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CHAPTER FOUR: The Nighttime is the Right Time: African-American Nightlife in Indianapolis


            In the world of live music, little compares to the connection between the performer and the audience.  Since the first minstrel played his lyre in the gallery, musicians have been in a position of power, able to pass along their views on spirituality, society, culture, politics, and relationships.  While attending an energized performance, the audience becomes aware of messages in the music and the importance of the performer’s words.  Soul artists like Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and others all commanded the attention of their audience.  Black performers assumed the role of the preacher and used the stage as their “bully pulpit of empowerment” to not only uplift the spirits of the audience, but alert them to injustice and problems in Black America.[1]  Although stage banter is oftentimes banal, passionate musicians are able to convey a sense of meaning and urgency to the audience in comments between songs as well as through their lyrics.  In the world of soul, black audience members left concerts with a great sense of identity, pride, and unity.    About the music of the Staple Singers, Mavis Staples once noted, “I truly think it helps unity and that’s one of the things we are striving for….A lot of young people have told us that they go away from our shows with the single aim of trying to do better by people.”[2]  Not only the lyrics and music of the performers, but their stage banter, body language, and style all contributed to a positive and uplifting concert-going experience.  The role of the performer became that of a soothsayer who helped assuage the concerns of the audience.  As the sixties ended, musicians assumed a position alongside political leaders as spokespeople for the black community. 

            Although few saw Indianapolis musicians as civic leaders or political pundits, their role in bringing together the African-American community was rivaled only by the city’s powerful religious leaders such as Reverend Luther Hicks, Reverend Mozell Sanders, and Dr. Andrew Brown.  On Sunday morning, places of worship were the gathering places for the black community.  On Friday and Saturday nights, however, Indianapolis nightclubs were the place to be.  In the late sixties and early seventies, black residents came in droves to nightclubs in the 30th and 38th Street Corridors as well as Indiana Avenue.[3]    The musicians who played in these clubs relished the task of delivering a solid, uplifting message to the audience.  William Van Deburg wrote, “After establishing a suitably groovy vibe, the skillful performer could – and did – choose to utilize this awesome power for the group good.  Drenched in sweat, spangles, and spotlights, experienced practitioners of the soulful arts bonded with the romping, stomping crowd in a ritual exorcism of excessive self-pity and sub par self-esteem.”[4]  In this way, Indianapolis musicians brought the black community together not only for music but also to increase community involvement and improvement.  Whether it was a social club fundraiser or a “Twist” contest, Indianapolis nightclubs helped African Americans come together in a setting where the music reflected and supported the community’s best interests and political moderation.

Nightclubs were an important meeting place for Indianapolis’ black community because it was there they could relax, have fun, and express their pride in the community and their blackness through dancing and music.  In some cases, nightclubs were venues for fundraisers for local social clubs and charities, and regularly trumpeted how suitable their facilities were for such events.  Social clubs such as the Blackinizers, the Demonstrators, and the Soulfonics all participated in charitable acts on behalf of the black community and held such events at local nightclubs. The Indianapolis live music scene was the cultural glue for the black community, bringing people together physically, emotionally and spiritually.  During the late sixties and early seventies, Indianapolis nightlife and club activities promoted, supported, and further reflected the moderate attitudes and values of the African-American community.  Some members of the black community, through participation in social clubs and fundraising for worthy causes at local nightclubs, also showed that politics and community involvement were not wholly separate from the local music scene, but rather an important part in making the music meaningful.


The Indiana Avenue Scene

During Indiana Avenue’s heyday in the thirties and forties, nationally renowned acts like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Fletcher Henderson frequently stopped in the Circle City for a gig at a club or the Walker Theatre.  Indianapolis was once a hub for national artists, and was once dubbed the “Jazz Capitol of the Midwest.”[5]  However, by 1968, Indianapolis became just another tour stop for some artists, while others did not bother passing through.  Vibist Billy Wooten remarked, “I’d heard all these wonderful stories about this town called Indianapolis.  I was always begging my agent, ‘Send us through Indianapolis!’  I figured I’d do some research, meet some of the old [jazz] guys.  As young guys growing up, we’d hear about these fantastic musicians and all these places to play in Indy.  [But] my agent said, ‘You don’t want to go there, there’s nothing there anymore!’”[6]  What Wooten’s agent referred to was the apparent lack of exciting music happening in Indianapolis during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The legacy of the Avenue was still ingrained in the minds of agents, musicians and club-goers, and anything less was deemed unsatisfactory.  Since the Avenue was dying, it was assumed by most that Indianapolis’ music scene was dying along with it, and the moniker “Naptown” seemed quite appropriate in describing nightlife in the Circle City. 

Despite the strong cultural legacy of the Indiana Avenue entertainment district, it was not exempt from the many tensions that tore at the seams of the black community during the late sixties and early seventies.  The construction of I-65 and IUPUI had pushed a large portion of the neighborhood’s black population to areas north of 30th Street.  As a result, black-owned businesses either left the area or closed up and there was little or no new money coming in.  By the early seventies, the neighborhood had become one of the worst slums in town.  Drug use and violence also changed the face of the Avenue, driving people away from local businesses and keeping patrons out of the nightclubs.  White residents regularly patronized Avenue jazz clubs, but as violence and anti-white sentiments grew, their presence greatly decreased.[7]  Black residents who had historically visited the Blue Eagle, the Place to Play, and the Flame now patronized the 20 Grand, the Demonstrators Club, the Hub-Bub and other near North side clubs.  For the most part, club goers had regional tastes, preferring not to travel across town on a Friday or Saturday night and choosing instead to stay close to home.  The growing popularity of nightclubs north of 30th Street along with the many tensions that affected the Indiana Avenue community further deteriorated the nightclub scene along the Avenue and led to the closing of many nightclubs that once prospered.  

