The Beat Goes on at Raiford’s

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The Memphis disco landmark is still dancing after 40 years.

by Shara Clark

"I don’t dance,” I say, as our group readies to head out to Paula & Raiford’s Disco one Saturday night in February. In traditional pre-game fashion, we each take a shot of liquor to loosen up before the big night. After we clink glasses and toss them back, someone asks, “Who’s driving?” None of us should. We could call Raiford’s  limo service, but in a liquor-induced moment of sheer genius, someone suggests we take the MATA bus downtown. “How late do you think we’ll stay?” “Probably not too late.” (Ha! Ask us again later — and remind me that I said I wouldn’t dance.)

We arrive, and the neon-lit Paula & Raiford’s Disco sign glows above the entrance on Second Street. It's just after 10 p.m., and they’ve opened only a few minutes ago, but the red carpet has been rolled out and the velvet ropes have been set up in preparation for what will soon be a long line to get in. A handful of people are in queue in front of us, but we’re early. Security searches our bags and pats down the boys. We show our I.D.s, then head into the lobby to pay the cover. Tonight, it’s $15 and Paula Raiford is at the window box. She gently flips my hand over and inks the word “SEXY” onto my wrist with a stamper. It’s on.

Walking into the club, there’s immediate sensory overload. The music is loud — very loud; there will be little conversation tonight. Red and white rope lights line the walls, and dangle, stretched and twisted into lighted curls, from the second-level rafters. Bunches of red balloons and strings of thin white streamers hang from the ceiling. A party’s soon to be going down in here. We can feel it. Fog billows from a smoke machine and mixes with cigarette smoke, casting a haze over the room.

On this night, bartenders are serving more than just 40s, which have always been the Raiford’s staple. There’s liquor, but when at Raiford’s, you drink a 40 (it’s actually a 32-ounce Bud Light) because that’s how it’s done. Big bottles of beer in tow, we make our way over to a table next to the dance floor. Tonight’s going to be a good night …

Stayin’ Alive

In the 1970s, “disco fever” swept the nation. So much so that in Memphis magazine’s third year of existence, contributor (and future editor) Larry Conley wrote about the phenomenon (in “When the Fever Strikes: The Best of Memphis Discos,” June 1978):

“In a storm of strobes and smoke and sound, a flash of gold chain, a swirl of white dress, and stars that splash from a mirrored ball. Everywhere the disco crowd — the talking and the drinking, the paired and the unpaired — everybody crisp and cool and stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.

And at the heart of the heart of the beat, the dancers — stayin’ alive.”

Conley went on to list Memphis’ (then) top 10 discos (of more than 30 discotheques in the city at that time), and though Raiford’s Hollywood Disco at 115 Vance Avenue hadn’t yet made its mark on the city, it would. Those listed in 1978 (Galaxy 5, 2001 Club, Front Stage Supper Club, Club Expo, Todd’s, Ernie’s, Daddy Long Legs, Club Paradise, Elan, and Mr. Bojangles) have long since shuttered, but Raiford’s has endured.

Robert Raiford, often referred to as the Master of Ceremonies or DJ Hollywood Raiford — or now, simply Raiford — opened his dance hall in a mostly quiet downtown in 1976 (the same year this magazine was founded). Then, he says, “People were running from downtown going east. They were looking at it like, ‘You can’t make it.’ But I was looking at it like, ‘What a golden opportunity! Ain’t nobody down there? Somebody’s fixing to go down there.’”

And go they did. The club’s early days saw a hodgepodge of patrons. Many were riverboat workers who stopped off in Memphis; the rest a mix of locals and out-of-towners who’d spotted the club at the corner of Vance and Mulberry after leaving the Green Beetle or Memphis Lounge or Earnestine & Hazel’s. Raiford says he’s “always brought a nice crowd, but [back then] they were kind of — a little hype.” 

Adding to the hype, “Sexomatic” nights attracted bigger week-night crowds in the 1980s. On Wednesdays, the club would burst at the seams with people lined up to show off their sexiest dance moves. Though “Sexomatic” was a temporary promotion, the party would go on for more than 30 years on Vance, until the summer of 2007, when Raiford, then well into his 60s, decided he’d retire and rest.

Raiford’s daughter Paula, the disco’s current co-owner, says that when the club closed, there was an outpouring of love from the community. “People came down and got pieces of the dance floor, of the walls. One guy took the pole,” she says. “It’s amazing. Sometimes, you know people love you and they appreciate you, but sometimes you need to see it in your face — its reflection.”

Paula, now in her 40s, grew up at her father’s disco heels, and helping him around the club was her first job. The experience shaped her into a “people person,” making her more social and “overall not judgmental of people.” Though so much of her life revolved around the disco, she’d worked other jobs, including a years-long stint in an office setting. But less than two years after the club closed, Paula realized where her heart was and approached her dad with interest in reopening. “When he closed, I was sad about it, of course, but that was his choice and I had no right to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to work forever,’” Paula says. “I didn’t think at the time that I wanted a disco, but as time went by and it was actually closed, it was like a death in the family, like we just lost something.”

