The neighborhood bar in Harlem has become little more than a memory only cherished by the community’s elders. During its heyday, it was a place where seniors hung out and reminisced, where hustlers stood around rapping about their latest conquests as the jukebox blasted a James Brown tune and folks came in constantly for a quick drink and to check the winning number for the day. (Today it’s called the lotto, and it’s legal like alcohol.)
Despite gentrification and technology, the little, homey community bar, Paris Blues, continues to flourish. This weekend, Nov. 15 and 16, owner Samuel “Sam” Hargress Jr. will celebrate his 45th anniversary in the same location at 2021 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., also known as Seventh Avenue, when he opened Nov. 15, 1969, after securing his liquor license.
There will be a special celebration Sunday, Nov. 16, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., the “Paris Blues All Stars Jam,” hosted by vocalist Okaru Lovelace and Melvin Vines with the Harlem Jazz Machine.
Hargress noted, “Okaru and Melvin are good entertainers and know how to connect with the audience.” Paris Blues offers live jazz every night with complimentary food (peas and rice and barbecue chicken) and no cover charge. “Since we don’t have a kitchen, we started serving food years ago to keep up with the competition,” said Hargress. “We had our jukebox computerized so customers can download any tune.”
While the outside of the building has been draped in scaffolding for almost a year, Hargress says it has not hurt his business, although he will be happy when it is removed in a few months.
We sat at a booth under a custom-made wooden top covered with photos that he collects from customers who often bring in photographs taken in the bar and of musicians. “I have a picture of Rosa Parks, and Wycliffe Gordon. He lives on the block and stops in occasionally,” said Hargress. “I knew him when he was a young man before he became famous.”
The 78-year-old owner stated he changed the booth seats on the left but retained the original mahogany bar. The bar on this Saturday afternoon was filled with customers in conversation and watching college football on the big screen. The wall near the small stage is lined with awards and proclamations from people such as Rep. Charles B. Rangel, City Councilwoman Inez Dickens and state Sen. Bill Perkins.
At times, we were politely interrupted by workers checking in with him on certain matters and customers wanting to let him know they were leaving.
Paris Blues is reflective of the earlier television series “Cheers” with a theme song whose lyrics included, “Sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name/ and they are always glad you came.” These customers are friends, not just folks who come to purchase drinks.
Hargress’ longevity and success are the result of hard work. “I work seven days per week and open the bar up every day,” he said. “My motto from the Army is ‘a winner never quits.’”
The entrepreneur didn’t reach Harlem until his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, where he served as a military policeman in Germany and Paris. His brother David (now deceased) was already in Harlem and secured him a position as a bartender.
When the owner decided to give up the Sports Inn on Eighth Avenue, Hargress signed a deal to take over the bar. He stated, “It was the Jewish real estate agent who told me I should try to buy a place of my own, so I would have control rather than renting. Coming from the country, I had to learn real fast.”
After a diligent search, he found this current location, where he owns the entire building and resides upstairs. With a smile, Hargress related the two experiences that led to the name Paris Blues. “When I was stationed in Paris, the French treated Black soldiers with respect. But coming from Alabama, Black people were not treated with respect and racism was everywhere, which caused us to have the blues.”
Hargress is from Demopolis, a small town in Alabama, where Coretta Scott King also came from. The town of dirt roads was known for its only highway: 80 West.
Paris Blues survived the horrific drug epidemic that caused a significant rise in crime, followed by New York City’s fiscal crash. “During those times, we organized a block patrol to keep everything safe. And we had some faithful people in the neighborhood who continued to come to the bar,” said Hargress. “I’m like Frank Sinatra. I’ve been up, down and all around.”
Paris Blues is a Harlem institution, attracting 65 to 70 percent of the tourism market. “A lot of young people come in for the jazz. Some of them look so young we have to check their ID,” says Hargress. “I encourage senior citizens to come in to chat or watch the big screen TV.”
Hargress introduced me to resident historians Nat Shaw and Bob Oliver. Both are fountains flowing with Harlem’s rich history. Oliver stated his parents moved to Harlem in the mid-1930s, when the Black migration to Harlem was at its zenith and the white exodus was in full bloom. Chatting about Harlem’s history is cool in the afternoon and any night for live jazz. Paris Blues is open daily 1 p.m. to 3 a.m., and 4 a.m. on weekends. It’s more than just a bar, it’s a cozy place for drinks, conversation and good music. Call 212-222-9878 for more information.
When asked about his retirement plans, Hargress noted, “A winner never quits. My son Sam Hargress III is working with me a little more now, and we plan on expanding the space.”
As part of the 45th anniversary, Hargress will be a guest on Daa’iya Lomax’s “Gardens of Tranquility and Contemplation and “First Light” on WHCR-FM (90.3) Saturday, Nov. 15 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. You can also listen to a live radio stream on whcr.org.