Although the Indiana Avenue nightclub scene declined steadily throughout the late sixties and early seventies, the clubs functioned as cultural glue for as long as possible.  For years, Indiana Avenue was the place for live jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues, yet as the neighborhood degraded and residents moved out nightclubs rarely had large audiences.  Once upon a time, residents and club patrons took great pride in the Avenue and its rich musical legacy yet eventually, the deteriorating status of the neighborhood received more attention than the clubs or the musicians.  In response, club owners became pretty creative in their programming hoping to maintain that connection between themselves and the declining neighborhood community.  The black community and the nightclub scene were integrated; when the Avenue declined, so did the nightclub scene.  The clubs and their acts reflected and supported the community in its moderation but also in its location.  

Despite the inevitability of the decline of Indiana Avenue and its nightclub scene, the staff at the Indianapolis Recorder played an essential role in the attempted preservation of the community and the music scene.  For decades, the Recorder was the best source to find out what was happening at Indiana Avenue nightclubs.  Most clubs had advertisements printed and until 1970, when advertisements for movie houses and syndicated music columns replaced articles on the local scene, the Recorder published a column called “Entertainment World” that listed the events and bands scheduled to take place at local nightclubs.  This column accompanied the many advertisements in the Recorder and both were essential in bringing business to the nightclubs.  Working in concert with the Recorder’s staff, club owners maintained programming that was suited to the large middle class and moderate black readership sought by the paper.  Club owners knew the coverage and respect the Recorder had in the black community and booking acts deemed inappropriate or too militant by the paper’s conservative staff could have an ill effect on their business.  If respected columnists Bob Womack, Sr. or The Saint did not like a certain act or disagreed with their politics, they would have assuredly written so in the Recorder and could have adversely affected nightclub attendance. Prior to 1970 or 1971, if an Indiana Avenue nightclub held a political rally or featured an act like the Lumpen or the Last Poets, the Recorder would not have supported it.  We have seen how little coverage radical politics received in the Recorder, and radical music or club programming would have received similar treatment.

The “Entertainment World” column not only proved essential in letting the public know about the musical acts at each nightclub, but also about the many novelty or supporting acts as well.  For the clubs on Indiana Avenue, music acts were predominantly local.  The Moonlighters regularly played at the Blue Eagle, while Billy Ball and the Upsetters oftentimes alternated between the Place to Play and the Flame, located just south of the Avenue at 252 Blake Street.  Al’s British Lounge regularly featured the jazz stylings owner Al Coleman’s group, the Three Souls.  When at these shows, audiences could expect to see much more than just a band.  Novelty acts, from comedians and dancers to exotic dancers and snake charmers, were an important part of the nightclub scene.  There was a time in the Avenue’s history when people came solely for the music, but now club owners had to offer more to draw a crowd and give them their money’s worth.  In some cases, it appeared that the emphasis was more on the show than on the talent of the musicians.  In his column for the Recorder, Bob Womack Sr., remarked, “Less blow and more showmanship on the part of combos, bands and entertainers seems to move the public in a big way these days.  The low attendances of clubs, lounges, taverns and many folding theatres have been laid to the poorness of current attractions. . . . [Take] advantage of the latest trend by obtaining attractions with the most showmanship.”[8]  What Womack did not take into account was the declining status of the Avenue, how the area had become dilapidated and how the crowds stayed away from the clubs for their own safety.  No amount of showmanship would make up for the loss of a consumer base in the Avenue district. 

Perhaps the largest draw for these clubs were female singers, exotic dancers, strippers, go-go dancers and a snake handler who helped bring in the male audience.  In the late 1960s, women artists such as Johnnie Mae Oliver and Dottie Clark frequented Indiana Avenue clubs.  For the most part, women served as secondary or opening performers to the night’s main musical act.  Most clubs featured a floorshow consisting of a main band, an opening act or vocalist, an emcee, and a scantily clad dancer.  The most prominent of these performers was the nationally known stripper, Lottie the Body.  Lottie, described several times as the “girl with the shapely gams and what-have-you,” performed regularly at the Carousel Lounge on North Meridian Street as an accompaniment to former Ray Charles band member Dottie Clark.[9]  Another mainstay along the Avenue was Miss Tangi Dupree, the “Snake Goddess of the Nile,” who featured a fifteen-foot long snake in her performance.  Dupree was a member of the Powder Puff Revue that played at The Flame during 1968.  Supposedly a “South American” production, the revue featured Dupree the Snake Goddess, jazz vocalist Vivian Angelique, comedian Veronica Lake and sex kitten Brenda McNair.  The Powder Puff Revue was the only all female show advertised in the Recorder during these years.  These ads, along with those for Lottie the Body, are some of the first advertisements to make overt references to women and sex, a practice that became more common in the 1970s.[10]

Although Indiana Avenue nightclubs had historically featured novelty acts that accompanied the main musical acts of the night, the late sixties and early seventies provided a slightly different club environment.  In the 1930s, a floorshow was common in many nightclubs but received minimal billing in the Recorder advertisement.[11]  Recorder advertisements from the sixties and seventies still placed the musicians’ names at the forefront yet they were followed by a detailed rundown of the night’s other entertainments.  For example, an advertisement for the Blue Eagle not only listed the Moonlighters and their vocalist Gene Kelly, but also the names of the dancers, the emcee, the comedian, or whomever else might be involved in the night’s performance.[12]  Although music was still the main draw, club owners wanted to appeal to patrons who might not necessarily like the musical act so much, but really liked the comedian or the dancers. 

Club owners also seized the opportunities provided by the latest dance crazes that swept the country.  In the early 1960s, when club attendance was practically non-existent, Chubby Checker came along with “The Twist” and people flocked to their local clubs to dance.  Jimmy Guilford believed that “The Twist” single-handedly rejuvenated the club scene, boosting turnout at existing clubs and helping open new ones as well.[13]  By the late 60s, dancing took on an even greater importance.  Through creativity and large-scale participation, black dances became highly politicized.  Dancing, along with soul music, became a hallmark of black identity and solidarity and an affirmation of the strength and beauty of black culture.  As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, the Miracles coined the phrase “dance to keep from crying,” indicative of the struggles faced by the black community.[14]  In Indianapolis, with poverty on the rise and their historic home area starting to crumble, it is no wonder why African Americans flocked to the dance clubs.  It was a release, a chance to get out, get down, and feel good for a change.  Dancing contests were common, and prizes were given to whomever could do the “Mashed Potato” or “Twist” the best.  Local musicians such as the Highlighters, Big Daddy Graham, and Billy Ball seized the opportunity, writing and recording songs for specific dances, such as the “Popcorn,” the “Four Corners,” the “Tighten Up,” and the creation of Indianapolis’ own Rhythm Machine, an anti-drug dance called “The Kick.”[15] 

