Though Bob and Barbara’s is better known as host and originator of the best beer-and-a-shot combo in Philly, the infamous CityWide Special, the timeless venue (since 1969!!) has also grown its presence in the local music scene in the past few years, evolving as host of its regular lineup of The Crowd Pleasers jazz ensemble to Ms. Lisa Lisa to now also featuring live music just about every day of the week. In sound, it’s not quite the Bob and Barbara’s you remember from a decade ago, should you show up on a weekday evening for a PBR and that no elusive quick slug of Jim Beam.
Here, we talk country music, cabaret and a changing neighborhood with Bob and Barbara’s manager and booker (and longtime patron) Robert Dicks.
When did you guys transition to having live music most days fo the week? Used to be just Thursday, Friday and Saturday. About three years ago, I took over the booking for the rest of the week. It was one of those things the owners said ‘You have this background in entertainment.’ I used to work for the cabarets back in the ‘80s. So that was – I was around in the heyday of the ‘80 entertainment scene …
So, I started to bring in bands and see if they do well and if they do well and fit the motif of the bar I try to give them a regular slot once a month or every couple months.
How has your cabaret background contributed to bookings? I was more in the marketing department, but I used to do all the calendars and things. I think knowing – sometimes you have to give things a chance. The idea is it should fit the room. Some types of music just wouldn’t work within the cabaret situation and I liked the idea of residences, which is something I first saw when – Stephen Starr, actually, he was kind of our competition at the time. And I remember when The Hooters were a big thing, they were booked once a week on a Monday night or something at [Stephen’s] nightclub; before he got into restaurants he was a nightclub owner. That was back in the day when he was doing that. I remember, particularly, I thought that was a good formula — you knew what night certain things were happening. We already had that proven formula with the other things we do at Bob and Barbara’s, so I just want to see what works and doesn’t work and, certain kinds of music, give it a chance. I think my days in cabaret, having such a wide, eclectic range of types of music and trying them out and seeing what works and what doesn’t [influenced me]. There’s a lot of things I never thought would work at Bob and Barbara’s and they actually are pretty big. So …
What kind of music do you think does work at Bob and Barbara’s? Or works well? Jazz. Jazz always works. Lounge music. Dena Miranda and the Mellow Tones play once a month. They’re one of my favorites. And one thing we’re doing at Bob and Barbara’s is country – we have a country night we’ve been doing at Bob and Barbara’s for the past three years that’s gotten pretty big. Regularly, it’s actually pretty busy. There was a big JUMP article recently that came out about it because people were pretty shocked. When I first started booking, particularly for The Lawless Brothers band, they play a lot of festivals and stuff and have a bit of a reputation of being rambunctious and rowdy and stuff, but they’re just good guys and they just know a lot of different country bands. For three years now we’ve been booking country night and they put together a nice lineup. It’s getting now that we have national acts that say ‘Yeah, we don’t care if we get paid, we just want exposure to the country scene.’ I think that’s vastly underappreciated.
I come from Pennsyltucky, and country music was my childhood. It’s odd that Philly is not geographically that far but there isn’t much of a country scene here. They’re actually from Yardley or something. And they put on two country festivals. The first at Bob and Barbara’s. The country scene has become so big that we had the first annual Country Music Festival at Bob and Barbara’s out front, two years ago. Two stages, 25 bands, all day. The first time in 35 years there hadn’t been jazz played at Bob and Barbara’s on a Saturday night. It was huge and this year we couldn’t accommodate it so they moved it to Connie’s Ric Rac. And it did really well. We’re looking to bring it back again this year in the summer.
But yeah, the country scene, I’m surprised with Boot and Saddle so close to where Bob and Barbara’s is that they don’t have more of a country scene there. But they have other restrictions to deal with in terms of neighbors and stuff.
What’s a favorite act you’ve had in the past three years? I always love the Mellow Tones. [Miranda’s] a great lounge act singer with an amazing voice. She’s just a star. It’s all standards and older songs.We have a talk show we do once a month, with the Absinthes called the Talky Show. They come in and play and do a talk show and have different acts all night. We recently had the Citywide Festival in Philadelphia and hat’s what we’re known for, the citywide, we were a venue and there was a band, The Sermon, that played our place and they played.
We have a talk show we do once a month, with the Absinthe Drinkers called the Talky Show. They come in and play and do a talk show and have different acts all night. We recently had the Citywide Festival in Philadelphia, and that’s what we’re known for, the citywide, and we were a venue and there was a band, The Sermon, that played our place.
And Carolyn Thorn — there’s so many. They’re really, really good.
You guys do Lisa Lisa’s drag show on Thursdays. Have you thought about a drag or burlesque expansion? We do have a burlesque night once a month. It was originally started by Candy Heart Cabaret. I’ve been trying to get a burlesque troupe into Bob and Barbara’s for years and it’s — not restrictions, but there’s a certain amount of money that needs generated for certain acts and you can’t do it unless you charge at the door. And that’s the thing I always tell people: We’re not a music venue; we’re a bar that has music. It’s a lot different. But Lisa actually – Lisa had been running an amateur drag night on Mondays. She’d been doing that once a month, one Monday a month for a little while, and for a couple reasons she just stopped. But it wasn’t because it was bad. It was just for whatever reason. We’ve talked about it and done a couple things drag-oriented but the drag show is such a big thing that it’s sort of — you pay $8 to come in and see the drag show and it’s the longest-running drag show in Philadelphia. And it has its history. Its own little engine going.
Do you see the audience changing at all with the development on South Street West? It’s always changing. I live in the neighborhood too so I’ve seen the neighborhood change and it’s a lot of new people. It’s a big influx of friendly faces – the things I’ve seen that’s changed has been a lot of tourists, a lot of people who read about us on the internet. And a lot of our reputation precedes us. The audiences showing up, ‘We know something fun is going to happen so let’s show up – and it’s free.’ That’s something people can appreciate it. I’ve seen it get busier most nights. But in the same respect, it’s sort of like, it’s changed but not for the worse or better. Just different.
In this month, what are you looking forward to, performance-wise? The Talky Show is coming up the week before the election. So instead of having to do anything related to the election, they’re doing an all-cats show. Which is kind of funny. It’s a funny way to combat against the election. Focusing on kitties.
And I’m looking forward to the Mellow Tones. We don’t have any special events coming up in November, but country night is the second and fourth Wednesday of the month.
December is going to be fun, too, because a lot of acts will want to do Christmas and holiday shows. So they’re always kind of irreverent and crazy. It’s always something going on.
And at the iconic Bob & Barbara’s on South Street, it certainly is. For much, much more on this Philly entertainment staple, peep this and we’ll see you there!