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“He ran it like it was his bar,” Reva Goodman of the longtime Carol’s Pub house band Diamondback said of bar manager Jimmy Curry (above).

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Jimmy Curry, a fixture for over 40 years at the last honky tonk in Chicago, has died at 77

Like many Southern migrants, he came north looking for work and found his way to Uptown. But as the longtime bar manager at Carol’s Pub, he was one of a kind.

“He ran it like it was his bar,” Reva Goodman of the longtime Carol’s Pub house band Diamondback said of bar manager Jimmy Curry (above). “If somebody caused trouble, Jimmy was the first one out [from] behind the bar to help the bouncers.”
| Dom Najolia / Sun-Times

Jimmy Curry worked for more than four decades at Carol’s Pub in Uptown, where, despite his 5-feet-6-inch stature, he routinely threw out troublemakers a lot bigger than him.

It didn’t always work out as he planned. The longtime manager at the country-and-Western club dubbed the last honky tonk in Chicago got shot twice, leaving him with one kidney.

“It all happened to him,” said former co-worker Bob Hirtzig, brother of Carol Harris, who used to own the bar at 4659 N. Clark St. “And he kept going.”

“He ran that bar for 40-some years,” said Juanita Bromley, Mr. Curry’s younger sister, who also worked at the tavern, which employees said averaged five or six fights a night at one point in the 1970s. “He was tough. But everybody loved him.”

Mr. Curry poured drinks, worked the door, cooked, hired the musicians — whatever needed to be done, he did.

“He’d watch over people, make sure they weren’t bothered,” said Kevin Kull, who worked security. “He was the backbone of Carol’s. I remember the first time I went there with a girlfriend. I said, ‘If anything happens, just grab your drink, and stand next to a wall.’

“And, sure enough, it happened — and Jimmy started throwing people around. He was strong as a bull. He wasn’t an educated man, but he knew how to talk to somebody to get them to calm down. And, if he had to resort to fisticuffs, he could.”

“He ran it like it was his bar,” said Reva Goodman, a singer and guitarist with Diamondback, the longtime house band. “If somebody caused trouble, Jimmy was the first one out [from] behind the bar to help the bouncers.”

If not for all the fights he ended, Carol’s Pub might have been shut down, according to his wife Patty and Kull.

“He held it together after Carol’s husband passed away,” Kull said.

Mr. Curry died of meningitis in June at a hospital in North Carolina, where he’d retired about three years ago, his wife said. He was 77.

“He was really sweet and everything, a very good person at heart,” his wife said. “He was like two different people. When he walked into the bar, he had to turn into another person.

“He carried the reputation: ‘Don’t mess with me.’ ”

They were married for 46 years. “I was very proud of him,” she said.

You never knew who might drop in at Carol’s, which opened in 1972, closed in late 2016 and reopened under new ownership last December. Besides its regulars, people who stopped in included cast members from the FX show “Sons of Anarchy,” actors Cary Elwes, Michael Rooker, Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn.

Vaughn “came to the door, and Jimmy didn’t knew who he was,” Goodman said. “And he didn’t have his ID, and Jimmy wouldn’t let him in.”

The sign at Carol’s Pub in 2012 left no doubt about what to expect.
The sign at Carol’s Pub in 2012 left no doubt about what to expect.
Dom Najolia / Sun-Times

Andis Robeznieks, a patron of the bar, said Mr. Curry “was welcoming to all.” Unless somebody started a fight. He’d put an end to that, Robeznieks said.

“One guy was very tall,” he said. “I just remember Jimmy had to jump to hit him on the head with a flashlight.”

Mr. Curry grew up near the coal town of Louellen in Harlan County, Kentucky.

“He never went to high school,” his sister said. “Our dad was a coal miner, and so we never had nothing.

“When we were kids, he was always for the underdog in the family ’cause there’s always one in the family who gets picked on.”

She said that, “When Mommy died, there were still 10 kids at home. Everybody scattered, just went wherever we could go.”

Like many Appalachian whites at the time, the young Mr. Curry came to Chicago in the late 1950s looking for work and ended up in Uptown.

He became part of what’s been called “the original rainbow coalition.” In the 1960s, Uptown was a hotbed of political organizing. With common interests in jobs, tenants’ rights and an end to police harassment, alliances formed among the Black Panthers, Native American activists, the Puerto Rican group the Young Lords and the Goodfellows, made up of working-class Southern whites. The Goodfellows evolved into the Young Patriots, who used Confederate flags as symbols while wearing Black Power buttons, according to a 2017 article in Jacobin magazine.

