It's August in New Orleans. The night air is thick as sweet sorghum and half the city's hotel rooms stand empty. This is a lagging market for a start-up music venue on a low-traffic street on the edge of Mid-City, but funk/R&B pianist-songwriter Eddie Bo and three bandmates -- saxophonist Red Morgan, guitarist Jimmy Bolero and drummer Duane Nelson -- nevertheless play two full sets at Check Your Bucket, the cafe and lounge Bo opened during Jazz Fest. The band tucks household names such as "Blueberry Hill" and "Tipitina" in between a smattering of lesser-known tunes and well-oiled instrumental solos. When Bo sings, his laughing eyes and cottony beard bopping just above the piano's horizontal surface, the over-played songs don't sound nearly as worn as they should.
"Musicians, in order to feel good about ourselves, we have to cause the audience to feel good about the performance," says Bo, which always means playing a good deal of standards.
Bo and his sister, Veronica Randolph, didn't found Check Your Bucket for the twice-monthly shows he plays there. Rather they built it as a haven for their friends -- as a gathering spot where musicians may or may not indulge in the opportunity, not the obligation, to play. Says Bo, "There's no place available today where all the musicians just hang out."
That wasn't always the case. "We used to go to the Dew Drop (Inn). I met people I would never have had a chance to see and hear. Like Sarah Vaughn, Diana Washington, Billy Eckstein, Ray Charles ... I could go on and on."
Bo was born into the Bocage Family, "a long line of masons and ship-builders." Though his graceful hands are better known for toiling over keys of ivory, he considers himself a contractor by trade. Construction skills served him well while he renovated the dilapidated Banks Street building, formerly occupied by medical offices. "They thought they were selling me a lemon," he says with a warm, crackly laugh.
Cantaloupe-orange paint brightens Check Your Bucket's windowless dining room. Mirrors stretching across one wall reflect a gallery of brilliant color photographs of Jazz Fest performances: Jon Cleary, Charlie Miller, Fats Domino, Irma Thomas and the late Tommy Ridgely. Many of them, Bo says, have stopped by.
Visitors to www.checkyourbucket.com encounter the tenet "Stress Free Zone." These three words summarize the deeper motivation behind Check Your Bucket: Bo and Randolph desired a haven for themselves, a place where they could escape the stresses of the music business. Randolph has managed her brother for 10 years. "The first several years I was literally physically ill over what was being done to him," she recalls. They can tell endless stories about rip-off artists and musicians who claim ownership of songs they didn't write. Appropriately, "Check Your Bucket" is one of few original Eddie Bo songs to which he still owns the rights.
Bo is hesitant to reveal his age. "You know 'In the beginning ...?'" he likes to hint. "I was standing right there next to God." Randolph, though younger, is well into middle age. You'd never guess, however, judging from the siblings' mutual youthfulness and Noxzema glow, that a bead of anxious sweat had ever dampened either brow. Their smiles are communicable, and Randolph's dimples work full-time. She attributes their radiance to "what we eat and different colors of that word."
"I try to do what the Bible says," Bo adds, "which has everything to do with eating, too. We try to eat healthily and think healthily. That's the only way you can maintain through the stress."
Given food's significance to their inner lives, it fits that Check Your Bucket operates weekdays as a restaurant. Chef Karen Hamilton's lunch menu includes a vegetarian pita sandwich and salads tossed with a marketable vinaigrette. A group of laborers reserved a table one afternoon, knowing that the self-proclaimed "dago chef" planned to serve spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs. They left anthills of sawdust on each chair seat but no leftovers on their plates.
Though Bo and Randolph met their chef less than a year ago, the three are of one mind on how to maintain the cafe's stress-free status. "It's a joy to serve people, but to serve people in the manner in which we would like to be served," says Randolph, which means that customers must mute cell phones and smoke outdoors. The chummy women joke about the cafe's alias: "Grandmas' House."
Bo, the eldest of the three, would logically be Grandpa. Even while maintaining an adolescent's vigor, he lives up to the label in mild-mannered dependability and a caretaker's sensitivity. Only two tourists from Texas stuck around Check Your Bucket for the band's unabridged second set on that slow night in August. Two hands clapping is all the encouragement Bo ever requires to play. When the couple eventually requested a cab call, Bo wouldn't have it. Instead he loaded them into his car and delivered them to their hotel himself.
- Cheryl Gerber
"I try to do what the Bible says, which has everything to do with eating, too," Eddie Bo says of his approach to his new Check Your Bucket Cafe. "We try to eat healthily and think healthily."