 The declining significance of the Indiana Avenue entertainment district also became apparent in the activities of local civic and social organizations.  The black community no longer saw the Avenue as the lifeblood of the local entertainment scene and thus took their community activities and gatherings elsewhere.  For decades, both young and old African Americans used the Avenue, its clubs, and its restaurants as meeting places for social clubs and civic organizations.  However, by the late sixties, many groups including the Defiants, the Demonstrators, the Soulfonics, and others found newer and nicer meeting places.  Although Indiana Avenue nightclubs had in the past hosted these groups, their facilities no longer were suitable for events and fundraisers.  The Demonstrators built their own club at 2317 Central Avenue, while other groups utilized the Hub-Bub, the 20 Grand, and Neto’s Lounge for meeting places.[16]  Not only did this move take customers and business away from Avenue nightspots, it also reduced the cultural and civic significance of the area as well.  When combined with the many tensions and problems apparent on the Avenue many patrons avoided the area altogether. 

As more respectable patrons avoided the nightclubs along the Avenue, a much different clientele became more common.  The status and attitudes of the patrons changed greatly as well.  During the thirties and forties, most club goers dressed nicely and went to the clubs for the music; by the late sixties, many Avenue club patrons simply stumbled in off the street more intent on finding a stiff drink than a night of good entertainment.[17]  Indiana Avenue clubs became more rowdy.  Whereas before bouncers kept drunk and disorderly patrons out of the club, they now let them in to collect the cover and their bar tab to help fill the coffers.  Add these changes to the population shift that took many blacks north of 30th Street and it explains why Indiana Avenue club attendance dwindled significantly in the late sixties and early seventies.  Most club-goers went to nightclubs that were close to home; those who lived on the near west side frequented establishments along the Avenue, while those who lived north of 30th Street now went to clubs in that neighborhood. 

Despite the loss of and change in the audience attending Indiana Avenue nightclubs, club owners refused to appeal to a small, yet growing group of radicals within the black community.  Oftentimes, the Black Radical Action Project (BRAP) or other militant groups used Indiana Avenue nightclubs to recruit disgruntled young black males into their ranks.  Their attempts were usually for naught as the group saw little improvement in its enrollment despite widespread efforts.  Perhaps Indiana Avenue club owners would seize upon the trend and welcome radicals into their clubs for rallies or radical jazz, soul, or funk music.  Yet this was not the case, as catering to a limited number of radicals would not increase money coming into the club; there were just not enough militants in Indianapolis for that to be financially beneficial.  Furthermore, most club owners were older, well respected blacks who shunned the militant ideologies of the Black Panthers or the BRAP.  They felt that adding these elements to an already troubled community would spell disaster.  For the most part, club owners on the Avenue stayed with the tried-and-true programming that featured a main soul or jazz act along with an opening act, dancers, and an emcee.  Rarely, if at all, did politics enter the equation.  Instead, club owners sought to strengthen the black community not with calls to action but with popular activities and music that appealed to wide variety of patrons.

With only a few minor exceptions, clubs along the Avenue saw their highest attendance before 1970.  After 1970, the number of advertisements in the Recorder dropped significantly, with the entertainment page dominated by ads for drive-in theaters, adult film theaters and clubs outside the Indiana Avenue area.  Usually, the only music advertised in the paper was that of national artists coming into town for a big show at the State Fairgrounds, Bush Stadium, the Convention Center, or in later years, Market Square Arena.  Although the clubs stayed open and still played host to local acts, their popularity waned significantly.  In 1974, Big Daddy Graham and two fellow investors attempted to revitalize the music scene along the Avenue by re-opening the “Magnificent New Blue Eagle Lounge,” yet the venture soon failed.[18]  Shortly thereafter, the Down Beat Lounge and the Place to Play also closed their doors forever.  The clubs on the “Main Stem” could no longer compete with larger, nicer and more popular clubs in other parts of the city. 

When certain neighborhoods, restaurants, and nightclubs were off limits to African Americans during the era of de facto segregation, the Avenue thrived since it was the only viable entertainment option for the black community.  As the effects of segregation faded away, more options throughout the city became available for thrill-seeking African-Americans.  However, by the early seventies, going out to nightclubs had become a neighborhood activity in the sense that rarely did people drive across town to see a band or visit a nightclub.  Thus, when new nightclubs like the Magnificent New Blue Eagle or Billy Mac’s Lounge opened up along Indiana Avenue in 1973, they rarely stayed in business more than a year simply because there was not the audience in the Indiana Avenue area to support such ventures.  Competition was great and the club owners with the most money had the best bands, the best variety acts, and the nicest clubs.  Clubs along the Avenue such as the Blue Eagle, the Place to Play, and the Flame had had the same owners since the 1950s, and in some cases even earlier.  The nightclub was their life and they put all the money back into it they could, yet with dwindling numbers coming through the doors, the quality of the surroundings began to deteriorate. Patrons also went where they felt comfortable, and by 1970, the Indiana Avenue area had become crime and drug infested which kept away prospective clientele.

Although most Indiana Avenue nightclubs were not involved with promoting or hosting the activities or fundraisers of local social clubs, they were still an important part of the local black music scene.  The number and status of patrons dwindled, yet the nightclubs still served as cultural glue for the many African Americans who still resided in the Indiana Avenue neighborhood.  They served this role for as long as they could, yet were not able to draw in patrons and put on the kind shows they once were able to.  Indiana Avenue clubs reflected and supported an older, more intimate black community that declined along with the neighborhood itself.  Indiana Avenue nightclubs maintained their significance because they brought together what was left of the largest and strongest black community in Indianapolis.    Across town at places like the 20 Grand, the 19th Hole, and the Demonstrators Club, something very exciting was happening.  Although nightclubs in both districts featured similar music, it was the new clubs north of 30th Street that catered to the new black residents of this area.  These clubs culturally and socially supported the rising black community there, became more popular, and drew large audiences several nights a week to hear local and national soul and funk artists.


