It's a typical Thursday night at Bronte, the quaint Euro cafe inside Davis-Kidd Booksellers. A chatty, civilized crowd has assembled to nibble on fruit salads, drink flavored latte, sip wine from sunny California, and discuss All Things Considered.
An older lady, attractive, if unobtrusively so, stands up at her corner table near the back. She tosses her sensible gray hair and starts to shimmy like tomorrow wasn't on. She moves her stuff to some far-out jungle rhythm foreign to the sedative Segovia Études playing in the background. Her outfit, a black western-cut dress, is stitched with a sparkling piano that catches the light and spins it like a disco ball around the dim café. She bumps a little and grinds some more. She swims, hitchhikes north and south, and does the Zombie. Sixty-nine-year-old Bunny Lee (Wilhelm), Memphis' first go-go dancer, high-kicks, claps her hands like a gospel minister, and says, "I teach yoga, BABY! I'm limber!"
|Bunny Lee s rocket-powered money-maker was once the hottest ticket
It's an unnerving thing to behold, like watching an episode of "Grannies Gone Wild." Around the room, there is the dull thunking sound of wine glasses tumbling and jaws hitting the floor. But Bunny keeps on dancing, all the while delivering a lascivious, hip-twisting lecture on "how it was done" back in those good old days, back when Lee's rocket-powered moneymaker was the hottest ticket in town. The crazy thing: Bunny doesn't even know people are looking at her. Apparently, she never knew, not even back in 1968 when she was pulling down better than $30 a night for busting groovy moves and whipping the hipsters into a way-out party state of mind. Nobody else at Bunny's table has the faintest clue that every eyebrow in the room is arched; every pupil focused in their direction. They're too busy watching Bunny with envy and adoration. The years have been pretty good to this onetime sweetheart of the Memphis go-gos, and to hear her tell it -- like Memphis' answer to Mae West -- she's been pretty damn good to the years.
Ernie Barrasso, a co-owner of the storied Thunderbird Lounge and the gimmick-crazy visionary behind Club Caesar, Memphis' first discothäque, interrupts Bunny's dance lesson to solicit the opinion of John Knott, The Commercial Appeal's nightclub columnist from 1961 to 1971.
"C'mon, John," Barrasso prods. "You've got to tell us what it was like back in the good old days, man. Tell us about nightlife in the 1960s. Your column was famous, and if anybody can put it in a nutshell it would be you. Tell us like you were trying to explain it to someone who had never been to Memphis before. Like you were trying to explain it to someone from another planet."
Knott, a crusty octogenarian whose bluntness is tempered only by baroque flights of antiquated phraseology, meditates for a moment. Furrows form like snowdrifts in his tight, white buzz-cut. "Aw hell," he says, throwing eloquence aside. "We had us a ball. We had an absolute ball."
During his stint as the CA's club writer, Knott covered Memphis' nightlife like a sports columnist covers his favorite team. He went to 30 clubs a week, downing untold numbers of cocktails in the process. No change in the scene, large or small, escaped his notice or his column.
"It was really a great racket," he says. "I was an executive. I made my own schedule. I was Sunday editor, and I wrote my column." Like many dream jobs, of course, it also came with a few caveats.
"One time, this police officer, he stops me," Knott says, "and I was pie-eyed, intoxicated, whatever you want to call it. Anyway, the officer says, 'Mr. Knott, I know who you are and what you do. I know you live close by. Now do you think you can make it home by yourself without getting either you or me in big trouble?'"
As one might expect, getting a little pie-eyed came with the nightclub beat. So did getting fired from time to time. Knott, who would sometimes sneak a nap, nip, or quick shave in his boss' office, says he'd just wait things out at home for a few days and go back into work like nothing had happened. He had a hot column. He knew the CA would start paying him again. "They [the editors] used to keep a bottle of Old Sunnybrook by the water fountain back then," Knott says.
"One of the best things about the job," Knott says, "was every Christmas there would be a knock at my gate and I would go outside and there would be a case of liquor: the best brandy, the best scotch. Did I say, 'Oh no, I can't accept this'? Hell, no, I didn't! My wife would have thrown me out of the house." And there were very few clubs or restaurants in Memphis where Knott's money would spend.
