Tip Top Café: New update on reopening of iconic Huntsville music bar
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Tip Top Café: New update on reopening of iconic Huntsville music bar

Nov 25, 2023

The exterior of Tip Top Café in Huntsville, Ala. (Matt Wake/[email protected])

The improbable, protracted, yet oh-so-close resurrection of Tip Top Café is in a holding pattern because of two things.

"The water line for the sprinkler is the major hold-up," says Bill Chapman, the local real estate broker who bought the Tip Top property around 2014 or so. "Too big of a job for the small guys and too small of a job for the big guys. I think my GC [general contractor] has it worked out, but it will be 30 days or so before they can get to it."

In its heyday, the matchbox-sized Tip Top hosted bands like Widespread Panic, Black Crowes (then called Mr. Crowe's Garden) and Concrete Blonde on their way up and legends like Bo Diddley too. But the original Tip Top shuttered in 1995. Past attempts to revive the place never took off. The cinder-block building's been dormant since around 2010. Huntsville's bar-level live music energy found other conduits.

The second hold-up for Chapman's Tip Top reboot is he's funding the project out of his own pocket. Since Chapman recently became part of new ownership at downtown's Humphrey's Bar and The Bottle restaurant, as well as event space Oak Place, he says he needs to be careful not to overextend.

"Oak Place, Humphreys and Bottle all hit at once, and I have officially bit off more than I can chew," Chapman says with a smile. Instead of getting another loan to fast-track Tip Top's finish, Chapman says he chose to, "wait a few more months and do it right and have it finished correctly and not get in a hurry."

But when it comes to Tip Top, Chapman adds, "This project is special to me, and it will get done. I want to respect what Tip Top was and will be, not just throw something together just to say its open."

Chapman purchased the Tip Top property, located at 123 Maple Ave. in Huntsville's Lincoln Mill area, from classic era owner Lance Church, whose grandfather founded Tip Top in the 1940s. Fun fact: Back in the glory days, the sign above the bar read "Church's Tip Top Café," not simply "Tip Top Café." "Lance was an innovator," Chapman says. "I mean he really was. He saw an opportunity and I think he ‘got it’ more than a lot of people did. He saw the wave and he rode it. You’ve got to give the guy credit for that."

Chapman's real estate career has included projects at Huntsville tech hub Cummings Research Park. But long before that, back in his youth and young adulthood, he saw musicians like Atlanta funk-rockers Follow For Now and Tuscaloosa rock band Storm Orphans play sweaty, awesome shows at Tip Top.

Not long ago, Chapman took me on a walk-through at Tip Top. At the time of our chat, Chapman says 90 percent of the electrical and 90 percent of the HVAC work has been completed. He's having the building sprinklered because it will allow Tip Top's capacity to double, from around 115 to 225-ish. "As soon as we get that done," Chapman says, "we can be finished in here in less than 30 days."

The building's red and white exterior has been given fresh coats of paint. The classic-era-style forest green awnings our back in place too.

Inside, the space is a cyborg of old bones and new updates. Vintage girders overhead – some still adorned with faded stickers from yesteryear bands like Quadrajets and Mindseye – and new polished concrete floors underfoot. The interior lighting is from stage-style par-cans hung from above. If they could talk, these original interior walls, their patina left intact, could certainly tell a few tales.

In one corner, there's a new triangular shaped wooden stage about six inches off the ground. The stage's surface is big enough to hold a four- or five-piece band, albeit in close quarters. In the other corner, when you first enter the metallic front door, there's a handsome new Z-shaped bar.

Behind the bar, Tip Top's ancient original cooler. They’re redoing the kitchen. Around the corner, there's a new office being put in. And unlike the classic-era Tip Top, which featured only one restroom (and that one of dubious function), the reboot has ungraded to a whopping two restrooms. They’re going to leave the parking lot as-is and gravel instead of paving it.

"We’re trying to leave this as much like it was as we can," Chapman says, "without adding too much lipstick."

A Lee High School graduate with a football tight end's frame, Chapman talks with a Southern swagger. He's kind of the perfect new owner for Tip Top, which in its prime employed one of Huntsville's all-time characters, doorman Lanny Taylor.

A man of prodigious girth and sardonic wit, Taylor is nearly as big a local icon as Tip Top Café itself -- at least for longtime Huntsvillians, many of whom Taylor frequently allowed to enter Tip Top underage with fake IDs, including this writer and many of you reading this.

