Behold Nate Wiley, the tenor sax player with the growling tone—leader of Nate Wiley and the Crowd Pleasers, the house band at Bob and Barbara's Lounge for more than a decade. A monument in a sharply pressed tuxedo and crisp bow tie, his stare is piercing, his presence imposing. He runs the show and keeps the cool three nights a week in the once-again hopping bar at 1509 South St.
The lines in his furled brow and the patches of white in his always closely cropped hair hint at his many years in the business. But ask him about his life in jazz, and the answer you'll get is a short, pointed one.
"I don't play jazz," he snarls, his deep, gravelly voice resonating like his tenor
Taking the first intermission during his weekly Friday night set, the 74-year-old has taken slight offense at the implication that he's a jazz musician.
"I don't know how to play jazz," he explains. "I play liquor-drinking music."
Nate Wiley has nothing against the modern stuff that people call jazz now. But it's a far cry from the "house rock," the "bump de bump," he struts out three nights a week with Hammond B-3 organ player Frank McKay, 70, and drummer Cliff LaMar, 67.
Bob and Barbara's is one of the few establishments open at night on South Street west. And there's little indication it's one of the more popular juke joints in town other than the music occasionally spilling out the door to the street and the bit of light flickering in the stained glass window. But just ask anyone who's stumbled into the bar on a Friday, Saturday or Monday evening during the last 15 years: when the Crowd Pleasers play, the people come, plenty of liquor is consumed and a rollicking, raucous time is guaranteed.
The consummate entertainer, Wiley can read a crowd in a heartbeat and know whether they want to bump, swing or just get teary-eyed sentimental. He's a throwback to the bandleaders of the '40s and '50s, when the Count Basies and Duke Ellingtons played the bandstands of Philly clubs like the Royal and Lincoln Theaters, the Strand Ballroom, Pep's and the Showboat. Every crowd wants something specific; it's his duty to see that it gets it. In an age of prima donna musicians only out to please themselves, he's an anachronism—he only wants to entertain.
While the drag shows aren't necessarily Wiley's bag, he doesn't mind too much. "If there's gonna be someone running around in a bikini, I prefer it to be a woman. But it's good entertainment."
With his 75th birthday approaching on Aug. 16 and his 15th anniversary at the bar also just around the corner, Wiley is coming off a rough year. Last March he was hospitalized with a head injury incurred when he jumped to avoid being hit by a passing car.
"I hit my head on the pavement. Busted my lip, messed up my nose. Everything's alright now except I had to go get me some store-bought teeth. The store-bought teeth and the new horn, we're just beginning to get along."
But things are starting to look up again. He's always been a late bloomer of sorts: he didn't pick up a horn until he was 26, and he's just now getting around to his first recording, something he's always wanted to do. He and the Crowd Pleasers spent some time in the studio in November and are preparing to release their first tape, The Nate Wiley Sampler, this spring.
The result of a six-hour studio session at Big Sky Recording in Springfield, PA, the five extended jams on the tape successfully re-create the trio's sound and the bar's ambiance, with assistance from five or six players who often sit in during Monday night jam sessions and,for that more authentic feel, several of the bar's employees and regulars and a half gallon of Smirnoff Vodka. Bob and Barbara's owner Jack Prince, who also helped Philadelphia jazz guitarist Jimmy Bruno cut his first record when Bruno was a J.J.'s Grotto mainstay, is serving as producer. He's also providing the financial backing, with help from the bar's Camel cigarettes ad agency KSA. Including Crowd Pleaser staples like "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Honky Tonk," the recording is sure to be a keepsake for anyone who's done some time drowning sorrows in the pale light of the bar's Pabst Blue Ribbon signs.
"It's not easy to be the bandleader," says Prince of his headliner. "It requires real backbone and stick-to-itiveness. He's really up for the crowd, loves to play for the crowd."
The crowds have changed since Wiley first began playing at the bar in 1983 with the Joe Whalen trio. Back then, Bob and Barbara's drew primarily black crowds as one of the last of South Philadelphia west-of-Broad's jazz bars. (Many nearby establishments had closed or vacated in the '50s, '60s and early '70s due to the long-planned-but-never-realized crosstown expressway, which eventually became the Vine Street expressway.) Bob Port, who had owned the bar since 1978 with his friend Barbara Carter, retired to Kansas City in 1995 and sold the bar to Prince, who used to own J.J.'s Grotto. Prince kept B&B's largely intact—the clear acrylic lamps, the circa-1965 white-Formica-and-red-Naugahyde bar (made in 1965 by National Restaurant Supply), the raucous neighborhood parties advertised by poster-painted signs, right down to the bar's name. But feeling that the place needed a shot in the arm to survive, he added some new attractions.
