News » Features

One for the Road

Stories of Nashville's hard-drinking nightlife



On a cold, gray morning in February 1916, a 64-year-old bartender named Ike Johnson put a pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger. He died in his third-floor apartment above the Southern Turf Club on Fourth Avenue, smack in the middle of the notorious area of Nashville known as the “Men’s Quarter.”It was a place where no woman, at least no respectable woman, dared set foot. Bawdy, rough-edged, seedy and disreputable, the Men’s Quarter thrived morning, noon and night.

By 1916, however, there was talk of temperance in the air. Conservative forces were even threatening to invade the Southern Turf itself. When Ike Johnson put a bullet through his head on that February night, one of the most colorful periods in Nashville’s history might well have been coming to an end.

But it didn’t. For decades, Nashville had been, and would remain, an after-hours town, a place of roadhouses, rotgut whiskey and under-the-counter deals. A town of churches, it was also a town of politicians and entrepreneurs, a town where fortunes were made, lost and squandered. Much of the bravado was fueled by bourbon; many of the fortunes were washed away with gin.

In the wake of Prohibition, Nashville bars and restaurants still were enjoined from serving liquor by the drink. Only in 1967 did cocktails and highballs become legal. But during all those years, Nashville did not stop drinking, dancing and carousing. In broad daylight, Nashville was living the good life. After hours the high life went on.

During Reconstruction, Nashville was a boomtown. Streetcars rumbled up and down what is now Broadway, passenger trains unloaded at Union Station, and steamboats deposited thousands of traveling salesmen, businessmen and adventurers on the banks of the Cumberland. Many of those newcomers and interlopers had money, and the ones who didn’t have it knew how to make it. All of them had certain things in common: They had time on their hands, and they had hearty appetites. Before long, every one of them would want a meal. Eventually, most of them would want a drink.

At the corner of Broad and Fourth Avenue (then known as Cherry Street), The Merchants Hotel advertised the cleanest rooms in town for $1. Nearby in Printers Alley, the Little Gem served roast beef sliced to the customer’s liking along with soup, potatoes, a vegetable, bread and butter, and coffee, tea or milk—all for 15 cents. In many of Nashville’s saloons, lunch was free to any customer paying for a glass of whiskey or beer.

Invariably, those customers were men. Genteel ladies did not travel Cherry Street; even the most reprobate women were not allowed in bars. This was no-woman’s-land. In addition to saloons and gambling halls, the downtown Men’s Quarter boasted tailors, barbers, tobacconists, gunsmiths, pawn shops, loan agents and Turkish baths. According to a contemporary account in the American Journal of Commerce, Cherry Street was noted for “the close proximity of so many facilities for drinking and gambling, and of so many lawyers (a profession in which income is highly irregular and often nonexistent), and of newspaper men (whose compensation, though more regular, has always been notoriously low).” The street was thick, the Journal said, with “pawn shops and so-called ‘loan agents.’ ”

A “wide-open” town at the turn of the century, Nashville was home to well over 170 saloons that served a population of 80,000—a staggering ratio even by today’s standards. Even in the midst of such squalid grandeur, a few Men’s Quarter establishments stood out—the Southern Turf Club, The Utopia Hotel and, aptly named, The Climax.

Opened in the fall of 1895, in plenty of time to celebrate the centennial of Tennessee’s statehood, the Southern Turf was built by Marcus Cartwright, one of the era’s most famous, and most successful, bookmakers. It was created expressly as a showcase for Ike Johnson and Felix Zollicoffer “Zol” Cartwright, Marcus Cartwright’s son. Zol ran the gaming rooms on the second floor, while Ike tended bar downstairs.

Gambling had been illegal in Tennessee since the 1880s, but, in order to take advantage of the centennial tourist trade, city officials promised to mount no raids during the celebration. Magistrates did occasionally knock on the doors of the Turf, the Utopia and The Climax. When public outcry grew too loud, officers would visit the gambling houses and record the names of patrons in their docket books. Many of the names were probably fictitious, and fines were minimal—usually a penny per offender, plus costs (which amounted to a payoff of about $2 to each magistrate and constable in the raiding party).

Raids by the Police Department, however, were a more serious matter. In a 1903 raid on the Turf, 27 men were arrested on gambling charges. Later that same year, 25 were arrested for loitering around a saloon and gambling house. To preserve the dignity of his customers, Ike Johnson hired carriages so that they would not have to be driven to the courthouse in paddy wagons. Along the way, one patron, rumored to be a member of the City Council, leapt out of the open carriage and disappeared down the street.

