The Dawn of Disco and Other Memories
Clifton nightlife explodes in the 1970s
By Jack De Vries
It was the decade of the bad haircut.

Face it. If you grew up in the 1970s, there’s a high school yearbook picture you’d like to burn, and it’s yours.

It was a time like no other. The 1970s began with the idealistic promises of the 1960s and ended with the start of the “greed is good” 1980s.

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon halted the Vietnam War, declared he was “not a crook,” and flew away on a helicopter from the White House after he proving that he was. After Nixon, Gerald Ford pardoned his old boss, fell down a lot, plunked people with golf balls, and bumbled out of Washington as the decade ended.

In local pro sports, Dr. J, wearing a beach ball-size afro, kissed the sky for the then New York Nets. The Knicks won a championship in 1973 and wouldn’t make the NBA finals again for another 20 years. The New York Giants and Jets stayed far away from the Super Bowl, the Mets almost won the World Series in 1973, and the Yankees showed them how it was done in 1977-78.

In the movies, Luca Brasi slept with the fishes in The Godfather, Rocky Balboa proved he was not another “bum from the neighborhood,” and, in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars made its first jump from light speed into our lives.

And on the music scene, things really got interesting. In Clifton’s nightclubs, like others across the country, a revolution was about to take place.

In the 1960s, rock and roll music was innocent, then ground breaking—the sound track of a nation in turmoil. It railed against injustice, celebrated personal freedom, and fought to stop the Vietnam War. By the early 1970s, the war in Southeast Asia was history, everyone was a little too free, and injustice was on the run.

With no cause to rally behind, early 1970’s rock music fell into an abyss of excess—never-ending drum solos and 15-minute art-rock songs. And just when the music became too much to bear, people remembered why rock and roll was so much fun.

It has a good beat and you can dance to it. Disco was born.

One man who has seen it all is Ed Rothschild, DJ Wild Worm, currently playing the hits at Joey’s Place on Allwood Road on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Rothschild, a music historian, has watched the club scene for the past 30 years and been a DJ since 1973, starting in the Ram’s Horn on Route 46 in nearby Garfield.

“In the early ’70s,” Rothschild says, “‘Glitter Rock’ was big, and artists like Gary Glitter and David Bowie were popular in the clubs. People went out to see rock bands like Another Pretty Face.”

Also popular were keyboard-driven bands like Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer, and hard rockers like Led Zepplin and Black Sabbath—groups that hardly inspired dancing. However, those bands would soon make room for a new style of music—one with a steady, syncopated beat.

“Disco in this area started in clubs in Passaic and Paterson, and spread to the more suburban towns,” notes Rothschild. “The first big club playing disco music that I remember was The Joker in Passaic, who had a DJ named ‘Flamingo Joe.’”

The new music found homes in the local Clifton nightspots. Krackers attracted good weekend crowds and had the best Sunday night dance party in the area, hosted by DJ Johnny Tripp. J.P.’s on Route 3 (located where the Clairmont Diner is now) featured both bands and a DJ, drawing big crowds on the weekend and Tuesdays.

Joey Harrison’s Valley Lodge was another up-and-comer. Today the site of the Charlie Brown’s restaurant on Van Houten Ave., Joey Harrison’s started as nine-stool tavern in the 1960s, established by former boxer, Joe Barcellona Sr. In the 1970s, the club expanded, attracting a 30-plus singles crowd at night.

Joey Harrison’s would become an even bigger nightspot in the 1980s. The club would change throughout next three decades, becoming Joey’s Place, Joey’s Nightclub, and Yakety-Yak, owned throughout that time (except for a brief period in the mid-1970s) by three generations of the Barcellona family. Joey’s “celebrity bartenders” serving the large crowds included Jerry Carroll, Tony Alfano, Richie Malgieri, and Cass Cattuso.

Casey’s was another club that would make its mark in the 1970s, then roar through the 1980s, drawing huge crowds. Now the site of Joey’s Place and formerly the home of the Clifton Pub, Casey’s featured an elegant supper club on one side—complete with waitresses in long gowns and hats—and a nightclub that drew a singles on the other.

Featuring live bands, Casey’s added Byron “B.G.” Hogan as its house DJ as the disco boom hit. Serving up the fun behind the bar at Casey’s was the late George Ouelette and Doug Berger.

Casey’s did big business throughout the week, and drew even larger crowds on the weekends and on Monday nights with its zany “Gong Talent Show,’ featuring the Challenger-Meade Band.

“We hosted the Gong Show for 13 years,” says Casey’s owner Ed Cassatly, “outlasting the TV show. We once received a letter from the TV Gong Show saying they would take legal action if we didn’t stop using their name. I sent them back a letter saying to go ahead, the publicity would be worth it. We never heard from them again.”

