In this very spot back in 1952, in Bessemer, Ala., you might have found Henry "Gip" Gipson on the porch giving an impromptu guitar lesson to little Earl Williams, or anybody else who came and wanted to learn, and there were lots of them. Soon after, a few friends would have stopped by to shoot the breeze, have a beverage, and play. Black, white, young, old, it didn't matter; everyone was welcome at Gip's place.
Some 60 years later, not much has changed. Kids still come to learn and play, like the 15-year-old boy from Helena that Gip says is "every bit of Jimi Hendrix." Little Earl "Guitar" Williams still comes, though he’s not little anymore and now has his own following as a lead blues guitarist.Gip's friends still come by to play, too, but now they include big-name musicians who seize the rare chance to play at what’s grown over the years into a bona-fide juke joint—basically a stand-alone garage behind the house, converted into a stage and decorated with strings of Christmas lights and a smattering of metal chairs and tables that spill out into the yard. People come from miles around—sometimes hundreds of miles—to hear the music at Gip’s Place, with the capital “P” one of the very few nods to officialdom that you’ll find here, along with the $10 armbands sold to help cover the electric bill. No alcohol is sold, though coolers are welcome, and what passes for a concession stand is just a backyard barbecue, with Gip’s son Keith and Gip’s old friend Ms. Bay serving up fried fish, chicken wings, and sausage dogs. Many guests are regulars, while others are making a first appearance, but none of them are strangers for the simple reason that Gip has never met one.
In fact, if Gip's is famous for one thing other than the sweet sounds that emanate from the stage, it's the open arms Gip extends to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, money, or anything else. This is a melting pot in the form of a house party.
"Music doesn't care about color," he says emphatically, noting that an early inspiration was the race-transcending rocker Chuck Berry, who once gave Gip one of his guitars as a present. "It ain't about the black and the white.”
Over the years, Bobby Rush, Microwave Dave and the Nukes, Mikey Junior, T-Model Ford, Kent and Cedric Burnside, Liz Brown, and countless other greats have appeared (even Tina Turner was scheduled, though she got sick at the last minute and had to cancel). But you almost get the impression that for Gip, whoever happens to be onstage is less important than what the crowd takes away from the experience. He sees the music as a form of love itself, bringing people together and spreading a little joy. In the world according to Gip, it’s as simple as loving thy neighbor as thyself. The music takes care of the rest.
Gip’s faith in mankind is reaffirmed every Saturday when the fans come back, again and again, regardless of heat, frost, or football—even near-tragedy, as when a fire on the property threatened to take down the stage this past summer. The flame consumed some of Gip's most treasured possessions, including that guitar Chuck Berry gave him, but Gip got out safely, and the juke joint was spared. "More people were here that Saturday after the fire than have ever been here before," he says proudly.
Gip keeps the spotlight away from himself, but he's always good to play some John Lee Hooker, his favorite, or the "Uniontown blues" from his hometown of Uniontown, Ala., upon request from some of the older folks in the crowd. It all comes so naturally to Gip that he's been known to sing and play even when he's by himself at one of the three cemeteries he owns and where he still shows up to dig graves every day. Suffice to say, fame, even of the underground variety, has not gone to Gip’s head. If it translates to more enthusiasm for the music, that’s all that matters. While Gip’s Place is known for the blues, Gip himself is wide open to whatever kinds of music people want to play or hear. There are country nights, too, and gospel almost always makes it into the mix, fittingly enough for a place whose namesake never tires of quoting scripture and begins each Saturday night with a prayer from the stage. "God bring peace on everyone here."