Danny’s Tavern, the intimate, candlelit, apartment-shaped bar that’s been a fixture of Chicago nightlife for 34 years, is permanently closed. It’d been shuttered due to the pandemic since March 18, and its owners told staff in early October that it wouldn’t be opening again. Rumors of the closure started circulating on social media midway through last month, and Block Club confirmed the bad news on November 5.
The Bucktown bar was best known for its popular soul, Smiths, and disco nights, but over the years it also hosted obscure electronic music, poetry readings, art installations, live jazz, and much more. Danny’s was an odd space in an unlikely spot–its location at 1951 W. Dickens was on a largely residential block–but its cheap, untrendy drinks and eclectic music reliably attracted large, diverse audiences. It was that rare kind of place that people fell in love with at first sight, where regulars became staff and stayed on for decades.
Danny’s Tavern staff GoFundMe
Donations to gofundme/com/f/danny039s-taven-staff-support will still reach former Danny’s employees.
The bar’s namesake, aspiring power-pop musician Danny Cimaglio, opened Danny’s in 1986 after he and his wife, Barbara, pooled resources with two other couples. It was nearly called Pete & Danny’s Truck Stop, because plumber and bartender Peter Nelson was among the investors.
Bucktown was still a working-class neighborhood, populated largely by first-generation immigrant families. The tavern in a two-flat that became Danny’s had previously been a bakery and then a reputed bookie joint. Bartender Angie Hebda lived upstairs for a time. The downstairs space, the rear of which had previously been an apartment, had small tables and a dartboard.
In 1990, Terry Alexander and Michael Noone, two friends of Nelson’s who tended bar at other establishments, closed a deal to buy Danny’s. They managed it themselves for the first few years, and would soon begin its transformation from a jukebox bar into a showcase for curated music.
“Prior to us buying it, Danny’s had a rockabilly culture and motif to it–a real Elvis Presley kind of bar,” Noone recalls. Since rockabilly wasn’t their scene, Alexander and Noone invited artists to redecorate its rooms, among them photographer and performance artist Sheree Rose, mixed-media artists Ike Hobbs and Martin Giese, and painters Dave Rodman and Tom Billings.
“In the front room, where the bar was, we would have an artist feature his or her work for a couple of months at a time,” Noone says. “The back rooms were permanent installations that we’d switch out every couple of years.” The bathroom, off what would become the dance floor, still had a working tub and shower, which one artist filled with papier-mache sculptures under plexiglass.
“It was kind of the wild, wild west back then,” Alexander says. “We went upstairs and made that part of the bar. We also went to the backyard. We had bands play on the garage roof. We also had what we called a ‘cafe’ out front.” Alexander and Noone distributed business cards with a map to Danny’s on the reverse, since the neighborhood was hardly a hub for nightlife.
At first Alexander provided the bar’s music. “Michael and I put every penny we had into the bar,” he explains. “I didn’t have an apartment–I was actually staying there. So we bartended, we cleaned, we stocked the beer, and back then we had cassettes. We spent an hour a day cueing up the songs we thought we would be playing that night. So Danny’s started not as turntables–it was cassettes. Rock, soul, grunge, or funk; De La Soul to Sisters of Mercy to My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult to the Velvet Underground.”
A backup singer for My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult got a job working the bar at Danny’s, which helped it become a hangout for Wax Trax! artists. They mingled with neighborhood regulars and assorted other weirdos. “We would have these old Romanians that lived on the block come in, we’d have bikers–the Outlaws used to hang out there. We’d have a lot of people from Berlin [nightclub] that would come down there,” Noone remembers. “It was amazing how many different people from different backgrounds would be in that bar at the same time.”
As CDs became widely available, bartender Eric Puls would haul in an empty Pabst Blue Ribbon case he’d filled with them, which Noone called “the box of love.” Puls hosted a radio show called Totally Wired on WCBR-FM in Arlington Heights, and he played indie rock from labels such as Drag City, Feel Good All Over, Siltbreeze, Sub Pop, and Matador. He knew he was doing his job well when patrons would interrupt him to ask what was playing.
