Like mama, like son

by Jude Brand

George’s Bar, on a corner of the former site of the Defense Agency headquarters in Roppongi, needs no introduction to its hundreds of regulars. For those who haven’t dropped by recently, though, I have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that Tokyo’s funkiest little juke-joint is still going strong after 38 years of business. The bad news is that, sadly, the mama-san, Nobuko Okada passed away in October. She was 72.

I was grief-stricken when I heard — as was everybody. I stood stunned at the bar until my friend suggested we order drinks and raise our glasses in her memory. And just as we were readying to do so, two very well-dressed and manicured young men, who hadn’t uttered a word since we arrived, suddenly snapped to and lunged toward us with their drinks to join our memorial “kanpai.” They had also only just heard the news. We then, all four, settled into a sobering silence.

George’s Bar is funky by nature, being the creation of one of the hippest mama-sans who ever set foot behind a bar. Okada was a rare jewel and her bar a unique setting. She adopted the name from the previous owner’s coffee shop because it could be read as “sexy” in Japanese. And though the bar is barely wider than two tatami, she installed a jukebox when a friend suggested it as a good way to liven the place up. The mama would then amuse herself on quiet nights by leaving the machine on auto-play. The music not only moved her but also triggered a chameleonlike quality in her. In old photos of her wearing a simple A-line mini dress and her hair swept up into a bouffant, Okada looks every bit like Mary Wells or a young Diana Ross.

George’s Bar became a shrine to R&B and soul. As she started buying up singles, her bar acquired the reputation for having the hottest jukebox in town. James Brown’s backup dancers were the first in a long line of surprise visitors who stumbled through the door and ended up partying down till dawn. The word then spread through the international A&R departments at record companies, and the result is documented by the wallpaper of photos and album covers — all signed by the artists — that slowly grew to engulf every inch of wall and roof space.

Two years ago, for the bar’s 36th anniversary, Okada hired a hall and hosted a gala event with her soul sister, Peggy Scott-Adams, performing to a star-studded audience. To commemorate the event, her son Joi commissioned several panels of photos (from George’s own scrapbooks). These now hang in the only space left in the bar — in front of the windows, like curtains. And with them, the focus has shifted away from being a shrine to soul to being a shrine to the mama and the music she loved.

Joi is now the official owner, and Hori-san, a customer of 30 years’ standing, runs the bar, with help on busy nights from Tomo-chan, a customer of 10 years. Joi’s pride in his mother’s creation is obvious — so, too, is his commitment to ensuring that this precious heirloom powers through the next four decades . . .