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Back In The Day (LaRay)

For true house music, Club LaRay was a hot ticket

by j. brotherlove

I was a party animal at 19.

I lived in Chicago and those days, I had endless amounts of energy. I would attend classes at University, work two jobs, stop by home to shower and change clothes, and hit the streets to hang with my friends (which included EJ). Hanging generally involved eating, taking a nap, and then, armed with fake ids, clubbing until 4:00 a.m. We were young and always got our share of attention. But going to the club was about dancing for me. House music was at its peak, with many of the popular house tracks being made right there in Chicago by people I knew about. It was music I could dance, sing and sweat to. It was, in a very real sense, my religion.

There were several places to go but our spot of choice was Club LaRay, a large building with two bars, a dancefloor and a staircase that lead from the floor to the ceiling. We theorized about what the Stairway to Nothing was built for but we never knew for sure. It’s most popular function was to serve as a place for drag queens to slide down when performing Patti LaBelle numbers. Under the MC antics of Taisha Thomas (one of the Patti LaBelles), Chicago drag queens went all out for performances and are the reason I love Teena Marie (Amelia Black), Phyllis Hyman (Erica Renee Christiansen), Mille Jackson (Lady Belle), Gladys Night (Lady Ashley) and Grace Jones (Ahza) as much as I do.

For true house music, Club LaRay was a hot ticket. However, it was common for us to sit around and complain about what LaRay could do better. In retrospect, he did the best with what he had which, considering the clientele was mostly black, gay men, was impressive. That dynamic doesn’t even exist today in Chicago. There was often a healthy helping of women, straight folks, and minor celebrities in attendance, on any given night. On various nights, I danced with Jermaine Stewart, Candy J. (aka Sweet Pussy Pauline), Jamie Principle, and Prince’s dancer, Cat to songs like “Bring Down The Walls”, “You Used To Hold Me” and club anthem “Welcome to Club LaRay”. You learn a lot about a person when you dance with them. I learned that dancing with Cat was dangerous; she vigorous flung her hair the entire time, whipping my face and body with her weave. I had welts after that.

Club LaRay also had its version of men “on the DL”. Of course, we didn’t use that term, then. LaRay called them “straight sissies” and whenever tensions got high in the club resulting from a “straight sissy” being approached by a gay man, LaRay would stop the music and get on the mic with a bat in hand to remind everyone that he ran a gay establishment; if you had a problem with that, you needed to leave.

When I wasn’t on the dancefloor, I imbibed in complimentary drinks (Southern Comfort & 7-Up, even then) from my favorite bartender, Lil Mike, and tried to get picked up. Actually, picked up is an exaggeration. I was shy and the world of man-on-man sex was still relatively new. I was unsure about how things should go down. Subsequently, I sometimes opted for anonymous 10-minute encounters in semi-public places. Ironically, it seemed safer than getting to know someone. That changed when I met Pepe. He was my first male love and, like most first loves, it was intense and painful. After Pepe, I knew how to identify the men I wanted and negotiate what I wanted from them.

Like first loves and all good things, Club LaRay eventually came to an end. The closing of Club LaRay was followed by many late nights at hole-in-the wall Stop & Drink (affectionately known as Stop & Stab, Stop & Don’t and Stop & Turn Around) because DJ Tyrone Mixx spun the best shit and The Clubhouse (one of those places where everywhere you stand security asks you to move) because it was new. But club life was never as much fun after Club LaRay closed except for the brief time Foxy’s was open.

Foxy’s was a true “love all, serve all” kinda joint that redefined eclectic. Patrons included gays and straights of all sizes and colors; even moreso during Raunch-O-Rama theme nights. On most nights, Foxy would prance through the crowd in regal gender-fuck drag with red boa and cigarette filter. The bartenders were tasty and DJ Freddie Bain made music sound like Heaven. It was at Foxy’s that I first say the Star Booty videos and learned to appreciate Lahoma Van Zant, Mona Foote and The Lady Bunny. For a while, all seemed right with the world. Unfortunately, Foxy, a true Gemini to his heart, put more energy in the aura of the club than the daily business operations. Soon Foxy’s was sold and converted to Spin, a gym queen, circuit bar.

Interestingly, Foxy’s was located across the street from the defunct Club LaRay. The building loomed empty for a long time before it was transformed into a store that sold futons. They may as well sold coffins as much it killed the last remaining soul living on the corner of Halsted and Belmont. May they rest in peace.

pub: 09/28/2003 | previous entry | next entry | feedback x 11 | subscribe

i really miss listening to house music. all the old classics are on tape and i don’t have a tape player any more.

i got my dosage of good house @ the sound factory bar and the octagon. but now whenever i venture out, and since hip hop has take on over, they cram us house heads into a small lounge and play hip hop on the mainfloor…that is unless i go to the shelter.

