'Lost Cincinnati Concert Venues' book recalls popular '50s and '60s nightclubs
A 'Who's Who' of pop, rock and country stars performed here at the Living Room, Surf Club, Black Dome, Babe Baker's, the Copa Club, original Ludlow Garage, Cincinnati Gardens and dozens of other places.
Steven Rosen doesn't have a time machine for us, so his new book will have to do.
Rosen's Lost Cincinnati Concert Venues of the '50s and '60s is a delightful tour of the long-gone clubs and places which hosted a "Who's Who" of pop, rock and jazz greats from The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane and James Brown to the Byrds, Alice Cooper, B.B. King, Allman Brothers and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Researching and listing the great acts that played here was "like walking through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and not just rock, but pop music and jazz," says Rosen, 71, a former Enquirer reporter and former CityBeat arts and culture editor.
"As time goes by, these shows take on a monumental status in your mind, and our social history. Giants walked here."
[Full disclosure: I've known Rosen for 44 years, since I hired him as an Enquirer suburban reporter in 1978, and I contributed some Cincinnati Gardens photos to his book.]
Lost Concert Venues (History Press; $21.95) gives baby boomers a nostalgic tour of music clubs and venues which once were sprinkled around the region: Babe Baker's in Avondale; the Surf Club inside Western Bowl in Western Hills; Black Dome in Corryville; the Sportsman's Club and Club Copa in Newport; Seven Cities Coffee House in University Heights; the Buccaneer Inn in Roselawn; and the Piano Lounge, Living Room and Playboy Club Downtown.
And, of course, there was the Cincinnati Gardens, where thousands saw The Beatles,Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Chubby Checker, The Kinks, Everly Brothers, Righteous Brothers, Statler Brothers, Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Lawrence Welk.
Rosen, a 1968 Walnut Hills High School graduate, grew up in nearby Golf Manor and rode his bike to the hockey and basketball arena on Seymour Avenue in Bond Hill. Opened in 1949, the Gardens was demolished in 2018.
"I can remember it was a big deal to live so relatively close to such an important destination in Cincinnati," says Rosen, a former Denver Post movie critic and music writer. As a teen, Rosen saw Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons perform there in the 1960s.
"They were huge on Top 40 radio. In those days, hot groups would come here pretty frequently," he says.
Rosen also saw the Moody Blues and Van Morrison there in 1970. "By then I listened to enough music that I started to be aware that the Gardens didn't have the best reputation for sound," he says.
Or comfort. The Gardens never installed air conditioning or elevators. The only way to the upper level was by stairs.
It was a different era, to be sure.
People went to "supper clubs" for a dinner and a show. Not just huge showrooms like the Beverly Hills Supper Club, but intimate venues like the old Living Room Downtown, Club Diplomat in Walnut Hills and the Surf Club. "You had dinner first. It was casual, but there was enough formality about it that you could hear the acts," he says.
Jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Ramsey Lewis, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Man played some of those clubs in the '60s. So did comedians Flip Wilson, Red Fox, Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers. The jazz and comedy acts were heard — and promoted — on Newport's old WNOP-AM, the "jazz ark" broadcasting from three huge old tanks floating on the Ohio River.
"WNOP-AM had this irreverent attitude that fit the time. You could use the word 'hip.' When you had a radio station with a format of jazz, it made a difference," he says.
Even controversial comedian Lenny Bruce played the Surf Club for five nights in July 1962. So did Peter, Paul and Mary that September. That was a revelation to Rosen.
"It was something that people whispered, 'Lenny Bruce played here' (in Cincinnati). I had no idea that the Surf Club even existed until recent years," Rosen says. The name still exists today at Western Bowl, where the old showroom is now known as the Surf Club Billiards room.
The dawn of FM stations, especially progressive rocker WEBN-FM in August 1967, promoted rock bands booked by the Black Dome in Corryville and Jim Tarbell's Ludlow Garage in Clifton.
Rosen first heard of Tarbell, who would later own Arnold's Bar and Grill and serve on Cincinnati City Council (and write the foreword for Rosen's book), when he opened the Hyde Park Teen Center in summer 1968. Of all the places mentioned in Rosen's book, only the Ludlow Garage operates in the same location today — although with different owners.
"I went to the Hyde Park Teen Center to try to see Vanilla Fudge, which had sold out quickly. WEBN was playing them all the time. I remember standing outside on the sidewalk with a big group of people who wanted to get in. Jim Tarbell was out there trying to mollify us. That's the first time I knew who he was," Rosen says.
Tarbell's Ludlow Garage, where the Allman Brothers recorded a live album in 1970, only lasted 17 months. Yet from September 1969 to January 1971 Tarbell brought to town Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, Dr. John, The Kinks, Johnny Winter, Mountain, The James Gang, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, The Staple Singers, Roland Kirk, MC5, David Sanborn and Captain Beefhart, too.
"It was baptism by fire," Tarbell tells Rosen, "to realize how quickly the whole scene changed from peace and love to money."
Lost Cincinnati Concert Venues not just celebrates the great performers and the venues they played in, but also two newspaper entertainment reporters who chronicled the city's rockin' music scene: Dale Stevens from the Cincinnati Post in the 1950s and early '60s, until he left for a Detroit newspaper, and Jim Knippenberg of the Cincinnati Enquirer's weekly Teenager tabloid section in the late 1960s.
Rosen's narrative relies heavily on their newspaper accounts. In several chapters, he reprints their significant reviews, such as when Stevens wrote about Coltrane and his band playing a 35-minute version of "My Favorite Things" at Babe Baker's Jazz Club on Reading Road in Avondale in 1963: "Frankly, I was moved as much as I've ever been … by jazz."
Knippenberg, later Enquirer entertainment editor and Tempo section columnist, "came along in the right place for the right time, at the right age, when the acts were what you'd call progressive. I found the Teenager section had great insights," Rosen says.
"The story of Cincinnati entertainment is the story of newspapers. The reporters had a commitment to write about these events, and wrote about them with a sense of urgency because this was happening right before us," Rosen says.
"I'm so indebted to Dales Stevens and Jim Knippenberg, both now deceased. To me they are great figures in Cincinnati's arts and entertainment journalism. They deserve statues."
Lost Cincinnati Concert Venues of the '50s and '60s from History Press is available for $21.99 at area bookstores or at stevenrosen.net.