Thursday became home to a now-famous drag show. He brought in Black Hole Productions, the booking company for Upstairs at Nick's, which scheduled Bob and Barbara's gigs for young, gritty anti-folk singer Mia Johnson, and funky, acid-jazzy Dr. Ketchup. He also established a signature drink for the bar, the Happy Meal: one shot of Jim Beam whiskey, one can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, $3. (This dubious invention is credited to Black Hole's Rick D.)
"It's one of those places where people don't ask questions," says one regular at Bob and Barbara's. "The atmosphere is healthy, this place just exudes it. You don't find too many places like it."
All of this has increased the bar's traffic. While Wiley has never had trouble filling the room, his audience has increasingly included the young clientele that comes to see Johnson and Dr. Ketchup and the gay crowd drawn in by drag queens like P.C. Mansfield. Once they discover the bar's homeyness, they're lured back for the Crowd Pleasers. Even erstwhile Philly rocker Tommy Conwell is a fan. It's become perhaps the only bar in the city where on any given night you could walk in and see men in sequins, college students in sweatshirts and ball caps, art students in dreadlocks and black gentlemen in fedoras with dates in tow, all sitting at the bar, interacting and getting along.
"At one end of the spectrum you have jazz clubs with quiet policies where everything's 'shh-shh' when the band's playing. On the other end, Nate plays the honky-tonk," explains Prince. "He plays rip-roaring stuff and really lets you have a good time.
"On a night when he's playing some real juke joint music and everyone's screaming, Nate'll say to me, kinda joking, 'Ooh, I didn't know I had this many fans.' He brings people into the bar. This is the house that Nate built."
The bar's become a sort of perfect-world model of racial, gender and generational harmony. Prince is the bar's backbone; Wiley is its master of ceremonies, its heart and soul.
It's Friday, March 14, and the bar is packed and rocking. It's Ken Andrews' birthday party. Andrews, a former bartender, is one of the drag show's founding fathers. Jokers dressed in nun habits roam the floor, blessing strangers. Plastic party construction helmets, gowns, wigs and falsies are de rigueur; a queen cuts a 6-foot hoagie behind the bar; free pizza is aggressively distributed. The crowd, to say the least, is eclectic, a cross-section of the bar's evolving demographic: the drags, the kids, the regulars.
"I don't use a book or a tablet or nothing to figure out what to play," Wiley explains later. "If you'd ask me what I'm gonna play at intermission, I'd tell you I don't know. When I get up in front of the people, I look around and see what I think I should play and usually it works out pretty good."
Given the festive atmosphere, the band cooks, tearing through "Honky Tonk" and the band's intermission theme, a nameless song with bits of Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In" riff peppered throughout.
"You can't play ballads to them kind of crowds… you gotta play some bump de bump… and make the horn growl. They like that. They like a growling horn." And while the drag shows aren't necessarily Wiley's bag, he doesn't mind too much. "I don't knock it, they're doing their thing and they enjoy it. You've got men running around in bikinis. If there's gonna be someone running around in a bikini, I prefer it to be a woman. But it's good entertainment."
When a curly-permed woman asks to sing along to a request, Wiley fluidly obliges. She's got more heart than voice, but he keeps on playing; she's having fun and so is everyone else. It's what matters most to the crowd pleaser.
Born in Columbia, SC, in 1923, Wiley was still a child when his family moved to Philadelphia "to get out the South land I guess," he says, sitting at the kitchen table of his West Sedgley Avenue home, the same home his family moved into all those years ago. More relaxed, but still looking sharp in tan, wide-wale corduroys, purple flannel shirt and sharp black suspenders, he continues, "There was better opportunity up here. My mother always said she didn't want me raised down there. She wanted me raised up here. It was better for getting jobs, for education, for everything."
