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If you're fresh to P-town, and know the lay of the cit-tay about as well as Ashlee Simpson knows how to hold a musical note, then let Professor Kreme school your ignorant ass on the chillest spot in the PHX, the Zona's world-renowned lounge paradise Chez Nous, at 675 West Indian School Road, on the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and Indian School (www.cheznouscentral.com). It's the sort of place where Cleopatra Jones and Shaft would've hooked up for a cocktail back when hair was big, lapels were wide and everybody knew the electric slide. That's right, 'cause even though Chez Nous actually dates to 1963, the place strikes you as 100 percent pimpin' superfly '70s, with deep leather booths, gold-and-black wallpaper, and a faux-rock waterfall behind the long, crooked bar.
The live music and kick-back crowd complete the Soul Train-meets-Jackie Brownvibe. Most nights, "music" means the Roscoe Taylor-Tim Forkes Experience, with Forkes on the boards and Taylor performing the group's versions of old-school classics, everything from Rick James and Al Green to Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops. Forkes knows how to stretch a groove and make it last, while Taylor's gravelly, Lou Rawlsy vocals take Chez Nous' small but crowded dance floor on a "fantastic voyage," to borrow a phrase from the funk/R&B hit by the group Lakeside.
"What's special about Chez Nous is that we do all '70s," Taylor explained to the Jettster and me during a rare break in his set. "The older crowd and the younger mix. There's no rap, there's nothing about violence or killing. When you come in here, you can be yourself. You don't have to get all dolled up. You just come in and sit down, listen to the music and enjoy."
Taylor and Forkes have been at Chez Nous for 11 years, and they draw a loyal audience Fridays through Mondays, and Wednesdays, when they play. (Soul Horizons picks up the slack on Tuesdays; Fire in the Sky on Thursdays.) But good luck snagging a barstool or much more than breathing room on Fridays and Saturdays when Chez Nous is packed tighter than Ralphie May's underwear. That's why the J-girl and I sashay into Chez on a Sunday, when the waterin' hole still pulls in the macks and mamas, though at a head count more conducive to conversatin' and elbow-bendin'.
When the Shirley Manson of the PHX and I hit the swank saloon, it's early, like 8:30 p.m., and Taylor and Forkes are still setting up. Our chesty bar-gal slings a couple of pints of draft Heineken our way, and we begin to get situated as we spot Naima Homer, 23, the model-gorgeous daughter of owner Amina Uben. Naima bartends sometimes, but tonight she's off duty, kickin' it with her honey Aaron Petz. The classy dime breaks down how her mom came to own the club in 2001, as all of Phoenix, it seems, had banded together to keep Osco from bulldozing Chez Nous, and turning the lot it's on into yet another drugstore.
"She used to come here as a patron," Naima says of her mom. "She'd never been in the bar business. In fact, she worked for the state Senate [as a researcher]. But she didn't want Chez Nous to close, so she found a way to buy it. She was able to work with Osco, and they let it stay a landmark."
"Has anything changed since your mom took over?" asks the J-unit.
"Not much," replies Naima. "We changed the carpeting, but pretty much everything else is the same."
"Why was it named Chez Nous back in '63?" I wonder.
"The original couple that owned it, the guy wanted to make it a cowboy bar," Naima states. "His wife was like, 'No way! This is Arizona, and there are too many of those. We're going to have a lounge.' She won that argument, and it became Chez Nous. I don't know where they got the name from, exactly."
(According to Naima's mom, whom we caught up with later on, the woman Naima's referring to is Maureen Womack, now in her 90s. Womack was and presumably still is a Francophile, hence the Froggy sobriquet.)
We thank Naima for the 411, and slink back to the bar for refills as Roscoe & Co. start their set. My eyes have finally adjusted to Chez's famous darkness, and I feast my eyeballs on Jett's cleavage, which seems to grow deeper and wideras the night progresses. Jesus, you'd think the girl was workin' it down on Van Buren with the free show she's giving! And I'm not the only voyeur at the bar. Next to me is a cat in shades who calls himself Duke, though whether that's his real name is up for grabs.
"I think you people are hot," Duke tells us.
"Thanks. But you seem to be staring mostly at my sidekick here, as you say that," I notice.
"Yes, but in order to give her a compliment, one must go through you," says Duke, never taking his eyes off the prize, as it were.
"So how often do you come to Chez Nous?" queries the AC/DC Devon Aoki of the Duke of Earl, changing the subject.