Last March, when Nick Karres, owner of the Double Door Inn, told me Central Piedmont Community College was buying the property that his storied club had occupied for 43 years, one thought sprung to mind: "We need to produce a documentary to preserve the history of this place."
I've known Karres for more than 25 years. To know him is to understand a man of compassion, kindness and generosity. Though he had little reason to think a documentary would actually happen, Karres offered to help however he could, providing contacts and the access we needed.
I talked to one TV station whose executive producer asked, "What's the Double Door Inn?" That's when I realized the project was going to be considerably harder than I had thought.
Then I approached Rick Fitts, a former colleague from my public television days. He not only knew the Double Door, he'd performed there with at least four different bands. Fitts had left public television and recently partnered with former WSOC-TV news anchor Kim Brattain on a video production company. He suggested we all have lunch.
A native of Charlotte, Brattain wasn't just familiar with the Double Door – she had been going there for even longer than Fitts or me. Before our check arrived, we all shook hands and agreed to crowd-fund a documentary, Live from the Double Door Inn, that would tell the story of Charlotte's home of the blues.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Double Door Inn, it began as a modest little bar in 1973, evolved into a restaurant, and eventually began booking blues artists. Before closing its doors, it would claim the title of oldest live-music venue east of the Mississippi River. Its stage has been graced by most of the Charlotte area's finest musicians, including music-scene stalwart Lenny Federal, power-pop outfit the Spongetones; Bill Noonan, Gigi Dover and their '90s roots band the Rank Outsiders, alt-country act Lou Ford, and those Cabarrus County boys who made good, the Avett Brothers.
The Double Door also has hosted a long line of legendary national and international acts including Willie Dixon, Junior Walker, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Leon Russell, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. From Americana to zydeco, ska to alt-country, and jazz to rock, the Double Door has introduced local, live-music fans to an incredibly broad spectrum of music.
"You look at the pictures on the wall. You don't even need to say anything, you just look at the pictures . . ." guitarist Tinsley Ellis said in our interview with him for the film. "It's a rite of passage to play here. If you want to get known, at least in the blues world or in the roots-rock world, all roads. . . lead to the Double Door."
Like clockwork, on the club's final night, Jan. 4, 2017, the Monday Night All Stars played, as they had done every Monday night for years, but this gig would be their last on the Double Door's stage — a fitting end to a major chapter of Charlotte music history.
We had started recording performances and conducting interviews six months earlier, in June. After a single night of taping, we got lucky. Fitts happened to talk about our project with Chuck Bludsworth, who's worked on several feature films and lived in Charlotte for more than 25 years. He'd seen some tremendous shows at the club, and he eventually became our fourth equal partner. His camera work, design skills and connections proved invaluable.
Over the next six months, at the nightclub and in local recording studios, we captured more than 80 hours of original footage — mostly interviews, but also performances and shots of the crowds, the building and all the funky memorabilia on the walls. Along the way, patrons stepped forward to share vintage photos and video, artwork, audio recordings and even the "Tablecaster," the pecan wood, custom-made guitar we used for the cover of the Blue-Ray edition of the documentary.
We interviewed musicians who had performed at the club countless times, and some of the old-school, touring blues artists allowed us to tape original songs. Bob Margolin, Tinsley Ellis and Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks talked about what the club meant to touring acts as they drove their vans up and down the circuit, from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. Local musicians, including Jim Brock, Federal, several members of the Spongetones, Bill Hanna, Dover, Bobby Houck of The Blue Dogs, Tom "Mookie" Brill, Ziad Rabie, Gina Stewart and others all shared fabulous stories about the place, the performances, the music scene of their particular eras, and the audiences they played for.
My favorite tales were those Karres and the staff told about the '70s and early '80s. Karres's brother Matt, a full partner for the first 18 years, recalled luring people in with booze.
"We weren't doing too much at night and that was a problem. . ., Karres told us. "We decided to give away a keg of beer every Wednesday night. Now that attracted people, OK. But the problem was, a lot of those people weren't too well-versed in their social graces, and I'll be honest with you, the place in here seemed more like the Jerry Springer Show than a bar."
Mike Martin, who tended bar at the Double Door for more than 40 years, stood out for his frank assessment of the inevitable end.
"I've had a great time, met some great people," Martin said. "But when you sit here knowing that you're going to be starting over again, it's damn depressing and it's sad. And it's sad not only for me, [but also] for the rest of my staff, for Nick, because you're going to wake up on that Tuesday and know that, hey, that shit's done."
Jo Dawkins, who booked many of the early acts, recalled Stevie Ray Vaughan's 1979 performance. And the sound guys, Wendell Elliott and Craig Hanks, spoke of the sonic qualities of the room. Charlotte music-scene veterans Rick Booth, Daniel Coston and Dan Morrill delved into the history of the place, and even though I'd seen shows at the Double Door for 30 years, the stories of how the bar came to be and managed to survive for so long were fascinating and new.
Our primary objective in making Live from the Double Door Inn was to preserve the history and sense of place. Secondarily, we hoped to show how the venue played an important role, not only for the local music scene, but as an important stop for touring musicians who played up and down the east coast.
What shouldn't have been surprising, yet still caught us a little off guard, is how everybody treasured the time they got to spend with Karres. To a person, they regarded him as a mentor who had helped them as individuals, the music community as a whole, and, the city of Charlotte during a crucial period in its history. We could have made an entire film based on just the recollections of benefit shows, birthdays, first dates and a handful of weddings and memorial services that were held at the nightclub. Instead, we focused on the music and the people.
With transcripts from the interviews, Brattain threaded together a "script," using only the answers to our questions. We didn't have to use a narrator, even though several talented people offered to serve in that role. Brattain and Fitts pored over hours of video to cherry-pick the best footage and painstakingly weaved in dozens of vintage photos, old songs, and graphics.
We're proud of the film and humbled by the support from so many people along the way, but watching a movie premiere that you helped produce in front of a live audience that is so vested in the subject can be a daunting experience.
At 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night, more than 160 people showed up at the club for the private preview party. We set up large TVs, and when the lights dimmed and the film started, the place went silent, followed by laughs in all the right places, nods of recognition throughout, and even some tears shed along the way. And of course, there was music. Musician Tom Brill organized a bill that included the Parodi Kings and the Belmont Playboys, who performed a few sets afterwards and raised everybody's spirits.
Later that week, Bill Noonan, whose band was on stage the night Eric Clapton played at the club in 1982, wrote to say, "Really enjoyed the film, and think y'all did an outstanding job. Great editing...And the party was a most enjoyable love-in, all the way around. What a great way to ease the loss and ensure that the spirit lives on."
Steve Stoeckel of the Spongetones e-mailed with his own review: "How do you capture over four decades of history of a legendary music club in thirty minutes? You first do it from a perspective of a fan, someone who has been there and experienced the place, many times ... It's a perfect balance of humor and sentimentality, and as someone who has played there hundreds of times, I will attest to this: they nailed it."
I hope everybody who saw the documentary that night or eventually sees it on Blu-Ray comes away equally as satisfied.
Jay Ahuja is the executive producer of 'Live from the Double Door Inn.' He is a Charlotte-based freelance writer and veteran of public broadcasting.