Memphis’ Club Paradise to reopen as community center
Club Paradise lived up to its name.
"This was heaven to me, man," said singer Bobby Rush, who performed many times at the old nightspot at 645 E. Georgia. "I tell you, at that time if you played the Paradise, that was the ultimate in Memphis for the black blues club. When you made the Paradise, it was like Carnegie Hall. You had to work your way up to get to the Paradise, but when you got to the Paradise, you thought you made it."
Among the artists who appeared on stage in the 42,000-square-foot building from the 1960s until it closed in 1999 were B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Johnnie Taylor, Ike and Tina Turner, Bobby Blue Bland, Albert King and Little Milton.
The legendary club is slated to reopen in April as the Paradise Entertainment Center. The venue will feature community events as well as concerts but will no longer be a nightclub, said Dr. Michael McGhee, one of the partners involved in the club's restoration.
Some people think the building was torn down long ago. Or they've seen the structure set back in the spacious parking lot, but they didn't know its place in Memphis music history. "They know it's there, but they don't know what it is," said McGhee, 50.
A friend invited him to look at the building to see if he'd be interested in becoming involved in the restoration project, McGhee said. "I had heard about the Club Paradise when I was a kid and in college, but I didn't know the history behind it," he said. "When I started hearing about all the legends that performed there, I was like, 'Wow.' Just hearing the history of it is what excited me. The Paradise was the ultimate club for African-Americans at that time. If you talk to people in my age group, they get giddy when they talk about what they did at the Club Paradise."
Famed photographer Ernest Withers took numerous photos at Club Paradise. "Ike and Tina Turner were in the building," McGhee said. "Isaac Hayes. The late, great B.B. King. Every legendary blues artist more than likely performed in that building."
McGhee believes Elvis Presley visited as well as performed at Club Paradise. "Elvis was in the building, let me say that. We have photographs of Elvis in the building."
When he first saw it, the old Club Paradise building was filled with "arcade games, chairs, miscellaneous junk. It has been a storehouse for at least 10 years." Beneath the stage, he found hundreds of albums signed by artists who performed at the club.
Along with the other investors, McGhee saw the potential in bringing Club Paradise back to life as a community center/entertainment venue as well as a historical landmark. "We sat there. We prayed. We said, 'OK, let's make this happen.' "
McGhee brought in filmmaker George Tillman. "He wanted me to make a documentary film about the history - past and present - of the Club Paradise," Tillman said. His documentary, "The Birth of Soul Music," is slated to premiere at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Malco Studio on the Square.
Growing up, Tillman was aware of Club Paradise. "My church is right there behind the Club Paradise. So we passed by it going to church every Sunday. It was the place in the community. And some evenings as I got a little older on a Friday night or a Saturday night, cars would be all up and down Georgia."
Tillman remembered the club's brightly colored oversize posters with the acts listed in big black letters. "We would see the posters on the street corner posts. And when they would put those posters up all around the community and we could look and see who was going to be at the Club Paradise, everyone would get excited."
Tillman said his parents went to shows at the Paradise. "They would have B.B. King, Albert King, all of those big acts. It was exciting. That was the only place African-American people could go see that kind of entertainment in large volume. They had little spots around town, but nothing big enough to have a big concert in other than the Rosewood. And that was over on Lauderdale. And then they had the Handy Theatre over on Park Avenue. But the Paradise Club was bigger than everything."
Johnnie Taylor headlined the first show Tillman saw at Club Paradise. "Slappy White was the emcee. One of the greatest comedians. That's when I was like 20, 21 years old."
He was impressed with the club. "I had been so used to going to the (Mid-South) Coliseum," Tillman said. "I'm growing up with the Jackson Five. Blues didn't really touch me. But when I went in there and saw all those people at the Club Paradise, I could not believe it. Johnnie Taylor came out there, and it was the most dynamic thing I'd seen before in my life."
As they performed on the catwalk, entertainers shook hands with audience members, who sat at tables or danced, Tillman said. "It used to be a bowling alley, so everything is flat and the ceiling is low. So the acoustics in there were great."
Club Paradise wasn't wild, Tillman said. "Just little stuff. People get drunk and have their little girlfriend-boyfriend situations. But that's all that was." The Paradise was no joint. "Everybody was well dressed. They served food. Soul food. Hamburgers. Fish. Red soda water. You brought your own alcohol."
Rush, who was the last artist to play in the building, remembered changing outfits four or five times a night when he performed at Club Paradise. "I was kind of a Superfly kind of guy," he said. "He didn't wear a tie. I dressed kind of fly with different-colored suits on."
On a recent visit to the old Club Paradise, Rush found something he wrote on the wall years ago to separate his dressing room from his backup singers' dressing room. "It says, 'The Bobby Rush Room' on one side and 'Bobby Rush's Girls' on the other side," he said.
Artists who recorded at Stax Records didn't just perform at Club Paradise, said James Alexander, who appeared at the club several times with his band, the Bar-Kays. "The artists that recorded at Stax always liked to go out when they weren't performing," he said. "They liked to hang out. And Club Paradise was one of the places they used to go."
The club also held a weekly Blue Monday show, which included local acts, Alexander said.
Denise LaSalle, whose hits include "Trapped by This Thing Called Love" and "Your Husband is Cheating on Us," said performers who played Club Paradise "reached a place in the music world that was like no other."
In later years, LaSalle brought her own band with her to play shows at Club Paradise. "There were times before I got my own band when I would play with guys like Marvell Thomas, Michael Toles - the greatest guitar player in Memphis - the Hodges brothers from Hi Records," she said.
LaSalle made an impression on stage. "I had so many outfits. I had lots of curves and line on my body. Small waistline and big hips and lots of chest. I was considered stacked. I would wear clothes accordingly. Tight gowns most of the time with pants that showed the hips and waistline. I would usually wear things with splits up the side or in front. Very revealing at the time."
Club Paradise wasn't limited to entertainers, Tillman said. "Everything took place in the Club Paradise. It wasn't just concerts. Community events - like the civil rights movement activities they held at the Club Paradise."
Tillman played the Paradise one time. "We had a little rhythm and blues act from the Star Search club on Park Avenue in Orange Mound," he said. Playing the Paradise was "the greatest moment I had."
The late Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell, who owned businesses and clubs on Beale Street, used to own Club Paradise. "One of the guys I interviewed said before each show Mr. Sunbeam Mitchell would walk up to the mic and he'd say, 'Attention, ladies and gentlemen. Attention. Could I get everybody's attention, please? The thieves are in the house. So please watch your pocketbooks.' "
Paul Jordan, who bought the club from Mitchell in 1985, described the former owner as "a different character from a lot of people. He was like that because he had a lot of power in the day." And, he said, "He had a unique way of handling people."
Describing Mitchell, Rush said, "He had power and a big pistol." Mitchell was "a hard-nosed guy." Entertainers at Club Paradise had to "dance to his music. If you didn't agree to his demands, you had to walk out the door." Mitchell was "a bully kind of a guy. If you got to know him, he was a nice guy."
LaSalle never had any trouble with Mitchell. "Sunbeam was very nice to me and treated me and my band with much respect and love," she said.
She just remembers the fun she had. "I don't know another place in Memphis that had the prestige at that time for a rhythm and blues singer."
Club Paradise personified entertainment, Tillman said. "You said 'Paradise' - it was like you didn't think about islands and beaches and stuff. You thought about music."
The Commercial Appeal
Jan. 22, 2016