Larry Mongo: #RecordDet Interview

Carleton Gholz: All right. This is the Detroit Sound Conservancy. Tonight is December 8th, 2014 and we’re coming down to our last three or four record Detroit evenings at Urban Bean Coffee House at the corner of Griswold and Grand River and Capitol Park in downtown Detroit. Tonight I’ve got Mr Larry Mongo. I am pronouncing that last name correct? Mr Larry Mongo. And we’re just going to interview him. He’s got a restaurant just down the street. Mr Mongo, could you briefly describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music?  

Larry Mongo: Oh man. Yeah, you pop me. Who am I? I’m Larry Mongo. I’m co-owner of Cafe de Mongos with my wife for 46 years. Diane Mongo. On the other part of your question,  

Gholz: Well, how would you describe your relationship to Detroit music?  

Mongo: Well, I would say I was here and listening to early Motown when Motown was in its infancy. I personally knew Berry Gordy, his family, I personally knew or know Smokey Robinson and most of all of early Motown. I remember when my uncle owned Red Shoe Shine that was on Oakland Avenue. And that’s where I used to my first job around six or seven, believe it or not, how you stayed out with my grandfather in the summer. And I actually remember Berry Gordy coming into Red Shoe Shine. We had a jukebox and actually putting the new 45s inside the jukebox. And the first sound I ever heard by Motown was ‘Shopping Around’ by The Miracles. I actually saw Berry Gordy and Smokey right at Reds and he said he took out, believe it or not, the first version of ‘Shopping Around’ it was three versions. He took out the first version and he told my Uncle Red. He said, no, we remade it. We think people like it this way better. And I actually see them and I wish I would have, if I could have known at that time, I would have kept all those first versions. And I mean my early life was like that. I was accidentally connected with Motown that way. But where I grew up and lived, I couldn’t really get the Motown sounds cause out there in Oak Park, WCHD, Dan Tenor faded in and out. So probably around seven to eight o’clock at night for some reason you could get, that’d be a WCHD and I could hear faintly some of the just say the radio station mainly Kenner 13 was a strong station, so I got Motown through Keener, but not as much as I would like. And I was lucky because again, you had race stations, but Keener played all the Motown. So maybe there was a whole lot of other soul songs that I just didn’t hear. That was my history with music.  

Gholz: Did you ever play an instrument? Did you ever sing? Were you ever an actual performer or were you always just a fan?  

Mongo:  Well, it’s funny you should ask that. I never played an instrument and I’m telling you something that only a few people know outside of people who grew up with me. I did sing in a group, it was called The Exclusives. Yes. And we actually did talent shows. We actually sang one time at 20 Grand at the 20 Grand. It was funny, a guy by the name of William OJ took me and another group which was far better than us. I mean they could rival with The Temptations. Took us down to the 20 grand and we like in basketball clothes and said, I’m want you guys to hear these guys sing, and another group by Jeff Atkins, the Highlighters, I think their name was, and these guys did ‘Old Man River’ by The Temptations and brought the house down. And my group would, Derrick Bradley, Trent Harbin. I’m trying to think of my buddy’s names. I’m thinking they occupations now, they later became doctors and lawyers. But we are saying that our songs and did a few local things.  

Gholz:  Do you remember what a song, what song you would have sung.  


Mongo: Oh man. Well I sang mainly did the least singing into The Temptations ‘I Want A Love I Can See’, cause I always had that raspy voice. Derek Bradley did ‘I Got No Time’. I think that was something we made. I don’t know. And mainly we was copying The Temptations. Sure. But again, our harmony wasn’t as well. Whereas we get challenged The Temptations with ‘Old Man River’. Yes. And that guy named me, he’s a doctors named David Anderson. He had a voice exactly like Melvin. Exactly. Yeah. That helped us out a lot.  

Gholz: So the competition was pretty stiff in those times.  

We out danced anybody, I was known to do the splits, like Little Anthony and the Imperials. So my part of the show and singing, I could do the splits and bounce around in a circle and I was pretty good dancer. So that helped us get over a lot.

Mongo: In those days, every street had a group and it was serious competition. I grew up was lucky in one area and to remind me when I saw the movie, The Temptations, a lot of the other groups to me had much better singers and sound, but we could dance, my group could dance. So with our, let’s say above average harmony, sometime a-harmony, but we out danced anybody, I was known to do the splits, like Little Anthony and the Imperials. So my part of the show and singing, I could do the splits and bounce around in a circle and I was pretty good dancer. So that helped us get over a lot.  

