MUSIC

Mr. Lucky's has sold. This is what made the concert venue iconic and what's next

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic

The grinning joker is surrounded by a chain-link fence separating it from Grand Avenue, a bittersweet reminder of when Mr. Lucky's hosted country music royalty and family friendly fish fries with a rodeo arena in the parking lot.

The bells are missing from the faded jester's hat and the iconic sign that once promised cocktails and dancing now says mattresses, a holdout from its fleeting reinvention in 2016 as a furniture store. 

The part that said "dancing" appears to have been shot out. The marquee holds a sign that says "available."

Mark Wilcke, an executive vice president at real estate brokers NAI Horizon, says the property at Grand and 37th avenues in Phoenix has been sold to an unnamed investor who wants to redevelop the site as something other than a nightclub.

"In the meantime, we're looking to find a short-term tenant that could use it for outside storage," Wilcke says.

The building is in such a state of disrepair that it doesn't make a lot of sense to do anything with it, Wilcke says.

"It would just cost too much to get it back up to snuff, so to speak."

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'I hate seeing it sitting there the way it is now'

J. David Sloan sang country at the helm of Mr. Lucky's house bands, first the Rogues, then Western Bred.

In 1988, he bought the bar from original owner Bob Sikora and ran it while also performing for another 16 years before leasing the property to investors behind another local nightclub that's no longer open, Alice Cooper’stown.

"I hate seeing it sitting there the way it is now after all those years of going in the back door every day," Sloan says.

"It has a big place in my heart." 

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Mr. Lucky's opens for business in 1966

Having tested the waters with two smaller Phoenix nightclubs — Jeb’s on Indian School Road and Magoo’s at 19th Avenue and Van Buren Street — Sikora opened Mr. Lucky's in October 1966 with George Xericos, a business partner he bought out the following year.

"I was looking for a place on the west side to put Lucky's up," Sikora says. "And that's the site I found that I liked best."

He and his partner paid to have the nightclub built and hired Glen Guyette at Myers & Leiber Neon Sign Company to make the joker sign.

"We wanted something spectacular," he says.

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How Mr. Lucky's got its name

As for the name, Sikora says, "I put a bunch of names in a hat and that's what I drew."

Sloan's understanding is that there was talk of Arizona legalizing gambling at the time and Sikora was hoping this would be the Valley's first casino.

"That's why they built that club and called it Mr. Lucky's," he says.

"They really thought the gambling thing was going through. It all makes sense, the way they had that joker up there. And there used to be some dice lights hanging off of it. I think people shot 'em down. But it was a Vegas-style sign."

From the time it opened, Mr. Lucky's featured country music on the main floor and rock 'n' roll on a circular stage in the basement.

"I had country before, and that's what I wanted," Sikora says. "That was my roots. But I wanted two different concepts."

Mr. Lucky's iconic sign on Grand Ave., shot in 2013, long after J. David Sloan closed the bar and sold the property in 2004.

Having country on one floor and rock on the other was doing really well for JD's, the Tempe venue where Waylon Jennings played, which opened two years earlier. 

John Dixon, an Arizona music historian who did a weeklong stint in the freshly opened Mr. Lucky's basement as the drummer for Stan Devereaux and the Trendsetters, remembers thinking, "What a cool place" when he played there.

Dixon saw Sikora's venue as "a new JD's on the other side of town, basically," a little fancier perhaps and obviously more successful, outlasting JD's by decades. 

"Sikora was better about the restaurant part of the deal," Dixon says. "He had experience, where JD's was kind of a roll of the dice. A double-decker club had never been done."

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Mr. Lucky's was 'like a Vegas venue'

It didn't hurt that Mr. Lucky's was a great place to present a concert.

"It was like a Vegas venue," Dixon says.

"Not the same size, obviously, but it just had that kind of appeal. And then obviously, Grand Avenue having traffic is important — to have a lot of cars going by."

J. David Sloan performs with Western Bred at Mr. Lucky's at 37th and Grand Avenues.

Jim West, a former KNIX-FM DJ who wrote "The Phoenix Sound: A History of Twang & Rockabilly Music in Arizona," sees Mr. Lucky's as "such an iconic place," especially for country. 

"In the '80s, you could barely get in the door," West recalls.

"It was wall-to-wall people. It got to the point where if the fire marshal had come around, he would've shut it down. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, it was a major event to get from one side of the room to the other."

To Sikora, it made perfect sense that country bands become the venue's main draw. 

"There was no country places in the Valley that amounted to anything," he says. 

"One place was Harry's Capri but they fizzled out early in the game. So, really, there was no place to go with a good-looking building designed correctly that had good service and great music."

