Flathead performs at Long Wong's.EXPAND
Flathead performs at Long Wong's.
Courtesy of Tempe History Museum

25 Legendary Tempe Music Venues: Then and Now

Despite rumors to the contrary, April 3, 2004, wasn’t the day that the music died in Tempe. It was, however, when the plug was pulled on fabled Mill Avenue rock club Long Wong’s, a heartbreaking event that may have signaled the end of an era but wasn’t a death knell for the city’s live music scene. Nor were any of the closures that shuttered several prominent Tempe venues a decade later in 2014.

The pulse of live music in the East Valley city has ebbed and flowed considerably over the past 30 years, from the immense popularity of the Mill sound around the time that the Gin Blossoms cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 charts with “Hey Jealousy,” to the fallow period following the shuttering of Wong’s.

And there’s probably no greater example of this than last year’s fantastic “Tempe Sound” retrospective at Tempe History Museum. In case you missed it, the expansive exhibit encapsulated several eras of the city’s musical legacy with an extensive collection of memorabilia, photos, and cultural remnants hewn from more than five decades of history.

Gin Blossoms perform at Sport Rock Cafe.EXPAND
Gin Blossoms perform at Sport Rock Cafe.
Courtesy of Tempe History Museum

Besides offering a trip down memory lane, the showcase underscored the fact that live music in Tempe has weathered a lot of change over the years and will ultimately continue doing so. Such is certainly the case in the city, as newer additions like Shady Park and C.A.S.A. Lounge have started to blossom for the past several months and attempt to fill the void left by the loss of The Sail Inn and Long Wong’s at the Firehouse while complementing stalwart venues like Yucca Tap Room.

Will the Tempe music scene ever ascend to the height of the Mill Avenue heyday again? Probably not, but that’s not to say that Tempe music won’t develop a unique verve. Plus, that era left some pretty big shoes to fill.

Local concert promoter Charlie Levy was involved in the scene and remembers its vibrancy and enormity, as well as the sheer number of great venues.

“There was a time in the early ’90s where Mill Avenue was it. You had Balboa [Cafe], you had Chuy’s, you had Gibson’s, you had Hayden Square, you had Edsel’s Attic, you had Cannery Row, you had Long Wong’s. Local bands were playing original music, and all those venues all would be full. And you’d pick two or three and you could go around and see all these bands. It was a constant rotation of people seeing shows,” Levy says. “And then you had all the stuff off Mill, like Hollywood Alley, you had Boston’s, you had Big Fish Pub. That Tempe scene, it was a lot more than the Gin Blossoms. People went out to see live music back then. So much more than today.”

The Refreshments perform at the Yucca Tap Room in 1996.EXPAND
The Refreshments perform at the Yucca Tap Room in 1996.
Courtesy of Mary Cope

As is the norm in any city, venues tend to come and go. Some are felled by progress, while others are victims of the ever-changing whims of patrons or the fickle economy. Of the venues profiled in this article, only two — Marquee Theatre and Yucca Tap Room — have survived the ups and downs. All these outcomes have taken place in the Tempe scene over the past several decades, proving that the true constant is change.

That’s sort of the spirit behind the following look back at 20 music venues that defined live music in Tempe the last few decades. It illustrates many of the tumultuous changes to venues that have occurred and also provides a current glimpse at what became of many famed spots.

(Editor’s note: We’d like to thank Josh Roffler, curator of collections at Tempe History Museum, for allowing New Times access to photos from its archives and the “Tempe Sound” exhibit.)

Dooley's/After the Gold Rush/Electric Ballroom

Long before its current status as an arts charter school for talented teenagers, this uniquely shaped structure along Apache Boulevard served as a popular venue that hosted a who's who of the music world. In the '70s and into the '80s, the 700-capacity establishment was known as Dooley's and reportedly hosted iconic performers from the era, including Devo, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, The Kinks, Muddy Waters, and Blondie.