Gholz: And that’s, part of the thing. Entertainment, that’s part of it. That’s part of it. Even The Temps, The Temps could do lots of different things. Not just dance. One of the second song. Second question I always ask, you’ve already sort of answered it, which was what was the first Detroit record you remember hearing and you just told that great story about being in the shop around. So Motown is known the world over. We describe one aspect of Detroit music history that you wish got more attention.  

Gholz:  Oh, it’s hard for me to say because again, I was a complete loyal Motown fan. Matter of fact, I just, I love the Dramatics, which was brought to us by United Sound Studio and Diane Davis, another good friend of mine. And I felt like I was committing treason by liking the Dramatics when they came out with Tony Hess Record, ‘In The Rain’. ‘I Want To Go Outside In The Rain’. I mean, I had to give up The Temptations for that. And again, just letting you know what loyal fan I was with a Motown. And when you asked that question, whatever phase a music and there was, could have been jazz or whatever, but you have to understand Motown was one of the first to take good singers and put them with great musicians. You could have taken away all the singing parts of a lot of the Motown songs and the music itself.  What’s up beat jazz sound. Cause I love jazz. I was probably outside of Motown, jazz would have been my music and what y’all were truly known for. Always big jazz collector. So Motown satisfied me not only with the songs but with the musical instruments too. But I’m probably, now that I look back, I wish, jazz and we had great jazz musicians here. Could have gotten more play. But it reminds me of a record one time that was made, a guy said, but it wasn’t commercial. Say Motown was commercial. That’s where the money was. So that’s where a lot of your job, your jazz players, you know, they went straight to Motown and did a lot of work with them.  

Gholz: Did you go to places like, you know, later there was the Greystone and National Jazz Museum. Did you ever go to events at the Greystone itself?  

Mongo:  You know, I was always at the Greystone, the original Greystone. We used to go down there and dance. They had dance parties down there and that’s where, believe it or not, before the Motortown Reviews and doing the Mototown Reviews, Berry Gordy used to have this Greystone party-like where he’d have new acts and everybody, they’ll break out there, you know, do they introduction. And so I was at the Greystone a lot. And again, like I was selling you earlier, Detroit had just theaters and clubs all over another top theater, you should look up is the Riviera? Cause that’s where Ernie Derms and a lot of the DJs used to give their parties and promote different acts and everything. So in those days you can almost go any place. I tell you what, remind me a lot of Detroit and I’m so glad that it lasts.  It remained Hamtramck.  When I go into Hamtramck [you] can see the local bars everywhere. Detroit was like, that just magnified it a thousand times. Every neighborhood, everything had tons of bars but for live entertainment.  I mean you could just walk down the street. We actually, musicians used to be, let’s say if it was my club, just saying they were playing at Cafe de Mongos and during the break they would have ran down here, the Urban Beam because they had their acts timed, right. Every, corner was bars but with top notch entertainment and every street corner on the weekends, so help me, all you saw what young guys under a streetlight practicing their harmonies, singing and so if you didn’t go to a bar, there was a lot of times there were house parties. They always on the weekends.  And the house parties had groups better than a lot of the Motown acts.  I mean everybody was trying to find that magic and it was fierce. It was serious. But you have to remember one thing too. Why was Detroit so great? Believe it or not, every school in Detroit had music. See, people don’t understand that. Every high school had a music class. Music had a band. So you actually had, again, with all those band players, it might’ve been 10 or 20, that was exceptional that all of a sudden someone said that little kid is playing that song and so priority, next thing you know, you’re down there. They practicing with a group like-minds and we just took it for granted, but it was, it was outstanding atmosphere. What’s the…

Gholz: So a couple of individual questions then I’ll get back to my script here. In terms of, you were saying you grew up in Oak Park, so it was Oak Park. It was Oak Park High. What was Oak Park? What was Oak Park? How was the Oak Park different than Detroit or similar or just anything about the Oak Park sound?  

Mongo: Okay. I’ll be honest with you. The Oak Park sound, first of all, Oak Park was 99.99% Jewish. But the amazing thing about, and I’ll say this to me, Jewish people is their diversity and they own faults.  At Oak Park we used to have a, what we call certain I forgot what they call it, study hours. So they are pumping music through the speakers and stuff. And again, we had Motown mixed in with Keener, right? So we had, when the Beatles first came out, I never would forget after he did the Ed Sullivan Show, here’s ton of…, excuse my language, ton of white kids, boys wearing the hair like the Beatles, while at the same time The Temptations had just came out with something. So the few blacks were said we was going to school, dress up like The Temptations. And it was, as you know, I grew up in a city whereas people respected everybody different culture, but at the same time they enjoyed it as a group.  See, again, when I came to Detroit talking about, I liked the Beatles man, I had cousins looked at me like I had lost my mind and they could have shot me. How can you like the Beatles where I was in the environment… no one told me I couldn’t like them. So I was very lucky there and I’m very thankful for that upgrade rate that the way I was raised and where I was raised that I had people who didn’t look like me loving my music and I’m loving people, music who didn’t look like me because see, I was all into Mick Jagger and I wasn’t an oddball and trying to come out all the black kids out there. We was into that. And so I was fortunate there, I was.  