"One time, John invited me to the top of the Top of the 100 Club at 100 North Main," says Barrasso. "And we had a wonderful meal. The check comes and John says, 'What's this? Don't you know me? I'm John Knott.' And the waiter says, 'So what. I'm Joe Blow." Knott told the waiter to call the owner, who confirmed that Knott had to pay just like anybody else. The subsequent review was scathing. "I said the peas were canned," Knott brags. The next week the Top of the 100 was packed. All it took was a mention from Knott -- even a negative one.
"If the Psycho Lounge changed the color of its lights from red to blue, John would write about it," Barrasso says. "And if John Knott mentioned you or your nightclub in his column, you would be full for at least three weeks." No club owner was mentioned more often in the "Nightlife" column than Barrasso. If Knott wasn't praising Barrasso's entrepreneurial efforts, he was praising his habiliments, calling him a "dashing young boulevardier," at one turn, and a "tireless boniface," at the next.
"There never was anybody with as much imagination or creativity as Ernie," Knott says. "He came up with Barrasso's law, and he was right: 'Where the girls are, the guys won't be far behind.'" Sex was a winning recipe both for the Thunderbird Lounge and Club Caesar in the dark days before liquor by the drink. Barrasso would work his law from every conceivable angle, even trying it in reverse on occasion.
Knott's praise of Barrasso was praise indeed. Knott experienced it all -- the dueling pianos at the Sharecropper, the fine company at the Crown Lounge, and Charlie Feron's Vapors on Brooks Road, where Jerry Lee Lewis would occasionally play. Knott loved catching Wayne Jackson at the Junket Club, and while he thought the $3 cover charge at Billy Hill's Starlight Supper Club on Highway 51 was a bit much, you got a free chicken, so who could complain?
Knott also saw the darker side of night clubs. He had a window seat at the Driftwood on the night when George "Dago" Tiller, one of Memphis' most notorious roughnecks, threw a barstool through the glass. He saw men getting the hell beat out of them at West Memphis dives. He watched as a famous local performer ("I don't know if it was Ace Cannon; it's been too long ago") hid in a tree while the cops searched below.
He heard the best music Memphis had to offer, as big bands gave way to Elvis Presley. He watched as the culture changed, not slowly but suddenly.
"There was a time when they didn't allow dancing on Sunday in Memphis," Knott says. "John Coll, who ran the Psycho Lounge (full name: The Psycho Lounge For People Who Need Help) helped fix that. He'd have dancing on Sunday at the Psycho, and the cops would get him and get him and get him until finally they said, 'The hell with all this. Let it go.' John Coll did it. He liked to fight for his rights, and that's how we finally got dancing on Sunday."
Knott watched as Willie Mitchell tried to steer clear of racist police because, handsome as he was, plenty of white women came to fancy him. He watched as some clubs tried to push the nudity barrier. "Hell, there was one club out on 51 or 61 -- I can't remember which -- and they had a tub out front," he says. "And there was a girl in the tub and she would peek out every now and then. It gave me the heebie-jeebies." Still, for sheer audacity, Barrasso stood out from the pack.
|Ernie Barrasso played all the angles to get big crowds into his clubs.|
Barrasso never intended to revolutionize the Memphis nightclub scene. He began his career as a salesman, selling Fords for Hull-Dobbs. Then, one October day in 1961, Elvis Presley walked in and everything began to change. Presley wanted to buy a brand-new Thunderbird, loaded, and Barrasso was just the man to sell it to him. Just before Elvis drove off, a fan asked to snap a photo. That picture of Elvis, the new Thunderbird, and Barrasso ran in newspapers and magazines all around the world. The photo was such good advertising that Ford didn't complain when the King of Rock-and-Roll later asked for his money back.
"[Elvis] told them he'd paint lemons on the car and drive it all over the place," Barrasso says. But the young salesman's face had become associated with an icon. His 15 minutes of fame were ticking away, so Barrasso decided it was time to parlay the exposure into a more glamorous career. He decided to open a nightclub.
"I wanted to meet a lot of girls," Barrasso says, and owning a nightclub in the Swinging Sixties seemed like just the ticket. He partnered with his friend Freddy Alphonso, who had been a liquor distributor.
