The Sail Inn: An Oral History of a Tempe Music Landmark
When Gina Lombardi opened the Sail Inn in 1990, neither she nor her business partners were certain the Tempe bar would last. It did, and then some.
Courtesy of Gina Lombardi Sail Inn owner with the late Chico Chism.
Admittedly, it was a risky venture. A kitschy, nautical-themed neighborhood joint, complete with fish art and employees in captain's hats, located along a lonely stretch of road far from the hullabaloo of Mill Avenue near the bottom of the dry Salt River. A half-dozen others had tried and subsequently failed to catch on years before Sail Inn launched, and it, too, could've easily run aground.
It didn't, thanks to the never-say-die-attitude of Lombardi and co-owners Ed and Bill Whitman, all veterans of the Tempe bar biz. Through the years, the Sail developed a word-of-mouth following among diehard Tempe drinkers and, particularly, local musicians.
Lombardi transformed the Sail into a local music destination, bringing in bands and performers from day one and treating them like family. And they've kept coming back over the decades, whether it was artists from the early '90s blues boom or bands from Mill's storied jangle-pop heyday to current Tempe tastemakers.
Sail Inn became a staple of Tempe's music landscape with an identity and culture all its own. A refuge for rockers, artists, and weirdos alike, it also was a haven for hippies, who came in droves for Sunday afternoon sessions with local Deadhead band The Noodles, which ran, more or less, for 17 years.
See also: 20 Favorite Concerts at The Sail Inn
The Sail Inn's history during the past 24 years has many twists and turns, including its death and subsequent rebirth, and contains memorable tales of great gigs, strange antics, and drunken bliss. Sadly, it all comes to an end this weekend when Sail Inn closes its doors.
In March, Lombardi announced that Sail Inn had been purchased by local developer Laveen Investment and would be demolished to make way for a new location of The Lodge, a restaurant in Scottsdale. The announcement bummed out its loyal regulars and the local musicians who considered it their second home.
They'll simultaneously celebrate and mourn the Sail and its 24-year-plus legacy during a three-day Farewell Festival from Friday, June 27, to Sunday, June 29, at the bar.
While Lombardi will embark to Cactus Jack's in Ahwatukee, where she'll continue to book bands and carry on Sail Inn's legacy, regulars bemoan the loss of the beloved Tempe bar and music venue.
(Editor's note: Some quotes have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)
Gina Lombardi, owner: I'd been bartending at the old 6 East over on Mill for years when I'd started looking for a bar of my own. And I found this bar, Last Chance Lounge, but so did Ed Whitman, my boss at the 6 East, and his brother Bill. So instead of fighting them for it, we all became partners.
Ed Whitman, former Sail Inn co-owner: Yeah, because I had the clout. [Laughs]
Lombardi: It'd changed hands many times before we bought it. For years, it was the Hut. Then it was Victor's Oasis and, like, six other things. People kept trying and failing with the place. It was risky, but a friend told me it'd be a good bar because the land would be worth some money someday.
Whitman: We thought, "Just don't fail."
Lombardi: We knew eventually Tempe Town Lake would come through, which was why it became The Sail Inn. When we bought it, there was nothing around us but dirt. Our street used to go straight to the river bottom. I'd ride my horse from Papago Stables right to the bar.
Gavin Rutledge, former Casey Moore's co-owner: Sail Inn used to be in the middle of nowhere. None of those apartments and condos were around.
Lombardi: We put a lot into the place. I said, "Let's have a volleyball court and horseshoe pits out back." Ed was like a father. I'd get him excited about an idea; he'd make it happen, like with the music.
Whitman: Gina really wanted music.
Lombardi: I was always into booking bands at 6 East, and we started music from the beginning here. At our grand opening, there was Chico Chism and Colleen Callahan. We put a sailboat outside and lit it up with white lights. The bands that started with me were mostly all blues, like Big Pete [Pearson] and Hoodoo Kings.
Mario Moreno, guitarist, Hoodoo Kings: We were like regulars there and played like once a month. The blues were really hot and heavy around town at the time, and it was the thing to do.
Bob Corritore, blues musician/Rhythm Room owner: I was privileged enough to play with Chico Chism and probably a few others in the first wave after it opened. It was a good, fun room.