Last Call: From Velvet Elvis to The Jinx

Looking back on the memories, the music, and the cultural impact

IT MIGHT BE hard to imagine 127 West Congress Street as anything but the Jinx.

After seventeen years, the Jinx has established itself as a legacy in this town. Its hallowed walls have seen thousands of talented musicians, and the feeling of community inside is unrivaled.

But that community stretches back well before owner Susanne Guest Warnekros took over the lease.

click to enlarge Velvet Elvis in the early days. Photo courtesy of Sarah Wood.
Velvet Elvis in the early days. Photo courtesy of Sarah Wood.

Back in the 90s, the space went by the name of Velvet Elvis, a vintage clothing store run by artist Laura DiNello.

In addition to racks and racks of vintage clothing, Velvet had a stage. DiNello’s partner Jim Fletcher always dreamed of running a rock ’n’ roll bar, remembers Igor Fiksman, a renowned Savannah musician who got his start as a door guy at Velvet.

“It was a very spacious area downtown, and downtown at that time was not very populated at all, so you got a lot of space for very little money,” says Fiksman, who plays pedal steel guitar in Jinx regulars Damon and the Shitkickers.

Of course, back in the 90s, downtown Savannah was a completely different world. DiNello had opened Velvet in a ghost town. This was when Ellis Square was a parking garage, after all: long before any development of the downtown sector happened, before the movies came, before the tourists came.

This was also when Savannah was dangerous, rife with gang-related crime.

During orientation, SCAD kids were advised not to walk around downtown.

click to enlarge Mike Walker, Igor Fiksman and Stacie Albano at an undated  Velvet event.
Mike Walker, Igor Fiksman and Stacie Albano at an undated Velvet event.

As a result, most of the people who went to Velvet—or downtown at all—were service industry kids, fresh off their shifts at Vinnie’s or 606 or Sapphire Grill.

Stacie Albano remembers vying for the first cut at Vinnie’s so she could go see the show at Velvet.

And that, pretty much, was who Velvet was for, because Congress Street did not see nearly the amount of foot traffic it does now.

“When we had Velvet Elvis, you could ride a motorcycle through City Market on a Saturday night and not hit a person,” remembers Sarah Wood.

It was Wood, along with Jorge Cuartas, who took over the Velvet Elvis in 1995. Friends from a previous venture, they agreed that Cuartas would buy the bar and Wood would run it.

An avid skater, Cuartas was the owner of Underworld, a skate shop that would take over venues and bring in musical acts. He was passionate about all-ages shows, so when he bought a bar with a stage in it, the lightbulb went off.

“I was like, ‘Dude, we need to do all-ages shows,’” says Cuartas. “‘We need to do matinees, we need to do fun stuff where kids can get into music.’”

Wood remembers it a little differently.

“Our idea was that we were going to get rid of the music,” she says. “We were going to move away from live music and have this kind of hip-hop, acid jazz, DJ, lounge-y kind of place.”

But the reputation stuck: Wood kept getting calls from bands asking if they could play the venue, and she’d receive piles of demos from people hoping for a spot onstage. She found it hard to say no, and Velvet’s musical legacy kept on.

click to enlarge Sarah Wood at Velvet. Photo courtesy of Wood.
Sarah Wood at Velvet. Photo courtesy of Wood.

That musical legacy, by the way, is no small potatoes. Fiksman remembers that one of the first bands to ever grace the stage was The Bouncing Souls from New Jersey. They were in town for a gig at Congress Street Station—today, it’s Club 51—but they arrived to the gig to find the doors locked.

The bar had gone under, and the band hadn’t been informed. So they wandered two doors down to Velvet, who welcomed them in.

Mastodon also played some of their first few shows on that stage, as did the Drive-By Truckers and Baroness, who are all now international touring acts.

To enhance the place, Cuartas traded his ownership share of the Paper Moon Cafe on Oglethorpe for the sound system that was in the Spectrum, a live music venue on Broughton. They also took advantage of a very unique architectural element.

“There’s a hole that goes through all three floors, and I don’t know why,” says Wood. “When Laura had it, she had a mannequin hanging over the stage. The fire marshal told us we couldn’t have the hole. We had Gerald [Schantz] do that stained glass and we put it in [the ceiling].”

As time went on, Velvet became the spot to go to see live music in town. For his part, Cuartas dug through demos and listened to hours’ worth of music on cassettes.

But even today, he defers to Wood for any credit in making Velvet a successful music venue.

