I’ve often and very fondly referred to East St. Louis, in my columns, as “East Boogie” because of its 80-year history and reputation as the vibrant party central to the St. Louis and metro-east area, once populated by blocks of popular nightclubs, lounges and juke joints.
And if East Boogie had a theme song it would be The O’Jays classic “Livin’ for the Weekend.” That’s because from the days of my grandparents, my parents, my generation, to the current group of party people, all looked for a weekend diversion in our region, and East Boogie was their destination.
Immediately after St. Louis night spots closed, caravans of eager Missouri partiers and out-of-towners headed across the Mississippi River to the town with a reputation for parties that didn’t stop until the sun came up.
My grandparents and parents bragged about the safe, “good old days” in which they spent their weekends at spots like The Cosmopolitan, The Vets, Club Paramount, Pugee’s, The Blue Note and Ruby’s Lounge.
This was the same era in which East St. Louis Lincoln High student, Miles Davis fell in love with jazz and his horn; where Tina (Anna Bullock) met and resided in East Boogie with Ike Turner, and where a young Chuck Berry frequented the Cosmo on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, a young Michael McDonald learned the meaning of soul at the Blue Note lounge and crooner Phil Perry refined his vocal skills.
Years later, my older cousins, friends and neighbors spent their weekends in clubs like the legendary Blue Swan, Zodiac Club, Coleman’s Plaza and London House East. Listening to their party tales made me restless for the days in which I was legally of age to party the night away, without having to sneak in as I did on more than one occasion.
My time came during the days of the Regal Room, The Wiz, Club Broadway, The Max, St. Louis Nites, The Avenue, The Terrace and Club Celebration. My friends and I would club hop through as many as three or four spots on a Friday and Saturday. Often we would go straight from these venues to breakfast and, half-asleep, to church, nodding from exhaustion.
Even the LGBTQ and gay-friendly crowd had their spot; the legendary Faces, which showcased its own drag show and had a national reputation.
Today, the club scene in East Boogie is not so vibrant due to safety concerns and an increased reputation for violence, shootings and melees.
Da Beno seems to be the club of choice on the “IL side” for the younger crowd, while Club Illusion, Joe Man’s and The Red Door attract a slightly older crowd, although shootings and violence, even during the current pandemic, have curtailed crowd sizes.
The current generation has no concept of what they missed — the innocent fun, the ability to go out as young adults in a safe atmosphere, and return home with the reasonable expectation of not being assaulted or even killed.
They also missed out on the era of East St. Louis radio, which put many of these clubs and even rap music on the map.
Long gone are the days of WESL Radio, once billed as the greatest station in the nation, led by a cadre of colorful DJ’s such as Rod “Dr. Jockenstein” King, “Gentleman” Jim Gates, “Sweet Charlie” Smith, Michael Tyrone Key, Curtis “Boogie Man”, Bernie Hays and Edie B.
This was the era of personality driven radio. So much so that WESL was the first station in America to play the first commercially successful rap song, “Rappers Delight,” from the tiny, dilapidated station with a weak signal.
From that same station Dr. Jockenstein, who received his nickname from Parliament-Funkadelic leader George “Dr. Funkenstein” Clinton, turned high school kids, like me, into fans of party culture. Jockenstein’s “roll call show” was a gimmick designed to entice students out of bed and off to school by having them call in just to rap and brag about their school, favorite teacher, zodiac sign, etc. while encouraging them to stay in school.
Wednesday night gong show’s at the old Regal Room, were also hosted and masterfully plugged by Jockenstein. It was a launching pad for many successful area singers and comedians who sharpened their skills in front of a sometimes, ruthless audience.
Will there ever be a resurgence of East Boogie’s nightlife? It is doubtful and, actually, impractical. In a community with depleted resources to police such activities becomes a low priority with more urgent needs, such as infrastructure improvements and attracting of employers
The challenges outnumber the need to party.
But it makes me and others smile when we reflect on a nostalgic era which once put East Boogie on the map.
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