Latin Has Stage Presence In Local Pop Music Lore

Posted: January 28, 1992

Hailed as the "showplace of the stars," the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill was synonymous with schmaltz.

The room that regulary booked Frank and Dean also brought in Vegas faves like Don Rickles and Joey Heatherton. Their idea of rockin' originally didn't go far beyond Harry Belafonte.

But as R&B and pop-rock music ballooned in popularity in the '60s, Latin Casino owners couldn't afford to ignore the younger acts. Everyone from James Brown to Tom Jones to the O'Jays played the stage that at one time was occupied by Rat Pack members.

The club's history is lined with tidbits of pop music lore and history. For instance, it's where Jackie Wilson, one of the pioneering soul singers of the '50s and '60s, on Sept. 29, 1975, suffered a heart attack on stage. He

lapsed into a coma and never recovered.

It's where the creative course of James Brown's sound was altered in 1967, and where Diana Ross threw one of her most legendary tantrums, in June 1969.

The Latin, originally located at 13th and Walnut streets in Center City, opened in 1960 on Route 70 just west of the Race Track Circle. The old club had limited parking and could only seat 500, so owner Dave Dushoff did like many Philadelphians of the time and dashed to Jersey.

Although it thrived through most of its years in South Jersey, the Latin Casino, one of the largest supper nightclubs outside of Las Vegas, closed its doors in 1978.

It reopened later that year as Emerald City, one of the country's largest discos, but permanently shut down in 1980. Today, the site is occupied by Subaru of America, the national headquarters for the Japanese automaker.

The Cherry Hill Latin Casino, which could seat 2,000, became one of Frank Sinatra's favorite performance spots. Whenever the singer came to the club, it was transformed into a shrine packed with throngs of fans who gave standing ovations before a note was sung.

Booking the new generation of younger performers, including most of Motown's biggest, changed the course of Latin. For one thing, their fans, unlike those of Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, showed up almost any night of the year.

"We played them all," said Marty Blumberg, the Latin Casino maitre d'

from 1960 to 1978. "We learned we could play a black act on Good Friday or Yom Kippur and people would come."

When James Brown and his band played the Latin Casino Jan. 14 to 16, 1967, they took the opportunity to record their performances for a live album.

"The actual recording they made was of them performing, but the sound of the audience had to be overdubbed for the record," said Harry Weinger, co- producer of "Star Time," a 1991 Brown compilation disc.

The album was released in the summer of 1967 with the deceptive title ''Live at the Garden."

"James was making appearances at Madison Square Garden, which was a very big deal at the time for a black performer," Weinger explained. "And James Brown was hyping it."

On Jan. 15, Brown also used the Latin Casino as a makeshift recording studio. Hours before show time that afternoon, they recorded "Let Yourself Go," which wasn't released in its original form until last year.

"Another thing about that (appearance) that was historical was Nat Jones (as band leader) was replaced that night by Pee Wee Ellis," Weinger said. ''Pee Wee was just a sax player who had been in the band for about a year and Nat was flamboyant, full of himself."

"With Pee Wee, things started to change for James. Pee Wee wrote 'Let Yourself Go,' even though he's not credited, 'Cold Sweat,' 'Licking Stick- Licking Stick,' 'I Got the Feelin' .' The band changed direction. They were more focused, more kinetic, jazzier."

Another group that recorded a live album at the Latin Casino was the Spinners. Accustomed to cutting tracks across the Delaware at Sigma Sound Studios, the group in 1975 released "Spinners Live!" a collection of concert tracks taped at the Latin Casino.

But the Latin Casino's place in pop music history was secured on Sept. 29, 1975, when 41-year-old Jackie Wilson toppled backward onstage after ripping through one of his hyper-charged sets.

Show host Dick Clark called for a doctor and ordered that the curtains be drawn. Wilson was rushed to the Cherry Hill Hospital (now John F. Kennedy), but he fell into a coma from which he never recovered. He was cared for in nursing homes and hospitals in Philadelphia and New Jersey until his death in 1984.

Six years earlier, in June 1969, Blumberg and other staffers at the Latin Casino thought they had a major tragedy on their hands when Diana Ross, having just completed a Friday night show, shrieked in her dressing room. Someone called out for a doctor and the audience assumed the worst: One of the Supremes had been hurt.

"As I ran to her dressing room," wrote Supreme Mary Wilson in her 1986 book "Dreamgirl," "I could see people standing around and Diane standing in the middle of the crowd, jumping up and down and screaming at the top of her lungs. At her feet, (her dogs) Tiffany and Little Bit were walking very shakily and vomiting violently."

Ross' pets died shortly after, having apparently eaten rat poison or insecticide.

"I'm canceling the show," she proclaimed, "and we're going to sue this club. And we'll never be here again!"

The group cancelled its remaining five shows and the Latin Casino closed early for the season.

"We finally made a deal for the Supremes to come back," Blumberg said. ''But by the time they came back, Diana Ross was no longer in the group. And they bombed."

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