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The Chess Mate Was A Legendary Folk and Blues Club that Ushered in Disco in Detroit Print-ready version

Music Origins Project
October 2018

October 1966

Located along Livernois near 6 Mile Road, this was one of Detroit's most famous and legendary Blues clubs and'60s folk clubs, it grew out of the University of Detroit culture and and incubated many of the greats of the era. Morrie Widenbaum the owner, had been crowned Michigan chess champion (1963) and become owner of the Chessmate coffeehouse.

The Chessmate, at the corner of Livernois and 6, has a history of late night concerts, cutting-edge acts, and legendary troubadours, as well as nights of joy and pain, from high school students watching James Cotton play harmonica in the middle of Livernois, to a teen being shot by the Errol Flynns after a night of dancing. We forget places like the Chessmate at our collective peril.

Remembering a past folk, blues, and disco

In that spirit, Live 6 Detroit and Detroit Sound Conservancy celebrated the rich, complicated, cultural, and social legacies of the former Chess Mate Cafe/The Chessmate (now University Coin Laundry) with storytelling, community listening, and live performances for three consecutive evenings at Detroit Sip (7420 West McNichols Rd., Detroit, MI 48221). This multi-generational, historically-informed, placemaking weekend they attempted to reenact, reinvestigate, and reimagine what those Cafe audiences, performers, and neighbors felt like while informing our current neighborhood discussions. Black, white, and brown, folk, blues, and disco, student, neighbor, and outsider, straight, gay, and exploring, Chessmate brought the then Live 6 community together for a brief moment in the 1960s and 70s in ways worth remembering.

The Chessmate had originally been created as a place for serious chess players but ti became home to the vibrant, acoustic-folk music scene of Detroit, when Widenbaum began scheduling live entertainment in 1963. The Chessmate grew out of the small-venue/coffeehouse scene and clubs as the Living End, Wisdom Tooth and Poison Apple, the Chessmate showcased folk and blues talent in Detroit. A wide range of artists like Neil Young, Siegel Schwall Blues Band, Dave van Ronk, Jim and Jean, Tom Rush, James Cotton, the Blues Magoos, Joni and Chuck Mitchell, Johnny Otis Revue with Shuggie Otis, The Hombres and many, many more all played here. Linda Ronstad even honed her talent here.

"There were so many memorable nights at the Chessmate," said Wayne Helfrich, a regular at the club. "It was very neat to see lots of folks in their early days that went on to larger fame."

Linda Ronstadt, Tom Rush and Chuck and Joni Mitchell were just a handful of artists that Helfrich saw perform at the Chessmate. Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell would go on to international commercial success.

Chessmate Steve Booker_Detroit_Free_Press Fri,Jun 25 1965"(One time) Tom Rush taught me a song while we were both sitting on the curb on 6 Mile, outside of the club," Helfrich added. (Via Varsity News)

"The Chessmate was acoustic folkie's heaven," said Chuck Mitchell, recalling the differences between other clubs and the Chessmate. Inside it was "dark, but high-ceilinged and cavernous," which led to the wonderful sound it provided. Back in the Chessmate days, Chuck and Joni Mitchell performed together under the moniker of The Chuck & Joni Show.

By 1968, the club was featuring less folk music and began to spotlight rock and electric blues. Its demise was most likely linked to rock's ascension: '60s college kids listened to folk; in the '70s it was rock.

A brief revival came with Disco... When Ken Colliar, an early adopter, who formed a DJ crew, called True Disco with Morris Mitchell, started playing the club regularly. The Chessmate got hot partially because of the clubs proximity to Detroit's growing gay neighborhood near, Palmer Park. True Disco brought brought out a stylish gay crowd that was ready to dance, True Disco played records like Brainstorm's "Lovin' Is Really My Game," Giorgio Moroder and Quartz's "Beyond The Clouds".

Morris Mitchell, had been the drummer in a funk band, until he discovered his love for DJing."There was just an energy that was so different back then," Mitchell says. "You couldn't hear these records anywhere else. People would climb up on the speakers and applaud you. The more energy you gave them, the more you got back, until it was crazy. Even Monday night was like a Saturday. I'm so glad I got to be there and experience it, because we lived."

Disco gave the Chessmate new life in the 70's

The Disco scene in Detroit was transforming as well. Marke B of the Red Bull Music Academy Daily wrote; 'When we started out, it was still the time of playing on one turntable,' Mitchell says. 'You played one record out, and then you started up the other one, sometimes on another turntable you had hooked up to the speakers. There was no real mixing to speak of.' Through a cross-pollination of travelling DJs, record pools and developments in affordable technology, this changed, and by around 1975 Collier was mastering beatmatching and crossfading.

'I knew I had to go to the Chessmate,' Stacey Hale says. 'Everybody was talking about Ken Collier and True Disco. I can't recall who accompanied me, but we wanted to go dance. Inside was the first time I actually heard two songs mixed together. It was something I had been trying to figure out on my own for a long time. I had hooked up turntables to receivers, cassette players, attempting to create this, because I never wanted to hear silence or talking between songs. I had created this on reel-to-reel tapes, but this was live. I made my way to the DJ booth, observed what equipment was used to do that: turntables and a mixer. The next day I went and bought a mixer and another turntable and started teaching myself how to mix...

Over his long career, until he passed away in 1996, Collier mentored or influenced dozens of DJs and music-makers like Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Delano Smith, Kelli Hand, Alton Miller, Terrence Parker, Allan Ester, Aaron-Carl, Mike Huckaby and others too numerous to list. He bridged the birth of disco in the early 1970s and the peak of 1990s house in Detroit, collaborating with producer Don Was to push the boundaries of the 12″ dance mix and developing the sound then known in the city as "progressive," which opened the door to techno."

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