Rock & Roll Geography: Whisky A Go Go (Los Angeles, CA)

Today, on this latest edition of Rock & Roll Geography, we take a stroll down to California to check out The Whisky A Go Go, one of LA's most historic landmarks.  Still in business today, this venerable club is located along the infamous Sunset Strip at 8901 Sunset Blvd (between the Clark and Hilldale streets). 

The story behind the Whisky a Go Go begins in 1947 when a dance club of that name was opened in Paris, France under that name. By the late 50's, the concept of dance clubs or "discotheques" (as they were called then) began to spread to the U.S. In fact, plans were afoot to open a string of Whisky A Go Go discotheques across America. In 1958, one of them opened in Chicago, another in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C. in the early 60's.

Elmer Valentine

The Whisky A Go Go that most rock & roll fans know & love was opened on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles by a group of investors consisting of Elmer Valentine, Phil Tanzini, Shelly Davis, Theodore Flier and Mario Maglieri. Originally true to the European concept of being a club which featured recorded music only, Elmer Valentine, noticing the proliferation of live music on the Sunset Strip, quickly realized that only live music would put his little boite on the map. In short order, the club put on its first act--- Johnny Rivers!

Jayne Mansfield hanging with John Lennon @ The Whiskey circa 1964

 

Between the sets of live music, club goers were entertained by go-go dancers

who danced in cages suspended from the ceiling

as a female DJ spun the latest sounds!

Joanne Labine, the first female DJ @ The Whisky circa 1965

 

 

Bob Gibson, who ran a PR group called The Group that represented such popular bands as The Byrds, The Doors and Buffalo Springfield, said, "If you had to put your finger on an event that was a barometer of the tide turning, it would probably be the Sunset Strip riots."  While the 'riots' were immortalized in the 1967 film Riot on Sunset Strip, there was no one particular incident; rather, a summer long simmering tension between longhairs, police and shop owners along the street. "The cops would hassle kids for being underage," claims Rodney Bingenheimer, who now hosts a radio show on KROQ, but was then dubbed by Sal Mineo, the Mayor of the Sunset Strip. "The Sunset Strip was like Las Vegas. People would actually walk from La Cienega to Gazzari's at 2 and 3 in the morning. It was a 24-hour party, but it was all very innocent. It wasn't until later that the scene turned ugly and people started taking a lot of drugs. It was still a mod thing then."  The Whisky entered the national spotlight as the youth riots made the news. The club's hip credentials expanded with the appearance of such sixties icons as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Love, The Doors, Cream, Led Zeppelin and other seminal rock acts of the day. The prevailing sentiment among musicians at the time was "if you're playing LA, you have to play the Whisky."

 

Capt. Beefheart & The Magic Band

Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention

 

Otis Redding plays The Whisky

An article in the LA Times (A Special Time In Rock: 1966 On The Sunset Strip by Roy Trakin) describes the emerging music scene in Los Angeles at this time: "Before the Byrds played Ciro's in 1965, the pop music scene in L.A. consisted of people like Johnny Rivers, Trini Lopez and the Walker Brothers playing old-style nightclubs like PJ's (the site of what was later the Starwood rock club at Santa Monica and Crescent Heights) and Sneaky Pete's (now Duke's Coffee Shop). The bohemian folk scene held forth at Doug Weston's Troubador on Santa Monica off Doheny, Ed Pearl's Ash Grove on Melrose (now the Improv) and the Unicorn at Sunset and San Vicente."

Buffalo Springfield

When Them played The Whisky Jim Morrison jammed with Van the Man Morrison!

