On Sunday, May 13, Fletcher Weatherspoon steps out of his limo at the Sabre Room in southwest-suburban Hickory Hills, framed by the wide cascading-waterfall fountain draped over the venue’s entryway. A handsome dandy even at 80, he cuts an impressive figure—sharp bone-colored suit, dark hat and shirt, matching tie and pocket square—and he stands tall and smiles proudly as he watches well-dressed couples pour into the banquet hall. They’re all coming out for the 2012 Mother’s Day Dinner & Show hosted by Dove Productions, an entertainment and promotions company Weatherspoon founded in 1973. The setting is opulent and the bill is first-rate, topped by veteran soul singer Stan Mosley and headliners Marshall Thompson & the Chi-Lites.
For decades Weatherspoon, known to generations of revelers as “Spoon,” has been one of the best respected and most trusted figures in Chicago’s African-American social-club scene, which during its final peak in the 1970s was the largest in the U.S.—conservative estimates put the number of clubs at more than 5,000, with a total of at least 80,000 members. Every weekend the elite clubs—and Weatherspoon has been among the elite since the late 50s—booked top-flight entertainers into rented ballrooms instead of traditional venues like theaters and nightspots. For almost a century the clubs functioned as a sort of parallel entertainment economy, albeit a barely documented one, and though they’ve been in decline for decades, that’s in part because they’ve been transformed—they haven’t disappeared. The formal scene is gone, but its descendants persist and even prosper—and through all the years and changes, Weatherspoon has kept the flame alive. The 800 guests pouring into the Sabre Room are proof of that.
One of Weatherspoon’s doting sons arrives to help him gently into a wheelchair and roll him toward the venue’s ramp. Though Spoon began the planning for this evening last year, his health is failing, and his protective progeny have eased him into retirement. His 2012 Mother’s Day party is to be his last event—and his four sons have done most of the heavy lifting. After 61 years of promoting some of the greatest celebrations on Chicago’s south side, Weatherspoon is passing down his crown.
“Fletcher Weatherspoon is the last of the best,” declares Mosley. “He was the best in the city of Chicago, and still is—just look around.” Glitteringly attired patrons file past a portrait photographer, a discount jewelry dealer, and a kiosk selling 2012 versions of the DIY Obama shirts that were mandatory streetwear in ’08. They’re mostly in their golden years, though the Mother’s Day theme guarantees that most tables include at least two generations. Weatherspoon’s table seats the few relatives he has who aren’t working as ushers or ticket takers, and his five teenage grandchildren never seem bored or out of place—the vibe in the room is timeless. In many of its particulars—the R&B vocal acts onstage, the crowd’s to-the-nines couture, the sublime balance between classy comportment and let-loose merrymaking, the “Sweetheart” hospitality hostess acting as the organizers’ official face—this party is much like the very first ones Weatherspoon arranged in 1951.
Defined loosely, African-American social clubs have existed since pre-emancipation days. In Chicago the ancestors of modern-day social clubs date back to at least the late 19th century, when middle-class and upper-crust black women began forming clubs and societies, most with platforms that stressed service and uplift. They helped run kindergartens, nurseries, missions, employment-referral agencies, and homes for elderly and infirm, among other things. Charity work was a cornerstone of organizations such as the Phyllis Wheatley Women’s Club, which was founded in Nashville in 1895 and expanded to Chicago the following year, but by the 1920s, when black social clubs exploded in popularity, one of their primary goals was to provide space for people to get together outside the confines of the church. For generations of black Chicagoans, social clubs meant partying.
Histories of urban entertainment and nightlife usually focus on nightclubs and theaters, but for most of the 20th century, the hottest happenings were often independently promoted and under the radar, organized by groups of a handful to a few dozen people—in Chicago their delightfully creative collective names have included the Green Donkeys, the Gents Optimistic, the Foxy Mannequins, Les Sophisticates Modernistics, the Fraters of Eureka, the Sapphire Ladies, the Silent Twelve, the Dress Horsemen, the Monarch-etts, and the Space Queens.