In striking gesture of noblesse oblige, gaming operations in the Men’s Quarter were closed at 5 p.m. on Saturdays so that men from the working class would not be tempted to gamble away their weekly earnings. Nevertheless, many a tearful woman would turn up on the doorstep of the Turf or another club, pleading for her husband’s pay to be returned. Saloon owners usually paid in full, just to avoid any complaints to the police. It was rumored that some women were making a good living by reclaiming salaries that were not rightfully theirs.

At the Turf, Johnson was well known for promptly reimbursing the saloon widows and for paying his personal debts on demand. Known as “Honest Ike,” he contributed, often anonymously, to churches and other civic funds, and he saw to it that the newspaper delivery boys who made their way through the quarter were always provided with decent pairs of shoes.

The majestic Utopia Hotel stood at 206 Cherry St. With six stories and 60 rooms, it boasted a stone façade that had been designed by the same architect responsible for the Ryman Auditorium. Primarily a hangout for racing fans, the Utopia, like the later Southern Turf, had originally been planned as an Ike Johnson showcase. However, it fell victim to the Panic of 1893, only to be reopened later under new management. Before long, the Utopia was known as the “resort of the sporting classes.” In 1897, the Wayne Hand Book of Nashville marveled that, at the Utopia, “at any time during the racing season may be seen diminutive jockeys absorbing mammoth porterhouse steaks.”

By 1904 the Utopia had doubled its capacity and was taking advantage of the city’s commercial success. Since more and more businessmen were taking their midday meals downtown, the Utopia opened a new dining room. Conveniently enough, the inaugural event was a banquet for the Nashville Press Club. Good publicity followed in spades. The City Directory of the day described the Utopia as a “Hotel, European style and restaurant.”

More ornate, more sordid and even more successful than the Turf Club was The Climax, also located on Cherry Street. Visiting stars included Gilda Gray, “The Shimmy Queen,” and Eva Tanguay, “The ‘I Don’t Care’ Girl.” They shared the first-floor theater with the resident can can dancers. “Spot” McCarthy, an infamous dice dealer, held court on the second floor, where the bar, billiards table and gaming tables were located. It was the third floor, however, that gave The Climax its real notoriety. Elegantly decorated with embossed wallpaper and expensive furnishings, the third floor was divided into bedrooms. Patrons who ventured upstairs found their own entertainment, while the dancing and gambling proceeded downstairs.

The Climax’s ladies in residence would take their places on the staircase, offering their services as the men made their way to the third floor. In the event of a surprise raid or an unexpected visit by some local crusader, a false wall would open, providing a room in which the women could hide. The hidden room was equipped with a bench where the women could wait while the police conducted their search and returned to the second floor.

Noted visitors to The Climax included Captain Tom Ryman, before his conversion by the hellfire-spouting preacher Sam Jones, Jesse and Frank James, and two U.S. presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Reportedly, Hays visited The Climax in 1877 when he was in Nashville to dedicate the U.S. Customs House on Broad Street. According to local legend, his straitlaced, teetotaling wife, known as “Lemonade Lucy,” burst into the saloon’s first floor and headed straight for the stage, where she burst into song, hoping to embarrass her husband.

The Climax had made a fortune before it closed in 1915, and rumor has it that its ill-gotten proceeds were used to underwrite one of Nashville’s leading banks. The building that housed the Climax still stands on Fourth Avenue. Gone, however, are the four carved-stone angels that once graced the corners of the building, keeping watch over The Climax, its patrons and the women who did business upstairs.

By 1915, however, the end was in sight, both for Ike Johnson and for the freewheeling glory days of the Turf, the Utopia and The Climax. Anti-saloon injunctions, passed in 1914, were beginning to take their toll. The police were getting harder to bribe, and Prohibition, that “noble experiment,” was just around the corner.

Worst of all, the Nashville Tennessean, the very paper that was championing Prohibition, the very paper that had relentlessly hounded Johnson and others, was making plans to move into the Southern Turf building. When the Tennessean moved into the Southern Turf, the last thing moved out was Ike Johnson’s dead body.

Carry Nation’s temperance movement, which hoped to close saloons, eradicate gambling, and “cleanse the land of this dreaded affliction” had been under way since the 1890s. In 1909, the Tennessee Prohibition Act was passed, effectively outlawing the sale of liquor statewide. Nashville Mayor Hillary Howse did not endorse the movement, but still it gathered strength. Spurred on by the Anti-Saloon League, the 1913 General Assembly began serving injunctions on gambling establishments such as the Turf, the Utopia and The Climax. The public outcry against the evils of drink and gambling continued to increase, led primarily by women, churches and opportunistic politicians. In 1917, three years before Prohibition, the Tennessee State Legislature passed a complete ban on alcohol.

Certainly, there was hypocrisy involved in the Anti-Saloon Movement; many of the politicians who championed the movement had frequented saloons in less politically charged times. Nevertheless, Prohibition became law with the passage of the 18th Amendment. In short order, the Volstead Act, named for the Minnesota congressman who sponsored it, defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing one-half of 1 percent alcohol. Wine and beer were outlawed along with hard liquor. Suddenly, the 18th Amendment had real teeth. President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act, but Congress overrode him. The act went into effect Jan. 16, 1920.

Despite the 18th Amendment and the acts that enforced it, bootlegged whiskey became a $2-billion-a-year industry that employed half a million people nationwide. In 1925 alone, 170,000 illegal stills were raided and destroyed, but that number probably represented only one-tenth of the stills that were in operation across the country. Nashville, the home of the Southern Baptist Convention, was not immune. Some locals still recall that, during Prohibition, a call to the local bootlegger yielded a delivery of whiskey to a customer’s home in a matter of hours—even on Sunday, before or after church, according to the customer’s request.

During Prohibition, Nashville saw the creation of a number of “dinner clubs,” intended to slake the public’s growing thirst and to provide gambling and other entertainment. Two of the earliest clubs, Doc Manion’s Pines and Sam Borum’s Camp, existed with the complete knowledge, and perhaps the collusion, of local police officials. During the occasional raid, Gus Kiger, Nashville’s sheriff and a friend of Manion’s, usually let the Pines’ prominent customers go without any hassle.

The Ridgetop Club, located at the junction of Davidson and Robertson Counties, had its own means of avoiding unfortunate ecounters with the law. During a raid, patrons simply escaped into the next county. Since the huge two-story structure stood squarely on the county line, and since law-enforcement officers’ jurisdiction did not extend across county lines, customers could escape arrest by simply running from one side of the house to the other. Legislators attempted to gerrymander the county lines to solve the problem, but the attempts failed. The Ridgetop did good business until it burned to the ground in 1955.

One of Nashville’s original speakeasies persists today, albeit in somewhat more well-mannered form. Kelly’s 216 opened in 1934, doing business in an old house located on what is now the site of the Ben West Public Library. Kelly’s regulars still remember the days when the place was run by “old man Kelly” and his son Jimmy. According to one patron, who asked not to be identified, the Kellys would smuggle in raw ingredients from Canada and then proceed to mix up a batch of whiskey in the largest clean container they could find—usually the bathtub. In the event that they ended up with a bad batch of hooch, or if they were threatened by a police raid, the Kellys could simply pull the stopper and let the evidence wash down the drain.

At the time, one local restaurateur recalls, Kelly’s served two types of whiskey—“blue label,” which was touted as a “premium” brand and was priced accordingly—and “red label,” which was less expensive. Patrons would call a week in advance to make sure that Kelly’s blue label was in stock. One insider maintains that, no matter what the label, it was all the same stuff. Jimmy Kelly supposedly admitted that the color of the label didn’t make it any better.

On the other side of town, in North Nashville, Al Gus Alessio was following in the steps of Ike Johnson. For 35 years, beginning in the depths of the Great Depression, Alessio ran The Automobile Club, touted as the largest, fanciest, most lucrative gambling hall in America.

Like Ike Johnson before him, Big Al had a reputation for philanthropy. Working side by side with law enforcement officials, he helped rescue families stranded in the Great Flood of 1937. At Christmastime, he bought clothes for the needy and toys for children. He also made sure that all the right political figures had “a little something for mother” at holiday time.

Big Al and his contemporary Jimmy Washer, a notorious gambler who owned the Uptown Club, both had an arrangement with Garner Robinson, a politico and an owner of Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home. When funds were need to pay for the burial of a homeless or indigent person, Alessio or Washer would make an anonymous contribution to cover the costs of the funeral. Meanwhile, Alessio was providing a place where Nashville’s rich and powerful could play.

Because he always made a contribution to any church or charity that came knocking, Alessio ended up with friends in some strange places. Even some of his sworn enemies—among them The Tennessean and some local churches—ultimately came to his defense.

In the 1960s, after an article in Time magazine spotlighted the flamboyant Automobile Club, Big Al attracted the attention of the federal government. During the trial that would ultimately put Alessio out of business, Father Dan Richardson, an aging, arthritic, wheelchair-bound Roman Catholic priest, testified that the 10,000 poker chips currently being held as evidence against Big Al were, in fact, Christmas presents collected for the Men’s Club of St. Pius and the Knights of Columbus.

From the ’40s until the late ’60s, when liquor by the drink once again became legal, a string of supper clubs flourished, even though they operated on the fringes of the law. The Club Plantation on Murfreesboro Road; The Wagon Wheel, The Copia, The Tropics, The Belle Meade Motel, the 100 Club and Hettie Ray’s in West Nashville; Nero’s in Green Hills; and The Carousel Club and The Celtic Lounge downtown all billed themselves as private clubs and catered to a mix of well-connected Belle Meade types, the rising elite, and Vanderbilt undergrads. Some of the clubs were known for their gambling, some for their music and entertainment, some for their decor. But all of them had one thing in common—a liberal flow of whiskey.

Admission to a “club” was usually 50 cents, and bars were usually stocked with bottles of liquor labeled with the names of regular customers, as if they were a private stash. Otherwise, customers brown-bagged it. During raids, however, all liquor, whatever the source, was confiscated and carted down to the courthouse, where it remained until it was claimed by club “members.” On the morning after a raid on Jimmy Kelly’s (the successor to Kelly’s 216), one club member refused to accept the bottle that bore his name. Later, he good-naturedly told the club owner, “Jimmy, I drink whiskey—put somebody else’s name on the crème de menthe....”

Dressier than most of the supper clubs, The Tropics was decorated with artificial palm trees and featured proprietor/piano player Jimmy DuBois, who made his appearance on a platform stage that rose out of the floor. Sonny Strother, who owned Southern Produce, the fruit market next door, often stopped in. One evening, after having received a shipment of bananas from South America, Sonny appeared at The Tropics. He set a jar on the bar and waited. Making his rounds, DuBois stopped by and asked Sonny to show him what he had in the jar. Without a word, Strother unscrewed the lid and dumped a jar full of live tarantulas onto the bar. Having had a day to warm up after being chilled in the “banana room” in the back of Sonny’s market, the spiders scattered across the bar. The effect was better than a police raid.

Of all the clubs, the most exclusive was the Club Plantation. Run by Bill Daugherty, who later managed Belle Meade Country Club, the Plantation’s 1,000-seat ballroom was known as the “Murfreesboro Road branch of the state Legislature,” because of the large number of lawmakers among the club’s clientele. During its 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. shows, the Plantation presented well-known performers, as well as others who would go on to become household names—Andy Griffith, Woody Herman, Gene Austin, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and a lady named Evelyn West, “The Treasure Chest,” whose main claim to fame was the $1 million Lloyd’s of London insurance policy that protected her oversize bosom.

Another fixture was Hettie Ray’s, which stood on Nine Mile Hill, the current site of Wessex Towers condominiums. Named after its proprietor, Hettie Ray’s had a dance floor surrounded by two-tiered seating and an outdoor pavilion as well. Hettie, who came from a Belle Meade family, knew everyone who came into her club and served as a mother figure of sorts for the younger set. A family friend and underage patron remembers ordering a second round of Tom Collinses for himself and his date, a youngish-looking girl whom Hettie didn’t recognize.

“Are you sure that girl you’re with isn’t getting tipsy?” Hettie asked. It was only after a two-hour wait and after several rounds of Coca-Cola that Hettie allowed the second Tom Collinses to be served.

J. Boyle Sanders, founder of Sanders Manufacturing, recalls being one of the first customers to visit the The Copia in 1946, when it was opened by Mike Rose. The place had a reputation as a roadhouse, and, Sanders says, “The food was incredible as long as you didn’t look in the kitchen.” But The Copia also had a dance floor surrounded by booths, and there was a card room in the back. Partying at The Copia could get wild; it was “a regular den of iniquity,” according to Sanders.

At the Copia, Mike Rose created his own salad dressings, which had led to the formation of his own company, Mike Rose Foods. Although The Copia did booming business, he eventually sold the club to Jimmy DuBois. Supposedly, Rose’s wife, with two children to care for during the day and a husband who worked nights, had laid down the law: “Get a day job, or I am out of here.”

As the dinner clubs grew, Printer’s Alley was making its name as a haven for music lovers. In the late ’50s, during the pre-Boots Randolph era, Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland played the Carousel Club. Long before the Bluebird Cafe’s writers’ nights, the Carousel was known for its strict policy of silence during the show. Black waiters in red dinner jackets patrolled the club, shushing rowdy customers. Also in the Alley, the Club Unique featured “Ike,” a self-taught musician who could only play in the key of C. The Gaslight drew the Tennessee State University and Fisk crowds, who stopped in to hear the famed jazz sideman W.O. “Smitty” Smith.

The passage of liquor by the drink in 1967 had a profound impact on the Alley and on the supper-club scene. The newfound freedom destroyed some of the excitement, the “romance” of going out for the evening. The old clubs started to fade away, seedier elements began to take hold of The Alley, and fern bars proliferated in the suburbs.

During the ’70s and ’80s, a few clubs had not been bulldozed to make way for apartment complexes. Among them were Ireland’s, Jimmy Kelly’s (then doing business on Harding Pike), Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Ray’s Tap Room, Pee-Wee’s, Rotier’s, Sperry’s, King’s, Joe’s Village Inn, The Cockeyed Camel Bup, Doug’s Pub, The Sutler, Amie’s, Brown’s Diner and Cantrell’s. For music, there was Mississippi Whiskers, Wind in the Willows, J.C.’s in Green Hills, the original Exit/In, and a bar called the Trestle.

One of the first real “watering holes” beyond the Alley, Ireland’s was originally known as “Butch’s,” named for its owner, Jack “Butch” Jenkins. A former Vanderbilt football great, Butch had played under the legendary Red Sanders in the ’40s.

By the ’70s, Ireland’s reputation was based on its steak and biscuits, its great piano player, and a bartender named Mayfield. One hard-core group of Mayfield devotees spent the better part of every day with him. “It was an all-out party,” one Ireland’s habitué recalls. “We’d begin the mornings with Bloody Marys and biscuits, return again for a three-martini lunch, and stop by after work on the way home. I had a corner in the bar that I called my ‘closing corner.’ ” This regular, who was a car salesman, claims that he sold “10-15 cars a month out of that corner, and it was all tax-deductible.”

During the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Cockeyed Camel Bup was a West Nashville landmark. Called a “bup” because the property owners refused to rent to anybody who was going to open a “pub,” the Camel attracted an eclectic crowd. On any given weekend night, especially after an MBA football game, one side of the room would be a swarming mass of khaki and oxford cloth. Armed with fake IDs, the sons and daughters of Nashville’s elite would try to mingle with the artists, musicians and businessmen who also made the Camel their home away from home. The grown-ups, meanwhile, stuck to their side of the room.

Just down the street from the Cockeyed Camel was Doug’s Pub, owned by Doug McCready, who allowed regular customers to run tabs, receive phone calls, sleep on the premises, and even receive their mail at the bar. When police officers at the Camel confiscated their IDs, high-schoolers knew they could probably still sneak into Doug’s.

Nashville still has its share of places that look like pubs—Wolfy’s, Sherlock Holmes, Wall Street, Dusty Roads, the Gold Rush—but the majority of bars these days seem to have lost their edge. In the fern bars and the microbreweries, the “concept” is all-important. The floors sparkle and the wait staffs are scrubbed squeaky clean. The walls, meanwhile, are plastered with images of the way nightlife used to be. The framed posters don’t work.

A real bar doesn’t post a misson statement; its personality is defined by the person behind the bar. In a real bar, the bartender knows the customer and sets up the drinks before they’re even ordered. The carpet may look a bit worse for wear, but a real bar compels you to return. It has a sense of community, a sense of people coming together to share the moment. It has a sense of outsiders thrown together, a renegade society thriving in the night.

It’s hard to find that kind of bar in Nashville now that virtually everything is legal. But it’s hard not to miss the glamour of good people spending some time on the wild side. It’s hard not to miss the Copia and the old Kelly’s and the Club Plantation.

It’s hard not to wish you’d known a good-hearted, hard-drinking guy like Ike Johnson, who blew his brains out when they shut down the Turf.

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

Add a comment