Back in ‘93, Taylor defected from Tip Top Café to open his own short lived local venue, Lanny's Downtown. For a time, he even sold his own line of merch, called "Lanny Wear," including T-shirts adorned with the brand namesake's scowling visage.

Back in the day, a young Chapman bonded with Taylor. He even helped Taylor handle a few rowdy bar patrons, he says. In the new Tip Top, they’re thinking of a way to honor Taylor, who died in 2007, possibly with a mural on one of the walls.

So why was the original Tip Top Café (and now its redux) a big deal? Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Tip Top was easy for club-level acts touring the Southeast to hit. Since Huntsville's roughly halfway between Nashville and Birmingham, a Tip Top gig bisected that drive and was an efficient way for bands to make a little more dough.

Artists from rootsy (Leon Russell, Buckwheat Zydeco) to bleeding edge (Dead Milkmen, Fishbone, Flat Duo Jets) played there. The bar's vibe was gritty and its clientele lawyers-to-punks-to-debutantes diverse.

[In 2016, AL.com published the definitive history of Tip Top. We’ve similarly chronicled other notable Alabama hole-in-the-wall gems, including Birmingham's The Nick and Tuscaloosa's The Chukker.]

"You’ll never get lightning in the bottle again," Chapman says of Tip Top's glory days. "It’ll never be what it was. But we can pay homage to it, and we can try to live up to the lore. And that's why I’ve always loved the Tip Top, because it was intimate. You were there with your friends. And you were one of 250 people that saw something magical happen. We want to give that same punk-rock feel to people but you can't get away with things now like you could back then."

In addition to classic Tip Top's liberal admission of underage revelers, the bar was known to surpass its official occupancy number two or three times over to cash in on hot shows.

From left, Chris Hendley, Bill Chapman and Eddie Yessick stand outside Tip Top Cafe in Huntsville, Alabama. (Matt Wake/[email protected])

Chris Hendley is booking the new Tip Top. His event consultant venture Hendley Group recently launched the well-received local music showcase Originally Huntsville. For the last three years, Hendley handled local hospital fundraising concert Huntsville Classic, with performances by the likes of country star Martina McBride.

Hendley says putting together Tip Top's upcoming lineup, "The feedback I’m getting from touring acts’ agents is that we have enough history to make them say, ‘Hey, we want to make sure we stop through and play this place.’" It was local folk musician Alan Little, whose ‘90s rock band Plaid performed at classic-era Tip Top, who connected Chapman and Hendley.

Eddie Yessick will be the new Tip Top's general manager. Yessick previously opened and ran SideTracks Music Hall, which brought hot acts like Greta Van Fleet and Shovels + Rope to Huntsville, as well as featuring top local bands like Drop Diver, before closing in 2022. Yessick is a lifer. And one of the few Huntsville bar GMs that's pretty much universally loved and respected. Chapman has also enlisted Yessick to helm Humphrey's.

Yessick is stoked to help open SideTracks because, "it does have that iconic vibe to it. And it's the right size venue. SideTracks, I jumped at the opportunity, but what we’re trying to do here is definitely more dear to my heart." He says at SideTracks in addition to the great memories and great shows, he learned just as much, "what to not do as what to do."

In addition to live music, food will also be an important part of the new Tip Top. For lunch, they’re looking at blue-collar-friendly options like meat-and-three. At night, well-executed bar-food like burgers, etc.

In addition to soon-to-be-famous bands, like Goo Goo Dolls and 311, and almost-famous groups, think Walk The West and Will & The Bushmen, classic Tip Top hosted local combos, like Sex Clark Five, Trip to Argentina and Skeletal Earth, as well as touring bands from other parts of Alabama, including the aforementioned Storm Orphans.

"Those shows at the Tip Top were monumental," Storm Orphans bassist Shawn Patrick tells AL.com via email. Patrick says the afterparties at a Huntsville Travelodge "were even more monumental," with the band and their fans rocking into the dawn.

Initially, the new Tip Top aims to host live music four or five nights a week. "And then we’ll see what happens," Hendley says. Plans are for a weekly all-ages show on Sunday, which would help develop young local talent -- and allow those young musicians to add new myths to Tip Top's legend.

The new Tip Top plans to book some of the local bands that rocked the original joint that are still active, like blues band deluxe Microwave Dave & The Nukes. There's Tip Top merch on the way too, using classic-era imagery on T-shirts and more.

