The War of Rosa's | Post No Bills | Chicago Reader

The War of Rosa's 

Mama Rosa and Tony Magiullo/What price victory?

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The War of Rosa's

Even though the bar was only closed for 30 days, manager Tony Mangiullo is well within his rights to call this weekend's festivities at Rosa's blues lounge a "grand reopening." The four-night, 30-act blowout, which started Thursday at the venerable west-side haunt, celebrates the resolution of a three-year legal battle with the city's Local Liquor Control Commission.

Rosa's well-publicized troubles began back in May 1993 when a part-time bartender, Vera Smith, was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover cop. The timing of the bust couldn't have been worse: the city's free blues festival, "the three most important days of the year for a blues club," according to Mangiullo, was less than two weeks away. The Mayor's Office of Special Events barred Rosa's from participating in the fest, at which it had sold T-shirts and handed out promotional material for the preceding five years, and the LLCC shut down the bar for seven days. Mangiullo, claiming that the fest jumped the gun in booting Rosa's before it had even been closed, attempted to get a court order to lift the ban, but failed.

Rosa's had a week to prepare for the hearing that immediately followed the suspension. Mangiullo couldn't locate Smith, a key witness, and even if he had succeeded in finding her, she couldn't have been compelled to testify because she was facing criminal prosecution. Based on an unlikely sounding version of events related by the undercover cop--who claimed Smith openly dangled a packet of coke in front of him for 20 seconds in full approving view of 60-year-old bar owner "Mama Rosa" Henderson--and despite the fact the club had only one minor infraction on its record in eight years of business, the LLCC yanked its license.

Rosa's appealed the decision. The License Appeal Commission ruled that the LLCC had treated the bar unfairly in not allowing sufficient time to find Smith, and ordered a new hearing. Smith, who by this time had been convicted, testified that she had sold the coke without the knowledge or approval of her employers, but the LLCC came to the same conclusion as before. When Rosa's appealed the decision again, the LAC ruled that the revocation displayed "abusive discretion" and suggested that a seven-day suspension would suffice

as punishment.

The LLCC appealed that ruling to the Illinois Circuit Court, where in July Judge Michael Getty upheld the LAC's contention that revocation was an abuse of power, but ruled that it was not within the LAC's authority to issue a lesser penalty. With revocation no longer an option, the LLCC issued the next harshest measure available: a 30-day suspension. Battle weary, Mangiullo and his mother accepted the punishment, and Rosa's closed its doors on September 10.

"Rosa's is walking on eggshells now," says the club's attorney Edward Voci. "Club owners are really at the mercy of anyone who wants to set them up." While Rosa's has served its punishment, its record is now far from clean, and any additional offenses could seriously jeopardize its future.

Mangiullo, who also manages popular bluesman Melvin Taylor, estimates that the club has paid out $10,000 in legal expenses, but says the most significant consequence of the ordeal has been that the club hasn't participated in the blues fest since the mess began. "It's not so much what we lost, but what we will lose from people not knowing that we exist," he says. Festival director Barry Dolins told me that if Rosa's was in the clear legally, it should be able to participate next year.

The performances donated this weekend--including those by Willie Kent, Big Time Sarah, Byther Smith, and Pinetop Perkins--will be recorded for a future CD.

Postscripts

Liquid Soul's self-released eponymous debut album will be rereleased on October 29 by Ark 21. That's the new label run by Miles Copeland, whose previous imprint, I.R.S., introduced R.E.M. and the Go-Go's to the world. I.R.S. folded earlier in the year, and the Liquid Soul title will join new recordings by former Police drummer (and Miles's brother) Stewart Copeland and jazz drummer Tony Williams on the new company's inaugural lineup. Ark 21 will be distributed by EMD, the company that owns Capitol and EMI. According to Liquid Soul coleader Mars Williams the group is currently negotiating with the label for a new release due next spring. In the meantime the band will embark on short tours of both coasts in November.

The new single from Everything but the Girl, "Single," features a remix by local producer Brad Wood, but you'll have to cough up the import price to get it: it's been released only to radio in this country, along with an album edit and a remix from English drum 'n' bass innovator Photek. An EP of various other jungle remixes by Omni Trio, Spring Heel Jack, and Photek of tunes from EBTG's latest album, Walking Wounded, will be released by Atlantic on October 22.

A recent press release proclaims that hirsute entrepreneur Rick Rubin hopes to start distributing books on tape through his American Recordings, but his influence has already been felt at Audio Literature, where he became a partner to company founder John Hunt a year ago. Among the company's recent offerings: Johnny Cash reads Kahlil Gibran's The Eye of the Prophet and Donovan does The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse. The real question in my mind is whether Wesley Willis or Sir Mix-a-Lot will get to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mama Rosa and Tony Mangiullo photo by Randy Tunnell.

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