Detroit's oldest blues bar once entertained Motown greats, and it's still a well-kept secret
Published: October 20, 2010
When Stephens first heard him, he was convinced High wasn't just some street musician, that he was something special. "He came in here and he played last week, and I knew instantly that he was a professional," Stephens says. "I walked up to him and said 'Whose band did you play in?' and he said 'Johnny Taylor's.' And I said 'I knew it.' I told him to come back next week and the week after. He took over the stage. They gave him a standing ovation." When the band invites him to join in, he stands on the floor, offstage. The room's small enough that he doesn't need a microphone to be heard. And when he plays, when the band strikes up, the customers can't look away. For him, playing the Raven is worth sleeping in an old car.
On any given night the band gets bigger with each of the night's sets because guys like High show up. What starts as a three-piece group soon becomes eight.
"Usually the second and third shows are the best, because other musicians are getting off from their little gigs and they come into the Raven around 11 o'clock or so, and they just add that spice and salt and pepper," Stephens says.
When a new band plays a show here, Stephens roams the audience, polling to see whether they should be invited back. "And customers tell bands all the time, 'I chose you. That's why you're up there,'" he laughs.
Motown greats would sometimes drop in to perform. Aretha Franklin has sung here. So has Smokey Robinson. Members of the Dramatics and Funk Brothers have performed here too, as have countless other talented musicians, gigs witnessed only by the handful of well-dressed people fortunate enough to know about this place, lucky enough to always have a front-row seat for some of the best music in town.
"Oh, man, they have some of the most fantastic musicians in the Motor City here," says Doc Holliday, the 54-year-old house DJ, who spins '70s soul classics when a live act isn't playing. "They converge on this place 'cause they all know each other from years and years back. That's what makes the Raven so unique. You never know what's going to happen."
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