Big John’s is still king of city’s nightlife
One of the ladies who attends our medical practice on James Island is Betty Hunter, younger sister to “Big John” Cannady, whose 252 East Bay St. watering hole is still in business.
Big John was a Charleston native who played football at Indiana University. As a junior in 1944, he played for the team that won the Big Ten conference title. Three years later, he was drafted by the New York Giants. There he played middle linebacker 1947-54, was three times named All-Pro and played in the NFL’s first Pro Bowl in 1950, and was later elected to the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame.
With all the concerns about repeated brain injuries and other problems football players face, there’s a general feeling that, for better or worse, the wheels have been set in motion that will forever alter the game of football. As of now, the game still looks like football, but it may appear substantially different in a decade or so. And yet even today’s game is quite different from the one dating back to Big John’s era. The style of play back then was just brutal: spectacularly and (not infrequently) horrifyingly brutal.
It’s a bit of a surprise that John lasted as long as he did (seven years) in the NFL, but not that knee injuries would drive him into retirement. No problem, the year 1954 would end up being a portentous one regarding the social scene in Charleston because that was the year Big John’s Tavern opened its doors for the first time, inviting any and all to “come as a stranger and leave as a friend.”
Cannady, who died in 2002, would have been amazed to realize that his establishment still would be going after nearly 60 years of business and would outlast him by 11 years ... and counting. He’s catching up to Mickey Mantle, whose famous restaurant and sports grill on Central Park South just closed a year ago, 17 years after the death of the great New York Yankee Hall of Famer (but after “only” a 24-year run).
According to Hunter, Big John’s is king of them all when it comes to peninsular Charleston nighttime entertainment. No other tavern has been in business longer, much less steadfastly retained so much of its original flavor and character.
“But wait a minute, Miss Betty,” I countered. “Don’t you think the people down at the Ark Lounge would have something to say about that?”
“Oh, no. John’s got them beat, too, and they know it. I think they opened in the late ’50s, and with the change in management over the years, a lot of it has changed.”
This may come as a stunning revelation to those who know me, but I’ve never set foot in the Ark, not even once. But everybody knows of its reputation as a legendary destination, particularly for generations of Citadel cadets.
Anyway, after our conversation, I got to thinking of all the Charleston juke joints, bars, emporiums, whatever you want to call them, that were around during the ’70s and ’80s and kept partially afloat by my generation of revelers. They’re all gone except a handful. Care to share a toast as we remember a few of them?
The Big Brick Club: the original that is, managed by George Groover, who created a Toulouse-Lautrec type of ambience, first at what was once an old bordello on Fulton Street and then on Hayne Street.
The Rathskeller: Gone but not forgotten, at Cumberland and Meeting streets. Had a lot of competition down the street from ...
The Blue Marlin Bar: Cap’n Harry Cochran’s ode to Key West and the carefree, forever young, endless summer vibe. Perhaps the greatest joint of all. It ended up on Mick Jagger’s bucket list (and successfully checked off).
The Hog Penny: no bigger than a closet is found at basement level downstairs on the northwest corner of Wentworth and St. Philip streets. A popular ’70s hot spot. One floor down from what would become Piccadilly during the ’80s.
Myskyn’s: South Market. Chiefly home to great music, including world class Texas guitarist Eric Johnson, who was a frequent visitor to the Holy City.
The Rip Tide: a few doors up from Old Towne Restaurant and right across from what is now Charleston Place. A uniquely managed and briefly lived establishment.
London’s: actually found in Mount Pleasant along Shem Creek, but deserving of an honorable mention as a stalwart perpetrator of beach music appreciation and our state dance.
The Garden and Gun Club: Charleston’s first openly gay nightclub. It arrived with the advent of Spoleto and helped lend the festival shockingly but enticingly contemporary hip cred.
And the list goes on and on, from Dino’s to The Name of the Game (a little before my time and found at the head of Church Street), Frances Willard’s and others.
And to think that Big John’s has outlasted them all. But as anyone can attest who got the once-over, stare-down inspection from John upon entering his place for the first time: You’d better leave him alone.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.