'No better bands in the country'

Sikora knew having great music was key and he made sure both floors at Mr. Lucky's had that. 

"There was no better bands in the country let alone the state," he says.

The Rogues were initially fronted by Virg Warner.

"They weren't just average pickers," Sikora says. "Many acts that came through and worked with them wanted to hire them to go out on the road because they were the best they ever had."

J. David Sloan performs with Western Bred at Mr. Lucky's at 37th and Grand Avenues in 2002.

In 1969, the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson, released "Wanda Jackson in Person: Recorded at 'Mr. Lucky's' in Phoenix, Arizona."

Eleven years later, Waylon Jennings drew a huge crowd to cheer him on as he filmed part of his first television special to air on ABC-TV.

In 2003, Keith Urban filmed a live performance at the venue for the music video to “Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me" after playing a concert at Ak-Chin Pavilion.

Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Price, Glen Campbell and Roy Clark are among the Country Music Hall of Famers that performed at Mr. Lucky's.

"Most of them that played for me liked what we had and always wanted to come back," Sikora says. 

"They looked forward to coming to Mr. Lucky's."

When J.D. Sloan joined the Rogues

Sloan was well aware of Mr. Lucky's while living in Nashville. 

"All the pickers in Nashville were coming back bragging about what a great place it was," he says. "So I was excited to see the place because I'd heard so much about it. And I wasn't disappointed."

40068 - film - 12/21/01
Canadian bull rider Dusty Ephram leaves the shoot at Mr. Lucky's and earns 68 points for his performance in the second round of riding.

Sloan moved to Phoenix in April 1972 to build apartments. Jennings invited his old friend out to the club to sit in during his performance with the Rogues. 

"He had been telling Bob that I was out here working construction and that Bob should hire me," Sloan says.

"So I went out one night when Waylon was there. I sat in. And they gave me a job. It was a little easier than swinging a hammer."

The Rogues were led by Billy Williams, a guitarist Sloan refers to more than once as "a musical genius."

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When Jordin Sparks played Mr. Lucky's

Not long after joining the group, Sloan introduced a crowd-pleasing tradition at the Friday night fish fry, inviting kids onstage to take part in a talent contest.

"People loved to see their kids on stage," Sloan says. "Even today, so many people say, 'I used to sing on your stage when I was 4.' To be honest, that's my favorite part of my career at Mr. Lucky's."

Among the kids who took the stage was Jordin Sparks, who started singing in those kids' night talent shows in 2000, seven years before winning "American Idol."

"American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks at age 14 with J. David Sloan, the former owner of Mr. Lucky's, a legendary country music restaurant and bar at 3660 N. Grand Ave. Sparks routinely performed at Mr. Lucky's before it changed ownership in 2004.

"When she came in, I asked her if she had a CD or anything to sing along to," Sloan recalls. 

"She goes, 'No, I'm gonna sing a cappella.'"

Sparks sang "Hound Dog." 

"And the people were on their feet as soon as she started," Sloan recalls.

That Friday fish fry was a huge draw.

"When they started that, I think it was all you can eat for 75 cents," Sloan says. "And when I sold the club in 2004, it was all you can eat for $5.50. People loved that fish."

When Lyle Lovett met the Lucky's gang

In 1983, the Rogues traveled to Luxembourg to play a fair, where they ended up backing a young singer-songwriter from Texas named Lyle Lovett, who was having trouble getting anyone to pay attention to his solo sets. 

Before they went their separate ways, Williams and Sloan offered Lovett a deal on some studio time and, in 1984, he ended up cutting the demos that got him signed to MCA with Williams and the Rogues at Chaton Recordings in Scottsdale. 

That version of the Rogues included several players who would go on to be members of Lyle Lovett and his Large Band: Ray Herndon, Matt McKenzie and Matt Rollings.

In his many trips to Arizona to record those demos, Lovett often ended up at Mr. Lucky's, where he sat in with the Rogues on more than one occasion.

"Oh, man, Mr. Lucky's was a happening place," Lovett says. "They played five, six nights a week and it was just packed every night. There were thousands of cars in the parking lot just about every time you drove past."

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When Ray Herndon joined the Rogues

Herndon's car was often in that parking lot before he joined the Rogues.

"Somebody had told me, 'Hey, you've gotta go to Mr. Lucky's and hear this band. They're incredible,'" he says.

"So I went out there. It was probably early '82. And I was blown away by the musicianship. They kicked my butt."

Herndon was playing his family's bar, Handlebar J in Scottsdale, at the time and would rush off after weekend gigs to catch the after-hours set at Mr. Lucky's, sometimes sitting in.