And many of those shows were booked by renowned promoter Danny Zelisko, as he spent his embryonic years in the concert business bringing in acts to the venue shortly after launching his now-defunct Evening Star Productions in the mid-1970s. “I ended up getting some real phenomenal people in there,” he says. Namely, performers like country-rock legends The Outlaws (who sold out the joint), Chuck Berry (ditto), and Argentinian jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri (double ditto). Joe Jackson also came in after "I'm the Man" hit it big, and Pat Benatar reportedly played her first-ever show in Arizona at Dooley's.

Zelisko continued to book shows at the venue after it changed owners and names twice over the following two decades, becoming After the Gold Rush in the early '80s and the Electric Ballroom in the early '90s. Each hosted notable acts. After the Gold Rush, for instance, bridged the heyday of hard rock and hair metal (Cinderella, King's X, Ace Frehley, and Faster Pussycat) into the rise of grunge and alternative (Nirvana, Mr. Bungle, Widespread Panic, Rage Against the Machine). Electric Ballroom, however, was all over the place in terms of the genres it hosted, with shows running the gamut from The Cramps, L7, and Social Distortion to Bloodhound Gang and Blur.

The property's lengthy stint as a concert hall ended in the late '90s, due in part to a sexual assault alleged to have been perpetrated by members of rap group Onyx. The incident led to the club's liquor license getting pulled by the State of Arizona. In the early Aughts, the New School for the Arts and Academics wound up purchasing the property and transforming it into an institution of learning. 

Boston's 

Jesus Lizard's David Yow once dropped his pants and dove into the rowdy crowd during his band's show at Boston's. Then there was the time Man or Astro-man? performed with a ginormous functioning Tesla coil that buzzed with electricity, or that one Fishbone gig that saw lead singer Angelo Moore climbing the walls inside while a massive thunderstorm brewed outside.

Such spectacles are just some of the memorable theatrics that occurred at the well-remembered Tempe bar, which reigned from 1991 until 2002 and was a hub for rock, punk, alternative, metal, ska, and indie. Search the web and you'll see an enviable list of touring acts that hit up Boston's, including The Specials, Napalm Death, Rocket From the Crypt, Flogging Molly, Weezer, Slipknot, Mike Ness, and Jello Biafra.

Described by former New Times scribes as an "East Valley rock mecca," Boston's was a shabby rock dive with plenty of verve. It was owned by Al Nichols, who ran the place with his three sons, Corey, Keith, and Jeff. Shows took place on both its indoor and outdoor stage and included a great deal of local bands getting their start.

Following Boston's closure, the joint became a Latin dance spot called Club Macarena for a bit, only to eventually go vacant again. In 2009, it reopened at 910 Live, a combination nightclub/music venue that once again had live music in the mix along with DJs, including Skrillex, who performed there in 2011 just before his breakthrough. By 2013, more changes had taken place, as the main room was transformed into a gentleman's club (known as Elite Cabaret at 910 Live), while the expansive back patio continues to offer rock concerts during the cooler months, which sorta keeps the old spirit of the place alive.

Hayden Square Amphitheater

At one time, the area of downtown Tempe known as Hayden Square was a small nexus of music venues that had a symbiotic relationship and shared groove with the rest of the Mill Avenue scene. Situated in a cul-de-sac where Fourth Street dead-ended just off Tempe’s main drag, it offered access to a cluster of now-deceased bars that acted as the stomping grounds for now-legendary local music figures. The bars included Balboa Cafe (currently Blasted Barley), Chuy’s (which later became Gibson’s and now hosts Moonshine Whiskey Bar), and Edcel’s Attic (the future site of Ziggy’s and now the B.A.C. Lounge). 

At the center of Hayden Square was a modest amphitheater that regularly functioned as an outdoor venue, hosting several performances throughout the 1990s, from alternative bands (Soul Asylum, Garbage, They Might Be Giants) to hard rock acts (Stabbing Westward, Deftones). Zelisko remembers a memorable show by Phish in 1994 at the amphitheater.