The Birth of a New Entertainment District

When the neighborhoods north of 30th Street opened up to the black population in the mid-sixties, businesses that catered to the black community soon followed.  Grocery stores, restaurants, and Laundromats opened up to serve this new population, as did several nightclubs.  The newer nightclubs that sprouted up north of 30th Street reflected and supported the growing black community taking shape there and were slightly different than their counterparts located on Indiana Avenue.  The owners of the Demonstrators Club, the 20 Grand Ballroom, and the 19th Hole put a lot of money into building new structures or refurbishing existing buildings and helped create a new and exciting setting for live music and dancing.  While Indiana Avenue clubs were not able to attract big name national artists, these new clubs had the facilities and money to do just that.  These clubs also became the popular spots for many local bands, many of whom never returned to the Avenue once they got a steady job at a place like the 20 Grand or the Hub-Bub.  The most important aspect of this new nightclub district was its role in becoming the gathering place for the many local social clubs.  Entrenched in the community, these social clubs organized fundraisers for worthy causes, held dance contests, and played an instrumental role in bringing the black community together.  The birth of a new nightclub district in Indianapolis was a key component in diffusing the many tensions present in the black community and providing a platform to express moderate political beliefs.

The nightclub scenes in Chicago, New York, and Oakland featured political rallies and fundraisers for radical causes, but Indianapolis’ club owners shied away from this practice.  In Los Angeles and Oakland, the Black Panthers oftentimes held rallies in nightclubs featuring the Lumpen and singer Elaine Brown.  They put the party’s ideology into musical form, hoping to reach the black masses.[19] Local bands in these cities also aligned themselves with the Black Panthers or other militant groups, yet this was unheard of in Indianapolis, at least in the soul and funk scene.  The Black Radical Action Project fully embraced the politics of radical or avant-garde jazz and featured these acts at their Jazz Workers nightclub, but their tenets of Black Power did not mix with the soul music favored by Indianapolis’ young black masses.  There was no clear alignment between local soul and funk artists and these radical groups, and their live performances reflected the moderate political views of the majority of Indianapolis African-American community. 

            During the late sixties and early seventies, nightclubs and politics were inextricably linked, as seen through the efforts of Black Radical Action Project and other involved social clubs.  The BRAP attempted to use the nightclub scene a to persuade young male patrons to join their ranks.  They recruited members at the 19th Hole, the Hub-Bub, and at the Barrington Lounge on the south side, yet, their numbers showed little improvement.[20]  Nevertheless, the fact that the BRAP went into the clubs showed that a level of heightened political conscious and community awareness was present in the city’s nightclubs.  Although many young African Americans did not want to be part of a group like the BRAP or the Black Panthers, they were eager to join other social organizations.  These groups, although moderate, were still politically active.  They were an important part of the community and played a role in the general improvement of life inside the black community.  Groups such as the Demonstrators, the Defiants, and the Soulfonics held events or fundraisers at Indianapolis nightclubs, embedding themselves and the clubs as supporters and promoters of the local black community.

Although some clubs shied away from a political allegiance, several clubs, including the massive 20 Grand Ballroom, hosted benefits for social programs like Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Operation Breadbasket.[21]  Headed by Dr. Andrew Brown, the Indianapolis chapter of Operation Breadbasket helped give food and money to needy families in the community, and several benefits were held in local nightclubs.  Reverend Jesse Jackson was in charge of Operation Breadbasket at the national level and he became close to several musicians.  In fact, Jackson recited the opening to Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s 1969 album, Country Preacher, which was recorded at an SCLC Operation Breadbasket benefit in Chicago in early 1969.  Later, Jackson aligned himself with Stax Records out of Memphis and participated in the Wattstax Festival, held in Los Angeles in 1972.  The SCLC felt that reaching out to sympathetic music fans might help increase donations to the cause.  The Indianapolis chapter hoped that the audience at the 20 Grand would follow through as well.[22]

Although community involvement and the desire to raise funds for worthy causes helped bring conscientious patrons into the nightclubs, music was still the main draw.  The onset of the 1970s ushered in a new era of music featured in larger and newer clubs located throughout the city.  During the 1930s and ‘40s, when the Avenue was the center of Indianapolis’ music scene, nightclubs existed in other areas as well.  Nightclubs such as the Club Savoy, the Sunset Tavern and Izsak’s Grand Terrace Café were located on the east side in the Martindale area, while the north side had the Blue Goose Tavern and the Parisien Gardens along Northwestern Avenue.[23]  Although these clubs were popular in their prime, the 1970s was the first decade that clubs outside of the Avenue reached a higher level of prominence and offered bigger and better events than anything the Avenue provided.

Local bands were the main form of entertainment at Indianapolis nightclubs, but nationally known soul and funk artists passed through Indianapolis as well.  During the thirties and forties nearly every major jazz artist passed through Indianapolis, and during the late sixties and early seventies most major soul and funk artists played local nightclubs, the Convention Center, the State Fair Coliseum, and Bush Stadium.  Prominent national acts like Booker T. and the MGs, Solomon Burke, and Al Green graced the stages at the 20 Grand and Demonstrators clubs, while James Brown and Aretha Franklin played to thousands of people in larger venues.[24]  Prior to 1968, many national artists avoided Indianapolis because there were few adequate venues that could house their performances.  However, with the opening of several large clubs, national artists began to return and so did the crowds.

