What was Chicago’s club scene like in 1979? Well, there were some 125 discos in the Chicago area as of 1976, according to the Chicago Tribune. But by 1979, the height of the disco era, when Steve Dahl held his Disco Demolition rally, that number had grown exponentially. Chicago’s most influential discos at the time were gay clubs, but the general public was also doing the boogie and hustle at roller rinks and countless suburban venues. (There were straight commercial clubs like Zorine’s, Playboy and Faces, too.) Nevertheless, at the time that Disco Demolition took place, Chicago’s hottest DJs were playing at the discos listed below – clubs that were often as gritty as they were glamorous.
Eddie Dugan opened The Bistro, Chicago’s first big, influential disco, in May of 1973, at what had been an old French restaurant. Go-go dancers, including a drag queen known as the Bearded Lady, often performed above the large dancefloor, which was surrounded by three bars and decorated by a pair of bright neon lips. On some nights, the line of people waiting to get in stretched an entire block, just north of the iconic corn-cob shaped towers of Marina City. Dugan alluded to the club’s restrictive door policy in a 1974 Chicago Tribune article, explaining, “We’re primarily gay, and we don’t want straights filling the place up so our regular clientele can’t get in.”
Lou DiVito became the Bistro’s main DJ in 1974. An interior decorator, DiVito assisted in designing the club’s layout and sound and light systems. Billboard named DiVito “best regional dee-jay” in 1978 and 1979. As Danny Goss, DiVito’s alternate for many years, recalls, “Lou was the first DJ I ever heard mix on beat and in perfect pitch.” DiVito became Chicago radio’s first “hot mixer” in 1979, recording mixes for WDAI from his DJ booth.
Each year the club’s interior was refreshed in preparation for an anniversary bash. The club’s sixth anniversary featured nine mirror balls and four mortar guns shooting foam stars. “Who else could put a thousand miles of mylar ribbon down the outside of a building and cover a corner with glitter – right across the street from a police station?” quipped impressionist Allan Lozito of Dugan, as quoted by the Chicago Tribune. The beloved club was torn down to make way for a parking lot in 1982.
In October 1978, Mother Carol took over the Den One space in Old Town where famous house DJ Ron Hardy first spun. Carol (Richard Farnham), was a grocer who first opened a gay bar called Coming Out Pub in 1972. After a couple of name and location changes (Carol’s Pub and Carol’s in Exile), Carol established this members-only club at 1355 North Wells Street and ran it until passing away in September 1979. “It was quite a fun club,” remembers DJ Danny Goss. “It was the only thing… as far as gay bars went, that even came close to giving Bistro a run for its money. It was nothing like the Bistro, but it was the only alternative for a big gay dance club. If you didn’t like the snobbishness or the ultra-chichi attitude of the Bistro, the only other place you could go was Carol’s Speakeasy.”
Carol’s Speakeasy had an amazing lineup of talented DJs in 1979: Peter Lewicki (Thursdays), Frankie Knuckles (Fridays), Greg Collier (Saturdays), and Mike Graber (Sundays). Saturday afternoons featured a roller skating party and Sunday featured shows by the Bearded Lady. The club was renovated in 1979 with a new lighting system and a larger dancefloor.
In 1980, a “Punk Out” party starred performers with names such as Mysterious Marilynn, Mary Ann Mouthful, Diana Hutton and Cotton Candy. By 1982, the club featured video screens with VJ Grant Smith and DJ Joel Levin. Later DJs included Mark Vallese and Larry Fox. An infamous 1985 police raid in which all of the club’s patrons were photographed resulted in a successful class-action lawsuit by the ACLU. The club closed in 1991, shortly after serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer lured a victim from the premises.
Inspired by the Continental Baths in New York City, Chuck Renslow, an erotic photographer who opened the country’s first gay leather bar in Chicago in the late 1950s, decided to close his Club Baths franchise location and open Man’s Country in 1973. The venue began offering entertainment in 1974. Wanda Lust, performer, DJ and entertainment director, even held classical musical nights. Songwriter and performer Franne Golde launched her career in the music hall. Man’s Country featured a stage, general store, whirlpool, steam room and snack bar. The private club was also home to a number of themed private rooms.