"Freddy was selling wine. I was selling Fords. We'd both sold a lot of Thunderbird, if you know what I mean. So the Thunderbird Lounge just seemed to be the right name for the place," Barrasso says.
The Thunderbird opened in 1965 and was located at 750 Adams Avenue in the basement of the Shelborne Towers apartments. It was a New York-style walk-down with a blue room, a red room, a dance floor, and a bar. When Barrasso first saw the space, it had no plumbing or electricity. By the time renovations were complete, the partners had only $40 between them and owed $36 for beer. Fortunately, the club, a live music venue featuring artists such as Ronnie Milsap, Sam & Dave, Charlie Rich, Boots Randolph, and Flash and the Board of Directors, was a big hit, catering to a suits-only crowd of proto-yuppies. Even Elvis rented the club out for his New Year's Eve parties, which were slow fizzles by all accounts.
"We had a real good crowd of regulars," Barrasso says. "It was a lot of professional-type people. There may have been a little bootlegging going on, but there was never any trouble." In the days before liquor by the drink, customers would bring their own bottles to the club, where they would buy set-ups. Liquor stores closed at 11 p.m., and there was money to be made selling $2 rotgut after hours at five times that price. "It wasn't about what you were drinking," Barrasso says. "It was about what you could get. I never sold anything myself, but I might have told some folks that if they went out in the alley they might find a man who could sell them a bottle for 10 bucks."
Shortly after the Thunderbird opened, Barrasso was taking regular vacations in Acapulco, and Knott was writing that "Some successful [club] operators are making movie star salaries." But it wasn't until Club Caesar opened in November 1967 that Barrasso would really hit his stride. Club Caesar was Memphis' first authentic discothäque. It featured Roman dÇcor blended with psychedelic Aquarian iconography.
"I always traveled a lot, and I brought back a lot of ideas from Las Vegas," Barrasso says. "I figured if something would fly in Vegas, it would fly in Memphis. I got the idea for Club Caesar after attending the opening of Caesar's Palace." It was a modest club on Cleveland just south of Poplar and across the street from the El Capitan club, which catered to a somewhat older crowd. Club Caesar held only about 100 people, but armed with soul-centric deejays, two turntables, a microphone, a toga-clad staff of cuties, and more gimmicks than you can shake a stick at, Barrasso almost single-handedly moved Memphis nightlife into the modern era.
"Some people called it a meat market," Barrasso says. "And maybe it was a meat market. I don't know. But boys have got to meet girls, right?"
The tables at Club Caesar were all numbered so that customers could request a song for special someone at another table, even if they didn't know that special someone's name. At one point, Barrasso planned on installing telephones at tables so patrons could request songs or dates without leaving their seats. That plan fell through, but Barrasso had plenty more gimmicks. On Ladies' Night, the cool chicks drank penny beers. There were dance contests, some billed as "the battle of the sexes," which pitted men against women (unheard of!). There were awards given for the best-dressed patrons. There were "Hot Pants" contests.
If a new trend popped up, Barrasso jumped on it and wrestled it into a money-making scheme. Prizes ranged from the sublime to the absurd. One contest earned the lucky winner a discount on a quality hairpiece. Sometimes winners would take home a wig, while runners-up were stuck with wiglets. The annual Halloween costume contest earned the victor free beer for the rest of the year.
The success of Ladies' Night led Barrasso to experiment with Men's Night, where the fellas sucked down cheap brew and the ladies got to take advantage of the ensuing "beer goggles." And there were always lots of pretty go-go dancers shaking their togas for the crowd. Sometimes Barrasso would hitch a trailer that had been converted into a stage on wheels to the back of his modified hearse and drive his go-go dancers around town. He would stop from time to time and let the shake-dancing commence.
"The whole reason for having the go-go girls was to excite the crowd," Barrasso says. "It wasn't dirty in any way. It was supposed to get everybody up and dancing. A guy can't meet a girl unless they dance, and the go-go girls could really get 'em going. All you needed to be a dancer were two things: a pretty face and great legs. And you had to be able to dance a little. And you had to be young."
But even Barrasso, who would go on to distinguish himself in the casino industry (at one point booking travel junkets for Donald Trump), was never able to hire Bunny Lee. Her services were just too expensive.