            One of the first clubs to open up outside of Indiana Avenue was the 19th Hole located at 2901 Harding Street.  The 19th Hole was the near north side’s hub for soul jazz, and vibist Billy Wooten was the featured act.  Wooten first came to Indianapolis in 1968, playing regularly at the Hub-Bub Lounge on West 34th Street, sometimes for as long as a month.  During this time, Wooten met Janie Robinson, who purchased Wooten’s contract from the owner of the Hub-Bub.  After spending nearly a year in Indianapolis, Wooten left to record two albums with jazz guitar legend Grant Green.  In 1971, Wooten left the group over contractual issues.  Not having anywhere to go, Wooten turned to what he had left behind: the vibrant Indianapolis club scene.  After placing a desperate call to Janie Robinson, owner of the 19th Hole, Wooten returned to Indianapolis and formed The Wooden Glass.  In an interview with Eothen Alapatt, Wooten described how Robinson welcomed him back with open arms:

[After leaving Grant Green] The guys looked at me and I said, “The only thing I know is the lady I left in Indy.”  So I called her at the 19th Hole, and she said, “PLEASE come back!”  She welcomed us back, she never quibbled about money or anything.  She had a house and they treated us – you know, how they used to bring the musicians in the 11th, 12th century – we were paid, they furnished a good house.  Coming out of the East coast, I didn’t know what a house was about!  I was always an apartment man. She initially furnished us with automobiles, too.  I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but the club was packed six nights a week.  And two matinees![25]


As one of the newer and nicer nightclubs in the new entertainment district, the 19th Hole often catered to large crowds.  Had Wooten played on the Avenue at the Place to Play or the Blue Eagle, the crowds and his paycheck would have been smaller.  Most of the musicians who regularly played the Avenue were Indianapolis residents and did not require lodging.  Indiana Avenue nightclubs did not have the budgets of their near north side counterparts and could not afford to hire traveling musicians for extended periods of time. 

Billy Wooten described the scene at the 19th Hole as a “utopian environment,” with black and white musicians coming from places as distant as Cincinnati to play on a Friday or Saturday matinee.[26]  This is the only instance in which a musician or an advertisement has mentioned white musicians performing at a club in a black area of Indianapolis.  However, since Wooten played mainly soul jazz, interplay with a white musician would have been more likely than if he were a funk artist.  A racially mixed band seems remarkable since both Jimmy Guilford and musician Al Young observed that white musicians playing in black clubs was extremely rare especially during the early seventies.[27]  Had Indianapolis been a more radical community, a white musician would have either been laughed at or chased off the stage.[28] 

            One of the many differences between Indiana Avenue clubs and those elsewhere was the number of prominent national artists who frequented these large new nightclubs.  At the forefront of these establishments was the 20 Grand Show Lounge on West 34th Street.  A former bowling alley, the 20 Grand was one of the largest nightclubs in town and featured popular national acts such as Funkadelic, King Floyd, Maceo Parker and Rufus Thomas.[29]  The 20 Grand also featured special attractions nearly every night of the week, such as ladies night and amateur talent shows. Admission prices were high, ranging anywhere from three to six dollars depending on the act.  To assuage the burden of this high cover charge, the club oftentimes held dance contests that paid as much as $100 to the winner.    From advertisements in the Recorder, it appears the 20 Grand focused on national entertainment, whether it was a one-off date or a weeklong engagement. The club did present some local entertainment on its own, but local bands mainly played when the club hosted a matinee or gathering put on by a local social club.

 The Demonstrators Club on Central Avenue also brought in nationally known acts such as Solomon Burke, Eddie Harris and Al Green in the early seventies.[30]  These clubs were not only well financed but also popular enough as gathering places that they could support national acts on a regular basis.

Despite the many concerts put on by nationally known artists, the Demonstrators Club was best known as host to the many gatherings for Indianapolis’ African-American social clubs.  In fact, the Demonstrators Club was a social club unto itself, holding meetings at the club while also featuring live music, an open bar and the “Miss Demonstrators” beauty pageant.  Although social clubs were a longstanding tradition in the city, they were traditionally for older couples or young debutantes.  Clubs such as the Penguins, the Soul Survivors and social sororities frequently posted meeting reviews and photos on the society page of the Recorder.  Other clubs such as the Soul Babes Social and Charity Club and the Blackinizers were heavily involved in charitable activities, putting on matinees during the holiday season to raise money or presenting Santa Claus at a neighborhood community center.[31]  The early 1970s saw a dramatic increase in club participation by both young black men and women. 

Many of these social clubs became well known throughout the city for the shows and matinees they sponsored in local nightclubs.  Nightclubs functioned as significant gathering places for African Americans in Indianapolis, not only as social centers but also as venues for charity events and fundraisers.  The matinee was a highly popular enterprise in Indianapolis, and the city was deemed a “matinee, club-type city” in an advertisement for a local social club, The Men.[32]  Matinees were a weekly event in the city, with different clubs hosting whenever funds were available, or at times joining forces to host a larger, more extravagant affair.  Many clubs were exclusively for men or women, so a combination affair put on by a men’s club and women’s club was quite common.[33]  Local entertainment, such as the Incredible Pushers Show Band and Funk Inc. provided the soundtrack for these affairs, most of which were held on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  Because these affairs were not only social events but also club fundraisers, admission was charged at the door, and usually ranged anywhere from two to four dollars, some of which was returned as door prizes or to contest winners. 

While many social club events and contests were quite tame, the attitudes and preferences of events organizers and audiences began to change as the seventies wore on.  “Twist” or “Mashed Potato” contests no longer fit the bill; audiences now preferred “Hot Pants” contests or wine drinking competitions instead of the old standards.  Not only event organizers, but also nightclub owners, placed an emphasis on contests that featured women dancing or stripping for both prizes and the enjoyment of male patrons.  As these activities increased, they reflected a growing national trend in African-American entertainment.  Soul and funk music and films began to emphasize the black male, his machismo, and his efforts to get ahead in the world by any means necessary, usually at the expense of black women.  As these films and music became popular in Indianapolis, nightclub programming began to reflect their growing popularity, which further supported a young black community looking for such entertainment.

The Rise of Blaxploitation and Disco

            By 1973-74, the Indianapolis nightclub had begun to decline.  Many of the long-time staples on the local music scene – The Highlighters, The Rhythm Machine, and The Moonlighters – had either left town or broken up.  New bands, such as the Soul Perfection Show Band, the Incredible Pushers Funk Revival, and others, took their place but the scene had changed.  Many club goers began to lose interest in the nightclub scene and looked elsewhere for entertainment.  Instead of live music, many African Americans turned to movies and found a group of larger-than-life characters who did things beyond their wildest dreams.  These characters – John Shaft, Youngblood Priest, Dolemite, and Black Caesar – had power, money, women, and the ability to challenge the white establishment, and they were black. 

