The world famous Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip celebrates its 55th anniversary this year. And to celebrate this milestone, I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Tanzini Jr., son of Philip Tanzini, Sr., who was one of the original owners of the Whisky along with Elmer Valentine, Shelly Davis, and attorney Theodore Flier. Tanzini shares some inside stories I had never heard before and I’m thrilled to share these personal stories with Vintage Los Angeles readers.
How did go-go dancing take off at the Whisky a Go-Go? It all happened by accident.
Jayne Mansfield at the Whisky a Go-Go
The world famous Whisky A Go-Go is considered the first rock ‘n’ roll venue on the Sunset Strip to take chances by booking new and sometimes notorious artists during the 1960s, they gave future superstars a stage to develop their signature sounds. Johnny Rivers was the first to play live music at the Whisky in 1964. Two years later, the Doors became the house band after Arthur Lee, front man of local L.A. band, LOVE (who were already headlining the joint) encouraged Elektra Records owner Jac Holzman to sign them. “Up-and-coming” artists like Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin and The Byrds played there too, their names placed in large letters on the marquee at the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Clark.
The Whisky a Go Go in 1964. Photo: Julian Wasser
Although many are familiar with the lore around the Whisky, most people don’t know how the Whisky a Go Go got started. I only recently learned the story myself when I sat down at the Rainbow Bar and Grill to talk with Philip Tanzini Jr., the son of one of the four original owners, Philip Tanzini, Sr.
Tanzini Sr. was born and raised in New Jersey but moved to Los Angeles with his business partner, former cop Elmer Valentine, a former cop during the 1950s, looking for business opportunities in Hollywood. During a trip to Paris, Valentine had stumbled upon a restaurant called the “Whisky A Go Go”, and became intrigued by the European mod scene. This gave him the idea to open a similar joint on the Sunset Strip. At the time, the Strip was changing, and the older nightclubs of the Golden Age, like The Mocambo, Ciro’s, and The Trocadero were closing down and giving way to the new world of discotheques. The Whisky, however, was never intended to be a dance club.
Archival footage of Sunset Strip in 1963. Before the Whisky opened, it was a short lived club called “The Party”.
Rare matchbooks from The Party and the Whisky. They discontinued using this logo in 1964 (Vintage Los Angeles Collection)
According to Tanzini Jr., the venue was founded by his father, Valentine, publicist Shelly Davis, and attorney Theodore Flier. The four powerful partners took over an old, nondescript bank in West Hollywood with a plan to open a French restaurant. The group hired a local artist named Tony Mafia to paint the interiors, and installed beautiful chandeliers and a really expensive sound system. But when opening day rolled around in the summer of ‘64, The Whisky A Go Go was far from ready. “None of the tables and chairs had even been delivered,” says Tanzini. Still, the venue could not open its doors after its grand opening were splattered all over the trades.
A line of kids in front in 1964. Photograph courtesy Andrew Sandoval
Now I wouldn’t describe Phil Tanzini and Elmer Valentine as roughish kinds of guys, but I will say they colored outside the lines a little here and there. One of the owners had a niece that attended Hollywood High School, and according to Tanzini, they asked her and a bunch of her teenage friends if they’d like to make $20 each for the evening. “That was a lot of money in those days,” says Tanzini. “They paid all these kids to stand in a line outside the Whisky A Go Go. Elmer and my dad locked the doors, turned the music really loud, and hired a bouncer out front to paint the impression they were packed to capacity.” The fake out worked—and went on for a couple of days. Tanzini and the team knew they would eventually have to open, but without tables and chairs, they decided to hire local musicians to fill their empty space.
The kids loved it. Since there wasn’t any furniture, they started dancing, creating their own dance floor. “Back when the building was a bank, it had a security office that looked out over the floor. It was basically a ledge,” says Tanzini. “My father and Elmer installed bars so no one would fall off it. This was the beginning of what would eventually become a ‘go-go’ cage. Elmer was one of those guys that had his finger on the pulse of what was going in those days, and he decided to give musician Johnny Rivers a one-year contract and hired a young, pretty girl upstairs to mix the music. Occasionally she’d dance to the beat.”
“Well, one day she quit and everyone kept asking Elmer ‘where’s the girl in the cage? The one with the fringe dress and white boots?” So he turned to some of the girls in the joint and told them to go up there and start dancing.” More suspended cages were installed after that, and go-go dancing at the Whisky was born. They all danced the Mashed Potato, The Dog, the Monkey, The Jerk, and the Watusi (My personal favorite). Fringe dresses and all.
Archival footage inside the Whisky
Joanie Labine, the first female DJ and sound mixer at the Whisky. Though the club was billed as a discotheque, suggesting that it offered only recorded music, the Whisky a Go Go opened with a live band led by Johnny Rivers and a short skirted Joanie spinning records during Rivers’ set from a suspend cage at the right of the stage. When, in July 1965, the DJ danced during Rivers’ set, and the audience thought it was part of the act.
Johnny Rivers was the first to appear at the Whisky and recorded this live album from the venue in 1966.
The Miracles recorded the song “Going to a Go-Go” in honor of the Whisky
Soon the venue was hosting groups including Arthur Lee and Love, the Byrds, the Doors, the Kinks, the Who, the Mamas and Papas, and Sonny and Cher. It also attracted stars like Sally Field, Steve McQueen, Richard Burton, and Jayne Mansfield because it was a local spot where celebrities could really let their hair down. On one infamous night, Mansfield spent a few moments with the Beatles, who had stopped by on their first American tour in 1964. The Beatles had stated in a press conference they’d like to meet Jayne Mansfield when visiting Hollywood, so this was a calculated move by Mansfield. George Harrison, upset by photographers, got into a drink-hurling fiasco and the band left after 15 minutes.
In George Harrison’s words…
“Somebody conned us into going to the Whisky a Go Go. It seemed to take us twenty minutes to get from the door to the table and instantly the whole of Hollywood paparazzi descended. It was a total set-up by Jayne Mansfield to have pictures taken with us. John and I were sitting either side of her and she had her hands on our legs, by our groins – at least she did on mine. We’d been sitting there for hours, waiting to get a drink; we had glasses with ice in them, and the ice had all melted. A photographer came and tried to get a picture and I threw the glass of water at him. He took a photo of the water coming out of the glass and soaking – accidentally – the actress Mamie Van Doren, who just happened to be passing. We got out of there; it was hell. We left town the next day, and I remember sitting on the plane, reading the paper and there was the photo of me throwing the water.”
Love and The Byrds, 1966
The Whisky went on to become one of the most famous clubs in the world. In 1969 Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper performed at the venue on the same bill. Other historic acts included Buffalo Springfield, Van Morrison and Them, Muddy Waters, the Kinks, the Standells, Iron Butterfly, Cream, Janis Joplin, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, the Seeds, the Turtles, Neil Diamond, the Young Rascals, Otis Redding, The Four Tops, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, the Runways, and Frank Zappa. In fact The Mother’s of Invention got their record contact based on that performance at the Whisky.
Arthur Lee at the Whisky A Go Go
Arthur Lee of Love immortalized the Whisky in the song “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale”.
The Doors and the Birds on the marquee in 1967
The Doors were the house band for a while – until the debut of the
“Oedipal section” of “The End” got them fired.
The Enemys, 1966
Cream, 1967. Hugh Masekela coming soon on the side wall
The Doors and Them. Van and Jim both jammed out together on a version of “Gloria”.
The Mothers of Invention
Led Zeppelin live at the Whisky in 1969
Linda Ronstadt at the Whisky A Go-Go in 1970. Paul McCartney had just released his first solo album. And that’s The Small Faces on the side wall.
The New York Dolls performing at the Whisky, July 1973
British rockers Status Quo also referenced the venue in their 1978 song “Long Legged Linda” with the lines, “Well, if you’re ever in Los Angeles and you’ve got time to spare / Take a stroll up Sunset Boulevard, you’ll find the Whisky there.
The Runaways at the Whisky A Go Go, 1977 photo by Brad Elterman
Blondie played in Los Angeles for the first time opening for The Ramones at the Whisky in 1977
The Whisky a Go Go in 1980
Crowds pack the sidewalk along Sunset Strip in 1982 as fans gather to hear the Plimsolls at the popular Whisky a Go Go. (Marsha Traeger / Los Angeles Times)
There have been several stories as to why the ‘y’ was burned out on the neon sign for several years during the 1960’s. Some say they were in a dispute with another Whisky a Go Go located in Paris. They left the ‘y” burned out until that was all settled.
During the ‘70s, the Whisky was a launching pad for punk and new-wave acts like the Ramones, the New York Dolls, Blondie, and Iggy Pop, the Stooges, the B-52’s, and X. Van Halen performed there in ‘1977 and heavy metal bands such as Motley Crew, Metallica (with the Motels) and Guns ‘n Roses took center stage during the ‘80s. The venue was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall Of Fame in 2006 and during it’s 50th anniversary, the Whisky showcased sets from Robby Krieger (of The Doors), X, and the Bangles.
Inside the Whisky a Go Go today
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