The bigger clubs regularly drew up to 1,000 guests to the Parkway and Savoy ballrooms in Bronzeville, the Keymen’s Club on the west side, the Greenville Mississippi Club on 119th, and the Grand Ballroom near 63rd and Cottage Grove. But except in black-press society columns (including Doug Akins’s “The Club Set,” which ran from 1966 to ’75 in the Chicago Defender), you’d be hard pressed to find reviews or other documentation of the performances that brought all those people out—some of the best shows in Chicago history. The artists remember them well, though. “You always made more money playing for social clubs,” says soul singer Otis Clay, who’s worked with Weatherspoon since the 1960s. “They were very strong in the community, and had some of the best crowds.”
Black social clubs were not an exclusively Chicagoan phenomenon; they existed across the States. “They were the same all over,” recalls comedian and singer Jimmy Lynch, who toured the U.S. social-club circuit in the 60s and 70s. But to say they thrived here is an understatement. According to a 1972 Defender article, Chicago had more black social clubs than anywhere else in the country—more than 5,000, with 80,000 members of “non-profit making social and charity clubs” registered in Springfield—and unregistered clubs perhaps doubled those numbers. (Plus you didn’t have to be a member, registered or otherwise, to attend an event.) “It felt like everyone had one,” says Virgie Burgess, a west sider at the Sabre Room Mother’s Day event who fondly recalls her days in a club called the Chandeliers.
The most modest social clubs were basically high school cliques taking on aspirational names (my mother-in-law was in the Exquisites) and occasionally promoting teen record hops. Small adult social clubs might wrangle a weeknight evening every so often to put on a show in a local bar, and members would sell tickets and keep the door money—which they would then spend attending other clubs’ nights. Bill Brown, a Weatherspoon devotee from Lake Meadows, belonged to a social club in the 70s made up of CTA drivers; they hosted events at the west-side venue Jazzville, which they promoted by handing pluggers to bus riders. The biggest clubs—the Snakes, the Thrifty Ladies, Weatherspoon’s Gents of Society—rented massive halls for weekend and holiday parties that often competed with a number of similar events. With the help of sister clubs, club officers, and members, they would sell tickets, provide their own catering and liquor, and book an evening’s worth of entertainment that included A-list musicians, comics, magicians, and dancers. The scene peaked in the 40s, the 60s, and again in the 70s, and existed in recognizable form through the early 90s—by some measures, it’s never really gone away.
Weatherspoon, born in 1932, established himself as a social-club promoter soon after graduating from Wendell Phillips High School. In 1951 he began booking shows for a club whose name he can’t recall, and circumstances soon kicked him into the big leagues. That year he worked at a Montgomery Ward department store on Chicago Avenue east of Halsted with teenage singers Zeke and Jake Carey (Weatherspoon kept day jobs in retail so he’d have a base from which to sell tickets and advertise shows). He helped them recruit enough members to get a band together and landed them their first shows, performing for no pay at parties. Their doo-wop group the Flamingos would turn out to be hugely popular and influential—they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001—and Weatherpoon was their first manager.
The job had its complications, as Spoon learned after booking the Flamingos for a Friday-Saturday gig at the popular Club DeLisa. “We had a problem; all the fellas were Jews,” he remembers. The Careys belonged to the Hebrew Israelite Church of God and Saints in Christ, and some attribute their unique harmonies to the influence of minor-key Jewish prayer singing. “They said they couldn’t work on Fridays, so I took them to meet with a bishop at a religious convention in Indianapolis, and he said, ‘If this is the way you want to make a living, I can’t tell you not to. All I can say is, don’t forget the rock from which you were hewn.'”
Weatherspoon was drafted into the army in 1952, after which the Flamingos found new management. “When I got back they told me they’d held a place for me,” he explains, “but I had fallen in love and gotten married, so I told them I’d just help them when I could.” (Weatherspoon and his wife, Johnnie Mae, are still together.) No original members of the band survive, but Tommy Hunt, who joined in 1956, knows Weatherspoon well. “He was the power behind them,” he says. “He’s a man who’s truthful and honest, and if I had been the boss of the Flamingos back then, I would never have let him leave us.”
