It's Saturday night at the Clermont Lounge, Atlanta's long-standing den of depravity and the setting for one of the city's requisite dance parties. The air is thick with smoke and hedonism as the eclectic wall-to-wall crowd of middle-of-the-road bros in Polo shirts, sorority girls in white pants, and shirtless gay black men writhes to the rhythm of Michael Jackson's "Working Day and Night." In the bar's far corner two half-naked strippers — a sister act named Mercedes and Lexus — bump and grind to the music.
Behind the DJ booth stands a lanky, unassuming dude with a close-cropped afro, DJ Quasi Mandisco, bobbing his head to the music and adjusting the sound levels with the steady hands of a surgeon. He's the protégé, the opening DJ who's there to get the place moving before his mentor arrives. It's just about 1:30 a.m. when he leans into the microphone to announce that the man of the hour has entered the building: "Ladies and gentleman," he says with a low rumble, "Romeo Cologne."
A figure steps out of the shadows, dressed to the nines in a vintage black suit with a frilly white scarf tied around his neck and a black Italian fedora cocked over his right eye. Taking his place behind the booth, he points a finger to the heavens and drops the needle on James Brown's "Too Funky in Here."
The room explodes with energy.
Romeo Cologne has been holding court every Saturday night at the Clermont for more than 14 years. Until Jan. 18, he'd done the same at the Star Bar in Little Five Points for 17 years — or, as Cologne puts it, "917 consecutive weeks." Billed as Atlanta's longest-running dance party, Tuesday night's Funk Royale has never skipped a beat — not even after a 2009 house fire that almost left Cologne homeless and fueled rumors of a suicide attempt. And when his party got the boot from the Star Bar last month, Cologne got his groove back the following Tuesday less than a mile away at 10 High on North Highland Avenue. At 57, an age when most men are looking forward to retirement, he's spinning funk and disco at least two nights a week, sometimes more, and maintains the lifestyle of Atlanta nightlife royalty. As his part-time chauffeur Chad Cabra points out: "When Romeo spins, Romeo doesn't drive."
An aura of whimsical decadence surrounds every ounce of Romeo Cologne's being, but there's more to his character than grand entrances, a cane and a pimp limp. His behind-the-booth persona channels a lifetime of experiences into a Southern-fried and sanctified master of ceremonies whose musical DNA comes from the same gene pool that spawned R.E.M., the B-52's and the rest of the kids who rocked Athens in the late '70s and early '80s. But Cologne has his own creation myth that involves inexplicable premonitions, Dumpster diving, and a treasure trove of discarded vinyl that transformed him into a funktastic boogie man with a higher calling.
Over the years, Cologne has counted dozens of celebrities hanging out at the Star Bar during his Funk Royale nights: Christina Aguilera, George Clinton, Chilli from TLC, Naomi Campbell, Tara Reid, Erykah Badu, Danger Mouse, Bonecrusher, Dallas Austin, T.I., Goodie Mob and Pink, to name a few. Cee-Lo Green was a regular at his gigs for years, and still shows up from time to time to pay his respects. He even had Cologne DJ his wedding.
Through it all, he's remained the eternal bachelor. Women have come and gone, but nothing too serious. As payment for his gigs, Cologne gets the door money and, judging by the sheer number of bodies on the floor at the Clermont on any given Saturday night, business is good. The crowd is a melting pot of people in their late 20s to early 30s and older, dirty dancing to such classic cuts as P-Funk's "Flashlight," the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb On Me" and Carl Carlton's "She's a Bad Mamma Jamma."
"The modern DJ is like a secular priest," Cologne says, philosophically. "People are looking for him to send them a message. A lot of people don't have anything positive going on in their life, so when they come out, they are literally saved by the music, that's what it did for me."
Back in the summer of 1975, the same year George Clinton and Parliament dropped their mother lode of a Mothership Connection, Cologne, known then by his birth name David Pierce, was on the verge of embarking on a musical journey that was funky in its own right. He'd just ended a three-year term as a medic in the Army and Air Force after being drafted in 1972. Though the Vietnam War was in full swing, he was discharged from his Montgomery, Ala., duty station without seeing a lick of combat. While paying a visit to his brother — who was studying drama at the University of Georgia, just down the road from their hometown of Rome — he was impressed by the scenery. "I went to a house party one night and there were all of these chicks there," he remembers. "I thought, 'Man, I want to live here!'"
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