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!'"
While dabbling in photography and sculpture as a student at UGA, Pierce wound up befriending a young Michael Stipe in art class. Pierce soon started playing drums in Stipe's short-lived experimental/psych rock band Tanzplagen (German for "dance plague"), but after about a month of playing around Athens, Stipe dissolved the group to focus on R.E.M.
By 1983, Pierce was dating Michael's younger sister, Lynda, who asked him to join her in the band Oh-OK after he'd auditioned to play in Love Tractor but was turned down. Oh-OK's lineup was filled out by vocalist Linda Hopper (Magnapop), and the group played its first show at the 40 Watt Club, opening for another early Michael Stipe noise project, 1066 Gaggle O'Sound.
Oh-OK's style quickly developed into a fusion of minimalism, new wave and playful post-punk. The group went on to join revered new wave label DB Records, along with fellow Athens bands Pylon and the B-52's. It even received a modest bit of national attention with its first 7-inch EP, Wow Mini Album.
As a drummer, Pierce's style was bold and uncluttered. He focused on a single, pulsating rhythm without adding a lot of fills. It was a distinct technique — one that didn't allow for many solos from anyone else — which caused some friction in the group. "Before Oh-OK, I had played in a few bands, and I was in the marching band," he says. "My style was a little of both and I just applied that to the Athens pop sensibility."
The Athens music scene was garnering a national reputation as an alternative music mecca and Pierce started editing a local magazine, Tasty World, that began as a forum for people to track their favorite groups. "Everyone was hearing rumors about our own bands, but there were no facts anywhere," he says. "It was all stuff that national publications were clamoring for, but no one in Athens knew anything about what was going on. It was all still underground."
But things never quite took off for Oh-OK the way they did for R.E.M. and the B-52's. In time, Pierce and Lynda Stipe broke up and he started playing with recent Nebraska transplant Matthew Sweet, who remembers him as "a Pied Piper kind of character."
"He was a little older, but he was sensitive, and he dug music and creativity," Sweet recalls. "It always felt like he had ambitions to become this lounge singer kind of icon guy. I can see him back then in an ascot and a velvet jacket. He liked to dress up in a thrift store kind of way. He was a part of the Athens music scene, but he was apart from it as well."
As overlapping tour schedules became too hectic to manage, Pierce left Oh-OK to form the power-pop duo Buzz of Delight with Sweet. "Matthew's stuff was so refreshing, and he liked my style as a drummer," Cologne says. "I chose to keep working with him because we had already been in the studio and he had financed the record himself. It just felt right."
Sweet and Pierce released the "Christmas" 7-inch, as well as a 12-inch EP titled Sound Castles, both for DB Records. They were praised by Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau, and the Buzz played shows in New York — until one night, after a gig at Irving Plaza in '85, when Sweet accepted a solo recording contract with Columbia Records.
Sweet broke the news to Pierce and left Athens for good. "I was a little pissed, but I was praising him at the same time," Cologne says. "I was just the drummer. I didn't write any of the songs and I didn't have anything to be mad about. But it was hard to maintain a friendship with him after that because he was always on the road."
Meanwhile, strange things were afoot in Pierce's world. It was the mid-'80s and he was left to his own devices. After spending a few days locked up in his art studio, Pierce had a premonition. He envisioned himself digging to the bottom of a Dumpster and pulling out stacks of old records. He did plenty of Dumpster diving back then, but it was mostly in search of found objects to use in his sculpting. The same day, the words "Romeo Cologne" popped into his head and he wrote them on a wall with a Magic Marker. "I thought, 'Huh, that's a weird name,'" he says.
The next day, while riding his bicycle behind a thrift store, he did a double take when he saw what appeared to be the Dumpster from his vision. Looking inside, he was amazed to find stacks of records — seemingly a DJ's entire collection. He carried the vinyl home one armload at a time. It was a cache by the likes of James Brown, the Gap Band, P-Funk, the Time and scores of others. He cleaned them up and began a crash course in classic funk and disco sounds.
He couldn't have been more out of tune with the times. The lingering cultural backlash against music of that ilk was barely a decade old and "disco sucks" was still a national buzz phrase. "No music has ever been so despised or disregarded [simply] for being so spiritual," he says. "To me, it was a form of racism in mass media. So I thought, 'OK, I'm going to play this stuff until someone comes up with something that's better than this.'"
The music Pierce found on those records wasn't favored by denizens of Athens' college-rock scene, but it found a broad audience, anyway. House parties were going down pretty much every night and, after a couple of particularly wild nights at Pierce's house, word got out. "People came to my house to have parties because they loved the music," he says. "Even when I wasn't having a party, people would come by and bang on the door. I'd hide in the back with the lights off, but sooner or later someone would climb through a window and let everyone in, so I had no choice," he adds. "They wouldn't let me not have a party!"
Pierce gradually developed a new persona as a party DJ dubbed Romeo Cologne. He'd always had a taste for flashy threads, but the more old vinyl he spun, the more he began dressing like the old-school funketeers on the record sleeves. Polyester became his fabric of choice. His pants got tighter, his feathered hair poofier and he often wore second-hand Zoot suits.
As if it wasn't odd enough seeing a white guy so dedicated to black music, his sartorial transformation into something resembling a blaxploitation-era pimp certainly took the cake. "That just adds an element of theatricality," he laughs, adding that he's shopped thrift stores across the globe, from Rome, Ga., to Rome, Italy.
