Oldest black-owned nightclub in city faces uncertain future | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Oldest black-owned nightclub in city faces uncertain future 

For decades, Taste has been a required stop for blacks including Harold Washington, Muhammad Ali, and Rick James.

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Mayor Harold Washington dropped in for a visit in the 80s. - TASTE
  • Mayor Harold Washington dropped in for a visit in the 80s.
  • Taste

One summer night during the mid-1980s, Mayor Harold Washington visited the Taste Entertainment Center in the heart of Englewood. He walked into the kitchen, put on an apron, and offered some culinary advice to the staff.

While no one can remember what the mayor told the kitchen crew, his visit showed how, at the time, Taste was literally the place to be to connect with African-American constituents.

The club opened in July 1980 in a former Robert Hall clothing store at 63rd and Lowe. It's now the oldest African-American-owned nightclub in the city.

What the Pump Room was to white society, Taste was to black society. Muhammad Ali sat with the local crowd. R&B singer Rick James dropped in to get his superfreak on. The Isley Brothers visited every time they were in Chicago. Prince asked to use the juicy, red-lipped Taste logo in his hit movie Purple Rain.

Even more remarkable is that Taste has survived the ups and downs that have hit Englewood for four decades.

Donald and Lawrence Simmons - TONIKA JOHNSON
  • Donald and Lawrence Simmons
  • Tonika Johnson

The 13,500-square-foot club is still owned and operated by founding brothers Lawrence, 79, and Donald Simmons, 74. Lawrence's wife, Marie, was an original partner and creator of the Taste Kittens showgirls. Donald's wife, Gloria, later joined the family operation. Taste could hold up to 1,000 people when it opened. It was style with sass.

Dancing has dwindled to a misty waltz at Taste. A view from the south end of Lowe reveals Taste as a lonely urban bunker on the street. A yellow Metra railroad bridge stands in the background. The 63rd Street train station closed in the late 1970s. The Louisville & Nashville Humming Bird train line once transported people from Birmingham, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee, to taste the American dream in Chicago.

A metal garage door covers Taste's front entrance when the club is closed. You'd never suspect how bustling it used to be. The iconic indoor rain curtain and waterfall have been turned off. On a recent weekday afternoon, Donald looked around the empty club and said, "There were fish ponds all the way around. We had an aquarium in the corner with [fish including] oscars and Jack Dempseys." There was a Jazz Room, a Zodiac Room, and an outdoor patio. There were players, nitrite poppers, and, most important, community.

Lawrence added, "People don't realize what we are and what we have been."

The scene at the club on a recent Friday night. - TONIKA JOHNSON
  • The scene at the club on a recent Friday night.
  • Tonika Johnson

On Saturday, May 5, a Taste reunion featuring house music legend Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and former staff could serve as an introduction to some and a reminder for the old heads. It kicks off at 6 PM and is open to those 30 and over. A $10 cover includes a buffet.

Taste was a cornerstone of late 20th-­century African-American culture in Chicago.

Back when record labels had large promotional budgets, they would bring artists to Taste for meet and greets. DJs Tom Joyner, Doug Banks, and Richard Pegue hosted events. Singers Anita Baker, Janet Jackson, and Vanity hung out at the club while touring.

Marie said, "Prince's band came. He didn't, but he sent for the rights to use the Taste name in Purple Rain." (It was used during the concert scene featuring the Time.) At the same time Taste showcased Prince's customized 1981 CM400A Hondamatic motorcycle, delivered from the former Zone Honda at 4520 W. 63rd.

South-side show bands had over-the-top names: Ivory Tower, Brass Bullitt, P.J. Lewis & the Men of Steele. At one time Taste had live music every night of the week. Jazz saxophonist Houston Person, R&B singer Arthur Prysock, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes performed at the club.

Marie Simmons appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in the 80s. - TASTE
  • Marie Simmons appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in the 80s.
  • Taste

Marie was known for starting a complimentary Friday afterwork buffet with shrimp, oysters, and octopus. The family invented a drink called the Easy Living.