But band management was not Weatherspoon’s destiny. Upon his return from the service in 1954 (he says he never fired a gun the whole time), he was suddenly a hotshot on the social-club scene—the man who discovered the Flamingos. In 1958 he became business manager for the Gents of Society, a new club that earned notoriety throwing “Cha Cha Nights” and “Go Bohemian” parties at the Packinghouse Workers Union Hall Ballroom on 48th and Wabash. By 1960 the Defender was referring to the Gents as “one of the elite of Chicago social clubs.”
The group moved its base of operations to the Grand Ballroom and began to attract huge, lively crowds. “These people were serious drinkers,” recalls Clinton Ghent, who was part of the Budlanders, a dance and comedy act big on the social-club scene, before he became the host of Soul Train on WCIU-TV in the 1970s. “I don’t mean they were wild or drunk—I mean they were real adults who had jobs, and when they went out they knew how to drink.” Because Spoon catered to working folk, he often threw Sunday matinees—the schedule of his 2012 Mother’s Day event, from 4-9 PM, has nothing to do with senior early-bird hours.
The Gents of Society proved their merit in 1966 when, according to an Akins column, they conquered the “Christmas Jinx” and threw a hugely successful event on Christmas Day. During previous yuletide seasons, similar attempts had supposedly doomed several lesser social clubs, including the After Hours Boys, the Benedettes, and the Gay Nine. “Many attended the dance out of sheer curiosity to witness the death of a club,” Akins wrote, “but like yours truly, they are overwhelmed by the success . . . the Gents are NOT dead by a longshot . . . there was standing room only.”
Weatherspoon’s relationships with performers surely contributed to this success. Though Spoon loved to be out in the clubs, socializing and dressing sharp (in 1966 he was in the running for the Defender‘s “Mr. Fashion” title), the reason artists trusted him wasn’t because he was the life of the party. “He was always fun and he’s got a great personality,” says Clay, “but what was important was that everything he did was together, the details were always in place, and you could trust him.” In a testimony to Weatherspoon’s rapport with his artists, his basement walls are covered with photos of him smiling broadly alongside generations of local and national talent, including Latimore, Artie White, Z.Z. Hill, Willie Clayton, Terisa Griffin, Oliver Sain, J. Blackfoot, Little Milton, and Bobby Rush.
There’s one photo he especially regrets not having taken. At a party in a south-suburban hotel ballroom in 1967 or ’68—he can’t remember exactly—Spoon agreed to let a kiddie act perform for no pay. Their booker was confident that the crowd would throw enough cash at them to make it worth their time. Weatherspoon can still picture money raining down on those five kids, but the image exists only in his memory. “If I had just got a picture of the Jackson Five,” he says, “what do you think that would be worth?”
Video by Jim Newberry
At around 7 PM at the Sabre Room, Weatherspoon’s sons and Ed Lucious, a cousin who acts as emcee, kick off the entertainment with a poetic tribute to the man of the hour. It isn’t quite time for Mosley and the Chi-Lites, though: first Lee Kirksy, known since the 1960s as Mr. Lee, takes the stage for a brief set of dancing and physical comedy. If there’s any question that Dove Productions remains rooted in Weatherspoon’s stellar social-club shows from a half-century earlier, Kirksy’s presence should answer it. The 70-year-old has worked as an emcee and entertainer on Spoon’s stages for more than 40 years. In his heyday he was an in-demand act for more than 20 social clubs, though he’s only released one record in his long career. His 1973 single, “Love and Happiness,” is one the most bizarre artifacts of Chicago R&B history: a field recording marketed as a jukebox 45, it features Kirksy and a tavern full of drunk patrons singing along as a DJ spins the Al Green song of the same name.
Kirksy’s Mother’s Day set stuns the crowd: he launches into athletic somersaults, one-handed pushups, and James Brown moves, then literally dashes out the door. Mr. Lee is booked at four functions that night—evidence that remnants of the scene that nurtured him still thrive—so he passes me his card as he jogs to his car, anxious to talk up his friend Spoon when he’s less busy.
