Then and Now: King Solomon’s Mines, Minneapolis’s first downtown R&B club

King Solomon’s Mines, Then and Now: with owner Dean Constantine in 1968 (Courtesy the family of Dean Constantine), and as Key’s in 2017 (Photo by Steven Cohen)

These days it’s known as Key’s, one of a chain of diners in the metro area that serves up tuna melts, omelets, and slices of pie for hungry crowds. But for a brief time in the late 1960s, the south-facing space in the first floor of Minneapolis’s iconic Foshay Tower was home to a sweaty, swinging R&B club called King Solomon’s Mines, a room that would go down in history as the first in downtown Minneapolis to book black funk and soul bands.

Music scenes need spaces in which to thrive and survive, and that’s never been more true than for the marginalized communities that exist on the periphery of white mainstream society. For the African-American community, many of those spaces have been literally located on the edges of the city. In the earlier part of the century, that meant underground speakeasies and jazz clubs along Olson Memorial Highway in North Minneapolis; “jumps,” or house parties, in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul; and fledgling clubs that fought to keep their liquor licenses in the face of discrimination and intense scrutiny.

Downtown was seen as a forbidden area for black musicians for the majority of the 20th century. The jazz pioneer Irv Williams, who has been performing in the Cities since the 1930s and was one of the first performers to break the color barrier and play with a white band, told me as much in an interview a couple of years ago. “I don’t know what caused it, but there was nobody working. You’d go up and down Hennepin, and you wouldn’t see any black faces entertaining,” he recalled.

In the 1950s, Hennepin Avenue was lined with strip clubs, and jazz musicians would take gigs playing in the house band behind the dancers — a type of job that Prince’s dad, who performed in the Prince Rogers Nelson Trio, would take to help pay the bills between other gigs. But there seemed to be an unspoken rule that any band with more than two black players would be turned away from gigs in that downtown stretch, and it was a barrier that persisted well into the 1960s and ’70s.

Some musicians have even gone as far as to speculate that there was an off-limits “zone” for black entertainment, bordered on the west by Hennepin and the east by Hiawatha, and running as far north as Washington Avenue and as far south as Lake Street. Any clubs catering to black clientele outside of that perimeter were allowed to operate, they noted, but anything inside that area that got too popular would soon be fighting to keep its liquor license and business afloat.

“I guess Minnesota found out that the racial barrier was very strong, because politically, they didn’t like the setup with [all] the mixed couples downtown Minneapolis,” the soul singer Wee Willie Walker commented. “They didn’t like it, so they put their heads together and they closed every place systematically where black musicians were getting work. That made things really rough for a long time.”

Gene Williams and the Backsliders at King Solomon’s Mines. (Photograph by Mike Zerby, Minneapolis Tribune. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.)

Which brings us to King Solomon’s Mines, a club managed by a dance instructor by the name of Dean Constantine in 1967 and 1968. Dean happened to love R&B music, and soon he had changed the programming of his Foshay Tower nightclub away from jazz music and toward rock ‘n’ roll-infused R&B — the kind of gritty, churning, chugging raw soul music that rivaled the intensity of early punk rock.

Pretty soon word got around that Dean was booking some of the hottest local and regional R&B acts around, with the Rondo-based gospel/R&B group the Amazers and powerhouse vocalist Maurice McKinnies and his band the Blazers taking turns holding down residencies throughout the week. Touring bands like Harvey Scales and the Seven Sounds and Gene Williams and the Backsliders became regulars as well, and the place was packed nearly every night of the week with people from all parts of the city — white and black, rich and poor, all there for the music.

Gwen Matthews, who sang back-up vocals with Maurice McKinnies and the Blazers, still remembers those wild nights vividly. “We had sellout audiences; most of the time it was standing room only,” she recalls. “Especially on the weekends, at King Solomon’s Mines, you were in that club, like, you know, if you were at the Fair on one of those circle things that spins around and the bottom falls out? That’s how tight it was. I’ve always described that place like that. I mean, it was crazy.”

Unfortunately for Dean Constantine and his dedicated customers and house musicians, it was a scene too potent to last. Much like the Longhorn Bar, which served as an incubator for Minneapolis’s burgeoning punk rock scene in the late 1970s, King Solomon’s Mines was open for less than two years before the city intervened to fix up what it referred to as a “trouble spot.”

Dean Constantine at King Solomon’s Mines (Courtesy of the Constantine family)

Politically, the tides were shifting rapidly in Minneapolis. The city had just elected a new mayor, Charles Stenvig, a police officer who ran on a “law and order” campaign and was on a mission to clean up downtown Minneapolis — and his actions were less tied to crime statistics or community concerns than they were to his own moral compass. Under his watch, the Minneapolis Police Department began a “Flying Morals Squad,” led by Officer James O’Meara, and their primary duty was to target activity that they considered untoward.

On one of those packed weeknights at King Solomon’s Mines, Harvey Scales and the Seven Sounds were on the stage when O’Meara and the Flying Morals Squad stormed in, arresting 10 of the club’s patrons for underage drinking and carting them to the police station downtown. When the patrons arrived at the station, however, all of them were able to produce identification to prove that they were indeed over 21 — something Constantine and his staff watched extra closely, out of fear of this kind of sting – and were released.

“This is no crackdown, but there just might be another raid next week and the following week,” O’Meara told the Star Tribune, who reported on the raid.

Even though no laws had been broken, the city seized the opportunity to put the club they viewed as a “trouble spot” under the microscope, suspending King Solomon’s Mines’ liquor license and petitioning to have it permanently revoked. With his club in limbo, Dean Constantine rallied support from his staff, patrons, and musical acts, and hundreds of people — from musicians like Maurice McKinnies to Earsell Mackbee of the Minnesota Vikings — signed a petition that was delivered to the City Council on the day a public hearing was held about the club: “We, the undersigned, feel that the closing of King Solomon’s Mines would be detrimental to the cause of human rights. We hope that the problems with the City Council and the Police Department can be worked out so that King Solomon’s Mines may remain open.”

Ultimately, the City Council kept the club’s liquor license in limbo for months, leaving Constantine with no choice but to shutter his popular club and return his focus to teaching dance.

“This is where the government can be really hypocritical,” Constantine told the Star Tribune after King Solomon’s Mines closed. “In some areas, such as schools, buses, jobs, housing, the government forces you to integrate. I was serving the cause of integration voluntarily, and all the city did to me was harass me and eventually wipe me out. I’ll tell you truthfully, until the city develops some sensitivity or understanding toward the problem, no night club owner trying to practice human rights or initiate integration policies can possibly survive.”

Learn about more stories like this one at the event I’m hosting at the end of this month, The Current Presents: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound, on Saturday, October 28, at the Fitzgerald Theater. We’ll dive into the history of the funk and soul community, starting in 1958 and leading up to Prince’s breakthrough in the early ’80s, and hear incredible music from Wanda Davis, Wee Willie Walker, The Valdons, André Cymone, and The Family.

Then and Now photos of King Solomon’s Mines:

Key’s at the Foshay Tower in 2017 (Photo by Steven Cohen)

Dean Constantine in King Solomon’s Mines, 1968 (Photo courtesy the Dean Constantine family)

Key’s at the Foshay Tower, 2017 (Photo by Steven Cohen)

Gene Williams and the Backsliders at King Solomon’s Mines in 1968 (Photograph by Mike Zerby, Minneapolis Tribune. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

Key’s in 2017 (Photo by Steven Cohen)

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