“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
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.
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.”