Herb Lieb found the perfect beat in transforming the Phoenix nightclub scene in 1971 when he opened Herb’s Underground, the city’s first discotheque.

Groove Merchant

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: November 2016
Group Free
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As the Age of Aquarius dawned in Phoenix, a tough-talking, 50-something Chi-town native named Herb Lieb exposed the city to the latest entertainment phenomenon: disco. His trendsetting club came alive at the end of the workday with the unfurling of a “Herb’s Underground” banner over a midtown parking garage sign. Shown the path to “get down,” revelers descended through the garage to the lower-level nightclub to boogie to pulsating rhythms spun by disc jockeys at Phoenix’s first discotheque.

With Lieb serving as host and ringmaster, the disco became a huge success. “Herb had a great personality and was a fabulous promoter,” recalls attorney and friend Jerry Lewkowitz. “With his mischievous humor, it was always a fun time with him.”

“My father loved the whole idea of owning a club, even though he lacked experience in the business,” his son, Valley real estate agent Bobby Lieb, says. “But he was single, knew lots of people in the city and wasn’t fearful to take a chance.”

That entrepreneurial epiphany came about during a vacation in France, which Lieb had visited before, but under very different circumstances.
Lieb grew up in a tough Chicago neighborhood. He joined the U.S. Army during World War II and took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy. “My father didn’t talk about it much, but he saw many friends die on the beach that day,” Bobby Lieb says.  

After the war, Lieb married Sharon Nessel and worked managing retail stores. The couple had two sons, Bobby and Michael, before divorcing. Lieb relocated to Phoenix in 1964 and became partners with Geri Aron in Kagel’s, a fashionable ladies’ clothing store in the old Park Central Mall on Central and Osborn. Having made a success of himself in the Phoenix retail scene, Lieb returned to France as a tourist – and it was on this trip he first observed the popularity of the “discotheque,” a brasher, flashier version of the traditional music club, with a DJ instead of live music and more liberated sexual protocols.

Inspired by America’s astrological fascination at the time, Lieb (an Aquarius) launched the zodiac-themed Herb’s Underground in the lower level of the Greyhound Tower under the sign of Taurus on May 15, 1971. The disco featured a multi-colored astrological wheel with blinking lights illuminating it from behind, and the 12 signs of the zodiac over the circular bar.

For opening night, Lieb brought in Rat Packer Peter Lawford from Los Angeles, who told the Arizona Republic that he’d be happy to aid the opening-night psychedelics. Lawford was a friend of David Stevens, the club’s interior designer. The nightclub launch warranted mention in Billboard magazine as Phoenix joined heavyweights New York and Los Angeles in the embryonic disco world. The playlist included Top 40 dance tunes, especially by Motown artists, interspersed with songs by Lieb’s favorite singers, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

The club had a funky vibe with its concealed, pop-up-like location in a parking garage. At 5 p.m. each day, a banner for Herb’s Underground was draped over the garage sign of the Rosenzweig Center, now part of Phoenix City Square located at Central and Clarendon avenues.

The disco became a hit, but not without an initial off-key note. Lieb hired his good friend, Valley radio personality Bill Heywood, as the club’s disc jockey. “They were such disco novices that it took them a few nights to realize they needed two turntables at the club,” Bobby Lieb says with a laugh.

In a 1971 Arizona Republic article, Lieb was described as a stereotypical ’70s bon vivant: a divorced bachelor who enjoyed dancing, having fun and keeping a youthful outlook. “I felt that the young, sophisticated people in the Phoenix area needed a fun ‘in’ spot,” Lieb told the newspaper. “I’m grateful I was right.”  

Being the nightclub’s host fit Lieb’s personality. “He wasn’t into the music so much as he enjoyed having pretty ladies around,” says Eileen Bailey, an author and former PHOENIX magazine writer. 

“He liked women, even into his 90s.”

The popular nightclub frequently met its 192-person capacity, necessitating a cover charge on Friday and Saturday nights. “Herb attracted lots of females to his nightclub through his ladies’ clothing stores, which then brought in the men,” says Bob Sikora, founder of the Bobby McGee’s and Bobby Q restaurants, who befriended Lieb and frequented the disco.

Many regulars were Lieb’s friends, including some with alleged mob connections. “He grew up in the streets of Chicago and knew some gangsters that he remained friends with throughout his life,” says Bobby Lieb. “They probably weren’t the safest guys to be around, but my father wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Herb’s Underground featured complimentary food catered by Scottsdale’s Stan’s Deli. The traditional, meaty grub attracted some who hadn’t caught that Saturday night fever. “The club had the best spreads around,” says a former patron, who wished to remain anonymous. “We didn’t fit in with the polyester crowd wearing our Wranglers, boots and hats, but the food was worth it.”

“We won’t earn a penny from that food,” Lieb told the Arizona Republic in 1971. “Of course, if any customers care to have a midday eye-opener or early cocktail hour... ”

Such promotions propelled the club’s popularity. “A lot of people who run nightclubs get hung up on the small stuff, but Herb figured out the business and kept the big picture in mind,” adds Lewkowitz, a former Phoenix City Council member.

The disco was welcoming no matter what your astrological sign – or skin color. “Herb encouraged integration at his nightclub,” Bailey says. “It wasn’t about being politically correct; it was about bringing in money.”

NBA teams staying across the street at Del Webb’s Townhouse Hotel stopped by after games. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar almost hit his head on the disco’s low ceiling while dancing at the basement club after his Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns in 1971.

“When I first came to Phoenix, Herb’s Underground was the only place where people of color could go and not feel threatened or get thrown out,” Marcus Wright, a Phoenix radio personality, said in a 1995 Phoenix New Times article.

The late evenings eventually took a toll on Bill Heywood, who couldn’t get much sleep hanging out with Lieb, a night owl. “Bill would DJ until 1 a.m., have breakfast with my dad at the Singing Canary on Camelback, and then go on the air two hours later,” Bobby Lieb says. “Bill said, ‘Your father beat me up with the hours!’”

The success of Herb’s Underground proved to be its downfall. Lieb eventually bought out his partners and sold the nightclub in 1974 to the Del Webb Corporation, which closed the place. “It was a conservative environment, and the building’s management didn’t want the headaches associated with a nightclub,” Bobby Lieb says.

Lieb subsequently opened the Jockey Club in 1976, Phoenix’s first private nightclub. The discotheque supper club featured a backgammon room and upscale furnishings, including a $12,500 stairway from the Hobart mansion in Beverly Hills and a $4,500 chandelier from a church in Boston.  He sold the club in 1985 and then reopened at another location in Uptown Plaza in 1989. Lieb retired from the nightclub business in 1995.

But it was Lieb’s first disco that set the tone for many that would follow in the Valley. Sikora, who included discos in his successful Bobby McGee’s restaurants, gave Lieb credit for the concept. “I honored my best friend by always having a table reserved for him in each of my restaurants around the country,” Sikora says. “He was a very special soul.”

Lieb died at age 91 in 2011, and more than 275 people attended his funeral. “My dad was a tough guy, but there wasn’t anything that he would not do for a friend,” his son says. Including the Hustle.