YouTube: Billy Branch

Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2014

‘Going To See Miss Gerri One More Time’, off Billy Branch’s recent Blind Pig release “Blues Shock”, was written about 93 year old Gerri Oliver who owned Bronzeville’s legendary Palm Tavern for 50 years, until it was unceremoniously closed down by the city. It was the hot spot for the stars – folks like Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Quincy Jones, and Dinah Washington (to name a few) would hang out at the Palm Tavern after their gigs. This video, made by a fan of Billy Branch, showcases the historical significance and the heartfelt sentiments of the lyrics.

“Going To See Miss Gerri One More Time” is a moving song about a lost chapter in the cultural history of Chicago’s black population.  As Living Blues put it, “It’s the story of Gerri Oliver, long-time proprietor of the Palm Tavern on 47th Street on Chicago’s South Side.   That neighborhood, often referred to as Bronzeville, is rich with African-American history – it’s been called the ‘Harlem of the Midwest’ – and much of that history unfolded in the legendary watering hole that Gerri Oliver presided over from 1956 until the city shut it down (or, more accurately, snatched it out from under here) in July of 2001.”

The song was written by acclaimed Chicago bluesman Billy Branch, whom Oliver called her “son.”   To ensure historical accuracy, Branch consulted with Dr. Timuel Black, one of the city’s most respected African-American scholars and historians.   Living Blues called the result “by any objective standard, both an eloquent piece of storytelling and an appropriate tribute” and which Branch calls “the best song I’ve ever written.”

The song is the centerpiece of Blues Shock, the first studio CD from the three-time Grammy nominee with his band in fifteen years.  A fan of Billy’s, Will Gay, created a video for the song as a gift to the musician.   Comprised largely of old photos (including some disturbing images), it illustrates the historical significance and heartfelt sentiments of the lyrics that tell the story of Gerri’s life.  The song and video highlight her struggles with racism and segregation, from her birthplace in Mississippi in 1922 to Chicago, where she moved in the ‘40s in search of a better life, as well as her endurance and triumph as owner of an elite social and cultural touchstone for the black community.  In a lengthy cover story Living Blues calls the composition “nothing less than the story of the Great Migration itself, exemplified in the life trajectory of one remarkable woman.”

In its heyday, the Palm Tavern was the hot spot for celebrities – folks like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis, Jr., Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Quincy Jones, and Dinah Washington, who would hang out there after their gigs – as well as for other luminaries such as dancer Josephine Baker, writers Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, and in later years, Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey.  It was, in short, as the Chicago Tribune put it, “a landmark in Chicago history and American musical culture.”

Its demise haunted Branch, who says, “It was just a tragedy. The way they closed the Palm Tavern, without fanfare or celebration, it felt so wrong.  Such a rich historical and cultural legacy, to be just erased without any mention – this song is my way of paying homage to Gerri Oliver and the Palm Tavern.”

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