One night at Handlebar J, he got a visit from Sikora and Mr. Lucky's manager Bunky LeGate. 

"Next thing I know, they offer me the gig," he recalls. "My mom was not happy with me at all because I was leaving Handlebar. But she got over it."

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Why Bob Sikora sold Mr. Lucky's

In 1971, Sikora launched Bobby McGee's, a chain of supper clubs with prerecorded music, at Papago Plaza in Scottsdale. He had expanded the brand to 24 locations by  1988, the year he decided to sell the club to Sloan.

"I was really tied up in the growth of Bobby McGee's and didn't have time to spend on booking bands and taking care of business there," Sikora says.

"And J. David was not only a great entertainer but a good friend. They don't make a better individual than that. So I made him an offer he couldn't refuse.'"

As Sloan recalls the conversation, "I told him, 'Well, Bob, I don't have the money. I worked for you all those years.'"

Sloan laughs, then continues, "He said, 'We'll agree on a price and you can just make payments.' So he talked me into it."

It wasn't an easy decision for Sikora, who refers to Mr. Lucky's as "sort of my baby."

Even now, he sees it as the launching pad of his career.

"It's always saddening when you remember what you had and how great it was," Sikora says. "But time changes, you know?"

The Rogues disbanded in 1990 when Williams retired to focus on working with Lovett. That's when Sloan brought in a new band, Western Bred, to back him for another 14 years before getting out of the club-owning business himself in 2004. 

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When the rodeo came to Mr. Lucky's

The rodeo went in in 1991. 

"There was these two guys that came from New Mexico and said, 'We'd like to build a rodeo arena outside the club and have live bull riding like Billy Bob's in Texas,'" Sloan says. 

"And at first, I thought, 'Well, you guys must be crazy.' But the more they talked about how many people it would draw in Texas, I thought, 'Let's see if the city lets us do it.'"

That became another huge draw, with riders competing outside the club between the band's sets.  

"It was a really nice arena," Sloan says. "We put that thing in and boy, the people really started coming." 

Alison Hasselbring sings Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree during a kids talent show at Mr. Lucky's in 2001.
Jerry Foreman/The Arizona Republic

Around 2000, other clubs started putting in rodeos and offering more prize money, causing Mr. Lucky's to lose riders. Rather than try to compete, Sloan shut the rodeo down in 2002.  

By that point, business wasn't what it used to be, between the harsher DUI laws and the changing demographics in the area. 

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Mr. Lucky's as a Latin nightclub

Three years after leasing the club to the Cooper’stown team, Sloan sold the property to a group of investors who ran it as a Latin nightclub, retaining the name and the sign. 

"They'd make more money in one night than I'd make in three weeks with those cowboys," Sloan recalls.

One night, the new owners invited him out. 

"You couldn't hardly move in there," he says.

"They were hiring big-name bands out of Mexico that had, like, 16 people. They'd be dressed real fancy, like what country artists used to wear with the rhinestones and everything. They looked fantastic, took up the whole stage and people just loved it."

The property was foreclosed on during the recession in 2009 and was purchased the following year by another investor.

In the years since then, the space has housed a banquet hall, a furniture store and a restaurant called Mr. Lucky’s Grubhouse.

The Back to Mr. Lucky's movement

But no business has enjoyed the staying power Mr. Lucky's had at that location or in people's memories.

In 2012, Sloan and Herndon launched a Back to Mr. Lucky's night at Herndon's club, Handlebar J in Scottsdale. 

"We did that for seven years," Herndon says.

"It was a hit every Wednesday. Then, as things progressed, I felt we'd kind of been there, done that. But J. David comes back out and sings with us on a fairly regular basis. He's 80 years old, still kicking ass."

Sloan thinks a nightclub could still work at that Grand Avenue location.

"If somebody operated it right, I think it could be profitable," he says. "But I don't know if it'll ever be what it was in its heyday because ... I mean, it was just a hopping place."

Eventually, Sikora sold the entire Bobby McGee chain except one restaurant near Interstate 17 and Dunlap Avenue, which he converted into a Bobby-Q barbecue in 2006. There are currently three Bobby-Q locations in the Valley, where Sloan often plays. 

What's next for that Mr. Lucky's sign?

As for the fate of the iconic 50-foot-tall Mr. Lucky's sign, Sloan says it can't be moved.

"I've been told by a city official, if they take that sign down, you're never gonna be allowed to put it back up," Sloan says.

"It's too tall. But it's grandfathered in. So if you tear down, it's gone."

Sikora loves that sign.

"It would be great if somebody could use it," Sikora says. "If I could, I'd take it and put it on my restaurant on the I-17. But that's not possible."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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