Friday, March 1, 2024

Isaac Tigrett and the Birth of the Blues (House of…)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. 1993 – It is somewhat fitting that former Hard Rock Cafe owner Isaac Tigrett is driven to the entrance of his new House of Blues eatery/nightclub in the Bluesmobile from the movie The Blues Brothers.

In white letters on the side of this gaudy, yet functional, slab of Tigrett memorabilia are the words, “On a mission from God.”

“Sorry I’m late,” he says as he lumbers out from the passenger side at 2:30 p.m. for a scheduled 1 p.m. interview. He’s all smiles, in incredibly good spirits, but it’s not known why until the next day. Then, word gets out that Tigrett and the investment arm of Harvard University are close to a deal to finance his vision of a full-service blues-culture franchise (the deal was completed in late July ’93).

Mr. Tigrett is on a mission, all right, but like the Saturday Night Live skit that became a $40 million movie, he’s had to face some hard questions of authenticity. It’s the usual “motivation check” given to white entrepreneurs who deal in black musical forms, and this “Southern liberal” is ready.

He’ll tell you that, as a teen-ager, he chauffered blues legends Furry Lewis and Bukka White around Memphis, just to be near those “musical gods.” He’ll point out that all the art on his walls is by African-Americans from the Mississippi Delta region and New Orleans. He’ll show you the TV screens at the bar that give information about the blues artists being played over the public address system of the downstairs dining room. He’ll tell you about the successful Gospel Brunch every Sunday.

Still, the November 1992 opening of the charter House of Blues in Harvard Square caused several prominent members of the black community to question the propriety of this white man’s re-creation of a Delta venue. The House of Blues is a juke joint like Jake and Elwood were Sam and Dave.

But Isaac Tigrett keeps forging ahead, putting in those double-digit hours and often traveling in his private railroad car so he can get some work done.

“It’s all Dan Aykroyd’s fault,” he says, leaning forward in a chair whose back bears the likeness of Frank Sinatra. Above his head is a painting of Tigrett’s guru, the Indian avatar Sai Baba, with the words “Who Do You Love?” curving around his glowing orange presence.

With word-heavy art on the walls and a sampling of the trademark Tigrett sloganeering (“Hurt Never, Help Ever”), there are so many free-form notions floating around the small room that it’s easy to feel you’ve just crept into the head of an adman who’s working on a Benetton campaign.

Back at work

Wearing his trademark high-collared black shirt, and drinking an amber beer, the self-professed “music groupie” sits in the green room of his newest venture and tries to explain, maybe as much to himself as to the reporter, why he ended his retirement after less than four years.

“Danny (Aykroyd) and a few other people have been trying to get me to come back and do something I love,” he says, then adds, “plus I wanted to save my marriage (to Ringo Starr’s ex, Maureen Starkey). When I had the Hard Rock, my wife kept threatening to leave me because I was never home. After I retired, though, she said I was home too much.” Another big laugh. He’s in a great mood.

Based in Dallas, Tigrett pocketed $30 million selling his piece of the Hard Rock in 1988. He claims to have opened the House of Blues mainly “to educate people to the fact that blues is the biggest influence on American music since the ’20s and ’30s.”

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, Harvard University, that pillar of academics, is ready to pump an estimated $32 million into what Tigrett calls “the juke joint of the ’90s” because it expects a big, big return on its money.

The Aeneas Group Inc., which manages more than $1 billion of Harvard’s endowment fund, will help finance the openings of House of Blues clubs in New Orleans and Hollywood (in late 1993 and early 1994, respectively), provide start-up capital for a new blues record label and a syndicated radio show and fund the acquisition of sites for future clubs in New York, Chicago and London.

“Isaac is both a creative genius and a successful businessman,” Aeneas Group partner John Salley says. “We’re certain that this is just the beginning of a long and profitable relationship with Isaac and the House of Blues.”

