On Sunday, May 13, Fletcher Weatherspoon steps out of his limo at the Sabre Room in southwest-suburban Hickory Hills, framed by the wide cascading-waterfall fountain draped over the venue's entryway. A handsome dandy even at 80, he cuts an impressive figure—sharp bone-colored suit, dark hat and shirt, matching tie and pocket square—and he stands tall and smiles proudly as he watches well-dressed couples pour into the banquet hall. They're all coming out for the 2012 Mother's Day Dinner & Show hosted by Dove Productions, an entertainment and promotions company Weatherspoon founded in 1973. The setting is opulent and the bill is first-rate, topped by veteran soul singer Stan Mosley and headliners Marshall Thompson & the Chi-Lites.
For decades Weatherspoon, known to generations of revelers as "Spoon," has been one of the best respected and most trusted figures in Chicago's African-American social-club scene, which during its final peak in the 1970s was the largest in the U.S.—conservative estimates put the number of clubs at more than 5,000, with a total of at least 80,000 members. Every weekend the elite clubs—and Weatherspoon has been among the elite since the late 50s—booked top-flight entertainers into rented ballrooms instead of traditional venues like theaters and nightspots. For almost a century the clubs functioned as a sort of parallel entertainment economy, albeit a barely documented one, and though they've been in decline for decades, that's in part because they've been transformed—they haven't disappeared. The formal scene is gone, but its descendants persist and even prosper—and through all the years and changes, Weatherspoon has kept the flame alive. The 800 guests pouring into the Sabre Room are proof of that.
One of Weatherspoon's doting sons arrives to help him gently into a wheelchair and roll him toward the venue's ramp. Though Spoon began the planning for this evening last year, his health is failing, and his protective progeny have eased him into retirement. His 2012 Mother's Day party is to be his last event—and his four sons have done most of the heavy lifting. After 61 years of promoting some of the greatest celebrations on Chicago's south side, Weatherspoon is passing down his crown.
"Fletcher Weatherspoon is the last of the best," declares Mosley. "He was the best in the city of Chicago, and still is—just look around." Glitteringly attired patrons file past a portrait photographer, a discount jewelry dealer, and a kiosk selling 2012 versions of the DIY Obama shirts that were mandatory streetwear in '08. They're mostly in their golden years, though the Mother's Day theme guarantees that most tables include at least two generations. Weatherspoon's table seats the few relatives he has who aren't working as ushers or ticket takers, and his five teenage grandchildren never seem bored or out of place—the vibe in the room is timeless. In many of its particulars—the R&B vocal acts onstage, the crowd's to-the-nines couture, the sublime balance between classy comportment and let-loose merrymaking, the "Sweetheart" hospitality hostess acting as the organizers' official face—this party is much like the very first ones Weatherspoon arranged in 1951.
Defined loosely, African-American social clubs have existed since pre-emancipation days. In Chicago the ancestors of modern-day social clubs date back to at least the late 19th century, when middle-class and upper-crust black women began forming clubs and societies, most with platforms that stressed service and uplift. They helped run kindergartens, nurseries, missions, employment-referral agencies, and homes for elderly and infirm, among other things. Charity work was a cornerstone of organizations such as the Phyllis Wheatley Women's Club, which was founded in Nashville in 1895 and expanded to Chicago the following year, but by the 1920s, when black social clubs exploded in popularity, one of their primary goals was to provide space for people to get together outside the confines of the church. For generations of black Chicagoans, social clubs meant partying.
Histories of urban entertainment and nightlife usually focus on nightclubs and theaters, but for most of the 20th century, the hottest happenings were often independently promoted and under the radar, organized by groups of a handful to a few dozen people—in Chicago their delightfully creative collective names have included the Green Donkeys, the Gents Optimistic, the Foxy Mannequins, Les Sophisticates Modernistics, the Fraters of Eureka, the Sapphire Ladies, the Silent Twelve, the Dress Horsemen, the Monarch-etts, and the Space Queens.
The bigger clubs regularly drew up to 1,000 guests to the Parkway and Savoy ballrooms in Bronzeville, the Keymen's Club on the west side, the Greenville Mississippi Club on 119th, and the Grand Ballroom near 63rd and Cottage Grove. But except in black-press society columns (including Doug Akins's "The Club Set," which ran from 1966 to '75 in the Chicago Defender), you'd be hard pressed to find reviews or other documentation of the performances that brought all those people out—some of the best shows in Chicago history. The artists remember them well, though. "You always made more money playing for social clubs," says soul singer Otis Clay, who's worked with Weatherspoon since the 1960s. "They were very strong in the community, and had some of the best crowds."
Black social clubs were not an exclusively Chicagoan phenomenon; they existed across the States. "They were the same all over," recalls comedian and singer Jimmy Lynch, who toured the U.S. social-club circuit in the 60s and 70s. But to say they thrived here is an understatement. According to a 1972 Defender article, Chicago had more black social clubs than anywhere else in the country—more than 5,000, with 80,000 members of "non-profit making social and charity clubs" registered in Springfield—and unregistered clubs perhaps doubled those numbers. (Plus you didn't have to be a member, registered or otherwise, to attend an event.) "It felt like everyone had one," says Virgie Burgess, a west sider at the Sabre Room Mother's Day event who fondly recalls her days in a club called the Chandeliers.
The most modest social clubs were basically high school cliques taking on aspirational names (my mother-in-law was in the Exquisites) and occasionally promoting teen record hops. Small adult social clubs might wrangle a weeknight evening every so often to put on a show in a local bar, and members would sell tickets and keep the door money—which they would then spend attending other clubs' nights. Bill Brown, a Weatherspoon devotee from Lake Meadows, belonged to a social club in the 70s made up of CTA drivers; they hosted events at the west-side venue Jazzville, which they promoted by handing pluggers to bus riders. The biggest clubs—the Snakes, the Thrifty Ladies, Weatherspoon's Gents of Society—rented massive halls for weekend and holiday parties that often competed with a number of similar events. With the help of sister clubs, club officers, and members, they would sell tickets, provide their own catering and liquor, and book an evening's worth of entertainment that included A-list musicians, comics, magicians, and dancers. The scene peaked in the 40s, the 60s, and again in the 70s, and existed in recognizable form through the early 90s—by some measures, it's never really gone away.
Weatherspoon, born in 1932, established himself as a social-club promoter soon after graduating from Wendell Phillips High School. In 1951 he began booking shows for a club whose name he can't recall, and circumstances soon kicked him into the big leagues. That year he worked at a Montgomery Ward department store on Chicago Avenue east of Halsted with teenage singers Zeke and Jake Carey (Weatherspoon kept day jobs in retail so he'd have a base from which to sell tickets and advertise shows). He helped them recruit enough members to get a band together and landed them their first shows, performing for no pay at parties. Their doo-wop group the Flamingos would turn out to be hugely popular and influential—they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001—and Weatherpoon was their first manager.