In the late 1970s when I arrived in Raleigh, downtown was a dead-end place after 5 p.m. The city fathers had ordered Fayetteville Street -- North Carolina's "Main Street" with a handsome promenade from the State Capitol down to the equally imposing Memorial Auditorium -- dug up and replaced with a pedestrian mall with benches, gardens, trees, fountains, a big clock and a false expectation that people would throng to it. It was a disaster -- not the least because local merchants opposed outdoor seating for restaurants (there weren't many) and because construction knocked out a lot of retailers whose walk-in customer business disappeared when it became impossible to walk in through the mud and trenches and chaos.
But there was one place that made it: Blanche's Center Grill, just a block south of the Capitol. It was a lunch counter kind of place, run by Blanche and Larry Blaylock, as good-hearted a couple as you will find in this land. Blanche had big black hairdoos and a ready laugh; Larry, a veteran of a bad time in the Korean War, was quieter but loved it best when there was a big loud crowd in his place.
I came to know them when a barkeep at Rusty's, around the corner, ticked off the Capital Press Corps with extremely bad service during their weekly gatherings to blow off some steam and whine about clueless editors, power-hungry politicians and unctuous wannabe policymakers who spoke in florid languages incomprehensible to the human ear. One day a barkeep tardy with the next round tossed off an ill-considered line: "Keep your pants on. It's not like you all have anywhere else to go."
My colleague Brent Hackney, who knew every place within a hundred miles where a person could get a nip of the sauce, strolled around to Blanche's Center Grill the next morning. Would it be all right, he inquired, if a dozen or so newshawks and hangers-on came around for an hour or so after work to have a few cold ones? They were delighted. Usually their business trailed off by mid-afternoon and their doors were locked by 6. But if someone was buying, they'd be happy to do some selling and serving into the evening hours.
So it came to be that Blanche's became the weekly stopover for a press corp that considered itself overworked, underpaid and insufficiently appreciated by the louts who ran their newspapers and radio and TV stations. And it was then we discovered a marvelous thing: Blanche and Larry had the most wonderful jukebox in the Cap City. On it you could find the 1939 "Moonlight Serenade" by big-bandleader Glenn Miller, one of the most danceable songs in American history; "My Girl," the 1965 beach music anthem by the Temptations, "Slow Hand" by the Pointer Sisters, one of the most erotic songs ever aired, and a gem you'll rarely find: "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."
Country music fans surely thought about that fine work when Kitty Wells died Monday at age 92 in Nashville. She made that song famous in 1952, almost by accident, at a time when she was about to quit the business, or at least quit going on the road.
But the version on Blanche's jukebox wasn't by Kitty Wells. It was by the state's garrulous happy pol, Rufus Edmisten, who had come to notice as an aide to then-U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin during the Watergate investigation of the Nixon administration. Edmisten went on to become N.C. attorney general, then an unsuccessful candidate for governor, and later secretary of state before going into private practice and lobbying and making, as he was delighted to tell anyone who inquired, a ton of money. Somewhere along the way Edmisten crooned "Honky Tonk Angels" into someone's microphone, and it wound up on the jukebox at Blanche's where he sometimes lunched.
I don't believe there was a Kitty Wells version on that jukebox, but it would have been welcome. So would Kitty, but in that particular lunchroom, Rufus ruled.
Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s Blanche's got urban-redeveloped. I think the property became an expansion of the next-door Farmer's and Merchant's Bank, and Blanche and Larry went on to other things. I wondered the other day when I heard about Kitty Wells what had happened to that jukebox. It ought to be in the Smithsonian -- or at least up near the bar at Player's Retreat over by N.C. State. But that's another story.