In 1992, Alexander and Noone worked with chef Scott Harris to launch the original Mia Francesca, and by 1997 they were busy enough opening other restaurants that they decided to hire new managers for Danny’s: New York City transplants Kevin Stacy and Ken Kordich, who’d worked with them at two of those new restaurants, Okno and Soul Kitchen. Alexander’s efforts in the restaurant world would eventually lead to his current role as partner at One Off Hospitality, founded in 2011 and now including the likes of Avec, Big Star, the Violet Hour, and the Publican Group.
“They asked Kenny and I to remake the bar,” Stacy recalls. “They knew that we both had lived in the East Village in the late 80s, the early 90s, and spent a lot of time around bars.”
Stacy and Kordich painted the walls plain colors and dimmed the lighting, relying heavily on tabletop tea lights. They raised the ceiling above the dance floor and knocked down interior walls to open up the space. “At that time, all of those little rooms used to have just one door,” Stacy explains. “If you were in a room with somebody, you kind of owned that room, so we wanted to try to get that notion out of it.”
Finally and most significantly for this new era of Danny’s, Stacy and Kordich replaced the consumer-level stereo Alexander had been using. They hung PA speakers and installed proper DJ equipment, including a pair of Technics 1200 turntables and a Pioneer mixer. Since space was at a premium, DJs had to mix facing the bar, their backs to the dance floor.
“[Stacy] was very invested in the sound of the place, the way that the music resonated through the space,” recalls guitarist and composer Jeff Parker, one of the earliest DJs at Danny’s. “He didn’t want it to be too loud in the bar area, but then louder on the dance floor. He wanted it to bump–a nice bumping system like you had in a club. But not too crazy, ’cause it couldn’t be, because of the neighbors.”
Chicago’s restrictions on Public Place of Amusement licenses meant Danny’s could never get one–so it could never charge a cover. To help make the night worthwhile for DJs, the managers worked out an arrangement where bartenders gave DJs 10 percent of the tip pool. After Stacy and Kordich opened the renovated Danny’s in 1997, the first DJ they hired was Courtland Green, aka Supreme Court, who was working at Reckless Records.
At first Stacy and his future wife, Kim Ambriz (who also worked at Reckless), spun on Saturdays, and Green spun on Sundays. All the Danny’s DJs played eclectic fare, including salsa, soul, hip-hop, and punk.
The first Danny’s night dedicated explicitly to dancing was its legendary soul party, which started in April 1998, during a visit by Stacy’s friend Warren Lee, cofounder of the Empire State Soul Club in New York. Before Lee returned home, he and Green spun together on a Sunday night, and they blew right past the bar’s legal operating hours.
“We were having such a good time that we weren’t paying attention to the time, and 2 AM rolls around, and all of a sudden the bar is filled with floodlights from the cops, from their cars,” Green recalls. “I was in my young 20s, and I remember checking for my ID, which I did not have–so I literally just bolted out the back door!”
Green, who’d previously spun soul parties in Kansas City, promptly asked Stacy to let him create a monthly Wednesday funk and soul night. He enlisted Scott Craig and Mark Henning, and they were soon joined by another friend of Green’s, legendary record collector Dante Carfagna. The night started out without a formal title, but after a couple years they named it Sheer Magic. Jamie Hodge and Shaun Pauling also joined the crew.
“Mostly, at first, it was just people that worked at Reckless coming down and dancing. It slowly built word of mouth, as things do, and it got busier and busier–and then Rolling Stone did a feature on it,” Stacy remembers. “That was the first time that a line ever existed at Danny’s.”
“Those nights were the first ones where I was really leveled by the capabilities of that bar,” says Stephen Sowley, who worked the door and bartended at Danny’s from 2005 till ’18. “It was about bringing people together.”
Carfagna helped build the night’s reputation with his crate-digging skills–Sheer Magic was where he first publicly played several 45s that would be later canonized as lost classics when he included them on compilations for the Numero Group and Chocolate Industries.
