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A Night at the Door With Three Memphis Bouncers

The eyes and ears of three very different bars tell us about their normal—and not-so-normal—nights on the job.

Memphis Bar Bouncers

Memphis loves music and drinking, sometimes in that order. Even the most nondescript bar in Memphis has a noteworthy jukebox filled with old-school blues and rock n’ roll, a reliable DJ, a stage for live music or a combination thereof. Drink specials are a given. So are late nights. And while tourists flock to Beale Street for neon lights and crowded bar floors, Memphians tend toward places where bartenders know their names and local brews from High Cotton and Ghost River flow.

For the latest installment of “A Night at the Door,” we checked in at three Memphis establishments with bouncers that know how to have a good time while keeping a watchful eye on the velvet rope.

Inside a renovated bread factory, Minglewood Hall houses a collection of three live music venues, plus a practice space and a radio station. Here, at B-Side Memphis, a low-key space with exposed brick and block-glass windows, local musicians of all genres play. On any given night, you can take in a punk or a blues set, ’80s-themed bingo trivia and a happy hour that lasts for five hours (3 p.m. to 8 p.m.).

A ten-minute drive west sits Bardog Tavern, a neighborhood joint tucked into tourist-centric Downtown. Thanks to its welcoming 35-foot red oak bar, a particularly deep (and free) jukebox stacked with staff-curated CDs (Miles Davis to Lynyrd Skynyrd) and the fact that you can smoke inside, it draws locals looking for a late-night drink or a cozy corner table for a first date.

The night ends—as many in Memphis do—two blocks away at Paula & Raiford’s Disco, a downtown institution where people have been dancing into the wee hours since 1976. Opened by Robert Raiford, the place is now run by his daughter, Paula, in a new location where fog machines puff, a disco ball whirls and DJs still spin genuine disco. You can’t get behind the rope at Raiford’s (as locals call it) without leaving your pocketknives and pepper spray at the door—or without shelling out a $10 to $15 cover. The bouncers’ T-shirts make it clear: “Paula Says Everyone Pays.”

Memphis is among Tennessee’s grittiest cities, and its doormen are tasked with keeping eyes wide open in a place where the crime rate is often a topic of conversation. They know when to tell a tourist it’s (past) time to head back to the hotel and when to hit the dance floor for a quick breather. From the man who stands guard at one of the city’s best local music joints to the benevolent caretaker at Paula & Raiford’s Disco, here are three of Memphis’ finest on what a night that their door looks like.

Memphis Bar Bouncers

Marcus Battle

Age: 47
Workplace: B-Side Memphis

How’d you get this job?
“I’ve been here since they opened, about three-and-a-half months ago, but I worked with the managers since 2010 or 2011 at The Buccaneer [a legendary Memphis dive bar that burned in a fire in 2017]. I came here for graduate school in philosophy and just started picking up some shifts. It pays more than academia.”

What makes you good at this job?
“I like engaging with human beings. You don’t have to yell or exert a lot of machismo or bravado to get a proper end result. Being willing to do so is sometimes appreciated, but I am not going to put my hands on people.”

What makes this place special?
“With The Buccaneer going away we wanted a place for local bands that weren’t necessarily established. We book Memphis musicians who pay their bills playing music.”

Have you ever had to break up a fight?
“There are no fights because everything gets squashed before it gets in the room.”

What have you learned working here?
“As an African American who does door, it is very interesting to see how people interact with people who do not look like them. You ask them for money and use simple, short phrases that are taken the wrong way. I am not trying to ruin your night. I’m just trying to ask for a little money for the band.”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the door?
“There was a KISS cover band playing at 1884 [one of the other venues in the complex]. This guy was Gene Simmons—cape, makeup, platform shoes, everything.”

What’s your favorite post-shift drink?
“I’m very simple. I’m a fan of just a shot of tequila. I’m fan of a warm shot of vodka. No particular brand. I just like it clear.”

Memphis Bar Bouncers  

Jason Miller

Age: 40
Workplace: Bardog Tavern

What have you learned working here?
“Don’t sleep in your car. My girlfriend, Melissa, is the bartender here. So, I get done working earlier than her. I was parked right here [in the alley next to the Bardog door] in 2016. I had done it 100 times. I lay the seat back on the passenger side waiting for her, and at 4:10 a.m. I got carjacked and shot through the chest.”

Shot in the chest? And you’re okay?
“That’s the miracle. The bullet came in this arm, through the chest cavity, came out the armpit and then broke the bone in the other arm. I was home from the hospital in seven hours. The next day, the owner of the bar was at my house with a big check. It took me a while to come back, but this place is my family. And this could happen anywhere. There is not a city in this world that you don’t fight crime.”

What makes this place so special?
“In addition to the people who work here being like family, we get to know the locals. This place is known, like Cheers.”

Have you ever had to kick anyone out?
“I had been back at work after I was shot for about six weeks and I was throwing this really intoxicated guy and his three buddies out and one of them sucker-punched me. Broke my face. They say if I get hit in this eye again, I’ll probably lose my sight.”

And you kept working here?
“After that, Melissa didn’t want to stay here, so we took our life’s savings and bought an RV. We went to 40 states. We were in California when the FBI called and asked us to come back to testify in the carjacking trial, so we came back. The RV had 38,000 miles on it when we got back. It was amazing, but it was vacation. We’re also happy to be home.”

How did this make you feel about people at the door?
“I like people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not buddies with the guy who shot me, but he had stuff from the time he was four years old. I feel for him. I don’t feel anything for that guy who broke my face. But, in this job you learn to deal with people and when people drink, their personalities can change.”

What’s your favorite post-shift drink?
“I’m not a big drinker, but a shot of Jameson.”

Memphis Bar Bouncers

Corey Coleman

Age: 32
Workplace: Paula & Raiford’s Disco

How long have you worked here?
“Since I was 21. We are only open Fridays and Saturdays. I have a corporate gig during the week and I have a catering company. If I am not at one job, I am at the next.”

How’d you get this job?
“My great uncle, Robert Raiford [the founder of the disco], saw me helping one night in the VIP area and said there was a [staff] T-shirt waiting for me. I was 21 and I wanted to hang out on the weekend. But after a few months I realized I’m getting paid to do what everyone else is going out to do.”

So you get to dance?
“Hell yeah. If we get to a point where the line slows down, I run in and I can do a Michael Jackson move and come back to my post.”

What makes this place special?
“I love meeting new people. We get so many from all walks of life. I love hearing their stories. They ask people on the street, ‘Where can we go and dance?’ And everyone sends them here.”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the door?
“People try to sneak in alcohol. People have pretty unique flasks these days, so I have to stay on trend. They have flasks that look like lipstick containers and maxi pads and one that looks like a big bangle bracelet. But I can see the spout on top. If it looks tricky, then we have to test it out.”

Your shirt says “Everybody Pays.” Do people really try to get in without paying?
“Yes! I have another shirt that says, ‘I Know Paula Raiford.’ That is the number one thing I hear at the door. They tell me. ‘I know Paula; go get Paula.’ The line is down the block. I cannot stop what I am doing to go get Paula. You can call her or text her. And then they say, ‘What’s her number again?’ No one gets in without paying.”

What’s your favorite post-shift drink? Tequila. My favorite is Avión, but we don’t sell that here.

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Tagged: Bouncers, Memphis

Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based writer and editor with a soft spot for dark liquor, cowboy boots and late-night dancing in Memphis. Read more of her work at littmanwrites.com.