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Richard King passes torch, sells The Blue Note, Mojo's

Wednesday, July 9, 2014 | 3:00 p.m. CDT; updated 12:07 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Richard King is selling The Blue Note to Wisconsin theater owners Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie. King will still remain active with Thumper Entertainment, and the new partners want to maintain King's commitment to the venue and the bands it brings to Columbia.

COLUMBIA – The first time Matt Gerding and Scott Leslie offered to buy The Blue Note seven years ago, Richard King wasn't ready to sell.

But they made a second attempt last year, when King's mind was more on his future than his business.

"Heart surgery changed my priorities," he said.

King says he's been happy and healthy since the surgery in 2012, but when the second offer arrived, it just felt right.

After 34 years of live music, countless memories and several suitors, King, 60, will cede control of two Columbia institutions to the duo from Wisconsin. He's signed a deal, expected to close in October, to sell The Blue Note and Mojo's. Neither side would reveal the selling price.

The buyers also will receive what King described as a "small stake" in Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ organizer Thumper Entertainment, where King will remain an active partner.

"I love what I do," he said. "But somebody could do a much better job."

And he said he thinks Gerding and Leslie are the right guys for the job. "They're going to blow Columbia away," King said.

A Majestic resume

Gerding is a Columbia native. He met Leslie, a musician, in Los Angeles when he was working as a booking agent, and the two traded horror stories about the badly run venues Gerding was booking and Leslie was performing.

By 2005, they knew that they had to have their own club, a place bands would love and agents wouldn't hear complaints about the next day.

Two years later, they opened the Majestic Theatre in downtown Madison after restoring its original vaudeville decor. Seven years later, Gerding, Leslie and their century-old venue's events bear uncanny resemblance to King and The Blue Note.

King Street Live, an annual summer concert series featuring the likes of The Head and The Heart this year, is the Majestic's version of King's Ninth Street Summerfest. The way Gerding describes a 1980s vs. 1990s dance party sounds a lot like a Wednesday night at The Blue Note.

But most significant for Columbia's music scene is what Gerding says about what drives him and his partner.

"We're big believers in live music improving the quality of life of people in a city," he said. "We love the human aspect of what we do and that feeling you get when you're watching hundreds of people enjoy listening to a band you're responsible for bringing."

Gerding said he thinks King saw passionate, music-loving guys when he agreed to the deal.

King went one further. "They remind me of myself and Phil 35 years ago," he said.

Legacy

Phil is King's old friend and roommate, Phil Costello. The pair opened The Blue Note at its first location on the Business Loop so they could book the bands they loved.

"There was a lack of stuff that we wanted to see and that should be in a college town,"  Costello said.

They got loans from friends, and people worked for free to get the club going. But money was often tight in the first few years. Costello recalls driving with King to St. Louis one night when a tour manager ripped them off; they got the money they were owed, but "things got ugly."

They tended bar. They set up sound. They even cleaned bathrooms in the old Blue Note, which King refers to somewhat lovingly as a "dump."

But they were also booking bands like R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as those bands were reaching national prominence.

By 1987, the club no longer relied on loans to pay its rent, and King became its sole owner when Costello left for Chicago to pursue a career in music promotion. Costello is now a manager at Red Light Management where he promotes bands such as Radiohead.

Kevin Walsh, The Blue Note's first employee, said that touring bands loved the low-pressure environment of the small venue.

"Bands felt like the pressure was off. They could let their hair down a little bit, and that made for some amazing shows," he said.

Dick Pruitt, bass player with local blues band The Bel-Airs, remembers how The Blue Note became a point on musicians' maps.

"Once they got in with talent agencies, those big acts came through and had a home in Missouri," he said.

King also booked dozens of blues legends such as Robert Cray and Koko Taylor in those early years on Business Loop. After the 1990 move to Ninth Street doubled capacity from 400 to 800 people, the crowds changed, but King's commitment to the blues stayed the same.

"There was a lot of music that came through this town that never would have without the Blue Note," said James "Smitty" Smith, member of blues band Chump Change. "Columbia has been enriched by that music and the cultural experience that came with it."

Some bands enjoyed Columbia and the hospitality they received so much that they would come into town a day early to stay with Richard, Phil and Kevin in the apartment they shared.

The stories are colorful. Like the one about the time King went to check on blues guitarist Buddy Guy between sets and discovered him cuddled up to an empty bottle of cognac.

Or the time the band Hüsker Dü broke up in his office.

But it wasn't about the extremes for King. It's always been about the everyday interactions with people.

"I'll miss hanging out with the bands and relationships I've had with the people I work with, and the agents and managers," King said.

He plans to be there during the transition and still come to plenty of shows, but he won't be coming to work every day to do what he loves.

King will continue organizing the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival as founding partner of Thumper Entertainment, which has managed the event with the city since 2008.

Words of advice

Gerding and Leslie will have plenty of wisdom on which to draw.

Costello has urged them to continue what's made them successful thus far, including booking their taste and continuing to put the bands first. He even advised keeping themselves anonymous as owners, so visitors' focus would be on the club and the bands.

"Keep a low profile. The club should have an identity of its own," Costello said he told them.

Pruitt said the two need look no further than his old friend, Richard, as a model.

"Pay attention to what Richard's done, because he's done it all. He's mopped the floor, tended bar, everything," Pruitt said. "That's how you run a business."

The new Note

When the sale is final, Gerding will move to Columbia to oversee The Blue Note's day-to-day operations. King has made just two requests: that he keep his staff in place and continue growing Mojo's and the adjoining Forrest Rose Park.

"Mojo's has got a boatload of potential," Gerding said. A summer movie series, weddings and more outdoor concerts are likely to figure into the future of the club's Forrest Rose Park.

He also recognizes the importance of Mojo's in promoting the local music scene and its talent. 

"Those are your best customers in the city, and you have to nurture that in any way you can," Gerding said. "We'll do whatever we can to keep local bands coming to Mojo's and opening for bigger acts at The Blue Note."

While Costello won't get his wish of seeing his best friend pass the 35-year milestone as an owner, he's optimistic about the club's future.

"It sucks because we didn't make it to 35 and now Richard's not running the place that everyone's come to love," Costello said. "But I want them to carry on the legacy for the club, and Richard, and I wish them the best of luck."

Walsh doesn't know Gerding and Leslie, but he's not worried about the change in ownership.

"Richard's better informed than any of us, and I trust him and I trust the Blue Note brand," Walsh said. "It's not like he's been wrong a lot."

Supervising editors are Katherine Reed and John Schneller.


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