Gary Oelze, who made the Birchmere a local music staple, dies at 80

Help transform the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia — once a quiet neighborhood venue for folk and bluegrass musicians — into a prime location for world-renowned acts, including soul and country performers Gary Else passed away at his home on January 23rd. Alexandria. he was 80 years old.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his wife Susan Else said. Else (pronounced OL-Gee) also had two strokes last year, but continued working until early December.

In recent years, Else’s 500-seat performance space has hosted a wide range of national and international acts, from bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs to contemporary soul singers Raheem Devaughn and Lara Hathaway to Senegalese singer Youssou Ndour. I’m here. The parent company may also book performances in larger halls.

The venue was the home of the DC area for country performers including Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Ray Price and two of Else’s personal favorites, Mickey Newberry and Rosanne Cash. In 1993, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore took their spouses on a White House double date to hear Jerry His Jeff Walker at the club.

Ray Charles last performed at the club in 2003. Surprises were frequent at the club, with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys commanding the stage for his impromptu 45-minute set. Or a moving but unannounced appearance by an ailing Pete Seeger in a local folk performer’s tribute to Woody Guthrie.

Else started with the Bluegrass Group. Although very popular in the DC area, the style was largely relegated to neighborhood taverns, many of which weren’t even raised to the stage. We provided a constantly upgraded sound system.

More importantly, Mr. Oelze posted “Quiet Please” signs on every table to make the musicians feel comfortable. It was an idea he had diverted from Georgetown club Cellar Door.

“When I started making music full-time in 1974, I said I was going to do it right,” Else told The Washington Post. “But a lot of his bluegrass fans don’t like to go somewhere and behave, so he couldn’t create a ‘listening club’ with bluegrass music.”

The venue’s first success came in 1974 when Mr. Else hired The Seldom Scene, located off Red Fox, a dive bar with pool tables in Bethesda, Maryland. “They’ve made me a legitimate club and nationally recognized,” he told the band’s Post. “Out of town people, especially out of town pickers, came to watch.”

A rare scene played clubs on Thursdays for the next two decades. As proponents of “newgrass”, they broadened their bluegrass repertoire with selections from contemporary folk singer and his songwriters. Touring performers such as Linda Ronstadt often accompanied the group, and Birchmere’s reputation skyrocketed.

In 1982, The New York Times called the club “the best bluegrass club in the area.” Japan. “

Mr Else and his club have also cultivated new talent. Future bluegrass celebrity Alison Krauss performed there while still a teenager. He gave singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter the first club appearance as an opening act, a down payment for a new guitar, and later gave her demo tape to her CBS Records executives in Nashville. That act of generosity, she said, led to her first record deal.

Gary Hagan Oelze was born on August 24, 1942 in Owensboro, Kentucky. His father ran a grocery store and later a roofing business. Mr. Oelze began playing guitar in his teens and performed with local musicians in his dance squares.

After hitchhiking in the Air Force as a young man, Mr. Else came to Washington to run a drug store, opening Birchmere’s first store in the Shirlington neighborhood of Arlington in the early 1960s with co-owner Bill Hooper. . Initially, they tackled live music as a way to boost the restaurant’s evening business. The club moved to Alexandria in 1981, the year after Hooper died.

Else’s marriages to Imogene Williams, Linda Lee Smith, and Georgia Mechlin ended in divorce. Survivors included her wife of ten years, the former Susan Pilchard. Three children from his first marriage, Carrie Else of Boca Raton, Florida, Cheryl Else of Centerville, Virginia, and Vic Else of Sanford, North Carolina. Stepdaughter, Kelly Pilchard of New York City. three brothers; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

In the late 1980s, Else diversified the club’s bookings by working with Michael Jaworek, who was then with the Chesapeake Concerts. By 1997, Jaworek had joined his Birchmere staff as a full-time talent his buyer, expanding to a larger venue two blocks away.

“He’s always been a sharp businessman when it comes to doing what he has to do,” said Jawolek. “As he liked to say, ‘You can’t play with the money you’re scared of.’ And in our volatile business, that’s always been the case.” ”

The new location had two rooms, a supper club and a dance hall with a sit-down bar.

Mr. Else decorated it with some emblems of the club’s past, including a statue of the late doorman William Edwin “Pudge” Tarbet in the dance hall and a Dobro mural played by Mike Aldridge of The Seldom Scene. is on the outside wall. Both were designed by Clarence Shoemaker, who illustrated the club’s detailed monthly calendar. The walls of the corridor are lined with autographed photos of the performers.

Over the last 20 years, the club has also branched out into stand-up comedy, infiltrating the LGBT community by introducing comics Suzanne Westenhofer and filmmaker John Waters.

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