H ow many people are so popular that they have not just one, but two different clubs in town named after them? Memphians who were fortunate to know Lafayette Leon Draper Jr. remember him as much more than a bartender. His superb level of service, combined with a lifelong philosophy of caring and devotion to others, was unequaled. Despite his death on September 7, 2014, at the age of 77, his legendary status endures. Lafayette was, quite simply, one of the best-known people in town. Thousands of prominent local citizens and quite a few national celebrities experienced his special bartending skills during a career that spanned more than 50 years. Many of his customers became his personal friends. Lafayette was born in Decatur, Alabama, on March 15, 1937, and moved to Memphis with his parents, Lafayette Sr. and Maxie, in 1945. They were, in his words, “the greatest and most loving individuals anyone could want.” Lafayette inherited his mother’s gentle personality and a tenacious work ethic from his father. He also learned from them to show respect for others and to maintain a positive attitude, which he carried with him throughout his life. Lafayette’s father worked as a waiter and bartender at The Peabody as well as at other clubs and restaurants in Memphis. He helped his son secure a variety of service jobs in the early years. Lafayette’s mother became president of the Tennessee Black Parent Teacher Association and was honored by Governor Frank Clement. As a black man growing up in Memphis in the 1940s, young Lafayette had no dreams of ever becoming rich or famous, but he was ambitious. He delivered groceries when he was 10 years old and often gave half of his earnings to help support his family. He began his service career as a busboy at the VFW and Elks clubs and later became a banquet waiter at the King Cotton Hotel. At 16, he worked at the Catholic Club, then the Kings Club, where he recalled country star Charlie Rich once performed. Despite the long hours and low pay, he enjoyed serving customers. After all, some of those jobs offered certain perks: “We dressed in Lou Weinberg suits and Stacy Adams shoes, which made the ladies go crazy.”
Lafayette attended Booker T. Washington High School and briefly played football. It was on the playing field that he discovered an inner toughness that matched his gentle demeanor. “My mother made me quit because I was so damn mean,” he remembered. “I would fight the guys who hit me twice because I didn’t take that mess from nobody.” At age 17, Lafayette realized that he “had some growing up to do” so he left school and joined the Navy in 1954. Military life taught him responsibility and how to be a stronger individual. When Lafayette returned to Memphis in 1958, he completed his degree at BTW. After finishing school, Lafayette joined the staff of the Memphis Country Club, where he worked 12 years as head bartender on the evening shift. Over the years, he also worked part-time at other downtown clubs, such as the Riverside Grill inside Number One Beale and the King Cotton Café inside the Morgan Keegan Building. The country club, however, gave him the opportunity to work with prominent Memphians, not only at the club but in their homes, when he was hired to work private parties.
In 1961, Lafayette married Charlene Chamberlain and together they raised two children, Lafayette III and Deborah Faye (Terrell). According to Lafayette, “Charlene and I raised our kids using the same principles of respect that we learned. We would always talk to them and help them stay out of trouble. They could always confide in us.”
In his early work years, Memphis was still segregated. Lafayette quickly learned to “see but don’t see, hear but don’t hear,” a lesson his father taught him well. He struggled not to let negative racial remarks affect his level of service, but he still listened and learned from everything that was said.
Lafayette recalled that during the 1950s and ’60s many African-American restaurant and bar workers became upset about the way they were treated. “Back then, a few of the white patrons would be disrespectful and use the N-word and some would holler at you in front of other people and not think a thing about it,” he said. “I told my coworkers to give them the best possible service they could and maybe people would change their attitude.”
Lafayette developed a simple but important customer service philosophy: Learn as much as you can about your customer — their name, profession, and what they drank. Then, make sure that they always received a quick refill. Lafayette also knew how to communicate with people in a kind and soft-spoken way. Longtime customers remember that he would often pull up a stool behind the bar and talk with someone if they were feeling down.
Lafayette paid attention to every detail. That way, he said, “people remember you and ask for you every time. If you cannot be friendly and go out of your way to please your customers, then you have no business in the service industry. I cared about everyone I served and truly enjoyed the friendships I made over the years. You have to put people first.” Customers appreciated the extra service he gave them, and his “kill them with kindness” philosophy soon made him one of the best, and most popular, bartenders in town.
He also developed his own specialties. Members of the MCC have fond memories of Lafayette’s “Planters Punch,” made with assorted fruit juices, rum, and gin, and the “Country Club Special,” both popular drinks that remain on the bar menu there today. The “Stump Lifter” was in a class by itself. The libation contained seven different liquors and could, in his words, “knock you on your butt if you weren’t careful.”
Lafayette served as a bartender at night and for private parties and events on the weekends, but he also worked full-time at Sears Crosstown from 1961 to 1987. In his spare time, he managed to take business management classes at State Technical Institute at Memphis. Lafayette recalled, “One of the best days of my life was when I became the first black shipping manager at Sears in 1976.” After 25 years at Sears, Lafayette left in 1987 to work for Williams-Sonoma, where he stayed until his retirement in 1997. “I tried hard to provide a good living for my family, but I always tried to spend as much time with them as I could,” he said. “Like with most parents, it is a balance of work and family. You try to do your best.”
He became such a Memphis institution that a local landmark was named after him. According to Lafayette, in the early 1970s several MCC members including Charlie Hull, Jimmy Robinson, Ben Woodson, George Saig, and Frank Doggrell asked permission to use his name for a new club they were planning in the Overton Square entertainment district they were developing. As a result, Lafayette’s Music Room was born. The club showcased rising stars such as Billy Joel, Patti LaBelle, and Barry Manilow as they began their journey toward fame. Lafayette served as host and greeter for the club. Though the club, and most of the original Overton Square, went dark for several years, new life has recently come to the corner of Madison and Cooper, highlighted by the reopening of Lafayette’s Music Room in September 2014.
Because of his reputation and popularity, Lafayette’s name was used for another Memphis club during the mid-1980s — Lafayette’s Corner on Beale Street. According to Lafayette, “John Elkington asked me to manage the club, but I served only as the door greeter because of my day job at Sears.”
Over the years, Lafayette met and befriended a long list of celebrities: Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush, and actors Joan Crawford, Danny Thomas, Jim Nabors, Priscilla Presley, and Charlton Heston. Lafayette recalled, “I kept bartending because of all of the nice people I worked with through the years. I worked for Pat Tigrett’s Memphis-Arkansas Bridge Lighting Party, the Pyramid Grand Opening Party, as well as many parties for the Morgan, Mallory, Avery, Adams, Loeb, Smith, Hopkins, Canale, Hughes, and Crain families, to mention a few. Along the way, I made a lot of great friends.”
On August 16, 2014, just three weeks before his death, many of those friends and relatives honored Lafayette with a gathering at The Atrium in Overton Square. Memphis businessman Chip Dudley read a proclamation from Mayor A C Wharton and presented him a key to the City of Memphis. A special song prepared for the event described Lafayette as “a man of tact and class, a man you all adore.”
Longtime friend Sarah Haizlip and local writer Darrell Uselton are writing a biography of Lafayette Draper, which will be published next month. For additional information, please email Darrell at email@example.com.
Darrell Uselton and Sarah Haizlip