The Soul of Augusta: Proudly Promoting Local Positives

Stacey Eidson

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024

When it comes to promoting all of the positives Augusta has to offer, look no further than downtown business owner, music and arts promoter, local DJ and Augusta University alumnus Coco Rubio.

For many in this city, Rubio is the soul of Augusta.

“My history with Augusta began with me being an Army brat,” said Rubio, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1967. “My dad was in the military. We actually moved here twice. First, we moved from Seoul, Korea, to Augusta, and we were here for three years in the late 1970s.

“Let’s just say it was a culture shock,” Rubio added, laughing.

Then, the Rubio family moved to Germany for several years but returned to the United States and were stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

“We moved back here in 1984, and I went to Evans High School where I graduated,” Rubio said, explaining he began attending then-Augusta College in 1986. “I was here at Augusta College from ’86 through ’91. I think because I was an Army brat and we moved so much that I didn’t want to move anymore. I just figured, I’m just going to settle here for a while.”

Little did Rubio know that he had found his home in Augusta.

“I was lucky enough to get a job right after I graduated college,” Rubio said. “I had a double degree in Spanish and communications. I had a couple of really good professors, Dr. Jana Sandarg and Dr. Nicasio Urbina, who was from Nicaragua. He made me think it would be cool to get my minor in Spanish, but I ended up getting my degree in Spanish also.”

After graduating, Rubio thought he might work at a radio station, but instead, the administration at Evans High School called.

“Evans High School needed a Spanish teacher because one of their teachers was on maternity leave, and they said, ‘You just got your degree in Spanish, right? Well, you can teach with a provisional license since you have your degree in Spanish,’” Rubio said. “I had graduated in January, so from there, I just started working. I really loved teaching. I did that for four and a half years. I was teaching with some of the teachers that I had as a student. It was a really good experience.”

The birth of The Soul Bar

But in the summer of 1995, fate intervened.

“I saw the building on Broad Street, the old Safety Loan Pawn Shop, at 984 Broad St., and thought about all my trips to Athens, Savannah, Charleston, Columbia and Atlanta, and how we would go to bars to see bands,” Rubio said. “I thought we needed a place like that here in Augusta.”

To many, it seemed like a pipe dream. Almost three decades ago, downtown Augusta was deserted after sunset.

The work crowd would pack up for the evening and head off to the suburbs, leaving the city completely dead at night.

But Rubio and his brother, Jayson, thought downtown Augusta needed a place where people could relax, enjoy a cold drink and listen to local music. They thought it also needed a place that would finally honor local music legend, “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown.

“In college, I had been DJing a lot at Squeaky’s Tip Top, a popular place on the corner of Monte Sano and Central avenues. That was our college spot,” Rubio said, adding that is where Disco Hell, his popular funk-based dance show, was born. “I liked playing James Brown music, and it was fun just to hear it. That was kind of my thing to honor him.”

The atmosphere at Squeaky’s Tip Top was unlike anywhere else in Augusta, attracting a youthful crowd who appreciated the growing local sound.

So, when the opportunity presented itself, Coco and Jayson Rubio took a chance on the vacant storefront at 984 Broad St. that was owned by Historic Augusta in 1995.

At the time, rent was only a few hundred dollars a month with an option to buy.

The Rubio brothers poured time, money and a whole lot of heart into the Broad Street building.

By October 1995, The Soul Bar was born, and downtown Augusta would never be the same.

“We were able to do what we did in 1995 because there wasn’t too much going on at night on the upper end of Broad in the evening,” Rubio said. “But I did notice that the lower end of Broad was busy. What was down there was Luigi’s and a couple others, like The Sports Center. There were things there that people would go to, but on the upper end of Broad, there was nothing at night except a lot of empty buildings.”

But Rubio’s older brother, Didier, who also graduated from then-Augusta College, had a skateboard, screenprinting and coffee shop with two partners called RayGun in downtown Augusta. Didier also converted the then-vacant Capri Cinema on the corner of 8th and Ellis streets, which is now Le Chat Noir, into a live, all-ages music venue.

“The screenprinting kept RayGun going, and then their retail was a lot of skateboards and Doc Martens, posters and stickers, just anything related to the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Call Quest,” Rubio said. “It was very hip-hop, skate and cool rock-and-roll stuff. To me, it was like Squeaky’s Tip Top plus RayGun equals Soul Bar.

“So, when The Soul Bar opened in October 1995, of course it was Halloween, and I was like ‘We’re doing Disco Helloween,’” Rubio added, laughing. “It was packed. We couldn’t let any more people in. Everybody was blown away, saying, ‘Where are these people coming from? This is crazy.’ It just felt good to see all these people on the upper end of Broad Street.”

The resurgence of downtown

Around the same time, two of Rubio’s friends, Barry Blackston and Matt Flynn (another Augusta College alumnus), were working hard to open a restaurant called Nacho Mama’s, just a few doors down. When the restaurant opened a few months later in 1996, the two new businesses fed off of each other’s positive energy.

“We knew Barry and Matt were doing Nacho Mama’s, and we were hoping as soon as we opened we’d see a lot more things come downtown. That’s exactly what happened,” Rubio said. “After Nacho opened, there was The Pizza Joint, Firehouse Bar, Metro Coffeehouse and many more places coming downtown.”

Opening The Soul Bar and renting it with an option to buy was a complete risk that happened to pay off, Rubio said.