But Tip Top's peak-era clientele are now middle aged, senior citizens or deceased. Nostalgia might be able to carry the rebooted bar's opening month or two and sell a couple boxes of T-shirts. But Chapman knows for his new Tip Top to work, they’re going to need more than nostalgia. They’re going to need youth. That means booking rising touring bands still playing small rooms that will appeal to Huntsville 20- and 30-somethings. And booking young local bands with a solid following.

Hendley says depending on the show, the new Tip Top will be set up for SRO (standing room only) or with tables. And as Chapman points out, since he's part of the ownership of Humphrey's, The Bottle and Oak Place, he’ll be able to synergize assets for Tip Top.

In 2016, Chapman told AL.com he hoped to reopen Tip Top in fall of that year. So why has it taken seven years to get on the verge of liftoff? "Life went crazy," Chapman says, referring to the coronavirus pandemic which cratered live music from bars to stadiums. "And then real estate went crazy, started getting really big. And I just didn't have the time and didn't have a true vision yet. All I knew is I want to save it."

Connecting with Hendley was crucial in finally getting the new Tip Top within inches of paydirt, Chapman says. As was bringing on tvg hospitality, the London-founded venture behind Orion Amphitheater, as consultants on Tip Top's reboot. "They are well known, well liked well respected and experienced in what I’m jumping off into," Chapman says of tvg. "And sometimes you need a couple extra hands to paddle the boat." An early example of tvg's savvy furthering the project: They advised Chapman to scrap the initial design for Tip Top's new bar, allowing more bartenders to serve more guests more efficiently.

Before they teamed up for Tip Top, tvg was looking at doing a venue in the downtown former Clinton Avenue location of Crossroad Music Hall, which before its 2013 shuttering hosted acts like Jason Isbell and Alabama Shakes on their way to stardom. And prior to Orion, Chapman was looking at building an amphitheater in Huntsville, and even had plans drawn up.

Orion Amphitheater general manager Ryan Murphy, who cut his teeth doing punk shows in his native Florida, tells AL.com, "I love amphitheaters. I can even love arenas. I love buildings of all sizes, but that hole-in-the-wall, that place where the singer's on top of you half the show and it feels dangerous because there's no real barrier between the band and the audience, those are the places that really kind of light me up."

An underrated piece of tvg's involvement is earlier this year tvg acquired Saturn, the 500-capacity Birmingham venue known for hosting bold-font alternative-rock acts like Soccer Mommy and Dinosaur Jr. Saturn founder Brian Teasley is now part of the tvg team, as senior operations manager for the venture. Teasley is also drummer with Man or Astroman?, the successful Auburn founded surf-rock band that played Tip Top back in its classic era.

"That's such a huge piece," Murphy says. "You could get the guy who has the most accolades and experience from running the most amazing arenas in the country, and then you get my 200-cap club, and they’re not going to make the right choices." Murphy adds as far as Tip Top goes, Teasley, "not only understood what it meant back then, but he understands clearly what it means now."

A rebooted Tip Top will fill another slot in Huntsville's quickly evolving venue mix. (tvg's rejiggering of vibey and closed Huntsville venue A.M. Booth's Lumberyard as Meridian Arts Club, a 250-capacity project that's been tabled to 2024, will fill another slot.) With the Von Braun Center's arena, concert hall and Mars Music Hall also in place, as well as tvg's Orion Amphitheater, Huntsville will soon offer artists a place to develop a fanbase on every step of their journey from baby-band to established act.

Back in the ‘80s Atlanta band Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ performed at the Tip Top early in their career. Later ascending to Southeastern stars and MTV fame, Drivin’ N’ Cryin are known for kudzu-rockers like "Fly Me Courageous" and "Honeysuckle Blue."

In summer 2022, Drivin’ N’ Cryin was the opening act for The Black Crowes’ show at Orion Amphitheater. Introing his band's signature song, latch-key-hid ballad "Straight To Hell," DNC's closing song, singer/guitarist Kevn Kinney (yep, no "I" in his first name) said, "This next song's about Romeo and Juliet … if they worked at Waffle House. Or at the Tip Top. I miss the Tip Top."

Cheers rippled across Orion, already filling up because Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ has a strong fanbase in Huntsville. Chapman and Hendley were there. They looked at each other, floored. "The hairs stood up on my arms," Chapman recalls. "That's the magic about this place. Everybody has a story about Tip Top."


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