Spoon's last dance | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Spoon's last dance 

For six decades, Fletcher Weatherspoon has been a pillar of Chicago’s African-American social-club scene. On Mother’s Day, he handed down his crown.

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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."

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