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Flint, MI—Last Sunday, Flint’s oldest Black-owned business celebrated its 100th anniversary.
The Golden Leaf Club sits alone on Harrison Street, just south of downtown. The building is flanked by two empty lots and an even larger one across the street where Clark Elementary once stood. It’s an austere sight on its own, but the picture becomes brighter when you realize why, 100 years later, the Golden Leaf is still standing.
No matter who or when you ask, that reason has always been the same. Throughout its century-long existence, the Golden Leaf has served as a crossroads for good music, good drink, and good company, the holy trinity of entertainment.
That’s how things started, and that’s how things are going, said Lottie Reid, the Golden Leaf’s manager since 1992.
To Reid, the word “manager” is an important one. Despite being in charge for nearly 30 years, she reiterated the club doesn’t belong to her.
“It is actually owned by the members,” she said. “I’m just a manager.”
Technicalities aside, that tells a larger story about the Golden Leaf’s history.
From its inception in 1920, The Golden Leaf, originally called the Maple Leaf, was founded specifically as a club for Black people. As Reid tells it, during the time of the club’s opening, it was difficult for Black-owned businesses like bars to get liquor licenses. A common workaround was to register bars as social clubs since they were much less regulated.
Hence, the Golden Leaf Social Club was born.
“The Golden Leaf has been many things. It started as a bar, became a social club, then prohibition came in and they turned it into a billiard hall and a barbershop. When prohibition went out, it became a social club again,” Reid said.
In its early days, The Golden Leaf, like other businesses in Flint, had to abide by racist policies and practices that for better or worse, helped mold the club into something more than just another place to get a drink.
As Reid explained it, Flint was home to large entertainment venues like the Industrial Mutual Association Auditorium. Pair that with a booming economy inside a growing city and demand for entertainment was high.
“Flint was a General Motors town so there were a lot of people looking for entertainment. For white people, places were open from 8 p.m. to midnight so they could watch the shows. Black people could not see entertainment until one in the morning to four in the morning.… So a lot of the Black entertainers who played earlier would come through here. Some would entertain and some would just have drinks,” Reid said.
Therein lies the Golden Leaf Club’s living legacy, it’s music.
Some only rumored, some confirmed, The Golden Leaf has had a long history of hosting many of the acts that came through Flint and Detroit during the golden age of Blues, R&B, and Jazz.
Few know about this part of the clubs’ history— Flint’s history, really—better than Lester Hambone Brown, a Flint native, and Detroit Blues legend.
Brown, a self-proclaimed “Leaf baby,” grew up listening to the muffled sounds of laughter and music coming through the floor of the Golden Leaf’s second story during the ’50s and ’60s. His parents, dedicated members of the club, would take Brown with them and have him stay on the second floor, which offered unofficial childcare, Brown said.
It was through trips down to the first floor that Brown would watch musicians like Grant Green and Roy Ayers work their magic over the Leaf’s members. Brown even remembers some of the memories he made with musicians like John Lee Hooker, a blues musician known as much for his voice as he was for his guitar playing.
“When I started playing guitar, my dad asked me, ‘do you remember the guy you used to steal peppermints from his coat pocket? That was John Lee Hooker,” Brown said.
A recent recipient of the Detroit Blues Society Lifetime Achievement Award, Brown credits the Golden Leaf with sparking his lifelong love of music.
“Before I was doing my own thing, I started playing as a backup musician. I would play guitar for local musicians like The Velvelettes and others who would come through. At that time, Flint had a sound, and I was happy to be part of that,” Brown said.
Brown wouldn’t be the only one to be drawn in by the “Flint sound.”
Better known as Kill-Bill, William Sumler has served as the bassist for Eclipse, the club’s house band for eleven years. During his almost twelve-year tenure, Sumler has come to be known for shaking up the Flint Sound.
Sumler remembers the first time he played at the Golden Leaf in 2010.
“I was bringing a lot of things to the table that people here weren’t used to hearing. You know, there were a lot of really talented guys around here but it just seemed that they were standing in this little pond while music is something that’s so wide and vivid,” Sumler said.
While still paying homage to the classics like Dizzy Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, and Sammy Davis Jr.—all musicians known to have visited the Golden Leaf—Sumler began introducing newer and more varied sounds. These included influences from local artists like drummer Eugene McBride to sounds from bassists like Sam Jones and Steve Boone, both known for mixing pop music into their traditional soul and folk music.
Over ten years, the blending of these new sounds into what was already the Golden Leaf’s signature style resulted in a revival of sorts. While still offering long-time members a taste of the Blues and Jazz they grew up loving, this new Golden Leaf style gave a new generation of members reason to visit week after week.
This gave Sumler, who had spent his career before the Leaf performing all over the world, a reason not just to stay in Flint, but to fall in love with the city.
“When I got here, I wasn’t intending on staying. I look up now, ten years later and I’m still here because of the music, because of the art scene … I’ve met people from all sects, all walks of life, all backgrounds, all religions. There is always something raw in this city, there is always something to learn,” Sumler said.
As for the club itself, Sumler said words can’t quite encapsulate what makes the Golden Leaf the Golden Leaf.
“The Leaf is just legendary. What other places like this do you know that are still standing. All the people that came through here, all the greats, this is the place they came after hours. This is where they developed their sounds. These Jazz guys, they’d leave their gigs then come here and say “I performed, now I’m here to play.'” Sumler said.
Beyond its rich musical history, Sumler also cited Reid’s willingness to experiment with new music, mixed with a certain indescribable quality of the club itself, as reasons for sticking around.
“It’s still got that old feel and look. I’ve been here ten years, and there has never been an incident, never been a bad story in the paper. How can all these different people get together? All types of people, all colors, and everybody is just playing and listening like they’re a family. No animosity, no violence. It’s the only city, a city I’ve played all over, that I get that vibe. So it’s gotta be the club,” Sumler said.
Sumler is by no means the only person to fall for the Golden Leaf’s laid-back atmosphere.
John Archangeli, who goes by Angel, has been a loyal member of the club for 15 years.
His reasons for sticking with the Leaf as long as he has are not much different than those of Sumler.
“We’ve got great music and great people. It’s simply a music zone. We’re all united here for the music and that’s why I keep coming back. We’ve got a good crowd … I think it’s probably one of the most unique spots in the country,” Archangeli said.
Having spent much of his life in the American south, Archangeli said he could hear a lot of southern influence in the sounds at the Golden Leaf. Decades worth of Black musicians migrating to the northern U.S mixed with Michigan’s famous gospel circuit, in his opinion, gave the area a specific style that the Golden Leaf managed to hone in on.
“You have a tremendous talent pool here. I think a lot of really good musicians here cut their teeth at church and still are. It’s a vibrant music scene. All the music feels like it fits me. It makes me dance even though I’m almost 82. It’s my club,” Archangeli said.
Though describing the qualities that make the Golden Leaf Club such a special venue seems to elude some, for Reid, the club’s success is all in the service it provides.
“It’s (the Golden Leaf) always been a place where people just came and socialized and it doesn’t matter what your job was, what your title was or anything of that nature. What we offer never goes out of style. People want to talk, they want to listen to music,” Reid said.