“To be 100% honest, I think I was more of a detriment to it than anything else,” he laughs.

click to enlarge Sarah Wood and Gil Cruz at Velvet. Photo courtesy of Wood.
Sarah Wood and Gil Cruz at Velvet. Photo courtesy of Wood.

“I was bringing in straightedge punk rock bands, and if you’re trying to sell alcohol, going to capacity with minors who aren’t drinking isn’t necessarily the approach.”

Wood remembers that Cuartas let her do pretty much whatever she wanted, which led to some pretty amazing moments.

When Marlboro was banned from direct advertisement, they began sponsoring big-name shows in small music venues. One of those shows was David Allan Coe. Another was David Cross, pre-Arrested Development.

As Wood began to book more, she leaned on her friend, musician Kevin Rose, for help with booking. She’d keep three piles of demos—a no, a maybe, and a definitely—and work out touring routes on her desk calendar. Velvet also began having set nights, like Salsa Night and Swing Night, which were swiftly copied by other venues.

Though Velvet was the coolest place in town to be, the return on investment was not exactly lucrative.

“Playing in, running, owning a small live music venue is really a community service,” says Wood. “People that own and run bars do what they do out of love.”

Wood left in 2000. She’d met her husband, musician Anders Thomsen, and she was burnt out from working so much.

“I was just done,” she recalls. “When I left, I told [Cuartas], ‘You should get out.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m going to try and do it.’”

He did, for a while. But Velvet incurred so much tax debt that the IRS put a lock on the door. Cuartas, who was starting a family and busy racing motocross, knew it was time to move on.

click to enlarge GAM perform at Velvet Elvis. Photo courtesy of Sarah Wood.
GAM perform at Velvet Elvis. Photo courtesy of Sarah Wood.

“My wallet hurts every time I walk by that place,” he says. “I don’t have any regrets other than not being more involved at the end.”

Velvet sat closed for a few months in 2003 as potential buyers mulled it over. The eventual buyer, of course, was Susanne Guest Warnekros.

At the time, Warnekros was the first female piercer in Savannah. She worked at Planet Three and also owned a retail store next door.

She remembers Tony Beasley, now a bartender at the Jinx, handing out flyers for Velvet that she put in her store windows.

“I loved Velvet Elvis so much. It was the only bar in town I liked,” she recalled. “It was the only one I felt I could be myself in. I didn’t want Savannah to lose Velvet Elvis.”

Warnekros and Cuartas had been in talks before Velvet was shut down, but she went to the property manager to see about buying the place. On the phone, he made it clear to her that he didn’t want it to be a “tattoo kind of place.”

Warnekros, who has full tattoo sleeves, showed up to the viewing in a turtleneck sweater with tights in the August heat.

“And at the end of the day, I’m the one that got the lease,” she says.

click to enlarge Susanne Guest Warnekros at a past Jinx-O-Ween. Photo by Geoff L. Johnson.
Susanne Guest Warnekros at a past Jinx-O-Ween. Photo by Geoff L. Johnson.

IT'S HARD for Warnekros to name her favorite Jinx shows, and understandably so. It’s much easier for her to tell you her favorite moment in the bar.

“This would only happen maybe three times a year,” she raves, her voice full of excitement. “It’s a packed house. The first note of the first band starts. You can just feel the energy in the room totally shift. I would look around the room and see all of these music fans that were so into it and so devoted to the music. It’s a feeling I can’t really explain.”

Moments like that, and Warnekros’ passion, is what made the Jinx so special. Anyone who has ever attended a show in that room knows exactly what she’s talking about.

Two weeks ago, Warnekros announced via the Jinx’s Facebook page that they were being evicted from 127 West Congress. As this is Savannah, the rumors started to fly.

This move, Warnekros says, has been in the works for a while. They’d been looking at spots for over a year with no luck. A new owner bought the building, and after some back-and-forth, he decided not to renew the Jinx’s lease, putting their end date at New Year’s Eve.

But then, the pandemic hit, and the Jinx was just not able to make rent. That’s a tall order even in normal times, says Wood.

“Trying to keep a live music club like the Jinx, like Velvet Elvis, open in downtown Savannah, which is hostile to small business owners because it’s become so expensive and is so corporate—in the best times, it’s hard to do that,” says Wood.

“Now? There’s no way.”

The Jinx’s last day of operation at that location will be July 11. But don’t you dare think this is over.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Warnekros confides. “The only thing I know for sure is that I’m not done with the Jinx. And I am extremely stubborn and I will get it done.”

