LEBANON — Obie Slater's memories could add to the archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Cleveland museum marked its 25th anniversary in September. But long before it arrived on the scene, many of its inductees performed in this small town 3 miles southeast of Kentucky's geographic center.
And many of those artists — people like Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others — were booked by Slater to come to Lebanon during the '60s.
"A whole lot of people, before they got to be anybody, they came here first," said Slater, 80, who managed Club Cherry, which catered to a largely African-American clientele.
After Club Cherry closed in 1969, Slater grilled steaks at Club 68, which attracted white audiences and other big acts from the '60s and '70s, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steppenwolf. Many of the artists were on their way to bigger things when they came through Lebanon, then a city of about 5,000 (closer to 5,800 today).
Listen to Slater speak of Otis Redding: "The first time Otis played for me, he played for three nights for $500. The second night he played, I fixed rabbit and biscuits, and he fell in love with it. And he was drinking cheap gin."
By the time of his next engagement, Redding's stock was up considerably — a fact reflected in his higher fee and his more expensive taste.
"The next time I had him, I gave him $600 for one night, and he was drinking Beefeater's," Slater said.
Club Cherry and Club 68 were owned by Hyleme George, who was mayor of Lebanon in the mid-1960s. George, a native of Hamat, Lebanon, who had immigrated as a baby with his family to the United States, had enlisted Slater to manage Club Cherry.
George, who favored El Producto cigars and black Cadillacs, invested in anything he thought could make money. He had a backhoe business, sold mobile homes, co-owned a liquor store and was a subdivision developer. He also had a radio station in International Falls, Minn.
Opening a black nightclub in Lebanon in the 1950s was yet another enterprise George thought had a chance for success. Lebanon in the '50s, '60s and '70s was a drinking mecca for people from surrounding dry counties, and had several clubs for all musical tastes. They had names like the Golden Horseshoe (which attracted big acts like Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Chubby Checker, and Hank Williams Jr.), the Kitty Cat, the Plantation, the Jane Todd Inn, and the Water Street Café.
"It was a fun-loving community," said state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, whose father and grandfather owned and operated the Golden Horseshoe. "Every weekend you had a lot of good ol' boys coming in from the county who just wanted to have a beer and listen to some music. And you had a surprising amount of people coming from Louisville. And Lord have mercy, Centre College students burned the road up getting to Lebanon."
"It was nothing for 2,000 people to be in these nightclubs on a Saturday night," said Elmer George, an attorney and nephew of Hyleme George.
In addition, booking agencies in Chicago and elsewhere knew they could get some exposure for up-and-coming artists — and, perhaps, more importantly — "they knew the acts were going to get paid," Slater said.
Slater and Hyleme George knew each other because Slater, then a bellhop at the Gilcher Hotel in Danville, bought his whiskey from the liquor store Hyleme co-owned in Lebanon. Slater said he then sold the bootleg liquor from the hotel basement to guests and off-the-street customers in then-dry Danville. Hyleme knew Slater was looking for other work because the Gilcher was preparing to close. Slater had already turned down an opportunity to work for The Peabody Hotel in Memphis.
Slater initially resisted the idea of managing the 300-seat Club Cherry because he didn't know anything about the business, which had fallen into a slump. But once he accepted the job, Slater said it took two days "to clean the place and kill the roaches."
On opening day, "I stayed there all day long — opened up at about 10 o'clock in the morning, and I stayed there till 12:30 at night, and I hit the cash register," Slater recalled. "I took in $1.40. I said, 'Lord have mercy, I should have went to Memphis.'"
But Slater got the hang of booking acts by listening to songs on the jukebox. Soon a constellation of stars or soon-to-be stars were coming through Club Cherry, and sometimes the backstage stories began to eclipse the on-stage performances.
Ray Charles, for example, beat Hyleme George out of some money during an after-show card game. This gave Slater ammunition with which to taunt his boss: "You telling me that you let a blind man beat you, and you're supposed to be slick?"
Singer Etta James (whose At Last is now a standard at wedding receptions) played Club Cherry, and Slater remembers her road manager saying, "Well, she'll be good for four or five more years."
"That's been almost 50 years ago, and she's still going," Slater said.
And then, around 1962 or '63, there was the young ex-Fort Campbell soldier named Jimi Hendrix playing guitar in a band making the rounds throughout the South. This was before Hendrix went to England and made a name for himself. But even then, Hendrix demonstrated astounding prowess on the guitar.
"He was playing guitar behind his head, playing it with his teeth," Slater said. "I said, 'That man is terrific.' The crowd went wild."
A few years later, when Club Cherry had fallen on tough times, Slater called upon Redding to help him out. So Redding committed to do four shows for Slater. In early December 1967, Slater was putting up posters advertising the upcoming Redding shows when he heard the singer's plane had crashed into an icy lake near Madison, Wis.
"I cried like a baby," Slater said.
Sadly, Redding never saw the success of his biggest hit, (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, which went to No. 1 in 1968.
As the Club Cherry approached its eventual closing in 1969, Club 68, which had opened with 600 seats in 1964, was rising in popularity. Little Richard (Lucille), Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (Wooly Bully), The Kingsmen (Louie Louie), Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire) and Ike and Tina Turner (Proud Mary) were among the artists who went through Club 68.
Pat Hays of Danville saw The Kingsmen.
"It was fabulous," she said. "They were like the hottest group around, like No. 1 in the nation. That was a huge event for all of us. All of us dressed up and had a good time. It was like prom but only better."
Elmer George was impressed by the professionalism of Ike and Tina, who had also played Club Cherry in 1961.
"I'd go in on a Saturday afternoon to watch them practice," Elmer George said. "It would be closed to the public but being a family member I got in. The Ikettes had some dance routines, and they danced to perfection. They had to have everything down pat. What Tina did, it had to be down pat. If the musicians were off, Ike was liable to take his guitar and poke one of them. Their music was second to none."
As the '60s gave way to the '70s, rock music became a big business, and small clubs like those in Lebanon faded away. In addition, by the late '60s, parents and one citizens group were concerned about the effect the clubs were having on teens.
In 1967, according to stories that appeared in The Lebanon Enterprise newspaper, Hyleme George was at odds with his own city council and police chief over the enforcement of an ordinance that prohibited minors from entering clubs that served alcohol. Meanwhile, other nearby communities voted to sell alcohol, so Lebanon wasn't the draw for out-of-towners as it had been.
Slater left Club 68 in the 1970s to work construction in Northern Kentucky, later worked at Whirlpool in Danville, and then ran a corner record store in Danville. Hyleme George died in 2001. Club Cherry was destroyed in a fire after it had closed, and Elmer George tore down Club 68 some years ago. He had the Club 68 sign moved to his home in rural Marion County.
"I had it set on a timer, and for a long time about 10 o'clock every night the lights came on," he said.
In 2005, Lebanon paid tribute to Slater and the town's rock 'n' roll heyday by naming him grand marshal for the annual Ham Days Parade. The full impact of Lebanon's legacy didn't hit Elmer George until he made his first trip to Las Vegas with his father.
"I look over there at the Thunderbird (a now-demolished resort hotel) and Jackie Wilson and the Coasters are going to play there. Looked up on another billboard, and Count Basie is in town. We were staying at the Hilton and Fats Domino was going to play there. All four of these played in Lebanon. Fats didn't have enough money to get to Lebanon and they had to get money to him to get him down here.
"I said, 'Dad, look here. All these entertainers are around here, and every one of them played a backstreet in Lebanon, and we're going down the strip in Las Vegas. What's that say for our town?'"