When he was just sixteen, Lonnie McFadden came to a fork in the road.
McFadden had the eye of baseball scouts thanks to a lively sinker and a split-finger curve. “I could make the ball dance,” he says. “I didn’t have the fastest ball, but I could throw it at your head and it would go over the plate.”
But McFadden also knew the entertainment trade thanks to his father, a prominent jazz tap dancer. “My brother and I were his only two students,” McFadden says. “We tap-danced, we did some comedy, and we did something I’d loosely describe as singing.”
After gigs at the old Muehlebach Hotel and Top of the Tower, McFadden was recommended to the band-leader of a popular seventies soul-funk band, Clyde N’em & Her.
“They got into a situation where they needed a trumpet player,” McFadden says. “I don’t know how my name got thrown in the pool, but Clyde called me and wanted to audition me. I quit high school and went on the road with them. I realized that I was going to have to choose between baseball and music, and I think I made the right choice.”
Indeed, McFadden is among the city’s most respected entertainers—a singer, dancer and trumpet player who’s been booked all over the world.
Now, for the first time, McFadden has his own place, Lonnie’s Reno Club, a speakeasy-style jazz spot in the basement of the Ambassador Hotel, managed by heavyweight hotelier Paul Coury.
“Paul took me downstairs to this meeting room that they had not been using much and said, ‘I’m thinking about opening a speak-easy-style nightclub down here, can you see it?’” McFadden says. “I’d been hearing about the speakeasies of the Pendergast era my whole life because my dad was a part of that scene. The whole time I’m thinking he’s just picking my brain. When I finished talking he says, ‘I love it, I’m going to do it, and I’m going to name it after you.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
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The Reno Club Name
The legendary Reno Club was just four blocks away. “I started thinking about all the people who had made the original Reno Club what it was: Hot Lips Page, Mary Lou Williams and Count Basie, of course. That’s where Basie got his nickname. The announcer had always just said ‘William Basie and his band’—this night, for whatever reason, he said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, live from Kansas City, Count Basie.’”
A Photo of the Three Chocolate Drops
McFadden’s father performed at the old Reno Club with his jazz tap group, the Three Chocolate Drops (originally the Four Chocolate Drops—until one dropped). A photo of the group hangs at the entrance, across from a photo of Louis Armstrong. “They’re in white tails and top hats. My father is the guy in the center.”
“Every place I’ve played in Kansas City for the last fifteen years, I’ve had to carry a little piece of wood around with me to tap dance. Here at Lonnie’s Reno Club, all the little details were made for me. The first four feet of the stage at the Reno Club are wood. That’s intentional and that’s for me to tap dance—it’s the only club in Kansas City where I can tap dance.”