You couldn’t blame most locals for overlooking the fact that the D.C. suburbs recently lost one of its best venues for Caribbean music. As the Prince George’s Newsletter quietly noted in May, the building that long housed Bladensburg’s Crossroads Nightclub was sold to J & J Medical Health Care & Equipment for $1.2 million. Outside of the local Caribbean community, that news didn’t travel far or quickly.
To the club’s longtime patrons, though, Crossroads’ demise was seismic. Built in 1941 and home to country, rock, blues, jazz, burlesque, and reggae music for decades, the spacious, 16,130 square foot watering hole was once part of a busy Prince George’s County entertainment corridor. It had been operating as a Caribbean music venue and restaurant since 1996. Over the years, it presented a wealth of high-profile and diverse acts: Patti Page, Tony Bennett, comedian Lenny Bruce, exotic dancer Blaze Starr, Patsy Cline, and more recently reggae singers including Damian Marley, soca band Square One, and zouk group Kassav.
As City Paper previously reported, Crossroads owner Alton Gayle pleaded guilty in September to one charge of tax evasion and received a suspended sentence. An audit determined that the club owed Maryland more than $500,000. Prince George’s County had shut down the club once in 2007 due to a shooting in its parking lot, and the club mysteriously shut itself down for unexplained “maintenance” for a number of weeks in 2010 and 2011. (Gayle did not respond to City Paper‘s requests for comment.)
Crossroads’ grim days didn’t begin in this century, though: According to Capitol Rock author and local music historian Mark Opsasnick, gangsters, gamblers, and sex workers were known to frequent the club in the 1940s. But Crossroads, Opsasnick writes in an email, was also integrated in the 1950s—-unlike a number of D.C.-area clubs. Barred from racially segregated venues, African-American jazz musicians such as Gene Ammons performed at Crossroads.
When pop and country singer George Saslaw took over the complex in 1960, he shifted its focus to country music, and later to blues rock and other rootsy music-makers like Link Wray and Danny Gatton. In 1971, cult favorite rock and country guitarist Roy Buchanan and his band became regulars at the club and recorded a live album there called Buch & the Snakestretchers. Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia reportedly stopped by Crossroads to see Buchanan play.
WPFW reggae DJ Tony Carr worked for the Crossroads for many years. Of the venue’s closure, Carr says, “I think we lost out on a cultural good thing.” He likens its end to the 2010 demise of Southwest spot Zanzibar, a similarly large club that hosted Caribbean, African, and African-American music. “Most of the best and biggest reggae shows of the past 15 years were at the Crossroads,” Carr says. “The vibe was great. Reggae artists over the years liked performing at Crossroads. Yes, there were one or two instances [of trouble] over the years at the Crossroads. But in my opinion that was not bad for a club over 15 years.”
“Reggae shows at Crossroads were always sweet because it was the closest you could get to the experience and ambiance of a show in Jamaica or the Caribbean without a plane ticket,” says longtime D.C. music publicist Dera Tompkins. Among her favorite shows at Crossroads: Richie Spice, Stephen Marley and Luciano. ” Carr has fond memories of many shows at the club, such as “Buju Banton‘s last appearance there, performances by Beres Hammond, Sizzla, and soca artists Burning Flames and Alison Hinds.”
In recent years, Crossroads served as a sort of Caribbean community center with a heavily promoted Sunday brunch. But its live shows began to wane as the club stumbled and finally closed for good.
With Crossroads gone, Caribbean music in the D.C. area has shifted to other clubs and one-off locations rented by promoters—-like the August 23 Elephant Man show at the Plum Orchard Conference Center in Silver Spring. Small establishments like Club Timhre in Adams Morgan, the Society Lounge in Silver Spring, and Patty Boom Boom on U Street host DJs; the Howard Theatre has hosted some big-named Caribbean artists, including Luciano. Beres Hammond plays there tonight.
Carr has mixed feelings about Caribbean music’s transition to more mainstream D.C. clubs. “They are improving and getting the type of reggae artists we want to see here,” he says. “But there still is a lack of connection with the Caribbean community on their part. We have to spread the word about shows within our community.”
Photo by Steve Kiviat
Correction: Due to an editing error, this blogpost originally attributed Tony Carr’s favorite shows at the Crossroads to Dera Tompkins. This has since been corrected.