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Detroit’s Last Great Blues Bar

In a changing city, the 75-year-old Raven Lounge & Restaurant remains a spiritual home for America’s original music.

Under a starry Midwestern sky, Poletown is quiet, save for a wheezy melody spinning out from an open doorway into the late spring air. On an otherwise dark street, a blue-and-red neon sign beckons. Through the door, inside a century-old, two-story brick building, past a vending machine filled with Cheetos, Kools and Newports, past an audience of 20 or so bobbing heads, up beneath a stage framed with garlands of foil tinsel, a man in denim overalls and a straw hat seesaws over a harmonica. Around his waist is a tool belt filled with four, five—no—six harmonicas. A band of half a dozen men amble along a blues riff as the harmonica player bends and warbles and huffs, occasionally hollering into the microphone about a cheating woman. The audience whoops, and the song unspools to its melancholy end.

It’s Thursday night at The Raven Lounge & Restaurant on the east side of Detroit, which means everybody’s here to listen to the Delta Blues. Ben Moore and the Blues Express are in the house, ready to back whomever is brave enough to pick up the mic. There’s a family from Canada (including two more men in overalls), a few people from Alabama, a couple from New York and a dozen or so homegrown Detroiters. When the man with the myriad harmonicas—“Harmonica Shah,” he’s called—wraps, he packs everything up into a red metal toolbox and heads out. Kathy-with-a-K from Savannah, Georgia, comes around to take the drink order. “What can I get you, honey?” She deals a few coasters across the red plastic tablecloths and floats back to the bar.

During the last wave of the Great Migration in the 1950s, Sam Watts and Myrtle Freeman moved up to Detroit from Texas and South Carolina, respectively, meeting at her 21st birthday party and marrying shortly after. In 1966, they opened The Raven Lounge & Restaurant in Poletown, in a building that had originally housed a Polish establishment from the 1930s called Mazer’s Bar. Back then, the neighborhood was a mix of Polish, Italian and African American, its corners bustling with businesses, including half a dozen music clubs. The Wattses wanted to build a place where decent people of all colors and creeds could come to feed their souls with food and music. The menu is still filled with catfish, black-eyed peas and fried chicken, the performances still dedicated to blues. “Sam was one of the nicest Americans you’d ever want to meet,” says Tommy Stephens, The Raven’s current owner. “He took joy in seeing you enjoy yourself.”

Kathy-with-a-K swings by with a round of Buds and a Gin and Tonic. A gentleman in a suit has taken up the microphone, ushering in a crackling energy that erupts when he takes on the Z. Z. Hill song “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In” (also about a cheating woman). Between songs, he solicits the audience for personal details. There are two birthdays in the house, the most vocal claimant of which dons a blonde mullet and a colorful muumuu; her lanky companion is splayed across his chair, a glowing Bluetooth device tucked into his ear. Above them, a television screen silently, incongruously plays an episode of Modern Family. The singer slides expertly from monologue right into Johnnie Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars,” and the crowd shoulder-shimmies along.

Inside The Raven Lounge & Restaurant

“Can you just imagine?” says Stephens. “All those empty lots were businesses. There were hardware stores, bakeries—you used to be able to buy the best cheesecake just down the street from the Polish ladies.” Today, Poletown is indicative of what occurred across Detroit post-riot in 1967. Many of the neighborhood’s blocks have gone back to prairie, with a handful of abandoned stores and still-vibrant churches rooted like wildflowers amid the long grasses.

According to a 1992 Detroit Free Press article recounting citizens’ memories of the riots, the Wattses’ employees put up a sign that said “soul sister, soul brother,” indicating the bar was black-owned. The riot didn’t touch Poletown, but soon after, businesses were boarded up, and “the neighborhood just went to hell after that,” Myrtle Watts was quoted as saying. Even so—perhaps because it refused to pull up stakes—The Raven continued to be a draw.

Tommy Stephens began coming to The Raven in 1968. A Detroit city school educator from Greenville, Florida (the home of Ray Charles), he would meet up there with teachers and coaches to discuss school issues and swap stories. Over the years, he offered business advice to Watts, and when Watts died in 1983 his will named Stephens as someone Myrtle might consider approaching to take over The Raven. In 1994, when Myrtle was ready to retire, Stephens bought the club. “We didn’t change too much. This was one of the things Myrtle mentioned. We were to keep it old-school,” says Stephens, now 72. “Sam didn’t want any riffraff. We still operate that way to this day. Sam always said, ‘All money is not good money.’”

Over the last several years, Detroit has experienced a wave of growth, redevelopment and tourism, though the east side has yet to fully benefit from the city’s investment. Even so, tourists have begun trickling out toward The Raven, and Stephens has seen people from China to Philadelphia stop in, seeking evidence of the world he’s worked so hard to keep alive. “We’ve had the same feeling in this place for over 75 years,” says Stephens. “So many good souls have come into The Raven and passed away, and their souls come back to The Raven.”

It’s getting close to midnight, and the band is still chugging. The man in the suit polls the audience: “How many of you out there been in and out of love before? Raise your hand.” A chorus of “uh-huhs” and “don’t you know its” ripples forward. Following a classic blues preamble about the singer’s tension with his old woman, the band launches into a passionate 10-minute rendition of “Let’s Straighten It Out” by Latimore. Everybody is feeling it, and another round of drinks slides down like nothing.

Just before the band breaks, the drum punches out a familiar rhythm, and the crowd snaps to. Within the first few bars of James Brown’s “Get Up,” the crowd gets on up. The Delta Blues may have been replaced by funk, but The Raven Lounge is still right here.

Tip: Though the mural on the side of the building says otherwise, The Raven is open Thursday through Saturday. Delta Blues Thursdays are free, while Fridays and Saturdays host more formal blues bands and require an $8 cover. The Raven Lounge & Restaurant | 5145 Chene St., Detroit, MI

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