Last call at Vancouver's Yale Hotel…for now
Call it the end of an era. After three decades of live rhythm and blues, Vancouver’s fabled Yale Hotel will close its doors for a major renovation on November 21. The Hammond B3 organ will vacate the stage. Photos of various musical legends who performed at the Yale, ranging from former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page to classic Vancouver bluesman Robbie King, will be taken into storage. And for the following year, all that the father-and-son team of Waide and Joe Luciak will be able to enjoy about the 130-year-old Yale are their cherished memories.
In 1987, the Luciak family bought the hotel on the southern edge of the Granville Street entertainment district, about five years after its beer parlour had been converted into a blues bar by the previous owner. On this afternoon, with the familiar sound of billiard balls colliding in the background, the two sit down with the Georgia Straight in the middle of the bar to reminisce about the past.
Waide explains that King, who played with high-end Motown musicians, lived for many years in one of the rooms above the stage. Quite often, his songs were performed by visiting bands. “Robbie was such a character that if he heard the fellow on the organ not playing it correctly, he would put his housecoat on, storm down, bump him off the organ, and he would be right there playing,” he says. “That is one of the cool old stories of the Yale.”
Joe, the music director, then mentions that King was one of the first gay musicians to come out of the closet. “He was best friends with Long John Baldry,” he notes. “He was best friends with Elton John.”
King was also responsible for that in-house Hammond B3. He once told Wade that the Yale would never be a true blues venue unless he bought one. “There is no other blues bar in North America that has a B3 on-stage,” he says proudly.
Others who played the Yale over the years included John Lee Hooker, Johnny Winter, Wide Mouth Mason, and Jeff Healey, as well as local blues favourites Jim Byrnes, Doc Fingers, and Tom Lavin. One of Joe’s earliest memories was going to Yale staff parties as a child, where American boogie-woogie pianist Big Joe Duskin would provide live entertainment at outdoor lobster bakes. “At the time, he was apparently very important,” Joe recalls. “I didn’t get it when I was six years old.”
He also jokes about finding horseshoes and bales of hay while he was crawling around downstairs in the area that used to be a horse paddock. “Still to this day, when we take out a staircase, it’s like [opening] a time capsule, and we find all sorts of things.”
Joe is proud of all the charitable events hosted in the bar over the years. He emphasizes that he was raised to treat everyone equally and that has always been the way things work at the Yale. That prompts his father to declare that it’s the only club in town where you’ll meet customers ranging from 20 to 65 years of age. “The girls can come in here and they feel comfortable and safe, and [they’re] not being bugged,” Waide says. “It’s a good, safe environment, and it’s clean.”
From November 16 to 20, the Yale is planning five nights of entertainment built around different blues themes: boogie-woogie, country and classic rock, electric blues guitar, aboriginal blues, rockin’ soul blues, and big-band blues.
The Dal Richards Orchestra will join Byrnes on the final night. It will be the first time that the 93-year-old Richards will play the Yale. In a recent interview at his downtown condo, Richards tells the Straight that he’ll probably open with “In the Mood” because it always gets people on the dance floor. “The Yale is to be congratulated for all the good music,” he says.
The Luciaks say they plan to reopen the blues bar in about 14 months after the renovations and seismic upgrading have been completed.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.