Two soul nights in particular stood out. “The Sheer Magic set the month after James Brown passed away [in December 2006], that was one of the heaviest nights ever in terms of their DJing,” Sowley recalls. “They just went for broke that night, and it was just heavy, heavy funk. That was so powerful to me.”
DJ Shadow also played two secret sets at Danny’s. The second was February 2, 2012, the day after Soul Train founder Don Cornelius passed away. “That night was wild too,” Sowley says. “The people that were there really got into it and started doing the Soul Train dance line and cheering each other on with their moves. I just thought that was so heartwarming.” The Danny’s soul monthly wrapped its run in November 2015, after 17 years.
In the late 90s, Danny’s was also home to dub nights DJed by Richard Smith, aka Rik Shaw of Deadly Dragon Sound System, and by Dave Bramble, aka the Great Silence. The two of them played alternating Fridays, both of which Courtland Green describes as “just phenomenal, killer reggae.”
Green also says record collector Tony Janda, aka Big Tony, who started spinning at Danny’s in the early 2000s, deserves props as one of the bar’s best DJs. Janda played funk, soul, and hip-hop, and he was one of the few turntablists to scratch records at Danny’s. He died in 2012.
Danny’s attracted a lot of characters, and among the most unusual was DJ Shoulders, aka DJ LeDeuce, aka Adam Gruel. He wore jumpsuits with shoulder pads, humped the turntables, and manipulated records with his feet. Jen Kienzler, aka DJ Quick Paw, created a short film of his antics in 2006.
“His sets were really just free, where if a record skips, he would make it skip more,” Sowley recalls. “Or he would get so hyped, he’d start trying to climb on the rack that held all of the amplifiers. There was a whole performative aspect to his sets that was entertaining and bizarre.”
Stacy insisted that any DJs he hired spin vinyl, and in the late 90s, before the Discogs marketplace existed, that narrowed the field to music nerds. “Most nonclub bars weren’t doing that,” explains DJ and Reckless Records manager Melissa Grubbs. “In a given evening, you could start the night and hear a jazz set and finish it with a full-blown floor-shaking dance party with DJs that blended rare soul into salsa and classic hip-hop cuts.”
Visual artist, educator, vocalist, and musician Damon Locks started DJing at Danny’s in 2003, spinning soul, hip-hop, and dancehall. At the time he was working at Hi-Fi Records, and Danny’s DJs would call the shop, asking him to hold new Timbaland- and Neptunes-produced Missy Elliott singles. For about a decade, Locks spun a night called Eternally Yours with his Eternals bandmate Wayne Montana (who encouraged Stacy to add a bass cabinet to the Danny’s sound system).
One of the most influential Danny’s nights was Play. Graphic designer Bob Davies was DJing at Okno, spinning ambient, noise, jungle, and IDM, and Ken Kordich, who was bartending there at the time, offered him Monday nights at Danny’s. Play became a monthly residency by March 1998 and ran for ten years, providing a weekly showcase for experimental electronic-music DJs and live performances–and its flyers frequently showcased cutting-edge print design.
The core group of DJs and performers initially consisted of Davies, his old friend and bandmate Brian Kelly, and Alex Horn (aka video artist Nanodust). Kelly stepped away after about a year, and Horn’s role dwindled, since he was consistently busy elsewhere; Davies brought in Ray Rodriguez, aka DJ Ray_Rod, the dance buyer at the Quaker Goes Deaf.
Visiting artists at Play weren’t just from Chicago–they also came from both U.S. coasts and as far away as Europe, and included Mr. Scruff, Oval, Mystic Bill, Casino Versus Japan, Signaldrift, String Theory, Derrick Carter (who insisted on spinning for free), and Pulseprogramming (whose lineup included future Danny’s staffer Marc Hellner).
