Kent’s Cozy Corner by Roger Thurman
illoughby, Ohio boys Brian Davies and Dave McIntosh had already been playing folk music in a duo cleverly named The Missing Otis Trio. They were signed by Roulette and created an album: And Now…The Missing Otis Trio (Roulette SR25236–1963). With professional aspirations they performed in a string of folk clubs ranging from Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Chicago, Joliet and Cleveland.
Encountering many great “semi-name” musicians on the circuit they became determined, by 1963, to open an acoustic folk music club in Kent: The Blind Owl. After pooling funds with friends and family and relying on Phil Switzer’s construction skills, an old garage in an alley behind the Kent Hotel was rented. The rambling structure also hosted Mike Slates Auto Parts at the frontage along South Depeyster Street. It was a large rectangular space in need of a proper partition. All they had to do was remove years of grease and grime, construct a tiny foyer with a ticket window, cover a pit with a wood floor, build bathrooms and a kitchen, secure checkered cloth tables and chairs to seat eighty, install lights and a clear sound system, and paint the place black, including the exterior facade. Viola! But don’t forget to hang some local art work, pass safety code inspections, start advertising with handbills and in the local paper, and rely on girlfriends to make the place run. Meanwhile The Missing Otis Trio continued touring.
Top Photo: Unknown duo performing at the Owl in the Fall of 1968.
Middle Photo: From 1968 to 1972 new owners, liquoir license in hand, revamped the business. A jukebox eventually replaced the live music.
Bottom Photo: Converted back into a garage, the space has served Kline & Kavali Plumbing & Heating well for the past several years.
At least there was no liquor license to fret over; the kitchen served coffee, espresso and cider spiked with a cinnamon stick. Alcohol was never much of a problem for The Blind Owl although various aromas—imported cigarettes, incense, patchouli and some mysterious substances wafting in from the parking lot—lent an exotic ambience to the scene.
A dream came true! Acoustic music presented in a venue designed for and built by skilled musicians! Within four months the club was profitable. Audiences grew and soon other touring minstrels began to realize that the intimate space, with stage lighting and superb sound, provided a unique opportunity for musical communication. Crowds formed outside the club vying for a chance—Tuesday through Saturday, sometimes three shows per night—to hear the likes of Bob Gibson, Tom Paxton, Buffy St.Marie, Tom Mastin, Peter Lafarge, Buzzy Linhart, David Rea, Patrick Sky and stand-up comic Henry Gibson who later appeared on Laugh-in. Tom Shipley, from Berea, Ohio, performed at the Owl and met Mike Brewer, a guitarist from Oklahoma. Brewer moved to Los Angeles and found work producing demos for A&M Records. When Shipley joined him they teamed up as “Brewer & Shipley” and eventually had a national hit with One Toke Over the Line. Tom Mastin wrote How Do You Feel which was adapted by the Jefferson Airplane for their first release: “Surrealistic Pillow.” Mastin and Brewer had appeared as a duo at The Blind Owl.
A relatively unknown Jose (Light My Fire) Feliciano played the club twice. The first time his wife translated Spanish, but the next time he came with his seeing-eye dog which slept at his feet on stage. The fee was $400 per week for a five night week, three shows per night bearing a $2.50 cover charge. The guitar wizard stayed at the Kent Hotel. During one visit a huge snow storm stopped everything and Feliciano jammed all night with a band at The Deck bar in the hotel basement.
Renowned Cleveland folk singer Josh White Sr. came for a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating committee) benefit; the $6 cover was donated to the Civil Rights movement. Overt political stances were not the norm although the general nature of traditional folk music tunes such as “Joe Hill” cast the milieu as liberal left. Local acts were also featured, most notably “The Journeymen,” who led weekly hootenanny shows at Kent State’s Bowman Hall. Mike (Drew) and Wendell (Fjeld), a duo just out of Kent State High School, performed original and traditional music with skill far beyond their years. The folk scene at The Blind Owl was vibrant for almost four years and easily paid its own way with consistent, attentive audiences.
Davies and McIntosh both got drafted and returned after serving six months active duty in the National Guard. Times were changing and Davies found another singing partner, Clark Maffitt, and headed west in the company of local beauty queen and spouse Saline Fjeld who was an accomplished folk singer. Davies gave his share of the club to McIntosh who continued to run the club briefly before moving west as well. At the club the good vibes continued but were marred by the occasional inebriated interloper importuning a folkie flower child.
Out West Maffitt and Davies played on the college circuit and recorded singles for the Decca and Columbia labels. Another record deal with Capitol created an LP: The Rise and Fall of Honesty (1968). The duo also became former Limelighters tenor Glenn Yarbrough’s opening act and accompanists. After four years Maffitt departed while Brian Davies stayed for sixteen more years as Yarbrough’s banjoist and twelve-string guitarist.
How was all this possible? Whence came the boundless energy and noble intentions? The times were easy: acoustic musicians, travelling easily by car between cities, were spared the overhead of a band; the Blind Owl leased a four bedroom house nearby for performers. There was a passionate dedication to the music and a cooperative spirit: management from the Cleveland folk clubs (Farragher’s and La Cave) sometimes helped with bookings. Phil Switzer and Frank Metzger ran the place when The Missing Otis Trio went on the road. Bill Sandiford spun elaborate humorous monologues and created graphics for the signage and advertising. The intimate proximity of audience-to-performer pushed the artists to greater heights. The Owl’s final curtain fell when a manager abruptly left town for Canada after cleaning out the accounts. By 1968 the club was sold to Mike Krieger who acquired a liquor license from Joe Shannon. The Blind Owl, once so unique, became a rock club which survived into the 1980s.
©2010 – Roger Thurman.
Please contact Roger Thurman at 330-673-4054 if you have corrections, recollections or additional information about The Blind Owl.