In September 1979, Don Eric enthused that the club played European imports unknown in the U.S., such as Baccara’s “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.” In 1980, Tom Parks and Brett Wilcots (Importes Etc. manager and buyer and future owner of Gherkin Records) DJed for Man’s Country, presenting Loleatta Holloway live at one of Renslow’s famous annual white (clothing) parties. Recalls Wilcots, “You’d start at 9:00 at night and you’d start with a light rock set and then begin to go into dance. We’d play dances until five or six, and then we’d switch over into light jazz.”
Another DJ of the period was Dick Guenther, who famously created display art at Importes Etc., including a sign that read “house music.” Guenther’s top 15 in September 1979 included Sparks’ “Tryouts for the Human Race,” Disco Circus’s “Over and Over” and Tamiko Jones’ “Can’t Live without Your Love.” Importes Etc. employee Frank Sells was yet another featured DJ. In stark contrast to bath houses in other cities, Man’s Country never closed during the AIDS crisis, and it offered confidential HIV tests to guests. Man’s Country is open to this day, though in a 2010 interview for Vice Renslow admitted the building is aging and odorous.
Initially a series of parties held at various locations by Robert Williams and his friends, US Studios AKA the Warehouse settled into its best-known home at 206 South Jefferson Street in 1976. Frankie Knuckles first spun there in early 1977, but around 1980 he came into his own, striking up a fruitful partnership with the I.R.S. Record Pool and its Importes Etc. storefront. As he began mixing “progressive” new wave and import tracks with underground disco and occasional sound effects, the club began to draw a younger, straighter crowd, and DJ culture began to take hold in Chicago.
Knuckles’ playlist in April 1981, as published in Brett Wilcots’ column in Gay Chicago, featured everything from Nick Straker and People’s Choice to Brian Eno & David Byrne and Yoko Ono. Knuckles often received records before any other DJ in the city, introducing his audience to new, obscure 12"s that they would clamor to find for themselves.
One of Knuckles’ signatures was playing a recording of an express train, moving the sound through the club’s Richard Long soundsystem. “It scared the shit out of people,” Knuckles recalled in a 1990 Sun-Times article, “But they came back, hoping to hear it again.” A members-only after-hours club, the Warehouse opened around midnight on Saturdays and kept going strong until after sunrise. In a 1981 article for Gay Life, Albert Williams enthused, “Most DJs, if they’re any good, have a following. Frankie Knuckles has believers – people who religiously save themselves up for late Saturday night....”
The Ritz was a popular black gay bar on Chicago’s Near North Side. Charles Perkins DJed there in the early ’70s, playing music so loud he regularly blew out tweeters. Craig Cannon and Larry Fox spun there in the mid-’70s, though the original owner, Bill Jacobs, was apparently reluctant to give up revenue from his jukebox. According to Cannon, Fox had a state-of-the-art soundsystem shipped from overseas, where he’d been stationed in the Army. 1975 ads in Gay Life touted, “Quad sound disco-dancing” noon until 4 AM, seven days a week. Gay Life’s “Fun Guide” described a “rustic interior, open beam ceiling,” and “a good sized dance floor” that was “well used.”
Ron Hardy spun Wednesday nights at the Ritz in 1981, though a pair of arsons briefly closed the bar. Inspired by after-hours clubs, and patrons that didn’t want to stop dancing when the night was over, Craig Cannon worked with then-owner Fred Morris to open a second location, R2 Underground, which later became home to Robert Williams’ Muzic Box, the club where Hardy truly shined. Recalls Cannon of the Ritz, “It’s twenty minutes to four, and I cut the music off, and they just kept dancing. They would stomp their feet, they would clap their hands. One guy would take two of those big round metal ashtrays and play it like it was a tambourine. I kid you not.”
Sunday’s, located in what is now known as Chicago’s River North, was described in an October 1975 issue of Gay Life as having a large dancefloor and an exciting light and sound system. The club, which took over the old location of The Baton, a drag cabaret theater founded in 1969 by Jim Flint, was known for its upside-down Old Style beer sign outside and two Altec Lansing Voice of the Theatre speakers hanging over the dancefloor.
DJs started around 10 PM each evening and played until 4 AM (5 AM on Saturday) for a mere $1 cover on the weekends. Shawn Adams spun in early 1976, then Artie Feldman, who preceded Ron Hardy at Den One and won Billboard’s regional “Disco Deejay of the Year” award.
