Listed toward the end of this post is a link to an interesting – but lengthy – article from the Memphis Flyer, the local self-proclaimed alternative newspaper. The article is about Memphis clubs in the ‘60s. I noted what I believed to be a couple of discrepancies and tried them out on Mike who agreed with my disagreement.
It’s still an interesting article, but Mike thinks that the reporter just wasn’t around back then and doesn’t know any better. Yes, beer had to be off the tables around 1 a.m., but it was pre-liquor-by-the-drink, and set-ups were sold as long as the club was open. Club patrons simply poured their drinks from bottles in brown paper sacks. In nicer venues, you gave your bottle to the bartender who marked it as yours, then could take drink orders for the full gamut of mixed drinks.
The Flyer article asserts that the only after-hours clubs were the black ones and, in particular, mentions the Manhattan Club as one of the great black clubs where white folks could sometimes sneak in to hear Willie Mitchell.
Yep, Willie Mitchell played there, but look at the photo above. That’s Mike and friend Jerry Patterson on drums playing at the Manhattan Club in the late 60s. It was primarily a white club, and Mike played there a lot. The crazy vest, by the way, came from New Orleans where we honeymooned.
In concordance with the article, Mike said that Memphis clubs almost entirely segregated themselves. There were no laws setting out those differences. That just seemed to be the way they sifted out -- except for one. The Riviera Club over on Chelsea was the exception to the rule. Blacks and whites both went to the club, but sat themselves on opposite sides of the room. The unwritten rule was that white guys could walk across the dance floor and ask black girls to dance, but black guys were never to ask white girls to dance. It was long ago and in the South.
Mike and Jerry Patterson played at the Riviera in an integrated band. It was an interesting gig for that time in their lives. They were paid $15 a night plus all the liquor they could drink. They went on stage nightly at 11 p.m., but, surely wanting to maximize their “take,” he and Jerry would arrive at 9 p.m. to start drinking. Legend goes that they had to be helped onto the stage at showtime where they would sober up as they played and be in good shape to drive home.
This was the place where the back room was stacked high with stolen goods. You could find anything from tires to racks of steaks. Club patrons could go back there “shopping” and, if they didn’t find what they were looking for, someone would go out and steal it for them. A different version, I guess, of mail order shopping.
Mike recalls that the owner always wore a suit with a sawed-off shotgun underneath the jacket. As a matter of fact, practically everyone in the joint carried a gun. When the cops came by, as they now-and-then would, they’d send in 20 cops at a time wearing full riot gear. One of the jobs of the ticket man at the door was to watch out for police. When he saw cops coming, he’d alert everyone, and the club-goers would make for the large trashcan at the end of the bar where they’d temporarily dump their weapons. The barkeep would throw some trash on top and go back to wiping the bar. Police would flood the place and start checking everyone’s ID. Eventually, they’d find at least one person with an outstanding warrant. They’d haul them off; everyone would collect their weapons; and the partying would resume.
The Flyer article mentions the Tiller Brothers, an infamous group of brawlers. Along with the Manhattan Club, the Tillers also hung out at the Riviera. Mike remembers many a night when they were in there shooting out the lights for fun and another night when one of the Tillers accidentally shot himself while in the men’s room. Probably good that we don’t know more about that last incident.
This side of Memphis nightlife sounds more like the Wild West than the slick, tourist brochure on local nightclubs.
For a more tame version, check out the Memphis Flyer reminiscence of 60s clubs.