When he left Kansas City for Florida in 2001, Ernie Locke left behind a hometown filled with family and friends and a music scene that had launched him into high places among esteemed company.
“I needed to get away from Kansas City,” he told The Star recently. “I’d become a big fish in a small pond. I was getting (messed) up a lot.”
He had a band at the time, Parlay, which he has reunited for a show Friday night at Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club while Locke is in town taking care of some family matters.
Since he moved to Tampa, Fla., Locke, 52, a Kansas City, Kan., native, has revived his music career. He has also turned to another favorite pastime: food.
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Since 2009, Locke and Melissa Deming, the mother of their 6-year-old son, have owned and operated Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe, a bohemian restaurant in a city known internationally for its tourist attractions.
Ella’s celebrates music and the visual arts. It also pays homage to Locke’s hometown and its artistic spirit.
“I love it here,” he said. “I love what’s happening downtown. There is good anarchy here. I miss it.”
He was part of that anarchy in the mid-1980s when he started the Sin City Disciples, a band that mixed Locke’s fondness for the gut-bucket and boogie blues with the punk/psychedelic aesthetic of bands like the Butthole Surfers. His indulgence in the blues arrived fortuitously.
“My dad got a harmonica in his Christmas stocking one year,” Locke said. “He said, ‘I don’t need this.’ So I grabbed it and started learning how to play it. I lived at 39th and Manheim and worked at Thirsty’s Cantina (in Westport), and I played it while I walked to work every day.”
He had also become a regular at the Music Exchange, a record store in Westport where the staff “took me into the blues,” he said. Then his parents loaned him money to buy a harmonica microphone and amplifier. By then he had started collaborating with Don Byrom, who, Locke said, taught him a lot about songwriting and arrangements.
“He had a couple of rules, and one of them was less is more,” Locke said. “If you have just as much space in a song as there is music, all the dynamics will be so much bigger. It’s the truth. So we kept it on the rhythm and blues side with plenty of punk in there and lots of space.”
He started the Disciples in 1986 with Byrom, Dave Olds and Paul Estapar, and the band’s furious live shows almost instantly became legend. The All Music Guide described Locke as a “steer-sized lead singer/harmonica player” who bared his “butt-crack and Buddha-belly” onstage.
“Don would say I was a shy guy when I started, but the band really opened me up,” Locke said.
The band released a full-length album, navigated a lineup change and toured all over the country, including a showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference, which aroused some label interest. The band broke up in 1992, partly because Byrom decided to start a career with the railroad.
By late 1993, Locke had started Tenderloin with former members of the Lawrence band the Homestead Grays. But after Tenderloin’s debut, “Let It Leak,” recorded with producer Ed Rose, was picked up by Qwest Records (Quincy Jones’ imprimatur on Warner Bros. records), the other members of Tenderloin quit.
“We’d just signed a three-record deal with Warner Bros.,” Locke said. “I had to pull my pants up and find people to play this stuff with.”
The “stuff” sprung from what Locke called the “trance” blues, music similar to what was being produced by Fat Possum Records and revered bluesmen like R.L. Burnside — “but we were doing it before we even knew they existed.”
He recruited some former Sin City Disciples to fill in, then landed two former members of the Reverend Horton Heat camp to join permanently: Taz Bentley and Kirk St. James.
“We put out two CDs and toured our butts off, for like four or five years, doing 300 shows a year,” Locke said. “I regret nothing. It was an amazing time of my life.”
The band open for titans like Soundgarden, the Supersuckers and Social Distortion and landed a one-off with Johnny Cash. Locke also appeared on “The Tonight Show” with the Supersuckers and Willie Nelson, playing blues harp on a version of Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning.”
In late 1999, Tenderloin came off the road for the last time. Locke put the band to rest so he could focus on his personal life and a long-term relationship that was deteriorating.
“Guys were getting to be in the 35- to 40-zone, with wives and girlfriends,” Locke said. After his relationship ended, he started Parlay with a lineup that included former Disciple and Tenderloin bandmate John Cutler.
“It was rock ’n’ roll,” Locke said. “I wanted to start a band that sounded more like the Supersuckers instead of with a heavy blues influence. And I wanted to play guitar in a band and not feel like I was screwing it up.”
By 2001, he was dating Deming, who had moved to Tampa to work for her parents’ construction company. Locke soon joined her and went to work on a cattle farm.
“It was in the middle of Florida,” he said. “Lots of warthogs and black snakes 12 feet long.”
He and Deming eventually moved into a house that they have rehabbed in the Seminole Heights district of Tampa. By 2009, they had the funding to open Ella’s, named after Deming’s grandmother, a native of Monett, Mo.
“She was a Depression-era mother who took care of Melissa while her parents were on the road,” Locke said. “The (restaurant) is an homage to her.”
One of their goals was to bring a “Kansas City vibe” to the neighborhood by starting an artistic community.
“It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” Locke said. “No one was doing it. It was all right in front of us.”
So Ella’s features folk art and live music. Its Soul Food Sundays menu includes plenty of Kansas City-style barbecue options plus music from the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz. Featured folk artists have included C.M. Laster and the Rev. Howard Finster.
He books live bands throughout the week, including his own bands, the Nervous Turkeys and the Swamp Rats, and acts like country-blues guitarist Jessie Mae Hemphill and Rod Hamdallah of the Legendary Shack Shakers.
Every performer signs a contract before a show, Locke said: “They agree not to perform ‘Freebird,’ ‘Mustang Sally’ or ‘Margaritaville,’ and if they do, I’ll throw their (gear) out the door. Everyone has signed it.”
Ella’s has been a catalyst in Seminole Heights, Locke said.
“It has changed the neighborhood,” he said. “And we’re really proud of it. When we started, there were maybe two normal dinner-type restaurants not serving fast food. There are almost 20 now.
“Too many places were catering to tourists, people they’d only see once, so it was get ’em in and get ’em out. And the visual arts is getting better, but it’s still kind of a wasteland. Lots of desert sunshine paintings and shell art.”
And every time he comes home, Locke said, he finds inspiration in Kansas City’s art and music scenes.
“Where else can you go and see a David Goodrich exhibit and not have to pay money?” he said. “I see people banging out art, making art on the street when it’s 3 degrees out. This town is full of piss and vinegar.… I love this town.”
Parlay performs Friday at Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club, 3402 Main St. The O.D.’s also are on the bill. Showtime is 9:30 p.m. Admission is $10.