On a rainy night in Charlotte, a string of multi-colored holiday lights twinkle sadly as chaos ensues onstage at the Double Door Inn. It's a Monday in early January, the final night of the storied Queen City music club, and the Monday Night Allstars, which have performed in this space every week for the past 22 years, are about to dish out another set of thick, meaty, calorie-filled, Southern-fried funk, blues and R&B.
Off to one side, original bass player Rick Blackwell cradles his instrument, strokes his chin and gazes pensively into the mist of lights, as if he's having an out-of-body experience. Way in the back, on the other side, original guitarist Joe Lindsay stares down at the floor. At the right front corner of the stage, original drummer and percussionist Jim Brock bends forward and chatters nervously with friends in the audience.
As various other band members and guests plug in, tune up and talk, saxophonist Ziad Rabie speaks into a microphone at center stage about the importance of this Charlotte music institution. Some of the older members in the audience are well aware of its importance; they've been coming to the club since it opened in 1973.
"For many of us," Rabie says, "this place will live on forever, but what we want to do is make sure that we keep the spirit of the Double Door going forward into the future. Because the Double Door is like an artist — like, there'll never be another James Brown, there'll never be another Stevie Wonder, there'll never be another Michael Jackson . . . and there will never be another Double Door Inn."
What Rabie does not say is implicit: There will never be another Monday Night Allstars.
FIVE MONTHS LATER, the original core members of the Monday Night Allstars — Blackwell, Lindsay and Brock — are sitting around a picnic table at Common Market in Plaza Midwood, reminiscing on their 22-year ride as one of the best-known and best-loved local bands in the Charlotte area. The group had recently taken its first-ever break from performing weekly shows, but are now back at it, playing every Monday night at the Visulite Theatre on Elizabeth Avenue, just around the corner from where the Double Door once stood on Charlottetowne.
The problem is, a lot of the band's fans don't know the Allstars are still at it.
"People assume, 'The Double Door's gone, guess the Monday Night Allstars are, too,'" Brock says. "But we're not. Not yet, anyway."
It's been tough getting the word out about the group's new venue. On its first Monday night back, only about 15 to 20 showed up at the Visulite. Things picked up a little after that, but it wasn't until the past few Monday nights in June that more and more people began to trickle in to see their old favorite band perform old favorite jams like "Sing a Simple Song," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," "Tell Me Something Good" and "Kiss."
Brock says recreating the magic of the Double Door gigs has been difficult. "I'm not sure you can recreate something like that, you know, but we're trying because we want to keep doing this," he says. "I think the fact that after 22 years the Monday Night Allstars have become sort of a tradition in this town, it stands to reason that just because the Double Door went away doesn't mean this tradition has to go away. I mean, this town, you know, it tears down a lot of shit. You should at least try to keep some traditions going."
If ever there was a tradition to preserve, the Monday Night Allstars is a rich and worthy one. The group grew out of a weekly jam session in 1994 at the now-long-gone Stanleyville Grill, which occupied the corner of Seventh Street and Pecan Avenue in Elizabeth, where a Starbucks now sits. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Les Moore was the soundman at Stanleyville and wanted to put together a night where local musicians could come in and casually play together.
"It actually started out on Sundays," Blackwell says, "and anybody could come in and sit in and jam with us." Within a year, Moore got a job working sound at the Double Door and took the Stanleyville Sunday night jam with him. "It was still a jam session at that point, but eventually certain players started showing up regularly and playing together behind Les," Blackwell remembers.
Those certain players were Blackwell, Brock and a very young Lindsay, along with saxophonist John Alexander, keyboard player Mark Stallings, and a phenomenal singer and stage ham named Charles Hairston. "We'd play some of Les' tunes and other stuff and people started showing up regularly and it turned into a band situation," Blackwell says.
When the Charlotte Blues Society requested Sunday nights at the Double Door, owner Nick Karres offered the jammers Monday nights instead, and the players eventually began calling themselves the Monday Night Allstars. "Nick says to us, 'Let's try this and we'll do it until it doesn't work anymore,'" Brock says. "It ended up working until the day the place closed."
