With both her parents in the night club business, it may have seemed inevitable that Paula Raiford would carry on the late-night torch. It took her father Robert Raiford’s transition into (short-lived) retirement, however, for her to realize her life-long work was also her long-term passion. She opened the world-renowned Paula & Raiford’s Disco in 2009 and has kept the heart of Memphis beating ever since.
Meet this week’s FACE of the South, Paula Raiford!
Where were you born, and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Memphis, Tennessee. I’m sixth of six – the youngest. My other siblings and my dad and mom were born in Blytheville, Arkansas, but I was born in Orange Mound, Memphis. My dad had all different kinds of businesses, but the club is one that grew and stuck with him. We had service stations, stores and restaurants. And my mom had a club, but my dad’s, Raiford’s Hollywood Disco downtown, was the one that really sparked the most.
How old were you when your dad opened Raiford’s?
I was in fourth grade, whatever age that was. But I used to come down in the daytime; we always had mirrors and glasses, so I’d be responsible for washing the glasses and doing the mirrors. My dad was old school. You want to go skate or go to Libertyland? He gave you something to do. He wouldn’t just give you the money. He always had all kinds of hats, so I’d put his hats back in boxes, or shoes back up, stuff like that.
When did you officially start working at the club?
I was 18, exactly. I got pregnant at 17, and I had my daughter at 18, and my dad was like, “Okay, you’re grown. Let’s go.” And I was happy to go, as a matter of fact. I worked the door.
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What made you decide that it was time for you to get into the business for yourself?
My dad said he was going to retire either by 65 or by the end of some plan he had going on. I think I’m the only one who believed him, so I started saving my money. One day he was like, “Hey, we’re closing up tomorrow.” He said it, and I believed it. And he closed down. We stayed home for three months. Then some Germantown guys came around and said, “We want to bring Raiford’s back, but we just want you guys to be the entertaining part. We’re going to do all the setup.” We tried that, but because my dad is used to being his own boss, it was a little bit of a hard pill to swallow, with somebody else taking your path. My dad ended up saying, “Hey, I’m going back home.” I stayed. I saw it kind of going backward, and it hurt my feelings.
I was at my dad’s house one day, and I said, “Dad, I think I want a club.” I found this building, 14 South Second Street, and I brought him to see it. I don’t think he came all the way in. He just looked in and said, “That’s it.” So the next day, I hadn’t signed a lease or anything, he had his hard hat on, he went to Home Depot, I gave him a key, and here we are.
Your father is no longer with us, but he left a lasting legacy. What did you learn from him about being an entrepreneur and an entertainer and combining those two things?
Well, as an entrepreneur, I learned to work hard, believe in what your dream is and not to listen to a whole lot of others trying to tell you about your dream and your path. Whatever it is, you stick to it.
For the entertainer part, I guess me, my dad, my mom – we got this extra energy. I don’t deejay; he deejayed, he did tambourines, he changed clothes. My spirit came in a different way – through people. Through my spirit and my happiness, my energy. He’s the same way. He just did it on the deejay stand versus I do it behind the bar.
How do you honor the authenticity of Memphis for both residents and visitors from other places?
My dad built this institution of disco and no discrimination and just a happy place to come and let your hair down. Forget about whatever you’ve got going on in the outside world, and come here and let go. People from around the world come here, and they’re like, “There’s a spirit in here. There’s something.” And with people who are here in Memphis, I guess just by me feeling like they’re my family when they come here. Something connects us. I think people just appreciate that I treat them the same. Whether a star comes in here, whether a Grizzly comes in here, whoever — everybody is one. I think people gravitate to that. It’s love.
What are the songs that get you on the dance floor?
“We Are The World.” That’s one of my group situations where I play that song, and I see the people on the dance floor. They group up, and they throw their hands side to side, and it just brings that loving togetherness. Also, anything Michael Jackson, anything Prince, Chaka Khan. I’ve got so many.
You’re a constant ambassador for Memphis. What do you want people to know about it?
I love my city. I tell people that when you come to Memphis, you’re going to get a big old hug some type of way. You’re going to run into a group of people or a situation where you’re going to feel welcome. I’ve been to cities before that it’s like, eh, I’m here, but I’ve got to make my own little way, throw elbows here and there. But you come here, and we’re just friendly. We love people to visit our city, and we welcome them in.
Millions of people have ended their nights at Raiford’s, but what do you tell people to do in Memphis before 10 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday night?
And for people coming here, if they come before 10 p.m., I don’t send them too far from me. I send them to Bardog Tavern, The Brass Door around the corner, or Hu. Roof. Just somewhere to waste a little time and come back to see me, of course.
What is your best advice?
I tell people that whatever you’re trying to do in your life and live as your completion of happiness, get to doing it, because time is passing by so fast.
Other than faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
The club, of course. And I love to work out every morning. And I guess just being happy.
Thank you for chatting with us, Paula! And thank you to Erin Mosher Studios for the beautiful photos taken at Paula & Raiford’s Disco.
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