The club we know as First Avenue was born in 1970, but the history of live music in that distinctively curved black building on the corner of First Avenue and Seventh Street rightfully begins much earlier. On a Friday in February 1937, the orchestral music of the Gopher Melody Men played, ribbons were cut, and the new Northland-Greyhound Bus Depot opened for business.
When it was built, the Greyhound Bus Depot was widely acclaimed for its streamlined art deco style and modern luxuries. Called one of the most "modernistic" and beautiful travel centers in America, this bus depot boasted such luxuries as public phones, shower rooms and air conditioning. The décor included huge chromium trimmed chandeliers and a checkered terrazzo floor (which still exists in the Mainroom). Outside, there were blue-glazed bricks with white trimming.
When it was built, the Greyhound Bus Depot was widely acclaimed for its streamlined art deco style and modern luxuries. Called one of the most "modernistic" and beautiful travel centers in America, this bus depot boasted such luxuries as public phones, shower rooms and air conditioning. The décor included huge chromium trimmed chandeliers and a checkered terrazzo floor. Outside, there were blue-glazed bricks with white trimming.
Perhaps in honor of its humble musical origins, First Avenue began life as The Depot. In 1968 the original Greyhound bus depot relocated and, the next year, a 25-year old Minneapolis native named Allan Fingerhut, an heir to the Fingerhut catalog fortune, saw a rock club where there was but a café, cigar store and barbershop. He found a partner with a liquor license, invested $150,000 and opened the only venue in downtown Minneapolis with both rock music and alcohol.
When The Depot opened, on April 3, 1970, local papers raved. They "have done some remarkable things with the interior of the old depot. The curved wall which used to embrace the gates to departing busses is now the backdrop for a large, purple plush-covered stage." Joe Cocker played two sets that night, to local fans described by one reporter as "beautiful people with resplendent sun tans and $250 hippie outfits." The Depot, however, proved as seasonal as its patrons' skin tone. The club's name and management would change over the decade, as the country went crazy for disco and DJs.
But somehow, live music managed to hang on in this space. Performers in the '70s included national and local acts: Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Ike & Tina Turner, Iggy & the Stooges, Chubby Checker, The Kinks, The Allman Brothers, B.B. King, Rod Stewart, The Small Faces, John Lee Hooker, Canned Heat, Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, Dwight Twilley Band, Chris Osgood of the Suicide Commandos, Peter Jesperson, Pat Benetar, The Ramones and U2.
In 1980, the partnership that would carry the club into the next century was formed. Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers, former classmates and roommates, took the helm of Sam's, as it was then called, and made a transition from disco to live music, beginning to book cutting edge national acts.
McClellan worked closely with a handful of local musicians, record label entreprenuers and other industry folk, and out of this collaboration grew Minneapolis's first rock music community. On New Year's Eve, 1981, Sam's became First Avenue.
Throughout the '80s, First Avenue's ties to the local community allowed its bookers to match local opening bands to larger national acts. The club catered to dancers too, and hosted lip-synching and talent contests.
No description of the '80s at First Avenue could be complete, however, without a nod to Prince, who made the club his regular venue, his testing ground for new material, and both the set and the setting of his movie, Purple Rain. Minneapolis' R&B scene came of age at this time, and you could have brushed shoulders with Alexander O'Neal, Chico Debarge, Suanne Carlo, Morris Day or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Other acts to play the club in this decade include Curtiss A (on opening night), PiL, New Order, Culture Club, REM, Run DMC, David Byrne (joining the Wallets in the Entry), Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.
In 1990 First Avenue turned 20. The club was barely out of its adolescence and already famous. Fond mentions in national magazines like Rolling Stone and Time began to pile up, but First Avenue kept its ego in check and its innovative spirit intact.
On any given week, you could see a hard core punk show back-to-back with world beat, hip hop, and a singer songwriter-type. The Fugees, the Chemical Brothers, Ruben Blades, Youssou N'Dour and Dave Alvin all made appearances.
The '90s also saw the explosion of DJ culture. First Avenue launched Beatopia, with Beat Radio DJ's spinning house music in the club's new VIP Lounge, building the same buzz for DJs that the Entry fosters for local bands.
The 21st century has brought mixed blessings for First Avenue. In 2000, First Avenue's longtime financial advisor Byron Frank helped the club "take control of its own destiny," as McClellan put it, by negotiating the purchase of the historic Greyhound bus depot that had been its home for 30 years.
Although safe from eviction, the club has had to compete for bands with venues backed by large national conglomerates. First Avenue has also contended with unforeseen conflicts that troubled the club's future.
In June 2004, then owner Allan Fingerhut fired the club's long-time management team, Steve McClellan, Jack Meyers and Byron Frank. Fingerhut took the helm himself, swearing, "I'd have to drop dead before I would ever allow this club to close". On November 2, 2004, Fingerhut closed the club and filed for bankruptcy.
Mayor R.T. Rybak and the whole city of Minneapolis were outraged. Support came from all over the world. With the mayor's help, McClellan, Meyers and Frank purchased First Avenue's assets from bankruptcy court and reopened the club just days after Fingerhut had closed it. Less than two weeks after closing, First Avenue reopened its doors with Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers officially in charge.
Since reopening in 2004, First Avenue has gone through many renovations. From brand new air conditioning throughout the club, to updating the ladies room and upgrading to a state-of-the-art PA, nothing has been ignored. After Steve McClellan's retirement from First Avenue management, Jack Meyers took over as General Manager. In 2009, Jack retired after a hard-working 30 years and Nathan Kranz, our long time Music Booker, took over as First Avenue's General Manager.
In 2010, on the day of the club's 40th anniversary, Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak declared April 3 to be First Avenue Day. Celebrations were planned throughout the year along with new ventures including a bar and restaurant, The Depot Tavern, which opened to rave reviews in June 2010.
In fall of 2013, First Avenue extended its reach across the city lines by purchasing the Turf Club in St. Paul from Tom Scanlon, owner of the nearby Dubliner Pub. Established in 1945 and located near the corner of University and Snelling, the Turf Club has been a constant in the Twin Cities music scene for decades. As such, the much-beloved vintage watering hole and rock club is a truly exciting addition to the First Avenue family.
As First Avenue goes through more growth and transitions every year, one thing remains true: we will keep our doors open to the thousands of music lovers who are First Avenue's past and its future.
First Avenue will provide a unique and innovative cultural environment. Our musical vision will not be limited by fashion, fortune or fame.
First Avenue welcomes people of any age, race, sex, or sexual orientation. We strive to bring together people with diverse interests and backgrounds.
As the longest continual entertainment and music venue in the Twin Cities, First Avenue's roots in the community are deep and far-reaching. We will work to strengthen these ties and connect with the next generation of music fans.