“That was a really happening area,” Zelisko says. “We had a lot of great shows in Hayden Square in those days.” Today, the area is referred to as “Hayden Station” (because of its proximity to a light-rail stop) and doesn’t regularly host a lot of public gatherings, save for weekend nightlife crowds going to or coming from Blasted Barley or Moonshine Whiskey Bar. It’s still used for occasional performances, like when the Gin Blossoms returned to their roots and played the amphitheater during the Tempe New Year’s Eve Block Party in 2014.

Hollywood Alley

It’s been more than two years since Hollywood Alley held its final shows and closed forever, and its countless regulars still mourn its passing. Over the course of 25 years, the “ultra-chic pissant hip dive bar” located on the border of Tempe and Mesa was run by the affable Wincek family and became a much-beloved bar, restaurant, music venue, and second home to its clientele and many Valley musicians.

Within its well-worn walls — which were famously covered in peeling movie posters, old LPs, and other bits of ephemera — an impressive variety of talents both local and touring did their thing to the delight of crowds both large and small. After being stripped by its proprietors and regulars for memorabilia shortly after its closure, the space was gutted and refurbished by the property owners of the Baseline Road strip
mall where it resided. Fittingly enough, the location still contains a collection of quaint and quirky items, as it’s now home to the Twice Upon a Time thrift store. 

Marquee Theatre

A decade before Marquee Theatre opened for business in 2003 at the corner of Mill Avenue and Washington Street, the cavernous building was the domain of country crooners and down-home sounds. In 1993, the venue debuted as the Red River Opry, a family-oriented place with auditorium seating and home to a theatrical-style revue called the “Arizona’s Country Music Show,” which we described at the time as a “scripted blend of family-friendly crossover country and pop, punctuated with a bit of comedy.” Yee-haw. A decade later, long after the Red River Opry headed for the last roundup, it became the concert venue we all know today, sans the seating and heaping helpings of cornpone.

Yucca Tap Room

The Yucca has been around for several decades, dating back to when the Hu family purchased the bar, as well as the entire plaza where it’s located, in the early ’70s. But as times and tastes have changed, the Yucca Tap Room has essentially stayed the same. While a 2009 expansion added a second room with craft beer/whiskey bar, the main room at the Yucca looks just like it did way back when (more or less), right
down to its wood-paneled walls. And if those walls could talk, its babblings would include many tales of Tempe’s music past.

After featuring a few different house bands on the weekends, such as Phoenix-born country band Coyote, the Hu family started presenting local live music in 1989, including many of the famed acts that put Tempe on the map. Current owner Rodney Hu can rattle off a rundown of some of the more well-remembered bands that played there, such as Dead Hot Workshop, Flathead, Spinning Jennies, The Pistoleros, Satellite, and The Refreshments. And as new groups were born, the Yucca Tap offered up its stage to each, ranging from Grave Danger, Ghetto Cowgirl, and The Black Moods to the Format (who once performed a memorable acoustic set in 2005).

Devil House/Club Rio

There will always be big-time party spots in Tempe, especially in the area surrounding ASU, no matter the year. And in the ’80s and ’90s, this spot along Scottsdale Road just north of the Salt River was one of the biggest rage havens for college kids and 20-somethings. It debuted in 1981 as the Devil House, and later
became Club Rio, offering a variety of theme events (like its famous Saturday foam parties) and DJ nights throughout its 23-year lifespan, with the music being spun ranging from reggae and hip-hop to techno and Latin. Club Rio’s party-hardy infamy was due in no small part to its cheap and plentiful drinks, which likely
led to both good times and bad decisions over the years. (Onetime Arizona Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer got in big trouble back in 1997 for allegedly fondling four women inside the club.)

Besides serving as a notorious nightspot, Club Rio was a popular venue for concerts of the rock and alternative variety, especially during the 1990s and into the new millennium. Countless popular acts from that era gigged at Club Rio, including Bad Religion, Porno for Pyros, Green Day, Jesus Jones, Ben Folds Five, Korn, System of a Down, and Soulfly. After later becoming the Arizona Beach Club for a spell, the club was torn down in the mid-aughts, and the 10-acre property was supposedly slated to become a multimillion-dollar condo development. Due to a number of circumstances, said deal never happened and it’s been a vacant eyesore ever since. Given Tempe’s development boom, especially around Town Lake, we’re willing to bet it won’t stay that way forever.

