By Curtis Lipscomb
For two to five hours you escaped on a Friday night and the DJ lead the journey to our freedom. In the late 70s and 80s the most popular cultural gathering for Detroit black gay men was at the nightclub, bar, and or disco.
The blue collar worked five days a week in anticipation of the weekend, beginning on Friday night. By Friday morning you had planned on your night, Saturday and Sunday. You’d call your best buddies to arrange where you’d be going to meet to purchase the latest drag. No sneakers or jeans … leisure suits, custom apparel, jewelry, outerwear, anything that would make you stand out. You and your friends would meet at the suburban mall or downtown boutiques, try on, discuss, buy and flee home to make it in time to prepare. Retailers in downtown Detroit such as Serman’s, Henry The Hatter, Cio, and suburban retailers like Donna Sacs, Roots, and Marc Buchanan garnished a lot of dough off the children. Even local clothing designers successfully chimed in such as Ms. Will, who was the most popular seamstress of all. He turned out drag like a crack dealer sells crack … 24 hours, all day everyday! The sprit of self-creativity and self-discovery was high during the process of purchasing and styling your gear for the night. It meant everything as you were being free to be and assessing your evening goals. Particular the goal to get a man or to let your girlfriends have it!
Even the preparation to arrive at the club was anxious … who’s driving, who’s picking up whomever when, what route are we taking, and what time are we precisely arriving at the door? All things were considered during the dressing of the newly purchased drag, while on the household telephone (or telephone booth if you had no service).
Some of the popular establishments were called Bookies, Glass House, Splash, Footlights and Todd’s. One of the most well attended bars was The Famous Door, located at 1256 Griswold at Grand River in downtown Detroit. Mostly attended by men young and old, patrons called it simply “The Door.”
The crowd was a mix of jits (later called thugs), young and old butch & fem queens, seasoned Mack daddies, and downtown employees. The establishment was narrow, and the bar was in the center serving on both sides. There was a small dance floor and a balcony. There were three popular arrival times: for the after work crowds it was 6 p.m. For those who like to dance: the early bird was before 9 p.m. where the cover was $1 and $3 afterwards. If you arrived later the most popular arrival time was around 11. Because my closest friends and me were underage, fake IDs purchased from nearby Kresge’s gave us access inside (I still have mine).
After the doorman and ID checker “Grady” (The famous older man who resembled Grady on the show “Sanford & Son”) greeted you and checked your legit or illegitimate ID, we paraded straight to the common area which was the dance floor and a sitting area nearby where you chilled, gossiped or checked each other out in admiration or shade. We had so many ways of communicating how we felt about each other similar to any group of segregated people. Detroit gays ALWAYS acknowledged each other’s presence while passing by or standing still. Not to do so could start a fight or lifelong distaste for each other. So two friends would welcomed one another with a hug, an air kiss on the cheek or both cheeks or with the very popular greeting: the straight armed hand wave as if you were in church on the other side of the sanctuary and you were too far to affectionately touch. (This was my favorite way of greeting and one I am most commonly known to use). Now, if two men who were interested in “knowing” each other, they would greet each other with a long stare that would assure each “saw” one another and identify if you’d want to “really know one another.” When both are in agreement the next steps begin the verbal agreement.
After friends’ initial acknowledges then begins the popular verbal greeting. “Child,” one would say. “Miss Thing,” says another, both studying each other’s drag, and awaiting proper acknowledgment of their fine taste in apparel. Intimate friends would never greet one another like that. I’d be a “hello” and “How are you?” Even “What’s your name?” and so on. Once done with the pleasantries both would proceed to mix and mingle.
Many of the patrons were of the creative class and the working class, both blue and white collar. For those who were on limited and fixed income, saving for the entrance fee and beverages was paramount, planned and budgeted accordingly. There was plenty of top shelf beverages in stock, but the door was known to serve well and below. Soda was served for a dollar and low-end malt liquor drinks such as regular and Pink Champale served for about $3. For those coming to dance, drinking alcohol was secondary to getting your life. Drugs were available to patrons such as weed and light cocaine, but being such a blue-collar town, usage of the time was frowned upon.
What happens next is extremely important; you wanted the DJ to know you arrived. The DJ was the center of the night. Not the bar tender, doorman, wait staff or bouncers, but the DJ. The Door’s DJ was Melvin Hill and you wanted him to know you were there.
