By Guy D’Astolfo
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – After being closed more than five months for renovations, Frieda’s has reopened with a sharp new look and a renewed commitment to live music.
Howard Howell, a local musician, bought the landmark bar on the corner of West Rayen and Belmont avenues last summer from Alfreda “Frieda” Anderson Martin, who started the business 40 years ago.
The triangle-shaped barroom had a well-worn feel that was part of its authenticity. It was known for hosting jazz, R&B and blues artists on its tiny stage.
But no band played Frieda’s more than Howell’s. His tight jazz-groove act, Howard and the Point Five Band, was there just about every weekend.
A talented keyboard player, Howell is also good with his hands in the construction field. He did most of the renovation work himself, calling in contractors as needed.
Howell and Martin have known each other since Howell was a child growing up on the North Side. At a tender age, his love of live music lured him to slip out at night and ride his bike down to Frieda’s, where he’d stand alone outside by the door to listen.
Martin sees Howell as a son and says she was proud to hand off her bar to him. She says she’ll continue to guide him and help him make the right business decisions.
The new Frieda’s – Howell won’t change the name – carries on the legacy but with a sleek beauty and a retro-futuristic elegance that is upscale but comfortable at the same time.
Working from a vision in his head, Howell redid everything from floor to ceiling in a color scheme that is black, silver and gray, with cool blue accents.
“It was something that was in my head,” Howell says. “I was putting things together as I saw them in my head. I wanted a jazzy, classy look, maybe nostalgic. That’s what I was going for.”
With high-top tables and stools replacing the old low-level seating and the small venue’s angular lines are highlighted, the room appears to be bigger.
A neon blue glow emanates from unseen lighting fixtures beneath the bar top and the tables, adding to the ambiance.
The old drop ceiling has been updated with throwback tiles that duplicate the ornate tin-plate squares that once graced many Youngstown barrooms.
New tabletop wine-bottle lamps and track lighting over the stage also help set the mood.
Vintage photographs and concert posters adorn the walls, a carryover from the old Frieda’s. Ceiling fans slowly twirl above the refinished black and silver bar.
If you linger anywhere for more than a moment, you will notice subtle sparkles in the walls, adding a touch of magic.
Perhaps the two biggest changes have nothing to do with décor.
Throughout its 40-year history, Frieda’s was a cash-only place. But Howell has installed a modern point-of-sale system and the club will now accept credit cards for the first time.
Another big change is that the establishment now offers finer wines and cocktails. An altar-like wine storage nook occupies one corner.
Frieda’s was built on live music, and Howell plans to expand on that heritage.
His new band, The Howard Howell Experience, will play at Frieda’s opening weekend and on a regular basis thereafter.
Howell, by the way, says he “put to rest Howard and the Point Five Band at the beginning of this year.” He plans to record a CD with his new musical project this year and bring back the Christmas jazz show he did at the DeYor Performing Arts Center a couple years ago.
The new Frieda’s will be open Tuesday through Saturday; the bar will open at noon every day, closing around midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
“Starting out, we will have live music three out of the five days,” says Howell.
“I invested a good piece of money on an in-house sound system,” he notes. “Bands that come here won’t have to lug in equipment.”
To round out the entertainment lineup, Howell will book local acts, as well as ensembles from Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
“A lot of people will drive to Cleveland places like Nighttown, the Bop Stop and House of Blues to hear quality music and I’m going to bring some of those groups here,” Howell says.
Becoming the owner of the bar that sparked his love of music is a dream come true for Howell.
“It is still mind-blowing to me,” he says, citing the support of his brother in law Harry Gillespie and Frieda herself, whom he refers to as “mom.”
Howell admits to being uncertain of the endeavor at first but decided to go for it when he realized he wasn’t in it alone.
“Mom said, ‘I’m not going to leave you’ and when I got that kind of confirmation, I felt more comfortable going through it,” he says.
Martin says she plans to be at the bar as much as she can.
“My role will be to show Howard the business so he doesn’t run into any snags,” she says. “I’ll be here to help him as long as I am able to.”
The two have a long relationship.
“He’s like a son to me,” says Martin. “From when he was a little kid, 8 or 9 years old, he used to come down here and stand across the street to listen to the music. I caught him one day and said, ‘You can come in but just stand right there by the door. Over the years, I’ve watched him grow, and I always appreciated him, from that young boy to the man he is today. I didn’t know he had all these [construction] talents,” she says, glancing around the bar. “I am very proud of Howard. He did this out of his love for music and for having a place where people can relax and have a good time. I love him and he is my son.”
Howell did not allow Martin to see the place during its renovation, preferring to surprise her when he was finished. He finally let her get her first glimpse of the place three days before the reopening.
“I love the new look,” she says. “I was speechless when I first came in. It was a labor of love for him, and I’m hoping and praying he will succeed as many years as I did and beyond. I believe the community will support it.
“I’m proud of him keeping the legacy up, keeping my name,” she continues. “But it is his place.”
As Howell put the finishing touches on his place, he beamed when asked about opening night.
“I can’t wait to see the smiles on people’s faces, to see them look around and oooh and aaah,” he says. “I want everyone who comes here to feel special, to get back to putting on a nice blazer or a dress and have a nice glass of wine or a cocktail, to make this place different from any other in Youngstown.”
Once he has the bar up and running, Howell says he will turn his attention to the exterior. He wants to have a mural of musicians painted on the side of the building, and also install a patio.
Story posted Feb. 7, 2020.
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