By June 1977 Carmen Adduci helmed the turntables, playing cuts like Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” First Choice’s “Doctor Love” and Claudja Berry’s “Sweet Dynamite.” In 1977, the club changed its name to Jocks, then in March of 1979 it became the Loft. By April it was Sunday’s again, with DJ Michael Triner spinning deep disco cuts like Diana Ross’s “The Boss” and “No One Gets the Prize,” Ashford & Simpson’s “Found a Cure” and Stephanie Mills’ “Put Your Body in It.”
This bar was purchased by Elly Cook and Robie Crystal in July of 1977, on the edge of what is now known as Boystown. Crystal lived in a loft upstairs. Earl Reid, who was an alternate for Lou DiVito at Dugan’s Bistro, became the club’s first DJ in July 1977, spinning Monday through Thursday. A native of Chicago, he began DJing while an art major at Roosevelt University. Reid’s July 26, 1979 pick hit for Gay Chicago, shortly after Disco Demolition Night, was Fern Kinney’s “Groove Me.”
Crystal’s Blinkers was a sight to see, with a huge angled rectangle of mirrors across the front façade. Inside, the dancefloor lit up like the one in Saturday Night Fever. In the summer, patrons looked out over Broadway Avenue from a rooftop bar and sun deck. “We could hang out, and we’d hang off the edge,” Danny Goss recalls. It was eventually revealed that Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy picked up a young victim outside the club in October 1977. The club closed in November 1979.
The Rialto Tap
The Rialto Tap was a lively black, gay pick-up bar which became a house music hot spot in the late 1980s under Michael Ezebukwu. Around 1979, Willie Watson DJed there, in addition to providing the soundsystem for the Rialto and Martin’s Den. The bar’s other DJs included George Alexander and Nick Lewis. Music started at 6 PM and lasted until 4 AM. “Back then we played a real cross-section of everything,” recalls Ezebukwu. “We would play a little rock, we would play a little pop, R&B, soul, jazz.”
According to Ezebukwu, “Rialto was a very wooden, traditional-looking bar.” The DJ equipment was set back near the liquor. One night during a bar fight, a can of beer hit a mirror on the wall over Ezebukwu’s head. “It was fairly raunchy,” he admits. DJ Mystic Bill recalls dealers at the tavern openly offering patrons a wide range of drugs, including LSD. “All sorts of individuals would come into Rialto,” Ezebukwu recalls. “You’d have your working class, you’d have your bosses, and then you’d have your peddlers.” The bar was raided by police December 28, 1979, after an undercover officer claimed a customer propositioned him. All four bartenders and 95 customers were arrested after the bar was deemed a “house of prostitution.” Similar raids at gay establishments around the city drew condemnation from Mayor Byrne. The bar was torn down in 1990 to make way for the city’s new main library.
Formerly a rock venue named the Attic, Broadway Limited had its grand opening as a discotheque in November 1975. An advertisement in Gay Life proclaimed, “All aboard Chicago’s new crack disco! Three levels of dancing, drinking and lounging. Dine in 1898 railroad cars.” Patrons passed through a pair of full-sized train carriages on their way to the dancefloor.
Peter Lewicki, formerly of Den One, became Broadway Limited’s first main DJ. “He would just put music together so seamlessly, it was incredible,” DJ Jerry Novak recalls. Craig Cannon concurs: Lewicki was “a bad-ass DJ” with “very precise timing” and a soulful selection. “For all the black cats to love him and he’s a white guy, you gotta know he’s got credibility,” he concludes.
Jim Thompson DJed at the club before his appointment as the Midwestern representative for disco at Warner Bros. in 1978. A year later, Lewicki accepted a promotional position at Warner’s RFC Records and remixed Captain Sky’s “Moonchild” on AVI Records. Grant Smith, Tony Aloia and Mark Vallese all spun at the club in its later years.
A clear sign of the brewing disco backlash was the introduction of new wave dance clubs in Chicago. Neo opened in July 1979 and stayed open until 2015. In 1979, DJ Suzanne Shelton told Les Bridges the club could reach 500 patrons a night on the weekend, serving those “tired of the formality of disco and heavy into free-form dancing.” A 1980 article on electronic music in Gay Chicago cites Neo DJ Sky, who recommends the artists Throbbing Gristle, A Teardrop Explodes, Human League, Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire.
The club, whose entrance was tucked into a dark alley off Clark Street, eventually introduced video screens. Jeff Pazen held court there in the mid-’80s, though the club’s owners sometimes dictated his playlist. “I dread nights of the full moon,” Pazen revealed cryptically in the Chicago Tribune. “I really do. When it’s a full moon, people don’t move.”