BESSEMER, Ala. (WIAT) — Diane Guyton remembers a phrase her longtime boss and friend Henry “Gip” Gipson used to always say.
“No blacks, no whites, just the blues,” Guyton recalled.
To Guyton, those words were the foundation philosophy the grave digger-turned-blues disciple carried with him his entire life.
“If you got to ever meet him, you loved him,” Guyton said.
Gipson, the longtime owner of Gip’s Place, a blues club and juke joint he ran out of his own backyard on Avenue C in Bessemer, died Tuesday after being in hospice care the last few months. He was 99 years old.
“Henry ‘Gip’ Gipson was the embodiment of blues – cool, smooth, passionate and dripping with soul,” Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin said on Facebook Tuesday. “Gip’s Place, his legendary juke joint, still stands a monument to Southern blues. Let’s keep his memory alive.”
Gipson first started Gip’s Place in 1952 as a way for local musicians to get together and play music. Over the years, the night spot became a popular attraction in the neighborhood that brought together musicians and music lovers from across the city and country.
“There is a temptation to describe Henry Gipson — his real name is Herman, but he says everyone calls him Henry — as straight out of blues central casting,” Peter Breslow wrote in a 2011 NPR piece about Gipson. “That is, until you realize that everything about the man is strictly genuine. His hand swallows yours when you shake, and his smile is just as embracing.”
For Guyton, who managed Gip’s Place for five years, Breslow’s description was spot on for the man she knew.
“He was just a very loving, kind man,” she said. “There hasn’t been anyone like him.”
Gipson was born in 1920 and grew up in Uniontown. For 25 years, Gipson worked at the Pullman Standard railcar company in Bessemer before becoming a gravedigger. For years, he owned the Pine Hill Cemetery in McCalla.
Like his love for late-night dancing and the music of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, Gip’s Place was a passion for Gipson, who was a regular presence for years until failing health earlier this year kept him away.
“I can’t run a business,” Gipson told the BBC in 2016, “but no one can stop you from having a party in your own backyard.”
To Guyton, Gip’s Place was never about making money. If anything, it never did, outside of making enough money for overhead and to pay different bands that passed through week after week. To her, the place was part of a higher calling.
“It was his way of bringing people together,” she said.
Through the years, people from across Birmingham would spend their Saturday nights listening to music, drinking beer and having fun at Gip’s Place.
“That’s my place I like to go play for free,” Earl Williams told the Birmingham alternative weekly Black & White back in 2008. “I get a chance to let my hair down and be me. I can try whatever I want to try up in there. It’s just a brotherly-type thing, you’re just doing it for the love of music.”
Gip’s Place also attracted the attention of famous musicians. Gipson claimed guitarist Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones once came unannounced to play. Chuck Berry even gave Gipson one of his guitars that hung prominently on the wall for years before a fire destroyed it and part of the building in 2011.
In 2013, the city of Bessemer shut down Gip’s Place for illegally operating without a business license or liquor license. Eventually, an agreement was reached that allowed the club to stay open, an ordeal that was the focus of a 2011 PBS documentary by Patrick Sheehan.
On Aug. 8, Guyton took to Gip’s Facebook page to announce that the establishment would be closing down. However, Gipson’s family later clarified that they would be taking over Gip’s Place and would continue to run it.
“This is not the end of my daddy’s legacy,” daughter Sheree Stafford said during one outing at Gip’s Place Aug. 10. “Please feel free to come every Saturday because it has just begun.”
No funeral arrangements have been announced yet. In his Facebook post, Gipson’s son, Keith, asked for people to come out to Gip’s Place at 7 p.m. Saturday to celebrate his father’s life.
Here is a profile CBS 42 did on Gip’s Place last year as part of a series on Alabama’s hidden history:
- Running for change in Vestavia Hills
- BPD investigating homicide after person found unresponsive on Jefferson Avenue
- Man accused of stabbing, pepper-spraying Louisiana Walmart employees
- Republicans, Democrats disagree on how to address police reforms
- JSU employee tests positive for COVID-19, 3 others exposed