Gholz: You see the Stones at Olympia?  

Mongo: Oh man. Did I, naw, I went and saw the Beatles, went there with a guy named Larry Barnes; he’s out in California [laugh]. I wish I have kept that original ticket.

Gholz:  Right, right, right, right. 

Mongo:  But I remember that, the Stones and the Beatles.  

Gholz:  What’s the, so let’s take a moment. So you’re just down. So Urban Bean is a coffee house right here at the corner of Grand River and Griswold. And your speakeasy is right here on the street here. Can you talk a little bit about the speakeasy and also when I do come there from time to time I hear the music. So maybe just talk about why it’s important to have. And of course also on the walls of the space, there’s so much music paraphernalia and a Femara and stuff. So maybe just talk about how anything you’d like to about the speakeasy and how music plays with that concept.  

I realized from the stories of my grandfathers that we would not have had American jazz if it was not from the gangsters who had also own the speakeasies and gave these black jazz players…a shot at playing their music, which was a new music.


Mongo: Well, first thing, the history of the speakeasy is in honor of my family, which our family, I think Charlie Le Duff did an article on in his book called ‘Detroit Autopsy’, and he said the Mongoes were black. What did he say? We were underground or gangsters, then my family. And it wasn’t that way as gangsters. We just didn’t wait to get a license, operate a business. So we operated a lot of the speakeasies and that’s why this music name with me. And during that time other speakeasies we had, I realized from the stories of my grandfathers that we would not have had American jazz if it was not from the gangsters who had also own the speakeasies and gave these black jazz players…a shot at playing their music, which was a new music. And then when prohibition ended the gangsters on a lot of the clubs and they took it mainstream.  And that’s why when you come in there, you will see the pictures of all old gangsters and all the old jazz people at one time they knew each other. And my family made quite a lot of money off in that time. The speakeasy was actually up until about, they made a lot of the money in the liquor right up until the state of Michigan passed the law that you could buy liquor on Sunday.  If it wasn’t for that law we still made a lot of money because we made more money on Saturday night, Sunday selling booze and probably a lot of stores. But what make me really enjoy the club so much today as this is the guy that plays there, Carl and Company; he’s a 54 year old black guy. I’m walking down the street one day actually I was, I went into a restaurant called the Grand Trunk and I heard this guy outside playing this music and I said, nah, no, I just saw a black guy out there singing.  So I got up and went back to look, here’s this guy playing all solid classic rock. And they shocked me and I said, Oh man, this guy had to have my life style even if he wasn’t in Oak Park to be 50 something years old and classic rock that mean when he was a teenager he was listening to rock and roll during the time that black people wasn’t supposed to listen to it and come out loud and say we like it, most-less learn it. So I approached him and I just told them my name and told them out when he come over to the club and when he walked in, the first day I saw he was shy and they said, well what do you want me to play? I said, play with you’ve been playing. He said, well it’s a lot of classic rock.  I said, man, play it. Say that’s why I want you. I said, I know you went through hell in your life. He looked at me. So he said, I did. He said, I have been ridiculed for loving the music that I love only because he’s black. And I told him, I said, for the rest of your life, if you with me, you play the music you love and the hell with it. Cause I love that music. And I grew up on it. So that is one that that person brought me so much happiness and knowing that he had the nerve to do his thing. And that’s how I look at Cafe de Mongos. It’s a place that there’s no VIP, there’s no bosses, no one worked for me. I make it clear to everyone who’s in there, look, we work for a greater good. That’s just to make people happy.  There’s, if you say boss assigned for you to leave because if you need a boss, there’s something wrong with you. And I think all the people that come in there feel that there’s no class distinction, no race distinction, in other words come as you are and if there’s any isms instead of a set of positivism, I asked you out. I’ll be honest with you, if a white guy come in and or a lady say, well I only see you all, you got a lot of white peoples and all blacks. I tell them please don’t come back. When a black person come in and say something, I tell them if a person come in at times, I have a lot of gay people in their, cross dressing, Oh you have a lot of gay people and if that tone is a little negative, I asked him to leave because when people asked me how many black people come in, I say I don’t know cause I never counted. I don’t know how many white people come in there. I never counted. All I do is look at a human being, smile on their face. They’re having a good time. I’m happy with that. Yeah. And actually my first person that ever played their name was Cindy. I don’t, I hope I’m not being politically incorrect, but she was a cross dresser and I thought she was a fine woman. She’d be up there singing; then I discovered the truth and I said, naw, you continue to sing. And that’s the history of Cafe de Mongos.

