This story was originally published in the December 9-15, 2015 edition of YES! Weekly.
Conventional wisdom states that any time your phone rings in the wee hours of the morning, the call is carrying bad news.
Even so, Tim Mabe was not particularly concerned when his jangling phone roused him in the pre-dawn hours of May 14, 1993.
Mabe was then the owner of Baity’s Backstreet Music Garden on Baity Street, one of Winston-Salem’s most prestigious and successful live-music venues. The club, commonly known as Baity’s, was then the centerpiece of a thriving, multi-club live-music scene that brought local and big-name national acts to Baity Street and 30th Street, effectively putting Winston-Salem on the musical radar.
Baity’s was a sprawling, fenced indoor/outdoor club that backed up to a dark wooded area that left it vulnerable to break-ins.
Whenever a would-be thief or vandal tried to enter the club it would set off a burglar alarm. The alarm service would dispatch police, then call Mabe, who would dutifully climb out of bed and drive to the club.
It was an inconvenience, yes, but Mabe had grown accustomed to it.
Thus when the alarm company woke Mabe on the morning of May 14, he grumbled, got dressed and went down to meet the police.
Business as usual.
What he saw upon turning onto Baity Street left him as shocked and dazed as if he had been broadsided by a roundhouse sucker punch.
“The first thing I saw were the fire trucks, maybe 10 of them, then a line of police cars,” Mabe said. “The road was blocked.”
Baity’s was burning.
He pulled to the side of the road. He turned his car off. “I sat there and I cried,” Mabe said. “My livelihood, my life, had literally gone up in smoke.
“Foghat was scheduled to play later that night, and the first thing that popped into my head was not what am I now gonna do to survive, but, ‘Well, I guess I need to get in touch with the band.’ I was still thinking like a club owner.”
He laughed. “It was weeks before reality totally took over and I came to grips that Baity’s was closed for good and that I was gonna have to do something else with my life.
It really took me that long to grasp what had happened.”
What started in 1982 as a venture and adventure for Mabe, a former musician who had played drums in such Winston-Salem bands as White Water, had come to a smoldering, ruinous conclusion.
Rumors quickly spread about the source of the blaze, hardly unexpected as clubs historically are vulnerable to mysterious fires. Virtually all speculation ventured arson, with a recurrent theory being that an infamous motorcycle gang, having been repeatedly asked to leave the club, had burned down Baity’s in retribution.
Arson investigators disagreed. It was ruled that old wiring in the club’s basement had started the fire. The fire then turned into an inferno when it hit the club’s large storehouse of liquor.
“They said it blew like a bomb,” Mabe said.
Mabe’s mother, the late Peggy “Ma Baity” Ring, who co-owned the club with Mabe, tried to talk her son into rebuilding and reopening.
“Mom was raring to go,” Mabe said. “She loved being at the club. She loved the people. She loved the music. She loved the bands. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after the club opened, and was given just months to live. She wasn’t having any part of that. I think it was the club that kept her alive.
“But the fire ... I didn’t do anything for six months. I finally realized that my need had been fulfilled. I had accomplished what I set out to do with Baity’s.”
Mabe left Winston-Salem in 1996 to forge a new career managing convention centers and arenas in Georgia and Texas. In 2011, he returned to North Carolina as the new president of the High Point Conventions and Visitors Bureau.
Once back, he found to his amazement that, 18 years after the demise of Baity’s, many people he talked with in the Triad not only still remembered the club, but also seemed to actively yearn for its return.
The club had left an indelible mark that seemed to reach beyond the rose-colored alterations of nostalgia.
“I always felt that Baity’s was special back in the day, but then I would,” Mabe said. “I was genuinely touched by how many people had such fond memories of the club, things about it that they held dear.
“Maybe Baity’s was something more than being in the right place at the right time.”
The roots of Baity’s Backstreet Music Garden stretch back to the late 1970s, when a consortium of men who had gotten wealthy working the Alaskan Pipe Line bought land from the Baity clan, an eccentric farming family who owned a large chunk of farm land adjacent to Baity Street. The men cleared land, built a bar room from an existing farm house on the property, and added fencing and an outdoor bar to an area that once housed chickens and donkeys.
