Steppin' Out 

An unlikely venue deep in South Side offers blues legends and fried chicken. Come and git it.

"It's a mature crowd," Legion 108 Commander Luell Upshaw notes, as cars pull into the well-lighted, paved parking lot adjacent to the hall on a recent rainy Saturday night. Inside, Washington, D.C., blues guitar legend Bobby Parker is setting sound levels, preparing to start around 9 p.m. Upshaw — turned out in double-breasted blazer and hat — continues to explain the nature of the occasional event.

"People come when they know they won't have any problems … or hassle. We got this blues thing going on. … We try to let people know [Legion] activities."

One such activity is the Legion's fund for Richmond's school kids and local charities. Some of the proceeds from these dances — if there is any money left after paying the band, rent, security and other expenses — go toward the fund. So far, American Legion Posts 108 and 189 have provided school supplies for 4,500 metropolitan Richmond kids through this fund.

But if there is more than a good time involved, it is not the focus tonight as folks file in. Some single women arrive, but best guess is they are meeting friends. Groups and couples mostly come through the door, stopping at a table to drop the suggested $15 donation before heading into the hall.

Friendly and casual airs pervade. A gray-haired fellow with an American flag lapel pin walks up to a stranger, tosses out a "Hey, brother" and a handshake before walking away. A few single men sit at the bar in the rear of the room, and one says he's expected in church at 6 a.m. the next day. There is a doubtful look in his eye since the dance won't wind down until almost 2 a.m.

Bartender and hall manager Henry Wallace mans the cold box stocked with Bud, Miller and Heineken. More shelves hold wine coolers. On the wall behind Wallace, autographed pictures of past acts hang. Such longtime concert and Southern-circuit stalwarts as Clarence Carter and Roy C. have played the room in the year since the Legion started booking soul and blues shows. Apparently Roy C. was a particular hit because he's slated to return in the fall after the series takes a summer hiatus.

It's creeping up on 9 p.m.; Parker and his Blues Night Band have yet to start but recorded soul music plays at loud levels. Free chicken and potato salad appear in the back of the hall, and the almost exclusively African-American crowd of 65 or so lines up to take advantage. Minutes later, Parker takes the stage and kicks into an instrumental take of "Lady Marmalade."

Despite this questionable opener, he and his five-piece band quickly slip into fine form. Decked out in red suit and matching shoes, his wireless guitar in tow, Parker struts among the tables and walks on the bar, generally trying to get an early, low-key crowd up and moving. Parker's '60s singles influenced young English guitar players such as Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, but it's doubtful few in this room know or care.

Eventually, booty-shaking couples decked out in fine threads hit the dance floor. Others remain at their tables listening, sipping brandy they've brought — while beer and wine coolers are for sale, if you want liquor you must bring your own. Women wear fine dresses proudly, high-heel shoes the evening's choice. Many men set the tone in coats and ties, Marlboros casually locked between fingers.

Outside the hall, Genie Smith Jr. of Richmond says he came this night with his wife and her family. He's a Legion member and wants to support the event.

"I like jazz, [but] this has been terrific," he says, slowly warming to the idea of talking to a stranger. Like most on hand tonight, he's in favor of having a good time while helping the Legion's fund.

"There's lots of negative things going on," he explains, "and I would like to be a part of something positive."

Parker and the band take a breather after an hour to get their share of chicken. The recorded music returns and couples continue to dance. Seated at the rear bar, Eugene Samuels, vice commander of Legion 108, offers a visitor some brandy. He's says they probably lost a little money on this show, but he's not worried about it tonight. Folks are having a good time, word about the dances will get out and the monthly shows will continue. Hell, the night is young.

"It's not just about partying," Samuels explains. "I don't care if you're black or white, older people have to have a good time." SThe American Legion hall is located off Hopkins Road at 3301 Cofer Road between Jefferson Davis Highway and Belt Boulevard. Call 644-5943, 389-4701 or 674-5592 for information about upcoming dances.


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