Gholz: I wanna ask you a ton more things but I’ll just ask you to, this one. What is the best  performance you’ve seen, Detroit music performance?  Do you remember seeing in the city?  

I just wish you guys could have seen a real Motown Review. 

Mongo: Oh man, the best performance ever seen my life. I believe it’s the Motown Reviews 67, but The Temptations, Paul Williams singing, ‘Don’t Look Back’, the long version because Paul Williams always could carry his songs when he started. When he do the long version, he become very spiritual with his pleading. And I mean this had to be in 66 or 65. He had a four minute standing ovation at the end. And believe me, Berry Gordy, they did not spare a penny. I just wish you guys could have seen a real Motown Review. And what was great about it is that they had one house band. So you didn’t have any breaks where people had to have new bands, right? One act follow the another. The lighting was unbelievable. The professionalism was unbelievable. David Ruffin singing,  I tell you the song he sang was by the Beatles.  Oh my mind is going blank. But it’s one of the Beatles songs that David Ruffin, sang with The Temptations, backing him up. And again, it brought the house down. And believe it or not, when I mentioned that Beatle’s song, it just goes to show you how, when music is good no matter who’s singing it, what complexion there are,  if they sang it well, it’s a joy. And believe it or not, that shocked black Detroit when, and it’s on a Temptation Live album David Ruffin did. Yeah, he did the Beatles and Oh man, I sing the song a lot in my head. But he did that then followed up with Paul doing ‘Don’t Look Back’ and I can picture him in the corners screaming, women grabbing them, police pulling the women off. But then the favorite was when Tammy Tarell called me on stage [laugh], no joke man. And my wife, which was my girlfriend then, just looked in amazement. I was standing there, you know, cheering for her and she told her guys, let them up, let them pull me up. Then man, when you stand on that stage, turn around and look and see a theater that could hold 5,000 people. Yeah. You got to have a lot of nerves that do that. Yeah. 

Gholz: She brought you up to dance or to say hello?

Mongo: It was, you know, she was singing, Oh shit, I’m trying to think of the song. You know, a group of us was rushing her and I always had a good seat. So I’m standing there and security pulling everybody off and they touched me and she said, no, no, bring him up. And man, I thought I was a tough guy, almost wet my pants. I don’t lie.  

Gholz: I had a picture of one of Tammy Tarrell, one of those things you could buy at the Motown Museum, the Tammy Tarrell artists photos. I had a framed on my table for years. Like she was my girlfriend.  

Mongo: I see was unbelievably pretty, she was one pretty lady. And yeah.  


Gholz:  Last question here. So the Sound Conservancy is young, we’re only a couple of years old. We do oral histories. We’re doing some, we’ve been helping with the United Sound to try to get their historic designation together with the city. And so that’s the kind of stuff we do. So I, my last question is, can you give us some advice as people who are interested in the history of Detroit music, what do you think we should be concentrating on in the coming months, years? You know, give us some advice. 

Gholz: Well, I’ll be honest with you. You are at the beginning. Oh, the really rebuilding Detroit. And you have a lot of our allies on your side because so many people want to see the side. Do not listen to any negative. Anything is worthwhile doing, man, it’s gonna have this tough points in it. Don’t give up because here, I don’t know, you didn’t know any of you guys, but here I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed for you when I read about you guys and United Sound, and I wish Don Davis was still alive because then I could make him an offer he can’t refuse and help you [laugh].

Gholz:  Well, they’ve, you know, it’s a long, it’s all this stuff is a long process, but it’s great to do it.  

Mongo: Trust me, you guys is going to succeed. Think about it. Oh, you guys are doing is what our colleges has done. You going to treasures, you getting all the dust off and telling the world how valuable it is, and to your amazement, you’re going to find how many people agree with you. And so it’s going to happen. 

Gholz:   Yeah. Mr. Mongo, thank you so much. 

Mongo:  Oh, you’re welcome. 

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