"It's a piña colada without the liquor," Donald said. "We use strawberry flavoring. When they want Hard Living, that's when we put in the alcohol. We were one of the first to use the computerized liquor system. We invested $100,000 in that when we started. Now you see those systems in all the clubs."

Lawrence and Donald are more businessmen than nightclub moguls. They're soft-spoken and reveal no signs of cynicism from 38 years in the Chicago nightclub world. Donald is a volunteer with the food pantry at his Faith Movers Church in south-suburban University Park. Gloria operates the pantry. Before opening Taste, he was an X-ray tech for an orthopedic surgeon. Before Taste, Lawrence worked for the now-shuttered A&P Food as a meat inspector. He lives with Marie in the Pill Hill neighborhood.

Customers have a laugh at "Freeyomind Fridays." - TONIKA JOHNSON
  • Customers have a laugh at "Freeyomind Fridays."
  • Tonika Johnson

The Simmons brothers grew up in Brewton, Alabama, about 45 miles north of Pensacola, Florida. Lawrence, the oldest of six children, moved to Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood in 1960, settling in at 61st and Drexel. He took a job at the A&P grocery store chain and eventually was promoted to supervisor. When Donald followed him to Chicago in 1962, he moved in a couple of blocks south of his brother, at 63rd and Drexel, and found a job in the United Airlines kitchen at O'Hare.

"We developed Taste after we went on vacation in Atlanta," Lawrence said. "We had a great time, and when we got back we noticed there weren't many nightclubs on the south side. We decided to build our own."

But it wasn't easy.

"We were discouraged from this area. Even our lawyer told us not to do it," he recalled. A consultant "wrote up a downer" of a report about the situation, and the Small Business Administration turned them down twice for loans.

Still, he said, "we felt we could rise above all that." They got a loan from Seaway Bank, once the city's largest black-owned bank. The mom-and-pop operation opened with a $700,000 investment.

Marie came up with the name "Taste."

Lawrence added, "We had considered 'Wet' because of our waterfall. But it just didn't come out right. The name helped us. 'Taste'—we had to live up to that."

Donald sits with his first wife Minnie, along with Marie and Lawrence Simmons. - TASTE
  • Donald sits with his first wife Minnie, along with Marie and Lawrence Simmons.
  • Taste

Lonnie Norman has lived in Englewood since 1963, when he was six years old. He worked at the now-razed Henry's Drive-In restaurant at 63rd and Union and owned Norman's Food & Liquors at 6647 S. Halsted when Taste opened.

"Stores were open up and down Halsted then," he said. "Sears. Wieboldt's. There were at least three movie theaters within five blocks."

Besides the changes in the neighborhood, Taste had to navigate changes in music.

"We started with a little disco," Donald said. "We moved into R&B. A couple years later hip-hop started. We didn't deal with rap. And the house music kept the rap out. Hip-hop changed the clientele, and we didn't want that. We wanted to stay 25, 30, and older. When younger people come in, older people stay home or go to other places. We played R&B like Luther Vandross and old-school blues all the time. And we still play it."

TONIKA JOHNSON
  • Tonika Johnson

Old-school community networking created the backbeat for Taste. Rappers Tupac Shakur, MC Lyte, and Biggie Smalls were on a tour and spent a long Saturday night just hanging out at Taste. "Their bus driver worked with my mother in the hospital," Donald said. "She directed them here. We didn't know who they were. There were about 15, 20 of them. They had a good time. Tupac took a picture of our logo."

Former Chicago Defender journalist Willie Wright said, "People were excited to see a nice club open in the area. Every day of the week someone wanted to go to Taste."

That included the city's top sports figures, among them Bulls center Artis Gilmore and Bears linemen William "Refrigerator" Perry and Otis Wilson. "People were coming from everywhere. Lots of athletes. It got so crowded I'd run in the office and hide or go on the roof," Marie said.

