Louisville Magazine

AUG 2018

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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Page 69 of 144

LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 8.18 67 posed in a photo with Johnny, in slacks and a white shirt and tie, his collar spray- starched as usual. One early patron, a singer named Chase Brown who still goes to the bar, remembers sparse crowds in the beginning. "You could go in there with somebody else's wife and nobody would know," he says with a laugh. at changed with jazz. It was the genre people told Syl would never draw customers, but Johnny tapped his friends to play in a cramped corner of the dark bar. "It would be like four or five of them in the corner with an organ, drum, saxophone and all that stuff — can you imagine how crowded it was up there?" Syl says. "Live jazz — no one else had it around here. And it took off, and boy I tell you, we had some good years. We had some good musicians, white and black. We even had kids from the U of L who were taking music and wanted to know how to blow with soul. ey'd come down here and they would blow." One jazz musician dubbed Sylvia "Miss Syl" and it stuck. Music spread to Friday nights and then Saturday. Characters, laughter and good stories were plentiful. "We had one guy who could play the keyboard with his tongue. He was something else," Syl says. "One night, it was his birthday, and he got so high. And we locked the place up, and he was back there sleeping under a table. No one noticed him. We got home and the alarm goes off. We come up here. He had locked himself in the club and went out the back door." When musicians weren't lugging upright basses and saxes in and out, a jukebox filled the space with soul and R&B — Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Ray Charles. e rap music that was blowing up nationally? Forget it. Syl's didn't serve food but at Derby time and on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, they put on barbecue rib dinners with greens, corn and all the fixings. Eventually, the 1990, Johnny had retired again, and they were looking for a third act in life. "You know, I wouldn't mind having a little bar," Johnny told a friend. "I got just the spot for you," the friend replied. According to an undated Courier- Journal clipping, circa 1990, Mills Lounge had already established itself as a landmark, offering "a clean environment where people could have good conversation and listen to relaxing music." Even then, it was known for its signature red lighting. Johnny — who enjoyed horse racing and entertaining guests with barbeque, jazz records and drinks (his favorites were Johnny Walker Red scotch on the rocks and Stroh's beer) — decided that sounded good. Syl sighs recalling it now, but she reasoned that Johnny had earned it, because, she says, "He done worked for 40 years." "OK," she told him. "We'll try it." On a rainy night in late May, Syl, in a flowered blouse, sidles up to the last barstool near the kitchen, next to 85-year-old John Manson, who, after nearly 28 years, is still at Syl's almost nightly, his hunched shoulders squared over a light beer diluted in a glass of ice. "Hi, John, how are you doing?" Syl says in a singsong voice. She gives a side hug to Manson, who's in an Obama hat and Cardinals shirt (reflecting two of the bars favorite causes). Two other women, relatively young in their 60s, walk over to greet him. "Hi, Mr. John," one says. Manson's age shows in his raspy, distant voice, and in how he strains to hear questions and answers in an over-loud voice. Affixed to the wood bar in front of him is a gold plate with his name engraved on it. "We decided with his dedication he deserved a seat reserved just for him," says Syl, standing before the bar's haphazard tableau of bottles of Crown Royal and Hennessy, a blue plastic Christmas tree, a potato chip display, ceramic liquor bottles, U of L sports banners, a framed drawing of Johnny and a "ink before you shoot" sign atop a fridge holding cans of Colt 45 and Pepsi. "When people are sitting there and he comes in, they get up — because Mr. John is in the house," Syl says. Mr. John was among the first in the house when Syl and Johnny took the keys in 1990. It was sink or swim. ey switched the name from Mills to Syl's, in an effort to keep a similar-sounding name to retain customers. ey stocked up on liquor and beer but made no renovations or redecorations. "Tried and true" — one of Syl's mother's sayings. On opening day, Syl wore a tropical-patterned dress and "Live jazz — no one else had it around here. And it took off, and boy I tell you, we had some good years. We had some good musicians, white and black. We even had kids from the U of L who were taking music and wanted to know how to blow with soul. They'd come down here and they would blow," Syl says.

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