As a youngster, he always loved music. "I always had a tune in my head. We used to hang around and listen to Lester Young, Lockjaw Davis, Count Basie, Erskine Hawkins, Willie Smith. I used to get a broomstick and move my fingers up and down it and riff with the guys [on record]. I told my good friend Leo Thomas, 'If I could riff like that, I'd get a horn.' He told me that I should. But my people didn't want me to get a horn, they thought I'd get TB."
A war came between him and that first horn. He was drafted into the Army, where he served seven months in the States and two years overseas during World War II in the Normandy campaign. "I was in the 463rd laundry company. I operated a washing machine," he chuckles. "That was until the Battle of the Bulge, and then it was a different thing. I did a lot of guard duty. Didn't do too much fighting or shooting, for which I'm thankful."
When he came back stateside, he resumed his job in the shipyards as a flame cutter, cutting steel. He would later work as a baggage man at 30th Street Station handling the mail, followed by a stint at Northern Metal and again at the shipyards, all the while playing music on the weekends. "I was a working man. Some people said you weren't a musician if you had a job, but you can't depend on music for money. I like cars, food and clothing, so I had to work. The sax was a hobby. I'd come home from work and I'd get the horn out after I'd eat and wash up. I'd put the records on and sit down and try to play with them."
After the army, looking to expand his knowledge of music, Wiley applied and was accepted to music school on the GI Bill.
He attended three schools in the Philadelphia area: Salacondro, a Glenside-based school with a branch at 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue), Hamilton School at 16th and Pine Streets and Granoff School at 18th and Chestnut. "I studied the saxophone, studied jazz," he says. "I'd been playing with the records and I was playing by ear so I didn't know what I was doing. I learned the mechanisms and scales. I wanted to learn what was what with the instrument."
"When you're up in front of the public, I feel as though you should be at your best, not up there in your underwear and those medallions and your hair falling all over the place."
The building that houses Bob and Barbara's at 1509 South has been a bar for as long as anyone can remember. Clarence Johnson, who's owned the barber shop next door, Process Junior's, since 1959, says the bar had two or three names previously, though no one seems to remember what they were.
"It used to serve real good roast beef sandwiches," Johnson remembers of the place, which now serves only snacks. "And for a while it was one of those places where you could put coins in the machine and get all kinds of soups and sandwiches, what's that called, an automat?"
Anyone who gets the chance praises present owner Jack Prince for his role in the bar's resurgence and its all-comers-welcome demeanor.
"It's home to everybody," says Butch White, a 46-year-old horn and recorder player who sits in with the band during the Monday night jam sessions. "Jack made it happen, it's been bumpin' ever since [he took over]. Thank God for Jack."
Yvonne Carter-Joseph, daughter of former co-owner Barbara Carter, agrees that not much has changed since her mother, who died a few years ago, ran things with Bob Port (also recently deceased). "It was a special place for my mom, and it's a special place for me, too. I met my fiancé here," she beams. She lives in West Philadelphia but still makes a point of coming pretty regularly. "This is home for me and I think a lot of people feel like that. It's one bar where people feel really connected to the bar itself. It was just like this when we came in here. I love Jack; I felt really honored that he kept everything the same, even the name."
Henrietta Shanes, who shares a house with Wiley and was a bar regular from before the days when Bob and Barbara owned it, agrees. "It has a different name, but it's still the same place."
But what is it about the bar that makes it this way?
Tom McLaughlin, a 58-year-old employee of the Venture Inn, says, "It's one of those places where people don't ask questions. I've come in here and talked to boxers, big tough guys, and they don't care that I'm gay, they talk to me for who I am. Jack's a nice guy and lots of nice people walk through these doors. The atmosphere is healthy, this place just exudes it. You don't find too many places like it."
Wiley elaborates: "The people are nice and they treat 'em good. Some places you can spend $50 and the guy won't even get you a drink. Here people greet you with a smile. If you've got something to say they'll try to talk with you, try to get some kind of understanding. It's like a family thing."
It's now Saturday and the crowd skews much younger, as most of the regulars are probably recovering from the previous night's festivities. And there's a mellow feel in the air. The kids don't applaud solos, but they're appreciative nonetheless. Which is okay with the Crowd Pleasers. "There's a different kind of crowd every night."
Wiley diligently unplugs the jukebox before each set, then plugs it in again afterwards, just like he does every night. "You leave it to me," he often tells Prince. "You take care of the bar, I'll take care of the music."
A lad with a Caesar cut dances up front with a platinum blonde wearing a skin-tight leopard-skin print. A guest singer performs "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
It's one of those nights, like so many here, where you walk in not expecting to see anyone in particular but instead run into everyone you ever knew and some you've almost forgotten. First, an old flame from college that you haven't seen in forever walks through the door. You're quibbling over what went wrong, mending old wounds, revealing secrets you never thought you'd tell, when your drinking buddies from another bar wander in and sit down next to you. Then some other friends on the end of a long bar tour stagger in, and they're dying to tell you about their new record. The music plays on and you're balancing five conversations at once.
It's that kind of bar.
"I'll be playing until the death angel finds me. As long as I've got strength and am in my right mind, I'll be playing."
Wiley continued to work throughout his time in music school, and he began to find the gigging lifestyle more and more appealing. He started taking his show on the road in 1958, living out of a suitcase for a decade (while still working) and playing with Whalen in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware for a total of 30 years. "I had a change of clothes and horn in the trunk of my car. I'd hang my hat anywhere I could."
Over the years, he met current bandmates Frank McKay and Cliff LaMar. McKay was playing piano at the old Clef Club at 13th and Washington and asked Wiley to sit in with him at 17th and Wharton. He was enlisted to fill in at Bob and Barbara's after Whalen died of leukemia two and a half years into the trio's stint at the bar (his Hammond B-3, which now belongs to Wiley, resides there to this day). Although McKay didn't have much experience on the organ, he vowed to give it a try. And he's been plugging away with Wiley ever since.
McKay, who also went to school on the GI Bill, says playing with Wiley is great: "He's the true professional."
LaMar and Wiley played together in a trio in the '60s. The trio broke up and the two went their separate ways. But, Wiley recalls, "A few years after Joe died I was without a drummer. The drummers I had been getting had attitudes. I saw Cliff one night and asked him about playing. He's been back three or four years now."
LaMar echoes his bandmate's assessment of their leader: "He's good, he's real top-shelf."
The Monday sessions began when Bob Port, responding to a growing interest by other musicians to sit in, asked Wiley if he could make it on Mondays as well as Friday and Saturday. Seeing it as another opportunity to play, he said sure, "I might learn something."
Monday regular Butch White began music lessons as a fifth-grader, but then put the horn down when he went to college. He didn't pick it up again for 10 years when, at Wiley's prompting, sat in on a Monday jam. "He gave me the confidence to start playing again. When I first played I was nervous, but then all the nervousness went away. It's a great honor to play with him. He's so versatile and just gives you the freedom to play."
The first set on Mondays is generally devoted to Wiley doing what he likes best, playing ballads. Once the second set starts, the bandstand becomes a revolving door. Though Wiley has fond recollections of some of the bigger names who have passed through, like Bobby Durham (who played drums for Ella Fitzgerald), Bobby Benson and Red Prysock (brother of Arthur Prysock), no one gets preferential treatment: "If he can play at all I try to play with him. If he can't play, I try to get him back up and help him."
And he has two rules. First, he has no tolerance for sloppiness. His trio always wears suits and identical ties ("When you go out and buy a tie, you buy three—three ties, three handkerchiefs"), and he expects the same kind of professional look from the musicians who sit in with him.
"When you're up in front of the public, I feel as though you should be at your best, not up there in your underwear and those medallions and your hair falling all over the place. I don't knock it, I just like what I like.
"I had that happen to me at the Rusty Nail. A dude came in there, a popular dude but I don't name names. I saw him play in Atlantic City and he was in his shirtsleeves when the joint was packed. But when he came up here he wanted to sit in, he had on underwear. The man in charge asked me to let him play, and I'm up there with a sport coat and pants to match; the drummer's got on a dark suit; the lady playing the organ had on one of those jump suits, one of those fitting things; and the lady singing had on an evening gown and this dude wants to sit in with his underwear. Not on my bandstand.
"I told him he couldn't play. At intermission he came up behind me and said, 'Hey, Mr. Nate, can I play now?' I turned around and he had done went and put a suit on. I said, 'Yeah, you can get up there now.' And he never forgot that. You don't get on my bandstand with no clothes on."
The other thing he won't tolerate is grandstanding. Wiley believes a guest musician should take his solo, then be quiet and let the next musician play. As a result, running the tight ship he does, he's had his run-ins at Bob and Barbara's. "I found out I had some enemies I didn't even know I had when I started working here. It's leading something, running something, putting some time into something that you'll always find that somebody's going to go against you. Devious people, jealous people, they'll always find something wrong. I've been through a lot of that, my hair's white. But I don't want no arguments or fights. I see the way they are and just back off, go in a different direction. I don't want them to say Nate Wiley started fighting down there last night. I'm definitely against that. I always tell them, I went through elementary school and sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. And then I leave them with some of God's justice: God says, you don't do evil for evil. Some toughies would come in here. I guess they feel they were helping me out, but I was playing for the crowds before they came. I can hold my own."
But he doesn't run into much trouble anymore. Wiley on crowd control: "When the place gets so crowded and everybody's jammed in tight, all you've got to do is take it to the blues and get that beat to go on and that's gonna start everything to be swinging."
These days, Wiley's living a pretty relaxed life. Since his surgery he doesn't get out too much, save for his gigs and once- or twice-a-month haircut at Swint's Barbershop, 526 S. 60th St. ("I don't want it to push my shirt off my back.") He prefers to relax in his home and continue to study the sax. He shares the house with old friend Henrietta Shanes. "She's looking after me and she does a very good job. I love her for it, although she don't think so. I don't care what she thinks, I love her for it."
He listens to Temple's 90.1 WRTI-FM every now and again. He doesn't knock it, but sometimes doesn't like a lot of the modern stuff he hears and opts more often for 950 WPEN-AM, "The Station of the Stars," for a better variety of the big band stuff he grew up with.
Kinda like the stuff on the recording. The band went into the studio without organ player McKay, planning for Monday jammer "Lumpy" King to fill in. McKay had originally declined due to the several flights of stairs to the studio and doctor's advice to take it easy for a little bit. But since each Hammond player has a unique style, Prince and Wiley wanted to make sure both organists were there to ensure the band's sound came across on record.
"We called him and told we'd carry him up the stairs if we had to," remembers Prince. "So one of the guys from the bar, K., drove over and got him. When they got there, K. went to pick him up and Frank pushes him away and says, 'I'll make it.'"
McKay, who also played some sax on the recording, recalls that the session "was real nice. It was sort of like a family thing where everybody knew everybody."
Looking back over his career, Wiley humbly admits, "We play a lot of [our songs] the same way. People say you shouldn't do that, you shouldn't repeat yourself. But… you can't play no more than you know. You take a guy that knows a little bit and takes it and fits it in with other little rhythm passages and turns it into a solo, and I think he's doing a pretty good job, even if that guy is me. But I ain't ever learned how to play. But that's why I keep trying."
When asked if he'll eventually hang it up, he's got a quick answer: "I'll be playing until the death angel finds me. As long as I've got strength and am in my right mind, I'll be playing."
Rather than using the time-honored "Old musicians don't die, they fade out" line, he borrows a saying from one of his heroes.
"Like Basie says, 'Music is like the Mafia: you walk in and get carried out.' That's the way it is. You don't quit.
"That what it's about, that's our life. You take the music away and we're dead. It's our life. It's mine anyway.
"Last year I didn't think I was gonna be living this year. I'll turn 75 on Aug. 16 if I make it. And I'm doing all I can to make it. I'm trying to get 15 more years," he laughs.
Considering how he's endured, it probably wouldn't surprise anyone.
And besides, what would the place be without him? "That's a hard question to answer," admits Shanes.
As Monday evening winds down, Frank McKay is singing "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You." Two requests for ballads come in, "My Way" and "I Remember You," which Whiley gladly accepts. As the hour approaches 2 a.m., the trio segues into their closing theme, "I'll See You In My Dreams." As the rhythm section plays, Wiley works the crowd to the very end, delivering his trademark closing-time speech: "Let's all thank Mr. Jack Prince, it's nice of him to have a place like this for you to come and drink and listen to your favorite selections.… PennDOT sent the message down that says If you booze, don't cruise. But we say, those of you who are driving, don't try to pass the people who left an hour ago." The remaining crowd responds with laughter, which pleases Wiley.
He explains later. "I like to keep a little happiness thing going on."