Tony's New Yorker

This property along Broadway Road just off Mill Avenue started out as a church, then became a nightclub before its noteworthy stint in the late ’80s and most of the ’90s as Tony’s New Yorker. The Italian restaurant and its attached lounge was a regular stomping ground for many legends of the Tempe music scene, including bands like the Piersons, bluesman Hans Olson, and the late Doug Hopkins. In fact, the troubled Gin Blossoms songwriter and guitarist reportedly played his final gig at Tony’s alongside Olson in late 1993 shortly before he took his own life. 

These days, music still echoes through the building, both of the live and pre-recorded variety, as it now functions as American Legion Post 138. Musicians and bands occasionally perform inside the large and lively bar located on the premises, which is a favorite of neighborhood folk, former servicemen, and a variety of biker types. Like with any American Legion Post, however, membership

Tempe Tavern

Although the squat cobblestone structure located just east of McClintock Drive on Apache Boulevard doesn't have the distinction of being the oldest existing building in Tempe, it does happen to be the oldest one that's currently operating as a thriving music venue. In 1919, almost a century before it began hosting everything from punk and death metal to hip-hop, the building was the E.M. White Dairy Barn. It later was transformed into a commercial establishment in 1930 and later became a series of restaurants and bars.

Before it was Tempe Tavern, the property was known as the the Oxbow in the 1940s and the New Oxbow Tavern in the 1970s, and it offered up many a pint as Murphy's Irish Pub throughout most of the '90s before closing in 2001. A decade later, its current proprietors refurbished and remodeled the joint in 2011 into its current look.

The Sail Inn

In 1990, Sail Inn owner Gina Lombardi and her business partners turned what was originally a ramshackle dive known as the Last Chance Saloon into a thriving music destination. It spent the better part of the next 24 years as one of Tempe’s favorite places to drink or catch a show. Local musicians and bands were big fans of the place during its lifespan, be it blues musicians in the early ’90s, the members of Mill’s storied 
jangle-pop era, or more modern acts like Dry River Yacht Club, Japhy’s Descent, The Sugar Thieves, and Mergence. 

The good times came to an end in 2014 when the property was sold to developers and transformed into the new home for Chef Aaron May’s Sasquatch-themed restaurant/bar The Lodge. Sail Inn regulars,
however, will be pleased to know that the establishment retains some structural elements of its former identity, including the property’s outdoor amphitheater, which serves as the backdrop for the patio.

Eastside Records

Though not technically a music venue, the original location of Eastside Records at University Drive and Ash Avenue was the epicenter and meeting ground for the local music scene for close to 20 years and also hosted more than a few shows in its day, both inside the store and in the parking lot. These include a rowdy performance by Man or Astro-Man? in 1995 that forced the landlord to ban future gigs for a lengthy period of time. And though it wasn't as uproarious, the final night at Eastside's original home prior to its closure in 2010 featured Grave Danger and other locals.

After its closure, neighboring smoke shop Headquarters (itself renowned to Tempe cats) expanded into the space. Meanwhile, Eastside co-owner Michael Pawlicki opened pop-up versions of his store at various spots around the city before becoming of the many boutiques involved with the Double Nickels Collective, a few doors down from the Yucca Tap Room and 51 West.

Big Surf

This iconic Tempe water park is nothing if not historic. Having opened in 1969, it not only is the longest-running attraction of its kind in Arizona but also features the first-ever wave pool built in the United States. Generations of swimmers and sun-worshipers have flocked to Big Surf to take a dip or ride the waves. And in the 1970s, people turned out in droves for a number of outdoor concerts by important bands from rock 'n' roll history. 

