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In case you thought every independently-owned gay bar had shut its doors due to Covid, meet the persistent and visionary married couple behind Lambda Lounge — Harlem’s only African American owned LGBTQ lounge.
Charles Hughes and Richard Solomon are switched on and self-created Black entrepreneurs who are more than well aware of the importance of LGBTQ-owned nightlife spaces, LGBTQ spaces that welcome people of color, and Black-owned LGBTQ spaces.
After all, they came into each other's orbit at Chi Chi's — a West Village gay bar on historic Christoper Street that was welcoming of Black men in a way which wasn't and still isn't common in the Village and many of our "gay golden miles." After an unsuccessful appeal to keep its liquor license in 2010, Chi Chi's closed; and we've all seen the shuttering of LGBTQ bars across the nation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
But this leaves even less opportunities for Black queer folks to party in public. Even today, when Hughes and Solomon go out to other establishments it is clear the venue is tolerating them for the night — and that's all.
Gay spaces are important for both Hughes and Solomon. Hughes grew up in the South and struggled to hide his sexuality from his family. Solomon was the first man he brought home to meet them.
Solomon, a New Yorker, had it a little easier with his family. "I had the kind of mom who was like, 'OK, he's wearing my heels...' When I finally went to her with it she said, 'Listen, I've just been waiting for you to say something...' My father is a Jehovah's Witness so it was a little rocky with our relationship, there came the whole 'abomination' thing, and by the time he came around it was really too late, so I don't really have a relationship with my father, it's just me and my mother. But coming out for me was easy. Unfortunately not a lot of people get to experience that. But for me it was, OK I'm out."
And so the Greek Lambda symbol is important to them because they felt that "Rainbow" was a little on the nose. Hughes and Solomon wanted to reach back further and they discovered the history of the Lambda symbol during the immediate post-Stonewall era to signify gay liberation.
"It was kind of like a secret fraternity during that time, which was really dope to me," says Solomon.
"Lambda to me means family," says Hughes. "A unity. When people come in here you pretty much know everybody's names from security to the host to the bartender. It's a gay Cheers. I enjoy it, even though I'm the owner. We talk to each other the same."
When Hughes and Solomon got together, neither had experience in the nightclub business as anything other than as patrons. But both agreed that a nightclub held a certain attraction for gay men as a "home away from home." They especially wanted a relaxed space where queer people of color could come and be themselves.
But how that came about was circuitous.
First came their vodka brand, Lambda Vodka, a premium spirit that is served in their establishment and used in its signature cocktails. But when Hughes and Solomon started out with the brand they found it to be a mammoth task, from dealing with distilleries to distributors. And when they couldn't get a lot of traction with their vodka in an oversaturated market, someone suggested to them, "Why don't you open a bar and sell your vodka to yourself?"
That worked. Because Lambda Vodka had helped to give them a foothold in Harlem where they had already built a following. When they settled on the premises on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd, they put special thought into the space and its appearance.
"We put a lot of time, effort and money into this space. All the art on the wall is from LGBTQ+ artists who gave it to us and designed the bottles as well."
And the venue has now grown to provide a stylish community space the welcomes different demographics of the community such as the ballroom scene, the drag scene, bears, lesbians, and more.
The bar had previously been 95% gay male but they've seen an increase in lesbians, trans folks, and even some straight women. "I remember once some straight men came in to play the video games and I remember they bought bottles and invited their girlfriends over. We get every walk of life who comes in here to have a good time," says Hughes.
While they have support now, getting the bar established wasn't easy — and when Covid happened and they had to close because the City of New York closed, they were down to their last few dollars when they launched a GoFundMe to try to bail themselves out. "We cried," says Hughes, now laughing a little painfully at the memory.
"We didn't want to ask people for assistance but we finally did it and once we did it for maybe a week, the City opened and we were able to open and generate some funds," says Hughes.
But they have done it all without investors so far. And they'd like to keep it that way so that they retain control. They have high praise for TD Bank who met with Hughes and Solomon and offered them a small business loan.
"They rolled out the red carpet," says Solomon, describing their meeting with the bank's LGBTQ Task Force, and the relationship continues to this day, with Hughes and Solomon featured in the bank's diversity ads.
It may have been a bumpy ride during the height of Covid, but the community has come out in support of the bar, regardless.
"The moment we opened the doors the line was around the corner," says Solomon. "And it was literally the last straw." They got a special permit from the city and were able to have their patrons out front, safely.
Today, the bar looks welcoming and stylish, with a very cool vibe—almost as if it was easy to set up. If it wasn't easy, at least it was right because they stayed true to the plan, despite the pushback they received when they announced they wanted to set up an LGBTQ+ bar in Harlem, or the doubts they faced about a vodka that was just for the LGBTQ community. But they were adamant about their vision.
People come to visit the lounge from all over: From Connecticut, from Jersey, and one night there was a man from Africa, who had researched the bar and sought it out when he came to New York.