These days, there's zero distinction between David Pierce and Romeo Cologne. It's not a character he adopts as much as it is an extension of his natural charisma. He dresses the same way to go to the club as he does to the grocery store. "I am the last of the white peacocks," he declares. "I'm not a throwback. I'm a holdover."
By 1987, Cologne had moved to Atlanta, where he began hosting parties at the now-defunct club Color Box in Virginia-Highland. "They gave me Sunday nights because nothing was happening on Sunday nights back then," he says, adding that his gigs became so crowded and carnal that he had to find another venue.
Around that time, his assistant Chad Cabra arrived on the scene. "Romeo needed help with logistics, things like taking care of equipment and getting everything staged," says Cabra, a regular club-goer at Color Box who began rooming with Cologne in his Candler Park home. "He had the Star Bar gig by then and there were four nights a week where Romeo had a residency somewhere. He finally got to the point where he said, 'All I want to do is show up and spin.'"
Cabra and Cologne's partnership has held together through such venues as Club Kaya, Tongue & Groove and the Georgia Theatre in Athens. And Saturday nights at the Clermont are still as packed out as ever. "People ask me if I get burned out, but I have to say no," Cabra says. "The music that Romeo plays is so decadent and inclusive that it's hard not to love it, and it's hard not to be affected by the people who just want to dance."
And there's never been a shortage of regulars. In the mid-'90s, when Cologne was holding down the main room at Kaya on Friday nights, he had an entourage of costumed dancers, dubbed the Booty Patrol. "It was a serious scene, packed every night," says DJ Karl Injex, who played soul and house in Kaya's front bistro. "He brought this element of performance to the party, and in pairing it with the natural appeal of funk and disco, created an experience that transcended the typical club night."
It would be a shame for Cologne's influential legacy to be marred by an uncharacteristic low point. But in December 2009, that almost happened when he left a cryptic message on his Facebook page. "This is my last post," it read. "Bye, it's been a trip. Be kind to one another. See you later! Love You." Friends and family mistook it for a suicide note and went into a tizzy. When the AJC reported it in a blog post, nearly 200 concerned comments flooded in. He was found within a couple of hours as he made preparations to go into a homeless shelter. His Decatur home had been ravaged by a fire and, after a spell of couch-surfing, Cologne had decided to accept aid from the Red Cross. But before he could spend a single night in the shelter, his older brother Paul put up money for a hotel until he could get back on his feet.
"That whole thing kind of pissed me off," he laughs now, obviously embarrassed by the whole ordeal. "The [AJC] writer thought she was doing a good thing, but nobody even tried to call me. Now, when you Google my name, it's the first thing that comes up: 'Romeo Cologne reported missing in homeless shelter.'"
It's ironic that, while Cologne's devotion to old-school funk probably explains his enduring popularity, his refusal to evolve as a dance-party DJ is what likely cost him the gig at the Star Bar.
An e-mail from Bryan Malone, the Star Bar's booking agent, explains the bar's reason for letting Cologne go as an attempt to "update and broaden our appeal for an ever-younger and changing audience."
Cologne keeps his irritation in check. "The last year may not have ended ideally, but that's fine. The 16 years before it were awesome," he says. "Funk music [is] authentic, but it [has] a little bit of everything to it — blues, jazz, rock — and it influenced these things as well. A lot of modern music has lost that sense of connection. So that's why I'm here to offer an education."
He's well aware of the progressive DJ culture that has evolved around him over the last two decades, but to Cologne it's not even the same ballpark. "The word DJ means something different now with all of the scratching and mixing," he says. "I have respect for that craft. But it's not what I do and it's not something that you do with records from the '70s. You can, but it takes the life out of them."
Two Tuesdays ago, Cologne's fourth at 10 High, he stood under a banner over the club's entryway that beamed, "The 10 High staff very proudly welcomes Romeo, Kwasi, Chad and all of you loyal funksters to your new home!!!" Even though the crowds aren't there yet, Cologne's confident things will pick up soon. "You can move an event to a new place, but it's hard to bring the crowd with it," he says. Still, dancers trickled through the door, and despite low attendance, everyone moved to the music — even the bartender. Pointing to the banner, Cologne deadpans, "The difference between 10 High and that old place is that they're actually happy to have me here, and that goes a long way."
Romeo Cologne will survive, as he's done for so many years, steeped in the funk. For now, retirement is a pipe dream. "I would love to open a wedding chapel in Las Vegas," he says with a distance in his voice while holding his hands up in the shape of an imaginary marquee. "Romeo's Disco Wedding Chapel."
It's not that much of stretch, considering how the last two decades have gone for him. Two years ago, after not giving much thought to religion for most of his adult life, he was ordained as a minister of the Universal Life Church, more for practical purposes than spiritual ones. "Basically, it's like how a ship's captain can marry people; I can do that. And if I'm going to retire, Vegas is the place for me."
Until then, he'll go on pointing to the heavens and preaching the gospel of funk.
Continue for Romeo's funky timeline, from Oh-OK to Buzz of Delight to his DJ sets
Photo: Laura Levine
Buzz of Delight (with Matthew Sweet)
Romeo (center) surrounded by his Booty Patrol dancers. (Courtesy Romeo Cologne)
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