Oh honey, there will come a day. “It’s not over!”

at the age of 19, i wasn’t even in La Rays. at that time i only went to Bijou Theatre, where among other things, I met other cool people who could not get into La Rays.

when i finally could get into La Rays (just two months after my 20th birthday), i didn’t go in using the conventional route. four of us would go in at the same time, with the leader having enough money for four people. He woule give the money to La Ray who owned the bar and often was the one who checked IDs at the door, and when he did, we would all go in simultaneously, a little too quickly for LaRay who often yelled at us, but by then it was too late: we were already in!

the first time i went into LaRays, i was hit upon by Taisha Thomas, who descended from her lair and toward the back of the club near the bathroon, and proceeded to give me a kiss. blecch.

i could go on and on about house music (Ten City gave me Devotion, which broke me into the house movement…before then you couldn’t get me to listen to house music without forcing me down), the dancers (i couldn’t dance, but try to catch J. Brotherlove or Terry H. OFF the dance floor, and you’d be waiting a while), or hanging out near the back away from the house music (where you culd get your talk on or be at ground zero when fights broke out near the bathroom)….

…aah, those were the days…..

The resident jazzhead proudly admits that I am also househead and I truly lived for Club LaRay. I can still hear LaRay yelling over the loud speaker, “I am LaRay, this is my club, blah, blah blah…” and we were like hurry up and turn the music back on. J, you did not include Peaches and Octavia, the big girls who rolled down the steps to Jennifer Holliday’s “Givin’ Up.” There were many great clubs in Chicago back in the day but nothing compared to Club LaRay. My ears would be ringing when I got home and I would be soaking wet from dancing 2 to 3 hours straight. I was sad when they closed in summer of 1989. I worked evenings so I would go directly from work. Now that was a great flashback. Thanks J!!!

5. Bernard

There are a couple places in NYC where one may still hear good house classics…. The Shelter (especially when they have a Garage Classic or Better Days party), 667 on Sunday nights (house and R&B classics) and Together In Spirit on Sunday at the tea dance. It’s amazing at how many of the “you used to go there too” crowd comes out.

Do the black children in New York go to “tea dances”. I think it’s a great idea but the kids here don’t feature them in Atlanta.

7. Rich

I’m a 32 year old male from Chicago who spent the best summer of his life(1988)”sneaking into LaRay’s(50% success rate)…House music was like the ultimate drug,and as a straight black male,LaRay’s was the first time my friends and I were exposed to gay culture.It’s kinda funny in our “Queer eye” & “Will & Grace” era of acceptance ,a lot of the kids who’d leave the club(located on the city’s North side)would have to ride the Dan Ryan el train back to their(mostly hetero and homophobic)south side neighborhoods.I recall being awed by some of those brave individuals,who’d usually put up with stares,insults,and sometimes physical attacks(from the local thugs) just to go clubbin’.
My friends and I knew (even at that time)that we were witnessing history everytime we stepped into that club.We’d even take these little cheap tape recorders inside,record a few hours,and then make copies and sell them in the ‘hood.I grew older,and went through the usual phases(hip-hop, rock, rave kid)but musically,nothing can touch what was coming outta that buliding that summer.It just touched your soul.Whenever I hear Ten City’s “Right back to you” or “Devotion”,I get chills up my spine.


I remember the first time I entered the doors of Club Laray, I was in one of my oversized Calvin Klein cashmere coats, my hair was slicked back like Sade, and the house music pumped until I couldn’t help but dance to the music. I remember all of the lesbians that used to frequent the club, we had a secret society. Who was going to be the baddest bitch in the house, or start some major drama. I enjoyed the drag queens. To this day Sylvia del Rio will always reign as the queen of drag. The first time I met her, she was at the bar, and I hoped it was a woman, because I was definitely going to flirt. She proved to be a shim, but that was cool, we exchanged compliments on each others makeup, and indulged in a drink. The days of that type of clublife is over, and its rather sad. No more talent shows, or ladies night, or anything to really look forward to, as festive as LaRay’s.