It didn’t take much coaxing for Raiford to dust off his soundboard and sequined capes and get back to it. In 2009, the doors to Paula & Raiford’s Disco opened at a new location: 14 South Second Street.  

Dancing Queen

And that’s where we were on that late winter Saturday, 40 years after Raiford first brought the boogie to the people of Memphis. This night, as he’s done for just about as many Friday and Saturday nights as he can remember, he’s on the DJ stand, masked in fog, wearing an outfit from his famous custom-made disco wardrobe: a red fedora, and a silver-sequined red cape over a matching ornamented two-piece suit. Now, he’s spinning records for the early birds — many of whom are older than the crowd that will trickle in as the night progresses.

Before 11 p.m., a group of 50-something women stride over to the dance floor when ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” starts playing. “I don’t call them old,” Raiford says. “People come in here all night, all ages. Sometimes they come in the early part of the night — maybe they’ve got to go home early. I’ve got to hit their music. I can look at them and go, ‘That person yonder, she would’ve come up in the ’60s or the early ’70s. I got something for her.’ You’ve got to be able to feel their spirit.”

That ability is something Raiford cherishes, and something that keeps the hodgepodge crowd coming in. Paula says, “I used to call my dad the Martin Luther King of Disco. Martin Luther King wanted to bring us all together as one, and my dad brought everybody together as one through disco. We have all ages, all colors, all salaries. They get in this one little spot and just be happy.”

The bi-level Second Street spot is a reimagining of the original. At the old Vance location, the words “No Discrimination” and “No Illegal Drugs” had been painted, homespun, with a paintbrush on the outside of the building. Here, those same words are hand-painted in an artful cursive across the bar’s interior walls. Like the original, the whole of the inside is dotted with painted handprints, an idea credited to one of Raiford’s closest friends, Maxine Humphrey. “One day she just started putting handprints up, and that became her thing,” Paula says. “Before we knew it, she had done the whole club.” 

Maxine, who Raiford called Mac, has since passed away, and Paula dedicated the club’s balcony-level VIP area — the Mac Lounge — to her memory. Today, the handprint tradition continues. Over time, nearly every surface in Paula & Raiford’s Disco has been marked with handprints, some done by patrons. “Behind the bar and throughout the club, customers put their handprint on the wall and they sign it,” Paula says. 

The disco has always been staffed by members of the Raiford family: formerly Paula’s aunts and uncles, and today, the new generation of nieces, nephews, and cousins. Paula’s daughter, Keshia, works the bar, and Raiford’s brother is a limo driver. “It’s 90 percent family,” says Paula. “And the 10 percent that’s not family have been around a long time and are like family.” Together, they contribute to the sense of belonging one feels once inside. 

The club itself is like a living, breathing thing — like stepping out of a time machine and into another, more magical era. Paula, who is a vibrant character much like her dad, and whose smile is as transfixing as Cupid’s arrow, says part of its allure is the old-school disco music, but there’s something more intangible. “There’s this energy when you step in that door,” she says. “I can leave my house and be in an OK mood, but when I get to the club and go in that door, it’s like a little spirit comes over me — a little disco spirit. My energy peps up.” It happens to everyone who comes through.

Around 11:30, more of my friends arrive. I’m ready for my second 40, and they’re taking shots of vodka. A bachelorette party group comes in behind them, with them the first of at least three brides-to-be we see this night. They flock to the lit-up dance floor, under the disco ball, and move their hands in motion with “Y.M.C.A.”

Boogie Shoes

In the midnight hour, though I didn’t think it was possible, the energy in the place heightens. Maybe in part due to the level of the crowd’s intoxication, but the music on rotation is changing, too. We don’t hear Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” again, but we do begin to hear late ’90s and early ’00s hits, like the “Cha Cha Slide,” that set the crowd off.

By now, I’ve found my boogie shoes and am dancing as if it’s natural. More people — 30- and 40-somethings, college co-eds, groups in formal attire, and others who are more casually dressed — crowd the dance floor. A cluster of khaki-clad, button-up-shirt-wearing young men take turns climbing and wildly spinning around the pole. A fairly talented drummer tries his hand with the sticks, clanging and banging on the drum set that’s positioned on the front end of the dance floor, trying to keep time with the music.

Raiford stands astute, unmoved — a silhouette through the fog — overlooking his disco kingdom. No shout-outs from the DJ stand, just his playlist blaring through the loudspeakers, and the occasional, perfectly timed screech of a siren — rrreeeaaarrr! — which he adds in with an air horn.

“I don’t talk,” Raiford says later. “I’m trying to get it right on time and hit the notes just right, and I ain’t got time to be talking because I don’t need to.”