"It was very emotional and humbling," says Hughes.
Humbling, maybe, but their vision is still grand, and that is to open a Lambda lounge in other metropolitan areas, starting with a megaclub version of the Lambda Lounge slated for Brooklyn, hopefully to open some time in 2022. Stay tuned!
The Lambda Lounge
2256 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., New York, NY 10027
Covid protocols: Proof of vaccination required upon entry
- How Black LGBTQ+ activism shapes Black history - OutVoices ›
- How Black LGBTQ+ activism shapes Black history - OutVoices ›
Now there's two more reasons to go out in Nashville. More than $1 million has been poured into upgrades on well-known Midtown bars Tribe and Play to enhance visual appeal, ambience, and customer experience.
The newly upgraded Play area is a dance bar that will present weekly drag shows. The bulk of the renovation involved increasing the size of doorway openings to improve the flow of these spaces.
Tribe is a lively cocktail bar featuring a DJ booth, TVs, pool table and a large outdoor deck/patio area.
“This involved a good amount of structural work to ensure that the two separate buildings with different build types are supported and structurally sound,” said Dowdle Construction Principal Chase Manning, who managed this project.
The new design for Play is extremely colorful, from teal-colored concrete floors to a bar with rainbow lighting. It also boasts upscale finishes, including wood accents, granite countertops and open wood ceilings, which are the original trusses with tongue and groove decking.
“We are very excited to finally open up these new and improved gathering spaces, which have become so important to Nashville’s LGBTQ+ community,” said owner Joe Brown.
“Dowdle’s extensive hospitality portfolio here in Nashville is what drew us to them, and we could not have asked for a better team to carry out this project.”
Dowdle Construction Group has built or renovated over 45 restaurants and bars in Nashville in the last five years, including Milk and Honey, Hi-Fi Clydes, Dogwood, Party Fowl, STK and more. “It was a pleasure to make these much-needed improvements to Tribe and Play,” said Manning. “We believe in building spaces where all members of the Nashville community can come together.”
About Dowdle Construction Group
Dowdle Construction Group is a Nashville-based general contractor specializing in both public and private sector commercial construction. For over 30 years, Dowdle has built a reputation for conducting business with integrity, honesty, and a commitment to communicating and working through the details. Dowdle’s collaborative projects have been recognized for their excellence by the Urban Land Institute Nashville, the Historical Commission of Metropolitan Nashville, the American Institute of Architects local chapter and other industry organizations. For more information visit dowdleconstruction.com.
Photos: Brian McCord, Realty Pictures, LLC
You usually hear the voice before you see the man. It’s a deep, gravelly, full-throated voice that people can hear from across the room, and it’s usually spewing out laugh-inducing insults — sometimes crude, sometimes cutting, but always good-natured — into a nightclub crowded with karaoke revelers or drag show audiences. The distinctive voice belongs to Robert “Buddy” Taylor, a fixture of the Kansas City gay nightlife scene, who has worked at, performed at, owned or managed so many bars and nightclubs here since the mid-1980s.
His latest venture is the Main Street bar Sidekicks Saloon, which he bought during the summer. OUTvoices Kansas City sat down with Buddy to talk about his life and career.
“I was raised out in the country on a farm,” he begins. “It was great. I loved living out on a farm. … I played in the first gay softball league in the 1980s, and the rest is history.”
Later, after relocating to Florida, Buddy returned to Kansas City on vacation and stopped into “this little bar called Changes. … And I asked the manager how hard it was to tend bar. … And this was actually a Monday night, and he told me that one of their barbacks had just quit and if I wanted to come in the next night, I could just barback Tuesday and Wednesday and I could make some money on my vacation. I said, ‘Well, you know, it just seems like everybody has so much fun [behind the bar>.’”
This account illustrates two of Buddy’s most significant qualities: his tremendous work ethic (I mean, really, who gets a job while on vacation?) and his love of the social life inherent in the nightclub scene. His barback gig quickly turned into a bartending job, and Buddy decided to return to Kansas City permanently.
Later, in 1986, he began working at the now-shuttered Club Cabaret, tending bar there for many years. In 1994, he moved to a new venue, Missie B’s, which was not much more than a storefront bar at the time. That’s where his Belle Star persona was born.
Having performed in several Bartender Revues up to that point, Buddy remembers “walking up to the stage, and someone said, ‘You need to get a drag name, bitch!’ And I said ‘Let’s come up with one.’ And we ended up having a contest that was six weeks. We got 5,000 names, and I narrowed it down to the top 12. … And that’s how my name Belle Star came about.”
Eventually, Buddy left Missie B’s to open his own bar, Time Out, which catered to a Latino crowd. That venue, successful as it was, was torn down by the city to make way for the Sprint Center. Then, soon after a venture that was marred by an unfortunate partnership, Buddy returned to Missie B’s and began doing shows again.
