – mainly on Sunday evenings,” Williams said.
During Marlowe’s heydays, Midgett-Swain recalls the club featuring marble floors with male servers wearing tuxedos and ladies wearing skimpy outfits resembling “Playboy” bunny costumes. “They were attempting to attract an upscale, in-crowd sort of clientele,” she said. Now a 50-something grandmother, Midgett-Swain rarely goes out to socialize anymore.
“I’ve had my days,” she said with a satisfactory grin.
East Broad Street attracted the party people
While the central hub of Broad Street now contains the hot-spot bars and lounges, old school Augusta party-goers remembered fondly when the east end of Broad Street was the attraction. They recall the Whippin’ Post – a dance hall at Sixth and Broad streets, where live bands ruled and a performance by the Allman Brothers Band in the mid-1970s is still the talk of legend.
Another notable Broad Street watering hole was Goldsmith’s, later to be renamed Word of Mouth Café, when catering guru Kevin Goldsmith sold the business to musician couple David Weston and Ann Weston.
By the early 1990s, Word of Mouth Café, located between Seventh and Eighth streets, became one of the premier jazz clubs in the South under their ownership, mainly due to its reputation for consistently booking top-notch musicianship, delectable menu offerings and a professional and diverse ambiance that warmly welcomed varying demographics.
“Godfather of Soul” James Brown and his entourage were frequent patrons of the club, which was a natural occurrence – considering the Westons were both former members of Brown’s backup band.
“James really enjoyed coming there – he was very proud of us and was very supportive of the club,” said David Weston. “It was like he witnessed his children finding success,” he added.
Weston then reflected on the evening when recording artist and jazz legend Grover Washington Jr. sat in and performed for about an hourlong session with the club’s house band.
“Our band opened up for Grover that night (at Bell Auditorium). So, I asked him if he would come visit the club after his set – and he did. I recall him and his band ordering food and I invited them to come up and he played his saxophone while we played ‘Rapture’ by Anita Baker,” said Weston, now a member of Aiken-based pop/jazz duo Preston & Weston.
A year or two after that memorable night, Washington, a Philadelphia native, died of a heart attack in October 1999. He was 56.
Concerning what some might see as a void in Augusta’s current social scene, Weston equates it to “different eras, different times.
“Like the song says, everything must and will change,” said Weston who made a cameo appearance in James Brown’s band in the original ‘Blues Brothers’ film in 1980. “I never understood why no one else duplicated our Word of Mouth effort,” said Weston – adding that he believes the quality-music, upscale-food business model could still work, even in the new millennium Augusta.
Low-key clientele flocked to upper-end of Washington Road
Moving toward Washington Road, party people fondly recall the Slow Hand Club, and the original Post Office before it relocated across the street to where the Legends Club and the Farmer’s Market currently exists in National Hills shopping center.
Also on Washington Road, a couple of piano bars attracted low-key customers who shied away from the disco-dance floors. Michael’s lounge was located next door to Tbonz steakhouse at the corner of Boy Scout and Washington roads, while closer to the Columbia County line, Henry’s Piano Bar was another staple for low-key, non-dancing drinkers. Both lounges featured acoustic piano players in the mold of the piano style exhibited by Billy Joel, in his “Piano Man” hit record from 1973.
Drummer Bill Tolbert led a band called “Bill Tolbert and the BTUs.” They worked a regular gig at a Columbia County nightspot on Bobby Jones Expressway, called Players. The 2,500-square- foot club featured several pool tables, a full-size bar and a large stage for live bands who gigged there, although the BTUs were the house band. The room was located near the Walmart complex on Bobby Jones Expressway, across from the current Golden Corral restaurant.
Tolbert admits local nightlife has gone through major changes, quickly.
“It’s almost like it happened overnight,” said the Jacksonville, Fla., native.
When he arrived in Augusta in 1988, Tolbert said he was touring with a dance band “and I liked the town and never left,” he explained. “It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said, noting that the Doubletree Hotel on Wheeler Road was one of the last venues to hire live bands on a regular basis, just a couple years ago. Drummer Michael Peele and trumpeter Eric Hillman were the most recent jazz-funk group to play the Doubletree on weekend evenings.
