Thursday marks an important date in the National Music Centre’s refurbishment of the King Edward Hotel. The iconic neon sword sign will be taken down so that it can undergo a restoration in the morning, and, not entirely coincidentally, the first Eddy Night will happen at the National Music Centre at 7:30 p.m. Eddy Nights will be an ongoing series of talk-show-like events hosted by King Eddy staple John Rutherford during which audience members can hear stories and relive the good ol’ days of the venerable blues venue. Rutherford sat down with Swerve’s Going Out editor Jon Roe to talk about the Eddy, his collection of memorabilia and what made the old place such an institution.
You’ve had quite a bit of experience at the King Eddy, what’s one of your favourite memories of the place? It’s hard to pick one, but one of my favourite memories is the first time I got to play there. I had already become a pretty big fan of what was going on there, made friends with several of the local players and was going to lots of the international and national players that were going through. My own band got the chance to play and we ended up playing there many, many, many times. That was an exciting moment, to be drawn into that fold and to get on the stage to play like that.
And then there’s memories of some of the great acts that played there—there’s just too many to mention. I remember in the days when the stage was on what would be the south side of the building, right next to the entrance on the corner of 9th and 4th. The people that played there—Buddy Guy, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown—these artists bringing in their own bands from Chicago. These absolute killer players would be just tearing it up there.
Eddy Nights will feature a talk-show format. Will you have guests coming in each night? Yeah. The idea is that it mimics a late-night talk-show setting, so I’ll be hosting. We’re going to do a variety of different things, other than just having guests. We’ll have guests being interview for brief segments—kind of a magazine format. There’ll be some live music if the guest is a player. I’ll always play at least one or two songs in the course of the program. There’ll also be some recorded music, all sorts of recordings from artists who played at the Eddy. They’ll be playing the music before the show and after with a playlist including some of the artists that played there.
Also, I’ve been a collector of a lot of different music artifacts and memorabilia for a lot of years. I always pretty thorough with collecting the music and photographs and things from the King Edward Hotel. I was involved in radio at the time as well as working for a weekly newspaper called Calgary Tonight. I saved all the press photos and all the records and all the CDs and all the autographs and all the newspaper articles and all the ads—all that kind of stuff. I’m going to bring bits and pieces of that each evening and share that with people.
Do you have a piece of memorabilia that you’re looking forward to sharing? The record collection is really the key focus. There are so many autographed records, but some of my favourites include a record by Junior Wells that he signed in 1987, standing at the bar at the King Edward hotel. That’s a pretty rare record and autograph to have. Other messages from artists, like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and A.C. Reed and Otis Rush and Charlie Musselwhite and Koko Taylor—these are all pretty prized possessions . A lot of them—Junior being one, Gatemouth—man, not all of them I mentioned, but many of them are no longer with us. They’re very treasured memories and artifacts at this point.
As the National Music Centre moves forward with renovating and building on the King Eddy, what’s the most difficult part about replicating what the King Eddy was? I don’t think they can replicate it and I don’t think they’re trying to. That’s super important to point out that they’re not trying to along with pointing out that they can’t (laughs). They’re going to renew and certainly refurbish the building itself and be very honourable to that structure and the space. The organization and the facility that they envision is something that definitely honours and pays tribute to the King Edward Hotel and the fact that that particular spot on earth was a music venue in Calgary that has had such enormous impact on the musical community and just the community in general. It has almost a mythical reputation and storyline. But the King Edward Hotel building itself.. I think there will be a performance space in there, from what I understand, and there’ll be some killer blues shows there over the years.
I’ll turn that question around on you, then. Why is it so difficult to replicate the King Eddy? It was time and place. It was right time, right place. Blues always had a secular history of popularity and going out of fashion, but always rolling along. The players always seemed to ride those waves. One of the waves that was taking place in the early ’80s was that a lot of the clubs were turning into one-nighters. They weren’t six night venues where they hired a band for six nights. That had been the tradition in literally hundreds if not thousands of clubs across North America. These old blues guys, that’s how they travelled. They went from town to town and they stayed for a week. They’d live in the hotel above the place they were playing usually or a place nearby. They travelled around North America pretty much 12 months a year doing it that way. There were lots of old timers—it really affected them. It was a lot more difficult for them to go from one town to another in one or two night gigs. There weren’t very many Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday gigs out there.
The King Edward Hotel’s policy was six nights a week and eventually seven. They were hiring bands at six nights a week throughout most of its history. That was one thing that was a very attractive plus or draw for that type of touring artist. It just got onto the circuit and the reputation grew that it had a great vibe and great audiences, it was ton of fun and Calgary was a real ball of a town. All these guys said, hey, there’s a six-night gig up in Calgary. They’d head up and have a great time.
Sometimes they’d come up for two weeks at a time. I remember Buddy Guy playing there two weeks in a row, Monday through Saturday. Same with Gatemouth Brown. Same with Koko Taylor. Just incredible, legendary names. You could walk in there on a Tuesday night and they’d be ripping the place apart.
The other thing that is really hard to replicate was that it was a really seedy but heartfelt kind of room that had a vibe to it. You don’t just build those rooms. Those rooms come over time and are made with the music and the beer and the dancing and the good times and the bad times. That kind of history seems to ooze out of the walls of all these kinds of venues that’ve been around for many, many years. It’s always difficult to build a new blues house and just expect that it’s going to have that kind of feel to it. The King Edward Hotel had that feel right from the get go. It had the right ceiling height and the right grey paint on the walls and the right crappy sound system. It just all came together and everyone got it at the same time: the artists, the management, the community, Calgary musicians. It was like, “Wow, this is something very special going on.” A lot of people realized it. There were a lot of people that knew a lot about blues music in Calgary and when (The King Edward Hotel) started happening, many times I overheard people saying, “Wow, we realize we’re really in a moment here. This is a really special moment. This is not something happening everywhere. This is a moment in history.” Some people realized what was going on right at that moment.
Final thoughts? I love talking about it, as you can tell. That’s what I plan to do Thursday night throughout the series: tell these kinds of stories. And I want to hear the stories. It’s super important to me that people come to the show and bring their stories and their memories of the King Edward Hotel and tell me who their favourite artists were. Maybe we can play a song from one of them that somebody liked or remembered or got to meet. I’d love to hear more about the King Edward Hotel. I was there a lot, but I wasn’t there all the time. There were lots of other people in this city that had incredible experiences and saw and heard amazing music and were a part of it. Those are people I’d love to hear from.
King Eddy Nights: Thursday, April 4; Thursday, Aug. 1; and Thursday, Oct. 3 at the National Music Centre, 134 11th Ave. S.E. Doors, 7 p.m. Admission by donation. nmc.ca.