“When I started in the 60s,” Kirksy explains, “a lot of the clubs on the south side were for the upper crust, seriously highfalutin 47th Street ladies. It was different on the west side—they were more down to earth, hungry for entertainment. They weren’t wild . . . just happy! But of all the south-side groups, Fletcher’s had the most cutting-edge type of audience. You couldn’t dare go to 47th Street with some of that stuff!”
By “that stuff” he means the off-color entertainment that Weatherspoon’s parties welcomed as the 60s became the 70s. Ghent recalls that his group the Budlanders killed Spoon’s crowds with a routine that set a pantomime of cunnilingus to Screaming Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.” Sonny & Pepper, an X-rated version of the comic duos that date back to 19th-century black minstrelsy, were a Weatherspoon perennial. Indiana-based comedian Jimmy Lynch performed only for Spoon when he came to Chicago, though he’d become a chitlin-circuit superstar in the late 60s with the LP That Funky Tramp in a Nite Club. It contains only a single curse word, but it was enough to revolutionize the underground party-album industry. A lengthy skit about a man hired by a circus to seduce a frustrated gorilla ends with an audience-slaying punch line: “Don’t shoot it, take the muzzle off this motherfucker so I can kiss it!”
Lynch also helped raise Spoon’s local and national profile in the 1970s. The comic advised Rudy Ray Moore, who couldn’t find a Chicago venue that would host his raunchy live show, to contact Weatherspoon, and in 1972 he did. Throughout the 70s and 80s Moore (aka Dolemite) performed at many Dove Productions events, and Weatherspoon appears as a club emcee with a few lines of dialogue in Moore’s 1976 film The Human Tornado. After that brief moment of on-screen celebrity, Weatherspoon became an in-demand emcee at nightclub shows outside the social-club scene.
By then Weatherspoon had founded Dove Productions, buying the name from a failed country-and-western record label, and alongside his movie-derived notoriety he developed a reputation as a man who could deliver the energy and organization of a social-club event without a club. The Gents of Society had folded by 1970, and after starting a smaller group called the Traveling Sportsmen and then an even smaller one known as the 4-Swingers, Weatherspoon dropped the pretense and simply declared himself a promoter independent of any social club. Dove was his next logical step.
Few venues from the 60s and 70s social-club scene continue to operate. Though the Grand Ballroom has been restored, it’s rarely rented. “When they told me what they wanted for it now,” Weatherspoon explains, “I can’t afford it.” But a number of banquet halls still host events, including the new Martinique and the Crystal Light (both on South Cicero). The Sabre Room is about 70 blocks west of the once popular Drury Lane (on 95th near Western), on a site that was originally home to a mineral spring whose alleged healing properties led to the construction of a modest spa and restaurant in the 1920s. In 1949 a Chicago hotel employee named Arnold Muzzarelli bought the property and turned it into a nightclub. In 1971 he added a 1,200-capacity ballroom, complete with magnificent sword-shaped stained glass windows; outside he put up a kinetic Vegas-style sign on which Aladdin swung a scimitar. In its heyday the hall hosted shows by Basie, Cosby, Liza, and Liberace.
An immigrant from humble stock, Muzzarelli was rare among south-side merchants in that his facility was open to all ethnicities and races—the older African-American crowd attending on this Mother’s Day includes many guests with fond memories of the unique room, which is possibly the only space in greater Chicago to have hosted both a Sinatra concert and a Black Panther rally. Muzzarelli died in 1992, but as the open bar shuts down for the Mother’s Day dinner seating, his daughter and son-in-law are on the floor serving roast chicken, barbecue beef, and mixed vegetables to matriarchs in church “crowns.”