The Taste Kittens were born in 1982. Marie, an Englewood High School graduate, owned a couple women's clothing stores, including Mai-Ree's on the Mag Mile by Water Tower Place. In collaboration with Miami designer Anthony Ferrara, she began designing metal mesh costumes with metal headpieces, lingerie, and touches of leather. The Taste Kittens were Englewood's answer to the Tropicana showgirls in Havana, Cuba.

About a half-dozen Kittens would walk across the stage in provocative but tasteful clothing. "We tried it one time, and it hit the sky," said Marie. "So we did it for about 15 years. They didn't dance. Because the body and the costumes said everything. It kept the Taste packed."

Added Lawrence: "It was classy. The girls had rules. They couldn't leave the stage for the floor. They couldn't accept tips."

TONIKA JOHNSON
  • Tonika Johnson

In 1982 Taste customers voted Roberta Van Auken Ms. Taste, a title she held for 12 years. She also became a Kitten. "Because of the metal, the costumes were heavy, and everything was hand done," Van Auken said from her home in Marlboro, New Jersey. "The lingerie was the best, from Bonwit Teller and [Henri] Bendel's. Things came from all over the world."

Ms. Taste was an ambassador for the club.

"In the beginning, high-end music groups were coming in," she said. "I had to make sure everybody was comfortable. That everything was in order. To make sure the dances were going good with the Kittens. The Kittens were Marie's baby, but she didn't want any of the credit. She took the girls to another level, making it this exquisite thing."

News of Ms. Taste and the Taste Kittens made it to Oprah Winfrey, whose show began taping in Chicago in 1986. "The girls called Oprah about me," Marie said. "She called back and said, 'I'm going to send my limo for you at six in the morning. Get in it.' I said, 'What?' She said, 'Get in it.' OK. That's how Oprah was. And I was on the show."

The glittery swagger of Taste distinguished it from other south-side clubs. Last fall at Buddy Guy's Legends, Lawrence and Donald were inducted into the club wing of the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame along with Clarence Ludd of the High Chaparral, at 77th and Stony Island, and Mozell Barnes of East of the Ryan, at 79th and Ingleside. But none of the other clubs inducted were in Englewood.

The hard times that hit Englewood over the years have been tough for the club to endure.

"Violence was the number one change," Lawrence said. "It hurt the business. It slowed people coming into the area because they had other choices. We started seeing that around 2000. It hurt us bad."

Taste fell quiet.

A recent Friday night at the club at 6331 S. Lowe - TONIKA JOHNSON
  • A recent Friday night at the club at 6331 S. Lowe
  • Tonika Johnson

The club is now open just a few nights a week at most. "We've gone through the hard times, the good times, and the bad times," Donald said. "The steppers [dancers] kept us going on the weekends—then they left because of the neighborhood. At one time we were [open] seven nights a week. Now, we're two to three: Fridays, some Saturdays, some Sundays, and every first Wednesday." Good nights and special events will now see a few hundred people.

The community has praised the club's resiliency.

"They suffered through it, and they stuck to it," Chicago Blues Hall of Fame promoter Garland Floyd said.

Taste hosts a Mature Adult Senior Party from noon to 5 PM the first Wednesday of every month. A $20 cover includes cocktails, lunch, stepping, and line dancing. Asked how big the staff is these days, Donald looked at his brother and his sister-in-law and answered, "You're looking at it."

Why is the family hanging on?

"We always felt we would put money in it and bring it back," Lawrence said. "But the longer we go, we realize too much money would be too much of a risk. With our age, we'd never get it back. We want to keep the property. We could expose a new project in a few months. It would be here."

Donald pointed out, "The area is on the upswing. Saint Bernard's did a new building for emergency care [which opened in 2016 at 326 W. 64th]. And there's the new Kennedy-­King College [the college's football and soccer fields are across the street from Taste]. We have Walgreens and Whole Foods. Starbucks."

What's going to happen to the iconic club? The family wouldn't elaborate on plans for the site—or say whether the club was in the early stages of wrapping up its historic run. If it does shutter, the city will have lost an entertainment institution and what was once a required stop for many African-Americans.  v


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