The bar was dubbed the Oak Cooler in honor of an oak cooler common to the original structure.
By 1982, the owners of the Oak Cooler had soured on the realities of running a bar. In stepped Mabe who, with three friends, purchased the bar, made some transformative renovations and changed its name to Baity’s Backstreet Music Garden.
The general public was initially unconvinced, if not underwhelmed.
“The club was not what you would call ornate,” Mabe said, laughing. “In fact, some folks might have called it a dump.”
In short order, Mabe, his mother, and his step-father, Jim Ring, bought out Mabe’s original partners, all of whom did not share Mabe’s plan to bring big-name entertainment to a rough-hewn bar that was still far more vision than reality.
“My immediate plan was to run two-to-three national acts a week,” Mabe said. “They thought it was too risky, too early. I wanted to expand the outside, so we could do any size act. They thought I was crazy - and, you know, I might have been. But I had a feeling it would work.
“My mom, bless her, saw the big picture and chipped in her savings. And we went to work.”
Mabe’s plan was simple: Build it and they will come.
The key was to construct a loyal fan base from which he would forge emotional partnerships. Once patrons felt that Mabe was listening to their ideas about what bands to book, and what kinds of specials and events to run, then they would come to feel that the club was in part their own.
Baity’s was not designed to be exclusive; it was to be a gathering place for everyone.
A friendly place where everyone knew your name.
“We were very mindful of the value of what we gave our customers,” Mabe said. “We did not just give them what we wanted. We made sure that they got what they wanted.
“As a result, we very quickly built up a very loyal group who saw the club as a primary destination. They came to hang out with each other. For some, going to Baity’s became an everyday thing.
“Pretty soon we were drawing from Greensboro, as well.” Mabe quickly expanded his club to include a large burlap-tarp-covered outdoor stage dubbed “The Thunderdome.” This expanded the club’s capacity from a few hundred to a few thousand. In short order, Baity’s was regularly running national acts four to five days a week - sometimes even seven days a week.
Metal bands. Pop bands. Roots bands. Alternative bands. Local bands. Regional bands. Big national touring bands.
They all played Baity’s.
Tellingly, a very similar layout and booking approach was adopted by Ziggy’s when it relocated from 30th Street to Baity Street in 2000.
“We offered people lots of musical choices, as did Ziggy’s,” Mabe said. “And when Ziggy’s moved and opened maybe 100 yards from us, it was good for everybody. Things really got exciting in that area of town.
“Downtown was dead at that time; it was a place to avoid. At one point on Baity Street, you could walk from Baity’s to Ziggy’s, then back to the Sport’s Club, which was between the clubs, or go across the street to Corbin’s.
“Everybody had live music. Everybody did strong business. Every night was like a musical migration.
“And it pushed all of us to create a unique experience in our clubs.”
For instance, Baity’s created a showcase for rising bands on Thursday nights. To help lure crowds, admission was just $5 - and patrons could drink draft beer for free.
“It was so packed you couldn’t move, and people got to see some great bands on Thursday nights - Nine Inch Nails played on Thursday before they got famous.”
Mabe also smartly used local and regional bands to repeatedly open for national acts. This allowed local bands to play in front of large crowds and eventually build followings large enough to fill the club on their own.
As for the national acts that performed at Baity’s, even a partial list is impressive in its quality and diversity:
Ricky Nelson, Enuff Z’Nuff, Extreme, The Ramones, Georgia Satellites, R.E.M., Let’s Active, Tom Verlaine, Guns ‘N Roses, The Plasmatics, NRBQ, The Bears (with Adrian Belew), Marshall Crenshaw, The Golden Palominos, George Thorogood, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle & The Dukes, The Black Crowes, The BoDeans, Rita Coolidge, Jeff Healey, Papa John Creach, Little Feat, Johnny Winter, The Smithereens, Edgar Winter, The Gun Club, Leon Russell, Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen, the Stray Cats, The Band, Blue Oyster Cult ...
And they all created lasting memories:
The night Jason & The Scorchers played, there were so many people packed inside the club, jumping up and down to the music, that the floor literally, frighteningly, began moving up and down.
