Mel Harper first got into the club business in 1957, opening the 790 Vets Club at 790 12th St., just off Center Street. The 790 lasted until 1969, when the historic area was torn down to make way for urban “renewal.” The 790 club became a popular nightspot, largely due to the talented house band of Prez Lovett, Rufus Spates and Eddie Eugene.
Some of the legendary Blues performers that he booked into the 790 include T-Bone Walker, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Pee Wee Crayton. Crayton was initially booked for a two-week run, but ended up staying for two years. Mel also ran the Empire Room upstairs from the 790, beginning in 1962. Ruth Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Brook Benton and Bobby Marchand are a few of the big names to perform there.
Harper was also responsible for bringing Jimmy Pryor to Des Moines from Detroit for what was initially a two-week gig and the “Midnite Cowboy,” as the 86-year-old Pryor is called, is still going strong today as the King of the Blues in Des Moines. (You can hear Jimmy regularly at jams all around and with Fat Tuesday & the Greasefire Horns, the 2000 Iowa Blues Challenge winners.)
Mel also ran Harper House at 5314 S.E. 14th St. from 1962-69, Robert’s Lounge at 1025 University from 1972-1985, and Mel’s Bar & Grill at 1001 Ashworth in West Des Moines from about 1990 until Mel’s retirement from the entertainment business three years ago.
Other notable R&B, Jazz and Blues names to pass through his establishments include The Soul Brothers, Pinky Smith, The Amazors, The Whispers, The Three Sounds, Rhetta Hughes, Tennyson Stevens, and many, many more. He gave current IBHOF member, Ella Ruth Piggee, her first professional singing job, who went on to perform with Fattburger, and Sam Salomone has played at every club Harper has owned.
– Don “T-Bone” Erickson
PHOTO © DON ERICKSON