According to the park's proprietors, as well as a several websites, classic rock and pop legends like Deep Purple, Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, and Foghat all performed amid the palm trees and Polynesian kitsch of the park. (Sometimes the outdoor setting proved to be a bit hazardous, like when Pink Floyd reportedly pulled the plug midway through its September 1972 set due to rain.) Other renowned names who visited Big Surf for shows over the decades include Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Blue Öyster Cult, Sting, Rod Stewart, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Fast-forward to the the present, and the water park still is giving up space for massive music events, albeit of the electronic dance music variety. Local promoter Steve Levine Entertainment put on a three separate editions of its Soundwave music festivals in 2011 and 2012 at Big Surf, while the annual Wet Electric has brought is such noteworthy DJs as Dillon Francis, Diplo, Sultan and Ned Shepard, and Flux Pavillion.

Big Fish Pub

When the Big Fish Pub closed its original location on University Drive in 2014, it was the final chapter for a space that featured a lot of big names over two decades. Opened in 1995 by original owner Donny Johnson (currently the general manager for Lucky Man Concerts), the bar and venue was slightly removed from the Mill Avenue scene but still featured many of the same acts that made it famous. As the years wore on, Big Fish also hosted a slew of renowned hard rock and alternative acts during their formative years, including A Perfect Circle, Sevendust, Eagles of Death Metal, Hoobastank, 30 Seconds to Mars, and Chester Bennington’s pre-Linkin Park band, Grey Daze. Hell, John Mayer even played there in 2001.

Johnson sold the bar in 2005 after a decade of ownership to local entrepreneur Mark DeCarlo. It then became more of a blues/R&B joint, but ultimately changed owners again in 2008, this time being purchased by proprietor Victor Boiseau, who returned the place to its rock club roots. Despite his best efforts to sustain the Big Fish, he reportedly wound up getting into a spat with the owners of the shopping plaza that housed the bar over increased rent and other issues. As such, Boiseau chose to close the place in 2014. Since then, the space that was formerly occupied by Big Fish Pub has undergone a remodeling and currently awaits its next tenant.

Tempe Bowl

In what some folks fondly remember as the Valley’s version of Chicago’s famed Fireside Bowl, the now-defunct Tempe Bowl along Apache Boulevard was once the site of many a rock, punk, and ska gig in the late 1990s. It started in 1997 after the aforementioned situation in which the neighboring Electric Ballroom lost its liquor license, forcing shows to be moved to the bowling alley. Christine Zahn, Tempe Bowl’s famed owner, was receptive to such a situation.

Over the course of a year’s time, the bowling alley became “an improbable but important part of the local music scene.” Sadly, the marriage of strikes and spares with rowdy shows only lasted about a year or so until Tempe Bowl went under at the dawn of the millennium due to a combination of financial woes and designs by city officials to revamp that area of town. By 2003, Tempe Bowl was no more, and the property became the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts, a holistic-oriented school offering courses in everything from yoga and massage therapy to nutrition and mind-body wellness.

Bash on Ash

Some big bashes took place in this now-defunct concert hall that was attached to the equally extinct sports bar McDuffy’s, and we aren’t just referring to the times that pro wrestlers battled inside. There were also costume balls, swing dance nights, and — oh, yeah — concerts. Loads of raucous local CD release parties happened within the cavernous confines of the Bash on Ash — including shindigs by Morse Code, Mourning Maxwell, Victims in Ecstacy, Kings of Pleasure, Blessedbethyname, and one for a local comp put out by former KZON disc jockey Leah Miller. And since the 600-person hall was one of the snazzier mid-sized venues in Tempe from 1997 onwards, it saw a lot of use by Valley artists with significant followings, underground hip-hop sensations, burgeoning indie talents, alt-rock radio favorites, punk and ska legends, and hordes of hard rock and death metal groups.

The Bash enjoyed a six-year run, but a combination of waning crowds, the post-9/11 economic funk, and a downturn of live music convinced owner Scott Adams to eschew concerts for EDM in early 2004 and remake the place as a danceteria. It didn’t take, and he consequently brought back the Bash on Ash by summer 2005 but ended up closing it and McDuffy’s the next year. Both are now a local office for Brightcove, a Boston-based online video service.