THE MONDAY NIGHT ALLSTARS weren't just random musicians. Blackwell, a Texas native who moved to Charlotte at 15, had first played at the Double Door as far back as 1975, when he performed in a jazz-fusion band. He and Hairston went on to become members of Mo' Money, one of the hottest R&B cover bands in the Charlotte area at the time.
Lindsay, a young South Carolina native who'd gotten a gig playing in a Carowinds show band in 1990, would come into Charlotte to see Mo' Money perform. He developed a friendship with Blackwell, who eventually brought the hot young guitarist to the Monday jam at the Double Door.
Meanwhile, Brock had long been an in-demand drummer and percussionist in Charlotte who first played at the Double Door in 1977 and worked with numerous area musicians including Don Dixon, Marti Jones and Mike Cross.
All three would go on to do serious studio work with major artists ranging from folk singer Janis Ian and country singer Kathy Mattea to rockers Joe Walsh and Joe Cocker to R&B acts including K-Ci & JoJo, Anthony Hamilton, Calvin Richardson and Stephanie Mills.
These were hot studio aces who needed the outlet that the Monday Night Allstars offered. "It was like a little release for us every week," Blackwell remembers.
By 1996, the Monday Night Allstars had gained a strong weekly following at the Double Door. People would come in to play pool, drink at the bar and watch Monday Night Allstars singer Hairston bend down on his knees during James Brown songs, dance with female audience members while crooning Otis Redding songs, and sing with as much passion and soul as any R&B great you could name.
Brock's son James was young and impressionable during those years, and Hairston's stage antics rocked his world. "He was one of a kind. Nobody else like him," James Brock told me on the night of the Double Door's closing. "One of the most amazing things I've ever seen was when Charles would sing [the Curtis Mayfield classic] 'People Get Ready' and step off the mic, and the volume of his voice — he'd walk around the bar — and the volume of his voice would keep up with the PA. Because he could project so loud. He'd walk around to people and sing to them. It was like church in here. It really was."
The Monday Night Allstars recorded their one and only CD, Live from the Double Door Inn, during their second year at the club. It included classic but not obvious R&B standards ranging from the Jackie Wilson hit "A Woman, A Lover, A Friend" to Marvin Gaye's "Pride and Joy" to Mayfield's "People Get Ready." The CD sold out immediately and the band had to print up new copies, which also sold out. It's sadly no longer available.
"If my memory serves correct, the place was packed every Monday night for two years straight after we put out that CD," Lindsay remembers. "You couldn't move in that club, it was so crowded."
BY THE EARLY 2000s, celebrities were showing up at the Double Door on Monday nights to see the Allstars. Tom Jones came in and sat in the front row the whole night. K-Ci & JoJo sat in with the band. And when the legendary keyboardist Al Kooper, a founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and discoverer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, was in town recording at Reflection Studio, he asked if he could sit in with the Allstars.
A notorious rock 'n' roll curmudgeon, Kooper amused the band when he assumed they couldn't play his classic song "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," which appeared on Blood, Sweat and Tears' 1968 debut album, Child Is Father to the Man.
"Al had been here all week in the studio and was just wanting to play," Brock remembers. "So he came in and did his thing, and moaned and groaned, and. . ."
Brock, Blackwell and Lindsay all bust out laughing.
"Rick put it best when he told Al, 'Play your little song, we got ya,'" Brock remembers.
Blackwell furrows his brow: "Who said that?"
Brock: "You did!"
"Yeah, he didn't think we could handle it, did he?" Blackwell says, and laughs lightly. "I don't know if I said 'little song,' though."
The three nudge each other. They're like brothers. Brock is the oldest, at 64; Blackwell is 62; and at 48, Lindsay is the kid brother. But the real elder sibling was Hairston, who died in 2009 of prostate cancer. He would be 69 had he lived.
"People are my first love and singing is my second," Hairston told former Creative Loafing music editor Jeff Hahne in 2008, a few months before the singer died. "It's fun to love people and have them appreciate what you do. It's the one thing that I've always taken very seriously in my life. I appreciate the love of other people — it's the strength to get me through what I'm going through right now."