"I was a celebrity," Lee crows. "There were a lot of advantages to being the first." Lee caught her break quite accidentally. The vice squad worked the clubs constantly, making sure no bootleg liquor was served and that the bands and crowds didn't get too integrated. Lee was out partying with some friends and her dirty dancing got the full attention of the Memphis police.
"The Nite Liter's looking to hire a full-time dancer," a vice officer told Lee. Startled by the statement, Lee asked, "Who in the world would ever want to watch me dance?"
"Who wouldn't," the vice officer answered.
So Lee went down to the Nite Liter, climbed into a gilded cage, and aced her audition. "They said I had the job, and I was shocked," Lee squeals. "All I had to do was to dance one song an hour. No waiting tables, no nothing, baby. Just one song an hour." At first, she wasn't allowed to wear her trademark short costumes. But the sexual revolution was exploding and all of that was about to change.
A touring variety show featuring a band, a "Phyllis Diller" act, and a "Jackie Gleason" act caught the young dancer's show at the Nite Liter and invited her to go on tour. During her year on the road, Lee Wilhelm became Bunny Lee, and her outfits became much more revealing. When she returned to Memphis, all the rules had changed. Go-go dancers were allowed to wear tiny, burlesque-inspired costumes and to express themselves more freely. Bunny Lee was, at long last, in her element. "It was never more than a little tease, baby," Lee says playfully. "It was a blast."
|Bunny Lee in her burlesque attire ... more or less|
From The Memphis Press Scimitar, Thursday, September 23, 1965: "The man came in here from the Holiday Inn convention," said Sue Morris at the Nite Liter Club. "He said he had seen go-go girls in New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York, all over the country, but never had he seen anyone to compare with our go-go girl. The man was, of course, talking about Miss Lee Wilhelm, whose go-go performances in front of the Marty Willis Combo set eyeballs to rocking. She's a ball of energy and she dances nightly from 9:30 p.m. till closing which is in the wee small hours."
"And it was just one dance an hour," Lee repeats, still unable to imagine how sweet a deal it was. "After that, I could go out dancing at the other clubs."
And where would the Memphis club kids of the 1960's go after the bars were closed? To the black clubs, naturally -- the clubs that weren't getting nearly as much play in The Commercial Appeal or the Press-Scimitar.
"There wasn't a law that said blacks couldn't go to white clubs and whites couldn't go to black clubs, but that just didn't happen," Barrasso explains. "We had to stop serving beer at the Thunderbird and Caesar at quarter to 1. We had to have beer off the tables by 1:15, and everybody had to be out of the club by 1:30. But a lot of the black clubs would be open till 5 or 6 in the morning. We'd call first and ask if it was okay to come by, and they would always say yes. We'd go to places like M'lundas and see Isaac Hayes, but my favorite was the Manhattan Club. It was a hole, a real dump, but it was open all night. Willie Mitchell played there, and nobody has ever had a better band than Willie Mitchell. Rufus Thomas would play there, and Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love. You would go to the Manhattan Club and stay up drinking and dancing until 5 in the morning, then walk across the street to Chenault's for breakfast."
"I'll tell you what night life was like in Memphis in the '60s," says Kathy Knott, John Knott's wife. "We all went out every single night. We slept three or four hours a night. We all had day jobs. Speed was legal. We'd get up, brush our teeth, and go into work with the same makeup on."
"We had a ball," John Knott echoes. "We had an absolute ball."
The wit and wisdom of John Knott, CA nightclub writer, 1961-1971
On steaks: "Dobbs House has the finest strip steaks in town, and I would challenge any other town. Jim Vasser, Dobbs House executive who's recovering from a heart attack, has always said it's what you feed 'em that makes the steaks the best. He insists that grass-fed steaks, such as around here, can't compete with the corn-fed beef of the Midwest."
On the band X-Calibur: "Heading up that group is that stellar singer, Casper Peters, who, if he keeps on, may have the nickname Fat Casper. He has lost the slim, girlish look."
On rock-and-roll: "The band now playing at Fred Albert's Airport Lounge is called the Five Point Six, and I have been told by my family expert they are quite good on rock and roll, and they play quietly."