Tempe Mediterranean eatery Nush, which happens to be housed in the former home of the Green Room.EXPAND
Tempe Mediterranean eatery Nush, which happens to be housed in the former home of the Green Room.
Benjamin Leatherman

Green Room

If you’ve strolled past this particular College Avenue establishment on your way to Sun Devil Stadium over the decades, no doubt you’ve seen the series of sports bars and student-oriented drinkeries that have come and eventually gone. In 1999, however, one enterprise seemed like it had a better chance of success in the space — namely, the Green Room. And it was due to the fact that it was run by concert savant Charlie Levy.

Let’s set the stage: It’s late 1998 and the future owner of Crescent Ballroom and Valley Bar had departed Nita’s Hideaway after it was sold to new owners and had chosen to focus on managing local bands. He was approached by the owners of Fumbles, a foundering bar located in the space that would become the Green Room, about bringing in some of his clients to their spot. Impressed with his savvy at booking and suggestions on how to improve the place, they quickly gave him carte blanche to remake it as he saw fit. Many of Levy’s cohorts from Nita’s followed him to the spot, such as soundman Jamah Ruhe and the members of the Bombshelter DJs, and the Green Room prospered. Jimmy Eat World held the release party for its ultra-influential album Clarity shortly after its opening; Levy also brought in such bands as Get Up Kids and Superchunk.

Levy’s dalliance with his new squeeze ended about a year later, however, once the opportunity to reunite with an old flame presented itself — specifically, the fact that Nita’s had become available again. Levy and his crew departed, and the Green Room carried on for a spell before it eventually shuttered and went back to the sports bar formula for the better part of a decade. Currently, it’s home to Nush, a Mediterranean restaurant.

Swell Records 

When electronic dance music and its culture exploded in popularity around 2011, it probably seemed old hat to Russ Ramirez. After all, the Valley resident experienced a similar boom back in the late '90s and early Aughts, when he owned music and clothing emporium Swell Records, which was pretty much the go-to spot for mixmasters eager to score beats on CD and vinyl or all manner of DJ gear. Many of the biggest spin jockeys in metro Phoenix were regulars at either of its locations in Tempe (the first one opened in 1993 near Scottsdale and Curry roads, while another was later situated on Mill Avenue), such as onetime Valley resident and club god Markus Schulz, as well as Pete "SuperMix" Salaz, Senbad, C.L. McSpadden, Robbie Rob, and Pablo Gomez, as well as all three members of the notorious Bombshelter DJs (i.e, Z-Trip, Emile, and Radar)

Swell frequently became a venue of sorts when some of the aforementioned DJs would stop by, set up their decks, and spin away, often resulting in some unforgettable affairs that would last well into the wee hours. In a 2012 interview, Ramirez remembers such impromptu parties at Swell's Scottsdale Road location. “We sold records and had turntables in there and Z-Trip and Radar and Emile would come in and play. And it would turn into parties and we'd be there until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning playing records and people freestyling,” he says. “It was cool.”

Swell Records eventually migrated to Mill in the mid-Aughts, where it lasted until Ramirez sold the business in 2005 after “things had just run their course.” Its original home on Scottsdale Road is currently being used as a wholesale plumbing supply store.

6 East Lounge

The 6 East Lounge wasn't a pretty place by any means. To call it an eyesore would've been kind. It often reeked of urine, rotgut, and B.O., sported décor that was a couple of decades past threadbare, and had just the right mix of shabby and sleaze. In other words, all the makings of an iconic dive, which 6 East most certainly was to its fervently loyal fanbase, who still speak fondly of the biker bar turned musician hangout to this day, some 17 years following its destruction in the name of urban redevelopment.

Its history goes back to 1963 and includes stints as a restaurant, a neighborhood joint, dive, and biker hangout before being embraced by the young and hip. Although never a forum for live music, hordes of performers ambled through 6 East. As New Times reported “[It] experienced a paradigm shift in the early '90s, when local bands that played across the street at Long Wong's started drinking at 6 East between sets and after shows . . . The fans followed, and 6 East was suddenly popular with the Tempe twentysomething underclass, in all its forms.” And it eventually suffered the same fate as Wong's, falling victim to a wrecking ball, specifically to make way for the the Brickyard on Mill, home of the Ira Fulton School of Engineering.