“You’d go there just knowing that it was going to be really creative and new, and in Chicago in the late 90s and early 2000s, there really wasn’t that much cool stuff,” Hellner says. “Really there was nothing else like it in the midwest, where you’d go and see guys with laptops making crazy music.”
Edgy electronic music also dominated one of Danny’s longest-running monthlies, Beau Wanzer’s Hot on the Heels, launched in 2006 and still going strong when the pandemic shut down the bar. Wanzer’s first night at Danny’s was the Weekend Records and Soap night in 2003, which he followed with a short-lived all-cassette night of his own. “I would show up with two huge cases of cassettes, and we’d have four tape decks we’d put over the turntables,” he says. “It was always a mess, but it was always super fun.”
H.O.T.H. generally happened the first Tuesday of every month. “The night focused on music that really wasn’t being played in a lot of clubs or anywhere else when it started,” Wanzer explains. “A lot of European, early industrial minimal synth [tracks] like Dutch electro, noise, punk, some techno, some house, but pretty much the weirdest stuff I could find that was still somewhat danceable. I just played whatever I wanted.”
Over the course of 14 years, H.O.T.H. featured around 240 performances, some live and some DJed. Wanzer describes his typical audience as “an amalgamation of Art Institute freaks, old punks, noise heads, house techno heads, just the whole gamut of weirdos, outcasts.” To him, Danny’s always felt like a DIY space.
“I always thought it was important, especially, to focus on the fringes of Chicago underground electronic music,” Wanzer says. “It would be nice to give new and upcoming people a chance to do whatever they wanted. Some of them were underage, but I’d sneak them in, because they wouldn’t be able to play any other real venues.”
One memorable night featured a live performance by Wanzer’s friend Marc Arcuri, aka Orphan Schlitz. “I remember him setting up everything on this little janky table we had, and two minutes into his set, the table just collapsed, and all of his gear fell everywhere,” Wanzer says. “But he just kept going.”
Other artists who played H.O.T.H. included DJ Carlos Souffront, BMG (aka Ectomorph), Gatekeeper, and Chandeliers. “Danny’s was the only spot for that night. I could never do H.O.T.H. anywhere else,” Wanzer says.
Danny’s didn’t exclusively cater to record collectors and music nerds, of course–it was also well-known for its Smiths Night. Bobby Burg (from the Love of Everything and Joan of Arc) started it in 2006 with his friend Ben Vida (from Town and Country and also Joan of Arc), inspired by a similar series in New York. They were soon joined by Joe Proulx and later by Brian Case of Disappears. The night ran for ten years, an impressive achievement given that the Smiths released only four studio albums. “That one was instantly popular. That was a big night,” Stacy recalls. “Definitely Danny’s will be associated forever with that.”
At Danny’s, you could dance to soul music one night and hear experimental jazz the next. Jeff Parker and Joshua Abrams both began DJing at Danny’s around 2000. “I started spinning there because Kevin knew that I collected records,” Parker says. “At first I was doing more of a lounge kind of vibe. I’d play something that people could dance to, and they would start to dance, and then I would kind of get scared and I’d take it back to loungey listening music. But then after a while, I decided to just try and make people dance when I DJed, and I got really good at it.”
At one point Stacy and Kordich weren’t speaking (not an ideal situation for the comanagers of a bar), but both were booking Parker. “Sometimes I’d play at Danny’s twice a week for a whole month, ’cause one guy didn’t know that the other guy was booking me,” Parker says, laughing.
Parker and Abrams played a monthly night called the Love Boat with Green and fellow Reckless alum Chris Johnson, spinning sweet soul and steppers cuts. They also participated in the Peace Party, a series of benefits for various nonprofits held the first Monday of every month and run by Naomi Walker and Jocelyn Brown. “That was eclectic, just dance music, kind of soul-centric,” Parker recalls. “Everybody who was playing there had pretty broad taste. It could go from Brazilian music, West African sound, some Latin salsa.”