Clifton nightclubs like Rick’s Pub and Ashley’s would join the lineup as hot spots in the 1980s. Besides drawing big crowds on the weekends and solid business throughout the week, Rick’s established a huge Friday afternoon Happy Hour following, and Ashley’s would attract big crowds on Wednesdays and Thursdays, along with big weekend business,

In all the clubs of the late 1970s, the scene was similar. Well-dressed customers packed around the bar and dance floor, as their ears were serenaded with the steady disco beat. Colored lights flashed across the dancers as DJs mixed songs together in one steady stream of music, becoming local entertainment celebrities. Often club owners had to slow the beat down so customers would stop dancing to buy drinks. On almost any given night, a person could walk into at least one Clifton nightclub and find New Year’s Eve.

“Most of the 1970s was a happy time,” says Rothschild. “Mixed drinks were cheap (about $1.50) and the people were dancing again.”

Popular music in the early to middle part of the decade came from performers like KC And The Sunshine Band, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, Gloria Gaynor, and the O’Jays.

“The first big phase of disco,” remembers Rothschild, “started around 1975 with songs like Fly Robin Fly by Silver Convention and Van McCoy’s The Hustle. On the radio, only WBLS was playing disco.

Besides launching a No. 1 hit, McCoy’s The Hustle started a new style of dancing, and couples glided together across dance floors using intricate steps. While incredibly popular for a time, the new style dancing was not for everyone.

“As a DJ,” says Rothschild, “I saw the Hustle do more harm than good—it almost killed a lot of clubs. People who knew how to do the Hustle loved it, but I’d see others walk in who didn’t, feel intimidated, and leave. It wasn’t until the people in Studio 54 started dancing free-style before it began to change. After that, clubs in this area followed, and people became more comfortable dancing disco again.”

Slowly, music began to change, with New York radio station WKTU leading the movement with an all disco format. The European influence of producers like Giorgio Moroder became evident in the 1976 monster hit of “Love to Love You, Baby” by Donna Summer, with the sultry Disco Diva exploding on the scene and taking the new music to a new level.

Established artist like Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Queen began trying tried their hand at disco. “Even the Rolling Stones,” notes Rothschild, “had a disco song, Miss You, in 1978.”

But all was not rosy on the dance floor. Predictably, disco’s popularity caused some rock and rollers to blast the new music as canned, mass-produced, techno-nonsense, with no soul or feeling. Rock fans wearing “Disco Sucks” shirts were common. Only New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen’s appearance on the national scene stole the spotlight from the new music in the 1970s.

But not for long. Tony Manero was about to arrive.

In 197X, the movie Saturday Night Fever opened and changed the disco landscape forever. John Travolta’s Brooklyn strut in a white three-piece-suit captured the public’s imagination and established disco as America’s beat. The Australian Bee Gees became the worlds No. 1 band, with hits like Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever. The Tramps also scored a big hit off the SNF soundtrack with Disco Inferno.

“Saturday Night Fever,” says Rothschild, “got everybody involved and on the dance floor—including the kids listening to the Allman Brothers and Led Zepplin. It became cool for everybody to get dressed up and go out.”

Cassatly agrees. “Saturday Night Fever not only defined the era,” he says, “but added to it. The movie was more than a story about Brooklyn kids, it said to that it was okay to go out, have fun, and dance. Unlike much of the music today, disco songs were happy, with words people could sing along to. In the 1970s, we needed to relax and enjoy—remember this was an era of double-digit inflation coupled with a lousy economy.”

Fashion was reborn in the 1970s. The decade started with people wearing faded jeans, carpenter pants, and wild long hair and progressed to dancers wearing suits and dresses made of indestructible polyester material and platform shoes. Hair spray was an essential, as men cut their locks to replicate Travolta’s blow-dried, combed-back style. The decade ended with club-goers wearing designer jeans and Capezio shoes.

“Designer jeans were huge,” Rothschild says, “everybody in the clubs were wearing them. Ones made by Jordache, Calvin Klein, and Sassoon were popular. People shopped in stores like Chess King and Proving Ground in Paramus Park and Willow Brook Malls. By the end of the 1970s, that three-piece suit look from Saturday Night Fever was over. The Bee Gees didn’t last long as a big disco band either.”

As the 1970s ended, disco would face new challenges, as punk rock and new wave music claimed turf in the music wars. But the Clifton nightclubs (with the exception of JPs), would continue to thrive in the “Big ’80s,” attracting bigger crowds than ever before, drawing in customers from almost every North Jersey city and making Clifton the place to be seen after dark.

“The 1970s set the stage for everything that came after—including what’s going on in the clubs with music and fashion now,” says Rothschild. “It was an ‘imbecilic’ time.”

For information on hiring Ed Rothschild, DJ Wild Worm, for your next party event, call (201) 796-5119. Look for articles on other entertainment eras in upcoming issues of the Clifton Merchant