Towards the latter ’90s, younger, classic rock musicians like Jason Sabo, Adam Hatfield, Patrick Blanchard, Jamie Jones and Joe Stevenson started making inroads at clubs like Red Lion Pub, Surrey Tavern, Wild Wing Cafe and Somewhere In Augusta on Washington Road.
Jazz musicians found camaraderie
Wayne King, a high school band director and trumpet player with PlayBack “The Band,” recalls playing rooms like Big Daddy’s on North Leg Road. The club featured a weekly Saturday afternoon jazz jam session that attracted area musicians.
King also recalls Jazzy J’s, another jazz room featuring sax/vocalist Henry Johnson, drummer Mike West and pianist James McIntyre. Jazzy’s was eventually converted to the book store for Sandra Kennedy’s Whole Life Ministries inside the Master’s Plaza church parking lot across from Augusta National.
King also notes the VFW post at 15th Street and Wrightsboro Road, near the Medical College of Georgia’s new apartment complex zone.
“These were places where musicians and jazz lovers could congregate, converse and enjoy each other’s company,” said King. He also mentioned the late Tommy Gulley, Joe McCormick, Charlie Harges and Edith Dimond, members of Jazz Unlimited, an Augusta-based organization of traditional jazz aficionados.
Trumpeter Joe Collier recalls sitting in on various jam sessions, when coming off his main gig with the “Godfather of Soul.” And U.S. Army Band saxophonist Jimmy Easton called the local sessions “priceless.” “It helped musicians hone their skills,” he said.
Leonard’s Lounge with its revolving bar, is another Augusta nightclub of lore. Midgett-Swain said her mother took her there to see Frankie Valli when she was just a teenager – no drinking allowed, of course.
Perfect Picture bandleader David Heath, an Augusta native, recalls patronizing Third World, a live-music, disco dance club owned by James Brown. Though it only existed about five years, Heath said the club remains legendary among many locals.
“It was located on Laney Walker Boulevard where Charlie Reid’s Funeral Home is now located,” said Heath. Ironically, Brown, after his Christmas Day death in 2006, was taken to Reid’s Funeral Home.
John “Sonny” Pickett, a veteran jazz musician, offers a more vintage view of local entertainment.
“I remember when most of Augusta’s clubs featured six nights of live entertainment. That was the norm,” said Pickett, a retired Richmond County educator. Pickett, 81, did regular upright-bass gigs with pianoman “Doctor” Lasker Watson, guitarist/vocalist Will Noble and drummer Tommy Purcell.
Pickett excitedly recalls weeklong stints at the Cellar Lounge, then located in the basement of the old Bonair Hotel, across the street from the Partridge Inn on Walton Way. Partridge Inn has remained resilient as a relevant live-music venue, along with Shannon’s Food & Spirits near Washington Road.
Pickett’s wife of 58 years, Betty Clinton Pickett of Augusta, said she met “Sonny” when he settled in Augusta as a Fort Gordon Army soldier.
“I was an avid follower of the music scene – and in walked Sonny at one of these clubs. I knocked him off his feet,” she laughed. “Those were definitely the good ol’ days, when there was so much to do in Augusta,” she reflects. Mrs. Pickett is also a professional musician – and serves as organist/pianist at Bethel AME Church on Crawford Avenue.
Other notable former hotspots include Squeaky’s Tip Top on Central Avenue and the popular jazz café once known as Café Natural, then Café DuTeau, and now called Southbound Smokehouse restaurant. The “Café,” as it was affectionately called, featured Sunday night jazz jam sessions that attracted some of the most talented jazz musicians between Atlanta and Columbia. Again, the “Godfather of Soul” and his entourage were likely to visit the “Café” on any given Sunday evening. The restaurant-club was owned by Don DuTeau, also a talented chef, known for his creative food inventions.
In South Augusta, Super C’s restaurant was a known hotspot for young deployed soldiers eager for a dance club offering tasty Southern soul food and within proximity to Fort Gordon. Owner Charles Cummings, a former trumpet player and bandleader, was always ready to hire live bands, including guitarists like Patrick Redmond, Michael Biggers or “Double-G” George Gordon Jr.; keyboard-singer James “Kato” Taylor; vocalist Pete Mckie, drummer James “JT” Thomas, or Mike King on bass.
Also in South Augusta, Dean’s Bridge Road featured popular dance lounges such as Tiffany’s, Pappy’s and Donovan’s. King’s Lounge, the Match Box and Johnny’s Supper Club were located near Martin Luther King Boulevard and featured live blues and jazz. Johnny’s has since been converted to a church.
Damascus Road featured live music and funky dance floor jams
Just a few miles from where Gordon Highway meets Highland Avenue, two high-energy dance clubs were Augusta’s hottest R&B clubs on Damascus Road.
Throughout most of the 1990s, GeorgieO’s and Touch of Class were the hippest dance clubs for young and sexy grownups. GeorgieO’s was later renamed Stoppers, but maintained its image as a thriving dance-club featuring hip-hop deejays and the city’s hottest live, soul music bands, including the Soul Dimensions featuring Count Willie and Pam Bowman. Stoppers was known for its after-hours chicken wings and pork chop sandwiches.
Touch of Class, with its owner Ronnie Brown, started booking nationally-renown acts, featuring Roger Troutman & Zapp, Midnight Star, Lakeside and vocalist Phil Perry, in addition to a weekly live jazz night featuring the city’s hottest jazz artists. Touch of Class was noted for its two styles of entertainment under one roof; the jazz side catered toward older clients and the dance side with its deejay and dancefloor, attracted a more youthful partier. Buzz Clifford, Northal “Not” Gaddy, David Heath, Steve Mitchell, Ricky Chanin, Wayne Preston, Ari Brown, Jeff Watkins and Donald Ceasar composed the Touch of Class jazz-house band on Wednesday nights. Club manager Johnny Cauthren and his assistant, Columbus “Mack” McNeil, were the patrons’ best friends.
For reggae purists, Frederick Benjamin, “Urban Pro Weekly” magazine editor, produced a series of Bob Marley-flavored concerts under his i&i Productions. He also produced tribute shows to honor jazz legends Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. His productions were typically held at BL’s Restaurant, Touch of Class, Club 706, Richmond County Parks and Recreation Department’s Boathouse and Sky City on Broad Street.
Coco Rubio’s Soul Bar is another Broad Street staple that paid homage to James Brown mainly with interior decor full of posters and paraphernalia with Brown’s image. Since the early 1990s, Soul Bar has remained an Augusta live-music tradition and recently featured jazz jam sessions led by Michael Tanksley. Jazz promoter Karen Gordon, along with her brother, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, also remain committed to the local live music scene.
Former Cotton Patch owner offers vintage reflections
“Captain” Bob Samples, 78, and his wife, Cynthia “C” Samples, both of Augusta, also have fond memories of several night-life spots in Augusta that no longer exist.
Samples, a former co-owner of the Cotton Patch on Reynolds Street, said he bought the club in 1989, but sold his interest about three years later. He recalls booking saxophonist Ron “Dog” Norwood and his band at the Cotton Patch.
“Ron could play that horn,” Samples said, and his wife, the late Richardean Wright Norwood, was manager/bartender of the Penthouse Lounge, the nightclub located atop of the Ramada Inn Hotel on Broad Street. The glass-encased nightclub featured the only panoramic view of Augusta’s skyline across the Savannah River into rural Aiken County, Samples said.
He also recalls a place called Fattz Café and another, Kittens Corner, which was a lounge on Dean’s Bridge Road where the Cortez Greer Band enjoyed steady performances throughout the 1970s.
North Leg Road is where a country dance bar, called Rascal’s, featured live bands and a riding bull.
Musicians like Steve Chappell, Ron Gibbs, Rick Montgomery, Steve Cheeks, Derek Tesh, Gary Oxton, Mark Jones and Richard Matthews were notable figures on the country music circuit and played many of the South Augusta country spots, including the Honky Tonk on Gordon Highway and the nearby Safari Lounge on Peach Orchard Road. The Silver Bullet remained a mainstay bar on Milledgeville Road until shutting its doors within the past few years. The Blind Pig on Broad Street, was owned by guitarist David Bryan and was a live-music staple in the 1990s.