Here’s a list of some of the cool shows that happened at the Whisky A Go Go in 1966: 

The Rascals 

Paul Butterfield Blues Band/The Leaves 

Love/The Leaves 

Grass Roots/Hard Times 

Beau Brummels 

Otis Redding 

The Doors (audition) 

Johnny Rivers/Buffalo Springfield 

 Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band/Buffalo Springfield/The Doors 

Love/Buffalo Springfield/The Doors 

Them / Capt. Beefhert & The Magic Band 

Them/The Doors 

Gene Clark and The Group/The Locos/The Doors 

The Turtles/First Review/The Doors 

Johnny Rivers/Chambers Brothers/The Doors 

Love/The Doors 

The Byrds 

Chambers Brothers/Hard Times 

The Mothers of Invention 

Beau Brummels 

Love/Sons of Adam 

 Love/Buffalo Springfield/Sons of Adam 

Sir Douglas Quintet/The Sparrow (one week) 

Buffalo Springfield/The Poor 

Jefferson Airplane/Peanut Butter Conspiracy 

The Turtles/Buffalo Springfield

 

Here’s a list of some of the cool shows that happened at the Whisky A Go Go in 1967: 

Peanut Butter Conspiracy 

The Doors/The Byrds 

Sam & Dave / Jimi Hendrix Experience 

Mitch Ryder Revue 

Eric Burdon and The Animals 

Buffalo Springfield 

Kaleidoscope/Sunshine Company 

Peanut Butter Conspiracy 

Moby Grape / The Byrds 

Gene Clark 

The Byrds 

Cream/Rich Kids 

Electric Flag 

Jackie Wilson 

The Byrds 

Spirit 

Hour Glass (later to become The Allman Brothers Band) 

Bo Diddley/Jimmy Smith 

The Byrds / Steppenwolf 

Big Brother and The Holding Company/Sweetwater 

Moby Grape 

Country Joe and The Fish

 

Here’s a list of some of the cool shows that happened at the Whisky A Go Go in 1968:

Hugh Masakela/Steppenwolf 

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers/ Steppenwolf 

Eric Burdon & The Animals/Eire Apparent 

Hour Glass 

Traffic 

Blood, Sweat & Tears 

Spirit/Illinois Speed Press 

Hour Glass/Word Salad 

Albert King/Evergreen Blue Shoes 

Canned Heat/Fraternity of Man 

Tim Buckley/Illinois Speed Press 

Mothers of Invention/Alice Cooper 

Siegal Schwall Blues Band 

Illinois Speed Press/Initial Shock 

Lee Michaels/Illinois Speed Press 

Love 

Buddy Miles Express 

Velvet Underground/Chicago Transit Authority 

Three Dog Night/A.B. Skhy 

Spirit 

Blood, Sweat & Tears/Spirit 

Taj Mahal/Big Mama Mae Thornton 

Velvet Underground/Cold Blood 

Kaleidoscope/Black Pearl 

Three Dog Night 

Flying Burrito Brothers/Taj Mahal 

Harvey Mandel/Pollution 

Terry Reid/Illinois Speed Press 

Lee Michaels/Chicago Transit Authority

 

John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) rocks out @ the Whisky circa 1969

 

Here’s a list of some of the cool shows that happened at the Whisky A Go Go in 1969: 

Led Zeppelin/Alice Cooper/Buddy Miles Express 

Tim Hardin/Illinois Speed Press 

Lothar and The Hand People/Illinois Speed Press 

Delaney & Bonnie & Friends/Illinois Speed Press 

Van Morrison/Flying Burrito Brothers 

Linda Ronstadt/Alice Cooper 

It’s A Beautiful Day/Illinois Speed Press 

Slim Harpo/Illinois Speed Press 

Savoy Brown 

Flying Burrito Brothers 

Love 

Hugh Masakela & Big Black/Chicago Transit Authority/Illinois Speed ress 

Cat Mother and The All-Night Newsboys/The Flock 

Flying Burrito Brothers/The Churls 

Sir Douglas Quintet/Flock 

Dunn and McCashen 

The Move 

The Zombies 

Chuck Berry/Five-Man Electrical Theatre 

Velvet Underground/Collectors 

Humble Pie/King Crimson 

Bobby “Blue” Bland/Smokestack Lightning 

Grand Funk Railroad

 

Allman Bros @ The Whisky

By the 1970's, business at The Whisky A Go Go began to slow down.  This article on the Cuepoint website by Greg Renoff provides details about Elmer Valentine's decision to change the club's format: 

“In early 1975, Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go was on the rocks. The famed Sunset Strip nightclub, which during its late 60s and early 70s peak had played host to acts ranging from The Byrds and The Doors to Led Zeppelin and the Beach Boys, faced serious financial problems. Record labels, which had used the Whisky as a key platform for promoting their rising rock acts, now turned their attention to securing warm-up slots for their new artists on arena and stadium tours. The economy, too, had gone south, with inflation making it difficult to keep ticket prices down. 

Another blow came from the presence of newer and hipper Hollywood clubs, like the Starwood and the Roxy. ‘We can’t get big crowds regularly,’ owner Elmer Valentine told the Los Angeles Times. ‘We are competing with every little rock & roll club and every concert.’ In March, Valentine, a former Chicago cop who’d held an interest in the nightspot since 1964, conceded defeat. He announced that he’d decided to convert what was once the nation’s premiere rock club into a disco, of all things. 

After a few lackluster months of business, Valentine dispensed with the trendy dance format and shuttered the club. He’d then begin leasing the Whisky to some enterprising gentlemen from back East who’d offer up cabaret entertainments like sex-themed shows and musical comedies, to little acclaim. On rare occasions, rock promoters put on one-off shows at the Whisky, such as in September 1975 when the pioneering female rock group the Runaways took the stage at the historic venue. But by late 1976, the once-proud Whisky had no relevance when it came to rock, and in fact, seemed destined to go to seed. 

Despite the Whisky’s decline, Valentine never gave up hope that he might find a way to return it to its former glories. In the summer of 1976, Valentine rang up former Spirit manager Marshall Berle…In the weeks that followed, Berle and Valentine began hatching an audacious if not improbable plan to bring the Whisky back to life. Instead of booking well-established performers backed by major labels, they’d feature emerging local bands, most of whom lacked record deals, at the club. Unlike the commercially successful acts that had built the Whisky’s reputation, these groups played abrasive music that was generally unsuited for mainstream radio. By the fall, Valentine was all in on this scheme: he’d revive the Whisky by turning the nightspot into the headquarters for Los Angeles’s burgeoning punk and new wave scene.” 

This change in the club's format created fresh interest in the Whisky A Go Go.  The club has weathered the changes in rock music over the years as it presented punk and new wave bands.

NY Dolls outside the Whisky circa 1973

Alex Harvey Band @ The Whiskey circa 1975

Joan Jett & Rodney Bingenheimer hanging out @ The Whisky circa 1977

Ramones rock The Whisky circa 1977

As new music trends appeared, the Whisky booked the latest hot bands

such as Van Halen and Guns ‘n Roses

 

Today, the Whisky A Go Go still functions as a venue for live music and by the virtue of its long-standing presence on the LA scene, it has achieved its status as a true rock & roll landmark.  On January 17, 2014, the Whisky A Go Go celebrated its 50th anniversary.

 

Elmer Valentine, the primary force behind The Whisky,passed away in December 2009 at the age of 85. A few hundred friends and fans gathered at The Whiskey to remember Vanlentine's contribution to the rock & roll culture. Besides the folks sharing their memories of Valentine, there was music performed by Johnny Rivers, Stephen Stills, Chris Hillman and John Mayall.  The ghost of Jim Morrison was ejected from the party after overturning several tables and chairs.

The Whisky A Go Go has been immortalized in various rock songs many times over, the best case probably being the popular ditty Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale from the album, Forever Changes by the popular Whisky Band, Love which was fronted by the mercurial Arthur Lee.

 

Visit the official Whisky A Go Go website

Whisky A Go Go article (Vanity Fair)


 

Live @ The Right Track Inn 1983

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