A blues boom

Spurred by a blues revival caused by CD reissues and bigger and better blues festivals, the House of Blues and its investors are riding the crest of this new popularity. But Tigrett insists that the inspiration is not to get rich off the blues.

After the star-studded grand opening, which Boston Globe music critic Steve Morse called “the biggest event in local blues history,” the blacklash began. In an interview with a Boston Globe reporter, Cambridge Mayor Ken Reeves called the House of Blues “a major commercialization and rip-off of the African-American culture.” Others wondered aloud why almost the only blacks in the club could be found onstage.

“We’re not stealing African-American culture, we’re celebrating it,” Tigrett says. “There has been little claim of the blues by the black community, and we’re trying to change all that. I see the House of Blues as a bridge over bigotry, and we’re doing everything in our power to get more African-Americans to come.”

Koko Taylor, a frequent performer at the H.O.B., explains the reluctance of African-Americans to embrace the blues this way: “Some blacks see the blues as the music of slavery and oppression and segregation, but blues, at least the way I sing it, isn’t sad music. It’s joyful music. It don’t make me think back at how bad things used to be; it makes me look forward to how much fun we’re gonna have tonight or the next night.”

Guitarist Lonnie Brooks, another House regular, agrees with Ms. Taylor’s explanation. “The older blacks don’t want to be reminded of the past, and the younger folks would rather listen to their own thing, like rap,” he says.

Sherman Holmes of the Holmes Brothers, one of the H.O.B.’s most popular acts, welcomes the idea of a chain of blues clubs, even if it means adding a little gloss to the raw and gritty music of the beat-down South.

“It’s real hard for a blues group to make a living on the road, so I’m all for anything that’ll help out. Most of our audiences are white, but that doesn’t matter to me. As long as there are people who want to listen, then we want to play for them.”

Still, Mr. Holmes has no pretenses that the House of Blues is a full-scale re-creation of a Delta juke joint.

“That ain’t no catfish shack or whatever else it’s trying to be,” he says, with a big laugh. “It’s the Hard Rock Cafe of the blues, man.”

Returning a favor

The House of Blues has quite a few holdovers from the Dallas Hard Rock (“That was my favorite of all my Hard Rocks,” Tigrett says), including that master of schmooze Nigel Shanley, who was the keeper of the door at the exclusive Cheese Club.

Mr. Shanley was Tigrett’s waiter in a restaurant one night, and when Tigrett ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon, which the restaurant was out of, Mr. Shanley ran almost a mile in his tuxedo to get a bottle from another place. When Tigrett polished off that bottle and ordered another, Mr. Shanley darted out the back door again and came back, huffing and puffing, with more champagne. “Service is a talent,” Tigrett told Shanley when he realized what had happened, “and you’ve got it.”

“You won’t ever see guitars or gold records or any of that Hard Rock stuff hanging on the walls of the House of Blues,” Tigrett says, as Mr. Shanley puts the guitar back in its case. “The Hard Rock defined pop culture for the marketplace, but the House of Blues is all about telling them where rock ‘n’ roll came from. We’re telling you that Bob Marley was a blues artist. Eric Clapton is a blues player. So was Jimi Hendrix. The Black Crowes. Aerosmith. Blues is everywhere.”

The workhorse

Tigrett picks up the phone and asks the bartender to send up another beer, which makes four in an hour, but who’s counting?

“This is not just the guy from the Hard Rock doing another gig,” Tigrett says. “I don’t own the House of Blues. I’m not the majority stockholder.”

There are more than 40 other investors, including John Candy, River Phoenix, the members of Aerosmith, Paul Shaffer and, of course, Dan Aykroyd, whose Elwood Blues silhouette is all over the place in the House’s basement gift shop.

Since Tigrett didn’t bankroll the venture, why was his involvement so important for its existence?

“What other workhorse can Aykroyd throw a collar over and do what has to be done?” he says, with a big laugh.

The blues is a feeling, and Isaac Tigrett is feeling just fine.

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