Minder Binder’s

When it came to kitschy spots, it was hard to top Minder Binder’s. After all, the place was built to resemble a huge red barn and boasted a bucolic theme and an array of antiques inside. Built in 1972, it was aimed precisely at college students and beckoned them with five different bars, nickel beer nights, dance parties, and shows in its backyard or upstairs (many a musician or roadie earned some aches and pains from lugging gear up its stairs). Veruca Salt played there once, as did hometown metal heroes Flotsam and Jetsam, Agent Orange, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Infectious Grooves, and even Hole, back before Courtney Love went completely nutso.

Minder Binder’s bought the farm around 2005, and the property sat almost a decade as a decrepit eyesore along McClintock Drive before being reconstructed into what resembles a Spanish mission and becoming a restaurant. Its new moniker, the Mission at Minder Binder, isn’t the only nod to its past, as owner Kristen Bell attempted recreate the place’s kitsch with memorabilia located throughout.

Chuy’s

The long and storied history of Chuy’s encompasses not one, but three separate bygone venues located within a short distance of each other in downtown Tempe, each with its own particular vibe and preferred sound. The first location originated in the 1970s and was known as Chuy’s Choo-Choo, a ground-level bar at the now-demolished Casa Loma Hotel near Third Street and Mill that started featuring live acts around the late 1970s.

In 1981, local musician Jim Simmons and his wife, vocalist Nancy Jackson, took over the spot, 86’d the “Choo-Choo” portion of this moniker, and turned it into a hot spot for jazz and blues popular with both local and touring artists. “Every big jazz person and blues person you could think of played there, like the Crusaders and John Lee Hooker,” Zelisko says. They weren’t the only ones; others included such jazz and blues luminaries as Charlie Musselwhite, the late Jaco Pastorius, Branford Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, and Gatemouth Brown.

Due to real-estate development in downtown, Simmons and Jackson moved Chuy’s twice over the 11-year span they ran the club, eventually winding up in what then was known as Hayden Square in 1989 and spending the next three years hosting rock and alternative concerts until its closure in October 1992.

Gibson’s

Fast-forward a year and a half (and an ownership change) later to 1994 and what was once Chuy’s became Gibson’s, a beloved spot to many music fans. Why? Its balcony was a great place for bird’s-eye views of the bands (not to mention a closer look at the row of namesake guitars adorning the ceiling), the higher-than-normal stage gave an aura of importance to anyone performing on it, the sound was always spot on, and it was where many saw some of their biggest rock heroes during the height of their success.

Zelikso was one of ‘em. “I loved shows at Gibson’s,” he says. “There was that balcony and you could look down on whoever was playing.” Gibson’s was open for only five years, but hosted plenty of famous acts, including Lords of Acid, Gravity Kills, Suicidal Tendencies, Spacehog, Supersuckers, Cibo Matto, and Soul Coughing. In 2000, the bar went hippie as Have a Nice Day Cafe and then headed south of the border three years later and metamorphosized into Margarita Rocks before donning the cowboy kitsch of its current role as the Moonshine Whiskey Bar.

JD’s

You may not know it from its outward appearance, but the gaudily colored furniture store on Scottsdale Road just south of Curry could be considered hallowed ground. A lifetime ago, it was the location of JD’s, a name that’s likely familiar to fans of the late Waylon Jennings. The two-floor nightclub, which debuted in the mid-’60s and featured rock ’n’ roll bands downstairs and country music upstairs, was where the outlaw crooner and longtime Valley resident honed his craft, performed with The Waylors, and gained exposure to help propel him to superstardom.

“And he kept coming back, even after contracts with A&M Records and RCA,” says Arizona music historian John Dixon. Other Hall of Famers to grace JD’s and pack ’em in by the thousands were Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Phil and the Frantics, and the Valley’s own Mike Condello.

