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Tampa club's beat goes on

Skipper's Smokehouse celebrates 25 years of eclectic music and patrons. What a long, strange trip it's been.

By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2005

TAMPA - Over the last 25 years, audiences witnessed Huun Huur Tu, the Tuvan throat-singers, perform at Skipper's Smokehouse. They saw Chainsaw Gene, whose on-stage performance consisted of carving tree stumps with a chainsaw.

There were also a 25-piece harmonica band, a Hare Krishna band, a 100-person drum circle, and the rootsy, bluesy Crawlin' King Snake Band from Switzerland.

These were mere mileposts in the long, strange trip of one of Tampa Bay's most eclectic and colorful institutions, which celebrated its 25th anniversary on Saturday.

From noon until midnight, several hundred of the Skipper's faithful were drawn to the restaurant and show venue to listen to a free concert, drink beer, snack on signature fried gator tail and dance.

"This place just hits its own groove," said Robert Carter, a regular who has done so much plumbing work for Skipper's, he's considered an employee. "It fills a niche no other club even tries to fill. Here you see all types of genres, races, all types of sexual orientation, liberals and conservatives, young and old."

Indeed, it was hard to put a label on Saturday's crowd, though Skipper's has clearly become a favorite spot for Deadheads and reggae fans over the years. (Grateful Dead Night and Reggae Wednesday are staple acts.) Bandana-wearing men and women who pulled up on their Harley-Davidsons blended well with University of South Florida med students. Women wearing high heels and designer sunglasses danced alongside men with gray ponytails and tie-dyed tank tops. One little girl padded around in bare feet and a sundress.

It wasn't an atypical scene for the "Skipperdome," which is little more than a few thin, wooden walls, a tiny restaurant and bar, and lots of benches and picnic tables surrounding a cramped outdoor stage under a canopy of towering trees.

Co-owners Vince McGilvra and Tom White bought the tiny North Tampa shack (which was later expanded to include the stage and seating area) in 1980. McGilvra and White figured they'd run the place for five years or so, and then move on.

While holding open jam sessions on Sundays, the two realized Tampa's musicians were clamoring for exposure. Skipper's began operating as a talent agency and began booking shows with a cover charge.

"Tampa has always been a real music hotbed, but as far as the music business - labels, managers, things like that - that was pretty much nonexistent," said Ronny Elliott, a Tampa music icon since the 1960s, who performed with alt-country band Ronny Elliott and the Nationals on Saturday.

"Skipper's is a real oasis," he said. "It's always been about the music. I've seen stuff here I'd normally have to go halfway around the world to see."

Among some of the popular national acts at Skipper's: Tex-Mex/rock band Los Lonely Boys, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Buddy Guy, punk-rockabilly group Southern Culture on the Skids and famed soul-gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama.

One act that always struck a chord with Skipper's patrons was "Diamond Teeth Mary" McLain, who performed blues and gospel until her death five years ago. She was 97.

"They would literally have to pick her up in a chair and carry her to the microphone," said local musician John Hancock, who worked the door at Skipper's. "She was totally frail, and everyone would get quiet. It would almost be like church in here. A rock 'n' roll church."

One of White and McGilvra's favorite memories is from the mid 1980s, when a truck full of Peruvian panflute players and their wives and children showed up after midnight wanting to audition. The Skipper's staff sat there and watched the group perform with goat heel percussion until 4 a.m.

"They were awesome," White said. He booked them, too.

The Skipper's anniversary celebration goes on today. Steve Forbert, a raspy-voiced Mississippi musician, and country-blues artist Ray Bonneville will perform at Skipper's today at 5 p.m.

Next month, the acts include Devil Dolls, Garaj Mahal and the Sarasota High School all-star band.

And the music goes on.

[Last modified September 25, 2005, 02:15:40]

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