Starr Tricoche of Aiken, recalls weekend treks to the Lakeside, a soul music getaway off Gordon Highway near Fort Gordon Gate 1.
“It actually sat on a lake and was very picturesque,” said Tricoche, an Aiken vocalist and Starr & Grooveline bandleader. She also recalls the nightlife of 1980s Augusta.
“Saints was a dance club inside of the Doubletree Hotel on Wheeler Avenue, Adam’s was the dance spot inside Holiday Inn off Washington Road and we also went to the Top of the Hill on Gordon Highway. Top of the Hill was renamed Velvet Lounge after reopening from fire renovations in the mid-2000s, and remains popular.
Tricoche shows love to the Sugar Shack Lounge, a live-music club in Clearwater, S.C., managed by Nelson Curry, leader of the Sugar Shack recording group. Though the Sugar Shack only enjoyed a relatively short life, the variety of live bands was a recent refreshing resurgence of a former era, said Tricoche.
She recalls nightlife in Aiken County when clubs like the Ponderosa, Pappy’s II, Quality Inn and Baby Grand stood tall and competed heavily against Augusta’s top dance clubs. She also noted bandleader Tony Howard’s transition to a popular dee-jay/karaoke specialist primarily at Applebee’s eatery on Washington Road. Rose Bass and son Mickey Bass were proprietors of the Main Event, a 24-hour lounge in North Augusta.
Allen, the one-time owner of Surrey Tavern, also remembers when Augusta had its share of dance clubs, such as the Dynasty behind Regency Mall. The club is now called Private I, and attracts an older R&B dance clientele typically on Sunday nights.
“I also remember Excaliber (formerly Great Escape and Marlowe’s), Zanadu, Juke Box, Gin Mill, Infinity’s, Crow’s Lounge and Red Lion. There was also a club behind the Shoney’s on Washington Road, but I can’t recall the name,” said Allen, who is a professional dance instructor. “It’s a fact, there are no more major dance clubs around the Augusta area.”
Don Rhodes, a longtime entertainment writer with The Augusta Chronicle, offered his perspective concerning some of the previously popular nightspots.
“Other bars that no longer exist include Reflections on Walton Way, which is now a vacant lot next to S&S Restaurant,” he said. “Two other popular clubs in the 1970s were The Playpen on Broad Street where the Ramada exists and the country music nightclub Coyote’s on Peach Orchard Road.”
Rhodes also noted Bill’s Country Club, which featured country singer Bill Findley with vocalist Helen Coffey. He also credits pianist/vocalist Marilyn Adcock and piano-performer Jerry Harris for their contributions to Augusta’s live-music legacy.
Some musicians and patrons believe the downturn on the local social scene is due to the impact of policies enacted under the current administration of Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree.
They’ll note that potential partygoers are far less inclined to drink and drive under the Sheriff’s Office’s new rules, which impacts larger congregations of partiers.
Speaking on behalf of Roundtree, Richmond County Sheriff’s Maj. Calvin Chew provided feedback regarding the DUI policies. And he agrees that there’s probably some negative impact on nightlife, but rightfully so.
“Everyone, including club owners and customers, alike, need to be aware of our no-tolerance policy, when it comes to driving and alcohol. We typically make sure we step up our patrols especially when the bars are about to close – that’s when folks have had a few too many and often outbreaks can occur around that time.
“On a daily basis, we preach on not driving and drinking, and if you do, you will go to jail. No matter who it is, it could be someone from our force – we practice zero tolerance,” said Chew, who runs the Sheriff’s Office’s Road Patrol.
“With the rise of Lyft and Uber, there’s really no excuse for driving under the influence these days,” he said.
Timothy Cox is a former staff writer for The Augusta Chronicle. He has also worked for Gannett, Scripps-Howard, and Marietta Daily Journal in Atlanta. He’s also a professional musician and freelance writer in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and is a defense contractor editor at Fort Meade, Maryland.