At the Torch Club in Sacramento, they’re calling the death of longtime bartender Don Jensen an end of an era in the city, and it just may be with the passing of a man as vital to the local blues scene as he was beloved behind the bar.
“He was the heart and soul of the downtown Sacramento music scene. He seemed to understand what it took (for musicians) to get in front of people. He definitely had his finger on the pulse,” said Bob Pearce, former frontman of the legendary Sacramento blues band, Beer Dawgs, from his home in Austin, Texas. “He was always a big part. I’ve heard that from some of the other musicians. He was a staple. You always thought he was going to be there.”
Jensen died Jan. 7 of natural causes at his West Sacramento home, his son Matt said. He was 67.
“He had a warmth, a twinkle in his eye. There’s a hole here now that he’s gone,” said Marina Texeira, the third-generation owner of the Torch Club, backstage in the club’s shoebox of a green room on Sunday.
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He was the blues bartender, Don Jensen’s ear for talent so keen that often his word alone could get a group past a tough club owner and onto the bandstand.
He was the bell ringer. One ring of his brass bell behind the bar during a hot guitar solo or after a strong set was the only sound a band needed to hear to know they would return to play another gig. He was the singing bartender, climbing onto the tiny Torch Club stage with his favorite band, the Beer Dawgs, to belt out Pearce’s “I Fell in Love With a Beehive Hairdo.” Jensen brought down the house every time.
He was even a hero. Ask Mark Miguel, working the Torch Club’s door that January night 10 years ago this week when a would-be patron tried to pay his cover charge with a shotgun. The cardboard boxes Miguel carried only partially blocked the blast. Jensen wrestled the weapon out of the man’s hands before he could get off another shot.
“He doesn’t even remember what he did,” Miguel said, still talking about his dear friend in the present tense. “He saved my life that night.”
Matt Jensen reflected on that night a decade ago.
“My dad was not a big man. He wasn’t too muscular or too tall. I don’t understand how he did it,” Matt Jensen said. “But he was the one who always handled things. He had his friends’ backs. Whether a friend, or anybody, he had your back.”
Posters and handbills of acts that graced the Torch Club’s stage blanketed the walls of the tiny backstage green room Sunday. A white-flocked Christmas tree stood in the back of the room, while Johnny “Guitar” Knox picked out a few lines on a vintage Gibson before taking the stage with his trio.
“Don and I became really good friends. He was like a lot of people in my age group – (open) to a lot of music, the British Invasion. He grew up listening to the same black music stations that I did in the Bay Area,” Knox said. “Everybody loved him. Then he came to the Torch Club and brought his expertise.”
Long a stalwart of Sacramento’s blues scene, Knox was among the numbers of Sacramento blues acts, along with Beer Dawgs and Mick Martin and the Blues Rockers, who credit Jensen with helping them first catch the eyes of the city’s club owners and promoters. First at Sam’s Hof Brau downtown, then later bringing many of the same acts and new ones with him to the Torch Club.
“He would give bands a chance to play, say, ‘Hey, these guys are pretty good,’ ” Miguel said. “The club owner couldn’t be there to hear all these bands. He was the voice for a lot of these bands.”
Jensen was born Nov. 11, 1947, in San Bernardino and raised in the San Bernardino foothill town of Upland before moving north to remote Westwood in Lassen County.
By his teen years and into his 20s after a brief stint in the Army, he was taking in sounds from all over, rhythm-and-blues, rock ’n’ roll, the British Invasion and the new thing coming out of San Francisco, bands like the Grateful Dead, with its free-flowing mix of country, blues, jazz, bluegrass and psychedelia.
Once he settled in the Sacramento area, his love of music dovetailed with bartending gigs at hotels and haunts including Sam’s Hof Brau, which was establishing itself as a local blues hotspot, and soon ingratiated himself with the musicians on the burgeoning scene.
“I’ve known Dan half of my life. He became known as the ‘Blues Bartender,’ the ‘Singing Bartender,’ ” said Knox drummer “Ratatat” Pat Balcom, 50, backstage at the Torch Club. “He was about as in the inner circle of musicians as you could get.”
The musicians loved him, of course, but the patrons most of all. They were home with Donnie behind the bar. He was the best bartender in the world, they’ll tell you at the Torch Club, a bar where that means more than most can know, and an even better friend, they’d say. But they’ll tell you, most of all, that he was family, and it’s why they’re mourning today.
“This is a big one for a lot of us. He touched a lot of lives. He was a little guy with a big heart. He was a great bartender and a great friend. We’re all just heartbroken,” Miguel said. “Things have changed, but nobody’s forgotten Donnie. He was an icon, to me at least, and I’m sure to a lot of other people, too.”
Jensen is survived by his son Matthew. Services are scheduled noon Friday at River Cities Funeral Chapel, 910 Soule St., West Sacramento. A wake will follow at the Torch Club, 904 15th St., Sacramento.
Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.