Jan Allen, now manager of Missie B’s, has known and worked with Buddy for two decades. “When he left here and he got his own bar, I think that it was sort of a struggle. But he built a crowd. And then the city came in and said, ‘We’re going to tear this building down.’”
Allen says of Buddy’s career: “I think his charity work is definitely one of the highlights.”
She is referring to the extensive fundraising that Buddy has done for Family Health Care on Southwest Boulevard, a nonprofit safety-net clinic that provides family medical care. For the clinic, Buddy began the “12 Months of Christmas,” which held benefit performances throughout the year to buy gifts for young patients affected by HIV. Eventually, these performances morphed into the “Angel Tree Fund,” where bar customers can adopt a Christmas angel ornament for which they pledge a holiday gift for a clinic patient.
Now, with Sidekicks Saloon, Buddy has moved into a new chapter of his career, and this one is not without a bit of controversy. Sidekicks traditionally has been Kansas City’s gay and lesbian country and western venue, but now it will cater to a more diverse crowd, with drag shows, Latino-themed nights and karaoke.
Some in the community have criticized these changes, but Buddy defends them.
“If you bring me enough country people to keep it open seven nights a week … I’ll do it,” he said. “But you can’t — there’s not enough country people, and this is not just in Kansas City. … There’s not enough young cowboys growing. ... Running Sidekicks, I have to do what pays the bills.”
This pragmatism is characteristic of Buddy. Aside from all the fun and games involved in the nightclub business, it is a business, and hard choices underlie all of it. The fact is that Sidekicks Saloon may have closed if Buddy had not bought it. And the upgrades he’s made are impressive — new bar tops, tiling, improved restrooms and nifty freeway shield and neon sign designs give the place a clean and expansive feel that still preserves the country and western look.
Darren Steinwand, owner of the gay sports bar OutABounds, has known Buddy for several years. “Buddy,” he says, “is somebody that, honestly, hands down, is very open-hearted, very caring as far as taking care of other people and doing what he can to help.”
Jan Allen agrees: “People love Buddy, and he will always have a following.”
But perhaps Buddy puts it best when asked what he sees for his and his new bar’s future — “I expect to be successful. I expect no less. We are well on our way, well on our way, and I’m happy.” "
With over a decade of experience in the entertainment industry, James Heath-Clark, a.k.a. Honey Davenport, has left an indelible mark on the New York City nightlife scene and beyond, touring the world as a singer, dancer, actor, drag superstar, and club DJ. They are a recording artist and vocal activist whose music speaks to the experiences of the oppressed, advocating for equality for all. Today they release a new EP, LOVE IS GOD, as well as a new video for “Thrive” featuring Kevin Aviance.
LOVE IS GOD is a collection of songs about love and overcoming dark times with an overarching story of judicial and sexual liberation. The five tracks draw upon a myriad of inspiration -- from pop, disco, house and reggaeton -- while spreading a message of social justice and change. It features the iconic house DJ / nightlife legend Kevin Aviance (of the House of Aviance) as well as drag superstars Manila Luzon, Tammie Brown, LaLa Ri and Jackie Cox.
Honey Davenport and Manila Luzon
Of the EP, Honey shares: “Mama Ru always reminds everyone to say love, so I choose to sing about it. I believe that love is the driving force of human existence. All of our emotions and our actions derive from our desire to feel and experience "love.” If there's one thing I want my listeners to take away from the LOVE IS GOD EP, it’s that love has infinite possibilities. I created some bops with my dearest drag sisters that really share a message of love and hope overcoming dark times.”
Love Is God (feat. Electropoint) youtu.be
LOVE IS GOD: THE VISUAL ALBUM, a short musical film directed by Honey Davenport featuring a story woven together by all the songs on the EP, will be released later this year.
LOVE IS GOD tracklist:
Love is God (feat. Manila Luzon)
Thrive (feat. Kevin Aviance)
Paradise (feat. LaLa Ri)
Love Still Last (feat. Tammie Brown)
Lady Justice (feat. Jackie Cox)
More about Honey Davenport:
Hailing from West Philadelphia, Davenport holds 18 pageant crowns, six Glam Awards, a 2020 GIANT Fest award for “Music Artist Of The Year” and zero tolerance for discrimination. Since appearing on Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, they have released 9 singles, including “Draw The Blood” which debuted at #26 on iTunes. Additionally, they have appeared as a guest panelist on VH1’s Black Girl Beauty, will appear in the upcoming feature-length film God Save the Queens, and they were featured in an international ad campaign by Trustpilot in 2019. During the pandemic, Davenport’s digital content was featured in Rolling Stone, Pink News and Billboard, who called them a “practical master class” .
Honey Davenport’s off-Broadway theatre credits include leading roles in The Electric Highway and Trinkets as well as a major role in The Orion Experience. They also performed in the Broadway national tour of Hairspray. New York Magazine has called Davenport one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Drag Queens in America, Paper Magazine called them “a New York icon”, and RuPaul’s Drag Race declared Davenport “legendary.”