61 Years Ago: Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge Opens in Nashville
Sixty-one years ago today (March 29, 1960) was an historic day for Nashville, although no one was aware of it at the time. It was on that date that Tootsie's Orchid Lounge opened on Lower Broadway, just steps away from the Ryman Auditorium.
The venue now known as Tootsie's was open prior to 1960 as Mom's, but it changed names when it changed ownership. Hattie Louise "Tootsie" Bess purchased the restaurant and gave it its now-famous name after a painter, to her surprise, painted its exterior purple.
Bess was a singer and comedian in a radio act, Big Jeff & the Radio Playboys; "Big Jeff" was her husband, Jeff Bess, who was also the bandleader. After their radio work ended -- and their marriage dissolved -- Tootsie's became the local hangout for musicians, including Bess' then-teenage stepson, Steve Bess, who was already working as a guitarist for Ray Price.
"A lot of that got started by Ray's band, mainly Jimmy Day, the steel player, and myself," Steve Bess recalls to the Nashville Scene. "We would get a few other musicians, and she would let us jam in the back room."
Adds Mel Tillis, "It'd be four or five steel players, Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day and Lloyd Green, all of them was up there pickin' at one time. It was something else. And they'd want to play jazz. It'd be all that damn bebop stuff. That's how musicians are."
At the time, hearing live music in Nashville was a bit of a novelty, as Tom T. Hall learned when he moved to town and asked if he could listen to live music somewhere.
"Nowhere — not anywhere in town," Hall notes. "And, you know, being in the country music business, I got here and I said, 'Where can I go hear some pickin'?' They said, 'You can't.'"
But Tootsie's quickly became the place for writers and artists to perform. Kris Kristofferson, Faron Young, Willie Nelson, Hall, Hank Cochran, Tillis, Roger Miller, Webb Pierce, Waylon Jennings and Patsy Cline are just a few of the many artists who got their start in the club. Bess was known to slip money to those who walked in and were struggling to pay their bills.
“If you missed a friend backstage [at the Opry], you knew where to go look for them," the late Little Jimmy Dickens once told The Boot. "Because they would be in Tootsie’s visiting with one another, trading songs around or having a beer and visiting with one another, and I think that’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to country music, because these songwriters all got together and wrote these beautiful songs that we hear today."
Bess passed away in 1978, after a battle with cancer; Hall, Roy Acuff, Young and Connie Smith were just a few of the country music stars who attended her funeral.
Tootsie's experienced a decline in the decade or so after Bess' death, until Steve Smith purchased the venue in 1992.
"When I went there in '92, there was a peep show two doors down from me, there was a pawn shop next door to me," Smith says. "There were homeless people living in the street on Lower Broad. There were prostitutes and drug dealers everywhere."
That quickly changed, and Tootsie's continues to be known as a place for both local and national acts. Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Aerosmith, Randy Houser and Toby Keith are just a few of the numerous artists who have graced the revered stage in more recent years.
"No one — I don't care who — no one," Steve Bess says, "could have ever guessed that that place would be as famous as it is today."
Tootsie's is located at 422 Broadway. A list of upcoming performers is available on their website.
This story was originally written by Gayle Thompson, and revised by Annie Zaleski.