Drummer John Herndon, Parker’s bandmate in Tortoise and Isotope 217, DJed at Danny’s as well. “Johnny used to murder that place,” Parker says. “He’d play everything. He had psychedelic stuff and Miles Davis records from the 70s and Journey and Foghat and ZZ Top and club/house music, drum ‘n’ bass, dub. Everything would just be perfectly blended, and then everything would sound like a remix. I never heard anybody do anything like him at that place.”
Herndon also put together a live band called Soft Pow, which grew out of a DJ night of the same name; it featured Parker on guitar, Josh Berman on cornet, Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone, and Anton Hatwich on bass. “We were playing a lot of classic jazz, hard-bop stuff,” says Parker. “Kind of obscure stuff like some tunes by Elmo Hope.”[embedded content]
Though live bands rarely played Danny’s, jazz artists booked there over the years included saxophonist David Boykin (leading ensembles with flutist Nicole Mitchell), drummer Isaiah Spencer, and of course Joshua Abrams, who gave one of his first solo performances on guimbri (a type of West African lute) under the name Reminder. Postrock minimalist quartet Town and Country (Ben Vida, Jim Dorling, Joshua Abrams, and Liz Payne) played live at Danny’s as well.
In the early 2000s, Parker and Abrams DJed together on the eve of John Coltrane’s birthday. “The dance floor was packed all night,” Parker says. “We stopped the music, got on the microphone, and announced to the crowd that it was John Coltrane’s birthday. Everybody cheered, and we played the whole album A Love Supreme, and the place freaked out. The people went apeshit. It was amazing!”
Abrams’s tenure at Danny’s helped shape his relationship with his audience. “For me as a musician, I found it so valuable to work as a DJ and just learn a little bit of how the music was affecting people,” he says. “When you’re playing records, it’s a different sort of process. You have more time to understand how it’s affecting the environment.”
The influence on Parker’s sound was even more direct. The last cut on his most recent album, Suite for Max Brown, was inspired by a specific DJ blend he’d created at Danny’s: A Love Supreme layered over a Nobukazu Takemura cut that uses electronic drums. “They were both synced up and in tempo, and I was probably able to keep it in sync for ten minutes,” Parker says. “I was like, ‘Man, I wish I could make some music like that.'”
International Anthem cofounder and A&R director Scottie McNiece, who founded music-programming service Uncanned Music in 2012, recorded the raw material for Makaya McCraven’s 2017 album Highly Rare live at Danny’s a week after the 2016 presidential election. The drummer and his group had just returned from a European tour, and Belgian DJ Lefto was in town filming a TV series. The gig came together at the last moment, with the live band supporting Lefto’s DJ sets.
“For me and a lot of people I know, we always remember that as the night that we pierced through the fog of the post-election blues,” McNiece explains. “The whole place was completely packed, Sunday night, and Makaya played with Junius Paul and Nick Mazzarella and Ben LaMar Gay. Everybody was really cutting loose. It felt like a cathartic release. You could just really feel it–it just had this energy.”
With a constellation of candles on its tables and not a television in sight, Danny’s could feel like a bar from another era. But cultural changes affected it anyway. When the smoking ban went into effect in 2008, the bar surprisingly got busier–though Stacy had to field neighbors’ complaints about patrons congregating outside. Similarly, when cell phones became widespread, Stacy had to rein in customers who stepped out to make calls: to remind them not to wander under residents’ windows, he duct-taped squares on the sidewalk to indicate imaginary phone booths. Once texting became the norm, the problem disappeared. One thing Danny’s stubbornly resisted doing throughout Stacy’s tenure, though, was establishing a social-media presence.
“Outside of the fact that we were using electronic instruments to play music, Danny’s could have been a bar in the 1800s,” says bartender Hans Ballard. “Everything else about it was the simplest elements of a bar: good music, good people, good fun.”
In 2005, Kordich moved away. Hellner served as assistant manager for the next four years, and began booking new niche series on what had been slow weeknights, accurately predicting their potential to draw crowds. They included the aforementioned H.O.T.H., Italo and European disco monthly Night Moves, and Chances Dances spin-off party Off Chances, which awarded grants to LGBTQ+ artists. This final era of Danny’s was more open to disco and house, including the popular Disco Unusual night by DJ and model Lono Brazil.
