Justin Fox Burks
The man, the myth, the legendary Robert Raiford
I remember the first time Robert Raiford tried to retire.
"I don't know what your religion is like, and your religion may not be like mine," he told me, looking back over the 10,000 nights he'd spent in his own little garden of earthly delights on Vance Ave., where the words "No Discrimination" were painted on the wall for all to see. "But when I was in the club and it was full and everybody was having a good time, I couldn't help but feel that that was the way the world was supposed to be all the way back at the beginning of time." I was pretty sure then, and remain convinced that everybody who ever drained a quart of beer and danced the Electric Slide at Raiford's Hollywood Disco on one of those special nights when the club was packed, felt the exact same way.
Raiford moved to Memphis in 1962 and took a job pumping gas at Mabe's Esso on Poplar Ave.
In the '70s, he co-owned a body shop with his brothers, and his automotive skills took him from Memphis to Chicago and from Chicago to Wisconsin. But the cold weather didn't agree with his Southern temperament. In 1978, he returned to Memphis and rented the dilapidated building at 115 Vance and began transforming it into the most personalized disco in the world. His fingerprints were, literally, everywhere. And even with the colored lights, the thick cherry-scented smoke, and sex-o-matic dance competitions, Raiford's felt less like a club than the cozy private living room of Memphis' Avenging Disco Godfather. In the DJ's booth — and sometimes on the drum kit — Raiford reigned supreme in colorful suits, hats, and James Brown-style capes, spinning classic wax for the generations.
I first visited Raiford's place in the early 90's. It was around 3 a.m., and I'd just gotten off work and made my nightly stumble from Automatic Slim's, where I cooked and waited tables, toward Wolf's Corner on S. Main for a quick beer before bed. Wolf's was closed. Likewise, Earnestine and Hazel's. If I was going to cap the night, Raiford's Hollywood, the lit-up little nightspot just up the street was my only option. I almost didn't go, because I'd heard it was a hooker bar, and not safe. I'm not sure I've ever felt safer anywhere else in the world. That night, which ended with me making a new friend, and a ride home in the back of one of Raiford's customized Caddies, was the first of many evenings I'd spend at the Hollywood, back when very few people lived in the S. Main district, and everybody knew everybody else. It became a kind of clubhouse. A late night refuge for all kinds of folks — blacks, whites, greens, purples and plaids, Drag Queens, and disco kings; anybody who could get along while they were getting down.
"I call myself the Miracle Child," Raiford told me once, swearing he hardly ever had bad day. And when he was spinning records, it was impossible for anybody in the house to have a bad night.
RIP Robert Raiford
. You made Memphis funky the way it's supposed to be. And weird the way it's supposed to be. And welcoming the way it's supposed to be. Flights of angels, and all that jazz...
For a fuller profile check out this great piece by Shara Clark.