“We were all at that age, I was like 27, and it was like, ‘Are we going to stay in Augusta or are we going to move?’ It was like, ‘Well, if we’re staying in Augusta, let’s try to do something here, a dream, and if it doesn’t work, then we tried, and we’ll go back to figuring out what to do,’” Rubio said. “But it’s cool that it worked, and we had the support of a lot of people. It just showed me that people really embraced downtown. And today, Soul Bar is still open, more than 28 years later.”

Another huge perk of opening The Soul Bar decades ago was that it gave Rubio the chance to work nights and spend his days with his young daughter, Maya.

“I remember taking her to Mother’s Morning Out,” Rubio said, chuckling. “But I’m so glad Maya was able to stay in one place growing up and attend the incredible magnet schools here, including C.T. Walker from kindergarten to fifth grade and then Davison Fine Arts from sixth grade to graduation.”

“One of my goals was to make downtown Augusta a cool place for Maya to grow up,” Rubio added, explaining Maya went on to graduate from Emerson College in Boston and is now living in Brooklyn, New York. “I took her everywhere with me as a baby, and now she is so proud to be from Augusta. And I couldn’t be prouder of her.”

Over the years, The Soul Bar’s reputation for supporting musicians quickly spread, not only across the state but also throughout the country. Over the years, Rubio has been able to attract well-known artists to perform at The Soul Bar, including Drive-By Truckers, Cat Power, Jennifer Nettles Band and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.

Even the late Godfather of Soul himself occasionally ventured down to The Soul Bar to check out the business that was named in his honor.

“I’ll never forget the first time Mr. Brown came into the bar,” Rubio said, adding that the Godfather walked around, looking at all of the decor paying homage to the founding father of funk music.

“He said, ‘Coco, you know what’s up!’ That’s what he said. It was so awesome to me just to get to know him and tell him how much I appreciated him and his music.

“As flawed as he was, he’s still a musical icon,” Rubio added. “I’ve always stood by his art and everything he’s done. I feel good, no pun intended, but I feel good that I was able to meet him and let him know that he was respected and loved in his town. I think he knew that.”

That first encounter with the Godfather of Soul also gave Rubio a new perspective on the city of Augusta.

“He also made me think how, if James Brown can live in Augusta when he can live anywhere he wants to in the world, I’m cool here,” Rubio said, smiling. “I can live in Augusta.”

For the love of promoting Augusta

In June 2008, the Rubio brothers teamed up with downtown business owner and Augusta College alumnus Eric Kinlaw to purchase a 500-person capacity, live music venue at 1157 Broad St. called Sky City. That venue was open for approximately 10 years, attracting national acts including Fishbone, Camper Van Beethoven, Jucifer, Dinosaur Jr., Nappy Roots and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Rubio then worked as the operations manager at The Miller Theater in downtown Augusta after it reopened in January 2018. But when the COVID pandemic hit, the theater was forced to temporarily close.

By 2021, Rubio embarked on a new business venture called Augusta Live Music + Art, or ALMA for short. For those who don’t know, “alma” means “soul” in Spanish, Rubio said.

“I started doing my own thing with ALMA Productions and doing shows at different venues in town,” Rubio said. “I’ve always liked doing music and promoting events and using music and art as a way to bring people together. That was always my thing and finding the right venues to do that.”

“I’ve done shows pretty much in every venue in town,” Rubio added. “The Imperial Theatre, done it. The Miller, done it. Riverwalk Amphitheater, done it. The Augusta Common, done it. Columbia County Performing Arts Center, I’ve done a show out there. And now, I’m at the Maxwell Theatre at Augusta University.”

Home sweet home

Everything has come full circle as Rubio is helping to organize and promote some events at the Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre at his alma mater. Just last month, Rubio organized the screening of “HAPPY – a small film with a big smile,” which is based on the life of Augusta visual artist Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman. The screening, which was followed by a Q&A with Porkchop and “HAPPY” director Michael McKinley, was a huge success.

“Afterwards, the meet-and-greet line was great watching the interaction between the audience members and Leonard and how emotional people get talking to Leonard,” Rubio said. “That’s really what it’s all about for me, just seeing that connection and the feelings people get when they see an event or something that moves them. It’s like, ‘Wow, that happened.’ I think about, ‘OK, what can we do next?’”

This city is continuing to thrive, and Augusta University plays a huge role in that growth, Rubio said.

“I just look at Augusta University as an example of how things should be growing and improving and getting better,” Rubio said. “The influence that AU has is very impressive, and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

For Augusta University students interested in promoting or marketing events as a career or possibly opening their own music venues, Rubio offers some simple advice.

“You have to love it. I mean, really love it,” Rubio said, smiling. “You can’t be like, ‘I’m going to try this, whatever.’ I think if you’re passionate enough, you can find your spot and do what you love to do.

“I just love putting on concerts and events and working with the artists and making sure the artists are happy, as well as making sure the patrons are happy,” Rubio added. “So, wherever that takes me, that’s where I’ll go.”

Rubio continues to have a major impact on the Augusta area. He was recently honored with the Destination Augusta’s Community Spirit Award at the annual Experience Augusta event for his outstanding contributions to the community. This award embodies unwavering dedication and a profound passion for Augusta.

Looking back over the years, Rubio said it’s easy to name the reason why he decided to call Augusta home.

“What I love most about Augusta is the people. It’s always been about the people,” Rubio said. “My best friends and family are here. I just want to provide events with my people and for the people.”