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A brief history of Minneapolis’ First Avenue

The club opened in 1970 in a former Greyhound Bus Depot.

First Avenue has been the stomping ground for bands like Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, the Jayhawks, Semisonic, Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Lizzo, and Doomtree.
REUTERS/Craig Lassig

In the late 1960s, Allan Fingerhut and Danny Stevens leased the old Greyhound Bus Depot in Downtown Minneapolis with the plan to open a rock club. Since then, First Avenue & 7th Street Entry has nurtured a diverse group of musicians, both local and national, and brought together people from various backgrounds. It remains one of the most highly regarded music nightclubs in the country.

The club opened in 1970 as the Depot. Over the next two years, it hosted national acts such as the Kinks, B. B. King, Frank Zappa, and the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. By 1971, however, it had closed due to money issues.

In 1972, Fingerhut sold controlling interest to American Events Company (AEC) and the club was renamed Uncle Sam’s as part of a franchising agreement. During this period, live music took a back seat to DJs playing disco music. However, in the late 70s, manager Steve McClellan began booking live bands such as the Ramones and Pat Benatar, whose shows sold out well in advance. This pointed out the direction that the club would take in the future. As the disco trend waned, AEC sold its interest back to Fingerhut who, in turn, gave McClellan managerial control. After a two-year stint as Sam’s, the club changed its name one last time to First Avenue.

These changes coincided with the evolution of two music styles in the Twin Cities music scene: punk and R&B. First Avenue became a focal point for both movements. Underground rock had already found a home at Jay’s Longhorn and Duffy’s in the late 1970s, giving rise to acts like Hüsker Dü and the Suburbs. But when the coat room for Sam’s was transformed into the 7th Street Entry — a club within the club — indie bands began playing there, making it well known as a punk and indie rock venue. The Replacements became one of the most notable, and even notorious, of these bands. Their unpredictable performances created an excitement that drew people to the club and strengthened the band’s legendary cult status.

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In the early 1980s, the Minneapolis music community was distinctly segregated, with African American musicians unwelcome at downtown clubs. First Avenue was an exception. One of its unique characteristics, especially at that time, was its integrated line-ups. It fostered a regular clientele from various backgrounds who were, in turn, exposed to a variety of musical cultures. In a single night, a concertgoer could be exposed to punk, funk, world music, and any number of different genres.

McClellan regularly booked black R&B acts like the Time, Flyte Tyme, and Prince, for whom the club became a kind of home. He played shows there and demoed unreleased material to see how it sounded in a club, and to gauge the audience’s response. In the fall of 1983, he rented the club for the filming of scenes for Purple Rain. The enormous success of the film shot Prince into international superstardom. It also boosted First Avenue’s profile and generated badly needed revenue.

While First Avenue helped cultivate a lively local music scene, it also provided a stopping point for alternative bands on their way to becoming stadium bands. R.E.M., U2, New Order, and Nirvana, as well as lesser known acts, played at the club during the early parts of their careers.

First Avenue continued, and continues, to support local music. It has been the stomping ground for bands like Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, the Jayhawks, Semisonic, Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Lizzo, and Doomtree. Its initial success as a center for innovative music was, in part, the result of McClellan’s drive to showcase talent—often at the expense of commercial potential. Because of this stance, threats of closure and financial troubles were never far off, even after Fingerhut and club accountant Byron Frank purchased the property in 2000.

In 2004, Fingerhut fired McClellan and the managerial team. Shortly afterward, he closed the club and filed for bankruptcy. Amid public outcry, and with the help of Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak, McClellan, Frank, and Jack Meyers purchased the club’s assets and reopened it.

After the reopening, First Avenue expanded its operations, purchasing the Turf Club, managing the historic Palace Theater in St. Paul, and booking clubs and theaters.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.