MonaLisa Watkins sang "Xanadu" with Tab Benoit, watched Dick Dale stand behind the bar telling stories to Rhythm Room employees, and watched Francine Reed sing "A Song for You" a cappella to the bar's staff. Those are some of the memories that she has after 17 years of working at the venerable Central Phoenix blues joint.
It's not often that a general manager of a club gets a going-away party in which several bands will play for free in her honor, but that's how much Watkins is loved by the Phoenix blues community.
Watkins' appreciation party rocked the Rhythm Room on Sunday, April 20. The all-star lineup included the Sugar Thieves, Hans Olson, Cold Shott and the Hurricane Horns, Dave Riley, George Bowman, Nina Curri, Dan Rutland, and Buzz Fowler.
Mona, as everybody in the blues world calls her, has been the general manager, barmaid, and everybody's friend at the area's oldest blues club for years.
Bob Corritore, internationally acclaimed harmonica performer and owner of the Rhythm Room, said he was blessed to work with Watkins for 17 years.
"I saw her grow and blossom through those years, and we shared the joy of presenting countless great shows," he said. "She was the Rhythm Room guardian and a caretaker to all of us lucky enough to encounter her. She gave her heart in everything she did."
Corritore said the years of running a club was burning out Watkins, and while he hated to see her go, he knew it was best for her.
"Every good manager leaves a great staff to carry on what she leaves, and Mona has done that," he said. "She is also on hand for the transitions and occasional bartender shift. The Rhythm Room is too much a part of her to not always have some involvement. Thanks, Mona, for your invaluable contributions. Love you so much."
Jim Crawford, president of the Phoenix Blues Society, feels the love for Watkins as well.
"She has witnessed countless blues acts and befriended many of the legends, past and present, who grace the Rhythm Room stage," he said. "She tells stories of meeting Hubert Sumlin, sitting in Pinetop Perkins' lap, hanging with Valley legend Chico Chism, and dozens of others."
Crawford said Watkins has always handled herself with good humor, and he's never seen her feathers ruffled, even during the most tense situations dealing with unruly patrons or difficult performers.
"She is truly a class act and made everyone feel welcome when they walked in the door. Bob Corritore knows what she's meant to the club and to the blues in general and will have a hard time filling her toes. We at PBS wish her the best and I'm personally proud to call her a close friend," he said.
Watkins is thrilled that the blues folks have put together a going away party for her. "I am a sentimental person, so having a party where I can see everyone and give thanks to them for the wonderful years of fun is right up my alley," she said.
Watkins said the customers were like her brothers and sisters, so she treated them that way.
"I cannot express how much I care for every musician that has ever played at the Rhythm Room," she said. "I consider the club their home. When a band is on tour and they are living out of a bus or a hotel room it can really make a difference when they feel like I've gone the extra mile to make them feel welcome."
One example is one summer she had squirt guns waiting for the band, so they had fun in the parking lot before the show.
"Five squirt guns for six band members, ha," she recalled.
Watkins didn't know much about the blues before going to work at the Rhythm Room in 1996.
"Since then, I have become a big fan of the blues. I think blues is the probably the most honest of all," she said. "No matter what life brings you, blues can tell a story about it. I think Muddy Waters and R.L. Burnside are proof of that."
Watkins also appreciated working for Corritore.
"Bob is pretty amazing. He has so much knowledge and love for the blues. He always made me feel like more of a partner than an employee," she said.
Mona said the employees, especially the amazing sound engineers, are some of the best in the business.
"Thanks to them for being part of the team," she said.
While Mona is moving on, blues lovers can see her at work and at blues venues. She is going to work for Perk Eatery, 6501 East Greenway Parkway, Suite 159.
"I'm the bartender, and I make a mean Bloody Mary," she said.
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