The Sun Club

There will never be another place like the Sun Club. Two decades after its passing in 1992, it still casts a long shadow because of its influence and history. Easily one of the more legendary and seminal music venues in Tempe, the Sun Club was a breeding ground, cultural incubator, and launching pad for what would become some of the city’s most illustrious rock acts. Case in point: The Gin Blossoms attracted major label interest after a memorable show at the club. Like their contemporaries, the members of Dead Hot Workshop also were regulars, both as patrons and performers, during the band’s formative years and would pay homage in 1995 by using a photo of the Sun Club as the cover art for its album, 1001.

Levy remembers sneaking in for shows as an underage college student and being impressed by its grungy vibe, camaraderie, and great sound, which is why he brought in bands like The Flaming Lips or Widespread Panic years later. “Sun Club was the best venue. It just had a certain feel to it. It was set up right and a little bit off the beaten path, which was great,” he says. “So many great bands played there [and] got their start — Sun City Girls and 100 Iced Animals and Beats the Hell Outta Me — all these really good local bands that were there along all these national [bands] one after another.”

Jangle-pop gods weren’t the only celebrated locals with histories tied in with the Sun Club, as bluesman Hans Olson had a long association with the building starting in 1969, when it was known as The Library and offered him a regular spot to jam. He became owner in the late ’80s, fixed it up, and rechristened it with its famed moniker while racking up $48,000 in debt, necessitating selling it off 18 months later. The Sun Club, however, lived on for another couple of years before riding into the sunset. The Eighth Street lot on which it sat currently is vacant, despite being the site of college bars Dos Gringos and Rocky Point Cantina, the latter of which was razed after running afoul of the city of Tempe in 2013.

Nita’s Hideaway

In early 1995, Nita’s Hideaway, the small out-of-the-way dive on Rio Salado Parkway owned by retired rodeo queen Nita Craddock, had a watershed moment: It hosted the first of a series of weekly sets by now-defunct pop act the Piersons. What was significant about the event was that it was the first-ever show at the bar arranged by Charlie Levy, who had to cajole its owner into allowing it happen. Craddock finally relented, which was a wise decision in retrospect, since it allowed her namesake spot to become etched in the annals of Tempe music lore.

The Piersons were the first of literally thousands of bands to do their thing at Nita’s over the next seven years and help it become a staple of the the Valley music circuit. The success of their weekly residency led to Craddock’s okaying Levy’s request to build a stage, buy a sound system, and bring in bigger acts on weekends, like Tucson’s Giant Sand. Things quickly blew up from there over the next three years, as Nita’s became a hub for indie and tastemaking rock. Spin sessions by the Bombshelter DJs also were the norm. Then came some a number of twists and turns over the next several years.

Craddock became fed up with the bar biz and sold the building in 1998, only to buy it back months later after its new owners’ attempt at an all-ages punk club failed. It changed hands again when the late Mark Covert purchased it in 1999 and returned Nita’s to its former glory in 2000, with Levy’s assistance. Unfortunately, the bar and other nearby properties were earmarked for the future Tempe Marketplace, resulting in the original Nita’s getting axed in 2003.

Long Wong’s

It goes without saying that Long Wong’s on Mill was the epicenter of the Tempe scene in its glory years and the nucleus of an interconnected network of musicians, clubs, and fans. An esteemed institution that hummed with music nightly inside its lovingly decrepit digs without fail for 16 years straight, it’s where bands wanted to be seen and heard. Although the Blossoms will forever be linked to the place, they weren’t the only ones that made its tiny stage their home.

The list of those who were featured at Wong’s is nearly endless: The Beat Angels. Zen Lunatics. The Pistoleros. The Refreshments. Busted Hearts. Gloritone. Revenants. Trophy Husbands. Flathead. Even the late Elvis “The Cat”
Delmonte, an entertainingly eccentric artist, even got stage time. Long Wong’s ultimately was a barometer of Tempe’s music scene, rising in prominence and importance as interest in its brand of rock and pop did the same. It was the last of a dying breed. Its closure in 2004 nonetheless came as a blow and surprise to many, even when it was clear that the spotlight on Mill had faded.

And though Long Wong’s was demolished to reportedly make way for future development, its plot has remained vacant ever since, serving as a gaping reminder of what was. 

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >