Earl Spain, the astute and humorous owner of Harlem’s once internationally popular St. Nick’s Pub, died in New York City on Dec. 1. He was 89.
The cause of death was not confirmed by family. Spain was a longtime resident of Harlem living with his family in the Esplanade Gardens for many years.
For his longtime commitment to St. Nick’s Pub and the community, Spain was presented with the Bill’s Place award in 2017.
Before finding fame in the nightlife business, Spain worked for the Local 147 Tunnel Workers Union until his retirement in 1987. One of his first ventures as an entrepreneur was owning a small bar in the Bronx. This experience led him to Harlem where he became the owner of St. Nick’s Pub in 1993. The club’s history dates back to 1940 when it was known as Luckey’s Rendezvous (1940-54), owned by the pianist, composer and bandleader Charles Luckeyeth Roberts.
“He was always generous and fair, a beautiful brother with great business instincts. When he acquired the Pub, he had no idea he was making history,” said saxophonist and club owner Bill Saxton. “I played there for 11 years.”
Spain was easy to spot in the Pub, he was the guy with the wide-brim hat and the eight-inch Palmer cigar in his mouth. Oftentimes Spain did not stand out as the owner, since on many occasions one would see him stacking glasses or bringing ice up from the downstairs bin.
During his 11 years at the Pub’s helm, the glitter and international notoriety of the club didn’t seem to faze Spain at all. “From the beginning tourists have been coming here because of their curiosity about Harlem, but now––just like the regulars and folks from downtown––they come to hear the great music. I’m grateful the big names stop by to play on a regular basis that’s been a big drawing card,” stated Spain in a 1998 interview with this writer.
Some of those big names Spain referred to included; Roy Hargrove, Russell Malone, Tamm E. Hunt, Wycliffe Gordon, Stevie Wonder, Leopolda Fleming, George Braith, OLu Dara, David Murry, T.C. III, Savion Glover and Wynton Marsalis.
Earl James Spain was born on Nov. 22, 1930 to Jasper and Bessie Spain, in Greenville, North Carolina. He was educated in the Pitt County Public School System. Spain moved to New York City in 1950. Three years later Spain met Esther Nelson, and they married on Christmas eve, 1956. The marriage lasted for 63 years until his death.
“My name will go down in history because I had the pleasure of working beside Earl Spain and all the great musicians, who played at St. Nick’s Pub,” said Berta Alloway, jazz promoter, who played a major role in the Pub’s bookings. “Yes, we called it Stormy Monday, but every day was just the same, we made jazz
Following his ownership of St. Nick’s Pub, Spain later became the manager of Minton’s Playhouse another historical jazz club. “It’s a great feeling being at such a famous club,” noted Spain. He only stayed at the club for three years before moving on but during that time he did bring in a host
For a brief moment in this process we call life, Spain made a magnificent mark on jazz history and hopefully as a mentor demonstrating to young aspiring entrepreneurs that small bars and jazz clubs can make a difference in the community.
Spain’s funeral was held on Dec. 12 at Convent Avenue Baptist Church. His internment took place on Dec. 14, at Homestead Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Greenville, North Carolina.
Spain was preceded in death by his mother, father, all four brothers and one sister. He leaves his wife Esther, daughter, Janice Hunter of Dallas, TX., two grandchildren, Wendy and Jessie Hunter of Dallas, TX., two great grandchildren and a host of nieces, nephews and cousins.