DADE CITY — When Scott Place looks around the once-thriving music venue, he can imagine what it was like on a busy night. He has visions of his blues and R&B heroes in their prime, lighting up the stage and delivering powerful performances to joyful throngs of fans.
Back during the late 1950s and early '60s, the nightclub once known as Jake's Lakeside Tavern — and later by its adopted name, the Cow Palace — was something of a mecca for African-American entertainers on their way to fame during the era of the "chitlin' circuit."
Ray Charles and James Brown performed there. So did blues legends B.B. King and Buddy Guy. On any given night, and on weekends in particular, it was a popular "juke joint," one of several such establishments in Florida that were vital to traveling musicians looking to earn a living.
The days of the chitlin' circuit are long past. But to Place, a Dade City blues musician who performs under the name "Howlin' Buzz," the Cow Palace serves as an important historic link to the music he so cherishes. He recently formed the nonprofit Chitlin' Circuit Preservation Society, whose mission is to bring recognition to, and perhaps save, as many of Florida's historic blues clubs as possible.
By starting in his own back yard, Place hopes to gain support for his efforts from the Tampa Bay blues community.
"You walk into the place, and you realize it has a special feel to it," Place said recently. "It screams to have music played in it again."
Place has already given it a try. Back in July, he and fellow Tampa Bay blues musician Gene "Sarasota Slim" Hardage hosted a birthday jam session at the Cow Palace that drew about 100 musicians and guests. That night, the storied edifice, with its spacious dance floor and ornate Spanish-tiled bar, rocked and rolled like the days of old, Place said.
"People had a great time," he said. "And everyone who was there said they would be happy there again. So that's what we're trying to do."
To further that effort, Place and other charter members of the preservation society have planned a second event from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday with guest musicians. Like the first event, it will be a covered-dish affair that will allow those curious about the venue to come and check things out.
Place has the backing of Cow Palace owner Al Brown, whose family bought the venue about three years ago. Although only sporadically opened for private functions since then, Brown believes it could become a viable venue once again with the right people behind it.
"They (the blues community) seem to know what to do," Brown said. "If anyone could make it work, it would probably be them."
Brown admits he has little knowledge of the building's musical history. But he is well aware of the reputation the Cow Palace got during the early to mid 1990s, when drug use and violent behavior swelled on many weekends. Located in Carver Heights, an African-American community just southeast of the Dade City limits, the venue frequently drew visits from Pasco County sheriff's deputies back then. Brown blames former owners for letting things get so bad.
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"I was told there was almost no security most of the time," he said. "There was nobody watching what went on outside. And no one to stop the trouble when it happened."
Since buying the property, Brown has embarked on an effort to remodel the venue, built in 1958. He has installed new doors, upgraded the electric service and added a new security system. Due to new zoning regulations, he can rent the facility only for private gatherings.
"I still have to a lot of work to do to be able to open it full time," he said. "At this point, we are still looking into what it will take to get that all done."
Place believes the venue's tarnished image could easily be turned around by welcoming the blues crowd, which is made up primarily of older fans.
"There aren't many places in this area that offer blues, but the interest is strong here," he said. "Blues fans will come out and support any venue they feel is worthy."
Indeed, Place cites similar venues such as the Bradfordville Blues Club in Tallahassee, a noted early '60s juke joint that was shuttered for nearly 20 years before it reopened in the 1990s, as an example of the viability of his idea.
"It's one of the best blues clubs in the country," Place said. "We could do the same here with the Cow Palace. All we need are people who believe in what we're doing."