As of now, the plan for the Jinx is that it will reopen in another venue. Warnekros is thinking a neighborhood-type spot at first, then easing her way back into a live music venue. The pandemic’s uncertainty makes it difficult to pin down a timeline for reopening.

click to enlarge Jason Statts at Statts Fest, a long-running benefit hosted by The Jinx. Photo by Geoff L. Johnson.
Jason Statts at Statts Fest, a long-running benefit hosted by The Jinx. Photo by Geoff L. Johnson.

Wherever the Jinx ends up, it will probably not be downtown.

“I don’t really see us staying downtown, but that’s a bigger problem,” says Warnekros. “That’s gentrification. That’s corporate takeover. That’s skyrocketing rent and property taxes. And that’s all pre-COVID.”

Downtown has been on a downward spiral for a while now. It’s hard to tell when exactly it happened.

Cuartas pinpoints one weird turn around ’96, when the Olympics came to Atlanta and rents here skyrocketed. Wood estimates it happened between 2000 and 2008, when she was away from the city and returned to a place she didn’t recognize.

Gil Cruz remembers watching the groundbreaking ceremony for Ellis Square in 2005 as he worked a happy hour shift.

“Downtown is not our town. Downtown has slowly been losing its soul,” laments Wood. “I think that greed has played a huge part in that. I think Savannah sold its soul.”

127 West Congress is a fatality of that, but Warnekros doesn’t want the new landlord to be villainized.

“It’s his building. He bought it, I tried to buy it, I couldn’t,” she says. “This sucks that he’s taking our home, but it was inevitable.”

“He’s uprooted a cultural landmark as far as I’m concerned,” says Fiksman. “It’d be nice if we had some means for protecting it, for being its own cultural landmark. Maybe we’ll realize in a hundred years that it was important.”

The ship has sailed there, in Cruz’s eyes. He’s known Warnekros since 1995 and got his start as a door guy at Velvet, but most recently he booked bands for the Jinx. He frequently got requests for shows, but when he booked them, nobody came.

“It’s very frustrating,” says Cruz. “When it’s gone and closed down and moved, people are going to realize. A lot of people took that place for granted.”

That’s precisely what Wood experienced when she ran Velvet. She once booked Ronnie Dawson, a legend in the rockabilly genre, but had an audience of about ten people.

“That’s why Velvet closed: because y’all didn’t come out and see music enough,” she says. “And don’t complain when you have to pay a cover. If you want there to be a live music club in this town, then you need to go out and see live music. You need to make a commitment to go and see a band once a week, because otherwise it won’t be there for you.”

For years, Velvet Elvis and the Jinx were there for so many people. All of the current staff hung out at the Jinx before they worked there.

Scott Johansen went to see his brother play at Velvet. Tony Beasley started as a Velvet door guy and asked the bartenders how he could get their job.

James May and his band, Black Tusk, were among the opening night bands for Jinx. Rich Krauss’ first job in a bar was as door guy there in 2011.

“We’ve buried so many of our friends. We had their wakes at that place,” remembers Fiksman. “We’re not churchgoing folks, we’re a bunch of drunks and punks and hippies. And that’s our community center.”

Of course, the stained glass in the ceiling helps exalt it to a holy status. But just like a real church, it’s not about the building—it’s about who’s inside.

Everyone who frequented 127 West Congress was part of a family, for better or for worse, and everyone who ever went has a story.

Ask Albano about winning Miss Velvet A-Go-Go. Ask Beasley about the sumo wrestling contest that got him his job. Ask Cruz about the SCAD baseball coaches who watched their guy get drafted to the Yankees.

Ask Steve Baumgardner about Hip Hop Night, one of the longest running weekly events in town for 16 years. Ask Rita D’LaVane about the Savannah Sweet Tease Burlesque Revue, who got their start on the Jinx stage.

Ask about Jinx-O-Ween, or Rock ’n’ Roll Bingo, or Swing Night, or GAM, or Black Tusk, or Athon, or Robyn, or Niema, or about anything, really. Everyone will tell you the same: the Jinx was special.

“You still have places doing live music,” says Cruz, “but Jinx was more than that.”

“Keep the dream alive,” urges Warnekros. “Don’t give up. Things will return to normal—we’ll get through this. Murder By Death will play here again one day, I assure you.”

Regardless of what the next chapter of the Jinx looks like, or when it starts, one thing is certain: Warnekros is staying the hell away from 127 West Congress.

“I’ll never walk in there again,” she laughs. “I’ll never be able to.”

CS

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