These Blaxploitation movies were geared toward a cynical African-American audience looking for heroes.  Blacks suffered through the failure of the Great Society, the Vietnam War, and growing unrest in their urban communities.  They felt Civil Rights and Black Power had failed them, leaving them with the crumbled remains of their black pride and the hope they once had for a better tomorrow.  Hollywood seized upon this growing malaise, created a line of black superheroes, and gave movie-going blacks something to cheer about.  The characters made blacks feel powerful, like there was someone somewhere looking out for their best interests.  Like soul musicians had done earlier, these fictional black characters became the new heroes of the black culture.  However, instead of providing filmgoers with a positive, uplifting message, these films spoke to the advantages of cutting corners, committing crimes, objectifying women, and eliminating anyone who got in their way.

The Blaxploitation boom changed the face of black Indianapolis as hairstyles, clothing, music, and attitudes all became a reflection of the genre.  Nearly overnight the Recorder was full of advertisements for this brand of movie.  The values, styles and themes of the movies worked their way into Indianapolis’ nightclub scene as well, where the focus was not just on the music but also the events, dances and contests that served to increase black pride, and black machismo.  Many black men sought out clubs that promoted a vision of masculinity that excluded and objectified women through dance contests and beauty pageants.  Sex had always been a part of the Indianapolis nightclub scene, so much in fact that guitarist Clint Jones recalled that people “…didn’t come to the clubs for the music.  I think they came to get laid!”[34]  However, by the early seventies club programming and advertising became geared more explicitly towards the sexual enjoyment of Indianapolis’ black male population.  The Indianapolis music and nightclub scene once held together the entire black community, yet by the early seventies, they began to focus on the desires of Indianapolis’ black men.

Despite the mass appeal and acceptance of the Blaxploitation genre by African-American audiences, there were consequences of these entertainments that consistently stressed the pride and power of African-American men. In Indianapolis, these consequences became evident in advertisements for clubs that featured graphic representations of the female anatomy.  Clubs featured “loose booty” and “braless dance contests” on a weekly basis.[35]  Advertisements encouraged men to come to the club and check out the “foxes” for their viewing pleasure, reducing these women to mere objects. Club programming became geared towards a largely male audience and was a reflection of the changing face of the local black community.  Boosting the egos of black men was of the utmost importance even if it happened at the expense of black women.  By the early seventies, the promises of Civil Rights and Black Power had fallen short and many black men felt cheated or angry that they were unable to find their rightful seat at the table as jobs and opportunities dried up.  In turn, many black men felt it necessary to put down black women.  They became distrustful of women, and wanted to solidify their own superiority, which they did through degrading women’s roles and objectifying their bodies.[36]

Brian Ward, like William Van Deburg, sees the increased chauvinism of soul music during the 1970s as a result of an increasingly intense, male-driven black pride that found its way into mainstream black culture and black life.  Black culture, soul included, began to take on an air of vicious chauvinism and sexism beginning as early 1969 or 1970.  James Brown, once the paean of sensitive and romantic soul, recorded songs driven by sexual potency and black male ego.  The music that once brought a message of hope and promise deteriorated into raps about how women should please and be subservient to men.[37]  “It’s A New Day,” recorded by Brown in 1969, was in essence a list of instructions for a woman to follow to keep her man satisfied.  She was told to “never get too confident” and “take care of business” when the black man’s sexual needs demanded service.[38]  This view of black women was common in advertisements for Indianapolis nightclubs.  Even the Recorder, a well-respected middle class newspaper, consistently referred to women as “sexy,” “attractive” or “foxy,” indicating that the impact of intense, male-oriented black pride was seen not only at a mainstream, national level.[39]

One of the dominant images from this era was “the mack,” which made its way into the black community in Indianapolis.  An article about the opening of the blaxploitation classic The Mack described a mack as a “highly successful street pimp who attracts the sexiest girls, rides in the biggest cars, wears the best clothes and says ‘I’m in control.’”[40]  During the 1970s, music and movies glorified this image to the extreme, portraying the mack as a black superhero.  At the center of the mack’s fictional world were violence, virulent misogyny, and crime.  He was in control of his own fate and did not let “The Man” bring him down.  The mack took what he wanted when he wanted and did not let anyone get in the way of his success.[41]  This image proved appealing at a time when Civil Rights and Black Power seemed to have stalled out.

In Indianapolis, blaxploitation movies played throughout the city.  The Walker Theatre, Tibbs Drive-in and other theaters in black neighborhoods featured movies such as Superfly, Dolemite, The Mack and Black Caesar, all of which starred strong, powerful and womanizing black men in the leading role.  The popularity of this phenomenon also influenced Indianapolis’ nightclub scene.  Beginning in 1971, the Recorder featured more advertisements for movie houses than it did for nightclubs and musicians.  By 1973, the paper regularly featured advertisements for nightclubs using the image or the language of the mack.  Whereas nightclubs once sought to disassociate themselves from suspicious characters to keep customers safe, they now seized the opportunity provided by mass culture and geared their advertising towards the glorification of the mack, the gangster and the ghetto.  At the forefront of this change was the Inn Crowd Lounge at 1435 Commerce, the former home of Jimmy Guilford’s Soul City club.  In its advertising, the Inn Crowd featured slogans like “Doin’ it to the macks” and proclaimed that the club was in the heart of the “ghetto.” This was an attempt at forming in-group identity by bringing back the pride in being part of a black “ghetto.”[42] Nightclub programming was geared towards a predominantly male audience in response to mass culture’s glorification of the strong black male.  Clubs now featured “Sexy Mama,” “Hot Pants,” and X-rated “Loose Body” contests at their matinees in lieu of traditional dance and amateur talent contests.  On certain nights, clubs regularly lowered drink prices and cover charges for women, hoping to bring a large female contingent.  Social clubs got into the act by sponsoring such events as the “Mack of the Year Contest” and the “Gangsters Ball,” which was held at the ISTA Building downtown.[43] 

