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October 17-23, 2002
Where They Were Then
From Studio to salon to saloon, old-heads recall the scene they can?t exactly remember.
Clubs, bars, studios. When I started socializing back in 19-cough, spots tended to appear and disappear like a leopard in a strobe light. And memory is a hazy thing at best. Despite an encyclopedic recollection for most things, the wheres and whyfores of my nightcrawling have slipped away.
I asked friends and fellow night-freaks if they could jar my memory: Where were our fave spots? And what happened there? Some did so with photographic clarity. Some, like the times, were blurrier — the better for the wine or chemical combination. Here, then, is a fuzzy, incomplete tour of Philly hot spots between 1960 and 198-whatever: a messy map of places gone or transformed. It’s an arbitrary thing, of course, and my memory’s just shot. Don’t write to say I missed a spot, or that I got something wrong. I was there. I didn’t see you. And if I did, I’m just… not so sure… I remember your name.
Producers/songwriters Mike Forte and Tony Mecca remember everything about their Ozone Studio/The Opera House rehearsal studio. As Alpha Studio (1977-88), on West Moyamensing, it once held Philly World Records, Forte’s pop-soul label/production deal through Atlantic, with Nick Martinelli and Donald Robinson. The label was home to ’70s and ’80s luminaries Bryan Loren, Eugene Wilde, Vanessa Williams (with whom Forte wrote her first hit, “Dreamin'”), Imagination and Harold Melvin.
“When Harold was here, he made me ultra-aware of what this business was about: white, black, rock, soul,” says Forte, in awe of the godfather of Philly soul. The studio itself played host to Foreigner, Olivia Newton-John and The Rolling Stones, who apparently spent 10 days mixing vocals for Love You Live, imbibing and carousing devilishly.
For Mecca, it was the Opera House, Grover Washington Jr.’s original home studio, that made him proudest, playing host to Tidewater Grain and Cinderella. Today, the digital studio and rehearsal space has the coolest “’70s room,” an analog studio complete with old Teac tape machines and R&W; drum kits.
Producer George Manney (who worked with Clutch Cargo) helped recall Philly’s transition from coffeehouses to rock clubs, and the recording studios in between. Another band he worked with, Stone Dawn, was the first act to go electric, in 1966, at The Second of Autumn, at 20th and Sansom, run by ex-Hell’s Angel Rob Autumn. “The beatnik crowd only liked two songs we did, ?Rainy Day Women’ and ŒAs Tears Go By,’ says Manney, who went on to see Moby Grape, Velvet Underground and Joni Mitchell there.
Together, Manney and I rattled off a number of local studio names. On South Broad, there was Cameo/Parkway; the famed ’60s studio and label (Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker) where Gamble and Huff got their start. The Philly International duo still has their office and studio complex there. In ’68, Cameo tried to get into the hippie market with Groovey Grooves, a label at 2200 Ben Franklin Parkway (and Stone Dawn cut a single there). Besides jogging my memory about Regent Sound on South Broad, Manney remembered gun-toting producer Frank Virtue’s self-named studio (on North Broad), Third and Cherry’s Cherry Sound (a mid-’80s studio space that Studio Red later took over under Adam Lasus) and good old Kajem (Mitch Goldfarb and Kurt Shure’s Gladwyne spot where Alan Mann, Beru Revue, The Hooters and Robert Hazard recorded).
The promotional maestro and reverend of all rock reference, Tom Sheehy, and I recalled the coffeehouse scene and the early live electric scene. When he wasn’t busy dressed in velvet behind the counter at Jerry’s record shop (11th and Market), Sheehy spent too much time at 2nd Fret, at 1902 Sansom, and The Gilded Cage mere blocks away, witnessing too the fringe of Moby Grape at close range. You could go to The Artists Hut, a basement bote at 20th and Walnut, between gigs to see Woody’s Truck Stop featuring Todd Rundgren.
Manny Rubin — the man behind 2nd Fret — opened Philly’s first “electric room,” The Trauma at 21st and Arch in 1967. (“Lothar and the Hand People were the house band,” recalls Sheehy). Trauma soon had competition in the Herb and Jerry Spivak-owned/Larry Magid-booked Electric Factory, 2201 Arch, from ’68 to ’70. Between The Trauma and EF, you would have witnessed Tim Buckley, Velvet Underground, Hendrix, Cream, The Stooges, Pink Floyd, The Who, Three Dog Night and Moby Grape (apparently inescapable back then).