9. Pierre

Damn, it’s nice to hear about the old clubs, like Le Ray’s. Was any of us of age to attend? I too admit to the phoney ID of the late 80’s. The first time I venture to the club was on a date with a hot cutie I met several week before. being the naive virgin I was and meeting this tall, handsome, well built and intelligent man it was love at first meeting. Before going to the club I brag to my best friend that I had met my dream guy and he had to go the club with me. Well, we were seated at the bar waiting on “my Man” when we look up and saw some hot porno playing on the TV screen. Never seeing this before I was highly interested. Well… the movie was interrupted to show last week drag show and what did I see…(Yes)”my Man” kissing and tipping and loving his ex a drag queen. Well that was as good as time as any to introduce “My Man” to my best friend per video. He walk in five minute later to tell me that he had also saw the tape showing and that it did’nt mean anything they were finish. Well we proceeded to the dance floor where he began to kiss and rub me until I was about to forget and forgive everything. Well reality hit and I asked him to explain what was going on at which time he stated the infamous words..we need to talk about us. Hell! I did not want to hear that while “it’s not over was playing” I made an excuse to leave, but before I left, he gave me a long goodby kiss and I never saw him again. But had the pleasure of many goodnights at LeRay’s afterwards.


OMG, you took me back. I also remember LaRay on the speakers …”I AM LARAY! THIS IS MY CLUB!”

Ohh, those wonderful nights at the old Clubhouse, Rialto’s had the fiercest music, Bistro Too … music was incredible then. All those personalities … Flame, Sweet Pussy, Otis.

And I still jam to Let No Man Put Asunder ..

11. uncle

the first time i went to laray’s was the night i met my best friend.
i’d never experienced a club like that nor had i ever met anyone
like lendell.

a suburban, sheltered, introvert, work-a-holic, painfully-shy-guy, who lived under a rock, best described me. i came out at 16, lost my cherry at 19, owned my own home at 25, etc., etc., etc. i’d get out now and then but never had the desire to run the streets. the “life” was new to me. back then, frankie knuckles had a juice bar some where around cabrini green. i think the sidewalk pulsated as i got closer to the club entrance. it was there i discovered there were folk like myself who enjoyed the same music i grew up listening to. but the music there at frankie’s joint was presented in a way which rendered it new. the way i was enveloped by the music and welcomed by the children was overwhelming. even still, being cautious, i didn’t immerse myself in this new found scene. it had always been difficult to let myself “go”.

i later fell in love, kicked it for a while, discovered a few clubs along the way and broke up. there was a club called paradise, another right next to the bijou theatre whose name escapes me, something on belmont next to the “el”, limelight, neo, etc. no great reflection at these places so no big whoop. the night a date took me to club laray, the reflection was so great and the scene so powerful, i think my knees buckled. there was so much going on i had to sit in a corner to take it all in. there were the people, the music, and lendell.

an epiphany is a hell of a thing. seeing lendell at club laray gave me that. i’d never seen anyone that free. he let the music take him to a level unbeknownst to me. the children loved lenny. if he held a light bulb in hand i would have lit up. in his own way he taught me it was okay to let go, to be me. he’d say, “child, you better live your life”.

as time past, i’d pick him up from the east bank club where he worked and we’d hit the streets. we’d warm up at club normandy, beat our bodies down the street at club laray, and end the night at cheeks - walking to each club. lenny brought along a change of clothes. after taking crap all week at work, this routine was a great release of sorts. even more, the laray thing was a religion beyond explanation. the dj would beat the box in such a way that he worked you and all of the weeks frustrations out of you. needless to say, i finally got to the point where i could let go and it was at club laray with lendell. we didn’t go for cheap thrills, we went for the experience. after this cleansing of sorts, we were ready for whatever the work week tossed our way.

my funniest moment at laray’s was when lenny introduced me to a guy named brian i’d gone to high school with. lenny was always trying to hook me up with folk but when i looked up and saw who it was i laughed so hard i cried. brian gotta kick out of it too. i later explained to lenny that in high school, brian dated linda swanigan, the prettiest girl there. i think they did home coming, prom, that sorta thing. in high school brian came off as straight but was really kicking it with the track coach on the dl.

as all great things come and go so did club laray. although all kinds of folk went to laray’s, i believe the club was not welcomed in the neighborhood it was in. the passing of ray and the closing of his club marked an end of an era. there were other clubs sure enough - water works, club house, stop ‘n’ get murdered - but none, for me, ever came close to laray’s. i remember partying in detroit and atlanta and folk asking if laray’s was still there. not long after ray passed, lendell passed. club laray and my friend lendell were blessings that were appreciated and didn’t have to be taken away before i realized how truly rare they were. the children will always need a place to play and a friend to play with. the world is a much sadder place without them both.