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Ruby Lee's Dishes up Blues, Jazz and Soul Food

Gloria Krolak By

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Three-year-old Ruby Lee's, on the quieter north end of Hilton Head Island, SC, serves up the blues, jazz and soul food. That mix helps set the venue apart from more than 300 restaurants vying for the patronage of the resort town's 39,000 residents and some 2.5 million annual visitors.

Proud matriarch and head chef Deborah Govan, who offered these stats, told me that since she founded the place named after her mother in 2013, Ruby Lee's has climbed into the top 33 class. "I won't stop till we're number one," Ms. Govan added, and I was ready to believe in her as much as she believes in herself and her team.

What this chef serves is the food her mother fed her extended family every Sunday after church and on holidays. Ms. Govan carries on with delicious dishes of shrimp and okra gumbo, baby back ribs, fried chicken, plenty of seafood, a "low- country boil" (a combination of shrimp, crab, sausage, corn and potatoes), with home-made sides like cole slaw, collard greens and red rice. The bar serves drinks that are tall and the coffee mugs are so big, they could use diving boards.

The musicians who come to play six nights a week (closed Sundays) add their own spices. On this particular Wednesday night, the Lavon Stevens Trio with Stevens on keyboards and vocals, Earl Williams on tenor saxophone, harmonica and vocals, and Delbert Felix on electric bass, offered a hefty helping of jazz, blues, and R&B. Williams served up the blues with his harmonica for "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Kansas City," and "Down Home Blues." When Stevens introduced B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone," you knew it was something special. Lovers of the blues—Ruby Lee herself was one— listened up as Stevens sang "The King Is Gone," in homage to the master bluesman, guitarist and songwriter, who passed away in May.

All eyes were on Williams as he painted the blues with multi-colored jazz riffs. Williams is a seasoned entertainer. He has played with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Isaac Hayes, and toured with funk-soul hit makers, The Commodores, in the late '60s. He remembered many audience members' names and bantered with every one. Once, as he flirted with three pretty ladies, Stevens deadpanned the theme song to soap opera "The Days of Our Lives" on his keyboard.

They offered pop songs "My Girl," "Joy and Pain," and Barry White's "My Everything," and introduced at least one listener to the single-named bluesman, Latimore, with "Let's Straighten It Out." Diners, even those from outside, crowded in front of the band to dance.

The soulful Stevens has been recognized by the mayor of Hilton Head as an outstanding citizen. One of the producers for the Native Island Gullah Celebration held every February—the Gullah are descendants of enslaved Africans who have lived in what is called the Low Country for generations developing a culture all their own—he has studied and taught the history of blues, jazz, and gospel music from a cultural perspective. On stage his voice is thickly warm, his piano versatile and his style engaging.

Felix kept it as funky as the intro to Seinfeld. Diamond sharp, the bassist was both authoritative and laid-back, enjoying his band mates as much as they DUG him. The original bassist in the Branford Marsalis Quartet, Felix is as nimble on his instrument as he is at acoustic bass and yoga. The island abounds with musical talent; most of the musicians know and play in each other's combos. They are a vibrant and active force in island life and it's not hard to run into one. Such was my great good luck in meeting Delbert at a yoga studio where I can only say that my "Savasana" (corpse pose) was equal to his.

Ruby Lee's is family owned. Owner Tim Singleton is a well-known and respected figure on HHI. His sister Tressa oversees the dining room and waits tables while mom Deborah and dad Martin Govan govern the kitchen. The dining room and bar are decorated with sports memorabilia—Willie Mays' number 24 jersey, Michael Jordan's 23 and photos of tennis champion Arthur Ashe are just a few. Five-large screen TVs soundlessly broadcast the day's sports. With no formal education in business management, the family is reaping the success of one commonsense guideline: recreate the atmosphere the family cherished with Ruby Lee. Then the upward move from No. 33 shouldn't take long.

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