Despite its popularity among club-goers, the image of the mack was highly criticized by the Recorder staff.  The connotation of the mack and the baggage it carried was not suitable to many in the black community.  By 1974, two new entertainment columns were featured on semi-regular basis in the Recorder.  “Nightlife with O.J.” and “Party People” by Eunice McLayea discussed goings-on at clubs and highlighted photographs of club interiors.  Of the two, “Party People” was printed more often and contained a sometimes-critical view of Indianapolis nightlife.  McLayea was especially disparaging towards the idea of the mack.  In November 1974, Cousin’s Lounge at 654 Fairfield Avenue opened and McLayea was there to cover it, noting the club’s carefree and mellow atmosphere and that there were no “superflies, romeos or Casanovas” present to interrupt the good times.[44]  Similar articles, including a 1973 article by The Saint that criticized the “intelligentsia” of the black community for wearing “Superfly garments,” were common during 1974 and later years.[45]  Just as the Recorder had criticized the Afro in 1968, the paper again was criticizing the fashion and style of Indianapolis’ young African-American community.  The notion of the mack ultimately created problems for nightclubs, bringing in crooked characters and shady dealings that drove away the backbone of their patronage.  By 1974, club owners and newspaper columnists like McLayea attempted to bring back patrons who feared going out because of the suspicious characters that clubs catered to.[46]

            Despite the rejuvenation efforts of Eunice McLayea and other staff at the Recorder, the death knell had sounded for the Indianapolis nightclub scene by 1974.  The onset of the Blaxploitation culture and departure of several prominent black musicians greatly changed the scene.  Nightclubs began to close; the Avenue became deserted, more so than it was in 1970.  By 1974, most of the clubs on the north side had also closed.  About this same time, disco music began to sweep the country.  When disco became popular in Indianapolis, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, ending the era of soul in the city.  People now went to clubs to hear songs as heard on the radio or at home.  They no longer wanted live music, but rather deejays that spun hit records all night long.  The clubs that still brought in live music demanded large bands with horn sections that could play the latest disco hits of the day by the Commodores, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and Cameo.  Guitarist Clint Jones remembered that disco put many Indianapolis musicians out of work because it was nearly impossible to get a well-paying gig.  As a response, many musicians, including Jones, left Indianapolis to pursue their music career elsewhere.[47]   

Disco was a response to soul and funk in more than one way.  As a more commercial sound, disco “bleached” soul and R&B and made black music more acceptable to middle class, white America.  Growing out of the gay club scene, disco’s mindless, formulaic sound put a priority on dancing; songs with a message no longer had a place in popular music.  Disco also “feminized” soul and R&B and gave women, their perspectives, and their experiences a stronger voice. [48] Women now had control over their own musical and cultural destiny.  With an emphasis on dancing, love, and female desire, disco divas such as Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and Evelyn Champagne King recorded songs that spoke to female listeners who had been turned off by the overwhelming machismo that dominated early seventies black music and Blaxploitation films.[49]  Disco spoke to women and homosexuals and then became a national phenomenon.  It had roots in the black community’s soul and funk music and in the gay club scene, but grew well beyond both.  Disco had an open door policy that let everyone in; everyone, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, now had a place at the table.  The soul and funk community had limited itself to a predominantly young, black audience that eventually turned into a young, black, male audience that oftentimes excluded women. 

Throughout the late sixties and early seventies, from the tensions that tore at the seams of the black community, to the rise of Blaxploitation chic and eventually disco, Indianapolis nightclubs supported and promoted the black community.  Early on, the nightclub scene reflected the moderation of the black community; later, it reflected the growing macho desires of Indianapolis black men and then the growing popularity of deejays and disco music.  Although some clubs like the 20 Grand, Demonstrators Club, and most along Indiana Avenue eventually folded, new clubs took their place and gave patrons what they wanted, whether it be live soul and funk or a deejay that played Donna Summer records.   The nightclub scene was the “cultural glue” that brought Indianapolis’ black community together throughout the late sixties and early seventies.  The reinforcement of the values and beliefs of the black community was an important part of the nightclub experience.  Club programming did not have to be overtly political or radical to mean something: it merely had to sustain the population. 

[1] William Van Deburg, Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960-1980 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 227.

[2] Michael Haralambos, Soul Music: The Birth of a Black Sound in America (New York: Da Capo Press, 1975), 125.

[3] Throughout the chapter, “Indiana Avenue” will refer to not only clubs directly on the Avenue, but also those within close proximity to Indiana Avenue.  For example, The Flame (242 Blake St.), The Pink Poodle/The New Zanzibar/The Famous Door (252 N. Capitol) and The Queen of Clubs (518 N. West St.) are all considered with those clubs directly on the Avenue.

[4] Van Deburg, Black Camelot, 226.

[5] Indianapolis Recorder, advertisement for Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds at the Indiana Convention Center, August 31, 1974. 

[6] Interview, Eothen Alapatt with Billy Wooten, vibist and Indianapolis musician, Summer, 2001, online transcription, Stones Throw Records, http://www.stonesthrow.com.  Accessed March 11, 2002.

[7] Interview, author with Jimmy Guilford, musician and club owner, March 22, 2002.

[8] Recorder, “Believe Me When I Tell You” column by Bob Womack, Sr., July 8, 1967.

[9] Recorder, “Lottie the Body at Carousel May 1; New Singer at Queen Clubs,” April 29, 1967; “Local Nite Spots Booking Top Entertainment,” May 20, 1967; “Entertainment World” column, June 3, 1967; “Entertainment World” column, October 21, 1967.

[10] Recorder, “Visit Your Favorite Tavern During National Tavern Month for Fun Galore,” May 18, 1968; “Entertainment World” column, June 29, 1968.

[11] Amy Wilson, “The Swing Era on Indiana Avenue: Indianapolis’ African-American Jazz Scene, 1933-1950,” (M.A. thesis, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, 1997), 44, 53, 57, 74.

[12] Recorder, advertisement for the Blue Eagle Lounge, January 27, 1968.

[13] Interview, author with Jimmy Guilford, March 22, 2002.  As late as 1967, nearly five years after Chubby Checker recorded “The Twist,” the J&J Lounge hosted a “Twist Contest” presented by the Indianapolis-based Radio Corporation of America (RCA).  Recorder, “Entertainment World” column, October 21, 1967.

