robert raiford memphis
robert raiford memphis

Memphis Mourns the Passing of Its Disco King, Robert Raiford

It’s been years since I last walked inside Raiford’s — a Memphis, Tennessee, dance club that truly defies description — but nonetheless it’s seared in my brain. Today it re-entered my mind, but for the wrong reasons. On Wednesday Memphis said goodbye to the club’s founder and owner, “Hollywood” Robert Raiford, the city’s beloved disco king, dead at 75.

As a college student who lived in a Downtown Memphis apartment, I was never far from nightlife options. But save a few spots that my friends and I frequented for cheap draft beer and a blaring jukebox, Raiford’s is one of the few Memphis nightlife spots worth describing to out-of-towners. There is quite literally no place like it.

When I lived in Memphis, Hollywood Raiford’s sat in a cinderblock building that resembled a double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Downtown. It was removed from the many bars of Beale Street — Memphis’s version of Austin’s 6th Street or New Orleans’ Bourbon Street — but it was never empty, and its off-the-beaten-path location made it a beloved spot of those ‘in the know.’ We of course loved that.

Walking into Raiford’s was an experience: an astroturf walkway into the building (I believe it was green); plastic-wrapped couches; a light-up dance floor featuring stripper poles, surrounded by mirrors and cloaked by a perpetually dense cloud of fog; and the bar’s famously concise menu — you could order a 40-oz bottle of Bud, or a 40-oz bottle of Bud Light. And it was all the vision of one man, Robert Raiford.

You couldn’t miss him when he was in the bar, mostly because  he was always decked out in the most outrageous of fashions. (The man loved capes, sequins and hats.) Raiford had first opened the dance club in 1976, and people immediately flooded its dance floor. On Friday and Saturday nights, he was the club’s DJ, too. I remember lots of Prince. Sylvester, too. Every artist a young queer kid (who hadn’t yet jumped out of the closet) wanted to dance to on a weekend night out with friends.

But more than the venue itself — which, you guys, I can’t explain how amazing this place truly was — what I remember is the overall vibe of Raiford’s. No other bar or dance club in town brought together such a diverse group of people (and that’s saying a lot in a city like Memphis), but once you stepped inside, everyone was just friends. Race, ethnicity, sexuality and status ceased to exist. Every line was blurred. We were simply there to dance.

Raiford himself knew this. It was all part of the vision. He told Memphis newspaper The Commercial Appeal, “This is a world within another world. Once you get past that front door, you’re in a whole different environment.” 

But this isn’t an obituary for the bar itself, which despite closing down in 2007 and moving to a more permanent location on Second Street in 2009, still exists, welcoming locals and tourists on the weekends.

robert raiford memphis 2
Photo via Memphis magazine

Here’s hoping that still today there are college-age queer kids in Memphis who make their way into Raiford’s, and that it helps them come to terms with who they are and simultaneously shows them a great time.

“[It was] written for me to do this. All I had to do was take fate and walk out on it. And that’s what I did,” Raiford once said. “That’s why I try to stay here as long as I can now because I want to enjoy y’all, and I want y’all to enjoy the music I play — because I’m not goin’ to be here always. People don’t live much over a hundred. I’m 25 years from that, and I’m goin’ to try to be the best all the way to the end.”

He definitely was. Thanks for the dance club, “Hollywood.” And the 40s. But most of all, thanks for the great music.

(Featured photo via Memphis magazine)