On the pre-disco tip, there was the pretty, prissy gay bar Goliath at 17th and Locust. “That was the first club I ever went to in my life,” says pharmacist/bon vivant Peter DelloBuono. It’s agreed that back then, the hippest places were usually gay hangs. “It was the most open environment. No one cared who was straight and gay,” reminisces DelloBuono. “And for some reason, a lot of girls from St. Maria Goretti used to hang out there. Go figure.”
Soon after the psychedelic clubs closed came the baby boom era of South Street. Among the hot spots were Phil Roger Roy’s live rock and cabaret venue Grendel’s Lair at Fifth and South, and the original Black Banana (before it moved to Third and Race to become this city’s premier Euro afterhours sensation).
And, of course, there was JC Dobbs, which upon opening under Kathy James (with Sheehy promoting) in 1975, became an early Philly venue for Nirvana, George Thorogood, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Manney’s Last Minute Jam and most of my Aqua Net and Jack Daniels-based hangovers.
Another baby-boomer locale was the Bijou Caf at Broad and Lombard, where I remember seeing not only Bette Midler with Barry Manilow playing piano but, on a snowy night in March 1981, U2. There, the sightlines were sweet and the sound was superb.
In the early ’70s, David Carroll promoted his dark eclectic nightlife space at 17th and Lombard, Peanuts (so named because of its peanut barrel in the middle of the room). By ’72 it became Carroll’s Lombard, “the Studio 54 of Philly,” says Sheehy. “I still remember Frenchie, the doorman, giving you a hard time if you weren’t dressed exactly right. God, Carroll had the best clubs.”
Then there’s his more famous Artemis at 2015 Sansom. The area became the shopping/hanging spot for hipsters, with a plethora of clubs and chic import-only rock ‘n’ roll clothing stores. Bobby Startup had one, California Earthquake, where Sheehy and DelloBuono shopped for their accoutrements in ’67 or so. At the tail-end of the Sansom St. Village — home to everything from the mega-disco Hippopotamus (which eventually became The Silver Cloud), The Snaggletooth Disco (which, by the ’80s hung a sign outside that read “Dykes ignite”) and Heaven (Henri David’s literal underground nightclub) — Artemis ruled.
That is until Carroll opened The Hot Club at 21st and South in ’77, Philly’s first official punk venue that blasted the likes of Elvis Costello and The Autistics into Philly consciousness. Official because Artemis was pretty damn punk when it wasn’t so dashingly glam. So too was the Longmarch Caf on Broad way punk — X played there — when it wasn’t hosting avant-garde jazz. Damn it, what could be more punk (in a poet/painter way) than the cool dead-Beat den, Bacchanal at 13th and South, which used to be down the street from Helen Solomon’s Army/Navy and Henri David’s original Halloween at 1310 South.
Carroll reminisces about Peanuts’ proximity to the Black Panthers’ headquarters as well as the Max’s Kansas City-esque allure of Artemis (where members of Cheap Trick and The Nazz bartended, where Billy Joel and David Bowie hung before stardom beckoned). Sheehy recollects famous Cheap/Artemis alum that included Hank Ransome and Stewkey. “Not only was Rick Nielsen a bartender and Tom Petersen a waiter — Tom was the first guy I knew who wore nail polish,” says Sheehy, about the guys who would be Sick Man of Europe before they were Cheap Trick.
After Earthquake (it closed when owner Bob Scholl was stabbed to death), Startup began working for Carroll at Artemis. “I matre d’ed the back half of the club,” says Startup proudly. “I knew everyone. It was like having a hip doorman making sure the right people got seated.”
Michele Polizzi dripping colored liquids onto an overhead projector for psych-effect is a heightened memory of the day-glo new wave-y dive Love Club (Broad and South), for reseacher Gina Schiavo and I. She remembers, too, that Footiedats, an equally funky bar, held court next door. “You didn’t want to go, by accident, into Footiedats,” says Schiavo, remembering that the location was rumored to be a black pimp hangout.