Michael James, co-founder of the old Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park, was doing community organizing for JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) with others who included Rennie Davis, an activist best known as one of the Chicago Seven defendants, and Todd Gitlin, who’d been president of Students for a Democratic Society.

“Before I met Jimmy Curry, I had heard about him,” James said. “He was rumored to be the toughest kid in the neighborhood.”

In the 2011 book “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power,” authors Amy Sonnie and James Tracy wrote about Mr. Curry.

“When he was 17, he was walking his girlfriend home when two police officers stopped the couple for being out after curfew,” they wrote. “After one of the officers insulted his girlfriend, Curry ‘picked up a bottle and whacked him right in between the eyes.’ His partner responded, ‘You’re dead,’ and Curry took off running. Police chased him into a dead-end alley behind an apartment building. Standing there with nowhere else to run Curry heard the officer’s gun click. Suddenly, the building’s landlord came out the back door. The police must have weighed the complication of having a witness because they took Curry to jail instead.”

“The police just came here and beat people up for fun. Beat us up just as bad as the blacks,” Mr. Curry said in the book.

A young Jimmy Curry (center, foreground), with a cigarette and a smile at an anti-police brutality protest in Uptown in the late 1960s.
A young Jimmy Curry (center, foreground), with a cigarette and a smile at an anti-police brutality protest in Uptown in the late 1960s.
Nancy Hollander and the Michael Gaylord James archives

After the police shot and killed another Southern migrant, Mr. Curry helped lead a 1966 Goodfellows march on the old Summerdale police station on Foster Avenue, James said.

“Almost everybody who participated in that march knew they were setting themselves up for retaliation” by the police, said Robert Lawson, who was an organizer with JOIN. “If he hadn’t agreed to come on that march, the march might not have happened. Or, if it did, it would not have been as broad-based because everybody was looking to see what Jimmy would do.”

In a 2012 interview, Mr. Curry recalled what it was like around Carol’s Pub long ago.

“They called this neighborhood ‘Hillbilly Heaven,’ ” he told the Sun-Times, “where people from the South knew somebody, or they had family.

“Before this, I worked in factories and construction. When I started here, it was all Southerners. They paid the rent, bought the groceries, then drank the rest of it up.”

Danny Nelson, a mechanic and longtime patron of the North Side bar, said: “When I started going there, it was like the original ‘Bucket of Blood.’ It was a tough bar. Jimmy didn’t play any games. If he gave you three warnings, and you didn’t shape up, he’d help you out the door.”

Nelson, who met his future wife Julie at the bar, remembers how Mr. Curry would look out for the women who came there.

“Jimmy was real respectful with the ladies,” Nelson said. “He didn’t tolerate men messing with the ladies and giving them a hard time.”

In the 2012 Sun-Times story, Carol Harris recalled how rough things could get.

“In the 1970s, he was carding one guy who passed the ID to another guy,” she said of Mr. Curry. “Jimmy said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And the guy shot him.”

Another time, in the early 1980s, he was shot outside the old Golden Nugget at Broadway and Bryn Mawr Avenue, trouble following him there from Carol’s.

“They beat up my bouncer,” Carol Harris said. “Jimmy went out, trying to get the guy off my bouncer.”

Later, she said, “We all went to breakfast, and these guys followed us. When Jimmy walked out of the restaurant, they shot him.”

“I told the guy, ‘You win, man. I got no gun on me,’ ’’ said Mr. Curry, who spoke with a raspy Southern drawl. “I turned around to leave the restaurant, and he shot me in the back. I was lucky. The doctor on duty at the hospital specialized in gunshot wounds. I was in the hospital a couple of months. The other time, I got shot right in the stomach.”

“The first shooting cost him a kidney,” his wife said.

In addition to his wife and sister, Mr. Curry is survived by four other sisters and a son and daughter. Services have been held.

Though he helped hold Carol’s Pub together for over 40 years, Mr. Curry couldn’t keep it together when it was time to leave for the last time, according to Goodman.

“I remember he walked out the door, he couldn’t even turn around,” Goodman said. “Jimmy was really a softie at heart, though he didn’t want it to show. He walked out the door while we were all on stage. I think, if given the chance, we, including Jimmy, would have all been in tears.”

Jimmy Curry in September 2012, tending bar at Carol’s Pub, 4659 N. Clark St.
Jimmy Curry in September 2012, tending bar at Carol’s Pub, 4659 N. Clark St.
Dom Najolia / Sun-Times
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