Many of those diners have been with Weatherspoon for decades, and he’s just as loyal to them—one reason his business has survived so long is that he’s kept innovating on their behalf. With the establishment of the Traveling Sportsmen in the early 70s, he began a kind of social-club exchange program with similar groups in Saint Louis—clubs in one city would take turns traveling to parties in the other. In the mid-70s, using what Otis Clay declares to be “probably one of the greatest mailing lists in the industry,” Spoon turned Dove Productions into an even more ambitious travel club. He took his posse on Vegas vacations and to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, where on one memorable late-70s trip the Chicago crowd caught the Zulu parade and a private show by Rudy Ray Moore; in 1988 he introduced cruises to his repertoire. Of all the events in his long career, though, Weatherspoon may be proudest of a huge 1989 road trip to Detroit for a Bears-Lions game and a private concert with Moore, Tyrone Davis, and Otis Clay at a nightclub called Henry’s. “I took 17 buses!” he says. “We had great seats at the game, and I had a lady in Detroit who was a cook. . . . We fed 17 buses!”
“Henry’s is one of the great old live clubs in Detroit,” Clay recalls, “and it was filled with Chicago people—Fletcher’s regulars who had aged with him over the years. It was great!”
Tyrone’s widow Ann Davis, who still has a permanent free seat at Weatherspoon events, was there too. “We had a good time! Tyrone thought it was fantastic to get that many people to go to Detroit,” she says. “We don’t know any other promoter who could do that.”
From 1989 to 2001, Dove Productions also rented out limousines to the paying public—a service that indirectly brought about the only press coverage Weatherspoon ever got that wasn’t in the Defender or about the Flamingos. Sun-Times columnist Dave Hoekstra, who used to hire Spoon to drive him to concerts, wrote the story in 1994.
Spoon’s sons have been attending shows for decades and helping out when they could, though they all have day jobs: Elwarren, 52, is a police officer and professional drummer who formerly played with the Flamingos and currently drums for Heatwave; Darrin, 47, is a computer programmer; Ron, 46, is a supervisor at U.S. Steel; and Christopher, 41, is an armored-car driver. Over the past few years Weatherspoon’s health problems have necessitated dialysis treatments and several minor surgeries, so late last year the four of them decided to take over Dove Productions. They debuted with a Valentine’s Day party—the first Weatherspoon event to accept credit-card payments. And the family has finally launched a website: doveproductionsllc.com. “They have some things I never had,” their father says. “They can do some things so much better.”
“I know I can’t keep doing it,” he continues, choking up. “I know there has to be time that you sit down. But you just have to realize . . . sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.”
Fletcher Weatherspoon’s retirement from party planning is a milestone, but it would be hyperbole to call it the end of an era. Not only are his sons keeping Dove Productions alive—they’ll be using his mighty mailing list to take hundreds to the Macy’s Music Festival in Cincinnati in late July—but his grandchildren seem so invested in the family business that Weatherpoon’s legacy could easily last another 61 years.
Innovative, independent event promotion in black Chicago has survived the decline of formal social clubs, and it’s going strong. The weekend before Spoon’s swan song, the Chi-Lites entertained hundreds of ladies and gentlemen in gowns and tuxes at a bid whist tournament in a Skokie Holiday Inn; the weekend after, the Sabre Room hosted a Steppers Extravaganza. During Mr. Lee’s brief appearance on Mother’s Day, he hyped his Old School Blues beach party, to be held on July 13. Perhaps the biggest event using this kind of promotion is the annual Chosen Few house-music picnic in Jackson Park, which draws more than 20,000 people—if its much younger crowd is any indication, the social-media age isn’t doing much to dampen folks’ desire to get together and have a good time in the real world.
Mother’s Day isn’t a time for looking forward, though—it’s an occasion to honor parents’ past labors. And at the Sabre Room, the clock is edging toward 9 PM and the mothers are turning that mother out: Marshall Thompson is leading several hundred majestic matrons in a conga line snaking around the tables as he belts out the R. Kelly single “Share My Love.” As the line passes table number one, Fletcher Weatherspoon—surrounded by a dozen family members and hundreds of friends and admirers at the last dance he had a hand in planning—is clearly in heaven. As I watch him thrill at the sights and sounds of 800 people having a thoroughly good time, his oft-repeated mantra suddenly feels profound: “Partying is my life.”