Stop by the spirited Café d’Mongo’s Speakeasy in downtown Detroit for a drink on any Friday or Saturday night, and you’ll be greeted by a petite woman in glasses with shoulder length blonde-gray hair, dressed to the nines, with her outfit accented by a pink feather boa or maybe a fur vest.
She’ll chat with you in what she calls “Twitter talk,” a brief exchange (140 words or less, she says) to make sure you find a seat or make your way to the crowded bar, as regulars and newcomers line up outside the door of the popular Griswold Street nightspot, tucked between a four-story Synagogue and a non-descript parking garage, just a few blocks from the city’s Capitol Park.
And if you’re really lucky, you might see Sheila Edwards take the microphone and join the band, Carl & Company, to sing a cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” or Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Rock is not her forte ‒ she’s more accustomed to singing jazz or American Songbook standards ‒ but singing is in her blood.
“Other than teaching, I’ve never been a full-time musician,” says Edwards, who worked as a music education teacher for years.
“But I’ve been singing since I could talk and enjoy making music. I have friends I make music with informally ‒ it’s not a formal thing. I’ll sit and sing at a club on occasion.”
Edwards, who grew up in Copper Country in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is an ambassador for Café d’Mongo and for a resurging Detroit, a city she has known for decades. Housed in an early 20th-century two-story brick building, Café d’Mongo’s is a nightlife hotspot. Before opening as a speakeasy in 2007, the building housed a Greek restaurant for decades and later an after-hours club, where then-little-known Eminem and Kid Rock rapped. Inside, d’Mongo’s resembles an elderly aunt’s living room — walls decorated with vintage photos, antique mirrors and musical instruments, and Detroit memorabilia. A piano dominates a room opposite the bar, where upholstered chairs from another era hug small tables. With its fun vibe, eclectic décor and unusual cocktails (The Detroit Brown is a concoction of Vernors and Crown Royal), Café D’Mongo frequently makes the lists of the best bars in the city and is often a must-see spot for out-of-town guests.
“We have entertained several local dignitaries as well as some notable nationally and internationally known celebrities. They are drawn to Larry and his stories,” Edwards says, referring to owner Larry Mongo.
Among the famous have been Quentin Tarantino and Ryan Gosling. “Honestly, unless they were Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart or Paul Newman, I don’t really know who they are (no disrespect meant). I just treat everybody the same and welcome them to our place.”
Edwards, who has known Mongo and his wife for years, joined the staff at the speakeasy seven years ago, working from open to close every Friday and Saturday. “Typically, we start out slowly and build to the point where there’s nowhere to sit or stand. There’s often a crowd on the patio. Even when it’s cold, there will be a few die-hards outside. Our guests are literally from all over the world and range in age from 21 ‘til ‘won’t tell,’” says Edwards, who also declines to divulge her age, only to say she’s “old.”
Owner Mongo calls her the perfect hostess, the right blend of personality and toughness to manage the nightly parade of customers.
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” he says. “Believe it or not, the first 10 seconds you walk in a place, you’ve just about made up your mind. If the hostess makes you feel good, it solves a lot of your problems, even if something happens later in the night. To have a person like her here, with her unique personality, she’s been a big help. People call her Larry’s bouncer. She’s got great insight into who she should discourage from coming in so we don’t have problems later.”
Although Edwards was born in the Upper Peninsula, her life has long been entwined with the city. Her family moved to the suburb of Redford when she was six and she returned as a young adult to teach voice and general music education at the same junior high she attended.
Like anyone who has been affiliated with the city a long time, she has seen vast changes in the past decades.
“Detroit in the 1970s was the Wild West,” Edwards recalls. “It started changing when they built the RenCen, but there were only small pockets of activity. Really even until about nine years ago, it was pretty wild, but things are more civilized now. The more businesses that move in and the more people who move back, the better. It’s great to see all the foot traffic, and the hustle and bustle.”
She’s long been familiar with the city’s music scene. Over the years, Edwards has sung with her share of Detroit notables, including the legendary Bernie Katz. She’d make the rounds of bar and nightclubs and be called on stage to join Katz or a piano player and sing a rendition of “The Lady is a Tramp, “My Foolish Heart” or “You Go to My Head.”
“I would walk in and they would call me up on stage, and I’d sing a couple of tunes,” she recalls. “They knew me. Bernie would play in the Ghost Bar at The Whitney. Really good piano players would play up there. It was our last stop before we would call it a night. We’d show up, have a last couple of cocktails and enjoy.”
She might not embrace rock, but Mongo says don’t let her sometimes-demur personality fool you.
“She’s an unbelievable singer,” he says. “When I think the crowd is getting a little mundane, I’ll say, ‘Sheila, come on and sing a song. She’ll sing ‘Proud Mary’ by Tina Turner and it shocks the heck out of the place. She’s extremely shy in a lot of ways but give her a glass of chardonnay and a microphone in her hand and out comes ‘Proud Mary.’ The place just jumps and shouts.”