Schiavo, DelloBuono and I all get fuzzier when it comes to Old City night clubs. Outside of Purgatory on South Second Street — the scummy end-of-the-earth after-after-afterhours bar where 32ø now resides — the trek seems a psychic long haul. “Those were the days of Quaaludes and halcyon,” jokes DelloBuono, who was fond of the bring-your-own bottle joint High Society at Second and Market. “Everything was upstairs,” laughs DelloBuono. “All of our buddies fell down steps.”
There was the upstairs couch-laden afterhours La Boheme on Second and Market, Bank Street’s decorous nearly-gay space Harlow’s (run by Rachel Harlow, who would later opened Rachel’s at 22nd and Market — a spooky, tacky disco which eventually became Vampires). The original Harlow’s, though, was like Garbo’s Grand Hotel shoved into a sprawling upstairs disco, gilded mirrors and rotating ball included.
Bank Street also eventually hosted The Casbah (which my wife, when she was Patrice Caldwell, booked. And this Casbah is not to be confused with The Casbah in Wildwood where The Gang used to play). When the Hot Club had its famous fire in ’78, David Carroll opened Act One (the retitled Filly’s) on Third and Chestnut, alive with everything from cowpunk to The Stranglers and Squeeze. The small lesbian bar Sneakers existed on North Third, across from Third Street Jazz records.
The Browne family, who currently occupy TPDS Club, had the still-glorious building that housed the outrageously huge London Victory right off the corner of 10th and Chestnut, atop Record Museum and Platters in the ’70s. Anyone who remembers Victory remembers Allegra Browne, then a baby, on the indoor trapeze as well as the always-dark room with the grand piano in one solitary corner.
Two blocks up, by the ’80s, the East Side Club ruled the new wave roost at 12th and Chestnut by debuting bands like Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. (It later became a gay bar, Kurt’s.) Jim Meneses remembered his Stick Men consistently being annoyed at conditions at East Side which Bobby Startup also had a hand in. “My first gig for Stick Men was opening for The Slits. I was pissed off about the Slits taking two hours for sound check when we didn’t get one. The audience was hostile but by the end of our set they were on their knees.”
Gay and lesbian bars/hangs like DCA, Zachariah’s, Digits, Oz, Steps, Duck Soup and Stars were all party central throughout the Gayborhood. Straight or gay, this area was a lovely unified mess for people who just wanted to dance and be out all night. The two coolest of these gay-ish spaces frequented the shackle-and-spurs dance club Rainbows on Walnut, between 12th and 13th. This swank upstairs disco (unlike its neighbor, the mainstream disco Second Story) was creepy and cool, a stylishly raw space more in tune with Second Story’s 24-7 basement juice bar, Catacombs — still my favorite dance club in this city.
Rainbows eventually became the Kennel Club (and nearly out-debauched South Third’s Revival, the legendary after-kinky-hours place where all seven deadly sins were liberally displayed), then the Strand, then Pearl’s before it went up in literal flames. Also around the same time as Rainbows (and also ignited toward its end) was Omni’s at 10th and Walnut, a sweaty low-lit new wave disco where Bobby Startup spun with one turntable (he was fast) and locals like Bunnydrums, Stick Men, Transfactor, Crash Course for Science and No Milk (Chris Unrath’s first band) ruled the roost until the fire sale.
By then, the early ’80s, Stephen Starr opened his Starz at Second and Bainbridge, a truly lovely rock/dinner club where one could have a nice steak while watching a cabaret act as performed by Pat Benatar. Also at Starz: Stiff Little Fingers and The Tourists, Annie Lennox’s first band with Dave Stewart. You could have hung at the kitsch gay bar, Backstage (Fourth off South), and listened to your share of Helen Morgan love songs in between sets at Starz.
At David Carroll-booked Ripley’s down on South (where Tower Records is now), you could hear Teardrop Explodes. The Ripley Music Hall eventually became a gypsy disco, but it was a pretty great place to hear new wave acts for a while. Plus, in between sets there, you could have gone another block down to Mars on Seventh and South and had a snifter or two.
“Thank God we did all this stuff,” laughs Schiavo now, thinking out loud about every button, matchbook and drink ticket she saved from these places. “If not, someone would have been telling us about their adventures.”
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