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Nourishing Body and Soul : B.B. King's Blues Club serves up authentic gospel--and a buffet spread--at weekly brunch.

March 03, 1995|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

UNIVERSAL CITY — This isn't just some Sunday morning sing-along of the hymns. That woman is on her knees . Her songs to the Almighty come in passionate shouts and cries, joyous celebration and tearful prayers, and all of it right here in this blues joint, of all places.

In minutes, Nadia Carole's got much of the crowd on its feet here at B.B. King's Blues Club, hands in the air, and for the moment ignoring plates stacked high with food. "How y'all doing?" Carole asks the crowd. She's not a big woman, but on stage she stands tall in her red robe, matching those of the seven singers behind her. "You ready to go to church? You don't have to go to church because we've brought the church to you."

She seems ready to prove this point as Nadia and the Anointed 7 launch into an emotional "Jesus is the Best Thing That Ever Happened," which soon leads to a few tears from the crowd. The weekly Gospel Brunch series began last September at B.B. King's, but this recent Sunday is the first to sell out all of the club's nearly 400 seats for both Sunday shows.

It's just more evidence of the increasing popularity across Los Angeles of spending Sunday mornings over a big breakfast-lunch while being serenaded with some Southern spiritual culture. Gospel brunches have also been established at the House of Blues.

Watching the show one weekend was acting club manager Larry Bell, working at the Universal CityWalk club for a few weeks on leave from his job at the B.B. King club in Memphis, Tenn. In Los Angeles, he figures, the gospel shows are meeting an otherwise unfilled demand.

"You can't sell a gospel brunch in Memphis," says Bell, talking between songs from the Anointed 7. "It would be like opening another California cuisine restaurant in Los Angeles."

But here, people will drive across the city for some serious gospel.

"I'll be back up here," promises Treva Meredith on her way out.

It's now 1 p.m., and another crowd is lined up outside for the second show. Meredith had already been to the gospel show twice before, driving from her home in Los Angeles. Today she's brought along her brother and mother, visiting from Indiana.

"The singers are great, the food is great," Meredith explains. "Plus, it's B.B. King's place."

After gathering their food from the buffet tables in back (covered with traditional breakfast fare and such Southern favorites as crab and shrimp), audience members can sit at tables near the stage, or walk up to one of the two upper levels. Everywhere on the walls are framed posters and other memorabilia from the 45-year career of blues man B.B. King, who occasionally performs at the club himself.

Paintings and photographs of several important figures in the history of blues and pop are also scattered on every level. One frame holds a copy of Rolling Stone magazine, with a cover story on the rockers of Pearl Jam. It's signed by members of the band, and includes the inscription: "B.B. King is cool as pickles."

But those mementos are mostly ignored once the gospel singers take off, accompanied by organist Russell Jackson and drummer Cheron Moore. Fans on the upper decks stand at the railing, and Carole dances with the crowd on the floor. The show ends with a song for those celebrating birthdays. Those who don't join in risk some unwanted attention from the host: "Girl! Take that bread from your mouth!"

"I believe that in every song there's a message to be heard," says Carole, a native New Yorker who has bounced between her hometown and Los Angeles since 1980. "When people leave they are uplifted. They say to me after, 'Thank you so much!'

"Sometimes I look in the audience and I see people crying. I make it personal. I run down the steps and touch them. So they feel they are part of it."

Even so, Carole, 35, has spent most of her career singing rhythm and blues, including singing background vocals for Anita Baker and Stephanie Mills. So the opportunity to sing gospel professionally was completely unexpected, she says. "I'm very shocked that it would be such a big thing. People here in L.A. either go to church or they don't. They don't do gospel. So I'm surprised that clubs are getting into gospel music and that it's so successful. I couldn't believe it when they asked me to do a gospel show."

Now she's booked there with the Anointed 7 through January, 1996. When she began the Gospel Brunch gig last year, Carole's vocal group hadn't yet been created. So for her first two weeks at the club, she was joined by her 60-year-old mother, a gospel veteran who sang and played the organ while visiting from Arkansas. Says Carole: "She loves it. Those are my roots."

A typical show includes a variety of traditional gospel numbers, mixed with such newer compositions as "I'll Take You There" by the Staple Singers and "God Is Trying to Tell You Something" from the film "The Color Purple." Carole changes the show every few months, she says, for those who come again and again.

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