[14] Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 210-212.

[15] Big Daddy Graham, “Tightening Your Popcorn,” C.A.M. Association 160, 1969; Billy Ball and the Upsetters featuring Roosevelt Matthews, “Tighten Up Tighter,” King 6173, 1968; Billy Ball and the Upsetters, “Carmel Corn,” Lamp, 1969; Billy Ball and the Upsetters, “Sissy Walk” and “Popcorn ’69,” Apollo 90833, 1969; The Highlighters, “Poppin’ Popcorn,” Three Diamonds 001, 1969; The Highlighters, “Funky 16 Corners,” Three Diamonds 002, 1969; The Rhythm Machine, “The Kick,” Lulu 9706, 1970.

[16] Not only did social clubs move events to the nicer and newer nightclubs north of 30th Street, but larger halls such as the Northside Armory and the Knights of Columbus Hall also played host to several events as well.  Recorder, advertisement for the Defiants Club Ball, May 16, 1968; Recorder, advertisement for the Miss Esquire Dance, May 16, 1971.

[17] Interview, author with John Humphrey, percussionist, December 16, 2002.

[18] Recorder, advertisement for The Magnificent New Blue Eagle Lounge, September 28, 1974.

[19] Ward, Just My Soul Responding, 413-16. 

[20] Interview, author with Representative William Crawford, December 20, 2002.  Following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Crawford joined the Black Radical Action Project and was a member for several years.

[21] Please see Appendix B, Image 11.

[22] Recorder, advertisement for the 20 Grand Ballroom, July 17, 1971.

[23] Wilson, “The Swing Era on Indiana Avenue,” 143.

[24] Indianapolis Recorder, advertisement for Solomon Burke at the Demonstrators Club, October 9, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for Al Green at the Demonstrators Club, November 13, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for Booker T. and the MGs at the Riverside Ballroom, October 7, 1967. 

[25] Interview, Alapatt with Billy Wooten, Summer 2001.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Interview, author with Jimmy Guilford, March 22, 2002; Interview, author with Al Young, April 9, 2002. 

[28] Beginning in the mid-1960s, resentment grew towards white artists who copied black styles.  As soul and funk grew in popularity, African Americans began to take possession of and pride in their music, despite the presence of white musicians on many Stax and Atlantic soul sides.  They became increasingly resentful when artists like Mitch Ryder and Rare Earth covered Motown hits or soul classics.  Many blacks felt that white artists had exploited black music long enough, beginning in the mid-1950s with Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and the many rhythm and blues covers done by Elvis Presley.  As the social and political importance of soul and funk music increased, a white musician’s rendition of songs by James Brown, Marvin Gaye, or Curtis Mayfield became sacrilege.

[29] Recorder, advertisement for Rufus Thomas at the 20 Grand Ballroom, February 7, 1970; Recorder, advertisement for Maceo Parker and all the King’s Men, April 10, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for Parliament Funkadelic at the 20 Grand Ballroom, July 31, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for King Floyd at the 20 Grand Ballroom, November 6, 1971.

[30] Recorder, advertisement for Eddie Harris at the Demonstrators Club, May 22, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for Solomon Burke at the Demonstrators Club, October 9, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for Al Green at the Demonstrators Club, November 13, 1971.

[31] Recorder, photo caption of the Blackinizer’s Christmas program at the Haughville Community Center, December 15, 1973. 

[32] Recorder, advertisement for matinee put on by The Men, January 12, 1974.

[33] Recorder, “Soulfonics and Slick Sisters Unite,” May 8, 1971. Recorder, photo caption for the “Young, Gifted and Black Dance” at the Knights of Columbus Hall, August 10, 1974.  The Black Pearls were the organizers of this event, which featured music by the Care Package.  The Men, The Master, the Soulful Zodiacs, The Defiants Club and the Zodiac Form also contributed to this function.  Recorder, photo caption for the 3rd Annual Aggregation of Social Clubs at Eagle Creek Park, July 26, 1975.  The Aggregation was a meeting of the Kameos, High Chaparrals, the People’s Choice and the Black Pipers.

[34] Interview, author with Clint Jones, December 16, 2002.

[35] See Appendix B, Figure 11 and Figure 13.

[36] Please see David Caute, Sixty-Eight (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988); Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Michele Wallace, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (New York: Dial Press, 1978).  See also Ward, Just My Soul Responding, n. 49, 372.

[37] Ward, Just My Soul Responding, 373. 

[38] James Brown, “It’s A New Day,” King K6292, 1969. 

[39] Recorder, advertisement for the British Lounge, February 6, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for the Honeydripper Lounge, March 20, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for the 20 Grand Ballroom, August 7, 1971; Recorder, advertisement for the Inn Crowd Lounge, June 8, 1974.

[40] Recorder, “The Mack Set to Open,” May 5, 1973.

[41] See Van Deburg, Black Camelot, 127-196.

[42] Recorder, advertisement for the Inn Crowd Lounge, October 26, 1974. 

[43] Recorder, photo caption for the “Mack of the Year” contest presented by the Soul Sapphires, August 28, 1973; Recorder, advertisement for the Gangster’s Ball, April 21, 1973.

[44] Recorder, “Party People” column by Eunice McLayea, November 9, 1974.

[45] Recorder, “The Avenoo” column by The Saint, May 5, 1973.

[46] Recorder, “Party People” column by Eunice McLayea, August 17, 1974.  In this column, McLayea describes Robby’s Lounge located at 2619 West 10th Street.  She noted that “black people are really getting it together and Robby’s is the place to party,” but not before she dispelled the notion that clubs were full of gangs, drunks, junkies and hold up artists.  Unlike other clubs in town, Robby’s returned to the basics, offering a small cover charge, a big dance floor, an emcee (Iron Jaw Memphis) and live local music.

[47] Interview, author with Clint Jones, December 16, 2002.

[48] Alice Echols, Shaky Ground: The Sixties and its Aftershocks (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 183-88.  For more on disco’s effects on the demise of soul and R&B, see: Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm and Blues (New York: Plume Books, 1988), 147-170.

[49] For more, please see Ward, Just My Soul Responding, 424-429; Vincent, Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One, 205-215.

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