Talk to Franklin Bell, and there are three things he'll gladly tell you: “I'm 80 years old, I'm legally blind, and I love to play the blues. I like all music — don't get me wrong — but I love to play the blues.”
That's what he's been doing for the last 10 years, every Sunday from 4 to 9 p.m., regular as church, holding forth over Franklin Bell's Blues Workshop in the garage behind his South Central bungalow down on East Colden Avenue.
“When I put this together, I wanted to do the stuff I was raised up on,” says Bell, a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Little Milton, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, all those guys. So I built up my garage.”
The garage that houses the Workshop has the warm, welcoming vibe of an old roadhouse. The average age of the players is “65 or 70,” and they include local names such as South Side Slim, Jamie Powell, Bobby Hurricane Spencer. Eight-by-tens of blues greats plaster the walls. There's a corner stage, and “anyone can get up and play,” offers Bell, who is usually behind the drum kit.
“You got a combo up there, and musicians come and listen and know if they can get up and handle it. You don't have to be that great. A person comes to me saying, 'I don't think I can do it,' I say, 'Just try! We not going ride you or nothin', just feel your way in.'”
Thanks to fans posting on YouTube and Facebook, “We have musicians coming from all around L.A., and from far as London or Amsterdam,” Bell says. “People coming from that far have to be blues fans!”
The man himself came to Los Angeles in 1968 to help his widowed sister. He ended up running a Chevron station at Imperial and Alameda in Lynwood; it was ultimately consumed by the 105 freeway.
“The last few years at the gas station, my sight was going bad on me,” Bell says. “Doctors told me, 'You're not going to be able to operate a gas station because of your sight, it's deteriorating.' After that I said, I got to do something. I thought, I'll go back into music.”
Bell spent years playing in blues combos around the Southland before starting his Workshop.
“I was getting older and was kinda tired going place to place,” he says. “I was getting tired of carrying those drums. That's how I came up with this idea.
“Normally, you go out to a live session of any kind, it's expensive these days,” Bell continues. “I wanted to have live entertainment every week, and I do it without selling anything. I ask for a minimum donation of $10, and I take that and try and pay the bills and replace my accessories. Ain't no profit in it! I serve refreshments — soda, water and food. Always have some food with the blues.”
Bell says he'll host his Blues Workshop “long as I'm able. It's like a job for me, keeps me busy. And I feel pretty good right now, so I'll just keep doing it.”
Franklin Bell's Blues Workshop takes place every Sunday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 632 E. Colden Ave., South Los Angeles. For more information call (323) 754-5564.