Melvin Hill was born February 15, 1955 and just 10 years older than me. Ten years made a difference to a young person like me and I and others wanted his full attention and Melvin was fully accessible. Melvin was hired at The Door in 1974 and was hired by the owner Jeff Walker. The DJ’s booth, located on the balcony, was a very small room that looked like a closet and only 2 persons could “fit” inside. Melvin was a tall, broad and healthy man. A man many desired intimately and socially. Everyone wanted to either be in the room or stand next to it. It made for a horrible traffic jam for patrons as they attempt to chill out up the very small circular stairway. Gay men always wanted to be where the DJ was. In popular black nightlife and culture it was about the MC who guided through the evening, later it was the band who became as famous, and later on the music maestro or the man who played recorded music. He was even greater if he owned the equipment. Most gay club DJs did not own their equipment, so it added to the club with the DJ being in center of the evening.
The Door played records. I mean vinyl 12″ singles, albums and 45s. We danced to the B-sides of records. We never wanted to dance or listen to what was played on the radio. We did that all week and we certainly wanted to hear our songs. Music made for us. The DJ was also the A&R man, the research and development coordinator and the marketer all in one. He played what no one else in Detroit radio played. He was always one or two steps ahead of what was hot. Gay DJs always did have the knack to know what’s next and forward in dance music.
Songs played at the Door had an impact on local record stores. Retailers like Kendrick’s on Fenkell Ave, Buy-Rite on west 7 Mile, Bad Records in Oak Park, Wonderland on Grand River, and other area outlets sold those songs made famous by the DJ. The 12″ singles were king at that time. Please purchase “disco versions” or “extended play” versions of popular dance tracks.
If you arrived at 9 you had one hour of “fast music” and a half hour of “slow music” to enjoy. Melvin responded to the wishes other patrons. Remember … you came to either kick it with your friends or meet your future husband. You job was to kick it with friends or secure your man for the evening or for the night. You entered with determination and back in the day swagger. Both musical sets allowed you the opportunity to do both. So, you heard affirming songs “Wording Rappinghood,” “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life,” “Weekend,” “Call Me,” “Let’s Start The Dance” … all would cause you to go into a frenzy. Afterwards while you were all sweaty, the music would calmly go to “I Can’t Help It” or any commonly known bump and grind song. This is when you’d find your first potential mate. (If didn’t work out, you had another opportunity later). If you arrived at 11 you entered with the next musical set … more frenzy, bump and grind, and ultimately the finale. The finale could be The Clark Sisters’ “You Brought The Sunshine” that’d always bring the church and club children together (or as I say, early usher call).
Entering The Door was like walking down the yellow brick road to Oz. It was the journey to freedom. Like the great migration north, The Door was “Canaan Land” … a place of freedom, self-expression, and emotional rescue. It was a place to facilitate the social order, set new rules of behavior, and create policies of self-identification. Like the song “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” and “Living For The Weekend” we couldn’t wait to “ease on down the road.” Other places where we frequented had similar experiences happen. Our sister club Todd’s on East 7 Mile Road at Van Dyke was the Saturday night hangout where class was encouraged. You’d go to the door to “get you life,” and you go to Todd’s to be seen. At a popular club developed later for younger people, Tom Philip Post on Gratiot Ave many people experience the opposite … isolation, aggression and division as the music catered specifically to its edgier demographic.
If the 80s music was big dance era, the mid to late 70s DJ was quite theatrical with MOJO from 107.5 FM WGPR setting the tone for the disc jockey in the center of the city’s music. The 90s club music develops to message music. Many songs featured violent and anti-violence response messages. Political activism began with another famous DJ Ken Collier at Heaven calling on the microphone instructions to the dancers on the dance floor while dancing to move, vote, act, respond … whatever what was called for the topic or drama of the day.
After The Door closed at 2 a.m., fellowshipping continued outside in the front on the sidewalk and street. There you then were able to tell Melvin in the center of it all that you lived and got your life. You’d show your ruined drag, ruined hair do’s and runny make-up all the while attempting to find or plot your way home. What the DJ did was to accomplish his ultimate goal … to bring the people together.
Where do we go from her? Stacey “Hot Waxx” Hale … DJ Sarena Tyler?