Remembering North End’s Phelps Lounge: Once a haven for top R&B and Soul Artists to Perform

Once upon a time – from 1960 to the early ‘80s – the famous Phelps Cocktail Lounge on Oakland Avenue, between Holbrook and Owen streets on Detroit’s North End, was a music magnet, attracting the biggest and best R&B, blues, and soul recording artists.  The musical acts that performed at the 450-seat club are too many to list, but included such artists as B.B. King, “The Delfonics,” Bettye LaVette, “The Impressions,” Edwin Starr, “Gladys Knight & The Pips,” Bobby Womack, “The Ike & Tina Turner Revue,” Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Little Richard, “The Staple Singers,” “The Temptations,” “The Main Ingredient,” “Isley Brothers,” David and Jimmy Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Etta James, “The Coasters,” “The Parliaments,” and more.

Urban folklore has it that “The Parliaments” – led by George Clinton – performed for 10 consecutive days at Phelps in the summer of 1968.  The group was rising in fame after releasing two hot singles in 1967:   “I Wanna Testify” and “All Your Goodies Are Gone.”  At the beginning of Clinton and the Parliaments’ long run at Phelps, the group was a “suit and tie wearing,” “high-stepping” quintet of singers.

However, during their 10-day engagement at Phelps, “The Parliaments” dumped the suits and replaced them with outrageous stage costumes, led by Clinton performing in a diaper.  The outrageous costumes and stage antics by” The Parliaments” became more bizarre with each show at the club, making Phelps the launching pad for the inception of George Clinton’s Parliament- Funkadelic’s avant-garde brand of funk rooted in rock, psychedelic, R&B, and soul music. 

Phelps Cocktail Lounge, sometimes called Phelps Lounge or just Phelps, was owned by Eddie Phelps, often described as a big-time, savvy music producer and promoter in Detroit.  When he bought the North End establishment in the early ‘60s, Oakland Avenue was a vibrant, bustling thoroughfare lined with other entertainment venues, stores, and businesses. 

And Detroit’s North End was not the only community feeling the magical touch of Eddie Phelps’ promotion acumen.  In a 1978 issue of Billboard magazine, perhaps the world’s most respected music publication for more than 120 years, the publication carried a story about Eddie Phelps going to Harlem to help rescue the famed Apollo Theater, which had been dormant for almost two years.  The story, penned by Robert Ford Jr., quoted Phelps saying he believed historic venues, such as the Apollo, should be saved at all costs because of their value to the community.  Ford also wrote about a concert Eddie Phelps promoted at the Apollo Theatre to help bring the Harlem venue back to life.  The show featured Millie Jackson, “The Manhattans,” and “Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.” 

Ford also lauded Phelps for owning one of Detroit’s top Black entertainment venues.  Ford wrote,  “Promoter Eddie Phelps’ Phelps Cocktail Lounge in Detroit has been an almost mandatory stop for national touring soul performances for almost two decades.”

Several of Detroit’s storied venue websites have traced and posted the history of the North End location where Phelps Cocktail Lounge once operated.  In 1914, the Oakland Theatre was at that site, followed by the Académie Theatre in 1923.  In 1934, the name was changed to the Echo Theatre.  The Echo is believed to have operated for almost two decades before becoming the Bizerte Jazz Bar.  Eddie Phelps bought the former establishment in 1960.  He changed its name and converted two conjoined structures – 9000 and 9006 Oakland Avenue – into one venue to accommodate the patrons wanting to see the top R&B, blues, and soul music artists up close and personal.

To help bring in patrons, Phelps made sure that his North End club’s interior was cool and chic. The place featured multiple bars, one of which was huge and horseshoe-shaped.  There were elongated bar tables and long leather couches positioned for patrons to sit and have great views of the stage and easy access to the dance floor.   And the central color scheme of the club’s interior was pinkish. 

While in the beginning, Eddie Phelps booked many of the city’s R&B-soul acts at his club, in 1964, he started bringing in a heavy lineup of national talent, beginning with R&B and rock ’n’ roll crooner Lloyd Price.  Singer Erma Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s older sister, shared the 10-day billing with Price.

For the next two decades, music lovers flocked to Phelps Cocktail Lounge seven days a week.  Sometimes the venue featured two shows each day.  In the early 1980s, the music stopped when Phelps closed.   The building has now been vacant for over 40 years.  The dilapidated structure has become an eyesore, except for the beautiful mural on the southside wall of the former nightclub. 

According to some music and venue historians, there has been talk, even if it’s wishful thinking, that the structure could be rehabbed one day.  A few years before the pandemic, the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, a non-profit organization based in the North End, reportedly had visions of refurbishing the building and opening it as a center for the North End’s creative community and a location for empowering youth.  Yet, some diehards believe Phelps Lounge could be a Phoenix rising out of the ashes to live again in the North End community.  

“It’s hard to imagine a situation where the Phelps Lounge is renovated,” Eric Hergenreder, Detroit-based writer and researcher, posted online. “The structure is in dire shape – fallen bricks often sit on the sidewalk, and the windows enable the elements to sneak inside to wreak havoc.  With that said, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  With enough money, Phelps Lounge will rise again.”





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