He’s also adamant about not taking song requests. “People don’t realize, I don’t play music like a DJ, I play music from the heart,” he says. “I can watch you — you don’t even have to dance all night long, but I know good and well you’re having a good time. I watch your feet, watch your mood, read your body language, and I can tell. I’m doing something for you — I’m not just doing something for the dance floor.”

Raiford doesn’t consider himself a dancer either. “I do get out there and mess around sometimes, especially when I was younger, but whether I dance or not, I still love music,” he says. The music he likes to listen to and share with his audience is music that has a message. “I love to hear Michael Jackson and James Brown. Those people tell you about life,” he says. “And B.B. King, he tells you about the hard times people had, that he had, too.”

But sometimes, the song selection is for the sake of dance. At 1:30 a.m., what feels like a couple hundred people bounce in unison, a blur of dancing bodies. It’s the “Cupid Shuffle”: “To the left, to the left, to the right to, to the right. Now kick, now kick! Now walk it by yourself, walk it by yourself.” The entire club is a dance floor at this point. There’s not a soul in the house who isn’t kicking and stepping along with the song’s instructions. The party’s at a peak, and everyone is all smiles.

As much fun as we’re having, it’s past our bedtimes. Someone in our group calls for a ride, and our Uber driver shows up right at 2 a.m. There’s still a line of people waiting to get in as we are leaving. Just another Saturday night at the disco.

The Man In The Mirror

After my big night of dancing, I catch up with Raiford to find out more about the man, the myth, the legend. When he’s in DJ Hollywood Raiford mode, he’s somewhat unapproachable, not talking or interacting much with guests. So, we meet on a Tuesday afternoon at the club. The party lights are glowing as usual, but today, it’s quiet. No loud music, no traffic jam of dancing bodies to wade through. I pull up a high-back rolling office chair (there are a few of these throughout the bar, along with leather couches) and slide it over to the table next to him.

This day, Raiford isn’t wearing his typical disco attire — no cape, no sequins — but he’s still the epitome of style with a black fur fedora, a velour zip-neck pullover, dark bell-bottomed jeans, and black pointy-toed boots. His Jheri curls spill out from under his hat in ringlets. He speaks confidently with a country twang, and smiles often, a row of gold teeth glinting through with each crack of his lips. Not surprisingly, it seems his hearing isn’t what it used to be: He leans in a bit when I haven’t asked a question loud enough.

Under the red glow of the rope lights, Raiford, who is much gentler and more cordial than I had imagined, talks about his nearly 75 years on this Earth — where he’s been and who he is. He was born in Blytheville, Arkansas. He’d worked on a farm growing cotton and beans before catching a bus to Memphis — a city that was “not too big and not too small” in comparison to the “little ol’ one-horse town” he called home — in the 1960s. He’d worked at, and later co-owned (with his brothers), a Shell station in East Memphis before deciding to be an entertainer.

He’s fixed on his legacy — a recurring theme in our conversation. “I done come in and made a mark on the universe,” says Raiford. “All I need to do now is finish the course. That’s the dream — everybody wants to finish their dream out and leave something for the next generation.”

He’s a grandfather, and he looks to “the Book” to guide his life. He doesn’t smoke or drink, and he isn’t a fan of television. He’s recently gotten a new puppy, a German Shepherd he’s affectionately named Raiford. He likes to listen to gospel when he isn’t spinning records for the weekend club crowd.

He says the idea for the club set-up, the wonderland of lights and art and what some may consider gaudy decor, was all a result of his creative imagination. “It’s just in me,” he says. “I just like to decorate, and I like to create stuff. When I first put the place together, I had to come down here day and night. Because didn’t nobody else know what my imagination was. They could try, but you can’t do it.”

Raiford never had any official training for the DJ life or schooling on how to use the equipment. “That was just a gift from the universe,” he says. And as for still doing what he’s doing at his age, he says, “I don’t have to do it but 10 hours, from 10 to 3 [Friday and Saturday nights]. I can work those hours. I can go up to 100 years old, probably.” Raiford says when he was on hiatus before the disco reopened, he’d been in and out of the hospital, but since coming back, he hasn’t fallen ill. “You need to have something to do,” he says. “You don’t just need to go and sit down.”

When I dub him the best party host in Memphis, he asks, “How about the world?” I don’t disagree with him. Raiford has, in fact, created one of the most electric party experiences in the world — an experience that has drawn people from all walks of life and every corner of the planet for 40 years, and counting. He has become Memphis’ — and perhaps the world’s — disco grandfather.

“It makes me feel like it wasn’t my doing — it was already written for me to do this. All I had to do was take fate and walk out on it. And that’s what I did,” Raiford says. “That’s why I try to stay here as long as I can now because I want to enjoy y’all, and I want y’all to enjoy the music I play — because I’m not goin’ to be here always. People don’t live much over a hundred. I’m 25 years from that, and I’m goin’ to try to be the best all the way to the end.”