Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Miracle Child

Where did Raiford come from?

By Chris Davis

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  It's summer '94 or '95, somewhere around 3 a.m. I had gotten off work and began the nightly stumble from Automatic Slim's toward Wolf's Corner for a quick beer before beddy-bye. Wolf's was closed. Likewise, Earnestine and Hazel's. The notorious bordello, turned pick-up palace for starched yuppsters was empty and dark. If I was going to cap the night, Raiford's Hollywood, the lit-up little nightspot on Vance seemed to be my only option.

Of course I had been warned: "Raiford's, is a dangerous hooker bar people get shot there it's a gang hangout," and so on, but I ignored the warnings. Similar pronouncements about the dangers of Wolf's had proved to be nothing more than the fading howl of Jim Crow's ghost, the fear of "otherness" that hides down deep in even the most liberal hearts -- an invisible outpost of the lingering evil.

Once inside the door, my head began swimming with sensory overload of multicolored lights as solid as steel girders, swirled in the thick cherry-scented smoke that filled the room. Every surface not covered by a mirror had been painted bright white, decorated chaotically with glossy black handprints. It was narcotic, and whatever doubts I might have had about the Hollywood immediately turned to wonder. Three underclad beauties crouched on the dance floor, thrusting their hips suggestively to the beat of "(It's time for) the Percolator." From his slyly tilted hat to his pointy-toed shoes, the man behind the turntables was "money." And that same fancy man, Robert Raiford, Memphis' own avenging disco Godfather drove my besotted behind home that night in his immaculate Caddy, with its "I let 'em know" license plate and half-dozen American flags flying from the roof. Flanked by two of the percolating lovelies, I felt like a rock star. "You come on back anytime," Raiford called as he drove away. "No Discrimination."

Now, of course, even the farthest reaches of Germantown have heard about Raiford's Hollywood, a disco and lounge where the beer flows nightly and the dancing sometimes goes on until 5 in the morning. The weekend crowds seem mighty white these days, but that doesn't bother the club's proprietor. He makes it clear that though things change, and change again, as long as the words "No Discrimination" appear on his walls, the Hollywood will be a refuge for blacks, whites, greens, purples and plaids, Drag Queens, and disco kings; anybody who can get along while they are getting down.

"I call myself the Miracle Child," Raiford declares joyously, arms outstretched like a man trying to hug the sky. "And I hardly ever have a bad day." He quotes the Bible, praises God for his good fortunes, and when he speaks of his past, the story is fraught with messages about the power of positive thinking.

"You reap what you plant," he pronounces, "and I've always planted good things." Then he defines his point. "I thought the only way to get out of the cotton fields [in Blytheville, Arkansas] was to join the Army. They wouldn't take me for some reason, but it didn't get me down. That's why I put the flags on my car. If couldn't serve, I still wanted to show how much I love this country, so I put two flags on the car for people to see." He goes on to explain that Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges once suggested that he fly six flags, a suggestion Raiford took.

Raiford moved to Memphis in 1962, and shortly thereafter he went to work pumping gas at Mabe's Esso on Poplar Avenue. "Me and my brother worked up front," he says proudly. "Most black folks worked in the grease pits back then and I still see people who remember me from there young people who remember going to Mabe's with their parents. And they look for a minute, then they remember me and they can't believe it."

After Mabe's, Raiford co-owned a Memphis body shop with one of his brothers. But after three years he sold out his partnership to follow another brother north, first to Chicago and later Wisconsin, working on cars all along the way.

"It was just too cold up there for me," Raiford says. " One time, I was heading back to Memphis with $15 in my pocket and a tank of gas when one of the worst snowstorms ever hit Chicago. My old truck broke down, so I started walking I told [a motorist who stopped] that I was going to Memphis and he said, 'You'll never make it.' He drove me back to my truck and said, 'If you give me that toolbox, I'll fix your car,' and he did. I made it into Memphis on fumes. Like I say, I'm a miracle child."

Raiford returned to Memphis permanently in '78, and the day after he got to town he acquired a rundown building at 115 Vance Avenue and began to transform it into a nightclub. "And there was another miracle," he says of those early days. "I had a friend who was closing a club and he gave me all his furniture."

Quick to point out that the only real activity in the area back then was "What was going on at Third and Vance" and at (the yet-to-be reformed) Earnestine and Hazel's, Raiford speaks easily of the time when his crowd was mostly players, truckers, riverboat pilots, and girls, girls, girls. "I've seen all kinds in here," he says. "Good, hard-working people, business-type people, and cut-throat murderers." He fails to mention movie stars, though Coppola spent time there, as did Woody Harrelson and Crispen Glover. He prefers to boast about other things, like how The Commercial Appeal recognized him in the '80s for keeping Vance clean from Main all the way to Second Street.

"You have to keep things clean," he insists. "I'm up here all the time working and cleaning I'm a perfectionist. And you know, every time I get a little money I'm going to be doing something for the place. If people ever stopped coming in I'd put on a cowboy hat and get a whistle to get them in here. I never get tired of it, never. You reap what you plant. I'm 58 years old; I've got more energy than a lot of young folks. I don't let myself think 'old' and, you know I hardly ever have a bad day."

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