Alexander O’Neal appears Aug. 25; tickets $20 at the door
The sign hanging above the door at 1114 Charlotte Ave., the location of Nashville’s legendary Modern Era club, says, “We’re Not the Same Guys, but We’re the Good Guys.” The message serves as the motto of new club owner John Perkins. He’s keenly aware of the R&B club’s storied past, and fully cognizant that today’s environment requires that he operate a bit differently than his predecessors while retaining the qualities that made the club such a local monument.
“We’re going to feature the old-school R&B that people like Sinbad have made famous,” Perkins said during a recent interview. “We’re going to be doing shows with bands you hear on The Tom Joyner Morning Show. At the same time, we want to have things at the club during the week that involve the entire community; we’re going to have the adjoining restaurant open for lunch and dinner. We’re also going to have weekly talent shows where we get the next generation active. We want to get a good mix of national and local acts coming, make this place special again.”
As Perkins busies himself making preparations for the Era’s first show under new management, it becomes clear that running a nightclub today is a somewhat different undertaking than it was in the Modern Era’s heyday. “I’ve just been dealing with people about lights and getting things set for the show,” he says. “There’s a lot more involved today in putting on national shows. Many acts want all kinds of riders [special contract stipulations], and they want all this money. But we’re going to be putting on some top-line shows here.”
Alexander O’Neal, a former member of The Time who scored several club and urban hits during the ’80s, will be the first national headliner at the reopened Modern Era. He appears there Friday night. He’ll be followed by Zapp, an ensemble made famous by the vocoder-aided vocals of the late Roger Troutman. The band, who’ll appear at the club Sept. 2, is currently doing a memorial tour to honor Troutman.
“There’s no place around here for these acts to appear,” Perkins says. “We’re finding that there’s major interest in these acts coming to Nashville, and the fact it’s the Modern Era makes them even more interested. We’ve already gotten confirmation from the Bar-Kays for an upcoming show, and we’re talking to others as well.”
Originally called the New Era, the club was Nashville’s prime performance locale on the R&B circuit, a venue that had the same national clout as The Regal in Chicago, The Paradise in Memphis, and The Apollo in New York City. William Sousa “Soo” Bridgeforth was the original owner. He maintained the New Era from 1939 until 1995. A lifelong Nashvillian, he took funds from the sale of his grandparents’ Alabama farm and bought a pool hall at 17th and Charlotte in 1932. He later started the original New Era near the corner of Fourth and Charlotte in 1939, moving it two years later around the corner onto Fourth Avenue, in the heart of what was then a bustling area for African American commerce and culture.
Although it started as the prototype of the dirt-floor honky-tonk, barely able to seat 100 people comfortably, the New Era emerged as the local venue for top R&B, blues, and soul acts. The club’s influence began growing as piano-based, combo, and jump R&B emerged in the ’40s. In subsequent years, as soul music emerged, the New Era flourished, and so did the city’s R&B scene. Throughout this heyday, Nashville was home to such record labels as Champion, Excello, and Sound Stage 7, all of which featured a roster of blues, R&B, and soul artists. WLAC-1510 AM’s clear-channel signal blanketed the nation at night, making icons of such deejays as Hoss Allen and John “R” Richbourg. Nashville also had numerous R&B/soul clubs, among them The Del Morocco, Club Revillot, and Maceo’s. It might not have been Memphis’ Beale Street, but Jefferson Street was home to a culture that flowered right in the midst of state-sanctioned racial segregation.
During the ’50s and ’60s, the New Era became something special despite fierce competition from its rivals. Even before the release of the epic LP Etta James Rocks the House, recorded at the New Era in 1963, such giants as James Brown, Ray Charles, and B.B. King appeared there whenever they played Nashville. Still, it was Etta James’ LP that helped cement the New Era’s fame; not only did it artistically match James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and B.B. King’s Live at the Regal, it demonstrated that Nashville’s nightclubs at the time were a repository of powerhouse soul.
But even as it flourished, the New Era’s fortunes were drastically altered by federally mandated urban renewal projects that resulted in devastating cultural and economic blows to Nashville’s African American population. As with similar measures and initiatives that doomed Beale Street and New Orleans’ Storyville district, Nashville’s African American community fell victim to equal parts pseudo-moralistic social engineering, poor long-range planning, and urban developers’ sheer stupidity.
The early-’50s Capitol Hill Redevelopment Project, changes in the Metro Charter, and the arrival of Interstate 40 resulted in numerous black clubs being bulldozed and eliminated under the guise of cleaning up crime, making way for progress, and improving neighborhoods. While undeniably some benefits accrued, such endeavors also resulted in the demolition of a golden period. In the process, the New Era was forced to relocate during both the ’50s and ’60s, moving to 12th and Charlotte before settling into its current location in 1968. Sometime thereafter, the club changed its name to the Modern Era.
Amazingly, Bridgeforth kept the resituated club alive, if at times sporadically, until the mid-’90s. Perkins purchased it two months ago from Archie Armstrong, who’d owned it for about a year. He’s very optimistic about the future and makes a point of saying how much the club means to him. “We get the older musicians coming in here almost every day to tell us they’re glad we’re back,” Perkins says. “We’re going to feature some of them here also. People can look for us to start having club nights and a series of talent shows pretty soon. We’re going to do some things with deejays also, but we want people like [Nashville R&B guitar legend] Johnny Jones to be able to play here.”
Although the club’s history extends back further than a halfcentury, Perkins says there are plans under way to hold a 50-year commemorative celebration of the Modern Era in October. He’s also interested in getting younger adults to recognize the contributions of surviving greats, particularly Bridgeforth, who Perkins says has been highly supportive of his efforts. In addition to the revamped club activities, Perkins is also starting a limo service that will operate out of the Modern Era building. “It will be a full-service operation, with fully-equipped modern vehicles,” he explains.
Though operating hours have been a bit loose this summer, Perkins says the Modern Era will eventually be open every day, with the restaurant and limo service keeping their own hours independent of the club. But for now, the Alexander O’Neal and Zapp shows signal the return of a vital Nashville institution.
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