DJ Jamie Hayes spun at Danny’s the third Thursday of each month from 2006 till 2018, as well as on many weekends. For the last half of that stretch, she teamed up with Tanja Buhler for a monthly Friday night known as Party Line. Hayes, a fashion designer who’d worked at Hi-Fi Records, played a wide range of music, including soul, hip-hop, funk, Latin, Brazilian, disco, and house.
The atmosphere at Danny’s seemed designed for spontaneous dance parties. “It had that house type of feel, but also it was super dark, so people felt more free to hit a dance floor,” Hayes says. “I often started my own dance floor, because I just loved dancing and music. That’s another wonderful part of Danny’s–that the DJ booth wasn’t really separated from the crowd, so I could go out and dance, and people would get excited about that, that the DJ was feeling their own music and not too cool for school.”
“It was probably one of the best places I’ve ever DJed. The sound system was the best; the tables were always perfect,” says Buhler. “Kevin would always carry in your records. He was a total gentleman, one of the classiest owners. He was the heart and soul of that place.”
Buhler spun once or twice a month, playing disco, house, and techno on Fridays or Saturdays. Sunday or Mondays, she would bring out deeper cuts that other DJs would appreciate, playing relatively experimental electronic-music artists such as Floating Points and Sound Stream. “I would always bring way more than I ended up playing,” she admits. “I think I got a little bit made fun of for it.” One night a young couple requested Kate Bush, but the bar had to close early, so Buhler lent them the record to play at home.
Kevin Stacy’s careful guidance of the music at Danny’s helped set its vibe for 21 years, but in September 2018, he parted ways with the bar. Longtime bartender Ross Winston became general manager, and Green took over booking DJs.
“The curation that Kevin did for all those years is what made the space so amazing to me,” Damon Locks says. “Hand-picking the DJs, and offering it to people for benefits, picking the staff, and having a very creative and open space that could be safe for people–it was great!”
Danny’s drew an audience that took art and music seriously, but it didn’t feel exclusive or cliquish. Many of the bar’s regulars over the years were involved in the service industry or the music scene, and nights such as Off Chances catered to a queer crowd. The DJs were all over the map, and so were their fans. “We did our best as a staff to make everybody feel welcome,” Sowley explains. “Kevin left a note in the [money] tin that just said, ‘Be nice and make friends.'”
As Bucktown gentrified over the decades, Danny’s remained a funky neighborhood joint with cheap drinks and reliably interesting music. “Musically, we didn’t really compromise,” Green says. “There was a huge freedom in playing at Danny’s, and if somebody was bothering you or asking for too many requests, it was, ‘There’s people waiting outside, so you can go to another bar. This dance floor and the music we play here is sacred to us.'”
In 2015, the bar’s landlords threatened Danny’s with eviction, but the community rallied with a huge show of support that convinced them to reconsider. Alexander says that he and Noone have been trying to buy the building for ten years or so, but in 2020, even owning it might not have helped–there were factors in play more serious than landlords balking at lease renewal. Under normal circumstances, the fact that Danny’s was small and mostly windowless helped it feel cozy, but during a pandemic it meant the bar never had a way to stay open safely.
“To have any restaurant or any bar be closed for a year, I don’t know if you can survive,” Alexander says. He explains that even before the pandemic, Danny’s wasn’t breaking even, so that he and Noone had to divert their own money into the business. “Honestly, Michael and I kept Danny’s afloat for many, many years. It was a labor of love. But it just gets to a point where you’re so far underwater that–you hate to do it, but there was nothing we could really do.”
Once again, the Danny’s community has responded with an outpouring of love–the testimonies collected here barely scratch the surface. “That sucks that it’s closing, because it’s by far my favorite bar in the whole world,” says Jeff Parker. With a laugh, he adds, “And I’ve been to a lot of bars.” v