Losing Hairston was tough on the band. He was the wild card. The crazy older brother. He'd come in around midnight, perform like a mad man, then leave. The others never knew exactly where he'd go. "We didn't even want to know where he went," Brock says, laughing. Then he gets serious. "But he showed up every fucking Monday night," Brock continues, "and he didn't care if it was two people or 200 people, he was on. Always on."
"Always on," Blackwell echoes.
Hairston would call out names of songs at random and the Allstars would charge into them. The band never rehearsed. It has not rehearsed once in its 22 years. The players just do songs they all know, and when they want to add more, they listen to recordings and then test-drive them the next Monday night.
"You have to realize, Rick had been in bands with Charles for years when we started this," Lindsay says. "And then I was in a band with Charles — the Charles Hairston Experience — and Charles and I also did a lot of acoustic stuff together. So we already had a very extended song vocabulary. It was real easy for us to just say, 'Hey, let's play such-and-such.'"
When Hairston died, the band vowed to soldier on. After all, Hairston had told them to do so, and he was the big brother. "They're talented enough that they can do that," Hairston said to Hahne. "There are other bands that wouldn't be able to work if I wasn't able to."
THE PAST SEVEN YEARS have been a period of many transitions for the Monday Night Allstars. They went through three replacement singers — Carey Sims, Mandyl Evans and Jody Gholson — before locking in on current singer Shana Blake, the band's first female member.
"We kind of wanted to try something different and we heard Shana sing here and there, and we just asked her if she wanted to do it," Blackwell says. "It's worked out great. She's been fantastic."
And there have been many other musicians who've come and gone over the years. The current lineup — Brock, Blackwell, Lindsay, Blake, sax player Rabie (the architect of the Bechtler Museum's Jazz at the Bechtler series), drummer Chris Allen, and keys player Rodney Shelton (who wrote Keith Washington's 1991 hit "Kissing You") — is as strong as any era of the Monday Night Allstars.
"We never considered stopping," Brock ways. "We never felt like just because the Double Door closed, that would be it for us. We did give it a little bit of a break before we started back, to let the bereavement pass. If we'd immediately gone somewhere else, it would have been weird."
The Allstars got several offers from local clubs including Hattie's Tap and Tavern on the Plaza. "We had eight or nine offers but none of them really made any sense," Brock says. "We looked at a few places and thought, 'Nah, we couldn't do that here.' Shag dance clubs. Hattie's. They just didn't feel right. And then the Visulite called and that's how we wound up there."
It's been hard. Everybody knew about the Monday Night Allstars at the Double Door. It was legendary. It had become much bigger than either the band or the club. For one thing, Monday night had been a big pool night at the Double Door.
"The sharks would show up and there was this whole other world going on in the back around the pool tables," Brock remembers. "They were there for that and for the music, too. But we don't have those folks now because there's no pool tables at the Visulite."
"The thing about the Double Door," Blackwell adds, "is that it was the place to be on Monday night. It was the thing to do — for a long, long time."
"Every cab driver knew it, every hotel knew it," Brock continues. "So people coming into town wanting to know what to do on Monday night would always hear, 'Go to the Double Door and see the Monday Night Allstars.'"
If Charlotte doesn't continue to support the Monday Night Allstars at the band's new digs, the Visulite might have to discontinue the event. If that happens, the core members say they may just hang it up for good. And the loss to Charlotte would be equivalent to the loss of a loved one. Or the loss of a great bar or restaurant. It would be significant.
"Yeah, if they pull the plug at the Visulite, my guess is that we wouldn't keep doing it," Brock says, and pauses for several long seconds. Then, with a big Cheshire cat grin, he adds, "But you never know! You never know about us. We've been through a lot together."
Watch the Monday Night Allstars with the late Charles Hairston singing Earth, Wind and Fire's "Shining Star":
Watch the Monday Night Allstars today, with singer Shana Blake, performing "Congo Square":
Watch a tribute to the late, great Hairston: