They were a couple of music fans, plain and simple.
Richard King moved to Columbia in October of 1975 to see his friend, Kevin Walsh. He remembers because Bruce Springsteen was on the cover of Newsweek that week, and he was angry that now everyone would know about The Boss. They were young, cool, rock ‘n’ roll — a pair of hipsters before being hipster was a thing.
Before Richard and his friend Phil Costello bought the bar that would become The Blue Note, they were bumming around Columbia — living together on East Campus and working at a couple of restaurants and bars. At various points, they worked a construction day job and ran the bar at the Regency Hotel. Several job-hops later, Richard managed the Heidelberg and Phil bartended at The Brief Encounter, the future home of The Blue Note.
Of course, neither of them played any instruments. “I’ve never played a lick in my life,” Richard laughs. “Phil might have taken up bass for awhile, but that’s it. Listening and enjoying, that was our thing.”
They went to concerts all the time around Columbia — sometimes at The Brief Encounter but mostly at Gladstone Manufacturing Company on Old 63. Richard describes Gladstone as “a dumpy little place” with a potbelly fireplace. “It was a great place, an endearing place,” he says.
And their home could have been a venue itself. “We had parties all the time at the house,” Richard remembers. “We’d make mix tapes for it or spin records. Everybody would be dancing and carrying on. It was fun.”
Then one day in 1980, Phil came home from bartending at The Brief Encounter with some news. The owner was having marriage troubles and wanted to sell the place quickly and cheaply.
Phil said the fateful words: “We should buy it.”
So they did, and they made a venue out of it.
“We thought we were the smartest guys in the world,” Richard says now ruefully. “We thought we had an unbelievable idea. We thought, ‘Everyone is going to flock to this place.’”
They took it over on Aug. 1, 1980 and opened under the name “The Blue Note,” which they luckily registered.
“It didn’t Phil long to christen it ‘The Dump,’” Richard says. “But it was our lives. It was our lives. It was what we did.”
The pair didn’t try to fix it up much. The bathrooms were at best trashed and at worst even more trashed. And it was a weird part of town, on Business Loop 70. The building is now a local strip joint, Club Vogue, which kept the same basic setup in the long, thin room.
In other words, The Dump wasn’t much to look at.
“But the sound in the room was phenomenal,” Richard says. “It didn’t bounce around; it was real clean. It was just a great-sounding room.” The new owners were surprised about that and incredibly lucky.
With its acoustic graces and otherwise dumpy characteristics, Phil said the original location was great for rock ‘n’ roll. “There was a lot of punk rock to it. It had a certain appeal.”
Still, it’s fair to say Richard and Phil had no idea what they were in for. “Our mindset was so crazy,” he says. “Because we didn’t have money. We just thought we were the shit.
“We were just fans of live music.”
They didn’t have much cash or capital. They did everything — every chore, every job and every responsibility. They cleaned the place every night, booked bands, did promotions, ran the sound, bartended and even went around Columbia posting fliers every day. Says Richard, “We spent every possible moment there trying to make it happen.”
On the opening weekend that first Friday, a band called The Lamont Cranston Band played. They were a bluesy band out of Minneapolis, and they had played Columbia before. The next Saturday was taken over by the Mistakes. It was a great weekend for the venue, Richard says, with many friends and locals showing up in support.
“We had a lot of energy, and people knew us. A lot of friends did show up to wish those two losers good luck. They were probably thinking, ‘Yeah, right. We’ll see how long this lasts.’” Richard laughs now to think of it.
But the community hoped for the best for The Blue Note. Friends volunteered to work at the venue knowing they wouldn’t be paid in anything but tips. Still, a couple of doormen and a few bartenders and waitresses stayed on in support of the place.
That was the way of it for a while — just a group of people doing all they could to get by. After a year, Richard and Phil were able to pay for rent and food from the business, but it was five years until they began writing themselves checks. “It was a very meager existence, but that was the beauty of what we did. We were very committed to what we were doing — that’s for sure,” Richard says.
The community was committed, too. Well, after awhile at least.
“It took us so long for people to recognize what we were doing, no one ever paid attention to us — not to mention we weren’t close to downtown or campus. If you were going to The Blue Note, you had to find a ride down there, find a ride back.”
But the crowds did come, once the club started catching on.
“The fire marshal was very generous to us back then,” Richard laughs. “We crammed in as many people as we could get in there.” He says they would squeeze in 500 or 600 people into the space back in the day. Now, the limit would probably be closer to 300.
The fledgling partnership between Richard and Phil was somehow successful. Neither really knew what they were doing, but they both learned from each other. “Even if we had arguments, it would always end up drinking a beer and taking a shot of whiskey and figuring everything out,” Richard says. “It was a really unique relationship.” He half-jokes, “I’ve only had that kind of partnership with my wife.”
But in 1985, Phil got offered a job in Chicago in the record industry. That was what he really wanted to do. He went to work for I.R.S. Records, but he soon moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for Capitol Records and Warner Brothers.
But then the record industry started changing — kicked off by the advent of Napster. “Phil was really smart. He saw the handwriting on the wall when the record industry started to slide. He moved on,” Richard says. Phil now works for Red Light Management and owns a small label.
Richard says Phil still makes his way back to Columbia, especially with some of his bands, and the two often bring their families together for vacation.
In the beginning, most of the bands were regional or local. Richard says he owes the venue’s success to Fools Face, a band out of Springfield. It had a decent following that trekked to The Blue Note regularly.
Once, near the beginning, Fools Face claimed the stage for four days. “They drank us dry,” Richard remembers. “They packed the place.”
But also important to the venue were bands like The Skeletons, The Bel Airs (who are still around and play The Blue Note), and Dupe Tomato.
Some of the band names littering the early nostalgia of The Blue Note are downright legendary. The Pixies first played as openers for Soul Asylum. Openers. Richard says there were maybe 20 or so (lucky) people in the room by 9:30 or 10 p.m. when the Pixies took the stage. The room was full by the end of the set.
The same thing happened for R.E.M. When its set started, few people were there to even hear it.
“I remember getting on the phone with people and saying: ‘You gotta get down here. These guys are unbelievable. I’ll put you on the guest list.’” Richard remembers. Few people had heard of the rockers at the time of the show.
“Then they put out a record, and that was it. They exploded.”
By 1990, the Pixies were gaining some serious momentum. The band had booked a national tour but decided to start it in good ol’ Columbia, Missouri. The band spent three days rehearsing in town before kicking off the tour with a Blue Note concert.
Many other acts that would grow into big names hit up The Blue Note on their tour circuits, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Lee Hooker, Sammy Davis Jr., Uncle Tupelo, Hüsker Dü, and the Violent Femmes.
“If you name bands from that era, just about all of them played at The Blue Note,” Richard says.
The band had many varied acts: Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, The Buzzcocks, Burning Spear, Willie Dixon, The Morels, True Believers, The Del Fuegos, Ben Vaughn Combo, Poi Dog Pondering, The Jayhawks, The Cramps and The Elvis Brothers.
The bands they missed out on are hard to swallow, though, like U2 and Nirvana. “We barely missed Nirvana,” Richard says. “We just didn’t have the date.”
A lot of bands heard about The Blue Note and wanted to play the club. Then, once they played, they wanted to come back. Part of the appeal, Richard says, is because Richard and Phil would hang out with the bands, drinking and talking at the bar until late at night after shows. “I mean, we would party with them like…. Well, like rock stars,” Richard jokes.
But beside the hospitality Richard, Phil and friends provided, The Blue Note started getting a reputation for open booking. “We weren’t afraid to take a chance on bands,” Richard says. “We welcomed anyone who wanted to play. We took in some things that most people wouldn’t take in. If you have a progressive mindset, your name will get out there.”
Columbia’s music culture: When MTV still played music videos
When The Blue Note opened, Columbia and the world were in a different era. This was pre-Naptser, pre-Pandora. There were no online tickets, no email newsletters, no music video charts, no iTunes. The music industry was unknowingly on the cusp of a revolution — a digital sweep that changed the way tours were run, bands were booked, and audiences heard of music.
But back when The Blue Note first stated, everything was word of mouth. Richard and Phil did most of the promoting by posting fliers of upcoming shows. The pair didn’t have a plan or even a mission statement. But there were a couple of partnerships that helped save the club on during its fragile beginning.
The public radio station, KOPN, would often help promote shows and bring in artist, especially blues artists. KCOU also helped with promotions, especially in a time when only bands with strict commercial appeal were getting airtime and radio play.
And The Blue Note following found a kinship in Streetside Records. The store opened up right around the same time as the venue opened. Not only would the two businesses help promote each other, but several employees worked in both places. “Everyone at the record store loved The Blue Note,” Richard says. “It was a rock ‘n’ roll world. Everyone was just motived by one thing: the music.”
Then, a year or so after the opening, MTV came onto the scene. And it changed not only the music industry but also The Blue Note.
“What MTV did was it helped promote the bands that we loved,” Richard says. Until MTV, it was hard to find and follow bands that weren’t in the mainstream. And it was even harder for venues like The Blue Note to promote those bands.
Eventually, radio stations started paying attention to these more underground bands. And then the internet literally and figuratively went viral, letting people find other music and connect to different kinds of bands. Suddenly, finding what wasn’t cool became the cool thing to do.
Which, of course, helped live venues like The Blue Note, venues that worked to book many bands and create a music culture around live music. And then, before you know it, Millennial were born in all of their hipster glory. Just kidding.
It took some time for The Blue Note to tap into Columbia’s most volatile population — the students. But then the students came. Richard says: “When we got the students, it was a game changer in a lot of ways. Because the students had discovered us and discovered live music, which was getting much more popular then.”
Once the students realized The Blue Note was a fun place that was worth the long journey to Business Loop, they came in droves.
Of course, when The Blue Note moved to its current location on north Ninth Street in the fall of 1989, the club became integrated into downtown Columbia. Arlo Guthrie opened the new venue, and twice as many people could come watch concerts. But that’s a story for another day.