Though today the small, run-down building standing alone in an empty field may not look like much, the Phelps Lounge was a landmark nightclub in Detroit's soul music scene.
The bar's namesake was music producer / promoter Eddie Phelps, who bought former the Bizerte Jazz Bar in 1960 and turned it into a showcase of sorts for Soul music. Acts like The Temptations, James Brown, B.B. King, Etta James, Little Richard and The Impressions performed in the 450 person venue; Billboard Magazine noted in 1978 that Phelps Lounge "has been an almost mandatory stop for touring soul performers for almost two decades…"
Robert Jay, who recorded his Album "Alcohol" there recalled Phelps as "…one of the known nightclubs in Detroit. You might call it the class “A” nightclub in Detroit at that time."
In a curious footnote to music history, The Phelps Lounge also witnessed a major evolutionary step in the image of George Clinton and The Parliaments. Fresh from their first hit single "(I Wanna) Testify," The Parliaments – then dressed in the usual suits and normal hair styles of the day - began a 10-day run at the Phelps in late May and early June of 1968. As Bettye LaVette later recalled in an interview featured on Soulfuldetroit.com:
“They put on their suits and George Clinton said ‘I’m gonna take it all the way’. He had a process with waves and he put his head under the water, so it would come out. And he put on this diaper with this big pin, and when they came out on stage everybody screamed - they thought it was a joke. But then the next night he wanted to be more bizarre; he wanted the next one to wear sunglasses. Every night it got more and more bizarre. By the time it was over, they were what you see now, or pretty much what you see now.”
From the 1980's on, the history of the Phelps Lounge starts to get a bit fuzzy. A Detroit News photo from 1981 shows the bar apparently closed and in slight disrepair, though no details are available. The last show listed on theconcertdatabase.com for the Phelps is from November of 1981, a B. B. King set.
By 2007 bricks had started to peel away from the front of the building, collapsing onto the sidewalk. Water damage and scrapping has done the rest, leaving the interior moldy and rotting. The curving bar is still partially intact, though it has been peeled up in the search for scrap metal.
Phelp's Lounge is an important part of Detroit's musical legacy. While it isn't too late to save this gem, time is running out.