Tiny Tim, who had appeared as an “oddity” on a package oldie’s show, was quietly standing by himself outside the bus after his performance. Asked about his expertise in Vaudeville-era music, he began singing favorite songs, cupping his hands to simulate the sound of a Victrola. Within minutes, a large and increasingly appreciative crowd gathered, cheering and urging Tiny Tim, who was clearly moved by the experience, to do more and more songs. A road manager came to disperse the crowd and made a crestfallen Tiny Tim get on the bus. He was roundly booed for breaking up the impromptu concert by many of the same people who had ridiculed Tiny Tim during his short stage set.
Then there was the night that Skid Row played outdoors at Baity’s. That afternoon, Mabe had gotten a phone call from Skid Row’s management, which also handled Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi was in Greensboro with a night off prior to playing at Greensboro Coliseum. They wanted to come see Skid Row.
What transpired is perhaps the quintessential Baity’s story: Skid Row had just started its set when a limo rolled up and deposited Skid Row’s manager Doc McGhee (later the manager for Motley Crue and KISS); Richie Sambora, guitarist for Bon Jovi, and a hooded, dressed down Jon Bon Jovi, then one of the biggest sex-symbol rock stars in America.
Mabe’s wonderfully no-nonsense, plain-spoken mother was in her customary position taking tickets at the door.
A preening Sambora was holding court outside the club as McGhee, then Bon Jovi, quietly paid and entered the club.
Sambora stepped up and began to walk into the club.
Ma Baity stopped him. “I don’t know where you think you are going,” she said. “That will be $7.”
Sambora looked rattled. “DON”T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?,” he said, a bit indignantly.
Ma Baity fired back, “I don’t care if you are Jon @#$%!@^ Bon Jovi, that will be $7.”
The cloaked Jon Bon Jovi just stood there, unrecognized (for a blissful moment; chaos would quickly ensue), and chortled as Sambora had to borrow money from McGhee to get in the club.
A regular, having found himself short of cash for admission, had turned to leave. He was shocked when he was stopped and ushered in for free .... right ... behind ... Sambora, who now was seething like Yosemite Sam.
“We treated our customers as family,” Mabe said. “They were more than beer drinkers and ticket buyers. Along the way, a lot of people made friendships that have lasted through the years.”
Cathy “Cat” Pighini went to work at Baity’s in 1985 and became one of the club’s most popular bartenders.
She was beautiful. She was tough. And she was a character - ask anyone who ever saw the ever-fearless Cat vault over the bar to nip an escalating fight in the bud.
And she saw first hand how Baity’s brought people together.
“There was something profound about the vibe at Baity’s that went beyond that of just another club,” she said. “Right from the start, people connected in deep ways that continued on through life.
“ I loved music, just as all people our age did back then, but it was the people, not the music, that really made that place special.
Pighini began seeking out friends from her years at Baity’s two years ago after a close friend from the club died of breast cancer.
She wanted to let other people know.
Several months ago, her quest led her to discover a Facebook page dedicated to Baity’s. She has since become the administrator of the page - now called Baity’s Music Garden of Winston-Salem Reunion Central.
Friends of friends have let other friends know about the page, and more and more people - former employees, musicians whose band’s played there, and people who loved going to the club - have been signing on.
To read through the posts is to go back in time. Members of many local and regional metal bands have posted either old promo photos - lots and lots of hair and spandex - or photos of various bands playing at Baity’s.
Typsy Gypsy. Circus Baby. Sidewinder. Crystal Witch. Kidd Wicked. Cerebus. Avalon. Society’s Child...
The list goes on and on.
The comments of the people who weigh in clearly underscores how much Baity’s meant to these people.
Pighini hopes to hold a Baity’s Reunion concert in the near future to benefit breast cancer research in honor of her friend and others who continue to battle the disease.
“This isn’t so much about nostalgia as it is a need to reconnect with people who shared something that was magical,” Pighini said. “We all shared an experience. It was an exciting time. We were young, and it was a time of rock ‘n’ roll and partying and it pushed us all forward to understand the quest of growing up.
“That experience has value that no one can take away.”